The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc PhillipsTriumph? Am I sure about that word? I mean, LP's are still selling in the millions, while CDs are still selling in the billions. Sure, LP sales increased while CD sales dropped in 2002, but at this rate, the real Year of Triumph will occur somewhere around 2633, right?
Part XXXVI: 2002, Year of Triumph! (January 2003)
Think about this, however. Will people still be listening to LP's 20 years from now? Well, the first 20 years of the compact disc certainly didn't kill off vinyl like everyone thought it would. And will people still be listening to CD's twenty years from now? I seriously doubt it, since people are already abandoning them for downloading, and the average life expectancy of a CD player still hovers around the five-year mark. When I think about all those people still listening to LP's on forty-year-old Garrards and ARs and Duals, I can only come to the rather radical conclusion that more people will be listening to LP's than CD's in the year 2022. And you can quote me on that.
This last year seemed to be the year that vinyl really came into its own and sent a nice, wet Bronx cheer in the direction of the digital formats. Like I said, sales increased, owners of used record stores made a bunch of money, and a crapload of new vinyl products hit the market, including turntables, cartridges, tonearms, and even record cleaning machines. To illustrate, I recently auditioned what may be the finest-sounding analog rig I've ever heard: a DPS 'table mated with a Schroder tonearm and an Allaerts cartridge. These three companies didn't even exist a few years ago, and now I can't even buy this superb set-up, which retails for a shade over $10K, because everyone is back-ordered for months. Name one digital product right now that's back-ordered.
Meanwhile, the digital formats are in a state of chaos. SACD hasn't been the success Sony had hoped for, and the whole format is hamstrung by the lack of titles available. DVD audio is doing slightly better, but it's still WAY too complicated for the average consumer and remains a rich man's toy. Tower Records stores have become ghost towns. Ordinary CD's have all but vanished from the specialty mail order websites (SACD's are being pushed desperately, though). And the number of new CD players introduced in 2002 with an MSRP of over $500 can probably counted on one hand. I can go to Crazy Gideon's here in L.A. and buy a VCR for $29, a DVD player for $49, and a CD player for even less. And people are still spending thousands and even tens of thousands for a decent turntable. You get what you pay for, folks.
So yes, you guessed it- that brings us to the Fifth Annual Vinyl Anachronist Awards for Analog Excellence! Last year I struggled to come up with worthy recipients among a rather sparse field of competitors, but this year I'm overwhelmed with nominees. I've been thinking about this column for months, and I've spent a lot of time sorting out the great from the merely very, very good. I'm sure I'll miss someone or something, but there's always next year! Here we go!
Best New LP Release
Last year, this was the toughest category because I really didn't buy a lot of new vinyl. Nor new CD's. Nor new music in general. Last year was the year I filled in the holes in my record collection. This year, however, I was buried under a pile of great new music, and 90% of it was available on vinyl! First, Bowie's Heathen was his best in years (helped, of course, by an outstanding Pixies cover), and the vinyl pressing sounded amazing. And although I eventually tired of the whole Strokes/Vines/Stripes/Hives thing in about three weeks, I was able to buy all of it on vinyl (I think the Hives may win out for making me feel, more than any other of those bands, that I've been transported back to 1979). One day however, I was browsing through the new LP releases on VinylMatters.com, and I stumbled across a listing for something called The Purple Tapes from my favorite band. "Long known to Pixies fans, here's what didn't make it onto the first album" it said, and I thought 'hey, wait a minute! I'm a Pixies fan, and I have no idea what you're talking about!' So I bought it and immediately loved it. It's mostly alternate versions of songs like "Broken Face," "Subbacultcha," and killer version of "Here Comes Your Man" but it sounds much more confident and accomplished than either C'mon Pilgrim or Surfer Rosa. This should have been their first album. And, of course, the sound quality is great, rivaling the clarity and dynamics of Doolittle.
This LP's reign as New LP of the Year however may be conditional since my overall favorite recording of the year, Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, has just been released on vinyl, and the raves are starting to pour in. Stay tuned.
