On the 3rd Day of Christmas… “Jackson 5 Christmas Album” (review)

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Contrary to popular opinion, “Thriller” isn’t Michael Jackson’s only holiday-themed musical treat. In 1970, The Jackson 5 dropped Jackson 5 Christmas Album. As the album showcases Jackson and company’s early work, there isn’t any moonwalking, crotchgrabbing, or ironically, high-pitched screaming. One would naturally assume that the younger MJ would exhibit higher pitches than adult MJ. Clearly, one assumed wrong.

Running down the tracklist, it’s evident that the Jacksons opted for well-known pieces. Beloved Christmas anthem “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” sets the mood with a soul-infused interpretation of the holiday classic. “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” follows quickly, boosting the tempo, and featuring little Michael. He pretty much steals the show with energetic delivery and impressive vocal range. He jazzes up the track with “oh yeahs” in between lines. The album fluctuates between the soulful and upbeat tracks. While the songs found on Jackson 5 Christmas Album are tried and true, the Motown twist recreates the familiar seasonal sounds.

Additionally, the Jackson brothers bring their unique style to the caroling session. “Up On The House Top” offers the perfect example of the distinct flavor they craft. Michael gives a rundown of the boys’ Christmas wishes. Each of their gift choices are different. There’s a hilarious dialogue in the middle between Jermaine and Michael where they discuss the scroll of girls Jermaine wants to smooch. I imagine that at the time many young female fans reciprocated this sentiment. It’s this joviality and general sense of camaraderie that makes the album so enjoyable. “Frosty The Snowman” provides opportunities for most of the boys to sing, which paints an image of the brothers sitting around the living room passing the mic around. There’s even a track aimed at cheering Jermaine up after he breaks up with his current woman. “Christmas Won’t Be The Same This Year” opens with a snippet explaining Jermaine’s blue Christmas. Presumably he didn’t actually split with his girlfriend, but it makes the familial ties tangible.

The seemingly improvised intricacies further set Jackson 5 Christmas Album apart from its peers. At the end of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” the boys break into a joyful chant of “The Jackson 5 wanna wish you a Merry Christmas, and a groovy New Year.” Try finding a song where Johnny Mathis proclaims “Johnny Mathis wants to wish you a Merry Christmas and snazzy New Year.” The Jacksons sneak a few lines of “Jingle Bells” into “The Christmas Song,” which I hadn’t heard before. Excellent work Jackson boys. Radio stations love Stevie Wonder’s “Someday At Christmas,” but honestly I think the Jackson 5 iteration is better. The lyrics, envisioning a Christmas day free of earthly flaws feels rejuvenated through the Jacksons’ positive vibe. The true standout on the album, though each track is simply incredible, is “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” Michael Jackson performs the song as a naïve, innocent child tattling to his older brothers. He even exclaims, “Wow! I saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus!” Later, he proudly states, “I really did see Mommy kissing Santa Claus, and I’m gonna tell my daddy.” You can’t help but chortle.

What with the natural dialogue between the Jackson boys, the Motown holiday jingles, and the chance to hear a young MJ belting out seasonal tunes, this should be an annual staple. The Jackson 5 jazz up traditional tracks, and let’s be honest. We’ve all heard about a bajillion versions of “The Christmas Song,” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Luckily, the Jackson boys created a jolly Christmas album sure to lift your holiday spirits. Your Christmas spirit is high you say? Family gatherings. Ha. Now go put on Jackson 5 Christmas Album and pour a strong eggnog.

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On the 4th Day of Christmas… “Christmas in the Stars” (album review)

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Usually the only Christmas-related star sits atop the tinsel adorned tree. However 1980’s Christmas in the Stars saw an unlikely holiday album. There have been more Star Wars crossovers than George Lucas can keep track of, so it shouldn’t be surprising that a Star Wars Christmas album entered the world of entertainment. Some would dub it a jump to hyperspeed, others jumping the shark. However, set your blaster to stun and don’t hastily dismantle this out of this world record. Despite the zany concept, it’s a stellar seasonal treat sure to get even Vader caroling.

