The controversy over the sound of vinyl recordings versus digital platforms continues unabated, though the sale of vinyl records is showing a surprising and welcome resurgence. Our own basis tends towards the sound of vinyl – note we haven’t stated analogue over digital, for we have in our possession many hundreds of digitally recorded albums issued on vinyl that are tremendously satisfying in their musicality and dynamic range.
We’re often asked by those thinking about getting into vinyl for the first time (and yes, even by those who are contemplating a return to vinyl) where to begin in assembling a collection of first-rate vinyl – recordings that truly excite the listener with natural sound reproduction. Of course, we inquire about their equipment setup – there’s nothing to be gained by purchasing albums if you don’t invest in associated electronics capable of rendering a reasonable semblance of sonic truth.
We’re partial to albums recorded some years ago, especially to those manufactured with virgin vinyl – a product which no longer exists in quantities necessary for album production. We’ve been disappointed by many new releases which proudly proclaim “180 gram” weighting – the vinyl is often recycled, resulting in unquiet surfaces and a distinct loss in quality. Vinyl addicts know better – they seek out pressings made thirty or forty years ago, and clean them up as best they can with quality record-cleaning systems, which themselves can run anywhere from $100 to $1500. Worth it? – you bet.
Here are 10 phenomenal recordings, to be treasured for their inherent musical performances just as much as for their sound quality. In short, pick up several of these and we guarantee you’ll spend more and more of your valuable time and money listening to vinyl records.
Not into jazz or classical? – we’ve chosen recordings that could well change your mind if you only give them an audition. Both jazz and classical records are somewhat akin to learning to like foreign films. Once you get into them, they’re indispensable to your life.
Here are our 10 starter audiophile vinyl albums. They don’t all cost a fortune, either, and they’re not necessarily marketed as “audiophile” product; each and every one of them, though, is capable of rendering sonics that will please you for decades to come. Check out your local used record stores – there are bargains to be had if you know what you’re seeking.
1. Night Beat – Sam Cooke – originally released 1963 on RCA as LSP-2709. Reissued 2010 by Music on Vinyl for Sony Music Entertainment as MOVLP163.
Start with side 2 – Sam’s version of “Little Red Rooster” is brilliant. He had the most natural singing voice of his generation, and if you’ve only heard his popular hits such as “You Send Me” or “Another Saturday Night” you have a wonderful sonic and musical adventure awaiting you with this album. Sam Cooke found great success on the pop charts, yet he was far more suited to more complex fare, be it gospel, or r & b. He was sometimes cast as a blues singer, yet nothing he ever did could be considered traditional blues. Cooke simply transcended every genre he touched, and was also a talented producer who was a non-stop promoter of others’ talents.
The sonics here are splendid, which was not always the case with RCA DynaGroove albums, despite their frequent claims to the contrary, but Music on Vinyl has done a terrific job here of capturing the sophisticated big-band pop of the man known as Mr. Soul.
Key tracks: “Little Red Rooster”, “Fools Paradise”, and “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen” and “Get Yourself Another Fool”.
2. Stop Making Sense – Talking Heads – recorded live at the Pantages Theatre, Hollywood, December 1983. Issued 1984 on Sire Records no. 925861.
Live recordings, particularly in the rock genre, present several challenges: the acoustic environments of arenas, the inevitable re-recording of certain tracks, the conflicting demands of live sound levels and the finished product, the inability to reproduce the audience connection, etc. All were overcome with Stop Making Sense, which is remarkable, considering that the project was far more a Jonathan Demme film than it was a rock show. David Byrne’s vocals are rendered with palpable excitement – the band behind him is powerfully dynamic and unfailingly on the beat, an unusual event for an art-rock group.
There is no Talking Heads release as compelling as this live album. It’s an unbridled joy to hear, even after 30 years, especially for the dynamic interplay between Chris Frantz on drums and Tina Weymouth on bass. The sound? – turn it up, and when you think it’s too loud, turn it up some more. The original pressing that sold for $7.98 was a sonic marvel, sounding as irresistible on a $500 stereo as it did on a $50,000 audiophile spectacular. This album was an audio salon staple all during the ’80s and is still a standout.
Key tracks: “Pyscho Killer”, “Take Me To The River”, “Once In A Lifetime”.
3. Court and Spark – Joni Mitchell – Nautilus Half-Speed Mastered Series Superdisc, originally issued on Elektra/Asylum, Nautilus recording issued 1980 on NR11.
