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From anti-releases to 1-inch records: 13 albums you have to work too hard to hear

Illustration: Nick Wanserski
Illustration: Nick Wanserski

Obsessive music fans are a strange ilk. Not only will they fill their homes with every deluxe reissue of a record, but they’ll take on some barely functional curiosities, too. Here’s a look at the releases that stretch the definition of “album,” often requiring so much effort that it begs the question if it’s worth it—or, in some cases, if it’s even music.

1. The Flaming Lips, various releases

The Flaming Lips love a good packaging and listening challenge. For years, the band’s most infamous release was the 1997 album Zaireeka, which required listeners to set up four CD players (or, after a 2013 vinyl reissue, record players) and play four separate discs at once to experience the music properly. In 2011, however, the Lips upped the ante considerably by releasing four songs on a USB drive encased in a gummy brain, which in turn was lodged within a life-sized gummy skull. Later in the year, the Lips released another version of the seven-pound skull, only this one contained a live version of The Soft Bulletin within a green, marijuana-flavored gummy brain. In other words, accessing the music required a rather sharp knife and a surgeon’s delicate precision. (Love of gummy candy—or least the ability not to gag when faced with an abundance of it—was optional, but helpful.) On Halloween 2011, the band outdid even itself: For $5,000, it offered a 24-hour song, “7 Skies H3,” tucked away in a real human skull coated with a chrome “hairpiece.” That tune at least also streamed online—although, at first, only 999 people could listen at once. [Annie Zaleski]

2. Beck, Song Reader

At the very least, most artists don’t expect you to make the music for them. That changed with the release of Song Reader, Beck’s 2012 “album” that dispensed with the joy of getting to hear a talented musician’s new music altogether. Instead, he published it as a collection of sheet music (accompanied by more than 100 pages of artwork), the intention being that others should perform the written pieces and create their own versions of it. Fan versions were then uploaded and hosted on a website dedicated to the project. This may be an innovative and conceptually interesting method of artist-audience collaboration, but as an album, it’s annoying as fuck, the equivalent of telling someone, “Oh, my God, I made the most delicious brownies. Here’s the ingredients, best of luck.” Thankfully, Beck got off his duff and recorded his own takes on the songs a couple years later, so the majority of people who aren’t skilled note-reading musicians could enjoy the music of an artist they enjoy. [Alex McCown-Levy]

3. The Auris Apothecary catalog

This tiny label out of Bloomington, Indiana, specializes in experimental noise, drone, and electronic music—augmented by a stretch in 2013 in which it released vintage 8-bit video game soundtracks on cassette—but it’s the packaging of its very limited releases and the difficult media on which those releases are contained that make it so unorthodox. Recent examples include Triptides’ 2013 cassette Fucking On The Beach—which is rudimentarily packaged in hand-cleaned Capri Sun pouches—and Diaphragmatic’s Sitz Death, released on five-inch tape reel. Founder Dante Augustus Scarlatti refers to the most damaged pieces of Auris Apothecary’s catalog as “anti-cassettes” and “anti-records.” Unholy Triforce’s lathe-cut record The Library Of Babel provides a perfect illustration. With each revolution, the needle chips away a portion of the print painted atop the record, thus unveiling the audio beneath but also destroying your stylus in the process. Fun. [Kevin Warwick]

4. Wu-Tang Clan, Once Upon A Time In Shaolin

Recorded in secret over the span of six years, the Wu-Tang Clan’s double album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin carries the steepest cost imaginable: In order to listen to it, you must literally be hated pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli. Wu-Tang majordomo The RZA famously only produced one copy of the record, which he sold to human shitpost Shkreli at auction for $2 million. Here’s the catch, though: One of the stipulations was that the buyer could host listening parties or offer the album for free online, if they wanted—meaning that if literally any other person aside from one of Shkreli’s disposition had purchased it, it would be in the public’s hands. Since we are talking about the button-nosed bandit himself, though, it has only been played once: in snippets, as Shkreli gloated on the night of Donald Trump’s election.

RZA and album producer Cilvaringz cooked up the “one copy only” scheme to prove a larger point about music production and consumption. As Cilvaringz told Forbes, fans aren’t necessarily entitled to the artwork someone creates—if Wu-Tang makes an album that is difficult to consume, well, that’s the fan’s problem, not the Wu’s. A sculpture or painting wrests power back to the producer, but music is perceived as cheap and available, almost like a public utility. Once Upon A Time In Shaolin was engineered to draw attention to that power disparity in a world where music fans’ biggest roadblock is streaming-platform exclusivity agreements. It’s a valid point, but a shitty way to deliver it, and it resulted in an appropriately shitty outcome: a smiling Martin Shkreli. [Clayton Purdom]

5. Spazz, Funky Ass Lil’ Platter

There’s some hopeful conjecture on deep-dive message boards that this one-inch novelty record from the prolific (and now long defunct) California power-violence band contains actual music. The consensus, however, is that vocalist-bassist Chris Dodge repurposed a handful of toy records and crafted the labels and sleeves to turn it into a Spazz release for his Slap A Ham imprint. And that if you were somehow able to smoosh it through a spindle hole onto a turntable and get it spinning, you were successfully three-quarters of the way toward ruining your needle. It’s said that only 14 exist in the wild, and though Discogs won’t allow entry through its pearly gates, copies have sold for more than $200 on eBay. Actively trying to complete an obscure Spazz catalog is a certain kind of crazy, but spending hundreds on a one-inch record that is incapable of playing a note of music… that’s special. [Kevin Warwick]

