"This is a journey into sound. A journey which along the way will bring to you new colour, new dimension, new value..."
What better way to introduce this new long term project than to quote Geoffrey Sumner's spoken words at the beginning of the classic 1958 Decca compilation A Journey Into Stereo Sound [SKL 4001]. Nearly six decades since the introduction of stereo sound onto vinyl, and seven since Columbia cut the first 33 1/3 rpm micro-groove LP for commercial release–the latter coincident in time with the advent of magnetic tape recording in the U.S.–, I felt it appropriate to create this Reference List for those about to 'jump on this train' for the very first time, and for those already aboard; perhaps eager to discover some new or old hidden gem to add to their precious collection. In that frame of mind, I am limiting the scope of the project to great recordings, going back to that early hifi period right up to the present, released on vinyl, either as LPs, EPs, or singles. I am estimating completion within 4 to 5 years at a rate of approximately 10 selections per month. In order to keep things rolling, a capsule-type review instead of an in-depth evaluation will accompany each selection, along with the picture of the album or single, and the recommended label pressing and country of origin. When not specified, the U.S. pressing is always the default option. If a full review of a selection already exist, a link to the latter will be provided at the end of the capsule. There are no individual ratings but I will try to set the 'sonic bar' at no less than 8/10 and give priority to those surpassing 9/10 in my judgement. Contrary to a 'Rolling Stone-type' of list where albums are chosen on musical merit or relevance with no mention of sound quality whatsoever, and the extreme polar opposite–a 'purely audiophile-only' list–where sometimes sub-par music value is overlooked by extraordinary sound, I will endeavor to bridge the gap between these two solitudes. One last note: the order within the list is by and large arbitrary and only there to reflect where we are situated in the project's time frame; i.e. number 25 is not necessarily better or worse than number 50; it is impossible to assign a preference order when dealing with so many different music and production styles. Like any list out there, personal tastes will differ between individuals, so always keep in mind that these are my Top 500 favorites chosen from the 'roughly' ten thousand titles from my Vinyl Vault after 42 years of collecting records.
Buckle your seat and let the journey begin...
1- Santana – Abraxas Columbia – KC 30130 (1970), MoFi – UD1S 2-001 Box (2016), (2x45 rpm) #0338. Genre: latin rock, latin jazz, fusion, psychedelic rock, heavy rock
I pondered the question numerous times: what would be my very first entry? Then I thought, why not launch the new year and Top 500 List with the recent reissue of Santana's second and probably best album by a label celebrating its 40 year anniversary in 2017. Always dedicated to delivering the best possible sound from past 'catalog classics', this limited edition LP box represents the first of a new unique series of records designated 'UD1S', wherein the 180 gram vinyl is pressed following a 'one-step' process instead of the industries' standard three-step: the stamper ("convert" is MoFi's term) is made from a part pulled from the lacquer; in effect, skipping the father and mother intermediates altogether; and by logical assumption, approaching with greater fidelity the original lacquer and by extension, the master tape. Being the oldest audiophile reissue label out there and I assume having one of, if not the largest, most diverse catalogue, they've experienced some hits and misses along the way through the years, but I can say with all certainty that this latest Santana hits a homerun, and occupies a league all of its own. It is outstanding in every sonic parameter: tons of detail, from the opening wind chimes and cymbals; followed by Carlos' electrifying lead guitar; percussive congas, tablas, and timbales; powerful drums, keyboards, heavy organ, and organic bass; super-wide, deep, and tall soundstage; dynamics; perfect tonal balance; non-fatiguing, airy sound; impressive immediacy and raw energy; need I say more? Credit must be given in part to recording engineers David Brown and John Fiore, who's wonderful work is now more apparent than ever with this remastering-cutting by Krieg Wunderlich assisted by Shawn R. Britton. It vastly surpasses the previous version in 2008–the single 33 1/3 rpm half-speed mastered by Britton [MFSL 1-305]–which at the time I found quite good, rating it around an 8.5 or so; but when juxtaposed in sequence, track by track, respectively, the standard MoFi takes quite a dive to the latest one, showing less presence; size; impact;...well everything; as if diluted; with even a hint of listener fatigue creeping in on some tracks. Needless to say, it blows away my old '360 Sound' Canadian pressing nearly to the 'dustbin'. Having being impressed by passed remasterings by SRB,–think Pixies' Surfer Rosa [MFSL 1-296]–thus putting aside any cutting engineer superiority of one over the other, and supposing MoFi used the same Santana master tape in 2008 as this time, we must come to the conclusion that the major improvement is due to the double-45 rpm format and/or the UD1S pressing. Based on their latest 45 rpm editions like I Robot and Miles Davis' for example, which were quite a leap from their regular 33 1/3 rpms, I would guesstimate roughly a 65% improvement ratio due to the higher speed and the remaining 35% for the 'one-step' method. The box-type packaging is super-deluxe in texture and looks; quite above their usual fare. Now if only all records were made like this, we would be in heaven. Definitely one of the best, if not the best rock recording and tape to disc transfer ever; such a shame it was already sold out for good within a month or so upon release.
2- Nat King Cole – The Nat King Cole Story Capitol – SWCL1613 (1961), Analogue Productions – AAPP 1613-45 (2010), (5x45 rpm), Compilation Box Set. Genre: traditional pop standards, easy listening, vocal jazz
Nat King Cole along with Frank Sinatra are my two favorite male singers of all time and I am not alone in that regard. Both are considered masters of their craft in their own way, their voice always delivered with perfect phrasing, timing, and emotional sincerity. Luckily Capitol Studios and the golden age of recording–from the mi-1950s to the early 1960s–served them well sonic wise. This is especially true here with Cole and the dedication by remastering engineers Steve Hoffman and Kevin Gray who instead of relying on the usual 2-track masters went one step further: back to the original 3-track analog session reels and with lots of TLC, remixed the blend of the central vocal track against the left and right orchestral tracks, using a lighter touch on the reverb knob compared to the excess of the period, and cut at 45 rpm no less. It pays off handsomely and all comes down to the most impressive vocal recording ever in areas of size, power, delivery, dynamic contrasts, transparency, clarity, and intimacy; sometimes startlingly so by Cole 'jumpin out' way past the front of the soundstage. Not to forget the sweet refined timbral qualities of the orchestra and its strings in particular, plus a spot-on analog warm tonal balance without overdoing it. The deluxe packaging is top notch and superior to the original with a canvas-bound embossed box, including an informative album-size booklet with b&w photos of 'King' in studio. Without doubt, so is the sound which makes this collection of sweet love songs and traditional pop, a no-brainer. Many other N.K. Cole LPs of the period were reissued and remastered by this same team of players and worthy of inclusion but if condemned to own only one, this is the one to get.
