Grammy Award Winners

Stevie Wonder – Fulfillingness’ First Finale

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  • Finding the right balance between Tubey Magical Richness and Transparency is the trick, and we think this copy strikes that balance as well as any pressing we’ve heard
  • Boogie On Reggae Woman and You Haven’t Done Nothing were the big hits but the other tracks on the album are where the real Stevie Wonder MAGIC can be found
  • 4 1/2 stars [but we give it 5]: “The songs and arrangements are the warmest since Talking Book, and Stevie positively caresses his vocals on this set, encompassing the vagaries of love, from dreaming of it (“Creepin'”) to being bashful of it (“Too Shy to Say”) to knowing when it’s over (“It Ain’t No Use”).”
  • We’ve recently compiled a list of records we think every audiophile should get to know better, along the lines of “the 1001 records you need to hear before you die,” but with less of an accent on morbidity and more on the joy these amazing audiophile-quality recordings can bring to your life. Fulfillingness’ First Finale is a good example of a record most audiophiles don’t know well but should.
  • If you’re a Stevie Wonder fan, and what audiophile wouldn’t be?, this title from 1974 is clearly one of his best, his two best in our opinion, just a tad behind his masterpiece, Inner Visions
  • The complete list of titles from 1974 that we’ve reviewed to date can be found here.

We’re big fans of Stevie here at Better Records, but it’s always a challenge to find good sound for his albums. Tons of great songs here, including the ones everybody knows, Boogie On Reggae Woman and You Haven’t Done Nothing. Both sound WONDERFUL on this pressing.

But…

For the first time in my life, over the course of the last five years or so I’ve really gotten to know the album well, having found a CD at a local store to play in the car (and now I also have a cassette to play in my Walkman while working out).

I’ve listened to Fulfillingness’ First Finale scores of times. I now see that it is some of the best work Stevie Wonder ever did, right up there with Innervisions and ahead of any other Stevie Wonder album, including Talking Book and Songs in the Key of Life.

The best songs on the album to my mind are the quieter, more heartfelt and emotional ones, not the rockers or funky workouts. My personal favorites on side one are: Smile Please. Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away, Too Shy to Say and Creepin’, which, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, are all the songs that weren’t hits.

On side two the two slowest songs are the ones I now like best: It Ain’t No Use & They Won’t Go When I Go (famously and brilliantly covered by George Michael on Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 in 1990). (more…)

Deodato – Prelude

A Well Recorded Album that Should Be More Popular with Audiophiles

CTI – A Label We Love

  • This killer pressing earned solid Double Plus (A++) grades on both sides – exceptionally quiet vinyl too
  • The brass and percussion are amazing on 2001 (and every other track), thanks to RVG, a many who knew how to do these kinds of big jazz productions better than practically anyone alive in 1973
  • We had no idea there was space this huge in the recording until we played some of the best copies
  • 4 stars: “Though overshadowed by ‘2001,’ the other tracks also hold up well today, being mostly medium-tempo, sometimes lushly orchestrated, conga-accented affairs that provide velvety showcases for Deodato’s lyrical electric piano solos… it still makes enjoyable listening.”
  • This title from 1973 is clearly Deodato’s best album, and his best recording
  • The complete list of titles from 1973 that we’ve reviewed to date can be found here.

Both sides are surprisingly sweet and Tubey Magical, nice qualities for a CTI record to have since so many of them are aggressive and edgy to the point of distraction.

Listen to the trumpet on the second track on side one — it’s so immediate, it’s practically JUMPING out of the soundfield, just bursting with energy. Rudy can really pull off these big productions on occasion, and this session was clearly one of them. If you have the kind of stereo that’s right for this music (the bigger the better) you could easily find yourself using this record as a demonstration disc. It’s very unlikely your audiophile friends have ever heard anything like it. (more…)

Stevie Wonder – Talking Book

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  • Richer, warmer, more natural, more relaxed, this is what vintage analog is all about, that smooth sound that never calls attention to itself and just lets the music flow
  • So many great songs: You Are the Sunshine of My Life, Tuesday Heartbreak, You’ve Got It Bad Girl, Superstition, and many, many more
  • 5 Stars: “What had been hinted at on the intriguing project Music of My Mind was here focused into a laser beam of tight songwriting, warm electronic arrangements, and ebullient performances — altogether the most realistic vision of musical personality ever put to wax…”

Those of you who are familiar with this record will not be surprised to learn that these shootouts are TOUGH. Very few copies are any better than mediocre.

This copy is more dynamic, open and transparent than most pressings BY FAR. There’s ton of space around all of the instruments, the bass is big and punchy and the vocals are present, warm and tonally right on the money. (more…)

Paul Simon – Still Crazy After All These Years

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  • This outstanding pressing boasts solid Double Plus (A++) sound from start to finish – exceptionally quiet vinyl too
  • An extremely tough album to find with the kind of big, spacious, Tubey Magical sound this pressing offers
  • Clean, clear and open are nice qualities to have, but the richer, smoother, more natural sounding copies are the ones that win our shootouts
  • 4 1/2 stars: “…he was never more in tune with his audience: Still Crazy topped the charts, spawned four Top 40 hits, and won Grammys for Song of the Year and Best Vocal Performance.”
  • If you’re a Paul Simon fan, this has to be considered a Must Own Title of his from 1975.
  • The complete list of titles from 1975 that we’ve reviewed to date can be found here.

