Lessons From a ’90s CD Collection

What one man learned from revisiting his old CDs decades later

July 14, 2023 6:22 am
Stacks of CDs
What can we learn from a decades-old CD collection?
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“If I could just afford one new CD a week, I’d be a happy man,” I declared to a coworker at Pure Pop Records in Burlington, Vermont, where I worked between 1995 and 1998. In the first years of my 20s, this goal represented the peak of my aspirations, and the fluke of fortune that won me employment at the hip, indie, basement record store — right out of High Fidelity — made the achievement possible.   

Then I joined the Peace Corps and by September 1998 had landed in a tiny Estonian village to teach English for the next two years. The CD collection of about 600 I’d amassed from Pure Pop’s employee discount, promotional copies and trades could not make the journey, save a fistful of “desert island discs” slipped into a Case Logic and a backpack. 

The rest of the collection took its own journey, staying tucked away in a variety of storage areas as I pursued collecting countries over the next two decades. In fact, most remained under literal wraps until 2023, when I finally was able to bring it all back home. By this point, the collection was much reduced. Many boxes had disappeared, some storage locations were forgotten or no longer existed, others discs were gifted and sold, and one box simply melted in the attic heat into plastic abstract art. Nevertheless, the 250 survivors now stand tall in the corner of my living room — the first time in 25 years.

To my surprise, as the ‘90s discs took their first spins in decades, more came from the speakers than just music. 

This Is Me

“What really matters is what you like, not what you are like,” Nick Hornby wrote in his novel High Fidelity, and ‘90s CD collections offered this window to the soul in a very public way, as most everyone kept their music collection in the common areas — if not making it a centerpiece. A simple scan of the titles and artists on display at any new person’s home, all clear along the spine, could reveal much about the person behind them. It wasn’t just the amount of classic rock vs. hip-hop vs country or other, but the method of organization (if any), condition of cases and the ratio of greatest hits compilations to proper albums.

With physical music collections far less common today and often packed away in storage, or secured behind platform passwords online, this powerful public expression of identity has been lost to many. Having the collection out in the open again returns it, proclaiming in a fulfilling way to the world — and myself — “This is me!” 

Escape from the Planet of the Algorithm 

Under the great algorithm in the sky, our choices are shaped and directed by artificial intelligence and mathematical calculation. This is particularly true with music today, as platforms, playlists and channels push derivations of each other, as if part of a single musical family tree. That’s in stark contrast to the more human ‘90s approach that did not have these tools. 

My collection provides a tangible and tactile reminder of this more analog time — even in a digital format — when purchases were driven more from word-of-mouth, life experiences, cover art and sometimes simply throwing a dart and seeing where it landed. The result was music I pulled toward me, not that was pushed on me. With the pull comes a closer connection and greater meaning, enriching a listening session with more soul than the algorithm can ever provide. 

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The Ghost of Passions Past

Having graduated high school in 1993 — the same year the seminal coming-of-age film Dazed and Confused was released — I wholeheartedly subscribed to the admonition by Wooderson, aka Matthew McConaughey: “You just gotta keep on livin’, man. L-i-v-i-n.” In fact, the resonance drove many decisions to come, including joining the Peace Corps and the international adventures to follow. If the decision was between maxing out a credit card and following a girl to Istanbul, or playing it financially safe and giving up the opportunity, it was always simple: I chose life.

With the age of 50 now two whispers away and following years of “adulting” for the Man, the pursuit of life preserved like a time capsule in the collection regularly rattles its chains like Bob Cratchit to Ebenezer Scrooge at my current motivations. The clatter played no small part in me resigning from my marketing job and striking out in a more life-affirming direction, compound interest and capital gains be damned. If it means putting the CDs back in storage, I know the collection will approve.

Filling Rabbit Holes 

In an increasingly online — or entirely remote — world, the ever-tempting rabbit holes wreak havoc on concentration and performance. Indeed, it’s not uncommon to see multiple screens going at once, each tantalizing your attention with shiny digital goodies and near infinite choice. The same goes for music streaming platforms, which constantly entice you to a new playlist, track, artist or album — not to mention advertisements turned up to 11 — and get you pecking away at the options. 

So, it was astonishing how slipping on a CD improved concentration and work performance in a significant way. Partly this had to do with room geography, as the CD player is beyond arm’s reach, but also in the steady groove and start-to-finish flow over the entire CD-length, about 35 to 75 minutes. Over time, the needs of a work project would influence the CD choice, and breaks began to align with disc changes. In some cases, that more than doubled my output and raised the quality.  

A Love Supreme

As the cassette era transitioned to CDs in the 1990s, I’d often bemoan the decline and fall of the mix tape, which I dedicated myself to perfecting. The invention and proliferation of the CD-R late in the ‘90s helped somewhat, but was still not the same. Nevertheless, compared to its closest cousin today — the playlist — these gifted CD compilations show far more heart. 

In fact, many of them came out of romantic relationships, for which compilations played a key role in the wooing, bonding and revealing. To elevate passions more, many of the cases and sleeves were adorned with further testaments in glitter, stickers and calligraphy. This dose of pure, youthful love — and reminder that I can be loved — melts the ice of a frozen heart no matter how cold the day. 

Music Begets Music 

While putting the collection back together, I assumed it would remain static. Any new music, I reasoned, would be vinyl for all the reasons audiophiles cite. Indeed, of all the musical mediums available today, CDs are probably the least cool of all, to the point where many people no longer even have a player

But a funny thing happened on the way to the CD rack. The gaps left for new CDs began to torment me with opportunity. This got a boost on each visit to the record store, where new vinyl regularly tops $40. CDs, on the other hand, are available by the bucketloads for far less. In fact, public libraries and other institutions are practically giving them away. A recent sale, for example, netted more than a dozen albums for about $20. Adding more CDs to the collection, it turns out, translates to more music in life. 

And that benefit returns the favor. As Plato said, “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and life to everything.” 

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