The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part LXXXVIII: Ten Reasons Why You Need a Turntable--in the 21st Century
"As I rifled through my LP collection to find the best arguments for you to go back to listening to records, I found 100 candidates. I had to narrow it down to 30, then 20, and finally, after much agonizing, ten. There is the rare instance, I found, when I actually prefer the sound of the CD over the LP. But we'll save that for another time."
I wrote this back in June of 1998. The operative phrase here, of course, is "but we'll save that for another time." I didn't really keep up my end of the bargain, even if I was talking strictly about CD's that held their own against the LP version. The original title of that column, if you remember, was Ten Reasons Why You Need a Turntable, and the intent was to name ten records that were far superior to the CD version. I did follow up exactly once, in 2000, and named ten more LP's that were absolutely worth owning over their digital counterparts. Over the last twelve years, however, I dropped the ball. If I had genuinely found 100 LP's that fit these criteria, why didn't I include at least nine more updates over the last one-seventh of a century?
Looking at these two lists, I realize how much has changed during that time. From the original list, I can count at least half of these titles that I no longer play on a regular basis. The second list is even less convincing--maybe I really didn't have 20 irrefutable examples of great LP's and I was just engaging in my usual hyperbole. That doesn't quite mean I don't stick to my original choices, it's just that my collection of LPs has expanded considerably since then. So it's definitely time to list ten more LP's that will wow you and convince you that analog formats are still the way to go for ultimate sound quality.
For those keeping score at home, here is the original 1998 list:
And here is the 2000 list:
- The Rolling Stones Some Girls
- Blondie Parallel Lines
- R.E.M. Murmur
- Nat King Cole Love Is the Thing
- Cracker The Golden Age
- David Johanson and the Dallas Symphony Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances and Vocalise
- Sonny Rollins Way Out West
- Tsuyushi Yamamoto Midnight Sugar
- Raymond Agoult and the London Proms Symphony Clair de Lune
- Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto Getz/Gilberto
So let's move on to 2012. With hi-rez digital recordings sounding so good these days, this list is even more noteworthy than ever:
- The Beatles Yellow Submarine
- The Police Outlandos D'Amour
- Tom Waits The Mule Variations
- The Beach Boys Pet Sounds
- Dead Can Dance Into the Labyrinth
- Paul McCartney and Wings Band on the Run
- U2 The Joshua Tree
- XTC Apple Venus Vol. 1
- Cassandra Williams Traveling Miles
- All Classic Record reissues on LP
- The Beatles Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. We're talking about the UK Parlophone "yellow-and-black" version here, and the one I have and adore is actually not as prized as the original mono mix. But I haven't found a suitable mono Parlophone for less than $150, so until I find that particular Holy Grail I have to settle on this still-heavenly version. I received my copy on my fifteenth birthday, and even though I've played it at least 100 times, maybe more, it still has almost no discernible surface noise. I single this album out for one song, "With a Little Help From My Friends," because I'm still awestruck at how clean and clear it sounds. Paul's bass line is particularly impressive, because it sounds so well-rounded, mellow and distinct. It's also very, very musical. I've caught flak in some circles for championing McCartney's bass skills over more flashy players, but he always played the right notes. Can you think of many Beatles songs where Paul was just slumming and holding the beat? I can't.
- Thomas Dolby The Flat Earth. This is just an ordinary Capitol pressing, but because I purchased this LP the week it came out, I might have stumbled onto a first pressing, which is always good news when it comes to sound quality. I know a lot of people who clump Dolby in with other less-important synth-pop acts of the '80's such as Howard Jones and the Thompson Twins, but this was the first album where I thought he had matured into a first-rate songwriter (something that would be taken even further with 1992's Astronauts and Heretics). The first two tracks are especially breathtaking; "Dissidents" is such a complex mix that it takes a first-rate analog rig to truly pull out all of the details and effects, and the subsequent title track starts off with a low, low, low synthesized bass line that simply collapses into a broken grumble if you don't have a resolving cartridge. For years, I've used this track as a way to evaluate low frequency performance in new components. I know I'm not alone in my respect for Dolby's production prowess--I know a high-end magazine publisher who uses Aliens Ate My Buick as a reference recording. So there.