Christmas in the Stars follows a loose narrative about droids creating toys, and the primary narrators are beloved robots C-3PO and R2-D2. Anthony Daniels reappears as the voice of our gilded friend. The opening, and titular, track “Christmas in the Stars” sets the tone for the album and introduces the plot. C-3PO rattles off a list of Christmas presents he’s purchased. The sing-songy end rhyme lyrics prance along to a Christmas tune that begins similarly to “Sleigh Ride.” Lyrically it captures the over-official nature of a protocol droid.  Continuing this theme, “Bells, Bells, Bells,” finds C-3PO explaining what bells are to R2-D2. Quite naturally, there are references to Einstein and H.G. Wells. Daniels maintains C-3PO’s characteristic, slightly awkward speech pattern. He doesn’t sing so much as speak the words to the song, presumably to stay in character.

“The Odds Against Christmas” finds yet another comical track where C-3PO ponders the odds against Christmas existing. Hilariously, after a quick intro by the droid, a David Cassidy-esque singer breaks into melody. Supported by a 70’s style holiday instrumental, the track evokes a singer-songwriter feel. “What Can You Get a Wookiee for Christmas (When He Already Owns a Comb?)” is arguably where the album blasts off, though the entire project is mind-blowingly awesome. As the title explains, the track explores possible Christmas presents for a Wookiee who has a comb. Apparently, though their hair traditionally appears rather matted and tangled, they appreciate hair care products. Maybe this is analogous to the man who has everything.

While C-3PO and sidekick R2 are clearly not the droids you are looking for, Jon Bon Jovi very well may be. After all, he wishes R2-D2 a very Merry Christmas. That’s right, “R2-D2 We Wish You a Merry Christmas” features a then-unheard of Bon Jovi. Legend has it that his cousin owned the recording studio, and Bon Jovi was sweeping the floors. You’ll be diving for the rewind button. He’s unrecognizable as lead singer. Obi Wan may be able to clear up the transmission, however.

As you can probably guess “Sleigh Ride” is set to the tune of “Sleigh Ride,” however with Star Wars themed lyrics. C-3PO attempts to teach R2 to sing, a difficult feat. C-3PO’s “A Christmas Sighting (‘Twas the Night Before Christmas)” delivers a Star Wars adaptation of the Night Before Christmas. Seriously, this must be converted into a movie. Not only is the concept creative, but the banter between R2 and C-3PO would crack up a Sith lord.

Truthfully, the only fault I can find in Christmas in the Stars is the brevity of the album. A mere 9 tracks, you’ll no doubt yearn for more. Additionally, physical and legal copies are difficult to procure. The few copies bouncing around the internet are fairly expensive, particularly for a blogger/freelance movie reviewer with an English B.A. They do exist however, as well as less legal versions, though I’m not condoning such behavior. Considering the prevalence of Star Wars, and relevance to all generations, this is the quintessential album for the season. And no, it’s not a trap. May the Force be with you…

On the 10th Day of Christmas… “Silver Bells of Christmas” — Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney (Review)

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A few years ago while ambling about the aisles of Big Lots I uncovered Silver Bells of Christmas in a bargain bin of CDs. Noticing the album was a Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney collaboration at the traditional Big Lots low price, I picked up a copy. If you’ve seen the classic holiday film “White Christmas,” you’ll realize this isn’t the first Crosby/Clooney tag team.

Upon first listen I was struck by the raw audio quality. As a vinyl fan, I actually appreciated the rough pops and hisses. Granted, my Roxio Easy LP to MP3 kit delivers much richer vinyl transfers, but then again Silver Bells of Christmas was a dollar. My second reaction was surprise. Although the cover art advertises “With Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney,” there’s only one song featuring the two musicians together. Interestingly, it is the title and opening track “Silver Bells.” Of the remaining nine songs, six are Bing solos leaving Rosemary only three.

