The Vinyl Anachronist
I know I've been sounding kinda gloomy about vinyl for the past few months. Last year at this time I was writing about what a great year 1998 had been for The Vinyl Renaissance, and now here we are, at the doorstep of Two-Thousand-Zero-Zero (I refuse to call it Y2K), and I feel like it's the Decline and Fall of Western Civilization all over again (the first time was in the mid-eighties, when everyone got rid of vinyl the FIRST time).
by Marc Phillips
Part XVII: 1999: Year Of Transition
But here we are, at that most reflective of times, the end of the year, the century, the millennium, and time is not linear, it's cyclical, and I'm starting to feel positive again about the LP medium. Why? Because CD's are dead. As Eric Stoltz says to John Travolta in PULP FICTION, they're "deader than...uh...dead!" I'm sure you're laughing at me right now as you think of your favorite record store (the nerve of them to still call stores that when there's no vinyl inside!), filled to the rafters with CD's, but believe me when I say this: the format is dead. Ten years from now, you'll be listening to something else. Super Audio Compact Discs (SACD). DVD-Audio. And yes, you guessed it... LP's. Like Tommy Lee Jones said in MEN IN BLACK, "I guess I gotta buy The White Album again."
Yes, you heard it here first... LP will survive longer than CD. Who'd a thunk it back in, say, 1986? Long-playing vinyl has been around since the late '40's. CDs will be lucky if they span more than three decades. You see, the CD proved that people are hungry for new, convenient formats, and that was its undoing. Formats will keep changing... NEWER! SMALLER! QUICKER! LONGER! But "better-sounding"? That won't be in any of the brochures... The timelessness of the LP has proved that. LP's still sound better, despite the $20,000 CD players that have been popping up lately.
So this brings us to The Second Annual Vinyl Anachronist Awards for excellence in analog reproduction! At first I wasn't looking forward to doing this, because my choices weren't as enthusiatically obvious as they were last year, but upon reflection, I've surprised myself. The envelopes please...
Best New Release in the LP Format
I'm not sure if there were less choices this year, or if I just bought less music (it was a heavy year for hardware purchases, as opposed to software). I didn't have a huge field of choices that needed a good whittlin' down, like last year, and that concerned me. I will say that Ben Folds Five's The Unauthorized Autobiography of Reinhold Messner intrigued me endlessly because I still can't decide if it's a major artistic step forward for a band I didn't really care for the first time out, or if it's a monumental goof, and everyone is laughing at me for liking it as much as I do. C'mon...you gotta love a song that begins with the lines "Well I thought about the Army/Dad said son you're fuckin' high." And I was also intrigued with the LP release of Elliott Smith's XO, even though there was WAY too much surface noise on the vinyl (I still prefer it over the CD). But this year's winner has to be the beautiful European LP pressing of XTC's Apple Venus, Vol. 1. Quite frankly, this is the best XTC album in many, many years... it's complex, mature, and achingly melodic. And it sounds absolutely incredible on LP! While artists like Elvis Costello and Sting grow increasingly (and frustratingly) pedestrian in their middle years, XTC has truly blossomed.
Best LP Reissue
It wasn't a stellar year for reissues, either, but those Jimi Hendrix releases last year were definitely a hard act to follow. I like the idea that Belle and Sebastian re-released their very rare (only about 1000 copies) debut, Tigermilk, in both LP and CD formats. This is very fun pop... not quite up to the level of XTC, but still exciting and promising, especially when I discovered that all of Belle and Sebastian's releases are available on vinyl. I think, however, that the coolest, hippest, best-sounding reissue was of Harry Belafonte's Live At Carnegie Hall. I'm not kidding. Eight, count 'em, EIGHT beautiful black discs instead of the usual two, because they're... get this... cut at 45RPM! Sure, the sides go real fast, and you're getting up a lot to flip the discs, but because 45RPM records spin faster, you are able to cut a little more information into the grooves, and it's easier for your cartridge to track it all. This results in a great-sounding recording becoming even better. You can hear and almost see! Harry walking around on stage as he sings, as he mixes it up with the other musicians, as he talks to the audience between the songs. You can hear him breathing. It's astonishing. The whole box set costs $80, but it's worth it. And if this sounds like your cup of Thai iced tea, then hurry... quantities are very limited.
