The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part IX: 1998...Year Of The LP (December 1998)
I don't know about you, but I think that 1998 was a great year, especially for vinyl. Sure, an argument could be made for 1993 being a much better year for the most accurate recording medium on earth. Sales of LP's were up something like 930% over 1992. But we're talking volume here. Who cares if they sold 93 LPs in 1993 over the ten they sold in '92? The point is, last year they sold hundreds of thousands of LP's across the land. That doesn't mean anything compared to the billions of CD's and cassettes that were forced upon a happy, complacent public, but who can deny that the vinyl format is surprisingly healthy and stable?
Just five years ago, LP's and turntables suddenly symbolized that which was archaic and obsolete. The media threw images of Technics turntables at us when they wanted us to feel nostalgic for the '60s and the '70s. Now I'm seeing analog everywhere- in movies, on TV, in advertising- and it's come to symbolize that which is hip and non-comformist. For me, the film "The Rock" is only memorable for the scene in which Nicholas Cage's character holds up a Beatles LP and proudly proclaims that "these sound better." Way to go, Hollywood!
So in celebration of this most unlikely phenomenon, I'd like to present the First Annual Vinyl Anachronist Awards for excellence in analog reproduction. The envelopes please...
Best New Release in the LP Format
This is a tough one, because there were so many. The Foo Fighters' The Colour and the Shape kind of snuck up on me over the last few weeks (for some reason I keep playing "Everlong" over and over), and Liz Phair's Whitechocolatespaceegg was pretty cool, too. Garbage's Version 2.0 and Massive Attack's Mezzanine also spent a lot of time on the ol' Rega Planar 3. But I'll have to go with my double-LP version of Radiohead's OK Computer. I bought this exciting, mesmerizing recording on CD over a year ago and nearly wet my pants over it. Someone might have actually overheard me say at the time of its release that it was the best album of the last five years. I had huge misgivings over the sound quality, however. The mix is so dense at times with all the technobeeps and the roboscreeches that at certain volume levels it can definitely induce migraines (especially on "Airbag," the opening cut, and "Climbing Up The Walls," the only song I would have deleted from the album if I were Thom Yorke). Well, guess what. The LP sorts out the mess. It sounds huge, detailed, and even more visionary than I'd originally thought. I know there's kind of a backlash right now about this album, that it's "not really that good," but tough shit, this is my space. I give it the Album Of The Year Award.
Best LP Reissue
Man, this is even harder. There were more reissues than new releases on vinyl. Should I give the award to the German ARS pressing of Santana's Abraxas, which never sounded better? Or how about the fascinating 30th anniversary pressing of The Zombies' Odessey and Oracle? Or how about the now-definitive EMI remastering of Bowie's Hunky Dory? No, I shall bestow this award upon the family Hendrix, for their faithful remasters of Jimi's legacy- Are You Experienced?, Axis: Bold As Love, Electric Ladyland, the live Band of Gypsys, and the previously unreleased collection First Rays Of The New Rising Sun. I've always been sort of a closet Jimi Hendrix fan, but now, with these great sounding LP's, I wear my Jimi colors proudly. These are the pressings that will convince you that not only was Jimi a musical genius, but he knew his way around the studio also. The sound quality is amazing, especially on First Rays. Whenever my neighbors start in with the mariachi music, I crank "Voodoo Child"- it is the Great Equalizer on my block. When I hear this song I know what George Clinton meant when he said "Free your mind and your ass will follow."
Best Vinyl Discovery Which Everyone But Me Seemed To Know About
More than once I've discussed with others which XTC album is their best. Quite a lot of people go with Drums And Wires, and many others prefer the later and more sophisticated Skylarking. I've always stood by English Settlement; it's a very unique album- moody, folksy, and able to recreate a distant time and place that seems both specific and indistinct. Well, after all these years, I've apparently been listening to the wrong version! My single LP Epic pressing is not the real English Settlement at all! Earlier this year I read about the original British pressing, which not only contains additional songs, but is a double-record set to boot! And to top it off, the sound quality is reportedly superior to the wimpy, under-nourished American counterpart! Copies, however, were supposed to be very rare, but I was determined. If I were to pick one time in my life to blow my bank roll on a very rare record, this was it. After several close calls with Audiophile International (they always seemed to sell the last one ten minutes before I called), I finally found one for $40. And it was worth it. For the first time I realized that this is a percussion-heavy recording- before I always concentrated on the acoustic guitars. And the six songs that Epic chose to ixnay? Well, I sort of see their point- they all seem to sound like they belong on a different album. But they're all good songs, and I resent having been denied of knowing them all these years. And, of course, every time I tried to mention my discovery to others, they responded with, "Oh...you didn't know there was a better version?" Thanks for letting me know, guys.