What sets Silver Bells of Christmas apart from other Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney releases is the raw audio. Complete with the flaws of a rough transfer, this CD mimics an old-timey feel. As soon as you push play you’ll be transported in front of a wood-paneled gramophone. Sure, you might have other iterations of these songs, but the versions found on this release, particularly the initial song, are worth the price of the disc alone. Undoubtedly the greatest track is “Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Bing delivers a jazzy rendition complete with a slam-bam finish as the crooner would say. He truly goes to town, hollering: “whoa Rudolph, what a shiner/brightens up the whole darn sky/whoa Rudolph, looks like a miner, prancing across the sky.” Then he proceeds to drop a dose of scat, ending with “whoa diddy, abadoodeeda, abadoodoodadeedee (rough approximation).” After listening to this, it should come as no shock that ol’ Bing partook of the green stuff. And no, I’m not referring to Christmas trees…

From the Amazon store, it seems like you can cop this album at a Big Lots price online. Audiophiles might want to skip out, but if you aren’t bothered by the tinny quality, this is a great addition to the Christmas collection. You can’t go wrong with the B-sides of Bing and Rosemary. Heck, it’s worth the money just to hear Bing lackadaisically scatting his way through “Rudolph.” Maybe he should have voiced the Claymation snowman rather than Burl Ives…

12 Days of Christmas (Albums)

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12 Days of Christmas, 12 Days of Christmas Music

That’s right, 12 days, 12 albums that are guaranteed to have you rockin’ around your Christmas tree. Or chugging spiked eggnog. Whatever your style, crank up the speakers, squeeze into the tackiest Christmas sweater buried in the recesses of your closet, and check out some holiday tunes.

A few weeks ago I found a stack of records tucked away in an old Rubbermaid container. Among them was the 1972 A Partridge Family Christmas Card, album. You may recall the kinda cheesy but lovable show about a musical family with a school bus for transportation. Well, apparently they lurched into the holiday spirit. How’s it sound? Pretty damn good, and I hate to admit it, especially to my Partridge Family-adoring mother.

As a family tradition, we’d always listen to this album, albeit on cassette tape, while decorating the tree. When I was a kid my favorite track was the unofficial 12th song, “My Christmas Card to You,” recorded on a higher BPM so as to lend the Partridge Family a Chipmunks quality. Looks like my dad held the same opinion of the Partridge Family that I did. I finally decided to offer the album an unbiased play through, and have to admit David Cassidy and crew crafted a well-rounded, refreshing holiday compilation.

A Partridge Family Christmas Card opens with the titular track “My Christmas Card to You.” Like the rest of the album, David Cassidy plays the prominent lead vocalist, with his family providing accompaniment. The thought of my entire family in such confined studio space haunts me, but I suppose Cassidy wasn’t related to the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. “My Christmas Card to You,” as can be inferred from the name, is a sort of vocal Christmas card. Cassidy wishes Merry Christmas to his listeners. Considering his fanbase at the time of release, this probably consisted of gaggles of teenage girls. It’s a creative song, and the only original track on the album. Partridge Family female members provide some great backing vocals.

From here, the album progresses as a string of well-known holiday favorites. While the tunes might not be original compositions, their execution is unique. And let’s be honest, how many Christmas albums feature completely new songs? Instrumentation remains fairly minimalist. You’ll hear strings, drums, some brass and the like, but songs rely on backing vocals heavily. Naturally the “Partridge Family*” members grab mics and contribute to the effort. Sure, you’ve heard “White Christmas” loads of times, but the Partridge version adds small repetitions of “bum-bum-bum” to Cassidy’s upbeat singing. “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” adds echoes from the “fam”. There’s a real ‘70s vibe to the entire project.

If you’re a Partridge Family fan, this is a must have album. Casual listeners and those formerly unaware of the Partridges should check this out as a refresher from the traditional Nat King Cole (no offense Nat) and Johnny Mathis tracks. Tune in tomorrow for another Christmas album, and until then stay warm and out of trouble.

*While you might assume the backup vocalists to be the Partridge Family, the only members on the album are David Cassidy and Shirley Jones.

Steve Earle: The Low Highway (Album Review)

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Steve Earle isn’t exactly new on the music scene. Currently he’s on studio album number 14. But despite his prolific music canon, he keeps each release fresh. My introduction to Steve Earle was the 2004 record “The Revolution Starts Now.” If you’re familiar with any of his past discs you’ll notice similar themes of poverty, class struggles, and general unrest amid varying musical styles. “The Low Highway” continues, and even improves upon, this trend.