3- Diamond Version – Diamond Version Boxset EP1 Mute 12DVMUTE1 (2012); EP2 Mute 12DVMUTE2 (2012); EP3 Mute 12DVMUTE3 (2013); EP4 Mute 12DVMUTE4 (2013); EP5 Mute 12DVMUTE5 (2013); 45 rpm each + LP CI STUMMDV1 33 1/3 rpm; Box Set Compilation. Genre: minimalist dark techno. Euro pressing
Growing up in East Germany, the Diamond duo composed of Olaf Bender and Carsten Nicolai distinguish themselves from many other electro groups and styles by their exploration into a whole other universe that relies on granular synthesis. Similar to music sampling, granular divides the sample into smaller pieces between 1 and 50 ms of duration only, making this particular production all the more special. This is without a doubt the most impressive recording, mastering, and lacquer-cutting I have heard, and even viewed vinyl wise, in this electro subgenre. This gives new meaning to Decca/London's original 'ear trademark' ffrr. These EP's really do reach deep down into the lowest registers and all the way up to the other end of the spectrum, with world class solidity and stunning staccato pounding and hammering. Trust me this will test the tenacity of your speakers and system; think German industrial military precision and you start to get the idea. It is mind boggling, listening and realising, just how much a simple 'stone riding a groove' can physically impart such sheer visceral force, drive, and intensity. Mastering/cutting engineer Andreas Lubich aka LUPO is not one to 'slap on' a low-cut filter just for the sake of extending the life of his cutter head; sonic compromise is not part of his vocabulary. At the time, I had bought these five EPs separately, but a year later London-based Mute records regrouped them–plus threw in a bonus in the form of an additional LP–in a nice matching box which makes this recommendation all the more enticing. The full evaluation can be viewed here:
4- Gino Vannelli – Powerful People A&M – SP-3630 (Can.) (1974), MoFi – MFSL 1-041 (1980), 33 1/3 rpm. Genre: funky synth-pop, disco, jazzy soulful pop
This is the Italian-Canadian singer's second and best album, musically and sonically, and it's no wonder why Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs had chosen way back in their half-speed JVC-pressed virgin vinyl days, of showcasing their superior version to the regular A&M original. Although Gino and older brother Joe would keep 'the river flow' with hits streaming from 1976's The Gist of the Gemini; 1978's Brother to Brother [both on A&M]; and in a totally different style and colder compressed sound; 1984's Black Cars [Polydor]; Powerful People remains the only LP worthy of recommendation on this List at the present time. Vannelli's compositions with bro's sophisticated arrangements, showcase the singer's sensuous soaring vocals, supported by some powerfully tight musicianship, mixing majesty with energy, and providing a beautiful balance of smooth and faster tempi material with a few flirts of jazz overtones. As the discofied groove of "People Gotta Move" packs a punch upon first entry, the initial and lingering impression is one of stupendous speed, solidity, and soundstage size. Swirling synths and organs, spiced up with organic percussive instruments, electrify the room's air molecules, complementing each other on every track. With meticulous mixing and engineering by Larry Forkner and Tommy Vicari; this 'old' MoFi LP, cut by the late and great Stan Ricker, has it all in spades: full range even-balanced frequency, tight punchy drumkit, 'elastic' bouncy bass and most impressive of all, is the sense of a limitless dynamic ceiling with unbounded soundstage dimensions that defies any common logic.
5- Sonny Rollins – Way Out West Contemporary – C3530 (mono) (1957) – Stereo Records S7017 (1958), Analogue Productions – AJAZ 7530 (2003) (2x45 rpm). Genre: jazz, hard bop
Following the critical success of Saxophone Colossus for Prestige the year before, this 1957 recording sees the master tenor joined by Ray Brown on bass and Shelly Manne on drums, making it his first foray as a trio and for Contemporary Records. Started in 1951 by Lester Keonig, the small independant Los Angeles label was at the forefront of recording jazz stereophonically as far back as 1956, two years prior from stereo LPs entering the main market. This coincides with engineer Roy DuNann–formely of Capitol since a decade–bringing his skills to their new 'studio'; in reality, the corner of a tight backstore sharing space with the shipping room, surrounded by shelves of records. Armed with a handful of outstanding mics, AKG C12s and Neumann U47s–both high output, tube condenser types–fed directly into an Ampex 350-2 tape recorder with only hand-built 'pots' inserted for level-ajustment; this is Rollins' best sounding LP, especially in terms of warmth and sheer realism. By all accounts, this seems to be the very first jazz vinyl reissue by Acoustic Sounds' then newly-formed label, Analogue Productions. Initially remastered by Doug Sax with tube electronics and released as a single 33 1/3 rpm in 1992 [APJ-008], it sounded awesome and was already a great reissue at the time. Fast forward a full decade later when they decide to re-release it as a double 45 rpm, this time by the remastering duo par excellence–Steve Hoffman and Kevin Gray–to even more impressive heigths than before: with better double bass plucking and pitch precision; as well as superior top octave extension and intimacy on the cymbals; snare brush-stroke patterns; and percussive drumstick nuances. According to tech notes and photos, the instruments were captured close up and dry, leaving the mastering engineer the task of adding 'plate reverb' at the very end just prior to the cutting stage and which, in this instance, appears either left out or kept at a minimum–to my great delight I might add. Being extra critical, I would wish for a fraction of a dB more in the lower mids (around 400 to 600 Hz) to better unleash Rollins' power and 'bark' but that's it as far as nit-picking goes. From 1956 to 1963, DuNann and Contemporary never released a boring or bad sounding LP and believe me their 'batting average' was way high, placing them at the very top with Orrin Keepnews' Riverside label up to par or coming in a close second soundwise.
6- Felipe De La Rosa – Flamenco Fever M&K Realtime Records – RT-107 (1978), 33 1/3 rpm. Genre: traditional flamenco. Live direct to disc cutting. German pressing (yellow label).
