Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Just For the Record

By Michael Henningsen

SEPTEMBER 15, 1997:  It all started on my 11th birthday. For having made it that far, I received three trophies: a pair of steel-toed hiking boots, a yellow cake with chocolate icing and a copy of KISS' newly released Alive! II. It was the first record I ever had the pleasure of removing the shrinkwrap from. I had some records before, but I never really considered them to be part of my collection (until much later, that is). The records I had prior to KISS Alive! II (during the B.C. or "Before Collection" period of my life) were mostly those given to me by my father, whose tastes included everything from The Ventures, The Beatles, Rolling Stones and The Four Seasons to Roberta Flack and Phoebe Snow. I appreciated having them, but I was a little too young to appreciate what was on them. With my new KISS record, though, it was quite a different story. Finally, I had asked for and received a specific recorded work by my then-favorite artist. It was a special moment in my life for several reasons. Not only did my interests almost immediately turn from baseball to rock 'n' roll, I began on the never-ending pleasure path that is record collecting.

Of course, back in the day, I was far less concerned with keeping my records in pristine condition than I was with just listening to and owning all of the records in a particular artist's catalog. It wasn't until high school that my tastes were varied enough and my sense of responsibility and pride of ownership matured enough to really begin accumulating what would become--and continues to be--my personal, ever-expanding record collection.

The act of collecting is simple. Most human beings do it instinctively, whether with baseball cards, Barbie dolls, books, coins, records or whatever. Thankfully, then, our society is designed to encourage and enable the collector inside us all. Even fast food establishments tell kids to "Collect all four!" of their latest plastic choke-proof, movie-marketing toy. It's a great world in which we live. But, as with any form of collecting, building a well-rounded record/CD collection requires research, hours of listening and the tireless perusal of budget bins and ragged garage sale boxes.

Where to begin? It all depends on the individual, really. Some collectors are value-based, meaning they collect according to the relative value of each record--out-of-print records, imports, original pressings, picture discs and other rarities. But the kind of record collection most people are concerned with building or improving is the kind from which they draw personal pleasure through listening. The tips that follow--from general to more specific--are intended to help you build or improve your personal record collection. There are many valuable resources available, as outlined in this article, and several genre specific sidebars to help you get a head start on your own record collection. But the most important thing to remember is to let personal taste and experience be your ultimate guide.

Listen Up

Let's say you are not one of the following entities: A) a record store clerk; B) the significant other/roommate of a record store clerk; C) a person in a band; D) Amish. You like music just as much as the next person, but you don't have the privileged access/knowledge base that the persons listed above (with the exception of the Amish, who don't have record or CD players) do. You listen to the radio with fair regularity, see some live music here and there and hold your records and CDs--with the exception of the Forrest Gump soundtrack you own because your record club wouldn't take it back--pretty close to your heart. You have a fairly good idea of what you like and what you don't. But there's too much out there to keep track of, and it's difficult to know what to buy and what to avoid. Sound quality, grade or performance and the overall quality of the music on a particular recording must all be taken into consideration.

Adding a record to your collection should be based on personal decision, but there are experts out there who can help you make more informed decisions. Just because one American Music Club or Miles Davis or Sonny Boy Williamson record is great doesn't necessarily mean every record in those artists' respective catalogs are. You have to ask questions.

Employees of independent record stores are excellent sources when it comes to answering specific questions about an artist or record. With few exceptions, indie stores hire people with a vast knowledge of many genres of music. And they're usually willing and able to help you track down exactly what you're looking for or assist you in separating the good from the bad. That's the advantage the indie stores have over huge corporate record stores: Their selection may be a tenth the size, but the people who work there know everything about the records they stock. Most important, though, is that you hear the records yourself before you buy them. Most record stores are equipped with individual listening stations where you can sit down, slap on a pair of headphones and skim through records to your heart's desire (always being considerate of others, surely). This is really the best way to make good buying decisions and you should never buy a record you haven't heard, at least in part. Listening stations in record stores also provide you with the opportunity not to get suckered into the horror of the one-hit-wonder record. And stay away from record clubs unless you intend to let Columbia House or BMG build your record collection for you. Sure, those five-for-a-penny deals sound attractive, but just wait until they start sending you the crap-of-the-month selections that you'll have no choice but to shelve between Hootie and the Blowfish and Counting Crows.