“The Low Highway,” his 2013 album, drums to a similar tune. Earle’s newest release retains his signature Dylanish, nasally drawl, while adding a New Orleans feel. It isn’t quite the back country Creedence Clearwater Revival sound, but more a hangover recovery on the front porch in the French Quarter sound. Upon the initial listen, I was a little unsure how I felt. This is largely due to my love of his more sarcastic tunes such as “F the CC” and “Condi, Condi.”

As I delved deeper, gave it subsequent listens and saw him in concert recently, my feelings changed. Last weekend I had the privilege of seeing Steve Earle in concert at Raleigh’s Lincoln Theatre. This enhanced my understanding of “The Low Highway.” Early in the concert Earle took a pause in the action to elucidate that his current work evokes the New Orleans vibe due to his time spent there and the recent economic, social, and environmental woes (ie Katrina). Having spent a summer interning for the Gulf Restoration Network spreading wetlands loss awareness this message particularly resonated with me. Additionally, it helped to hear why Earle chose the NOLA twist. Hearing his inspiration therefore makes the album more meaningful.

Remaining faithful to his past songs, Steve Earle throws in simultaneously witty and through-provoking tunes. The powerful “Burnin’ it Down” begins “’Fore I was born, there were no limitations/Said my goodbyes at the greyhound station/Here I am half a mile from where I grew up/In a parking lot sittin’ in my pickup truck.” Later on he drops the lines “I’m thinkin’ bout burnin’ it down, boys/Thinkin’ bout burnin’ it down/Nothin’s ever gonna be the same in this town/I’m thinkin’ bout burnin’ the Walmart down.” Upon mentioning burning down Wal-Mart, the concert crowd erupted into bouts of applause and cheers. In a day when small businesses are being shut down and large corporations dominate even the smallest of towns, Earle embodies the sentiment of the Average Joe, whose dreams are often crushed by the expansion of big business.

Standout track “Calico County,” expresses similar sentiments. A rock-country anthem about cooking meth, it feels very appropriate considering the “Breaking Bad” final episodes. If this hasn’t been paired with a trailer of Walt and Jesse yet, it should be (I’m looking at you AMC). The album really ends on a strong note with possibly my favorite song on the album, “21st Century Blues.” Lyrically it is a throwback to “The Revolution Starts Now.” “No man on the moon, nobody on Mars/Where the hell is my flying car?” he quips. He goes on to say “It’s hard times in the new millennium/Gettin’ by on just the bare minimum/Everything to lose and nothing to spare/Going to hell and nobody cares.” Again, he captures the idea that Americans have hit an all-time low.

Earle took the stage at Raleigh’s Lincoln Theatre as a musician and a political activist. His commentary was sparse, but meaningful. True to his songs, he threw in sarcastic humor and serious opinions. Early on he joked about sending a song to Toby Keith and feigned confusion from no response. Yet Earle did not merely throw out dry anecdotes. He discussed his annoyance at the pursuit of oil, disappointment and dismay at growing lines for a soup kitchen in his neighborhood, and most prominently about his autistic son. “It’s an epidemic,” he said. With “1 in 50 kids diagnosed”, he continued, “it must be something in the food we eat, our drinks, something we are exposed to on a daily basis.”

Regardless of whether you fall within the same political lines as Earle, (and from the energy and enthusiasm of the concert crowd, I’m guessing most in attendance did), you have to respect anyone who stands in the spotlight as entertainer and political commentator. If you haven’t already grabbed “The Low Highway,” it is available for purchase across a range of formats and even streamed for free. And if the opportunity presents itself, buy a damn ticket to see this guy. He’s phenomenal.

Jay-z: Magna Carta…Holy Grail or Magna Carta…Holy Fail?

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Readers be warned, this review will feature a lot more hiss than pop. Because I don’t know about you, but I was expecting a hell of a lot more from an album titled Magna Carta…Holy Grail.

