Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Jess on the Virgin AMBT series. There was a poll on ILM that almost no one participated in the other day (Aphex = robbed), and in it, someone linked to a couple still-working files of the Ocean of Sound comp; I'm playing it for the third time in as many days. I seriously suggest that you grab it while you can.

A few years ago my friend Eli asked me on ILM--I'm extrapolating--why should I care about Star Time? Why can't I just hear a James Brown album or single or best-of and think that this is it, this is all I need, this sums him up? What I should have been smart enough to answer was this: Because not all experiences are the same, and not all of them are equal. Five hours of James Brown, listened to beginning to end, chronicling most of his career, shot through with rarities, rich with absolutely revelatory live takes: this spoils a person for life. It's not an experience you can have in five minutes or forty. It's its own thing, and though you may know many of these songs, none of them, even in aggregate, can prepare you for it. After listening for the first time to all five hours of Star Time all I could think of was I WANT MORE.

That's what a great compilation infests you with. Your friend makes you a mix of her favorite new wave songs from the mid-'80s and within two years you're collecting see-through 7-inches from Holland. You learn about punk from the Repo Man soundtrack. If you're me and Jess and a handful of others in 1996, you pick up David Toop's book and accompanying double-CD because electronic music and hip-hop provided a sonic map guide for how to hear other things. Toop's ever-natural knack for the light overlap, tracks quickly nudging each other on the way in/out, really opened my ears. So did his tastes, big time: once I had the money I went on a rather ill-advised Paul Schutze binge. But it was the way he segued everything that provided the ultimate persuasion. My mix tapes were haunted by Ocean of Sound for years afterward.

As Jess notes, compilations like these were dot-connectors for a time when the Internet still had a few years to reach critical mass, and it's still definitive in both the sense that it shaped a certain portion of my taste, and that I never like these selections more than on this album. I think of it as part of a number of '90s ideas/objects that seem to me to be definitively pre-Internet--RE/Search books are another example--where people were trying to work their way to the future by gathering together as much arcane information as they could in one place. Obviously the Web existed in 1996; it's how I found out about the album. But it was way before Napster, and anyone who remembers their bosses griping five years ago about how no one knew what blogs were the way I can should be able to make the necessary leap. Listening again, Ocean of Sound still retains all of its pleasure and mystery. If anything, a decade's worth of the Never-Ending Mix Tape that is the internet has only made it more pleasurable and more mysterious. Toop intended to snatch meaning out of the air, and listening again, that's pretty much what he did.