The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part CXII: 2016: Year of Streaming
Ten or fifteen years ago, I thought I had developed a fool-proof way of previewing music before I purchased it. Like most music lovers, I've accumulated a rather large collection of LP's and CD's that I bought on a whim, only to have it turn out to be something that was simply not my thing. Maybe it was a good review that prompted me to lay down the green, or maybe it was simply an off album from a performer I already enjoyed. In most cases, it was simply a case of hearing a song I liked on the radio, only to find that said tune was the only song on the album worth a damn. We all have lots of those records, I know.
So here's what I did in those early days on the 21st century. I would use an aggregated review site such as Metacritic and look for the high scores. Then I would head over to the Amazon or Barnes & Noble website and listen to thirty second samples of the song on that album. If it was something up my alley, I would head to the local record store--in those days it was usually Tower Records--and I would pull the trigger.
There were two basic flaws to this method however. First, those thirty second samples did not always feature a definitive, informative survey of the actual songs and I'd wind up with half of a minute of a slow, building intro instead of a catchy chorus or interesting bridge. Second, the sound quality coming out of the tiny speakers on my laptop didn't tell me a lot about the music, and I was often disappointed when I finally heard the new album on a proper hi-fi system.
My, how things have changed in the last couple of years. I'm now a huge fan of Tidal, the music streaming service. Every couple of days, I survey the new releases and listen to entire albums--Tidal streams at CD sound quality, so it's as if I went out and bought it. If I don't like it, I move on. If I do like it, I can make an informed decision as to whether it's worth the money. If I love it, I skip on down to the local record store--these days it's The Sound Garden in Syracuse, just a few doors down from my office--and I see if it's available on LP. In most cases it is, which is a miraculous thing in 2016.
As a result, I've discovered an unprecedented plethora of great music this year. I'm not sure if it was just a great year in music, or if my new music-culling method is just that efficient. Either way, my musical cup overfloweth.
That brings me, of course, to the 18th Annual Vinyl Anachronist Awards for Analog Excellent. This year it has been extremely difficult to pare down my favorites because there have been so many. When it comes time to choose my favorites for 2016, I know that I'm going to be sad that so many will be left off the list. But I'll press on, undaunted, grateful for all the fantastic music that has re-shaped my musical priorities over the last twelve months.
Best New Release in the Vinyl Format
This is by far the most difficult award to give. The Avalanches' Wildflower was one of those left-field discoveries that transformed my sensibilities--it reminded me of watching the 1984 Jim Jarmusch film Stranger Than Paradise for the first time back in my college days and suddenly realizing that a truly great film didn't have to look or feel like a Spielberg epic. Michael Kiwanuka's Love & Hate offered the same level of heartfelt social awareness as Marvin Gaye's masterpiece What's Going On. Wilco, a familiar name when it comes to these awards, came out with Schmilco, one of their most satisfying and beautiful albums since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The same could be said about Radiohead's A Moon-Shaped Pool--it's now my fave next to OK Computer. And Angel Olsen made me fall in love with her thanks to her exquisitely fun My Woman. Shut up kiss me hold me tight, indeed.
But all of these albums fell slightly short in one respect--excellent analog sound quality. In more than a couple of cases the sound quality was exactly the same as streaming at 16-bit, 44.1 kHz on Tidal, which means that most of these "new" vinyl releases were sourced from the same digital masters as the CD's and the digital downloads.
That leaves one great album I heard this year as sort of a first among equals--Ingvild Koksvik's Og sangen kom fra havet (And the song came from the sea). Ingvild is a Norwegian singer who has a pure, breathy and emotion-filled voice that sends chills down my spine every time I hear it. I reviewed her last album, Nattapent, back in 2014 and it was my second favorite album of that year--her boyfriend and now-husband Lars Jakob Rudjord edged her out with Clockwork. Two years later, she has no competition from Lars--although he does supply most of the musical accompaniment here--and she has delivered a more sophisticated and varied album that benefits from gorgeous sound quality, coupled with another pristine LP pressing from Fyrlyd Records. This is a unique, ethereal album that takes me to places in my brain I've never been to before, places I never want to leave.
