May 4, 2019 Citation

Ode to the Cities 97 Sampler

by Jack MapelLentz ‘22

On Tuesday, November 13th, 2018, the iconic Targets of the Twin Cities opened up for another day of business. Their glass doors slid open across the metro, near-simultaneously, to those awaiting outside; on shelves were copies of the Cities 97 Sampler Volume 30, aptly titled The Final Chapter. For this day was indeed the conclusion to a beautiful, touching story: over its 30 years of existence, the Sampler not only compiled unique, heartwarming, and intimate renditions of often-stunning songs; its sales also raised above $13 million for charities across Minnesota.

Most likely, the majority of you have never heard of the Sampler. Perhaps you’ve been unknowingly touched by its charitable impact. Alas, a rundown: first released in 1989 (a year the Swifties will recognize), it consisted of seventeen songs, give or take a few, burned onto a CD yearly to be distributed on a crisp November morning at the aforementioned Targets. Some years, especially during the Sampler’s renaissance, hardy lovers of alternative music would stand for hours in line outside Target’s doors in a freezing sea of snowflakes just to listen to 75-ish minutes of music. Why, you may ask? It’s basically impossible to beat its singularity unique, cozy, and idiosyncratic recordings of (usually well-known) songs. Most were recorded in front of an audience comprised of only a few people at Cities 97’s St. Louis Park-located Studio C, a name that, for me, instantaneously triggers a landslide of childhood memories: watching Kare 11’s weather channel (11-2!) before school, driving from Mahtomedi on I-694 as the sun rose, the worn gray lightly-patterned fabric seats of our trusty 2006 Saturn Ion. For many listeners, myself included, all these seemingly insignificant songs are inexplicably tied to their very identity as a “true” Minnesotan.

Every fall, as Sampler release day inched closer, I’d sit in the left backseat of the black Ion staring out the window as traffic slowed at the Wakota Bridge; as we flowed among the cars, Brian Oake - then the voice of 97.1 - would mention a sample of one of the soon-to-be-released songs, and I’d quickly lose myself in the music. Finally, on the morning of release, after what seemed to me like years of waiting, my dad would rouse my brother and me well before the sun had graced the horizon. Those days, 694 was always empty. Passing from the frigid and dark morning, over snow-covered concrete, and through the automatic doors onto the fluorescent-lit white tiles of Target, the Sampler always sat ahead in neat rows on the end of an aisle. Crunching through the powder back to the Ion, we would slide it into its now-antiquated CD player, embarking on the year’s musical tale once more.

Soon after this, at school: “Jack, why are you late?” they’d ask me. “Sorry. We were getting the Cities 97 Sampler,” I’d reply, stated as a fact, as if there was no alternative… and, honestly, there was none. By then, the Sampler was long ingrained within my identity.

Between then and now, years passed, life whizzed by, and the Sampler’s volume number increased without relent. CDs faded into obsolescence, but it remained committed to the medium. I, and probably many other listeners, never considered that a November sans Sampler would ever come. But come it did; on October 3rd, the station announced that Volume 30 would be its last. CDs, they said, simply weren’t prevalent enough anymore. No one even had devices that could play them, and regulations for digital releases are significantly more byzantine than physical ones. My heart sank.

Forty-one days later, we entered our garage and climbed my dad’s car, no longer the Ion. I now sat in the passenger seat, not the back, driving to the nearest Target. We passed through the automatic doors from the chilly, gray day into the store. The shelves were empty. They had sold out. Oh well. That’s just how it would have to end.

A couple of weeks ago, looking through my slightly insane number of tabs on my computer, I clicked on one that I’d left open for months: Target’s page for the Sampler’s Volume 30. “Add to cart,” it said. Huh. So we did as the button said; days later, it showed up in a little cardboard box in our tattered mailbox. I now hold it in my hand, waiting to pull the old MacBook out from under my bed, the only device in our house equipped to import CDs.

But before that, I think I’ll listen to the older volumes. You simply can’t beat The Fray and Death Cab for Cutie on Volume 18; The Head and the Heart, Farewell Milwaukee, and Mumford & Sons on Volume 23; Brandi Carlile on Volume 24; or Colbie Caillat, John Mayer, and Guster on Volume 22 - which is perhaps my favorite. On its closing track, Ingrid Michaelson says, introducing the song, “Um, we’re gonna do a Mexican song. Well, it’s a- it’s the song ‘Ode to Mexican Food,’” before launching into a jovial cover of Maybe, from her own album Everybody, except the lyrics begin with “I don’t know what I’m gonna eat tonight.” Or Ben Rector on Volume 28, replacing a line in “Brand New” with “I feel like windows rolled down / That’s because it’s hotter than it’s ever been before,” following up with “I feel like for the first time / I am in an oven that’s set to bake / I feel like any sort of baked item,” poking fun at an ongoing heat wave. When paired with their more serious counterparts, songs like these are what give the Cities 97 Samplers a heart and soul all their own. And while we might not be getting a new disc every year, volumes of the past will undoubtedly live on in memory.

By now, I know well enough that, when all’s said and done, memories are sometimes the only things we’re left with. As you have most likely discerned, I lament the loss of such a musical staple… but is it really gone? Who knows; in the future, maybe it’ll come back. All in all, I’m simply grateful that I ever had the chance to experience its era. I’m grateful for its charitable aspect and the countless lives impacted. I’m grateful for all the incredibly talented artists that performed at Studio C, and the masterpieces they’ve created. But, above all, I’m grateful for the way that the Cities 97 Sampler has shaped my musical taste, and, by extension, me, for music is embedded within my consciousness. I think that I can say without doubt that without the Sampler I would be a noticeably different person. It’s the little things that keep us afloat in this crazy, beautiful river of life. I remind you: realize and acknowledge them while they’re still among you; when they flow away, recall how much you loved them.