Unlike many hardcore music fans, I don’t necessarily bemoan the onset of the digital age. Sure, I’d love to be forced to wade through the Uptown Minneapolis Cheapo’s used CD section for old Jesus & Mary chain albums, but there’s simply no need to when I can download them for $10 apiece. What I do miss, however, is the CD single. There’s something special about holding a specific song in your hands, which is why I love vinyl picture sleeves, too.
For U.S. music fans of the 1990s and early 2000s, hunting down b-sides and bonus tracks was a hobby in itself. For instance, if you wanted to hear Weezer’s “My Evaline,” a b-side available only on Australian editions of the “Undone – The Sweater Song” single, you couldn’t simply head to YouTube and download the audio into iTunes. The next time you think your life is difficult, use a primitive form of the Internet to find an Aussie music retailer that offers international shipping, pay them $35 and wait two weeks for a CD to arrive in the mail so you can listen to what you’ll soon find out is a 45-second barbershop quartet warm-up. They had it so hard back in 1994.
CD singles (“What’s that,” you ask?) were never as popular in the U.S. as they were in Europe and Australia, where record stores devoted large sections to these two- or three-track releases that were propelled by the biggest hits of the day. One of the decisive battles of the UK’s Britpop rivalry between Oasis and Blur was when both released singles from their respective new albums in summer 1995, with Blur’s “Country House” outsold Oasis’ “Roll with It” by just a few copies.
The Target and Best Buy (Twin Cities corporations, represent!) were the only retailers in my boyhood hometown of Peoria, Illinois to stock new singles. Unfortunately, these were most often mainstream domestic releases that included one B-side if we were lucky. I specifically remember buying Santana and Rob Thomas’ “Smooth” single (I also recall thinking that Rob Thomas was Santana, since he sang on the song) and Blink 182’s “All the Small Things” in 1999. For a 10-year-old who didn’t do enough household chores to warrant an allowance, $1.99 singles were much more affordable than $12.99 studio albums.
Around that same time, I purchased R.E.M.’s “E-Bow the Letter” single on sale at Sam Goody because I knew “Losing My Religion” and “The One I Love.” Little did I know that one day I’d be legitimately obsessed with band. A short 12 years later, I really wish I could track down that CD, because it’s certainly the first of dozens upon dozens of rare R.E.M. items I ever bought.
I was frustrated by the fact that these and other slipcases didn’t fit into my CD tower correctly, so I cut up the the CDs’ cardboard encasings and glued the covers to jewel cases. I don’t recall “E-Bow the Letter” ever getting this cruel, rash treatment. Others weren’t so lucky. Customizing those slipcases isn’t the biggest regret of my preteen years, but it ranks up there with wearing an oversized St. Louis Cardinals t-shirt to a school dance in sixth grade. It’s not so much about the rarity of the items (releases like these can be had for around $5 through various Internet retailers), just that the CD single world marked my first foray into music collecting.
Now that I’m running out of R.E.M. vinyl singles to buy, I’ve begun to look to the CD racks for old singles. However, what I’m truly searching for is a time machine so I can go beat up my 10-year-old self.