The Tyranny of “Shuffle”

I’m thinking about buying a turntable and putting together a decent two-channel stereo system. I own fewer than twenty LPs, all hold-overs from my junior high days, and I’m not aware of any place in town that has more than a handful of records for sale, new or used. But I like the idea of having a stereo because of the discipline it requires.

When I was in high school, a friend of mine came up with a sniglet (remember sniglets?) for that moment immediately after a song on the radio ends, when you, as a reflex, begin singing the song that follows it on the album. For example, you tune-in to your favorite classics station just as “Black Dog” is ending and you immediately begin singing “Rock and Roll” (because “Rock and Roll” is the next song on Led Zeppelin IV), or, while flipping the dial in some alternate universe called Amazing Radio Land, you hear the final chords of “Teen Age Riot” and launch straight into “Silver Rocket” (because they’re back-to-back on Daydream Nation). I can’t remember the sniglet my friend invented, but “prevox” should suit our purposes.*

I very rarely “prevox” these days. And I blame the “shuffle” feature on iTunes. At the moment, I have 1,481 songs on my computer (apparently that’s four days’ worth of music), and my general practice is to listen to them all in shuffle mode, as if I were programming my own perfect radio station. What’s lost in all of this, though, is the idea of an album-as-coherent-work. Of the many new releases I’ve bought over the last three or four years, there are only a few that I know and understand as albums. I could “prevox” if I heard a track from The Pernice Brothers’ Yours, Mine, Ours or Sufjan Stevens’s Seven Swans or, maybe, Mark Kozelek’s What’s Next to the Moon. Oh, and Ben Folds’s Rockin’ the Suburbs. But that’s about it.

There’s no effort required to shuffle. And, even worse, no creativity. Listening becomes a wholly passive act, and the music suffers, dissolving into the atmosphere like so much Muzak.

If asked to name my favorite albums, I would think first of the records and tapes that I studied one side at a time. I know, almost intuitively now, that side 1 of Peter Gabriel’s Security ends with “The Family and the Fishing Net” because that song is so wrought with drama that I need to flip the album to hear the (relatively) soulful “Shock the Monkey.” I know that Little Feat’s Feets Don’t Fail Me Now ends with “The Fan” and a ten-minute, jam-filled medley of “Cold, Cold, Cold” and “Tripe Face Boogie” because, when you’re a Little Feat fan, that is precisely what you’ve been waiting to hear.

So I’m thinking that a stereo will help to make music a more active experience again. Or maybe that’s my self-deluded justification for fetishizing a hobby. Maybe I’m just itching to spend money. Or maybe I should stop reading Nick Hornby.

Any suggestions for buying a turntable?

* And please feel free to offer alternatives to “prevox.” Joanna thinks it should be a noun, denoting the experience, rather than a verb that describes the action.