Best New Reissue in the Vinyl Format
For the last few years I've relied heavily on reissues for my musical satisfaction, especially those from Chad Kassem's Analogue Productions. As a result, each year I seem to focus on one particularly well-known artist and find hidden and unexpected depths to familiar performances. Two years ago it was Harry Belafonte, last year it was Dean Martin and this year, thanks to Chad, it's Julie London. (Or, as I used to know her, the woman who played the nurse on the ‘70's TV show Emergency! ). Analogue Production remastered two Julie London albums this year--1958's Julie Is Her Name Vol. 2 and 1963's Latin in a Satin Mood. Latin is a gorgeous, sexy and fun album, with Julie's sultry singing voice front and center. But the earlier album is a sonic masterpiece. Instead of the larger orchestral backing she receives on Latin, Julie Is Her Name, Vol. 2 is just Julie, guitar and bass. We audiophiles joke about the cliché that "it sounds like the performer is right there in the room with you!" But Julie is right there. Turn your back to the speakers and you'll feel her breath on the back of your neck. You'll smell her perfume. You'll wonder what skin cream she uses because she's just so smooth and silky.
This is the gold standard for female vocal recordings. For years I've heard record collectors blubbering like hormonal teenage boys over old Julie London records, and now I know why.
Cartridge of the Year
This past June, I put together two Down Under Audio rooms at the Newport Beach audio show, featuring hi-fi products from Australia and New Zealand. We were lucky to get the $40,000 Audio Union Helix One turntable, mated to a couple of tonearms from New Zealand manufacturer The Wand, which I now distribute in the US. We were hard-pressed to find a phono cartridge from either Australia or New Zealand, so I brought my $2500 Transfiguration Axia from Japan, and Simon Brown (maker of The Wand) brought a modest little high-output moving coil cartridge from Japan called the Hana SH. Simon distributes Hana in New Zealand.
The Axia is roughly four times the cost of the Hana, and it was the clear winner in A/B comparisons. But for me, the Hana offered a truly impressive sound for just a few hundred bucks. The bass was deep and full and impressive, and the overall balance was relaxed and smooth and refined. Even though we chose the Transfiguration for its superior retrieval of detail and tremendous tonality, I kept thinking about the SH and how good it was.
Last week, I went to Toronto for the TAVES show and we used the Hana SH again--on a rather expensive Gold Note Mediterraneo turntable/arm combination. In Canada, the SH sells for $850. The Canadian distributor, Vince Scalzitti of Tri-Cell Enterprises, was very impressed with the Hana, as was his staff. Again, I loved it for the price. It sells for $750 in the US and quite frankly it would be my first choice if I was looking for something in this price range.
Turntable of the Year
This one may or may not be a complete surprise considering I've been one of the most vocal critics of the Technics SL1200 turntable over the years, but I have to give this award to the latest version, the Technics SL1200G. If you read my column back in April regarding my impressions of the limited edition SL1200GAE that came out last year, you'll know I was gobsmacked by the 180 degree transformation of this latest version. Well, the GAEs are all gone. They made 1200 of them (ha!) and they were snatched up in weeks. But everyone knew that a non-limited edition was coming at the same price ($4000), and that the changes would be minimal from the GAE.
Well, that version is available, and it's just called the 1200G. It appears that the only noticeable differences that distinguish it are the support feet. Otherwise, this features the same brilliant engineering inside and out, the same superior parts, the same astonishing fit and finish. From a distance it looks like the same 1200 that sold for $500 or so a few years ago right before it was discontinued. Up close, you see major differences in the quality of the parts. Inside, it's a completely different ‘table. It's still direct-drive, of course, but it's airy and detailed like the best belt-drive designs--with the speed stability and deep bass of the old model.
In my last column, I listed 10 turntables that I lusted after. Here's a secret--number 11 would have been the new Technics SL-1200G. It would be a fun, surprising choice for the last turntable I own because it's such a fun, surprising turntable. And having fun is what it's all about.
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