Coolest Overall Vinyl Purchase
I've already hinted about this one in Life Without Vinyl. I've always assumed that the most rarest and most desired of LP collector's items was either John and Yoko's Two Virgins or the butcher-baby version of the Beatles' Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. Nope. It's... drumroll, please... the soundtrack album for CASINO ROYALE, with music by Burt Bacharach. This is the vinyl equivalent of a real Shelby AC Cobra- no one who owns one is willing to part with it for any amount of money. I've heard stories of mint, sealed copies going for as much as ten grand! I once saw one for $150, but I hesitated because I felt that for that kind of money it'd be in truly terrible condition. Someone else bought it later that same day, so I never found out.
So why is it that Casino Royale is so valuable? First, the sound quality is supposed to be incredible. And second, CASINO ROYALE was such a miserable- piece-of-shit-of-a-movie (spoken like a true Bond fan--I mean, Woody Allen as little Jimmy Bond?) that they didn't make very many of them. So for most LP collectors, this was a bit of a Holy Grail. Until now. No, they didn't reissue it (that would surely piss off every collector who spent a fortune on a copy). But they did release "The Look Of Love," from the album, sung by the incomparable Dusty Springfield, on a 12" single! In fact, on one side it's "The Look Of Love," at 33 1/3 RPM, with a flip-side of exactly the same song at 45 RPM! Some audiophiles feel that 45 RPM sounds slightly better, with less surface noise, but I've listened and I can't really tell a difference. It sounds great- the perfect thing for your next cocktail party, especially with all this renewed interest in Bacharach. And it's only $10- a lot for a single, but consider its history. There's only one problem. Now I want a copy of the entire soundtrack more than ever.
Best Analog Accessory
I can't believe how many of you e-mailed me (at email@example.com) to dress me down about the significant expense of keeping your records clean. Yes, the cheapest Nitty Gritty machine is almost $300. Yes, the cheapest VPI machine is $450. The dry brushes don't quite do the job. Well, I told you about the Orbitrac by Allsop (in "LP TLC"). It gets the job done. It combines the effectiveness of a wet cleaning at a cost just slightly more than the dry brushes (about $35). I've used it alone (it doesn't quite match the job done by my Nitty Gritty), and I've used it in addition to a wet cleaning (my records have never sounded better). I think that combined with a dry brush, the Orbitrac will make you all very happy li'l vinyl anachronists for about $60. So quit yer hollerin'.
No, I'm not going to give this award to the $53,000 Rockport Sirius III 'table. I've never heard it, and I probably never will. I don't travel in those lofty circles. And I'm not going to give it to the $10,000 Wilson Benesch system, which I did listen to, with utter adoration. You probably could care less about such a product. So I pick, as Turntable of the Year, my very own Rega Planar 3. This $700 table (which includes a great tonearm, unlike most other tables, not to mention the fact that if you're dealing with a nice place, they'll throw in a decent cartridge) has been around for nearly 20 years, yet there has never been more respect for this simple, easy-to-use, extremely reliable 'table than right now. I meet more and more people who have Regas, and I'm not talking about Average Joes. I'm talking about people with very expensive systems, people who could easily afford a much more expensive turntable. Yet they pick the Planar 3. Why? Because it sounds great for the money. I recently listened to two 'tables, one priced at $1495, and the other priced at nearly two grand, and I still preferred my Rega. They also never break down- the design is too simple and fool-proof to malfunction. I am considering trading my Rega in on the Roksan Xerxes X, a much more expensive turntable, in the coming year, and I am doing so with great deliberation. Everyone should get a Rega Planar 3 right now! And if $700 is a little steep, try the Planar 2 at $500- it gets you most of the way to the Planar 3's performance.
Well, that's it. Hopefully we'll get to do this awards thingie again next year. I must say, with all sincerity, that it has been a wonderful experience for me to tell you about my wacky, anachronistic leanings over the last year, and it has been even more rewarding to talk to y'all individually about analog matters. Keep those e-mails coming. And I have a New Year's wish for all of you...that hopefully a certain Prince song won't be forced down your throats too much in the coming twelve months.
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