Genre – Rock – Pure Pop

Elton John’s Too Low For Zero – The Last in a Great Run

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  • You’ll find excellent Double Plus (A++) grades on both sides of this early British import LP – quiet vinyl too
  • There’s some real Tubey Magic on this album, along with breathy vocals and plenty of rock and roll energy 
  • I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues – the best song Elton’s done in the last 35 years – is killer here
  • One of engineer Bill Price’s best efforts behind the boards in the ’80s, and Chris Thomas’s production is State of the Art as usual
  • Allmusic 4 1/2 Stars: “Happily, this is a reunion that works like gangbusters, capturing everybody at a near-peak of their form.” 

Much of the production — the smooth, sweet harmony vocals, the rich, grungy guitars, the solid, warm piano — reminds me of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, one of the classics from back in the day when Gus Dudgeon was running the show.

Caribou (1974) and Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975) have a similarly glossy, perfectionist approach to production as well of course. It was 1975’s Rock of the Westies that went off in another direction. (more…)

Hall and Oates – H2O

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  • A stunning copy of this Hall and Oates classic from 1982 with a Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) side two, mated with solid Double Plus (A++) sound on side one – mostly quiet vinyl too
  • It’s lively, open, and natural – the voices of the two leads sound especially full-bodied, real and tonally correct from top to bottom, which is pretty much all you need to earn top grades in a shootout
  • Much more consistent than most of their releases, this one boasts three killer hits including Maneater, Family Man and my All Time Favorite by the band, One on One
  • 4 stars: “Private Eyes solidified Hall & Oates’ status as one of the most popular acts in America in the early ’80s, and…… with 1982’s H2O, they capitalized on its success, delivering an album that turned out to bigger than its predecessor, as it climbed higher on the charts and launched three Top Ten singles…”

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Christopher Cross – What to Listen For

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Hot Stamper Albums with Choruses that Are Big and Clear

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

There’s one test on side two that few copies do well on. The mostly instrumental section in the middle of Ride Like the Wind has a huge chorus singing in a wonderfully reverberant studio. Only the most transparent, most distortion-free copies let you clearly hear all their voices bouncing off the walls.

Take any two copies and listen for just this one effect and you will soon see that no two copies reproduce the reverberations identically, and many barely reproduce them at all.

Overall

The sound is full, rich, lively and even Tubey Magical in the best tradition of the glossy Pop Productions that were all the rage in the late-’70s. If you like Michael McDonald, Toto, The Doobies, Hall and Oates, The Bee Gees and countless other bands we have lovingly found a home for in our Hot Stamper sections you will no doubt find much to like here.

A guilty pleasure you say? When a record sounds this good there is nothing to feel guilty about!

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Baja Marimba Band – Rides Again

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Yet Another Record We’ve Discovered with (Potentially) Excellent Sound

  • Baja Marimba Band returns with this superb copy of Rides Again, boasting Double Plus (A++) sound on both sides and vinyl that is about as quiet as we can find it
  • We guarantee there is dramatically more space, richness, vocal presence, and performance energy on this copy than others you’ve heard, and that’s especially true if you made the mistake of buying whatever Heavy Vinyl pressing is currently on the market
  • If you are familiar with other top recordings released by A&M engineered by Larry Levine, the killer Herb Alpert and Sergio Mendes albums just to mention a few, you know the sound of Rides Again
  • Super tubey, with low end weight and performance energy that leave most other records from 1965 in the dust

Larry Levine was the resident engineering genius at A&M Records, the man responsible for many of the best sounding Sergio Mendes albums.  What most people don’t realize is how good the best Herb Alpert recordings are, as well as the ones Herb produced, such as the second Baja Marimba Band album here.

The reason is simple: most of the A&M pressings out there only hint at the wonderful recording quality of these albums.

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Steve Winwood – Back In The High Life

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  • Both sides of this UK copy of Steve Winwood’s Solo Masterpiece earned outstanding Double Plus (A++) grades or BETTER
  • This early British pressing is guaranteed to be dramatically bigger, richer, fuller and smoother than anything you’ve heard
  • Higher Love with better than Double Plus sound? You’re gonna love it! And there’s really not a bad track on the album
  • “The first undeniably superb record of an almost decade-long solo career … the passion long smoldering in his finest work explodes in the album-opening duet with Chaka Khan, Higher Love…” — Rolling Stone

On the best copies, the sound is spacious and high-resolution. The bright, dry, grainy, analytical sound is replaced with something warmer, richer, fuller, sweeter, smoother — in other words, more ANALOG sounding. (more…)

Toto – Self-Titled

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  • This copy of Toto’s debut boasts Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) sound or very close to it from the first note to the last
  • Toto’s albums have the kind of analog sound we love here at Better Records – they’re rich, huge and present, with tons of Tubey Magic and wall to wall spaciousness
  • Lukather’s overdriven guitar adds so much power to the music – the perfect combo of Grungy guitars and Rock Star vocals makes Hold the Line a staple of rock radio to this day
  • 4 stars: “Toto’s rock-studio chops allowed them to play any current pop style at the drop of a hi-hat: one minute prog rock, the next hard rock, the next funky R&B. Singles like “I’ll Supply the Love” made the charts, and “Hold the Line” hit the Top Ten.”

This is analog, make no mistake about it. Those smooth sweet vocals, open top and rich full bottom are a dead giveaway that you are playing a record and not a CD. (I understand the CD for this title is awful; bright, thin and downright painful. This is the problem with the CD: if they do a bad job making it, and you no longer own a turntable, what are your options? Squat, pretty much.)

Pop production techniques were very advanced by 1978, providing plenty of natural sounding roomy reverb around the vocals and guitars. Lukather’s overdriven, distorted guitar has near-perfect tonality; it adds so much power to the music.