It is somewhat rare when high end audio manufacturers decide to dip their toes into the art of recording and disc pressing–think Mark Levinson; Wilson Audio; Linn–oftentimes with lackluster results and excitement; what is rarer though, is when said company actually produces quite the opposite: a truly hot demo recording of reference calibre. Such is the case with this 1978 release from M&K Realtime Records–aka M&K Sound of (Jonas) Miller & (Ken) Kreisel subwoofer fame, who entered the D2D LP niche audiophile market back in 1976; pretty much during the heyday of that minimalist 'back to basics', ancient, and restricted practice of 'putting to wax' live music. If ever a record redefined the definition of PRAT and simultaneously presented a major challenge for every link in the recording and reproducing chain, all the while engagingly captivating its audience, this is the one absolutely. The rapid-fire percussion from the palmas of the hands in conjunction with the flat and tap of the feet from the flamenco dancer sharing the stage either with a spanish guitar or dynamic drumkit, are a feast for the ears, as must have been for the eyes of those present. Captured and cut with stunning slam and physical impact along with realistic, tight, tom drum timbres; this German pressing is a sure show stopper when properly reproduced. My only reservation regarding the recording is some slight saturation on the close-miked vocals during the singer's climactic fortes–perhaps 'overtaxing' the mic's diaphragm or preamp–and which may be system-dependent up to a certain point, in the context of groove trackability and acoustic dynamic compression.
7- The Alan Parsons Project – I Robot Arista – SPARTY 1012 (UK) (1977), MoFi – MFSL 2-455 (2016), (2x45 rpm). Genre: electronic, art rock, symphonic rock, prog rock, contemporary
After gaining great notoriety engineering one of the quintessential multitrack albums of its decade–the landmark Pink Floyd 1973 masterpiece, The Dark Side of the Moon–Parsons launched his progressive Project three years later with the ambitious Tales of Mystery and Imagination. Along with its subsequent LP–1978's Pyramid–I Robot probably represents the pinnacle of Parsons' essential 'tri-pack' worth owning, after which the compositions and 'creative juices' did not run so constantly, turning out uneven material musically speaking. Initially released in 1977, this album mixes many styles rarely heard together; including symphonic-aspiring rock with mesmerizing hypnotic electronica, evoking Germanic sequenced loops ala Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, and Moroder. At opposite ends of the spectrum are the hit single "I Wouldn't Want to Be Like You" with its disco-infused rhythm pattern, and the atonal cluster chords and choir found in Ligeti's Lux Aeterna which clearly permeates "Total Eclipse" throughout the track. There has certainly been no shortage of choice throughout the years when it comes to this particular Parsons' LP. Heck MoFi alone has released it on vinyl on three separate occasions: in 1982 as MFSL 1-084; then in UHQR form a year later as MFQR 1-084 and this newest version; not to forget neither an 'all tube' done by Bernie Grundman [Classic Records 7002-200G] in 2000. The latter was a warmer and more detailed improvement over my fairly good original UK pressing which showed signs of mild compression and top end curtailing in comparison. The latest Mofi has the theoretic advantage of being spread on 4 sides at 45 rpm and with all the care that Krieg Wunderlich and Rob LoVerde must have put into this, it bears fruit by beating the Classic to a good degree in all the usual audiophile aspects: soundstage dimensionality; dynamic range; deep sub solidity; distortion-free instrument separation; midrange transparency; top end airiness; analogue ease; and a sense of unbounded ceiling height. If pressed to roughly rate them in order: I would give an 8 for the original UK; a 9 for the Classic; and a 9.8 for the latest 45 rpm MoFi.
8- Fleetwood Mac – Rumours Warner Bros. Records – BSK 3010 (1977) – Reprise – Warner Bros. Records – 517787-1 (2011), (2x45 rpm). Genre: soft rock, pop rock
Formed by Peter Green, Mic Fleetwood, John McVie–all three, ex-John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers–, and Jeremy Spencer in 1967 and later joined by wife Christine (formely Perfect) McVie, they were originally a traditional British blues band. They say you gotta feel the blues in order to really sing the blues. The latter is often caused by great emotional turmoil and internal tensions ravaging relationships and that certainly was transpiring within the group by the mid-1970s–with the addition of Americans Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks in the mix–ironically shedding the blues influences of their early years for some softer rock and artistic pop. After gaining fame and greater acclaim in 1975 with the release of their second self-titled LP, featuring 3 major hits singles, the quintet finally reached superstardom status two years later with Rumours, one of the best selling albums of all time and luckily for us audiophiles, one of the best recorded pop rock albums also. Producers-engineers Ken Caillat and Richard Dashut assisted by Chris Morris spent the better part of 1976, recording and mixing the band at the Record Plant in Sausalito, California on a 3M 24-track tape deck and API mixing board with mostly AKG condenser and dynamic mics in a 30 feet by 20 feet 'dry-sounding' room–all the while making sure the blend of all the acoustic and electric instruments, plus the many vocal and harmony parts were equally shared and distributed within the entire frequency range, ensuring instrumentation clarity throughout the album. The last 4 months were spent at Wally Heider Studios in Los Angeles. Despite the–not uncommon for the times–drug-fuelled proliferation, hedonistic behavior, and countless hours of multitracking every instrumental solo lick, the end result was a sonic delight and when came time to re-release it 34 years later, Reprise did the right thing by hiring Kevin Gray and Steve Hoffman to handle the remastering and lacquer-cutting process, which they executed perfectly. The tonal balance is natural and more neutral than overtly warm, yet thankfully, not falling into the hyper-detailed analytic sound trap that a DMM cutting would have generated and ruined. The quiet Pallas pressing helps with the micro-dynamics and fine degree of spatial separation, string finesse, and midrange transparency. It surpasses my still excellent-sounding first-press UK copy [K 56344] by a certain degree, with a bit more bottom weight and overall refinement. All in all, one of the finest remastering jobs of the AcousTech duo right after their N.K.Cole Story box set.
