A List of Personal Favorites

Bryan Ferry – The Bride Stripped Bare – Our Shootout Winner from 2013

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A distinguished member of the Better Records Rock Hall of Fame.

It’s been years since I last played this album, and I’m happy, ecstatic even, to report that it sounds far better than I remember it sounding. In the old days I recall it as somewhat dry, flat and transistory. Now it’s BIG and BOLD, revealing a band that’s on fire in the studio. 

This White Hot side two had by far the most energy of any side we played, showing us just what a monster rocker this album can be when it’s mastered and pressed right. The reviews were mixed when the album was released in 1978 but time has been kind to it — after hearing the killer copies I would rank it up at the top with the best of Ferry’s and Roxy’s work.

The first three tracks are uptempo barn burners sure to get you out of any funk you may find yourself in, day or night.

With a sonic grade of A++ side one was nearly as good! The Tubey Magic on this side is much more pronounced than it is on side two, which has more of a clean, spacious sound, a better mix to be sure.

We were a bit surprised to find that the domestic copies we played were clearly better sounding than the UK imports. It may be counterintuitive but these are the kinds of things you find out when doing shootouts. We have little use for intuitions (UK recording, UK pressing) and rules of thumb (original equals better). Hard data — the kind you get from actually playing the records — trumps them all.

AGAIG Side Two

This side two has it all: the kind of transparency that allows you to hear into the soundfield like never before; presence and immediacy in Ferry’s breathy, emotional vocals; air and ambience around all the instruments; and especially Rick Marotta’s super-punchy drums, so high up in the mix. That front and center snare is the sound we love here at Better Records!

This side one also had REAL ENERGY and dynamics not found on other pressings. With dynamics AND the warmth and richness found here, we’re pretty sure this copy can’t be beat. (more…)

Nat King Cole – Unforgettable

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A distinguished member of the Better Records Rock and Pop Hall of Fame.

Our shootout winner here had the clearest, most natural vocals, with a living, breathing Nat King Cole front and center. Hard to believe some of these songs date back to 1946, with the most recent being from 1954. No matter; whatever the limitations of the recording technology, they knew enough of what they were doing to get Nat’s voice consistently right for practically every track. 

One of the key elements we noticed on the best of the best was the relaxation in Nat’s performance. He sings so effortlessly on the best copies; on other pressings you often don’t notice that casual quality.

Warmth and sweetness were nearly as important, the distinctive and unmistakeable hallmarks of vintage All Tube Analog. Each of these qualities combined to make the music on these sides as thoroughly involving and enchanting as any album of its kind we have ever offered.

The Hunt

Naturally we’re always on the lookout for Nat King Cole records with good sound. In our experience finding them is not nearly as easy as one might think it would be. Far too many of his recordings are drenched in bad reverb, with sound that simply can’t be taken seriously — fine for old consoles but not so good on modern audiophile equipment.

At least one we know of has his voice out of phase with the orchestra on most copies, which put a quick end to any hope of finishing the shootout we had started.

If anything the sound on his albums gets even worse in the ’60s. Many of Nat’s albums from that decade are over-produced, bright, thin and shrill. (more…)

The Band – Music From Big Pink

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  • Two strong Double Plus (A++) sides AND quiet vinyl make this a consistently impressive copy of this all-time classic album
  • Forget all those lifeless, ambience-free, vague sounding Heavy Vinyl pressings – THIS is the sound of the album
  • It’s big, punchy and dynamic, and resolves all the intricacies of the recording that make it so interesting to us audiophiles
  • 5 stars on Allmusic: “Over time, Music from Big Pink came to be regarded as a watershed work in the history of rock, one that introduced new tones and approaches to the constantly evolving genre.”

We guarantee you have never heard Music from Big Pink sound remotely as good as it does on this very copy. (more…)

Carole King – Tapestry – Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?

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Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises with specific advice on What to Listen For (WTLF) as you critically evaluate your copy of Tapestry.

Notice how the third track on side two, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, which Carole wrote when she was only eighteen and which became a big hit for The Shirelles, is actually the best sounding song on the entire album.

I have a theory that this song was recorded toward the end of the sessions, and the reason it sounds so good is that it took them until then to figure out how to do it. This is no Demo Disc by any means. The recording itself seems to have shortcomings of every kind from track to track. Perhaps as they made their way through the sessions they were learning from their mistakes, mistakes that no one could go back and fix without starting from scratch all over again, and by the time they got to this track they had it all figured out. Of course that is just a guess, nothing but speculation on my part. Regardless of the cause, see if you don’t hear what I’m talking about. 