Just like the Hot Stampers for Aqualung, when the guitar sounds this good, it really makes you sit up and take notice of the guy’s playing. When the sound works the music works, our definition of a Hot Stamper in seven words or less.

Turn up the volume? You better believe it!

Our Recent Shootout

This shootout got off to a very rocky start; we were on the verge of giving up after playing two very bad, sub-generation side ones, cut at The Mastering Lab just like all the rest, but so bad even the CD might be better. If you have an awful copy, we feel your pain.

But Copy Number Three showed us the real Toto sound: the kind of sweetness and warmth we had been hoping to hear and fearing might not exist. Sure, Toto IV has killer sound, but that’s no guarantee that the first album would be recorded (or mastered or pressed) as well. In the world of audio — vinyl, equipment, what have you — there are no guarantees. The average 180 gram remastered audiophile pressing should be all the proof you need. Good intentions don’t count for much in this business or anywhere else for that matter.

Enough about bad audiophile records. Copy number three also had jump-out-of-the-speakers presence without being aggressive, gritty or strident, no mean feat for a pop record from this era. Like all the best rock records, the good ones make you want to turn up the volume; the louder they get the better they sound. Yes, some copies of Toto IV are so rich and sweet you would think they were recorded ten years earlier. (The clarity and tremendous dynamics seem a tad more modern, which is a good thing, right?)

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James Taylor – Gorilla

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  • Two insanely good Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) sides for one of James Taylor’s best softer rock albums
  • Soulful JT at his best, an underappreciated album by our man and one that belongs in your collection
  • Mexico, How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You) and I Was A Fool To Care are standouts – there are no weak tracks here
  • Rolling Stone notes, “With Gorilla, Taylor is well on his way to staking out new ground. What he’s hit upon is the unlikely mating of his familiar low-keyed, acoustic guitar-dominated style with L.A. harmony rock and the sweet, sexy school of rhythm and blues.”

*NOTE: On side one, a mark makes 12 light ticks at the beginning of Track 1, Mexico.

This is soft rock at its best, made up primarily of love songs, and helped immensely by the harmonically-gifted backing vocals of Graham Nash and David Crosby.

Rolling Stone notes that “With Gorilla, Taylor is well on his way to staking out new ground. What he’s hit upon is the unlikely mating of his familiar low-keyed, acoustic guitar-dominated style with L.A. harmony rock and the sweet, sexy school of rhythm and blues.”

To be honest, the recording of Gorilla itself cannot compete with the likes of Sweet Baby James or JT, both of which are Top 100 Titles. It can be a good sounding record, not a great one, certainly not in the same league as those two. (more…)

James Taylor – In The Pocket

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  • Stunning sound throughout with both sides earning Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) sound or very close to it
  • Both of these sides are SUPERB in all respects; there’s plenty of Tubey Magic, and that’s one quality that’s hard to come by on this album
  • Rich, sweet, and lively — Woman’s Gotta Have It sounds fantastic here
  • An underappreciated album that we’re big fans of here at Better Records!

The quality of the songwriting is what makes this album such a moving listening experience. These songs are superb, individually and collectively, and can hold their own up against those found on Gorilla, an album with which In the Pocket has much in common.

Just as they did on Gorilla, Taylor and his multi-talented, multi-tracking production team polish these songs into three and four minute gems of popcraft, and they do so without ever compromising the emotional heart of the material. I’ve searched and I honestly cannot find a bad song on the album. Better than that, not even a weak one.

Both of these sides are SUPERB in all respects. There’s plenty of Tubey Magic, and that’s one quality that’s hard to come by on this album. They’re super rich, smooth, yet transparent and high-rez. The vocals are breathy, and again, that is not something we heard nearly enough of in our shootout.

And no hardness. This is key. And the best tonal balance, which is also key. (more…)

The Fifth Dimension – The Age of Aquarius

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  • An outstanding copy of The Age of Aquarius with seriously good Double Plus (A++) sound from start to finish – exceptionally QUIET vinyl too
  • Tubey Magical sweetness and richness is key, and here you will find plenty of both, with virtually no sacrifice in presence, clarity or resolution
  • You can thank legendary engineer and producer Bones Howe, the man behind the phenomenal recordings of The Association, The Turtles and even the likes of Tom Waits(!)
  • 4 stars: “The Age of Aquarius, the 5th Dimension’s fourth album, was the group’s commercial peak… The 5th Dimension were the successors to the L.A. vocal group mantle passed on by The Mamas and the Papas… their work had a sheen and a zest that sometimes contrasted with the original tone of the material.”

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The Mamas & The Papas – The Mamas & The Papas

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  • This superb pressing boasts insanely good Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) sound on side one and an outstanding Double Plus (A++) side two
  • Clear, rich, present vocals, tons of Tubey Magic, and a solid bottom end; this quintessential 60’s pop album really comes to life here
  • 4 stars: “Sometimes art and events, personal or otherwise, converge on a point transcending the significance of either… For the Mamas & the Papas, it happened twice, with their first album, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, and, on a more complex level, with this album.”

This album is ridiculously difficult to find good sound for, but this pressing finally hit the mark! While we have to wade through dozens of copies to find one this impressive, we’re happy to do it because we love records and we love the music of The Mamas and the Papas.

Unfortunately, most copies of this album sound like distorted cassettes. They’re clearly made from tapes that are at least one and probably more like two or three generations down from the master two-track mix.

The CD that Hoffman cut for MCA back in the day can be quite good, and the Creeque Alley double CD set sounds fine to these ears as well. But they’re CDs. They won’t satisfy the serious analog devotee.

Enough about that stuff. Let’s talk about the sound of the best pressings. (more…)