- The Police Ghost in the Machine. I'm talking about the now-rare Nautilus half-speed pressing, which was novel because it was the first time an audiophile pressing of a major release was available at the same time the normal version hit the record stores. When you talk to audiophiles who own expensive analog rigs, one thing they usually mention is how important the silence between the notes is, and how that's only captured by the best playback equipment. You'll know what these crazy souls are talking about if you own this particular LP. The Nautilus version of GITM has such velvety, black and pure silences that really draw out the dynamics of the music. This is also the best Police recording to really focus on Stewart Copeland's phenomenal drumming; it's so easy to drown out everything else and pick up on every little thing he's doing. A rock critic once mentioned that the Police could merely consist of Copeland's drums and Sting's voice and it would still retain almost all of its power. After listening to this pressing, I think you'll agree with that assessment.
- Minutemen Double Nickels on the Dime. This is my second favorite rock album of all time--behind Pixies' Doolittle--and to tell you the truth I could hear it on my father's old Zenith 8-track player and still fall in love with it. But SST had a way with their LP pressings back in the ‘80's. They employed a minimalist approach, due to obvious budget constraints, that served the music unusually well. As a result, my LP copy possesses an immediacy and honesty that stands out from all other contemporary post-punk recordings of the era (X's Under the Big Black Sun, my other favorite from that period, sounds like it's coming from a transistor radio in comparison). George Hurley's visceral drumming will set you back on your heels, and you'll be tempted to crank up the volume to realistic (i.e. bone-crunching) levels and approximate the impact of George residing right in your listening room. A few years ago I purchased DNOTD on CD just so I could listen to it while driving, and despite my 8-track comment above it was definitely not the same experience. The original SST pressing from 1984 is a treasure.
- Ernest Ansermet and the Royal Ballet The Royal Ballet Gala Performances. And now for something completely different--perhaps the greatest classical recording ever made. It's not surprising to me that this was recorded back in 1957; as I've said before, some of the best-sounding jazz and classical recording come from this era. I went all out and bought the Classic Records reissue of this masterpiece, and it cost me $120 ten years ago--probably the most I've ever paid for a new album. That's because I didn't settle for the single LP or the remastered quadruple LP set. I went for the 45 RPM recording that's stretched out over nine (!) separate one-sided discs. Quite simply, it's worth it. While I'm not in love with the musical selections (they tend toward lighter, more frothier pieces such as Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker Suite from Tchaikovsky), you will never hear sweeter string sections, bigger soundstages and more thrilling dynamic swings. This is the finest recording I can think of for picking out the performances of individual musicians in an orchestral setting.
- Pixies Surfer Rosa & C'mon Pilgrim. Speaking of Pixies--and I'm always speaking of them--have you heard the Mobile Fidelity pressing of their first two albums? It's really, really good. It's so good, in fact, that after I heard it the first time I had to seriously reconsider whether Doolittle is indeed their best album. Like I said, we're talking about my favorite rock album ever, and this remastered version of their earlier work gave me pause. The MoFi version fleshes out the contributions of these four legendary musicians with such power and purity that you start asking yourself questions such as why didn't Black Francis let Kim Deal contribute more on the later albums? She's so friggin' good here. I get goose-bumps listening to her sing on "Gigantic." I feel joy when I hear how much fun she's having during "Tony's Theme." Oh well, it's water under the bridge. You'll also hear more of the amusing patter between the songs--remember the "you fucking die!" exchange?--and you'll feel like you're really in the heads of these guys for the very first time. MoFi has remastered the entire Pixies' catalog, but none of the subsequent releases have the impact and the joy of discovery of this one.
