How to cull your record collection

Bin ’em all!

The question is not “why is there so much bad music out there?” 

The question is, “why has so much of it made its way into your record collection?”

Because it has, and this isn’t a jab at your personal taste in music.  Nor is it an excuse to trot out, once again, that grisly old canard about “every time a bell rings, another fool buys one of the later albums by Wings.” 

It’s simply a fact of record collecting life, the inevitable pitfall for anybody whose collection has grown to exceed the realms of a painstakingly curated handful of discs.

The traps are everywhere, and if you have ever spoken a variation on any of the following phrases, you have already tumbled into one, at least.

  1. I didn’t want to leave the store/record fair empty-handed, so I picked these up from the dollar bin.
  2. I really liked the single.
  3. The album before/after was so good!
  4. I got it for the collection.
  5. It was a gift.

To which can be added the loudest lament of every collector worth his weight in discarded styli – “I don’t even know where that thing came from.”  Which begs just one response.  “Well, why do you still have it?”

The guilty discs are manifold.  Perhaps an age-old love of Mott the Hoople prompted you to take a chance on an album by the later, abbreviated Mott, without remembering that it was the Hoople that made them so interesting.  

The early seventies Stones obsession that saw you sink good money into the Kracker LP. Then follow through with the first two Bill Wyman albums.  In quad.

The love of Leo Sayer’s “The Show Must Go On,” which convinced you that his entire Silverbird album would be stuffed with ukulele-driven laments sung by sad clowns.

The fascination with Focus that persuaded you there must be more to their catalog than the one with the yodelling.  (Yes there is – about an album’s worth of material that, sadly, is spread over half a dozen different releases.)

Perhaps you saw someone open for Foghat, and rushed to buy their album while still high on whatever it was that you were rolling in the gatefold of a Todd Rundgren album.  Maybe you heard a song on the radio and mistook it for something else entirely.  Or, and this is the big one, maybe you bought it on the strength of its cover, in which case, two words.  “Picture frame.”  Or “Savoy Brown.”

And so on.  The fact is, you have them.  They’re yours.  And they’re sitting on the shelves with the remainder of your collection, just waiting for that special visitor who will flick through the discs, and breathlessly admire your impeccable taste in music.  

Before pausing, blanching, and loudly proclaiming “what in the name of Randy Mantooth is this?” 

The next thing you know, they’re standing in the open window, waving some latter-day Black Oak Arkansas for the entire world to see, and you realize the neighbours will never speak to you again.  All the years you’ve lived here, you’ve never once played the thing.  Nobody knew your secret.  Nobody even guessed it.  Now the whole street is witnessing your shame.  I mean, Goldmine loves Black Oak Arkansas as much as the next shirtless washboard maestro, but there are limits even there.

What do you say? What did you say, the last time that happened?  Because you know it did, and you still bear the mental scars.  Especially after they went and bought you the next album in the sequence for your birthday.  Maybe not BOA.  Again, there are limits.  But at least once in your life, you’ve beamed as wide as you can and said “Gosh, thank you.  I’ve been looking for David Lee Roth’s second solo album for years.”

Inventive excuses work occasionally.  In 2004, I wrote a book about Deep Purple.  A decade and a half later, two albums by the tangential terror of Trapeze still sat on the shelf. Fair enough – it’s called research material.  But even the IRS only wants you to retain your records for seven years.

What, however, to do about it all?

Too big to line the cat litter? Just get a bigger cat.

Hey kids, let’s cull the collection!

Start from the top. “A” if you’re alphabetical, somewhere else if you’re not.  In fact, a really good way to prepare for the task would be to stack your albums in the order that you last played them.  Those couple of hundred at the bottom could probably be dumped right away.

Wait, though.  Let’s not be too hasty.  We need a system. Orderly piles, but random, too. Don’t just line all the post-1976 Nazareth LPs up together, because they’ll never get a fair hearing if you do.  Ditto that mysteriously vast accumulation of early seventies British jazz rock; ditto the substandard Sub Pop stash.  

Mix things up a little! The third album by the Rumour followed by This Is The Moody Blues.  A mid-period Claudine Longet beside an awful X Mal Deutschland.  File Mountain next to Rock of the Westies, and The River alongside Tales from Topographic Ocean.  Musically, they’re all over the place, but geographically the linkage is seamless.

Okay, this is important. Never prejudge.  Never shrug and place something on the discard pile without first allowing it to speak in its own defense.  Out of the sleeve, onto the deck, drop down the needle… at the beginning of the side, no cheating.  It’s not foolproof but a fair rule of thumb is, if you can make it through the whole of one side without exercising the choicer extremes of your vocabulary in response to the music, chances are you’ll want to hear it again.

