by Teagan Hughes
[originally published July 2021]
The shelves of the WOBC vault are daunting—floor-to-ceiling, stuffed with CDs and vinyl records, the less robust shelves beginning to bow under their weight. Most of the shelves are so crowded you couldn’t fit new albums if you tried. The CDs and records are sorted by genre and type and alphabetized by artists. It would take a lifetime to listen to it all, and days to even read all the spines.
Many of the CDs on these shelves are promotional copies; some are in dented cardboard cases, some only in sleeves. They’re labeled on the front by genre and artist, with some sporting decade(s)-old micro-reviews from former WOBC staff. These promotional copies were sent to WOBC for free by artists and labels seeking to promote their new releases. They represent the very beginning of these pieces entering the cultural consciousness. Holding them feels like holding a piece of history; the evolution of genre, taste, and pop culture condensed into a scant plastic circle.
I still have several metric tons of physical media to explore, but thumbing through the vault has already turned up some hidden gems—in my eyes, anyway. There’s a promotional copy of The Cardigans’ First Band on the Moon, received, labeled, and shelved by WOBC DJs before the ubiquitous “Lovefool” became one of pop culture’s most pervasive earworms. There’s a promotional copy of The Proclaimers’ second record, Sunshine on Leith, presumably sent out approximately four years before “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” hit the Billboard Hot 100 (Sunshine on Leith was released in the US in 1989; “I’m Gonna Be” didn’t chart until 1993). There’s a CD copy of Tori Amos’ single “Cornflake Girl,” a promotional 45 of Blind Melon’s first single “Tones of Home,” and a promotional CD of Bjork’s album Post. One of my favorite finds was a copy of Bjork’s Telegram with a hand-drawn cover, probably by a former WOBC staff member.
Promotional CDs aren’t the only treasures in the vault; many of the CDs in the WOBC vault are inscribed with handwritten notes on the front. These micro-reviews were scrawled on paper labels by former WOBC genre staff, leaving recommendations (or, in some cases, underhanded critiques) for their fellow DJs. Some well-known albums entered the WOBC vault with contemporaneous commentary. A label on Tame Impala’s Currents calls it “lush and atmospheric,” while a piece of masking tape on their Innerspeaker brands it as “psychedelic pop” and “slow building.” Back in 2008, a member of WOBC staff praised Fleet Foxes’ self-titled debut for having a “kickass album cover,” and being “folk-ish, like Akron/Family without the self-parody.” (In a different ink and handwriting on the side, someone else has written “Also, boring.”) A 2007 copy of the Arctic Monkeys’ Favourite Worst Nightmare labels the band a “European Indie-Rock outfit that probably would sell a lot at Tower Records or the ‘Alternative/Rock’ section of Best Buy.”
This isn’t even to mention the multitudes of CDs and vinyls in the vault that I have yet to discover or hear. There are hundreds and hundreds of pieces of physical media in the vault, each of them a piece of history, and each of them a hidden gem in their own way. The vault has evolved over time as both genre and physical media have evolved, and it keeps up a steady intake of CDs to this day, ensuring that future DJs will have plenty to look back on as I am now. If you’ve never explored the vault, I encourage you to go pull some albums off the shelves—just put everything back in alphabetical order when you’re done!