Joni’s swooping, jazzy soprano is perfectly complemented by her own splendid piano artistry as well as the backing of some of the finest contemporary jazz musicians in Los Angeles: John Guerin on drums, Tom Scott on reeds, Joe Sample on electric piano, and guitarists Larry Carlton and Jose Feliciano to name a few. The album was quite a departure for Joni – it was her first venture into jazz-infused rhythms that were as far removed from her early folk recordings as Saskatoon was from Laurel Canyon. The Nautilus half-speed recording used imported virgin vinyl to deliver a deep and wide sonic landscape that revealed multi-layered textures in the vocals (check out the addition of Graham Nash and David Crosby on “Free Man in Paris”), as well as some daring guitar voicings. Particularly tasty is the Steely Dan-inflected arrangement of “Car on a Hill”.
There is a certain etched coolness to this record that reflects the songwriting, and those accustomed to her early recordings might hesitate over this one. The fault lies with her earlier recordings, from which the highest frequencies were lost due to careless mixing. Rest assured the sound on Court and Spark is spectacular throughout, and the Nautilus surfaces are virtually silent, even after thirty-five years of frequent play.
Key tracks: “Car on a Hill”, “Court and Spark”, “The Same Situation”, “Raised on Robbery”.
4. Acoustic Research Demonstration Record Volume 1: The Sound of Musical Instruments, by Various Artists, issued on Ensayo Records, 1975.
An essential recording, demanding the utmost from your system in terms of dynamics and shadings. The recording was issued by the American speaker manufacturer Acoustic Research, and consists of recordings made by internationally known musicians, as well as several artists from the important Spanish label Ensayo. The stated goal of the record was “a primary emphasis on the basic sound of the instrument”. It’s not your standard stereo demo record. Several selections were commissioned and recorded specifically for this project. The musical selections are of extraordinary quality, and the sound is well, both remarkable and tantalizing in its intimacy and accuracy.
Key tracks: “Ten to Two Blues” by the Russian jazz quartet headed by the outstanding trumpeter Dusko Goykovich, “Farruca” by the famed flamenco guitarist Manitas de Plata, and the redoubtable “Toccata in D Minor” – an organ spectacular played by Bruce Prince-Joseph. Of special interest for its amazing sound staging and natural string sound is Benjamin Britten’s “Frolicsome Finale” from his Simple Symphony for Strings, presented here by The English Chamber Orchestra, considered at the time to be the finest string orchestra then performing.
It won’t be easy to find a copy of this album, but it’s a keeper for its sonic purity and outstanding dynamics.
5. Holst: Suites 1 & 2 – Handel: Royal Fireworks – Bach: Fantasia in G performed by The Cleveland Symphonic Winds, conducted by Frederick Fennell
Telarc Digital Special Edition Audiophile Recording Stereo No. 5038, release date 1978
Telarc Records, based in Cleveland, Ohio was the pre-eminent force in the transition from analogue to digital recording in the classical field. Under renowned Sound Engineer Jack Renner and Mastering Engineer Stan Ricker, Telarc released a number of impressive recordings in the late 1970s and 1980s. What was unusual about Telarc, and this recording particularly, is that they attempted and succeeded with the nigh-impossible – to create an orchestral direct to disc recording, half-speed mastered, without limiting, filtering, compression, equalization or low frequency crossover.
The sonic results of this project are something most music fans have never experienced in their homes or even in an audio salon. Keep in mind this recording was made decades ago – the impact of the bass drum, the wide soundstage, the natural dynamics achieved delivered such an impact upon the listener as was never before experienced in the classical domain. Going on forty years later, this recording stands out as true innovation. Neil Young be damned; he simply didn’t bother to hear any Telarc albums when he made his famous rant about how lousy digital music was.
Don’t own any classical albums? – buy this one. It will give your speakers a workout they scarcely imagined. Any distortion you hear will be your amplifier running out of headroom.
6. Fleetwood Mac by Fleetwood Mac, an Original Master Recording, Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs MFSL 12, original Warner Brothers release 1975, MFSL release 1980.
Yes, we know that Rumours is available on Nautilus Half-Speed, but save your money for this one. In fact, if you have the original Warner Brothers version of Rumours you bought for $4.99, you have a damned fine record. Frankly, very few Nautilus records matched the Original Master Recording process delivered by Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs. And we might as well say this: you’ve probably heard Rumours much too often.
Get this one instead: the voicing, the ferocious drumming of Mick Fleetwood,the thrumming bass of John McVie, and the intimacy of Christine McVie’s vocals are impressively served up in this recording. MFSL never made a bad record, and this one shows the band at its best, long before fame caught up with them. Whereas Rumours is overwrought and too carefully conceived as the hit factory it came to be, their previous work is miles ahead. There’s a reason why Mobile Fidelity chose to work on this album rather than Rumours – the material is better, and the sound has an integrity that is missing from Rumours. Heresy? – take a listen for yourself to this pressing and then decide.
