I Organized My Records

I’m getting pretty used to the glazed-over looks my family gives me.

I reorganized my record collection last week, which — despite the reorganization only taking a few hours — means I talked about reorganizing my record collection for much longer. It’s been about two weeks of these glazed-over looks. That’s a conservative estimate — I’m sure to my family, it’s seemed like two months.

August 2023: I Organized My Record Collection

  • “Train to Miami” — Steel Pole Bath Tub
  • “Lay My Love” — Brian Eno & John Cale
  • “Pink + White” — Frank Ocean
  • ”Uknowhowwedu” — Bahamadia
  • “Oh My Heart” — R.E.M.
  • “I Wanna Eat Chocobars” — Shonen Knife
  • “New Romantics” — Taylor Swift
  • “One That Got Away” — MUNA
  • “The Way It Goes” — Gillian Welch
  • “Boxwine & Xanax” — Tim Barry
  • “Buddy (Native Tongue Decision)” — De La Soul (w/Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest, Queen Latifah, & Movie Love)
  • “Brooklyn Basquiat” — Danger Mouse & Jemini the Gifted One
  • “Just One Kiss” — The Cure
  • “After Forever” — Black Sabbath
  • “Waste Your Life” — Initiate
  • “Underwater Boi” — Turnstile (w/BADBADNOTGOOD)

Listen on Spotify. Listen on Apple Music.

I finally caved in and organized my records by genre. Until this point, I had been a strict A-Z-by-artist kind of guy — if you knew the artist’s name, you knew where to find it — but as a record collection grows, so does its need for secondary navigation. Moving to an A-Z-by-artist within genres allows for a more granular level of findability. It’s simple stuff, just like I learned when I worked at Best Buy during high school, another topic that seems to come up a lot lately and, coincidentally, also causes the same glazed-over looks from my family.

Genres are troublesome for someone, like me, who still dreams that classification can be absolute. This is my job — helping organize websites, helping find logic within a sea of sometimes abstract terms — and I often go into a project with a vague promise that there’s a right and wrong answer. Truth is, classification is never absolute. Classification, organization, and assigning labels take nuance. More than that, it takes context.

I recently stumbled upon a project called AudioSet, which is Google’s effort to teach machines how to identify and generate large-scale datasets of audio events. They are trying to “define the hierarchical relationships that exist between sounds,” and the current draft classifies sound itself into seven top-level categories: human sounds, animal sounds, sounds of things (alarms, bells, explosions), natural sounds, music, background sounds (including things like white noise), and “source-ambiguous sounds,” which includes things like surface contact, deformable shells (crushing! crinkling!), and silence itself.

Within music — and within the sub-category of “music genre” — AudioSet has listed 25 unique genres: from “Traditional Music” to “Electronic Music,” from “Hip Hop Music” to “Country.” That’s a lot of genres, and some of them are questionable — they have “Pop Music” and “Rock Music,” two gigantic and (relatively) generic genres, but have also broken out “Ska” and “Reggae,” two genres that you could argue are not only niche and similar, but so small and focused that they simply don’t stand parallel to the larger genres.

But this list — and the call-out of both ska and reggae — illustrates the difficulty in assigning genres to a collection: we have a natural habit of breaking things down into manageable chunks, so the more we enjoy or collect or understand a specific genre, the more likely we are to go deeper and make further separations.

In his book Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres, Kelefa Sanneh presents seven essays on what he sees as the seven major genres of pop music: rock, R&B, country, punk, hip-hop, dance, and pop. Kalefa comes from a punk background, and he finds no weirdness in calling out punk as its own genre. He strongly believes there’s enough differentiation between rock and punk to create a clear delineation between Green Day and Foo Fighters.

If we were to sort my albums into Sanneh’s genres, it would be about 50% rock and about 25% punk. There would be a smattering of country and some smaller sections for hip-hop and R&B. There would be seven pop albums. There would be zero dance albums. (And I would have nowhere to put my blues, jazz, comedy, or soundtrack albums.) Keeping 50% of the albums in one genre defeats the purpose of classifying in the first place, so we must break things down further. As we break genres into sub-genres, we’re also creating more chances for confusion — the more lines we draw, the more chance there is to blur them.

Organizing records — like organizing spices, or books, or tools — always seems simple at first glance, but familiarity with the subject tosses all simplicity out the window. When you’ve got a few dozen country albums or hip-hop albums, it’s easy to decide where they go. These are large buckets that prevent splashing. But sorting 500 or so punk and rock albums into usable genres requires smaller buckets — buckets that are already starting to splash together as rock itself is chopped and blended over decades — and I’ll confide in you that it got really really hard to do.

An initial trial separated rock and punk into dozens of sub-genres: classic rock, metal, new wave, traditional 90s alternative, britpop, indie rock, punk, hardcore, emo, and so on and so on. This was a bit too fractured, because I needed help determining the dividing line between sub-genres that all played in the same pool. A post-hardcore band like Quicksand might fall into punk or hardcore. A post-hardcore band like Sunny Day Real Estate might fall into emo. But they made sense together, in my mind — separating them felt too fussy.

Logistically, there’s an additional issue with separating by genre: I was not willing to break up an artist, which throws a wrench in classifying bands that defy genre from album to album, especially over a long career. Sometimes it’s easy: when Ween records a single country album, that’s not enough to move them into a new genre. And sometimes … it’s hard. R.E.M. shifted their sound over a 15-album career, from jangle rock to alternative to whatever you call the post-Bill Berry years. Bands like Modest Mouse, Built to Spill, and Pavement grew from their original “genres” into a world where they’re seen as the forefounders of indie rock. Do you respect the history? Do you focus on the present?

It was maddening. For a while. And then, it wasn’t. Because, after a bit, I remembered why I was doing this. Sometimes, classification breaks away from a logical definition. Sometimes, you just have to feel it, baby.

On Reddit, on /r/indieheads, the community has been voting to boil down a set of the most influential and important indie rock albums. Each week, a post will go up asking for arguments for or against specific albums, but the overall discussion has centered around the idea of “indie” itself — of what it means to be included in this list. The arguments are meant to help classify and define inclusion, but they’ve had the opposite effect on me — they’ve made me realize how much context and emotion play into organization and classification.

The original definition of “indie” is rock music from independent labels. Now, major labels put out indie albums all the time. There is no definition. There’s no technical differentiation. The definition of indie rock has nothing to do with the music itself – it’s more of a “feeling.” Indie rock is like that old definition of pornography, I guess: you know it when you hear it.

Labels and genres are a struggle because the best stuff eschews the entire concept. It’s the blurring, the chopping — the artistry in sampling from everywhere. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. OK Computer. Master of Reality. Punisher. Albums that were ostensively of one genre — soul, rock, folk — but were in reality a quilted patchwork of references and influences and experimentation. To the point that, really, the genres are less about definition and rote classification and more about the spirit of the music itself.

How music sounds is as independent as the artists who create it — our ears interpret sound, whether it’s a crinkling sound or the opening notes of Taylor Swift’s “New Romantics” — completely separate from its intent, from its classification. This means genres are mere suggestions — they’re a starting point to helping us gather like-minded music and see what might stick. But they’re just words. It’s our minds that make genres real, built with our own context, developed with our own memories and predications in mind.

Aw, man. I see your eyes glazing over too. Just do me a favor: smile and nod a bit. If you need tips, talk to my family — they’re getting pretty used to it.

This was lovingly handwritten on August 31st, 2023