What to Listen For (WTLF)

One of the most telling qualities that the best copies displayed is the ability to hear through the mix to Carole’s piano, which is often placed toward the back of the mix, underpinning the music, not playing a prominent role. The best copies really let you follow her all the way through every song, no matter how quietly she is playing or how far back in the mix she may be. If the pressing has a thinner sound, obviously it’s easy to pick up on the precussive nature of the instrument. The trick is to hear the full range of notes, and for that you need fullness and transparency.

Carole, We Love You

We went nuts for this album during our big shootout. Since most of the time we’re playing testosterone-fueled, raging classic rock, it was a nice change of pace for us — and certainly easier on our poor eardrums! Our man JT makes an appearance playing acoustic guitar on a number of tracks, most notably You’ve Got A Friend, and his pals Russ Kunkel and Danny Kootch turn up too, with Kootch handling most of the electric guitar duties.

What’s surprising, if you haven’t played this album in a while, is how good non-hit tracks like “Home Again” can be. But there aren’t many of those non-hits on this album, and that’s a good thing; almost every song was a hit or received a lot of radio play. The quality of the material is that good.

Loggins & Messina – Sittin’ In – What to Listen For

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Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises with specific advice on What to Listen For (WTLF) as you critically evaluate your copy of Sittin’ In. 

Practically any copy you find will have a bit of a boost in the bottom end. The kick drum really kicks on this album, more than it should in fact.

And almost all copies have too much top end right around 10k. The ones with the worst case of boosted highs and boosted bass sound like they were mastered by Stan Ricker and pressed in Japan, much like those put out by a famous label back in the ’70s.

Oddly enough, many audiophiles to this day do not seem to know that this particular label has been responsible for a slough of the phoniest sounding audiophile records ever pressed.

There is also a sibilance problem with the recording. Some copies keep it under control, while other, more crudely mastered and pressed ones, suffer greatly from spitty vocals, especially noticeable on Danny’s Song. The better copies will tend to have the “cleanest”, least-objectionable sibilance.

The best copies manage to keep the EQ anomalies within bounds, while giving us full-bodied pianos; rich, lively vocals, full of presence and brimming with enthusiasm; harmonically-rich guitars; and a three-dimensional soundstage, revealing the space around them all.



Further Reading

We have a large number of entries in our new Listening in Depth series.

We discuss the issue of Sibilance in these listings.

We have a section for Audio Advice of all kinds.

You can find your very own Hot Stamper pressings by using the techniques we lay out in Hot Stamper Shootouts — The Four Pillars of Success.

And finally we’ll throw in this old warhorse discussing How to Become an Expert Listener, subtitled Hard Work and Challenges Can Really Pay Off.

Because in audio, much like the rest of life, hard work and challenges really do pay off.

AMG 4 1/2 Star Rave Review

This debut album was credited to Kenny Loggins with Jim Messina because the project had begun as a solo record by Loggins being produced by Messina. By the time it was finished, however, Messina had written or co-written six of the 11 songs, contributed “first guitar,” and shared lead vocals on many tracks. Messina’s “Nobody but You” and “Vahevala,” co-written by Loggins’ second cousin, Dave Loggins, were the singles chart entries, but today everybody remembers the album for Loggins’ “House at Pooh Corner,” which had earned Loggins his record contract, and “Danny’s Song,” which Anne Murray took into the Top Ten the following year.

The only thing wrong with this record is that it was too perfect — with their infectious blend of country, folk, rock and Caribbean music, L&M started out at the top of their game, and although they were able to match some of the material and performances on later records, the team never got any better than this.

Gerry Rafferty – City To City – What to Listen For

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Another in our series of Home Audio Exercises with specific advice on What to Listen For (WTLF) as you critically evaluate your copy of City to City.

Listen to the chorus on the first track, The Ark. On the best copies it really gets loud without becoming harsh or shrill. So many popular albums have choruses (and guitar solos) that are no louder, and sometimes not even as loud, as the verses, which rob the songs of any real drama or power. This recording has the potential to give you a dramatic, powerful, loud chorus. It’s a thrill when you find a pressing that delivers on that promise. (more…)

Prokofiev / Symphonies No. 1 & 7 – Seventies EMI Classical LPs and Vintage Tube Playback

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What to listen for on this album? That’s easy: The all-too-common ’70s EMI harshness and shrillness. We could never understand why audiophiles revered EMI as a label the way they did back the day. I chalk it up — as I do most of the mistaken judgments audiophiles tend to make about the sound of records, my own included — to the limitations of the equipment, bad rooms and poor record cleaning. 