I first became aware HOV had a new album coming out while watching game five of the NBA finals. Although I assumed the roughly ten minute long commercial was a promo for an upcoming record, the TV spot remained pretty ambiguous and it took a quick Google search to confirm my suspicions. I guess this tactic worked though, because I’m one of the poor souls who downloaded the rubbish.

A strange track, “Holy Grail,” kicks off Magna Carta…Holy Grail. The beginning is sung by Justin Timberlake, and after about a minute of his crooning over a soft piano piece, Jay-z jumps in on top of an electronic-rap beat. JT’s part is pretty good, and Jay-z’s appearance is alright, but they don’t really mesh well. Adding to the musical confusion are multiple tempo, instrumental, and flow changes that trip over one another in a dizzying frenzy. In a song just over 5 minutes they don’t really establish any continuity.

Unfortunately, the only constant during the album is discontinuity. Unlike almost any good album, this just seems like a hodgepodge of 16 tracks of recycled material, not a unified whole with any purpose or originality. And to add to the clusterfuck which is Magna Carta…Holy Grail Jay-z isn’t even consistent. Lyrically, the only cohesion is the HOV’s braggadocio, emphasis on materialism, and overall narcissism. In the titular track Jay-z raps “Now I got tattoos on my body, psycho bitches in my lobby/I got haters in the paper, photo shoots with paparazzi/Can’t even take my daughter for a walk/See em by the corner store, I feel like I’m cornered off/Enough is enough, I’m calling this off.” Now, I have no doubt that you get a lot of unwanted attention HOV, but do you really expect me to pity you when you have millions, especially when you follow up a complaint about the media with “Who the fuck I’m kidding though/I’m getting high, sitting low/Sliding by in that big body/Curtains all in my window/This fame hurt but this chain works.” I certainly hope not, because it didn’t work.

This trend continues on tracks like “FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt,” featuring Rick Ross. Opening the track Ross raps “I just landed in Europe, nigga/Shopping bags, I’m a tourist, nigga/Money talk I speak fluent, nigga.” Not exactly the most original, and yet again money-centric lyrics. Unfortunately Jay-z’s entire playbook is brag about [insert expensive car here], then [brag about being best]. On F.U.T.W. the rapper disses Cadillac’s in favor of Maybachs. Listening from the perspective of a dude with a car in the shop every other week, this isn’t exactly anything I can relate to, or care for. When Jay-z boasts “Hands down got the best flow, sound I’m so special” on “Tom Ford” though, he’s really gone too far. I know this is subjective, but go listen to some R.A. The Rugged Man, Percee P, Celph Titled to name handful out of the plethora of talented contemporary rappers. Then tell me Jay-z has the best flow.

After a while, and by that I mean the first three tracks, it starts to feel like HOV used a madlib for writing his lyrics. Formulaic doesn’t even begin to describe it. Most of the album consists of references to Jay-z’s immense wealth, Lamborghinis, Maybachs, and it wouldn’t be quite as bad if his accompanying beats weren’t mainly generic electro-rap. “Tom Ford,” “FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt,” “Crown,” “La Familia,” and “Nickels and Dimes” all feature this uninventive instrumentation garnished with HOV’s cookie cutter lyrics. The few redeeming beats, including “Picasso Baby,” “F.U.T.W.” and “Somewhere in America” manage to piss me off as I keep dwelling on a slew of other rappers who would have murdered those beats instead of wasting them on car references and incessant verses about how many million HOV has made.

Of the limited tracks that don’t make my ears bleed, “Picasso Baby” and “Somewhere in America” remind me of old Jay-z material. This isn’t exactly bad, but it isn’t anything new or inventive. In fact, the only original product of this rubbish heap of a record was Jay-z’s decision to give out 1 million free downloads of his album…with a catch. The download was only available on select, pricey Samsung Android phones. I don’t have a problem with the idea of giving out free copies of an album, whether limited or unlimited, but the fact that he partnered with Samsung to distribute the downloads really sums up the materialistic focus of Magna Carta..Holy Grail.

If you paid for this craptastic CD, you were swindled. Write Jay-z and ask for your money back. From the sound of it, he could afford to reimburse each fan, even those who received free copies. If only he could give me back the time I spent listening to this damn record. At least I have a copy of Reasonable Doubt to console me after this depressing addition in HOV’s canon.

