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How Records Got Their Groove Back

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

"They lied to us, man," he said.

Flipping through old vinyl albums at a used-record shop, I did what anyone does when a fellow human bares his soul: I ignored him. "They said CDs would sound better," he persisted. "They lied!" He rapped a vintage Ramsey Lewis album on the edge of the bin, like a gavel, releasing that distinct scent of dust and decomposing cardboard.

"I got rid of my record player. I let my records go. And they never even bothered to bring back half of my old jazz albums. Not half. It was like they hooked us, and then they gutted us."

It was a spontaneous outburst, but the gist of it I've been hearing for years among frequenters of the vinyl bins: despite the advantages of compact disks (CDs) over vinyl—you'll never hear a CD pop or click, and you can access any track instantly—the supposed perfection of the format was overstated. Of course, the companies were just as over-the-top about LPs. Here's a quote from my vinyl copy of Tony [Bennett]'s Greatest Hits, Volume III: "You can purchase this record with no fear of its becoming obsolete in the future." Pioneer audiophiles felt that way about Edison's cylinder phonograph of the late 1800s and the 78-rpm shellac disks of the early 20th century. And even as the "never obsolete" vinyl promise was being made in the 1960s, guys in lab coats were dreaming up cassette tapes and eight-track tape cartridges.

Then came the CD in the mid-1980s, and everyone knew that vinyl's days were numbered. But like those ancient tiny mammals that predated the dinosaurs—and then kept skittering around the feet of T. rex and his pals—vinyl never completely disappeared: throughout the '90s, hip-hop DJs spun vinyl disks, manipulating the turntables by hand for musical effect.

Now record companies are making money from vinyl again: vinyl-record sales soared 89 percent in 2008, while CDs, falling prey to Internet downloads, continued to trudge down the road to extinction. Music giant EMI has rereleased some 65 classic albums on vinyl, including acts ranging from Frank Sinatra to the Beastie Boys. U2's newest album (No Line on the Horizon), Bruce Springsteen's latest (Working on a Dream), and Harry Connick Jr.'s Your Songs have all done brisk vinyl business.

And it's not just a generational thing. Newer acts such as The Killers and Ryan Adams are finding an LP audience as well, offering vinyl and MP3-download versions of their latest releases as a single package. In fact, whereas Borders and Best Buy stores have been reducing their CD space, both retailers have installed new vinyl-LP racks.

The Sound of Silence

It wasn't the sound that sold us on CDs—it was the absence of it. Your first CD experience was probably a lot like mine. I was working at a tabloid newspaper in Florida, and one day the publisher called me into his office. "Siddown," he barked. As always, I did as I was told. He just sat there staring at me, cigarette aloft in one hand. Then, suddenly, the crashing opening chords of Tchaikovsky's Capriccio Italien came barreling out at me from two large speakers. I leaped to my feet, as if to escape. My boss clapped his hands and laughed, sending ashes flying.

"It's the silence," he said gleefully. "A record warns you something's gonna happen with all the noise it makes. But this is a compact disk. When it's quiet, it's damn quiet."

Maybe too quiet. Even after CDs nudged vinyl out the record-store door in the late 1980s, enthusiasts stuck to their position that vinyl's sound reproduction was ultimately more satisfying than digital's. Warmer is the word used most frequently, and Jason Boyd, who oversees vinyl-record production and sales for music giant EMI, tried to explain it to me.

"The imperfections of the sound—the low ends—are sonically appealing," Boyd says. "CD is most pristine. But vinyl has the warm, full sound of the music. The cracks and the little imperfections that pop up seem to enhance the music. It's a way of experiencing music rather than just consuming it."

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."

The End

Those of us who fell for the Great Lie will never fully recover. My distraught friend from the used-record store is right: we'll spend the rest of our days trying to re-create our old collections, Ancient Mariners roaming the earth, our MP3 players slung about our necks like albatrosses.

But there will be the inevitable reunions with long-lost LP friends, the rush of anticipation when the needle hits that groove, and the exquisite moment when the music plays, warm and full, punctuated with the pops and crackles of passing time.

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