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Playing Favorites

About a week before SXSW, where he knew he would be on foot almost constantly, Noise did something that until recently would have been completely incomprehensible to him. He loaded up an iPod. His iPod. Amazingly, Buffalo Bayou did not run red with blood.

Until then, I had managed to resist the allure of Apple's culture-changing gizmo — even during the great U2 "Vertigo" marketing blitz of 2004, when Apple and the band teamed up to issue a custom iPod pre-loaded with the Irish rockers' entire catalog, including several exclusive rarities — for three fundamental reasons.

First, the little boogers are expensive. I remember when iPods first came out, and $300 or $400 seemed like an absurd amount of money to pay to listen to music you already owned. (I was never a big downloader, still am not and doubt I will ever be.)

Second, after I got XM Satellite radio in December 2005, I didn't feel like I needed one. The music wasn't limited to your own library — or however much of your library (mine is rather large) you could squeeze onto an iPod, anyway — and the XM unit was almost as portable. Walking around with it meant you had to find some article of clothing to clip the antenna onto, but I didn't do that much walking back then anyway.

And finally, I am the sort of person who takes a perverse sort of pride in being functionally technologically illiterate — damned if I'm going to let the machines run my life, even though they pretty much already do. The wheels of change turn slow in my life, and by and large I like it that way. Besides, after fiddling with a few friends' iPods over the years, it was all I could do to even turn the damn things on.

But then a friend bought me an 8-gigabyte iPod Nano for my birthday back in December — thanks, Amy! — and it promptly sat unopened on my kitchen table for almost three months. But I would look at it sideways every so often and wonder. Wonder if it was taunting me somehow from inside that plastic case and, eventually, if it would really be that much of a Pandora's box to open. iPods are endowed with more than just prodigious memories — I swear to God, the tiny devices radiate some sort of mind-control voodoo too.

So, about the beginning of last month, I finally cracked. I had my reasons. For one thing, since I'm spending a lot more time on foot and public transportation these days (see "Me and Mr. Jones," November 20, 2008), it gradually dawned on me that an iPod would be ideal for all that time spent in transit.

Sure enough, it was just the ticket, especially since sticking in a pair of earbuds — the Luddite in me still wants to call them "earphones" — apparently excuses you from having to talk to, or even acknowledge, anyone or anything else around you. Looking both ways before crossing the street, however, has become more important than ever.

Then something else happened that convinced me the universe was A-OK with breaking this little iPod boycott. I'm not exactly sure how, but the antenna jack on my satellite-radio unit got damaged enough to where carting it back and forth to and from work every day was no longer feasible. Even that had a silver lining, though: The unit still works fine as long as you don't move it, so now my cat Neko gets a daily lesson in the outlaw-country ways of Steve Earle, Waylon Jennings, Billy Joe Shaver and so forth.

So for about a week, I shoved a few handfuls of CDs per day into the tote bag I previously used to carry the satellite-radio player and uploaded them onto my computer (which is now groaning under the weight of all that memory). Soon enough, the iPod was full, and I was walking around all but oblivious to my surroundings while enjoying more than 1,650 of my favorite songs — according to my iTunes display, enough to play for almost four and a half days without repeating. Pretty impressive, I have to admit.

Now for the fun part: What's on there? How did I decide what to load and what to leave? For the most part, it wasn't that difficult. Most of the CDs I grabbed were from what I call the "heavy rotation" piles on my desk at home, meaning there's plenty of the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Band, the Clash, AC/DC, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen and the Pretenders.

Lots of country, too, old and new: Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Dwight Yoakam, Joe Ely, Drive-By Truckers, Shooter Jennings, Lucinda Williams, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Hayes Carll and two albums from last year I didn't spend that much time with when they came out but now absolutely love — Jamey Johnson's brilliant That Lonesome Song and Patty Loveless's all-covers Sleepless Nights.

I didn't want it to be all-white, though, so I made sure to grab my 3-CD box of '70s Memphis label Hi Records' finest sides (Al Green, Ann Peebles, Syl Johnson) and the double-disc Stax Records best-of that came out a couple of years ago. Plus Bobby Blue Bland's Two Steps from the Blues and B.B. King's One Kind Favor, 1962 and 2008 bookends of a rapidly vanishing era.

My '80s jones has been back with a vengeance lately, so the iPod is not hurting for Depeche Mode, the Cure, Echo & the Bunnymen, Elvis Costello, the Cramps, the Pogues, the Smiths, Social Distortion, the Jesus & Mary Chain, Jane's Addiction or Sisters of Mercy. Rhino's three-disc A Life Less Lived anthology now warms my black little Goth heart at least once or twice a day, while Uncle Tupelo, Radiohead and Monster Magnet represent for the '90s.

In retrospect, though, for someone whose general opinion of contemporary music could be a lot higher, the most surprising thing is that a healthy chunk of my iPod's memory is occupied by music from this ­decade: Wilco, Spoon, the White Stripes, My Morning Jacket, the Black Keys, Arcade Fire, Queens of the Stone Age, Interpol, Rilo Kiley, the Raconteurs, TV on the Radio and recent albums from Bob Dylan, Mudcrutch (a.k.a. Tom Petty), John Fogerty and Metallica.

I even found room for a few of the better 2009 albums I've heard so far: Scottish SXSW heroes Glasvegas's self-titled debut, Neil Young's hardscrabble Fork in the Road, Heartless Bastards' soul-searing The Mountain and U2's No Line on the Horizon, which is growing on me at such a clip that I expect to love it as much as Achtung Baby (which is also on there, of course) by the time the band supposedly plays Reliant Stadium in October.

Henry David Thoreau once wrote, "Silence is the universal refuge...a balm to our every chagrin." I don't know what the hell he was talking about, but I doubt he would have written that if he had an iPod, which makes a fine refuge its own self. In fact, as soon as I can muster the resources, I'm going to Best Buy and picking up two or three more. CHRIS GRAY

chris.gray@houstonpress.com

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