If there is one thing that San Jose consistently does well when it comes to music, it’s record stores. While the live music scene ebbs and flows, subject to city regulations and public interest, the South Bay’s selection of record stores has been strong for the past several decades. They’re plentiful, well-distributed across the Valley, and well-stocked. And they keep coming: the newest one opened in 2014.
Our San Jose-based staff — Jody Amable and Brandon Roos — took a recent Saturday to do some record shopping across West San Jose. Here’s what they bought, what they thought, and what they learned.
Who Are You? Jody Amable, Content Director for The Bay Bridged and local music and arts reporter. I like rock and roll and dusty old things (and, clearly, my dog).
Most Prized Record: Neil Young’s Harvest, because it reminds me most of my mom.
Record You Want More Than Anything: An original pressing of Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake. A masterwork of both psych and packaging gimmicks.
What Are You Looking For Today?: I’m basically in the process of assembling a replica of my mom and dad’s record collection. I was a baby just as records were turning over to CDs, so I grew up with some choice vinyl albums. Then, as a teen, I (snob statement alert) got bored with the current state of music and started plumbing my parents’ collection and the dollar section at Rasputin for new-to-me music. Though I’m 30 now, I’m still in this mentality of my dad’s records also being “mine,” but I should really have copies of my own. So I’m looking for the kind of stuff I grew up with: classic rock staples, outlaw country, semi-obscure British Invasion bands, and English proto-New Wave from the late ‘70s. I’m also looking for random kitsch like James Bond soundtracks and Disneyland records, but I have to be careful with that. Fall too far down that rabbit hole and you find yourself staring at the Deliverance soundtrack, wondering if it’s worth buying just to make your husband laugh when he walks in the door.*
Who Are You? Brandon Roos, Staff writer for The Bay Bridged and contributor for KQED Arts and Content Magazine. Music Obsessive with DJ dreams.
Most Prized Record: For personal listening pleasure, Journey in Satchidananda by Alice Coltrane. For stunting on other record nerds, Afro-Harping by Dorothy Ashby.
Record You Want More Than Anything: I’ve been chasing Blackstone Legacy by Woody Shaw and McCoy Tyner’s Extensions for months now. I’m too stubborn to buy them on Discogs, so here’s hoping I find them in the stacks.
What Are You Looking For Today?: Whatever catches my eye, honestly. I’d love to find some early ’70s spiritual jazz, but that stuff doesn’t pop up in the stacks every day. Other than that, I’ve been building a collection of boogie LPs and 12” singles. I love the sound, which had its heyday in the wake of disco’s collapse.
For me, a lot of my record shopping involves honoring this indescribable pull I’ll feel toward certain titles. I’ve learned to not question that energy — if something is telling me to pick up a title for whatever reason, I’ll often do so.
First Stop: On The Corner, Campbell
This was the first time I’ve ever been here, actually. Small place with not a lot of stock, but super-friendly staff. Everyone besides me seemed to be a regular.
What Did You Buy? Cream’s Fresh Cream, Peter Paul and Mary’s Album 1700, Joe Jackson’s Look Sharp!. Nothing I was super-excited about, but mark my words, I feel like Joe Jackson is due for his retro-cool stamp of approval soon. More people my age than I realized know and appreciate him.
What Did You Put Back? A children’s record of The Wizard of Oz — I’m an Oz nut, but the entire bottom left quadrant of the outer cover was missing. That’s too beat up, even for me.
I used to stop by here every Friday after work, so I’m pretty familiar with what I’m likely to find. If you’re interested in their top-notch titles, start with the wall. From there, dive into the new arrivals. That’s the best place to check if you don’t have a ton of time. I’ll often also sort through their jazz and soul before finishing in the $2 bin. I’ll often pick up at least one thing in that bin every time I visit just to try something new.
