Five Star Albums

Stevie Wonder – Innervisions

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Hot Stamper Pressings of Innervisions Available Now

  • With two outstanding Double Plus (A++) sides, this is an all around killer pressing – exceptionally quiet vinyl too
  • One of the funkiest audiophile-quality discs money can buy, but you need a copy that sounds as good as this one to make that case
  • The key qualities are richness, warmth, Tubey Magic, and clarity, and here you will find a healthy dose of all four
  • “Stevie Wonder applied his tremendous songwriting talents to the unsettled social morass that was the early ’70s and produced one of his greatest, most important works, a rich panoply of songs addressing drugs, spirituality, political ethics, and what looked to be the failure of the ’60s dream — all set within a collection of charts as funky and catchy as any he’d written before.”

Having done this for so long, we understand and appreciate that rich, full, solid, Tubey Magical sound is key to the presentation of this music. We rate these qualities higher than others we might be listening for (e.g., bass definition, soundstage, depth, etc.). The music is not so much about the details in the recording, but rather in trying to recreate a solid, palpable, real Stevie Wonder singing live in your listening room. The best copies have an uncanny way of doing just that. (more…)

Traffic – Self-Titled

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  • An incredible sounding Island pink label pressing and the first to hit the site in many years — Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) sound or very close to it on both sides
  • Both of these sides are rich, full-bodied and Tubey Magical yet still incredibly open and spacious; there’s tons of bottom end weight too!
  • “As Mason’s simpler, more direct performances alternate with the more complex Winwood tunes, the album is well-balanced… their second consecutive Top Ten ranking in the U.K.; the album also reached the Top 20 in the U.S.” – All Music, 5 Stars

This vintage Island pink label pressing has the kind of Tubey Magical Midrange that modern records can barely BEGIN to reproduce. Folks, that sound is gone and it sure isn’t showing signs of coming back. If you love hearing INTO a recording, actually being able to “see” the performers, and feeling as if you are sitting in the studio with the band, this is the record for you. It’s what vintage all analog recordings are known for — this sound. (more…)

John Lennon / Imagine – Our Shootout Winner from 2015

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  • Excellent Double Plus (A++) sound throughout – this was one of the better copies to emerge from our most recent shootout
  • These superb UK pressings are rich, weighty and oh-so-tubey – it took us a long time to find the right stampers
  • Two of our favorite engineers worked their magic on this recording – our thanks go to Eddie Offord and Shelly Yakus
  • 5 stars: “…it was only marginally less confessional than its predecessor. Underneath the sweet strings of “Jealous Guy” lies a broken and scared man, the jaunty “Crippled Inside” is a mocking assault at an acquaintance, and “Imagine” is a paean for peace in a world with no gods, possessions, or classes, where everyone is equal… A remarkable collection of songs that Lennon would never be able to better again.”

NOTE: A very small mark near the end of track three, side two, How Do You Sleep?, makes three loud pops.

Both sides here are excellent. capturing the essence of what Lennon and Phil Spector (and let’s not forget Yoko, who also gets a producer credit here) were going for. Copies that sound as good as this one do not grow on trees. If it wasn’t ridiculously difficult to find Hot Stamper pressings of Imagine it certainly would not have taken us until 2015 to offer one. (more…)

Roxy Music / Siren – The Atco Pressings Are the Only Game in Town

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More Five Star Albums Available Now

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  • You’ll find insanely good Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) grades on both sides of this early pressing of Roxy’s Art Rock classic from 1975
  • The sound here is richer, with much less transistory grain, and more of the All Important Tubey Magic than most other copies we played
  • Some of Bryan Ferry’s strongest and most consistent songwriting – Love Is The Drug, End of the Line, Sentimental Fool and more
  • 5 stars: “Abandoning the intoxicating blend of art rock and glam-pop that distinguished Stranded and Country Life, Roxy Music concentrates on Bryan Ferry’s suave, charming crooner persona for the elegantly modern Siren.”

Siren is one of our favorite Roxy albums, right up there with the first album and well ahead of the commercially appealing Avalon. After reading a rave review in Rolling Stone of the album back in 1975 I took the plunge, bought a copy at my local Tower Records and instantly fell in love with it.

