I got into collecting vinyl because I’m a fan of ritual, lover of album art, I’m mildly OCD, and ever since I was a little kid I’ve been obsessed with music. I’m not one of those people that theorizes about how much better vinyl sounds than any other format. I still think CDs are the best when it comes to plain old consistency in quality. But man, there’s something about dropping the needle on a 60-year old copy of Thelonious Monk’s Monk’s Dream that its as if you’re taking a time machine back to the studio and experiencing the music live. Little clicks and pops mere time markers, there’s a feeling of rarified air that surrounds you as you listen to those old tunes. The oxygen seems richer, the music fuller and looser.
There’s a wobbly, dream-like feeling when vinyl hits just right. That’s something CDs will never replicate.
But I think I’m getting to the point in my vinyl journey where my mild OCD is turning my brain from obsessing over the ritual to obsessing over the flaws. In the 14 years since I started re-collecting the black circles I’ve had only a handful of purchases where quality issues caused me to return a record. And out of those handful the majority have been Radiohead-related albums. A Moon Shaped Pool, Thom Yorke’s Suspiria score as well as his solo album Anima, and most recently The Smile’s A Light For Attracting Attention. See a pattern? All XL Recordings releases. You pop into Discogs and there’s plenty of reviews that reveal it’s not just me being picky. And yes, I cleaned these copies, wet cleaned them even. Some even three or four times and still horrible distortion in the quiet moments. And if you know these releases you know there’s plenty of quiet moments. It takes you out of the moment. The melodrama, the sonic clarity, the big emotional heft of an album like A Moon Shaped Pool is completely destroyed when something like “Daydreaming” sounds like you’re listening to it through an old transistor radio and the station is going in and out of tune.
When I’m being pulled from the mirage and the fantasy created within the album’s world then I can’t enjoy that ritual. Vinyl has gone up significantly in price over the last few years. The Smile record is $40. Now I’m willing to pay it for something that is made with quality and the music lover in mind. But I’m not willing to pay that for subpar quality. I’ll just spend $16 for a CD and never have to worry about it at all.
I might be all “What, me worry?” about a lot of things in life, but noisy, distorted vinyl is not one of them. I feel like I’ve blown my money and have been scammed when this happens. And this isn’t just some small indie band on an indie label. This is RADIOHEAD! And XL Recordings is not small potatoes. Why continue to use the same garbage pressing plant when quality is so sporadic and spotty? I don’t understand it. There’s plenty of smaller labels that consistently put out amazing pressings. Burning Witches Records for one. The quality in their releases is second to none. Carefully mastered and their pressings are always incredible.
Honestly, I don’t have any issues with 95% of the albums I buy. Even 50-year old used vinyl I snag in VG condition from Discogs sounds pretty damn good. A simple little wash takes the years of grime off and they’re almost always as good as new. It’s a very rare case when used or new vinyl I buy sounds as bad as an XL Recordings pressing.
So you’re thinking to yourself, “Well if they’re so rarely bad, why be so upset that you’d consider stop buying vinyl altogether?” Because all it takes is big disappointments like this once in a while to dissuade me from gambling my hard-earned dough. And who’s to say it won’t get worse in the industry while the prices keep rising? I’ve got a nice CD player. I could avoid the disappointment pretty easily by switching media and calling it a day. I’ve still got plenty of vinyl in the library that I can enjoy for years to come. I don’t have to keep buying vinyl. I may be OCD, but I’m not a schmuck.
I read a lot of comments on Discogs similar to “Well, I put it through the degritter and the sonic cleaner and it sounds a lot better now.” Oh yeah? So, now I have to own hundreds of dollars worth of cleaners just to enjoy my $35-$40 vinyl record? That’s it? Well hey sign me up! I find this absolutely ridiculous. Sure, maybe a squirt of cleaner and a good rub before playing is fine. There can be some debris. But sonic cleaning? Seriously? What are they doing slicing a slab of wax off like it’s prime rib at the buffet line and slapping it on your platter? These are issues we as consumers of said media shouldn’t be messing with. Here’s a quote from someone commenting on the yellow limited edition version of A Light For Attracting Attention and I echo his sentiments:
“I’m 69 years old & have listened to vinyl LPs for at least 63 years, so I tell you this : I’ve NEVER NEVER NEVER used wet cleaning for my records (I tried once or twice, but it was not glorious, to say the least…). I just use a carbon fibre brush before AND after listening, knowing that in most cases a vinyl record loses its electrostatic charge as years go along.
Result : my french copies of Amon Duul/Tanz der lemminge or Can/Tago Mago are just 50 years old & are almost as fresh as they were in 1972, after dozens & dozens of listenings… Bet they will be fresher than me when I’m 90, if I’m still alive !
Another reason for my stubborn refusal to use wet cleaning : I suppose I’m a lazy old man who doesn’t want to spend more time to clean a record than to listen to it (excuse my far from perfect english, I’m french, in addition to being lazy, ah ah).“
This. I get this. This guy gets it. Spend more time cleaning the records than spinning them and enjoying them. That’s not why I got into record buying. I got into it because I love what the power of music does to my brain. I do love the ritual, too. For that I will probably keep on with this whole obsession, but I think I’ve learned my lesson with XL Recordings. Avoid at all costs. I’ll buy Radiohead and Yorke on those little shiny discs that never disappoint. Sad, as I do have some Radiohead records that sound stunning. Even the OK Computer and Kid A/Amnesiac reissues sound great(maybe just pure luck?) And of course all the Capital Records stuff sound spot on, too.
I wish Godrich and Radiohead would give Trent Reznor a call and ask him who presses his stuff for Null Corporation. Reznor is a guy that appreciates what vinyl offers. Once he got the rights back to his albums and began reissuing them himself those NIN albums, as well as his scores with Atticus Ross, absolutely shine. Some of the best sounding vinyl I own.
First world problems. But the kind that sets my brain on fire and I have to spew onto these pages in order to cool the flames. Yeah, I’ll keep on with the vinyl thing. For now. But I’ve got a CD copy of A Light For Attracting Attention on the way. I’m tired of being sad whilst spinning those yellow circles of inferior quality. And these discouraging words do not reflect my love for Radiohead, Nigel Godrich, and their wondrous world of sound. Still one of my absolute favorite corners of the musical world. I think its for that very reason that their vinyl quality being so subpar so often is what bugs me.
Thanks for listening to my Ted Talk. Good day.