The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part CXXIV: 2018- the Year of Jazz
2018 was another year in my life full of change, one that started off with me continuing my high-end audio importing and distribution business out of the store of one of my dealers in Syracuse and ending with me returning to writing with a new position as editor of an audio/music/lifestyle magazine called The Occasional. During this eventful year, I wrote close to 200 music reviews for my blog and three other publications, primarily about jazz--I managed to hook up with a few record labels, publicists and performers and now my mailbox is constantly filled with new CDs and LP's. If you want to expand your music collection in a hurry without spending a fortune, this is evidently the best way to do it.
I will add just one quick thing here--contemporary jazz is still very much alive in this country. It's not dying, as many music critics have stated, not by a long shot.
This seems like the right way to settle into my golden years, writing from home and indulging in my favorite part of the high-end audio industry--attending hi-fi shows. For the last eight years I've been an exhibitor, which usually requires me to assemble and test systems at home, pack up all the gear into some sort of vehicle, drive across the country (often in bad weather), unload all the gear and set it back up in a hotel room, work out all the bugs (hotel rooms usually have terrible acoustics), talk to people about the products for three or four days, pack it all back into that poor vehicle, and drive home. Now I just need to show up with a camera hanging from my neck and explore the world I've grown to love.
On the vinyl front, it's been quite a year as well. I've set-up numerous analog rigs, played with plenty of different turntables, and even beefed up my own rig with a new tonearm which I chronicled in the last column. I've cobbled together a system from my remaining inventory, comprised of my favorite components from the eight brands I represented, and I'm now I'm living the dream (my least favorite expression, by the way) by spending most of my time listening to music and talking about it.
That brings me, of course, to the 20th Annual Vinyl Anachronist Awards for Analog Excellence. This has been a particularly tough year to cull favorites since I've been exposed to so much gear and music in the last few months. The saddest thing about that is all that fabulous gear and music that I won't get to mention, so please don't take it personally if I forget to mention you. On the other hand, too much good stuff is a good problem to have.
Best New LP Release
This year, I was able to get on the mailing lists of several companies that release exceptional LP's such as Light in the Attic, ORG, Newvelle Records and more. LITA does mostly reissues, so more on that later, but ORG and Newvelle both wowed me with gorgeous vinyl pressings of fabulous new music.
Newvelle Records is based in France, and they have an unusual way of releasing their extraordinary jazz albums. Newvelle requires an annual subscription that costs $400, and for that sum, you receive a new album every other month. Yes, that winds up being almost $70 per disc, which is more expensive than most "audiophile" releases, but Newvelle's pressings sound absolutely exquisite in both sound quality and musical performance. I've received three LPs so far, Andy Zimmerman's Half Light, Lionel Loueke's Close Your Eyes and Skuli Sverrisson and Bill Frisell's Strata. All three were worth the substantial investment, and I highly recommend that you check out the program.
ORG, on the other hand, has released a daunting amount of reissues and new releases over the last few months, and these LPs are much more affordable (around $20 per title). Two new releases, which I originally thought were reissues of artists I didn't know, land on the #1 and #2 spots of my favorite releases of the year--Sunny War's With the Sun and Dave Hillyard and the Rocksteady 7's The Giver. Sunny War's album was one of those cases where I shouldn't have judged an album by its cover--this singer-songwriter offers and gentle yet very intelligent version of folk, something the bridges the gap between Nick Drake and Joan Armatrading. With the Sun is full of an aching beauty that isn't full of the sad-sack narcissism that plagues so much of today's "indie rock." It's honest and genuine and smart.
But the award has to go to Dave Hillyard's The Giver. Not only did this album introduce me to rocksteady, a seemingly long-forgotten musical genre that marked the transition point between ska and reggae in the mid-‘60's, but it's so good and so expertly played that the music world might not have been so eager to make reggae the gold standard in the Caribbean if this album had come out back in the day. This is the one album released last year that constantly beckons me to play it just one more time.
