Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The Vinyl Countdown

Posted by Maximum Fun on 20th February 2012

Vital stats:
Format: Canadians talking about everything and nothing, continually ratcheting up the stakes of elaborately unappealing sex or general disgustingness, usually in public
Episode duration: 30m-1h30m
Frequency: 3-9 per month

“A bunch of guys get drunk at a bar, and some dickhead keeps recording it.” The prospect does not immediately appeal. Several of you may find the deal sweetened if I reveal the identity of that dickhead as Keith McNally, the podcast auteur behind XO, one of the shows I’ve respected the very most in all my years Podthinking. XO repays your listening time with both its high-caliber production — some of the most intricate craft I’ve heard in a podcast that doesn’t also air on the radio — and its seemingly untrammeled access to the psyche of one not-particularly-inhibited young man with a lot on his mind, a high-intensity way of saying it, and the inexplicable ability to combine those qualities without descending into obnoxiousness. A real marriage of the raw and the refined, you might say, which most conceptually strong podcasts officiate in one way or another.

The Vinyl Countdown [RSS] [iTunes], now. This show sits on the opposite end of the production spectrum from McNally’s other brainchild: a bunch of guys get drunk at a bar, and some dickhead keeps recording it. For half an hour, an hour, two hours, two and a half hours, you can hear McNally and a handful of dude- or lady-friends gross each other out; reminisce about antics past; swirl the ice in their glasses; and speculate about what, in a series of made-up realities, each with their own rigid rules, does or does not count as gay. His friends have names like “Robocop Craig” and “Mustard Mike.” When something or someone comes up a lot in these conversations, McNally will occasionally splice together an episode illustrating it, as when he made one out of Louis C.K.’s visits to Opie and Anthony [MP3] (hosts whose manner, worn to a featureless dun by years upon years of morning-zooishness, makes you especially grateful for a challengingly personal program like this one).

To think this began as a video game show. I hadn’t actually started listening back when — if — McNally and his coterie stuck to that agenda; when I first tuned in, things had clearly long fallen into the kind of free-for-all that, listened to from certain angles, almost sounds like chaste formalism. But catch me on a good day, and I just feel delighted at the very fact that, at the touch of a button, I can listen in on a couple hundred hours of some Canadians talking about everything and nothing, continually ratcheting up the stakes of elaborately unappealing sex or general disgustingness, usually in public. I tend to think that certain types of podcasts have grown popular because they give us a line to the sort of conversations that have fallen out of our lives; it certainly hasn’t fallen out of these guys’.

I’ve made this show sound simple, much simpler than it is. The dedicated Vinyl Countdown fan will discover a world of Tolkienesque complexity where countless threads of memory, story, inside joke, and life event link together all the episodes and everyone who has ever appeared in them, primary, secondary, and tertiary players alike. And that doesn’t even account for all of the connections and resonances between this and every other product of McNally’s shoestring internet empire, from XO to I Have a Ham Radio to Shitty Comics to his appearances on Keith and the Girl. The Robocop Craigs and Mustard Mikes of his world have tales to tell, sure, but McNally’s personality remains a presiding force of every minute of audio uploaded under his banner. It wouldn’t work for everybody, and maybe it won’t always work for him, but for that reason, I’ve always given his productions a chance.

We may just have to make peace, dear readers, with the fact that you’ll either find McNally inherently compelling or you won’t, and either way you can’t confidently pin down why. If you’ve never heard a show of his but read this review closely, you might ask, isn’t he base? Well, yes and no; he may compulsively return to base topics, but he doesn’t do it in a base way. If you’ve only heard the shows where he talks about not having a job and just looking at porn and hanging out with his pals all day, you might ask, isn’t he unambitious? Well, yes and no; just look at the volume of internet media he generates, which by almost any standard seems superhuman. If you’ve listened to his screeds du jour and read a few of his tweets, you might ask, isn’t he a troll? Well, yes and no; if he’s a troll, he’s one of those rare trolls who changes his mind a lot and listens to what other people have to say. I’ve dragged my feet on writing about The Vinyl Countdown because I assumed I couldn’t describe it accurately before hearing just a few more episodes, but these thoughts never resolved themselves into answers. And so you read the questions here today.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture [iTunes]. Contact him at colinjmarshall at gmail or follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall.]