6. Spiritualized, Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space deluxe 12-disc version

Spiritualized’s 1997 opus is best enjoyed while lying completely still and letting its 70 minutes wash over your brain. But in the interest of thematic gimmickry, the British band released a version of the album on 12 separate three-inch CDs, each containing one track. So not only can the songs not flow gorgeously into one another, but you’ve actually got to find a machine that can play those tiny, inconvenient, obsolete discs. And not only that, they’re packaged to look like prescription pills—in a foil blister pack—so that it’s necessary to cut them out (and ruin the fancy packaging) to play them. [Josh Modell]

7. Various artists, 8-Bit Music Power

A cartridge of music that can only be played on old-school Japanese Nintendo Famicoms presents a couple of significant obstacles. One, you need to still have in your possession a working (that’s key!) video game system that was rolled out in 1983—two years prior to its U.S. equivalent, the Nintendo Entertainment System—and, second, you have to care enough about retro 8-bit video game music that you’re willing to hook up said system to a TV. (None of this is to mention that playing the cartridge on the U.S. system requires an adaptor.) Once you’re over those impediments, though, the chiptune album is almost kind of neat: It features a few classic Nintendo composers, trippy visuals that correspond with tracks, and the ability to mute certain dynamics (like “pulse” or “triangle”), allowing for several high-strung mutations within one jam. [Kevin Warwick]

8. Dale Crover, Skins

Lathe-cut and containing six spindle holes, this art project via Melvins drummer Dale Crover forces you to pick up the needle after each of its dozen tracks in order to shift it accordingly on your turntable. Additional important note: Due to the record’s construction, each song is required to be less than 30 seconds in length. Joyful Noise acknowledges that the shallow grooves might make the lathe-cut record difficult to play on some players (“If the only turntable you own is a Crosley, do not buy this record”), but the adventurous Indianapolis label also acknowledges that, while the 12-sided Skins might seem like “the most impractical record of all time,” it’s singular architecture makes it an instant collector’s item. And considering that the 127 copies—each of which is signed by Crover—sold out at $100 a pop, yeah, that seems about right. [Kevin Warwick]

9. Mogwai “Tracy” music box

As unusual and challenging formats for music go, this is one of the lesser offenders on this list, but it still merits attention for the responsibility it places upon the fan. In 2004, the band Mogwai released a version of its single “Tracy” that was contained on a music box, meaning you had to turn the crank to get the song. And “song” is a term used pretty loosely, since all that’s on the music box is a plinky adaptation of the main guitar riff from the original song. It’s a cute little knick-knack, but that’s about all. Those looking for music from the band are advised to look elsewhere—of course, that should be fairly obvious when discussing a one-and-a-half-inch-long hand-cranked music box that plays 15 seconds’ worth of sound. [Alex McCown-Levy]

10. The Dead Weather, Blue Blood Blues

Marketed as a “triple decker record,” The Dead Weather’s Blue Blood Blues required destroying one piece of vinyl to access another. It’s a three-song 12-inch with a 7-inch inside of it, and in order to hear the song exclusive to the 7-inch, one must crack open the LP, effectively destroying it and forcing record collectors into a Sophie’s Choice scenario. Limited to 300 copies, this stands as one of the most sought-after Third Man releases, having sold for $1,500 on the secondhand market and still commanding a high price on Discogs, proving that people are more than willing to pay for this kind of internal strife. [David Anthony]

11. Third Man’s Blue Series singles

It’s not just fans of The Dead Weather who bear the brunt of Jack White’s music-format tomfoolery. Third Man Records decided to celebrate its third anniversary by compiling a collection of all 56 tracks thus far released by the label’s Blue Series, a handsome blue 12-inch vinyl that was given out at the anniversary party for the label. Here’s the infuriating catch: In order to fit all of the songs onto a single vinyl record, the record was pressed with minute compression, requiring the listener to play it at 3 rpm to hear the music properly. Keep in mind, the slowest setting on just about any normal record player is 33 rpm, or 11 times that speed. In short, playing this album is essentially impossible for 99.9 percent of the population. Cool album, Third Man. [Alex McCown-Levy]

12. AJJ and Mischief Brew split 8-inch

Oddly sized vinyl records are nothing new, but the 8-inch split between AJJ and Mischief Brew took things to a new level. The record sees each band offering up an original song, recorded both electrically and acoustically, and instead of one version following the other, the record is pressed with concentric grooves. This means the grooves on this piece of vinyl are so close to one another that it’s impossible to know which version of the song will play when the needle is dropped. What’s worse, even the slightest bump during playback will see the record jump from one version to the other without warning, making for an incredibly jarring listen if not played under ideal circumstances. [David Anthony]

13. Rocket From The Crypt, Cut Carefully And Play Loud

It’s right there in the title: This vinyl-only (at first, anyway) five-song EP from 1999 required careful use of an X-Acto knife or razor blade before it could be played. A large sticker was applied that covered both the label area of the vinyl and the jacket that surrounded it, either as some kind of fun prank or a fuck-you to mint-condition collectors. (“Uncut” copies naturally fetch a premium these days.) It wasn’t a pain indefinitely, just the first time you wanted to play it, so as these things go, it could have been worse. And the songs were eventually issued on CD—along with the excellent vinyl-only Hot Charity album. [Josh Modell]