Best New LP Reissue
Again, this was a fantastic year for reissues as well, especially from Light in the Attic and ORG. Between the two, I was treated to beautiful remasters and pressings of Dave Brubeck's Time In, Shirley Horn's Softly, Roland Hanna's Perugia, Ofege's Try and Love and The Les Paul Trio's After You've Gone. But the one reissue that really got inside my head and stayed there for weeks was a very strange surf-rock album from Lee Hazlewood, the country-western star who also wrote "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" for Nancy Sinatra.
Lee Hazlewood's Woodchucks' Cruisin' for Surf Bunnies is one of those old vault discoveries that defies rhyme or reason--Hazlewood just kept playing around in the studio trying to find a sound that he wanted to pursue. Recorded in a single day in 1964, these ten tracks are classic surf instrumentals, not too far away from style of the Ventures, but there's something so stripped down and minimalist about these otherwise catchy tunes that plugs you directly into that time and reveals a de-romanticized and grungier side to Southern California of that time--where I grew up.
I can't quite escape the clutches of this unusually astute time capsule and that way it brings up old memories from my childhood. This music is a ghost of mine, and it can haunt my living room any time it wants.
Cartridge of the Year
I've already gone on and on about the Denon DL-103, the cartridge I've been using for most of the year. It's modestly priced, sounds great and has been around since the early 1960s. I've already picked it once as the Cartridge of the Year, and I even wrote an appreciation of it in this column earlier this year.
If you're a fan of the stock DL-103, and I am, it's only logical to take it to the next step and soup it up into a real super-cartridge--and for not an insane amount of money. Several companies have popped up in the last couple of years with the sole purpose of removing the cheap plastic bodies from the 103 and replacing it with something far more substantial like aluminum or wood. For about a decade or so I owned the Zu Audio DL-103, which uses a solid chunk of aluminum for the body, and it was one of the best sub-$1000 carts I've ever used, which was amazing since it retailed for only $399 at the time.
These days you can pick from a number of manufacturers who replace the bodies of 103s such as Aluminum Body Cap, Uwe Bretschneider, Paradox Pulse and Audio MusiKraft. The idea is simple--these replacement bodies are far more rigid, which improves damping and isolation, and they provide a stronger mounting surface for the cartridge. This results in a huge improvement in the sound. In many cases, the cost of these new bodies are just a few hundred dollars at most, so you can turn your $300 Denon 103 into a super-cart that competes with the big guns for well under a grand. You can save even more money if you perform the surgery yourself--according to the YouTube videos, all you need is an Xacto knife, an industrial bonding agent and a steady hand. I plan on doing this in the near future, so I'll keep you updated.
Turntable of the Year
Guess what--I'm free! Free to talk about any audio product I want to, free to offer my honest opinion without a conflict of interest hanging over my head. That means I can rave about a product I used to represent without sounding like a sales hack. Let's face it, I loved much of the stuff I represented and that made it easier to do my job.
In my column "Tonearm 101," I talked about installing the Master Series tonearm from The Wand, a New Zealand manufacturer whose products I started importing to the US a couple of years ago. Since then, distribution has moved to Old Forge Studio in Mystic, Connecticut thanks to audio legend David Cope. I recently checked in with David at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in October, and he was showing the 14-4 turntable from Simon Brown, designer and founder of The Wand. The sound was magnificent, very solid and engaging, and I felt a little sad because the importing had changed hands before I was able to see and hear the final product.
Simon and I chatted many times about the turntable. He even asked me to help him come up with a name for it, a task that I ultimately failed. But to finally listen to this remarkable little ‘table warmed my heart, and now I can say that I can add it to my list of ‘tables that I really, really want. Prices haven't been set yet, but the 14-4 (named for the oversized 14" platter and the four-layered plinth) should come in at around $4000.
That's it for this time--twenty years of awards, and I still stick by every winner. Next year's awards will be surprising since I will have completed my first year as a magazine editor, which means I will have been exposed to an incredible amount of gear and music.
Contact the Vinyl Anachronist at firstname.lastname@example.org and see his Blog site
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