9- James Brown – Bodyheat Polydor – PD-1-6093 (1976), 33 1/3 rpm. Genre: disco, funk, soul
The Godfather of Soul was very prolific throughout a lenghty career starting as far back as 1956–at times releasing up to 4 LPs per year; not forgetting roughly 100 singles entering the charts, 17 of which hitting number-one. Almost single-handedly inventing the funk genre in the mid-1960s and backed up by The J.B.'s during most of the 1970s, this is Brown's 47th album; his last truly inspiring before his creative style got totally eclipse by the sweeping wave of disco. First signed to King, then Smash, and later to Polydor–with sound quality varying from poor to excellent–this LP is the only one I would qualify as outstanding and not warranting any retouch. This is 'my go to' record when I want to demonstrate to someone what a 'groovy bass' recording sounds like; or test if a loudspeaker or complete sound system is capable and convincing of conveying the musicians' emotional rhythmic vibe. Back in the day, when "Bodyheat" would play, believe me 'you were in business' if you had a pair or two, of big JBL 4520 'double-scoops' delivering the punch and propelling the patrons onto the dancefloor into a frenzy of excitement and sheer sensuality. The opening riff by the saxes sets the stage with superb presence and warmth; the four-on-the-floor kick drum and accompanying electric bass seem to be 'modulated' by an expander, creating dynamic tension and movement within the locked organic groove; panoramic guitars are extra limpid; the ride cymbal beating the 8th notes, sports a natural metallic shine without ever veering analytical. In fact the overall tonal balance is just perfectly warm, sweet, and with an 'alnico-type' midrange all through the title-track and most of the album–mastered and cut at Frankford/Wayne in NYC. There are two main parts within the track and the abrupt back and forth switches between them, are swift and tight. So if sound is your main criteria, this is your best bet for Brown and first one to collect. As James states on the back cover: "Listen to this album. Not only will the spiritual feeling get to you, but the 'groove' will too."
10- Various, The New Symphony Orchestra of London, Alexander Gibson – Witches' Brew RCA VICTOR RED SEAL – LSC-2225 (1958), CLASSIC RECORDS – LSC-2225, Living Stereo – LSC-2225 (1996), 33 1/3 rpm. Genre: classical modern
This is probably one of the 10 best classical orchestral sound recordings in my collection, and among Classic Records' finest reissues of the RCA LSC catalogue; and I might add, of their entire output, period. Whereas certain Bernie Grundman remastering-cuts are a bit hot, harsh, and dry, leading to some audiophiles to seek out original Shaded Dogs for more sweetness on top and limpid warmth in the mids–though at some sacrifice in the bottom octave–, this one seems to not suffer the same fate and garners high praise for its huge dynamics, full range frequency extension, unbounded soundstage solidity, and unfettered force. No doubt the original December 1957 recording engineered by the great Kenneth Wilkinson at Kingsway Hall in England by UK Decca, using the famous 'Decca Tree' mic method, plays a tremendous part in its sonic glory, but one must also acknowledge the lacquer-cutting and stamper challenges this must have presented to get it just right. Both sides are equally impressive and make a worthy demo disc for hifi shows or 'showing off' between friends–just make sure your rig is up to the task or you may regret 'dropping the needle' on this one. The musical aspects–instrumental color, composition, drama, tension, performance–are particularly captivating on side B. My copy is the first Classic reissue that came out: the single 33 1/3 rpm 180 gram version but two rarer, pricier issues, consisting of 4 single-sided LPs cut at 45 rpm–at first standard black and later on their Clarity Quiex-SV-P II series–were available but I have not compared them with mine. All things being equal, the faster speed should be superior, especially in the top end and 3D spaciousness; on the other hand, the carbon-free clear vinyl is up for debate, and from my experience and point of vue, less attractive visually and sonically, based on other past comparisons between black, clear, and colored vinyl–the black carbon providing better body, intimacy and weight to my ears, perhaps at a slight expense of detail transparency.
11- Carole King – Tapestry Ode Records – SP 77009 (1971), MoFi – MFSL 1-414 (2013), 33 1/3 rpm. Genre: pop, soft rock, acoustic folk, jazzy overtones
Throughout the 1960s Carole King and song-writing partner Gerry Goffin wrote a ton of hits for music publishers and pop singers in the famous Brill Building situated at 1619 Broadway in Manhattan NYC. Contrary to expectations, King's 1970 debut–Writer–did not garner much consideration at the time; rather her breakthrough came a year later with her second and most accomplished, personal record–Tapestry–entirely written or co-written by her, and produced by Ode and Dunhill label founder, Lou Adler. This is an incredible album both in terms of music and sound quality, comprising strong compositions, and selling well over 25 million copies worldwide since. The hit single "I Feel the Earth Move" opens the LP with its toe-tapping syncopated piano riff; ready to explode with great energy and excitement–spurring emotions we've all sensed at one time in our lives when falling for someone new. The counterpart to all that euphoria unfortunately is the 'breaking up' period and ironically that was exactly the message originally delivered on its flip side: "It's Too Late" with its much slower tempo and minor key sentiment conveyed the sorrow of 'splitting up' or scarier still, the sensation of detachment between two people once so connected, now so far apart. Superbly recorded by engineer Hank Cicalo in A&M's studio B, the original Ode70 pressing showed promise but lacked bottom and top frequencies with the mids 'pushing' a bit; Bernie Grundman's first remastering in 1999 [Classic Records SP 77009] improved somewhat on those shortcomings, making it my de facto choice up until I compared it with the newer MoFi version remastered and cut by Krieg Wunderlich which simply blows away the two aforementioned versions in all aspects: first off, a big sound veil is lifted; the kick drum is so much better, with the rare sought-after combination of a fast rise time and a long sustain, contributing to an incredibly articulated warm punch in tandem with plenty of plump bass-guitar grooving to the max; King's piano and vocals come out with great lively presence at just the perfect level; Curtis Amy's soprano sax and Danny Kootch's guitar oppositely-panned are warmly infectious complementing Carole's piano to a t. The dynamics, tonal balance, and horizontal spread are so impressive, one could easily be fooled in thinking this was a double-45 rpm instead of a regular 33 1/3 rpm; as such I believe it is either MoFi's best 33 1/3 rpm release or at least on par with Gino Vannelli's Powerful People [MFSL 1-041] from 1980. Most important is that Wunderlich really captured the vibe of the moment. On a comparative basis, I would rate the original Ode around 7; the Classic an 8 at the most; and this MoFi a 9.7 approximately. I have not heard the 2012 Grundman/Chris Bellman [ORG Music ORGM 1071] double-45rpm remastering–theoretically having a technical advantage–but cannot imagine how or where it could surpass this MoFi.