What Did You Buy? James Ingram’s It’s Your Night, Billy Preston and Syreeta’s self-titled record, and Just Family by Dee Dee Bridgewater. I wasn’t familiar with any of these before using the listening station. Ingram is early ’80s quiet storm/R&B (think Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing”). I love R&B from this era because it’s when you first start hearing drum machines and synths making a larger impact on the sound — I love that juxtaposition of organic and artificial. I wasn’t a huge fan of the whole thing, but “Something Special” on that Billy Preston/Syreeta LP really spoke to me — soulful, heartwarming pop vibes. I picked up the Dee Dee Bridgewater record mainly for the personnel. She’s supported by a stacked group of jazz and fusion greats that includes Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, and George Duke.
What Did You Put Back? Too many to count. I probably started with about 12-15 records. I’ve made a habit of snagging anything that, for whatever reason, catches my eye. The real test comes when I needle-drop them at the listening station. I listened to a couple David Benoit records from the $2 bin (sounded too synthetic/smooth jazz-y). I also put away a well-kept copy of Book of Ways by pianist Keith Jarrett. I was eager to listen, but after testing nearly a dozen records beforehand (and discovering this record was a double LP) I chose to put it back.
Next Stop: Rasputin Records, Campbell
I normally strike out at Rasputin, but today I picked up a TON. Rasputin isn’t my favorite because I am just as much in this for the music as I am for the history — I like knowing that my records had a life before me. The Campbell Rasputin seems to focus more on new releases, and their vintage selection mostly occupies that sad space between classic rock and the current era — lots of junk like Christopher Cross, Loverboy, and late-era Queen albums nobody wants. I’ve never spent much time with their new stock, but today I did, and I walked out with an armload.
What Did You Buy? Ezra Furman’s Songs By Others, Drinks’ Hermits on Holiday, Thunderbitch S/T, Cocktails’ Adult Life, which I was really surprised to see, and The Fiddler on the Roof soundtrack for 50 cents, because humans are complex and interesting creatures.
What Did You Put Back? Courtney Barnett’s A Sea of Split Peas. The bill was climbing a bit too high.
Rasputin tends to be my go-to when buying new CDs, but I usually avoid it when it comes to vinyl. I mostly collect jazz, and it’s hard to find rare used stuff there. I’m stoked that labels like Blue Note are re-issuing a ton of stuff, which means if you’re looking for classics on wax, they’re relatively easy to find. However, it also means you may now be paying $30 for a new item when earlier pressings are going for $10 used.
This was my most expensive stop, mainly because I took a chance on a couple new records.
What Did You Buy? Iman Omari’s Energy, Don Blackman’s self-titled LP (re-issue), and a 12” single of Sisqo’s “Thong Song.” Iman Omari is an LA-based hip-hop/neo-soul songwriter and producer. I’d been meaning to check this out, and luckily I was able to snag it while it was on sale. I had to listen to a song or two of Blackman’s record on YouTube before committing, but I loved what I heard. I laughed when I saw “Thong Song” (my first thought is that it’s a keeper purely for throwing it on during a party). Normally I would’ve moved past it. However, I love Artful Dodger, who were huge in popularizing the UK garage sound in the late ’90s/early 2000s. Their remix is on here. I took a listen on my phone and was sold. Fun note: I got props from the clerk at the counter for picking it up. Apparently, he tried to goad a friend into buying it a day or so back. You snooze, you lose!
What Did You Put Back? I thought about picking up Barter 6 by Young Thug but chose to take a few more listens on YouTube before committing to it.
Next Stop: Streetlight Records, San Jose
Streetlight is where I typically do the most damage. It’s made for flippers — people like me who just like to show up and start flicking through piles of records. There is an alphabetized, categorized section in the back, but of interest to me is the huge stash of new arrivals at the front where they seem to just dump records as they’re bought.
I like Streetlight because you can sometimes see a human’s whole history in the collections people have brought in. Whenever I’m in the new arrivals section, I often find myself going through big blocks of ‘70s disco, then ‘90s local punk, then ‘80s saxophone cheese, et cetera. I have to assume each grouping came from one person; a private seller. I like that I can get a sense of who the previous owner was this way. I wonder about them. If they’re even still alive. If they sold these to clear space in the garage or if their daughter brought them over after putting off the estate sale for over a year. Nothing makes me feel closer to my Valley neighbors than peering through their record collections.