The overall sound here is big and rich. You get texture to the instruments (check the strings in the title track) but a smooth quality to the vocals instead of the grit and strain you hear on most copies. There’s extension up top and weight down low. (more…)

Ella Fitzgerald / Ella Swings Lightly – Skip the Mono with Two Extra Songs Per Side

Hot Stamper Pressings of Ella Fitzgerald’s Albums Available Now

Ella Fitzgerald Albums We’ve Reviewed

Exceptionally lovely All Tube sound from 1958, with a huge, rich orchestra conducted by our man, Marty Paich. Grammy Award for Best Improvised Jazz Solo – these were the days when Ella was on top of the world.

When you are lucky enough to find a album that sounds as good as this one, full of standards from the Great American Songbook, you cannot help but recognize that this era for Ella will never be equaled, by her or anyone else.

The recording is outstanding, with huge amounts of space and the kind of midrange richness that might just take your breath away.

Skip the Mono

Like other albums from the ’50s, this one is much more common in mono than stereo, and, somewhat surprisingly, actually has two more songs per side. We found the sound of the mono pressings we played seriously wanting, with way too much compressor distortion when Marty Paich’s band gets going — or should we say tries to get going, because the constricted sound won’t let the band open up and swing the way it wants to.

We’re glad to say that this is a problem the best stereo copies did not have. The mono can be rich and full-bodied; on a mid-fi system it would probably sound just fine, because mid-fi stereos are rarely any good at projecting huge, three-dimensional, life-size images of a musical group this large.

On today’s modern stereos it leaves a lot to be desired, and for that reason, we say Skip the Mono.

For records that we think sound best in mono, click here. (more…)

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…)

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…)

Deodato / Prelude – A Brilliant Rudy Van Gelder Recording from 1973

Listen to the trumpet on the second track on side one — it’s so immediate, it’s practically JUMPING out of the soundfield, just bursting with energy. Rudy can really pull off these big productions on occasion, and this session was clearly one of them. If you have the kind of stereo that’s right for this music (the bigger the better) you could easily find yourself using this record as a demonstration disc. It’s very unlikely your audiophile friends have ever heard anything like it.

Both sides are especially full and rich. The congas are present in the mix and very full-bodied — this allow them to really drive the rhythmic energy of the music. We know this because the copies with congas that were veiled or thin never seemed to get up go. The bass on these two sides was some of the best we heard as well.

The top is most often the problem with these CTI pressings. Both sides here seem to give you all the top end that was on the tape.

There is wonderful transparency and openness to the soundstage, as well as less congestion in the loudest parts. Also Sprach (2001) is on side one of the album and it is KILLER here.

Both sides are also surprisingly sweet and Tubey Magical, nice qualities for a CTI record to have since so many of them are aggressive and edgy to the point of distraction. (more…)

Stevie Wonder – Hotter Than July

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  • A KILLER sounding copy with Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) sound or very close to it from start to finish
  • Forget whatever dead-as-a-doornail Heavy Vinyl record they’re making these days – if you want to hear the Tubey Magic, size and energy of this wonderful album, a vintage pressing like this one is the way to go
  • 4 1/2 stars: “Wonder naysayed the trends and continues to do what he did best. Solid songwriting, musicianship, and production are evident in the majority of Hotter Than July… It is the portrait of an artist who still had the Midas touch…”

*CONDITION NOTES: On side two, the last 2-3 seconds of Track 5, Happy Birthday, are somewhat crackly.

Most copies lack the presence, energy and bottom end weight to let these funky songs work their magic, but a copy like this will let you appreciate the music without the mediocre sonics of the average pressing getting in the way.

This album was recorded right at the beginning of the digital era (1980) and most pressings won’t let you forget that. So many copies we played were just too sterile to get into — clean and clear bit lacking richness and fullness. We’re huge Stevie Wonder fans around here and we’ve fallen in love with Innervisions and Songs In The Key Of Life over and over again because of their lush, analog sound on the best pressings. It took a ton of work (and a whole lot of copies) to find a Hotter Than July that we could get excited about. I don’t think there’s a copy out there that can compete with his earlier recordings sonically but at least the Hot Stamper pressings present the music in a way that audiophiles can enjoy. (more…)

Linda Ronstadt – Hasten Down The Wind

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  • This copy is doing it all — huge, rich and lively, with Linda’s vocals reproduced to near perfection
  • “Her big but pretty voice is a stunning instrument for expressing feelings, particularly intense feelings that require a slightly understated delivery… a fine album that begs closer inspection than, I fear, many of us are willing to give to Linda Ronstadt’s art. Like the best moments of the preceding nine, though, the best moments of Hasten Down the Wind will be with us a long, long time.”

The sound is rich, smooth, full-bodied and natural on both sides. In other words, this is Classic Analog from the ’70s, recorded by none other than Val Garay, one of our favorite engineers.

Most pressings of this album have quite obvious problems. If you own the record see if you don’t notice some of them on your own copy.

Some have a phony boosted top end, a subject we have discussed on Linda’s records before.

Some are just too fat and Tubey. Perhaps the result of too much Aphex Aural Excitement?

Some are thick, some are thin, some are too clean, some are not clean enough, every sonic issue you can imagine can be heard on this album if you have enough copies to play, and we had plenty.

We know that this copy is about as correct as can be. We know because we cleaned and played it and listened to it critically in comparison to other copies, and we did it all by ourselves. (Of course we did. There’s really no other way to do it.)

(more…)