12- USA-European Connection – USA-European Connection Marlin – 2231, T.K. Records – PTK 92061 (Can.) (1979), 33 1/3 rpm. Genre: progressive eurodisco
Better known for his 1978 top charting Come into My Heart, this 1979 self-titled project produced by Russian-born, disco composer Boris Midney is in fact the second and last release under that banner. Both cited LPs are musically creative, progressive, engaging, and recommended but I would place this particular one ahead of the debut in terms of ultimate sound quality, as well as finer musical composition and arrangements. Classically trained at the Gnesin Music Institute and Moscow Conservatory, he moved on to work for ABC's Impulse label, arranging progressive Big Band jazz, and scores for tv shows at NBC, as well as composing for symphonic orchestra. Combining the latter with disco and electronic influences, he followed a similar musical path to eurodisco pioneers Giorgio Moroder, Cerrone, and Alec R. Costandinos, even though this heavily arranged and more complex subgenre of disco was in its last years and completely extinct by 1980–accelerated by the premature 'death' of disco. Mixing a string ensemble with bass, guitar, congas, and female vocals; all perfectly blended in his own Eras Recording Studio in NYC. I have not heard the original US pressing to compare but I can state unequivocally that this Canadian TK pressing is perfect in every sonic parameter; so much so that I cannot see where one could improve anywhere without losing the cohesiveness of this 48-track mix recording, supposedly using Telefunken equipment exclusively. In the pure tradition of eurodisco, both LP sides, feature two tracks that run uninterrupted, segue-style. Full range tonal balance is spot on, with minimal analog compression and a hint of multitrack warmth and sweetness from start to finish, along with widespread soundstaging. Midney and Dmitri Zbrizer's greatly engineered production, boasts 'zero listener-fatigue' and makes you turn up the volume unwittingly.
Founded in NYC by Bill Grauer and producer Orrin Keepnews in 1953, right up until its demise in 1964, Riverside Records–along with Contemporary–was among a handful of independant jazz labels that represented the top plateau of the golden age of recording. Joined here by Barry Harris on piano; Ben Riley on drums; and jazz's most prolific recorded bassist, Ron Carter; tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin delivers an exquisite and extremely intimate performance, perfectly captured by Riverside's recording engineer Ray Fowler. Though all four instruments are finely balanced and rendered in the mix, it is truly Griffin that stands out, with the others playing more of a supportive role; and by standing out I mean, not only in delivery but also literally from the speakers, with great presence, crispness, and bite. There are a couple of mid to uptempo tracks where the quartet exchanges more freely but the smoother soulful ballads really steal the show. The tenor–sometimes panned to the left, other times to the right–really shines with every last breath of air passing through its reed, neck, body, and bell, as well as the squeaky key shifts reinforcing the sound realism; while Griffin explores the lower registers of his instrument, almost sounding baritone in fullness. I would characterize the tonal balance as 'neutrally' near-perfect; though I would have welcomed a 'smidgen' of added warmth and a fraction of shelf lift at the very top, being extremely demanding. That said, this remains one of my all time references for saxophone veracity. The pairing of engineers Steve Hoffman and Kevin Gray on the cutting-lathe for this double-45 rpm reissue, elevates even more so the very high sound standard that Riverside held around that music period.
14- Venetian Snares – Cubist Reggae Planet Mu – ZIQ299 (2011) 33 1/3 rpm EP. Genre: dub, glitch, electronic, experimental, breakcore. EU pressing
If you are looking for something that sounds incredible but totally atypical of the traditional audiophile sphere, look no further: Venetian Snares is the creation of Canadian electro-experimentalist Aaron Funk, signed to the equally experimental English label Planet Mu. The EP comprises two tracks per side, each one exploring an excentric subgenre of musical mutation. In this case, it is the unorthodox meeting of dub with abstract asymmetrical electronic breakcore; in other words the organic world merges with the cerebral world, unleashing uncommon time signatures that would make Brubeck proud. Unlike many prior Funk compositions which pursued more 'purebred' breakcore at breakneck speeds, this 2011 release relies on slower underlying tempi alternating with abrupt speed shifts and ritenuto 'reverse breaks'–hopefully easing entry into what for many may be uncharted territory. The sound composition, mixing, and mastering is extended in both frequency extremes, being bold, brawny, and balanced with no portion particularly exaggerated, while textures remain fast, fierce, solid, startling, swirling, immersive, invasive and palpable. For a more in-depth evaluation, you can go to: http://soundevaluations.blogspot.ca/2014/03/venetian-snares-cubist-reggae.html
15- The Brothers Johnson – "Strawberry Letter 23"/"Get the Funk Out Ma Face" (disco version on both) A&M Records – SP-12003 (1977), 12", 45 rpm, red clear vinyl. Genre: psychedelic soul, pfunk
The Brothers Johnson scored three hits worthy of inclusion on this List. This 12-inch single reunites two of them, both initially released separately in many different vinyl formats. Back in 1971, American singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Shuggie Otis released his second album Freedom Flight [Epic E 30752] which contained his original composition "Strawberry Letter 23". Fast forward six years later when Quincy Jones teams up with the duo and produces their funkier interpretation, which became the version most people know, and perhaps never knew was in fact a cover. As such their biggest hit, recorded in 1977, appears here in it's full length form–thus the 'disco version' designation rather than a true 'discofied' alteration per say–on the A-side. In and of itself the musically soulful 'catchy' track might make the List–generally good sounding though a slight upward tilt approaching 'treble fatigue' in some parts–but it is really the B-side that steals the show sonically. Recorded the previous year, the ideosyncratic and highly syncopated "Get the Funk Out Ma Face" bears no strong resemblance to its smoother flip side; rather it features more of a harder pfunk feel, with super solid electric bass–reaching low and quite kick-articulated–limpid mids that you wish swimming into, and clean guitar, tambourine, and incisive harmonica sharing the higher frequency region. Lastly the soundstage is simply spectacular. Now that latter qualifier is not something I usually associate with this genre of music; even though there are many excellent sounding funk and soul recordings, 'spectacular' is a word I keep more for symphonic or 'grandiose-type' styles. But here it is well-merited, with what must be the widest, deepest soundfield ever for this musical form–akin to listening through a superb pair of headphones but with the scale and organic groove of 'dance-floor' speakers added to the mix.