Pondering the French Press

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This weekend, while scrubbing the bejeezus out of my French Press, I wondered “why the hell do I put myself through this?” As much as I love my lime green, 8-cup Bodum French Press, I must admit it is a pain in the ass to clean. With the ten minute minimum clean up time, I reserve the pressing for weekends, and days when I don’t have work at 8:30 am. While I sipped my warm, Kahlua coffee, freshly brewed in the Bodum, I realized that my love of the French Press parallels my preference for vinyl.

Like the French Press, the turntable and vinyl require time and maintenance. Unlike a CD or mp3 player, you simply don’t push go and kick back. Rather, you pull out the clunky, delicate record, gently and somewhat awkwardly, so as to avoid finger scratches, place it on the turn table, then press play. Halfway through, you remove the album, flip it, and repeat the same fumbling placement of record on turntable.

But despite the necessary diligence of dusting off records, finding ample storage space, and involvement mid-way, digital music simply doesn’t compare. I prefer vinyl because of the obligation I feel to listen to an album in its entirety. When I download a CD, if I try to listen to the whole thing on my computer, I often fail. The tendency to multi-task usually kicks in, and my musical ADD revs up as I begin browsing my obnoxiously large collection in Windows Media Player. When the needle hits the groove I can’t hit the next button, and I’m definitely not changing vinyl every other song.

I also feel closer to my music when I play vinyl, just as I enjoy my coffee more when I go through the trouble of brewing in the Bodum. Interaction occurs on additional planes, those of touch and sight. I flip through stacks of records, select an album, put it on. No click. Click. Click. The halftime switcheroo means I stay in the same room as the stereo, and usually look at the artwork. Records used to include posters, like my Warren Zevon “Excitable Boy” insert, and booklets as found in my copy of the Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour.” Sure, most digital jukeboxes like iTunes, Windows Media Player and Winamp show album artwork, but let’s be honest: how many of us sit and stare at the fullscreen album art on a computer, much less an mp3 player?

One of the main reasons I opt for my French Press over the Mr. Coffee or Kuerig is the loss of flavor in translation. With the French Press, the steeping process keeps the grounds and water together. While it means the mandatory mouthful of grit, it also makes for more flavorful coffee. Electronic coffee makers and their paper filter accomplices remove many fats in the beans which not only massage the taste buds, but have health benefits. Further bolstering the French Press boldness is the added control. If I want a stronger cup of coffee, I simply let my concoction steep longer. With electronic coffee machines, I wait, usually for a slightly watered-down cup of coffee. Similarly, records are much more flavorful than alternate musical mediums. As the vinyl pumps through my Yamaha RX-485 receiver, there is a certain fullness of the sound, a warmth not present in digital music. The sound seems to expand to fill the room. Basses are lower and deeper, strings more precise and sharper, and vocals less tinny.

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So does this mean I’m shunning the Mr. Coffee and mp3 player? Not quite. As much as I ragged on him, the ease and convenience, especially when I’m in a morning rush for work, are undeniable. Plus the Bodum doesn’t yield the delectable cappuccinos and nostril-opening espressos that my Krupp does (for $5, it was the best yard sale find I’ve had since grabbing “Sgt. Pepper’s” and “Magical Mystery Tour” on vinyl for $1 each). And as much as I love vinyl, there’s no way it could replace my massive CD collection. Although I am working my way through the archival of all my records in FLAC and mp3, it’s a lengthy process and not nearly as easy as downloading an album and burning it to a CD or ripping a disc to my harddrive. Plus my car doesn’t have a record player, and I wouldn’t want to risk scuffing up my vinyl on a portable turntable. Scratch a CD? Fine, burn another. Scratch a record and it’s straight to the landfill. In the ideal world I’d sip my French Pressed coffee every morning, and I’d always take the time to sit down and experience, not just listen to, my music. But if I did that with every album, I’d likely never be able to trudge through the entire music collection in a lifetime. And I’d definitely have a throbbing headache every weekday from caffeine deprivation.