Fifteen Years of Idle Time: Rock n’ Roll Roulette Revisited

digino_decades_covers_Page_1On Saturday, April 2, we’ll be ranking the top 50 of the 150 songs featured on the 15th Anniversary Ultimate Mixtape. The first 100 songs were ranked by secret ballot (most of us won’t even know how that shook out until the weekend), but those top 50 tunes will be ranked by our often contentious but always entertaining Rock n’ Roll Roulette. To further explain the process and its origins, here’s a reprint of an article first published in the Decades book in 2009.

“Bob Dylan Sucks…”
Rock n Roll Roulette and the Origins of the Favorite 400

It began idly enough, as most of our endeavors do. It was sometime towards the end of 2008, and we were all struggling through hours and hours of each others’ year-end picks.

I dropped a stack of burned CDs on a table in the lunch room, indistinguishable from one another save for the black Sharpie-scrawl, shuffled them together face-down, pulled out two at random and asked WH and MI, “Which would you rather listen to?”

The “winner” was set aside, primed to face-off against other round one survivors in a game that spontaneously took on the name “Rock n’ Roll Roulette,” despite having no real wheel to speak of, or gambling component whatsoever. The element of chance was certainly a huge factor, and damn if that name didn’t have a cool ring to it. Within minutes the discs had shuffled down to one final match-up, and a would-you-rather champion was selected with a 2-1 majority vote. WH held the final disc up and said, “There’s our record of the year.”

MI scoffed. Not bloody likely, funny guy. We all knew that properly ranking our top albums required weeks of careful listening, ruthless campaigning, and a point-based scoring system where each decimal could mean the difference between an immortalized album and a butt-hurt Idle Timer. But… damn, if this wasn’t a helluva lot easier. And fun. To the system’s credit, both an informal 2008 roulette and the official, soul-draining scoring melee turned out the same number one album… Maybe opening up some part of us to the Fates wasn’t such an outlandish idea after all.

MI, ca. 2008
MI, ca. 2008

Fast forward to February, and WH arrived at work early in the morning after one of his brain-addling bike rides. “This is 2009,” he said to me. “Do you know what that means? Best. Of. The DECADE.” We had just passed out our third issue of Idle Times and my thumbs were still black from creasing 2,200 folds, my fingernails cracked from countless staple adjustments. Will needed to calm down. But enthusiasm is contagious, and I love ridiculous projects. Twinkly-eyed and grinning mischievously, WH later suggested, “We may as well do all our favorite albums. Ever…” MI wanted to slap him, but I was sold the second I came to the realization that sixty albums from the sixties, seventy from the seventies, etc., turned into a perfect list of 400 records. I’m not positive, but I think the ancient Assyrians believed this was the God number. Or their gods had 400 eyes. Something like that. A few days later I got a middle-of-the-night text from WH: “We need to roulette all 400 albums. I can’t sleep I’m so excited thinking about it.” So, yes, this is all WH’s fault.

WH and MI concocted the lists for the sixties and seventies; I contributed for the eighties and nineties; and RF, DH, and 3D helped finalize the 100 albums of this decade. WH then printed off 400 little index cards with all the album covers, housed them in a cardboard box, and the Great Roulette began.

We made one important adjustment before ever dealing out the first match-up. Instead of choosing which album in a pairing we would rather listen to, we decided to vote for the album we would rather not listen to. This way we would be whittling down the list to our eventual number one record, reserving some suspense for the later rounds. The later rounds, which, we assumed, would be sometime the following week. How many shuffles could it possibly take? We are, every one of us, terrible with math.

scan 005400 little index cards turned into 200; 200 became 100; 100 into 50; etc. Until there were two cards left and one was voted less listenable than the other: Element of Light by Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians was branded number “400” as the bottom-ranking album on our list (the worst of the best, as it were). Then 399 little index cards got thrown back into the box so we could start again. That took about thirty minutes.

The months that followed became a hectic blur of cardstock chaos and album art overload. Early on we took to verbally voicing our vote by indicating which album in each match-up “sucked.” As in, “Run DMC sucks,” “R.E.M. hella sucks,” “461 Doucherock Boulevard sucks a fat one,” and “If it was Pyromania, maybe, but… Def Leppard sucks.” We forced each other to say it at times: hearing MI choke out a vote against Sgt. Pepper when matched up against Exile, or WH whispering “Bruce sucks” when the Daydream flame was in danger of getting snuffed became irresistible slices of sacrilege.

The cards followed us everywhere: staff meetings, coffee shops, field trips, restaurants and bars. This pocket holds the “sucks”; this one has the “protected”. MI even sustained a Decades injury when a mid-sorting papercut had him bleeding all over several cards. Within a few weeks we could identify any album by sight alone from across a dimly-lit room; fingers pointing right and left were code for which one got the axe. At work, kids were sent on errands to deliver cryptic messages, their faces often tightly contorted in order to concentrate on remembering “Neutron Milk or… Shoot, That’s Narrow.”

sbux rouletteAt pub trivia our quizmaster stopped by the table every Monday to check on our progress, usually concerned about whether or not Who’s Next was still alive. My cellphone buzzed itself into a coma with constant text messages of tie-breaking middle-fingers. DH spent an entire Saturday at Starbucks helping to keep my beloved Clap Your Hands alive, much to the chagrin of MI (“Rumours Is A Perfect Album”). 3D and RF made their every live-and-in-person roulette appearance an inebriated adventure: halfway into a pitcher of PBR at Old Ironsides, no one on earth could have taken more pleasure at cackling out “Bob Dylan sucks!” over and over again than EH (he had, of course, ample opportunity: ol’ Bob accounts for eight of the 400, many of which hung on until late in the game).

scan 001And, finally, at two a.m. at my kitchen table, the night of the Idle Time Summer Games, a full two and a half months after we started this mess, five determined Roulette addicts (including RF, Mighty Morphin’ drunk off his ass and screaming “What is that album and why does it keep beating everything that I hold most dear?”), sat and dealt, dealt and pointed, pointed and reshuffled… until all 400 index cards had numbers written on them and were forever housed in their little black cardfile.

Speaking of that cardfile, when I finally did crack it open to start slamming this book together, expecting to be hit by a profound feeling of accomplishment or closure, I was instead hit in the face by a smell reminiscent of the bottom of a monkeycage. Iseyblood and asspockets, and all manner of strange stains and hitchhiking debris. My scanner bed will never be the same.

For the record, Bob Dylan doesn’t really suck. Even though I’m probably the most guilty of voicing to the contrary. That gloriously-jewfro’d troubadour is all over the list, including four spots in the Fabulous Fifty. And if we ever get around to rouletting our favorite album covers, he’ll be my match-up champion thanks to one pretty clear-cut favorite.