16- Miles Davis – Filles de Kilimanjaro Columbia – CS 9750 (1969), MoFi – MFSL 2-438 (2015), (2x45 rpm). Genre: jazz, post bop, fusion
Recorded in June and September 1968 and released in February of the following year, Filles de Kilimanjaro featuring Miles' second great quintet, continues in the lineage of Miles in the Sky [MoFi MFSL 2-437] while exploring all the more so elements of funk, rock, and freeform within groove-based modal patterns, in a 'jam-live' feel with synergetic interplay between top-notch players. On this album we get a strong sense that he is paving the way for his 1970's landmark Bitches Brew [MoFi MFSL 2-439] and even beyond. It is obvious how this particular time period of Miles has left a profound influence on Swiss-born French trumpeter Erik Truffaz as well as saxophonist Ilhan Ersahin, both players persuing the adventurous path set forth by the maestro. Whereas many wonderful Blue Note recordings of the same era are easily recognizable by their musical stylings of the day, this album just as those preceding it, remains as fresh today as it was back then. Columbia recording engineers Arthur Kendy and Frank Laico did a fantastic job capturing most of the instruments: the drum panned right upfront is energetically present with hi-hat and snare rolls sounding very realistic; electric piano and/or Fender Rhodes counter on the left, playing a constant game of chasing each other; electric bass centered further back is larger than life, nearly invasive, and organically 'loose' but surprisingly still substantially solid; tenor sax tends towards a lean and biting veracity; ironically it is Miles' trumpet that comes out just short of impressive with a bit of mic saturation smearing on fortes, despite its good tone. The latter caveat aside, MoFi's 'wonder team' of Krieg Wunderlich and Shawn R. Britton did a colossal tape to disc remastering and cutting to 45rpm, supported by RTI delivering the most silent pressing I ever heard. I did not have a '360 Sound' original pressing to compare with but having heard many of that same era, often by the same engineers and producers–e.g. Dave Brubeck LP's–I have no doubt that this new double-45rpm comes out way way ahead. For a more in-depth evaluation, you can go to: http://soundevaluations.blogspot.ca/2016/10/miles-mofi-magic_7.html
17- The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Axis: Bold as Love Track Record – 613 003 (UK) (1967), Experience Hendrix – 88697 62396 1, Legacy (2010) 33 1/3 rpm. Genre: psychedelic rock, blues rock
London, late fall 1966: two powerful trios each launch their debut release nearly simultaneously, setting the stage–and bar–for a major rock transformation placing the 'guitar God' phenomenon in the forefront of innovation. Cream and more importantly The Jimi Hendrix Experience, comprising Hendrix on guitar and vocals, Noel Redding on bass, and Mitch Mitchell on drums–in a short span of barely four years, and cut abruptly by his premature death–would sow the seeds for fusing psychedelic, heavy, and even funk with rock. From a musical standpoint their first two albums are absolutely essential in any serious music collection, and many would strongly argue in favor of their third and final epic–Electric Ladyland released in October 1968. Though their 1967 debut Are You Experienced [Experience Hendrix 88697 62395 1, Legacy] is highly creative and musically superb, its slightly distant sound varies from fair to near excellent, whereas Axis: Bold as Love–the band's second LP released at the tail end of the year is outstanding all through, thus the favored choice for this List. Both LPs were recorded mainly by a young Eddie Kramer in London; with Axis done at Olympic Studios on Ampex 4-track half-inch using a combination of Neumann U67s and AKG C12s in a left-center-right pattern for drum overheads taken from the drummer's perspective, and a Beyer M160 for vocals. George Marino at Sterling Sound in New York handled the lacquer-cutting with Kramer supervising the remastering using the original 2-track master tape. I did not have an original UK pressing to compare with but did hear the Grundman mono cut [Experience Hendrix 612 003] (licensed to Classic Records) from 2000 prior to this 2010 stereo version, and preferred by a long shot this newer one finding it much richer, warmer, and wider–as to be expected from stereo vs mono versions. The mixdown is perfectly balanced spectrally with great solid drum and bass presence, in addition of classic tube warmth and low compression; confirming Kramer's true genius. Of course, some may prefer the mono for its rock-solid central image but I find the panoramic, and myriad phase, etc., effects more communicative of Hendrix's 'mind-expanding altered states' at the time. Given all the efforts that Kramer put into recording the drums in true stereo; bouncing the initial 4-tracks from one deck onto 2-tracks on a second deck for further multi-layering; and panning in 'real-time' guitar solos, vocal EFX, etc. makes a strong case for the stereo version. As a bonus, packaging–original gatefold artwork and LP-sized booklet–is rather premium considering the modest price.
18- Depeche Mode – "Behind the Wheel" (remixed by Shep Pettibone) Mute – 12 Bong 15 (UK) (1987), 12", 45 rpm. Genre: electropop, synthpop, tech house
In another confluence of sorts: two of the leading proponents of the 1980s British alternative dance scene surfaced within a month of each other: both New Order and Depeche Mode produced their first single in early 1981, and share the distinction of releasing much better song versions on the 12-inch single format than the versions appearing on their LPs–i.e. in terms of superior remixes by renowned deejays and most important to us audiophiles, in substantially superior sound quality. For now I will focus on the latter formation which have at leasts five or six releases worthy of inclusion on this List and concentrate on their oldest contender for great sound–"Behind the Wheel" by dj-remixer-producer Shep Pettibone, who first 'cut his teeth' on disco's premier label par excellence, Salsoul Records. In the very beginning the band was more into a light upbeat new wave/sythpop style–as exemplified by the single "Just Can't Get Enough" [12 Mute 016]–but as the decade progressed, elements of industrial and harder textures slowly infiltrated the mixture to a certain degree. Then came the added touch by the remixers of the day, which further steered the style towards the oncoming tech house movement. French engineer and producer David Bascombe recorded the track at Studio Guillaume Tell in Paris and KonK Studios in London. Mastered at The Exchange and Musitech, and pressed by Damont–all three located in the UK–the tonal balance is perfect with tight driving electro kick drum; crisp 'crunchy' synths; and exciting panning effects on percussion and vocals. With a total time coming just under 6 minutes/side and cut at 45 rpm, the sound maintains its excellent 'raunchy' sound and throbbing pulse throughout the track.