Best Vinyl Reissue
Usually, I pick a specific title to win this category, but this year I was so impressed with a label's ENTIRE CATALOG that I had to do something to alert the masses (or "the privileged few," which is what I'm starting to call the world of vinyl addicts). There are a lot of record companies putting out a lot of exciting vinyl releases, but Sundazed releases are sunnier, happier, more unexpected, and cheaper than all of those other so-called audiophile LP specialists. How's $11.99 to $14.99 a disc grab you? And look at just a partial list of some of their releases: stuff from The Beau Brummels, Booker T. and the MGs, The Byrds, The Spencer Davis Group, early Bob Dylan on mono, The Fireballs, Chad & Jeremy, The Guess Who, The International Submarine Band, Jan & Dean, Albert King, Love, The Lovin' Spoonful, MC5, The Monkees, New Colony Six, NRBQ, The O'Jays, Gram Parsons, Iggy Pop, The Rascals (both "Young" and presumably old), Otis Redding, Mitch Ryder, the Sir Douglas Quintet, Spirit, The Stooges, The Trashmen, Uncle Tupelo, and Vanilla Fudge. And, believe it or not, these are the guys who put Yankee Hotel Foxtrot on vinyl, which I'm going to order today. If anyone deserves your music dollar, it's Sundazed. But lots, buy often, and keep these guys in business.
Coolest Overall Vinyl Purchase
I kind of went off on a weird musical tangent this year. Well, 'weird' isn't exactly the right word to explain it. How about mainstream, or mellow, or, as my wife said, boring? It seems I had a hankering to find a new copy of Tea for the Tillerman to replace the one I gave away a long time ago when I decided that Cat Stevens was an old dinosaur, and that I'd never, never listen to him again in a million years. Well, a million years apparently passed and the next thing I know, I've won a mint Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs copy in near mint condition, and I'm diggin' the hell out of it. That of course led to something even more frightening- buying the new 180 gram audiophile pressing of Carole King's Tapestry. Now this is something I've never owned, or even wanted to own, but one day I heard "It's Too Late" on the radio and decided that it was a pretty goddamned cool song, so the next thing you know I've plopped down another thirty bucks(!), and I'm diggin' the hell out of that one, too. I did stop short at James Taylor, who I've always thought was WAY too boring (even though he's seen both fire AND rain), but actually wound up seeing him perform live this year at the Bridge School Benefit, and he was, well, the most professional performer I've ever seen.
So maybe I can't call these the coolest vinyl purchases of the year, but, well, I uh... I guess I'm just getting old.
Best Source for Vinyl
I've been, uh, trumpeting the virtues of Red Trumpet for a long time, and I still think they're the best source for all of your music needs, from LP's to SACD's to turntables to equipment racks and more. But this year, I stumbled onto a website that sells vinyl and nothing but vinyl. And they sell it cheaper than anyone else. And they seem to get titles before anyone else. And they get titles that no one else seems to get at all. And the guy behind the website is a real nice guy who loves music and offers incredibly personal customer service. And he ships promptly and professionally. What more do you need? I'm talking about VinylMatters.com, of course, and Dave the proprieter who seems to be a candidate for next year's "More Heroes of the Analog Revolution" column. Whenever I order from Dave (which hasn't been too often yet, since I just discovered him a few weeks ago), I imagine a guy sitting in a big room in the middle of Alabama, a big room full of LP's. And, from his infectious enthusiasm, one surmises that there's no place he'd rather be.
The one downside of all of this is that Dave is just starting out, and he doesn't have one of those fancy secured online mail-order forms that allow you to just hit a couple of buttons and be done with it. You still have to order the old-fashioned way, which is by phone or by e-mail. But that turns out to be a good thing, since you get to chat with Dave about vinyl and music and even more vinyl. He is attempting to revamp the website to make it more competitive with places like Red Trumpet, but that may not necessarily be a good thing. Red Trumpet is like Wal-Mart, a place where they have pretty much everything you need, and VinylMatters is like the guy in the neighborhood record shop who's known you since you were a teenager and calls you when that special something finally comes in.