As is my wont, I then proceeded to work my way through their earlier catalog, which was quite an adventure. It takes scores of plays to understand where the band is coming from on the early albums and what it is they’re trying to do. Now I listen to each of the first five releases on a regular basis. Even after more than thirty years the band’s music never seems to get old. That seems to be true of a lot of the records from the era that we offer on our site. Otherwise, how could we charge so much money for them?

Imports? Not So Fast

The British and German copies of Siren are clearly made from dubbed tapes and sound smeary, small and lifeless.

To be fair, Siren has never impressed us as an exceptionally good sounding recording. Like other middle period Roxy, records such as Country Life and Manifesto (the albums just before and after), it simply does not have Demo Disc analog sound the way For Your Pleasure, Stranded or the eponymous first album do (the latter two being the best sounding in their catalog).

One would be tempted to assume that the import pressings of Siren would be better sounding, the way the imports of the first four Roxy albums are clearly better sounding. There has never been a domestic Hot Stamper pressing of any of those titles and, since we never buy them or play them, there probably never will be.

But in the case of Siren it’s the imports that are made from dubs. It may be a British band, recorded in British studios with a British producer, but the British pressed LPs are clearly made from sub-generation tapes, whereas the domestic copies sound like they’re made from the real masters.

Go Figure. And another thing: when it comes to records, never assume.

The typical domestic pressing is flat, bass-shy and opaque, sounding more like compressed cardboard than analog vinyl. Unsurprisingly, the CD, whether imported or produced domestically, is clean and clear and tonally correct but lacks the warmth and richness of the better vinyl pressings. (more…)

Stevie Wonder – Songs In The Key Of Life

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  • This outstanding copy of Stevie Wonder’s epic double album boasts solid Double Plus (A++) sound or BETTER throughout – exceptionally quiet vinyl too
  • Here you will find Tubey Magical Richness, as well as the kind of immediacy and transparency that few copies have – all qualities essential to getting the best sound from Stevie’s Magnum Opus 
  • A true musical genius (according to Eddie Murphy) here joins forces with other legends including Herbie Hancock, George Benson, and Deniece Williams
  • 5 stars: “…Stevie Wonder’s longest, most ambitious collection of songs… that — just as the title promised — touched on nearly every issue under the sun, and did it all with ambitious (even for him), wide-ranging arrangements and some of the best performances of Wonder’s career. “

Double albums are usually very tedious work for us, but this one had us smiling and tapping our feet all the way through to the end of the last side. I’m sure you don’t need a rundown of why this is such a great album, but the 5 star AMG review is an excellent read for those who want to be reminded. (Click on the tab above.) (more…)

Hampton Hawes – Four!

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  • Four! finally makes its Hot Stamper debut with stellar Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) sound or close to it from first note to last
  • The timbre of the instruments in this brilliant jazz quartet is so spot-on it makes all the hard work and money you’ve put into your stereo more than pay off
  • Roy DuNann engineered some of the best sounding records we have ever heard – here’s a textbook example of what the audiophiles at Contemporary were able to achieve in the studio
  • 5 stars: “Pianist Hampton Hawes’ 1950s recordings for the Contemporary label are at such a high level that they could all be given five stars.”

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Neil Young – Rust Never Sleeps

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  • You’ll find outstanding Double Plus (A++) sound on both sides, making this one of the more enjoyable copies we played in our recent shootout – exceptionally quiet vinyl too
  • It’s not easy to find copies that get both the quieter, acoustic material and the big, rockin’ Crazy Horse stuff right, but this one managed it
  • 5 stars: “His strongest collection since Tonight’s the Night, its obvious antecedent was Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home, and, as Dylan did, Young divided his record into acoustic and electric sides while filling his songs with wildly imaginative imagery.”

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The Best Jazz Record Ever Made, or the Best Jazz Record We’ve Ever Played?

Reviews and Commentaries for Somethin’ Else

I ran across this listing for Cannonball Adderley’s Somethin’ Else today, a record we raved about after doing a shootout for it years ago. Notice the careful hedging in the phrases with newly added italics:

The music here is amazing — as I’m sure most of you know, this is as much a showcase for Miles Davis as it is for Cannonball himself — but the good news for audiophiles is that it’s also one of the BEST SOUNDING BLUE NOTE ALBUMS we know of. When you hear it on a copy like this, it’s just about As Good As It Gets.

