From A to Z: A Journey Through My CD Collection
Published on March 19, 2012 by guest author: Brian McElhiney

Music collecting is serious business for my best friend Steve and me.

It always has been, ever since we first met in 8th grade back in 1998. Just about every weekend, I would go over to Steve’s house and we’d spend our Saturdays skateboarding around the small back streets of Okinawa, Japan, hitting up local mom-and-pop CD stores and buying up whatever we could afford - back then it was lots of Metallica, Nirvana and Korn CDs.

Steve moved to the Chicago area the next year, but our friendship — and our voracious music acquisition - continued unfettered through our high school and college years. We still update each other whenever we buy new CDs or records - our recent purchases include Sonny and Cher, The Turtles, Soulfly, Wild Flag and Foster the People, to name a few off the top of my head. Neither of us ever really made the move to digital music, so we both have hundreds of CDs and vinyl albums crowding our respective homes

One night in the fall of last year, we were talking on the phone about - what else - music. I was pacing in front of my CD collection - which is arranged alphabetically - occasionally pulling an album out of the rack and glancing at the artwork. Some of them I had completely forgotten I owned - like the Promise Ring’s “Horse Latitudes” mini-album that I purchased during a college trip to Portland, Ore., and D.C. post-punk band Nation of Ulysses’ first album. Still others I have no memory of actually having listened to at any point.

I suddenly blurted out to Steve, “One of these days, I’m going to listen to ALL of my CDs, every single one, from A to Z.” Steve’s reply - “Let’s start next weekend.” OK. The following weekend, The Project began.

Initially, we had some very strict ground rules. At no point were we allowed to deviate from the alphabetical order of our collections, unless we purchased a new album - and then we only had two days to enjoy our new purchase before we were right back in. As we moved through each band or musician, we were required to post our progress on Facebook, just so we knew we weren’t cheating. Vinyl or digital music were not included in the project - just as well, as my turntable has been broken for years. As children of the ’90s, the bulk of both of our collections are CDs (probably to the tune of at least 800 each), so that’s what we focused on. Naturally, the nature of my job as a music writer at the Daily Gazette requires me to listen to lots of different music on a daily basis, so I was allowed to deviate from The Project for that.

As we progressed, we found it increasingly hard to stick to the game plan (it’s kind of hard to listen to nine Beck albums in a row when you really feel like blasting Minor Threat at full volume and screaming at a wall). We also both came to the same conclusion that, hey, YouTube videos don’t count! So whenever we were feeling particularly sick of whatever group we were on, we’d hop on YouTube - or buy something new.

A rule change was in order, though, or we’d never finish. Sometime late last year, we decided to make room for two “cheats” per week - we could now listen to any two albums that we wanted to, anytime during the week, as a reprieve.

The Project is not a race, by any means. If it were, I’d be losing - I’m on David Bowie right now, while Steve was on Foo Fighters the last time I checked.

The Project has been a great exercise in self-discovery, at least as far as my music taste and its evolution are concerned. Since there’s not really much else in my life that I’ve focused this much time, money, energy and attention on, that’s pretty big for me. For example:

- I forgot how much I love the Afghan Whigs.

- Belle and Sebastian, too. I almost sold their albums a few months before the project began, and now I’m glad I didn’t.

- The Beatles are good to listen to anytime. No matter what I’m in the mood for, or what mood I’m in, The Beatles are the perfect choice.

I think this also goes back to why I love having an actual, physical music collection, as opposed to a digital one floating around in the electronic ether. Holding each album, poring over the artwork, taking in each song as a piece of something greater, physically comparing albums in a particular musician’s catalog - it’s all part of the experience for me, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Brian McElhiney is a musician and music journalist living in Scotia, N.Y.

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