1 (UK) (1971), MoFi – MFSL 1-031 (1980), 33 1/3 rpm. Genre: progressive, symphonic rock
There are only a handful of sonically oustanding live rock recordings available on vinyl–ELP's 1971 reinterpretation of Mussorgsky's famous work is one of them. Recorded in Newcastle city Hall in England, this is the trio's third LP following Tarkus [Island ILPS 9155 or MoFi MFSL 1-203]. Combining about half of the Russian composer's original ten 'tableaux' with the other half comprised of their own material, the British prog supergroup not only delivers a great entertaining performance but also astonishingly superb sound in any context, especially so for a live setting with minimal intrusion or distraction from its audience. Luckily for fans, most of their LPs are truly well recorded, mixed, and merit some space on this List. Engineer Eddy Offord, who co-produced a multitude of Yes' best albums, and engineered ELP's first four releases, once again did a fine intimate presentation: good tonal balance with a detailed top end, even perhaps slightly emphasized in absolute terms but in revenge it contributes to strong articulation of the often rapid, complex, and staccato rhythm patterns for which the band is renowned for. MoFi's first generation mastering team, pairing Gary Giorgi with the legendary Stan Ricker are credited for this early catalogue release, cut at half-speed, and pressed in Japan on thin 'virgin vinyl'. I did not have an original UK pressing to compare with.
20- Johnny Bristol – "Love No Longer Has a Hold on Me" Handshake Records and Tapes – 4W8 02076 (1981), 12", 33 1/3 rpm, promo. Genre: soulful disco
Better known for his 1974 breakthrough hit "Hang On in There Baby"–a soulful disco track in the same vein as Barry White's Love Unlimited style–this 1981 promo 12-inch single, shares many of the earlier song's strengths but with so much superior sound in comparison, that the choice at least regarding this List, seems obvious. Bernie Grundman is credited for the mastering/cutting and I can confirm that he really hit the nail on this one, to the point of perfection and I dare add, devoid of any of the so-called 'signature sound' we sometimes associate with BG cuts. Very pleasing recording, mixdown, and tonal balance with just the right equilibrium of lows, mids, and highs. Great groove, punch, and weight in the former with smooth silky strings, and transparent harp in the latter; Bristol's vocals are clear and dynamic for this music style, gravitating a bit towards Lou Rawls' own forays into 1970s Philly Sound period. Other highlights include: superb articulated PRAT; wide and tall soundstage; and an interesting, unusual, electronified-percussive break that appears 'pasted' or edited-in this largely organic composition adorned with soaring sunny arrangements. Being a promo, both sides are absolutely identical, thus providing a 'safety copy' if ever one side gets damaged or loses luster with time.
In a slight variation of sorts, and at the risk of foregoing a bit of diversity, for Part 3, I elected to pit back-to-back two selections sharing a common thread between them.
21- Buzz Brass, Mélanie Barney – The Planets Fidelio Music Inc. – FALP028 (2012), (2x45 rpm). Genre: classical, modern
Finding great sounding organ recordings on vinyl has always been a challenge, especially so when one has the chance of attending live recitals of the mighty 'beast' of classical instruments and having the latter close by as a comparative reference. Most often, the case turns out as one of sonic disappointment depending on our own set of expectations. I won't pretend that the above selection is on equal footing as the real thing as that would surely cement my reputation as lacking any critical credibility; what I can convey is my deep admiration for getting closer to that lofty goal than any other organ recording transferred to disc than I have heard since. Organist Mélanie Barney combined her talent with Montreal's own Buzz Brass quintet, resulting in a magnificent interpretation of Holst's most famous work. From the opening bars of the military-esque "Mars the Bringer of War" you can feel the 'gravissima-sounding' pedal stops' rumbling through the air molecules, anchoring the beautiful Saint-Viateur d'Outremont church's room dimensions and foundation. Not only does it reach down real low but the dynamic scale is quite realistically portrayed along with some solid deep soundstaging. The brasses are captured with uncanny realistic timbres with just the right ratio of bite and legato 'color' and clarity. Fidelio founder and recording engineer René Laflamme's combined use of two pairs of high caliber condenser mics; triode tube preamps; DSD conversion; 2 track analog tape transfer; and Bernie Grundman's double-45 rpm lacquer cutting; created a winning recipe for sound quality, worthy of Mercury's Robert and Wilma C Fine(st) recordings, and Professor Johnson's Ref. Recordings–limited more by one's sound system than the actual record (mini-monitors need not apply). For a more in-depth evaluation, you can go to: http://soundevaluations.blogspot.ca/2014/03/buzz-brass-melanie-barney-organ-holst.html
22- André Previn, London Symphony Orchestra – The Planets Suite Angel 45 Sonic Series – SS4500 (1979), 45 rpm. Stereo, Quadrophonic Genre: classical, modern
Originally released in its full 'seven planets' version in 1974 [His Master's Voice ASD 3002] on regular 33 1/3 rpm, this stereo-quad compatible 45 rpm omits three planets for sonic/groove cutting purposes, zooming on Mars; Venus; Mercury; and Jupiter. At first glance you might think what is the big deal? After all we have many 45 rpms reissues on the market nowadays; but keep in mind that this came out way back in 1979 when the only market open to this format at the time was that of the discotheque–heck even Linn's LP12 came standard with only one speed–33 1/3 rpm; their thinking being no serious audiophile would dare listen to 7-inch 45's nor 12-inch 'maxi-45' disco singles! So whatever your opinion on the whole disco movement, at least you can thank the deejays for demanding this superior sound carrier, so we can now enjoy all our precious other music genres at their very best. Yes there were a few direct-to-disc 45 rpms recorded and pressed in Japan for RCA under the 'Direct Master Series', but the latter were not reissues of older LPs. German-American conductor André Previn leads the LSO in an energetic performance of one of my three favorite orchestral works of the modern classical period–the other two being Stravinsky's L'Oiseau de Feu and Le Sacre du printemps–all three written between 1910 and 1916, right at the dawn of WW1. The overall sound is consistent, and quite excellent if not as outstanding as the Fidelio version, mostly due to a slight lack of the lowest octaves which dimishes the 'power and majesty' of the performance. That aside, the brasses, tonality, and dynamics distinguish themselves from the competition making this version a viable alternative if one can accept less planetary diversity.