After doing this shootout in 2015 I would like to amend the above remarks for being much too conservative. The current consensus here at Better Records is that this album deserves to hold three — count ’em, three — somewhat related titles:

One, The Best Sounding Blue Note record we have ever played.

Two, The Best Sounding Jazz Record we have ever played.

Three, Rudy Van Gelder’s Best Engineering (based on the copies we played).

Our shootout winners had more energy, presence, dynamics and three-dimensional studio space than any jazz recording we have ever heard. The sound was as BIG and BOLD as anything in our audio experience.

Add to that a perfectly balanced mix, with tonality that’s correct from top to bottom for every instrument in the soundfield and you may begin to see why we feel that the best copies of this album set a standard that no other jazz record we’re aware of can meet.

Have we played every Blue Note, every RVG recording, every jazz record?

Of course not. We would never make such a claim.

All Well and Good, But Bear This in Mind

In our defense, who could possibly claim to have critically evaluated the sound of more jazz records than we have?

There are multitudes of music experts in the world of jazz. For jazz sound quality the numbers must surely be orders of magnitude smaller, and here is where we’re [pretty sure we have more than a few critically valuable advantages, to wit:

  • better playback equipment,
  • better record cleaning technologies,
  • stacks of pressings of the same title,
  • a scientifically blinded approach and, most importantly of all,
  • a single-minded purpose. 

All our efforts are in service to only one end, to find the pressing with the ultimate in analog sound.

(Naturally we leave the sound of CDs and other digital formats to others. Although CDs often outperform their modern Heavy Vinyl pressing equivalent — here is a case in point — we know our lane and and are happy to stay within it.) (more…)

Elvis Costello / Armed Forces – A True Demo Disc from 1979

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  • With outstanding Double Plus (A++) sound from start to finish, this early UK pressing will show you just how good sounding Elvis’s Best Recording can be
  • Some of the biggest, boldest rock sound ever recorded
  • A Top 100 Demo Disc, and just amazing here – every track is Elvis at this best
  • 5 stars: “In contrast to the stripped-down pop and rock of his first two albums, Armed Forces boasted a detailed and textured pop production… However, the more spacious arrangements — complete with ringing pianos, echoing reverb, layered guitars, and harmonies — accent Costello’s melodies… It’s a dense but accessible pop record and ranks as his third masterpiece in a row.”

Armed Forces is one of the best-sounding rock records ever made, and a copy like this is proof enough to back up that claim. The best copies are extremely transparent and silky sounding, but with unbelievably punchy, rock-solid bass and drums.

I would say the sound of the rhythm section of this album ranks up there with the very best ever recorded. Beyond that, the musical chops of this band at this time rank with the very best in the history of rock. Steve, Bruce and Pete rarely get the credit they deserve for being one of the tightest, liveliest backing bands ever to walk into a studio or on to a stage.

The song Oliver’s Army on the first side is a perfect example of what we’re talking about. Rock music doesn’t get much livelier than that. Skip on down to Green Shirt for another track that’s as punchy as they come.

Virtually every other pressing of this record I’ve ever played sounds pale and washed out compared to the good British early pressings. It almost makes you wonder what happened to the tape; it seems as if this tape wasn’t used to make any records after this batch was pressed, it’s that big of a difference! (We have found surprisingly good British second pressings before but they are never competitive with the likes of these early ones.) (more…)

The Pretenders – Learning To Crawl

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  • A superb pressing of the band’s third studio album with Nearly Triple Plus (A++ to A+++) sound from start to finish – just shy of our Shootout Winner – exceptionally quiet vinyl too
  • It takes years to get a shootout for this album going – three to five is my best guess, so get while the gettin’s good if you’re a fan of the most muscular rock album this band ever recorded
  • Both sides of this (very specific) German pressing were richer, clearer and more energetic than virtually any of the others we played
  • With Robbie McIntosh having joined the band, this is first and foremost a guitar rock record – his brilliant, jangly, grungy riffs drive every song
  • 5 stars: “Three albums into her recording career, Chrissie Hynde found herself having to put the past to bed and carve out a new beginning for herself with Learning to Crawl, but she pulled it off with a striking mixture of courage, strength, and great rock & roll; with the exception of the instant-classic debut album, it’s the Pretenders’ finest work.”

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