Key tracks: “Warm Ways”, “Over My Head”, and “World Turning”. The closer “I’m So Afraid” is a barn burner – Lindsey Buckingham was never better.
7. Going Home by The L .A. Four, East Wind Direct Cutting Japanese Pressing, 1977, EW-10004
Soul jazz at its best. The L. A. Four consisted of guitarist Laurindo Almeida, bassist Ray Brown, drummer Shelly Manne and saxophonist Bud Shank. They made two albums via this East Wind direct cutting process; the other was Pavane For A Dead Princess. They’re both stupendous works of jazz playing, but this one swings a little more. The sound is impeccable; you’d swear you were in a world-class jazz club listening to this album. The material, the performances, the arrangements are lovely almost beyond description.
Laurindo Almeida made one of the all-time great classical crossover albums with his 1958 classic Duets with Spanish Guitar – it was our first choice in our Top 10 Classical Albums Every Music Fan Should Own (our article here). Going Home demonstrates his facility as the leader of a fabulous jazz ensemble. This is one terrific album with natural sonics, quiet, unobtrusive and totally remarkable in its melodic impact.
Key Tracks: all of side two, and “Greensleeves”. Side Two is the one to start with, though. “Going Home”, which begins side One an adventurous arrangement of a Dvorak melody, is a slow and misleading start to an otherwise perfect recording.
8. Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd, CBS Records, released 1975
Yes, you probably have their best-selling Dark Side of the Moon in your library – almost everyone does. Or you’ve heard it tastefully rendered in your local planetarium ad nauseum. And it is spacey stuff with some amazing sound. In our view, Wish You Were Here is a far better collection of songs and sounds nearly as good.
Don’t bother with the 2011 vinyl remastering – the original 1975 analogue recording sounds just as good and you can probably pick up a used copy for less than $10. You’ll get a coherent narrative from beginning to end (which Dark Side wasn’t), an emotional commitment from the band members (the album was all about their passionately loved former bandmate – unfortunate, mad Syd Barrett), and instrumentation that sounds as current today as it did back then.
Key tracks: “Welcome to the Machine”, “Wish You Were Here” and “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”
9. Blues Masterworks- Howling’ Wolf – by Howling’ Wolf Delta Blues DELB005LP, release date 2013
Kudos to the Delta Blues label out of Britain. This is just one of a series of blues records that also features such luminaries as Muddy Waters, Elmore James, John Lee Hooker and more. Their Triple Play series is a bargain, as it includes a vinyl album, a CD and a digital download key.
Based on the Howlin’ Wolf release, the company is making serious strides in delivering outstanding sound in multiple formats. Distribution is limited to 1000 copies, so snap them up while you can.
Howlin’ Wolf was the seminal blues artist, in my view. He had an overwhelming physical and vocal presence that commanded attention, respect and admiration from all who witnessed his performances. Luckily, he was as talented in the studio as on the stage. Delta Blues personnel have captured his bluster, his agony and his triumph in these 25 tracks. This album is a delight.
Key Tracks: “Smokestack Lightning”, “Spoonful”, “How Many More Years?”
10. The Very Best of Roy Orbison – Roy Orbison – Monument Records, 1972, WSLP 18045 Stereo.
Famed songwriter Boudleaux Bryant pronounced Roy Orbison’s “Monument Period” as one of Roy’s “topmost pinnacles of achievement and one of the great contributions to the world of popular music”. Yet not nearly enough attention has been paid to the main underlying factor of his success, that being the singular sonic purity and beauty of these recordings. Much is owed particularly to sound engineer Bill Porter, who has been called the best engineer in the history of music. Porter not only oversaw every one of Orbison’s Monument hits, he also produced engineered the records of everyone from Elvis to Patsy Cline. No one ever made a great singer sound as good as Porter could.
In fact, Roy never had another hit record after he left Monument – not during his lifetime. It took the wizardry of Jeff Lynne (of ELO fame) to record Roy’s final album, Mystery Girl, in the late ’80s. Still, even Lynne’s talents pale in comparison to these Monument tracks.
From a whisper to a cry, from the slightest diminuendo to the greatest crescendo, no one in popular music ever matched Roy’s semi-operatic range.
If you purchase no other vinyl record on this list of outstanding vinyl, buy this one. Hunt it down, insist on an original pressing from the ’70s and pay any price for one in good condition. You’ll never forget the sonic impact of this recording.