Saturday, August 15, 2015

12 CDs For A Penny: A Tribute To My Columbia House Collection

I was sad to read that the owner of Columbia House filed for bankruptcy this week. I owe a lot to its subscription service. Not money, because I fulfilled my obligations long ago. But I do feel a sense of gratitude toward Columbia House, because it allowed me to start my music collection as a teenager.

I was not what you would call a music fan before the age of 15. I owned a handful of cassette tapes -- mainly "Weird Al" Yankovic albums, plus a hodgepodge of '80s classics like He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper by DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, and the soundtrack to It's Flashbeagle, Charlie Brown -- but I didn't have much interest in listening to the popular music of the day.

Until 1995, when Alanis Morissette released Jagged Little Pill. I played that album on my stereo every day throughout my sophomore year of high school. The songs were catchy. The music videos were cool. The lyrics were honest and edgy. I'd never connected so deeply with an angst-ridden harmonica player.

I was addicted to Jagged Little Pill. And then I discovered No Doubt's Tragic Kingdom and fell in love with that album, too. Slowly but surely, my musical tastes expanded and diversified -- The Cardigans and KC & the Sunshine Band were two of my guilty pleasures. Seriously.

My two favorite bands by the time I graduated high school were Oasis and the Foo Fighters. And they are my two favorite bands today, as you know if you've read my recent blog posts on my experiences at a Noel Gallagher concert and a Foo Fighters stadium show.

So, after my experiences with Jagged Little Pill and Tragic Kingdom, I was motivated to binge on lots of other music. Columbia House afforded me the opportunity to do just that. "Afforded" is the operative word here, because I was presented with a very reasonable deal: 12 albums for a penny.

It was an offer I couldn't refuse, since I was a student who didn't have a job and had only pennies to spend. I didn't need much convincing to sign up. (By agreeing to the offer, I was obligated to shell out approximately $100 on five more CDs later on, but that's what credit cards are for.)

Columbia House mailed me a sheet of stamps, representing the albums it had available. It was my responsibility to choose the stamps of the 12 albums I wanted, and affix them to the order form. It was a responsibility I took way too seriously. I must have studied those stamps for hours, weighing the pros and cons of each album. "Sure, I like Ace of Base now, but will I still want to listen to 'The Sign'  and 'All That She Wants' five, 10 years from now?" [Update: The answer to that question turned out to be, "No."]

I taped the stamps I did not use to a wall in my bedroom, repurposing the sheet as the cheapest poster in the history of music. Like I said, I didn't have much money, and I'm very thrifty when it comes to home decorations. As I write this, I'm staring at posters of the 1988 New York Giants and the 1999 New York Mets hanging in my apartment. These posters are the easiest way to signal to my houseguests that a) I'm single, b) I'm older than 30, and c) I typically don't put much effort into things that don't involve stamps.

In light of this week's news, I thought it would be fun to revisit the 12 albums I received from Columbia House for my one cent. My first impression upon jotting down the list below is that it's a mixed bag. Some of the CDs I listened to a couple of times, if that, before disposing of them. (I make note of which ones.) A few are in my all-time top 10.

Here are all 12, in no particular order:

1. Oasis, Definitely Maybe
I've only listened to one album more often in my lifetime than this one: the Oasis album that followed it, (What's the Story) Morning Glory? I can't say that with absolute certainty, because iTunes didn't keep track of such stats before 2001, but I believe it to be accurate.

Definitely Maybe had a murderer's row of great sing-along rock songs: "Live Forever," "Supersonic," "Rock 'N' Roll Star," "Cigarettes & Alcohol," to name four. And it had one of the great album covers of the '90s.

Do I still own the album? Yes.

2. Blur, Parklife
Can you tell I was and am a Britpop fanatic? The title track of Parklife was so catchy that I didn't care that I had no idea what the word "parklife" meant. Admittedly, there were some Americans who didn't feel the same way.

Parklife was released in 1994. Three years later, Blur broke through in the U.S. with their self-titled album and "Song 2." (Woohoo!) But Parklife will always be my favorite album of theirs. Or, should I say, favourite album of theirs.

Do I still own the album? Yes.

3. The Cranberries, Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can't We?
4. The Cranberries, No Need to Argue
5. The Cranberries, To the Faithful Departed
The first three Cranberries albums. The band fell off my radar as soon as I left high school. Sometimes your relationship with a music group runs its course and you simply have to move on. The Cranberries would be the first to tell you, Do you have to let it linger?

When I think of The Cranberries nowadays, two things come to mind: the band performing for Kaitlyn and her date on the most recent season of The Bachelorette:

And this:

Do I still own the albums? No.

6. The Verve Pipe, Villains
Remember the good ol' days, when you'd buy an entire album just so you could play one song again and again? It's the reason why Villains -- featuring the hit "The Freshmen" -- was one of my 12 Columbia House picks.

"The Freshmen" soared up the charts in the first half of 1997, and The Verve Pipe immediately became, in my mind, the best band with the word "Verve" in its name. I changed my opinion a few months later.

Do I still own the album? No.

7. Nirvana, Nevermind
8. Nirvana, In Utero
9. Pearl Jam, Ten
I'm not one to quickly embrace trends. For example, the Seattle grunge movement of the early '90s. These are three great albums, and yet I practically ignored them until they were offered to me for 1/12th of a cent each, several years after their debut. It seems their worth to me was slightly more than the cash value of your standard coupon.

I recently donated Ten to a thrift shop. Not because I don't like it anymore, but because I have a Pearl Jam greatest hits album that contains all of the major singles from Ten, and that's good enough for me.

If you ever meet me, ask for my Eddie Vedder impression. I can sing "Alive" or "Even Flow" nearly as well as he can. Incidentally, I can impersonate Rick Astley for you, too. My impressions of both are very similar.

Do I still own the albums? Yes, yes, no.

10. Soul Coughing, Irresistible Bliss
A girl I'd become friendly with at the time liked this album, so this selection was in her honor. I don't believe I ever listened to Irresistible Bliss from start to finish. What I did listen to didn't stick with me.

The album taught me a valuable lesson: Never order a CD from a mail-order music club simply to impress a girl.

Do I still own the album? No.

11. Dave Matthews Band, Under the Table and Dreaming
12. Dave Matthews Band, Crash 
When a Dave Matthews Band song comes on the radio, it takes me back to my college days. Their music was blasted out the windows of every floor of every dorm building on campus. You couldn't walk 50 feet in any direction without hearing "Ants Marching."

My college friend Dave had an issue with Dave Matthews Band. Fans were referring to the group as simply "Dave," and he was offended. "Why are they calling the band 'Dave,' as if that's the only 'Dave' in existence?" he asked. "I'm Dave, too." Can't argue that point.

I'm in a lucky position. There are no really famous musicians named Shane. As best as I can tell, Shane MacGowan of the British punk band The Pogues is the most accomplished artist that shares my name.

I'm not too familiar with the music of The Pogues. According to Wikipedia, they recorded seven studio albums. I'd give them all a chance, if only Columbia House were still in business....

Do I still own the albums? No.