- Talking Heads '77. Again, I lucked out and bought this when it was new, so I probably have one of the first pressings. While Fear of Music has been one of my Top Fives for over 30 years, again I had to re-evaluate my loyalties when I pulled this album out and played it for the first time in years. It sounded so good, so clean, so intimate, that I quickly retrieved a piece of paper and made up a new Top Ten list for PSF editor Jason Gross with '77 now occupying the #1 position. Unfortunately, Jason informed me that the PSF site no longer listed the writers' top faves of all time, only for each year. All my enthusiasm was for naught (ED NOTE: sorry bud). But this illustrates how a great-sounding recording can truly elevate a performance into the stratosphere, and how we find our musical choices morphing when we're able to hear something that sounds like real, live music. Once again I have to point out that I own this album on CD, and it just doesn't give me goosebumps. The LP does, in spades.
- Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington Recording Together for the First Time. This is the first album I pull out when evaluating a new piece of audio gear. I have the Classic Records 200-gram Quiex SV-P reissue, which means it sounds superb. The sound quality is so breathtaking, in fact, that you'll have a hard time accepting the fact that these two jazz legends have been gone for decades. But they're right here! See? Louis is standing right there on my carpet, front and center, playing horn and singing in the way only he can sing. You can hear him breathing, walking to and fro, standing behind the other musicians when it's time for their solos. And Duke is back in the corner, admittedly reserved and yet generous, taking it all in, running everything. People come over, I play "Duke's Place" and they're convinced they need a turntable. Before I got my first gig writing about audio, the publisher came over to interview me and evaluate my system to see if I was worthy. I played this album. He fell asleep in my big recliner with a smile on my face. I got the job.
- Bob Dylan Highway 61 Revisited. An audiophile friend once told me, "I have never listened to Dylan on CD. Not once. Bob should never be listened to on anything other than vinyl." I'm hip. I have two copies of Highway 61 on vinyl--an original Columbia that cost me a small fortune, and one of the Sundazed reissues that came out a few years ago. The original, save for some annoying surface noise, sounds much better. The Sundazed has almost no surface noise and only cost me $15. I need them both. What I don't need is Highway 61 on CD. The LP's sound so fantastic that you may not immediately notice these are mono recordings. Bob's voice is always up front and center and gloriously real. So what if the other musicians are huddled closely around him, impervious to the perversity that is stereo? Bob wasn't just meant to be heard on vinyl, he was meant to be heard on MONO vinyl. I checked my LP and CD collection and was delighted to find that all my Dylan records are real records. All, except for Modern Times, which I do happen to own on CD. I've only listened to it once. I didn't care for it. I wonder why?
- Tsuyushi Yamamoto Midnight Sugar. Hey! I'm cheating! This Japanese jazz LP, from the legendary Three Blind Mice record label, is on my first list from 1998! What's up with that? Well, I've decided to include this because a) this is still the best-sounding LP I own and b) I recently bought an Ultra HD 32-bit mastered hi-rez CD sampler from Lim, called The TBM Sounds!, which features the most famous tracks from the Three Blind Mice catalog. The first track, not surprisingly, is the title track from Midnight Sugar. I actually purchased this CD at a trade show where I was an exhibitor--I didn't bring music with me and I needed a demo track that would show off my audio equipment. When I saw "Midnight Sugar" on the CD, I knew it would bring down the house. And it did. It sounded fantastic. Everyone wanted to know where they could buy this amazing CD with this amazing song on it. When I got home, I naturally wanted to compare it to my beloved LP. To my surprised, the LP was still miles ahead in overall sound quality. The instruments sounded bigger, airier and there was more space around the musicians. Bass was deeper and more textured. Despite all these digital advances over the years, the LP still wins.
I didn't have to dig very deep into my record collection to uncover these ten examples of superior analog sound, which once again begs the question of whether I can keep delivering these reasons to buy a turntable on a regular basis. I hope I don't have to wait until 2026 to give you the next ten. The way things are going in the audio world, with continued focus on versatility and convenience over sound quality, I won't be surprised. As good as these new hi-rez formats are in 2012, I still prefer the sound of vinyl.
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