If you had vintage tube equipment back in the ’70s — McIntosh, Marantz, etc. (I myself had an Audio Research SP3-A1 and a D-75a, later a D-76a) — the flaws heard on most copies of this record wouldn’t be nearly as offensive as they are to those of us playing them on the much more revealing systems that are possible today. (more…)

Robert Palmer – Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley – His Best Album By Far

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A distinguished member of the  Better Records Rock and Pop Hall of Fame.

TWO EXCELLENT SIDES on this British Sunray Island pressing. SSTTA is very hard to find nowadays, but we managed to put together a big enough stack to make a shootout possible, and this copy acquited very well indeed — it was miles ahead of the typical pressing. As is usually the case with these originals, the vinyl is a bit noisier than ideal at Mint Minus Minus.

No doubt this is the best album Robert Palmer ever made. With Lowell George’s unmistakable slide guitar and members of the Meters providing backup, as well as the amazing Bernard Purdie on drums, it’s the only Robert Palmer release that consistently works all the way through as an album. The entire first side is excellent from top to bottom, with the title track being our favorite RP song of all time.  (more…)

The Turn Up Your Volume Test – Bonnie Raitt’s Home Plate

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Another in the long list of recordings that really comes alive when you Turn Up Your Volume.

This is a classic case of a record that really starts to work when the levels are up. It’s so free from distortion and phony processing it wants to be played loud, and that’s the level this music works at. It’s the level it was no doubt mixed at, and that mix sounds pretty flat at moderate levels. If you want to hear the real rockin’ Bonnie Raitt you gots to turn it up!

Like a lot of the best recordings from the mid-’70s, the production and recording quality are clean and clear, and we mean that in a good way. There is very little processing to the sound of anything here; drums sound like drums, guitars like guitars, and Bonnie sings without the aid of autotuning — because she can sing on-key, and beautifully. Her vocals kill on every song. (Her dad had a pretty good set of pipes too.) (more…)

Sly and The Family Stone – Stand

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  • With stunning Triple Plus (A+++) sound on the first side and Double Plus (A++) on the second, this copy will be tough to beat!
  • Tired of the crude, congested, hard, harsh and otherwise unpleasant sound of most pressings? We have the answer
  • Stand, I Want To Take You Higher, Sing A Simple Song, Everyday People, You Can Make It If You Try — what a killer lineup of songs!
  • 5 stars: “Stand! is the pinnacle of Sly & the Family Stone’s early work, a record that represents a culmination of the group’s musical vision and accomplishment.”

Good News

Finally, a White Hot copy of Sly’s classic Stand album from 1969, one of the few times that this album has EVER sounded the way it is supposed to! Man, most copies of this album just plain suck — sonically of course.

Both sides here have lively punchy drums; a big soundfield, front to back and side to side; tonally correct vocals (which obviously are key and sound edgy and thin on most copies), and real resolution to the sound overall, not opaque and blurry as would be expected from most greatest hits compilations. Also just as importantly you lose the sibilance most copies suffer from and the smear on the horns goes away, thank goodness.

Finding clean copies was quite difficult; it took us a long time to get enough to play, and, as we said, most pressings are dreadful. Those of you who like to read our commentaries and play along at home are going to have a rough time with this title. We sure did, until we got it figured out. Now it’s easy as pie.

TRACK LISTING

Side One

Stand! 
Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey 
I Want To Take You Higher 
Somebody’s Watching You 
Sing A Simple Song

Side Two

Everyday People 
Sex Machine 
You Can Make It If You Try

AMG 5 Star Review

Stand! is the pinnacle of Sly & the Family Stone’s early work, a record that represents a culmination of the group’s musical vision and accomplishment. Life hinted at this record’s boundless enthusiasm and blurred stylistic boundaries, yet everything simply gels here, resulting in no separation between the astounding funk, effervescent irresistible melodies, psychedelicized guitars, and deep rhythms. Add to this a sharpened sense of pop songcraft, elastic band interplay, and a flowering of Sly’s social consciousness, and the result is utterly stunning.