What Did You Buy? The West Side Story and Bye Bye Birdie soundtracks, The Kinks’ Muswell Hillbillies, Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run, Squeeze’s East Side Story, and a Spanish pressing of The Kinks’ debut because why not?
What Did You Put Back? Kadhja Bonet’s The Visitor — it’s still pretty new, so it had the highest price tag. After Rasputin, I couldn’t afford it.
If you’re looking to start collecting or if you have pretty eclectic taste, Streetlight is the best place in town to dig. No other local shop has a more robust new arrivals section. You’ll find a lightly-worn Kanye West LP in the same row as a Zeppelin re-issue, a Martin Denny’s Exotica, and an early record from Best Coast member Beth Consentino’s former drone/dub project, Pocohaunted (seriously — if you’re looking for it, it was there).
What Did You Buy? Hollertronix #3, Seven Davis Jr’s Dancing On the Sun EP and Breakin’ Away by Al Jarreau. I’d been reading up on Jarreau recently because a Facebook friend noted he had just retired from touring. Unfortunately, he passed the day after I bought this record. Hollertronix is a group Diplo was a part of about a decade back, so this seemed like a solid possibility for a party record. I’m not familiar with Seven Davis Jr, but I trust Ninja Tune as label and I wasn’t mad at the price tag.
What did you put back? Pink Hawaii by Billy Mure and the Islanders. I loved the cover. I recently started collecting lounge/exotica and don’t have any Hawaiian slack-key guitar sounds. If I was only digging at Streetlight, I definitely would’ve picked it up, but I was a bit burnt out with digging at this point.
Last Stop: Needle to the Groove, San Jose
This is my favorite. Small but very well-stocked and nicely curated. What I like most about them is that they’re really good at weeding out the crap and putting quality stuff out on the floor. And I don’t just mean coveted records — whoever is doing the buying maintains a great balance between records that are in good condition and/or rare, and ones that are a little more dime-a-dozen, but are still important and influential.
What Did You Buy? Nothing, actually.
What Did You Put Back? Elvis Costello and the Attractions’ Armed Forces — I genuinely could not remember if I already owned it, and I’m glad I didn’t buy it because I do.
The best shop in town if you’re a serious collector. Robust stacks of jazz, R&B/soul, electronic, world, reggae and hip-hop. Titles are typically in great shape. This is a great place to open your ears to new sounds. However, be ready to open your wallet a bit. While it has the best curated selection of the four, that selection comes at a price.
What Did You Buy? A 12” remix record of Floetry’s “Say Yes” and “When I Find You Love” by Jean Carn. I was hoping the Floetry 12” would have the original version of the song, but there’s a great remix that adds a faster, laid-back hip-hop feel. I picked up Jean Carn’s self-titled record a while back and fell in love with her, so I was stoked to add another title of hers to my library. Wonderful vocalist on Philadelphia International Records, which played a big part in popularizing the Philly soul sound.
What did you put back? A lot. Just like with On the Corner, I tend to stack a lot of titles and then make final cuts after needle dropping at the listening station. With R&B and soul records, I’ve realized that the aesthetic of the album covers can often reveal what the music sounds like, so I’ve started to give some titles a listen based solely on what I see. In this case, no mystery titles were good enough to keep.
Jody: My god, I am, like, actually physically exhausted. My legs hurt. My contacts are itchy and my fingertips feel slick from all the dust and decaying paper and wax. I’m very glad I wore stretchy pants, because I did a lot of sitting on the floor. I’m gonna go home and make my dog dance with me to “10th Avenue Freeze Out.”
Brandon: I dig a fair amount, but looking back, I’d never done four shops in a single day. If I do this again, I’m definitely eating a full meal and arriving fully hydrated. Looking back, I think this excursion showed me that, while I love searching for new records, I definitely have a window of quality digging before I hit a wall. The process can be a bit draining since it requires your full attention. You never know if the next record you flip through will reveal that title you’ve been waiting to snag for months.
Out of all these titles, I’m most excited to hear what this Iman Omari record sounds like. I’m also hoping to figure out a way to play that “Thong Song” Artful Dodger remix in public as soon as humanly possible.
*I saw this in two different stores today.