23- Thelonious Monk – Brilliant Corners Riverside – RLP 12-226 (mono) (1957), Analogue Productions – AJAZ 12-226 (mono) (2003) (2x45 rpm). Genre: jazz, bop, hard bop
Along with Parker, Gillespie, Christian, and Clarke, Monk certainly represented the fifth pillar at Minton's Playhouse when bebop took over from the big band era in the mid-1940s. This and the following entry are my two favorite Monk albums for music and sound; both of which share many similarities: identical label; year of original release; producer; recording engineer; remastering team and label; 'double-45rpm' format; and finally pressing plant. The main technical differentiator being one reissued in mono while the other was reissued in stereo–though each were originally released in both formats, recorded simultaneously supposedly with different mic setups. For this first selection, big names accompany the ivory genius: Sonny Rollins; Oscar Pettiford; Max Roach; Clark Terry; Paul Chambers; and a little less known, alto Ernie Henry; who like so many in the jazz world, would die from a heroin overdose about a year later at age 31, just on the cusp of attaining name recognition. The title track's intro has most of them playing in unison with typical 'Thelonious-esque' twists, tempo changes and dissonance. The horns stand out with a very big, bold, biting presence, leaping to front stage with edgy potent vibrancy; the entire track apparently taking twenty-five takes to get it up to the leader's satisfaction with many parts spliced together by producer Orrin Keepnews. Monk plays the celeste–a rarity for jazz–on "Pannonica"; a track in tribute to the 'bebop baroness' Kathleen (Rothschild) de Koeniswarter. Monk's piano is particularly well captured on "I Surrender, Dear" with solid hammer articulation and resonance. My only minor criticism regards the cymbals which are a bit distant, and lack some transparency, and harmonic extension. Riverside and Reeves Sound Studios' Jack Higgins, engineered the recording in NYC while Kevin Gray and Steve Hoffman at AcousTech handled the mastering+cutting, and RTI did the pressing. I have not heard an original pressing nor the stereo version so I cannot opine on any comparison, but this format theoretically gives it an edge over a single 33 1/3 rpm when well remastered.
24- Thelonious Monk Septet – Monk's Music Riverside – RLP 12-242 (mono) (1957) RLP 1102 (1958), Analogue Productions – AJAZ 1102 (2004) (2x45 rpm). Genre: jazz, bop, hard bop
A veritable who's who of jazz giants: Blakey, Hawkins, and Coltrane just to name a few key players from this septet. Musically and sonically it is up there with the previous selection if even more so, with its spectacular spread, sounding Kenton-esque at times. On that note I must point out, that strangely some of the instruments–e.g. the drum cymbals–get panned between L-C-R during the course of the track in a creative manner rather than true to life; thus you should view this more as a 'Dali painting' than an accurate photo. Monk surprises us with the opening track: "Abide with Me", which just under a minute or so, serves more as an intro to the second track, and is atypical in the sense that it is played strictly by the horns, not in jazz form but rather in a small fanfare–based on an 1847 hymn by Henry Francis Lyte and (by sheer coincidence for the last name) William Henry Monk–with great purity, to the point of perceiving the air traveling from the player's lips through the column, before exiting the bell. My original 'deep-groove' US Riverside pressing is quite excellent, especially regarding Coltrane's realistic tone, front, panned stage left; as is Monk's piano timbre stage right. Again we must recognize Higgins' great work. The Gray/Hoffman 45 rpm remastering pretty much equals the original on these aspects; offering up a slightly different texture, with cleaner, transparent timbres but with a slight loss of tenor tonal saturation, which some listeners may equate with less saturation while others may note a tiny loss of proximity and presence, depending on one's sound preference. If it was limited to that, I would consider it a 'toss-up'; but all the other instruments, especially the drumset–tom tom dynamics; rim-stick realism; cymbal extension; etc.–as well as the soundstage depth are greatly expanded on the 2004 A. Prod. reissue, making the latter the obvious choice over the still impressive original.
25- Grateful Dead – Workingman's Dead Warner Bros. Records – WS 1869 (1970), MoFi – MFSL 2-428 (2014), (2x45 rpm). Genre: folk rock, country rock, roots rock
By the end of the decade, what defined the bastion of 1960s counterculture came to a close. Leaving behind the very style that built their massive cult following, namely the experimental, psychedelic sound of acid rock; the Dead–like their close counterparts The Byrds–reincarnated from the burnt ashes of Woodstock into a workingman's rootsy country folk fusion. Along with its follow up American Beauty [Warner Bros. WS 1893 or MoFi MFSL 2-429], it reveals a different facet from this unique jam band. Gone are the lenghty 'spaced-out' polyrhythmic flourishes from the San Francisco Bay Area, now replaced by uncluttered harmonious voices and acoustic guitars aiming straight for the heartland. Taking a page from CSNY, and preparing the terrain for future 1970s icons The Doobie Brothers and the Eagles, Garcia and co. deliver the goods with utmost purity. The group vocals and strings are the best ever encountered on record: detailed; transparent; and so natural with great stage separation and image height; to the extent of holding your breath in order to 'catch' theirs. Even for 'small scale' music, the dynamics are delivered with aplomb and the tonal balance is devoid of any artificial color, like in real life. While I felt rather confident just lately that pretty much no 'normal release' could surpass or equal the latest advancement in sound–such as MoFi's UD1S one-step method–here comes this Dead remastering that astounds and confounds me in its sheer realism, which leads me to believe that the original 1970 recording done at Pacific High in San Francisco must have been superior still to Santana's Abraxas [MoFi UD1S 2-001] dating from the exact same year, so as to mitigate the theoretical advantages of the latter over the standard three-step pressing we have here. That it stands up to such a high level, reaffirms the incredible engineering work of the period as well as MoFi's own Krieg Wunderlitch remastering and cutting it at 45 rpm. A solid 9.8 (almost 10 if it were not for the last side, which still fine, does not attain the perfection of the previous sides). I did not have an original pressing to compare with but doubt it could equal this latest version. The Dead were recognize as sound perfectionist for their live shows and these early studio albums certainly live up to that reputation, and heaven forbid, if you must limit yourself to only one Dead album, this is it–sonically at least.
A final note:
Now don't go 'bonkers' if you have not found your favorite recording included in this list, just remember: we are only at the beginning of a long journey...into sound.