This was the toughest category of the year, since most of the 'tables I heard and loved this year were of the ultra-exotic, hyper-expensive variety. Last year, I picked the Michell Gyrodec SE and Nottingham Space 'tables because they let me know that even $2000 turntables could be considered bargains when you look at what they can do with the right recordings. I told everyone that I was going to pick one to replace my trusty Rega Planar 25, and I still receive e-mails asking me which I wound up buying. Well, I'm still listening to the Rega for now. You see, I decided on the Gyrodec. Then I heard the Michell Orbe SE, which is the Gyrodec's $3500 big brother, and I wanted THAT. Then I started looking at tonearms to match, and before you know it, we're talking about a $5000 purchase, and I started looking around my house and seeing all the repairs I needed to do, and finally I decided that I was insane. So I'm putting in hardwood floors instead, which will certainly make my stereo sound worse. Go figure.
But I have decided on a turntable to praise, one that two of my friends have purchased in the last year, one that comes complete with arm and cartridge, one that is affordably priced, and one that performs so well that it actually was voted "Budget Component of the Year" by Stereophile magazine. That of course, is the $999 Music Hall MMF-5. I've long talked about the best turntables for under $1000 and it has always come down to the Rega Planar 3, at $750, and the VPI HW-19 Jr., which is around $699 (the price has fluctuated a bit over the years). I would probably, in the long run, choose either one of these turntables over the Music Hall, but for someone who is just getting back into vinyl and can afford more than a budget 'table and doesn't want the trouble of choosing an additional tonearm or cartridge, the Music Hall is the clear choice. I have heard reports of problems with these turntables, especially when set-up by mail-order companies, but if you have a local dealer who is willing to tweak it until you're satisfied, then you will not find a cheaper or easier way to find analog bliss.
Best Analog Accessory
This was the year I discovered how important it is to have a proper support underneath your turntable. Your average equipment rack does an adequate job of providing a stable, quiet surface for hi-fi components but there is so much more room for improvement. Wall shelves do a great job of isolating the turntable from the floor, and I still recommend them highly. But there's still more you can do, and that's where Neuance comes in. Neuance designs replacement shelves for existing equipment stands from Target, Sound Organisation, and others. Ken Lyon, who basically IS Neuance, custom-builds each shelf to match your equipment rack AND the component that will sit on top of it. The shelves run from $150 to $200 each, which seems a little pricey, but when I slipped one under my Rega Planar 25, it sounded like I'd bought a whole new turntable!
I met Ken at the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas back in January, and was very interested in his approach to component isolation. I spoke to him on the phone one day for nearly three hours but it was extremely enlightening. Most of Ken's ideas run contrary to High-End's belief that completely isolation from the environment is the key to good sound. Ken believes that when you deaden the vibrations in a component, you deaden the sound. He's right. My Rega Planar 25 sounds more alive and energetic than ever, and I think this guy's really onto something. Check out his website at neuanceaudio.com for more information.
Most Reluctant Retraction from The Vinyl Anachronist
In last month's article ("We're Only In It for the Money"), I told the rather fantastic tale of how I finally found a copy of the soundtrack for Casino Royale. I suggested that it came from an inmate from a state penitentiary in Pennsylvania, and that someone may have gotten a shiv in the back for it. Well, as soon as the new issue of PSF hit the Internet, Keith Semerod, the gentleman who sold me the LP, contacted me via e-mail and told me the real story. Back then, Keith worked as a counselor at the prison, and merely mailed it to me from work. Keith is not a convicted felon, but rather a very dedicated record collector who owns around 50,000 LP's and makes quite a living buying and selling on e-bay. Sorry, Keith!
I liked the story better my way, though.
Well, that about does it for this year! I'm sure we'll have even more good news next year (2003: Year of Super-Duper Triumph!), and I've already discovered a way for every single vinyl-lover in the world to increase their enjoyment of the LP, which I'll talk about next time. It ain't cheap, but OH...MY...GOD. These are great days for the Privileged Few.
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