All Music, All the Time

Building your personal record collection can be a joy, but shopping for records can be a daunting experience. If not highly familiar with a given artist and their background, how will you know which records to buy from their catalog? It isn't easy, and there's no foolproof answer, but there are maps available to guide you through the maze. Miller Freeman Books, publishers of such music magazines as Guitar Player, Keyboard and Bass Player, offer several volumes of recorded music resource books known as the All Music Guide. There are individual volumes that represent rock, jazz, blues, country and world music. Additionally, there is a single volume that encompasses the best recordings from every imaginable genre including gay and lesbian music, folk, punk, bluegrass, reggae, new age and electronic, Christmas music, avant-garde, gospel and rap. For each genre, top music writers from all over the world are assembled and asked to offer their expertise where it applies. As a result, the All Music Guide books each (with the exception of the blues book) offer more than 13,000 record reviews and ratings and are by far the most comprehensive guides to record buying on the market. And while no record collection worth its sentimental value is created solely out of a book, the All Music Guide books offer the novice a place to start and the more advanced collectors and music lovers a resource for improving their collection without the gambling element.

These books are arranged alphabetically by artist, followed by a listing of the best releases by that artist according to the various editors and contributors. Each listed recording is rated on a scale of one to five and additional symbols indicate the expert's suggestions for essential and first-purchase recordings. The individual volumes of the All Music Guide contain a startling amount of information about the respective genre covered, including histories, timelines and "Musical Maps" indicating the emergence of particular styles in relation to time periods and what was happening in other genres as well as in society.

Classically Speaking

Of all genres, building a well-rounded, quality classical music portion of your record collection is perhaps the most difficult task to undertake. Countless renderings of single pieces of music by countless orchestras, groupings and conductors makes it nearly impossible for the average person to know where to begin or where to go from there. There are several excellent books available on the subject, but the most useful and easily obtained classical music reference available may be on your radio. "Performance Today," the classical music program broadcast nationwide by National Public Radio, offers listeners the unique opportunity to hear a wide variety of classical music, hear interviews with musicians, conductors, contemporary composers, historians, educators and other experts in the field. And, since 1989, the program has featured a Thursday segment during which "Performance Today" critic Ted Libbey and host Martin Goldsmith discuss one of the great works in the classical repertoire and select three--as a rule--outstanding recordings of that piece to add to the "Performance Today Basic Record Library." The PT Basic Record Library represents an extensive collection of what are widely considered the best recordings of particular pieces of classical music. And while the more seasoned aficionado of classical music may well know what he or she likes, NPR has made it relatively easy for the newcomer to get going without getting bogged down by marginal records and poor sound quality. The Basic Record Library Booklet, a 70-page spiral-bound volume of the first five years of Basic Record Library listings (roughly 680 titles), is available for $6 plus $2.50 shipping and handling. The supplement encompassing the 1995 listings (about 145 titles) is $2 plus $1.25 shipping and handling. Both can be ordered by mail at Basic Library, Performance Today, NPR, 635 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. 20001. Visit the NPR Web site at http://www.npr.org and click on the programs listing to find "Performance Today" for more information. (The show airs on KUNM-FM 89.9, Monday through Friday from 9 to 11 a.m.)

But Wait, There's More

A quick trip to your local bookstore will reveal a bevy of specialty publications to help send you off in the right direction no matter what musical direction that happens to be. Record Research (Joel Whitburn & Co.) is a series of books dedicated to providing all the information you could ever want about nationally released records. From complete chart data to release date, number shipped and sales status, this series has it all. It's expensive, though, and cumbersome for the casual collector. Cristgau's Record Guide (Pantheon) offers volumes for the '70s, '80s and '90s and features reviews by the series' namesake, infamous Village Voice rock critic Robert Cristgau. He can be a real bastard as a reviewer, but he's on the mark more often than not and blatantly honest. Then there are the Penguin Guides (Penguin), once perhaps the most comprehensive resources for music lovers and collectors and still highly reliable guides to jazz and classical music. The Trouser Press Record Guide (Collier), on the other hand, focuses entirely on post-1975 punk rock, new wave and alternative rock. This one covers some 2,500 artists and features more than 10,000 reviews. Indies and imports are an added bonus in this, one of the few reference books of its kind.

All of the available references (there are hundreds more on the Web) along with your own tastes and experiences should have you happily placing new records and CDs on your shelves as quickly as you wish within no time. The more you put into your record collection, the more you'll get out of it in the long run, so be thoughtful about your additions.

Hopefully, some of the suggested resources above will assist you in expanding your musical horizons and enriching your record collection and your life. As subjective as music is, there are experts in the field who can be trusted to provide you with a good base from which to begin your personal exploration and experimentation. Your record collection says quite a bit about who you are and, as it grows, will become an increasingly important portal through which you can escape into new worlds, other dimensions and vast musical landscapes. Happy collecting and happy listening!

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