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How Records Got Their Groove Back

As CDs fade away, there's a new vinyl answer.

Boyd is probably right. But here's my theory: it's the unique imperfections of each vinyl record that make it irreplaceable. After enough plays, a record becomes a fingerprint of your listening experience. Just about everyone who owned the Beatles' White Album wore the thing down to a nub. Your copy, like mine, is a crackling mess through "Cry Baby Cry"—but then it becomes a mint-condition collector's item the moment that unlistenable jumble of sounds the Lads called "Revolution 9" fades in.

Indeed, all of our records carry an indelible personal stamp: the skip on your copy of The Dark Side of the Moon that results in Roger Waters's repeating "Money!" over and over…the holiday album you still play despite the damage it sustained in that unfortunate 1962 Christmas-tree pine-needle accident...the Shari Lewis record you kicked off the turntable while you were dancing, so now Lamb Chop repeats herself, like Rain Man.

See Me, Feel Me

Even the nonlistening rituals of record ownership are burned into the memories of everyone who ever had a collection. Need proof? Head down to a music store and buy a record—most larger shops now have at least a small vinyl section. The rest will come naturally: bring the record home (on the way, I guarantee, you'll admire the cover artwork). Now slip your thumbnail into the cellophane sheath, right at the album's business end, and slide it along. Feel that flutter in your stomach as the album opens? You're remembering what it's like to access your music with a single, graceful stroke—instead of peeling, stabbing, cutting, and finally biting your way into a CD jewel case. Now slide out the inner sleeve. There she is: the proud, black thing of beauty, her label winking at you through the sleeve's center hole. As you extract the disk from the sleeve, you'll find you haven't forgotten how to hold it safely: your thumb at the ridge, the label resting on your fingers. If you're lucky enough to still have your turntable, you'll deftly center the record on the spindle. Best of all, the disk won't hop into a drawer and disappear into a box, like a CD. It will stay right there in plain view, singing to you at a steady 33 1/3 revolutions per minute.

Then there's the structure of a two-sided album. In the old days, records were programmed in two acts: Side One and Side Two. Someone who's never flipped an LP would be mightily puzzled over the lyric at the end of Side One on the Carpenters' fourth album, A Song for You: "We'll be right back /After we go to the bathroom." On my favorite album, Electric Light Orchestra's Eldorado, Jeff Lynne ends Side One on a chord progression that is left unresolved until Side Two.

Your Song

In my world, digital and vinyl have found a way to coexist: when I'm on the subway, or walking on a bustling city sidewalk, the slightly shrill digital music flowing through my earbuds seems appropriate. At home, however—where I'm bathed in the warmth of family and familiar surroundings—the sounds from my old record player seem to float from room to room, filling every corner with aural incense.

"Vinyl will never be mainstream again, but it's a growing niche," says Michael Fremer, senior contributing editor for Stereophile magazine. (He owns 15,000 vinyl records.) "When a former vinyl listener reconnects, he or she says, 'I remember that sound. That's what I'm missing!' And a new generation is discovering that vinyl sounds better and represents tunes sequenced as the artist wishes, rather than as a series of random events.

"I doubt kids will look back in 50 years and say, 'I remember when I downloaded that!' The forward-looking young people are going for vinyl editions of their important music."

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