Status Quo’s Rockin’ All Over the World – goodbye.  But its successor, Whatever You Want – welcome back.  The Incredible String Band’s Liquid Acrobat – gone.  Llwybr Llaethog’s Welsh language hybrid of hip hop and dub – clearly, you’d forgotten how good it is.

Slowly, shelves that had been emptied of possible rejects are repopulated.  Not to the point where the exercise becomes redundant – the discards pile is fatter by far.  Those early Golden Earring albums were effortlessly reprieved; no need even to listen past a track or two.  

But whatever possessed you to think you could ever need eleven Jethro Tull albums, when even the greatest hits collection sends you screaming for cover?  (And please, don’t feel you need to follow this to the letter.  Maybe you like Jethro Tull, and own twice that many albums.  Just replace them with something else.  Post-Cale Velvet Underground or the late seventies prolusions of Gong.  Oh, and David Bowie.  Do you really require his eighties albums?)

Another key point.  Excuse #4, above.  “I got it for the collection.” Let’s say 10cc.  Three of whose albums (the first three) should be given at least a few plays every year, with two more (the next pair) deserving to squeak a couple.  

Thereafter, however… there’s a reason why your copy of 10 Out of Ten is still in its shrinkwrap.  Why whatever the one before it is called is, to the best of your knowledge, actually the album’s title.  Why you could not whistle a single song from the Animalympics soundtrack, even if whistling was not such a coarse thing to do. 

But there’s also a reason why the 10cc collection more or less needs a 12×12 cube to itself.  Because it is a collection and collections should be allowed to rest intact, no matter how disinterested in them you might currently be.   Maybe you cannot imagine ever again being so excited by Ten Years After that you have multiple pressings of every album that Leo Lyons produced rubbing up alongside the classics.  But one day you might, and that’s the day you’ll regret allowing your Japanese copy of UFO’s Phenomenon to slip out of your grasp.  

It’s a first world problem indeed, but there can be few collectors who do not heave a sigh at the thought of records they once owned and sold, only to have to purchase them again because… well, there’s lots of reasons for that, and they can’t all be blamed on the lies that we were fed when CDs were first launched.

So be careful, too, when you realize that this is the fifth copy of Fleetwood Mac’s Then Play On that you’ve pulled off the shelf.  There’s the one with “Oh Well,” and the one without. There’s the fourteen song German pressing, there’s the one with the all-black sleeve.  There’s the recent Rhino repressing with the bonus 45.

But will you remember all these details as you’re contemplating the spines and thinking, “oh, I’ll just keep the best condition copy”?   Duplicates don’t always exist for a purpose, but sometimes they do.  And that purpose is, they’re not necessarily duplicates.  

The ultimate storage solution – municipal trash cans are roomy, colorful and they get emptied every week!

Why do you have two copies of Steeleye Span’s Now We Are Six?  Because one’s the UK pressing, with the full length “Thomas the Rhymer,” and the other’s the US, where the lad was cut in half.  (True, it was the UK single version, but that’s not really the point, is it?)  Yes, you do need both stereo and quad versions of David Essex’s debut, for the same reason you require mono and stereo pressings of After Bathing at Baxter’s. So what if it’s merely a mono fold down?  It’s terrific, regardless.

Okay, so how you doing?  You pulled out almost 200 discs, and you put back twenty-three.  That’s not bad going.  More room on the shelves for fresh purchases.  Just don’t, please don’t, go out and buy that second Pretenders album again. It really doesn’t get any better.

And think of the future!  No more grappling for excuses when a visitor pulls the Cado Belle album off the shelf, and you stammer “I’ll have you know, Maggie Riley has one of the greatest rock voices ever” – to which they will respond, “yes, but how does she do with watered down funk?”

No more having to squeeeeeeeeeeeze your Record Store Day stash onto the shelves because there’s no room left on the record rack and you’d rather spend money on music than shelving.

And no more feeling guilty when you walk out of a record store without having purchased at least a few bucks worth of scratchies.  You’ll make up for it next time, more than likely, and besides, you already have too much to listen to as it is.

Because this was just phase one.  Phase two is where you repeat the exercise and play every other album you own.  Same rules, same quality control.

Or maybe we’ll let that slide for now…. there’s this guy online selling a job lot of the first dozen LPs on Capricorn, Japanese pressings, all still sealed.  They have obis.  A few of them are rubbish, and you’ll have a few dupes, but what a collection that will be.  And a bunch of early Brenda Lee albums, just a buck apiece.  Never heard them, but you just don’t see them around any more.  

And hey, look at this Roger Dean sleeve!  That would look fantastic alongside the Badger collection.

Dammit.  It’s hopeless, isn’t it?

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