Coolest Overall Vinyl Purchase
Last year, I waxed melodic about buying a reissued single off of the rare, very collectible soundtrack album for CASINO ROYALE. This year, I bought the actual album. I talk about this splendid acquisition in "The Vinyl Brotherhood," but suffice it to say that the album is now framed and hangs on the wall over my turntable. The bad news is that this has whetted my appetite for searching out and acquiring rare vinyl, which is a very expensive prospect. You can help. Send donations to: The Vinyl Anachronist c/o Perfect Sound Forever. Thank you.
Best Analog Accessory
Again, this year's winner has to do with the actual cleaning of your precious LP's (what other kind of analog accessories are there, anyway?)... but this time it is a mere liquid that reigns supreme. Over the last year I've been experimenting with some different cleaners such as Torumat and Record Research Lab's Vinyl Wash, all of which were superior to the stock Nitty Gritty fluid that comes with the Nitty Gritty cleaning machine. But one fluid towers over the others in getting out the groove grunge, the dust bunnies, and making your records just plain sound much better, and that's The Disc Doctor's Miracle Cleaner. The stuff is not cheap (a pint is $60.40, a quart is $73.90, and a half-gallon is $95.40, but that includes the very effective application brushes, replacement pads, and shipping and handling), but if you're really really serious about protecting your vinyl investment, this is the very best. Give the Doctor a call at (314) 205-1388, or check out http://discdoc.com.
Last year I picked my then-current turntable, the Rega Planar 3, as Turntable of the Year. It is still the best turntable for under a grand. This year, however, I traded in my Rega Planar 3 on a Rega Planar 25, and although it costs twice as much as the Planar 3, it is twice as good, and an unbelievable bargain for the price. So I bet you think the Planar 25 will be this year's winner. Surprise! It's not!
That's because I don't think a $1275 turntable is of much interest to the average music lover. Sure, there are a lot of $2000 'tables and $5000 'tables and $10,000 'tables and even a $53,000 'table out there, and in that context, a turntable as good as the Rega Planar 25 is a miracle. But there's another turntable out there that is more vital to the continuation of The Vinyl Renaissance, a turntable that just about anyone can, and should, purchase... the $299 Music Hall MMF-2.
I've talked about this turntable before, when it was first introduced about eighteen months ago. It was a good turntable for $299 back then, but I listened to it and I never really warmed up to the sound. When people asked me about it, I told them to scrimp and save another $200 and get a Rega Planar 2. And if they agreed to that, I told them to scrimp and save another $200 and get the Rega Planar 3. But the MMF-2 has just been improved, and it sounds much better. And Roy Hall, owner of Music Hall, should be applauded for not raising the price. In fact, I've seen MMF-2s on sale for as low as $269, and that includes the tonearm and a Goldring Elan cartridge! (The Regas do not come with the cartridge included, unless you have a very cool dealer)
In fact, I'm wondering if the MMF-2, coupled with a good $200 or $300 cartridge from Grado or Goldring or Dynavector, might actually sound better than a Rega Planar 2 for the same price. I'm trying to arrange an audition right now, and as soon as I do I'll report the results. But come on, for $299 this is a gol-darned steal! Everyone who asks me for a good cheap 'table will immediately be steered to the Music Hall MMF-2.
Well, again that's it! Come to think of it, I don't think I've heard that certain Prince song played in its entirety all year... hallelujah. But we'll do this again next year, and hopefully we'll still be able to talk about new vinyl releases and new turntables and new record cleaning fluids... hoo boy!
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