I found it awkwardly stuffed between a Mormon Tabernacle Choir recording and an LP by the likes of Burt Bacharach or Herb Alpert. It was a copy of A Hard Day’s Night—the American pressing from United Artists with the caution-sign red-orange cover and a different track listing than the UK version. The black disc was naked inside, pressed thick in early-1960s fashion, its surface replete with tiny marks and scratches. Within its grooves lay a dozen jangly teen pop ditties preserved in glorious monaural sound. On the front cover, the cheeky black-and-white closeups of the band’s mop-top hairdos had faded to a dusty gray. The crusty, worn sleeve had suffered sufficient abuse over the past 60 years that only the bottom edge still held together—the others had split apart entirely. Oh man, I thought. Score!
Though this hardly seems the deal of the century, for a collector and music lover like me, such dollar-bin finds are sought-after treasures, akin to pirate booty or the lost city of El Dorado. Okay, that’s a stretch, but I have found a number of seriously good LPs and CDs in the dollar bin. A Hard Day’s Night was just one of my noteworthy finds. Others include a near-mint copy of The Flat Earth by Thomas Dolby, a worn but still serviceable Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs pressing of saxophonist John Klemmer’s Touch (yes, an original MoFi for just a buck!), and a copy of 2X4 by the Marietta, Georgia, alt-rock band Guadalcanal Diary. I’m even prouder of the CDs I’ve dug out of the budget rack: a compilation album called DGC Rarities Vol. 1, which features unreleased tracks by Teenage Fanclub, Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Sloan, and the Sundays. Not to mention a copy of Branford Marsalis’s Trio Jeepy, which contains a rendition of “The Nearness of You.” Besides being an incredible performance, this track does that spooky “in-the-room” thing better than just about anything else I’ve heard. Then there’s Dick’s Picks Volume 2, a rare Halloween 1971 recording of the Grateful Dead in concert, that I found at Goodwill for $1.99. The list goes on.
Cheap and dirty
Why do I seem so proud of my dingy records hauled out of the discount bin? I’m not, really, but it recently occurred to me that in a hobby so often preoccupied with the pursuit of perfection, purity, and credibility, frequently to extravagant expense, the thought of scraping the dregs of the local record store is enough to inspire revulsion in some. Others who rebel against this way of thinking, happily disregard pricey audiophile pressings and new remasters in favor of used, and occasionally beat-up, records. In short, the issue of the dollar bin may be to analog-philes what bitrate and resolution are to digital lovers. Though I fear slowly becoming SoundStage!’s resident advocate for the “cheap and dirty” solution, I’ll gladly make the case for the value of one dollar records.
SoundStage! founder and publisher Doug Schneider recently came to visit my hometown, Syracuse, in Upstate New York. Just before we headed to grab a bite at my favorite BBQ place, I showed him around the Sound Garden, the local record store. I pointed out the various racks of new and used records, CDs, and Blu-ray Discs. As we passed over the one-dollar records, I spied a copy of Paul McCartney’s Ram and the aforementioned Guadalcanal Diary album—something had obviously been spilled on its cover, which was duct-taped around the edges. “Oh, I think I might buy this,” I muttered, and I moved on to point out the extensive punk, metal, and jazz sections. Doug seemed fixated on the cheapie racks. “All of these are a dollar?” he asked, recognizing the tattered cover of a Bachman-Turner Overdrive album.
Doug later revealed that, on seeing me grab those albums from the dollar rack, he’d been thinking, “Wow, those are some ratty looking covers. But obviously, they appeal to you.” No derision there—he was just sincerely puzzled about why I was drawn to these beat-up old things. The arithmetic I use to assess the value of these records is varied, but it’s probably common to discount-bin divers anywhere. First off, I should emphasize that most of the stuff I come across doesn’t appeal to me. In fact, the majority of what I see belongs in a landfill—half-century-old easy-listening records in barely playable condition don’t have any place in my collection. I’m really only after the rare finds, the diamonds in the rough, and my maxim is, “You can’t find ’em if you don’t look.” The other aspect of the buy-or-no-buy decision is the inarguable value proposition of dollar-bin records. Simply put, your expectations are close to rock bottom when you’re only spending a buck.
The Guadalcanal Diary album is a perfect example of that first bit. The group is the quintessential underrated guitar pop band, one whose various efforts throughout the ’80s never gave them a hit or gained them many fans beyond music critics. The Don Dixon-produced 2X4, released in 1987, barely managed a spot on the Billboard 200, peaking at No. 183. Even so, Paste Magazine ranked it at number 64 on its list of “The 80 Best Albums of the 1980s.” Perhaps to its detriment, the band is frequently compared to R.E.M., likely because both bands are from Georgia and lead singer Murray Attaway’s vocal timbre is similar to that of Michael Stipe. Vintage indie pop record collectors are a notoriously ravenous bunch, so I never expected to find 2X4 in a local shop, much less get one for a dollar. But there it was, so of course, I snapped it up. I’d gladly have paid more for it, even though it wasn’t in great shape. The mono Beatles LP and the John Klemmer MoFi reissue are kind of the same story—I knew I was unlikely to stumble across either of them anywhere at any price, so the fact that they were only a buck more than made up for their less-than-pristine condition. All of them cleaned up pretty well, by the way, with the covers and inner sleeves of each taking the brunt of the maltreatment and grunge the years had dished out.
It’s only a dollar
Low stakes are the other half of the equation. In my early adolescence, when I was first becoming aware how endless the world of music is, the iTunes store was the innovation that put it all at my fingertips. As you may recall, a single song on iTunes bore the standard price of 99 cents and afforded a music lover a download of an AAC file—basically a sweetened-up MP3. At the time, Apple’s online music megastore represented the trend of transitioning away from buying CDs, and the dollar price tag seemed reasonable. During iTunes’ late reign, when they raised the price to $1.29, it produced some grumbling but didn’t destroy Apple’s hold on the market. To this day, it still surprises me that people who once paid a dollar for a single song could dismiss getting a whole album on vinyl or CD for a buck. If you’d pay a dollar for a digital download of middling quality, why on earth wouldn’t you buy the LP or CD for the same price? The value is self-evident, even in an age when streaming is king. And although a streaming subscription nets you access to millions of hours of music for a few bucks a month, you still don’t own any of it. Nor do you gain access to the oceanic number of recordings that aren’t available on streaming services, or even on CD. The flipside applies as well—if your CD skips or a record turns out to be a noise fest, you’re only out a dollar. I remember explaining to Doug as we left the record store to go eat, “Ah, I’ll just leave these in the car rather than carry them. If they melt in the sun, who cares?” So unless your one-buck vinyl is truly something you’ll never listen to, the cost-to-reward ratio is tipped firmly in your favor.
Am I willing to hang my reputation as a hi-fi journalist on a wholesale recommendation that you go out and populate your shelves with dollar-bin records and CDs? Of course not. I should reiterate a major caveat: most of this stuff is, indeed, pretty ratty. The nice scores are few and far between, and I consider myself lucky to have found as much good wheat amidst the chaff as I have. And even if these dollar records are nice little finds, you likely won’t find them mentioned in my equipment reviews—they’re fun, but they’re generally not in good enough condition to use as reference material. For reference purposes, you’re usually better off spending $10 or $15 on a used copy that’s in good enough shape to play well or just purchasing a brand new copy. The bottom line is to enjoy the music, and I certainly endorse buying records you know you’ll enjoy listening to. To that end, I say give the dollar bin a look the next time you’re out at your local record store. You may not find anything good—in fact, you probably won’t. But you won’t know until you look. And hey, it’s only a dollar.
. . . Matt Bonaccio