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’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…)

Stevie Wonder – Talking Book

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  • With incredible Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) sound on side two, this is the way Talking Book is supposed to sound
  • 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…)

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

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

More Recordings by Rudy Van Gelder

And Another Well Recorded Album that Should Be More Popular with Audiophiles

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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.)

What the Best Sides of Hasten Down The Wind Have to Offer Is Not Hard to Hear

  • The biggest, most immediate staging in the largest acoustic space
  • The most Tubey Magic, without which you have almost nothing. CDs give you clean and clear. Only the best vintage vinyl pressings offer the kind of Tubey Magic that was on the tapes in 1976
  • Tight, note-like, rich, full-bodied bass, with the correct amount of weight down low
  • Natural tonality in the midrange — with all the instruments having the correct timbre
  • Transparency and resolution, critical to hearing into the three-dimensional studio space

No doubt there’s more but we hope that should do for now. Playing the record is the only way to hear all of the qualities we discuss above, and playing the best pressings against a pile of other copies under rigorously controlled conditions is the only way to find a pressing that sounds as good as this one does.

Val Garay Is The Man

Kudos once again must go to Val Garay, the co-engineer here with Dave Hassinger (who owns The Sound Factory where the album was recorded). Garay is the man behind so many of our favorite recordings: James Taylor’s JT (a Top 100 title), Simple Dreams (also a Top 100 title), Andrew Gold, Prisoner In Disguise, etc. They all share his trademark super-punchy, jump-out-the-speakers, rich and smooth ANALOG sound. With BIG drums — can’t forget those. (To be clear, only the best copies share it. Most copies only hint at it.)

I don’t think Mr. Garay gets anything like his due with audiophiles and the reviewers who write for them. This is a shame; the guy makes Demo Disc Quality Pop Records about as good as those kinds of records can be made. If you have a Big System that really rocks you owe it to yourself to get to know his work. This is truly a KNOCKOUT disc if you have the equipment for it. We do, and it’s records like this that make the effort and expense of building a full-range dynamic system so rewarding.

What We’re Listening For on Hasten Down The Wind

  • Energy for starters. What could be more important than the life of the music?
  • Then: presence and immediacy. The vocals aren’t “back there” somewhere, lost in the mix. They’re front and center where any recording engineer worth his salt would put them.
  • The Big Sound comes next — wall to wall, lots of depth, huge space, three-dimensionality, all that sort of thing.
  • Then transient information — fast, clear, sharp attacks, not the smear and thickness so common to these LPs.
  • Tight punchy bass — which ties in with good transient information, also the issue of frequency extension further down.
  • Next: transparency — the quality that allows you to hear deep into the soundfield, showing you the space and air around all the instruments.
  • Extend the top and bottom and voila, you have The Real Thing — an honest to goodness Hot Stamper.

Vinyl Condition

Mint Minus Minus is about as quiet as any vintage pressing will play, and since only the right vintage pressings have any hope of sounding good on this album, that will most often be the playing condition of the copies we sell. (The copies that are even a bit noisier get listed on the site are seriously reduced prices or traded back in to the local record stores we shop at.)

Those of you looking for quiet vinyl will have to settle for the sound of other pressings and Heavy Vinyl reissues, purchased elsewhere of course as we have no interest in selling records that don’t have the vintage analog magic of these wonderful recordings.

If you want to make the trade-off between bad sound and quiet surfaces with whatever Heavy Vinyl pressing might be available, well, that’s certainly your prerogative, but we can’t imagine losing what’s good about this music — the size, the energy, the presence, the clarity, the weight — just to hear it with less background noise.

TRACK LISTING

Side One

Lose Again 
The Tattler
If He’s Ever Near 
That’ll Be the Day 
Lo Siento Mi Vida 
Hasten Down the Wind

Side Two

Rivers of Babylon 
Give One Heart 
Try Me Again 
Crazy
Down So Low
Someone to Lay Down Beside Me

Billboard Review

That Queen of Lost Ladies whose golden heart is always broken by unfeeling men is back again with another unique delivery of country/pop/rock-oldies laments and defiant good-time pledges. Ronstadt’s highly effective stage image of the romantic female loser leads the listener smoothly through a wide variety of music by a staggering variety of songwriters. There’s even a lovely Spanish Tex-Mex song, shades of Freddy Fender.

Peter Asher’s production is again remarkable, particularly in the way it avoids repeating itself. It took Ronstadt a long and determined time to get to the top of the heap, but if she can keep up the quality of albums like this, she’ll be on top even longer.

Her big but pretty voice is a stunning instrument for expressing feelings, particularly intense feelings that require a slightly understated delivery for maximum effectiveness. Best cuts: “That’ll Be The Day,” “Lose Again,” “Give One Heart,” “Try Me Again,” “Rivers Of Babylon.”

Playboy Review

A few days after Linda Ronstadt released Hasten Down the Wind, we caught the country singer in concert. At the end of the first song, she asked the audience to bear with her — she was recovering from a cold and was still hoarse. We should all be so hoarse. During the next few hours, she moved through old favorites and introduced the audience to the songs on her new album. The verdict was unanimous: Ronstadt is stronger and more confident than ever before, and with good reason — the new material is equal, if not superior, to the best of her standards.

Backed by one of the strongest bands in the business, she moves from an infectious reggae tune, “Give One Heart,” to a funky Ry Cooder classic, “The Tattler” — then breaks your heart with “Someone to Lay Down Beside Me,” by Karla Bonoff. The nicest surprise of the evening (and of the album) was “Try Me Again,” a magnificent song in the tradition of “Love Has No Pride,” co-authored by Ronstadt and Andrew Gold. If Linda loses her voice, she can make it as a songwriter.

– Playboy, 12/76.

Grammy Winner

Hasten Down the Wind is a Grammy Award-winning 1976 album, her third straight million-selling album. Ronstadt was the first female artist in history to accomplish this feat. The album earned her a Grammy Award for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female in early 1977, her second of 11 Grammys. It represented a slight departure from 1974’s Heart Like a Wheel and 1975’s Prisoner in Disguise in that she chose to showcase new songwriters over the traditional country rock sound she had been producing up to that point. A more serious and poignant album than its predecessors, it won critical acclaim from critics and the general public alike.

The album showcased songs from artists such as Warren Zevon (“Hasten Down the Wind”) and Karla Bonoff (“Someone to Lay Down Beside Me”); both of whom would soon be making a name for themselves in the singer-songwriter world. The album also included a cover of a cover: “The Tattler” by Washington Phillips, which Ry Cooder had re-arranged for his 1974 album Paradise and Lunch. A reworking of the late Patsy Cline’s classic “Crazy” was a Top 10 Country hit for Ronstadt in early 1977.

Wikipedia

In Depth Rolling Stone Review

This is Linda Ronstadt’s tenth album (including the three made with her first group, the Stone Poneys). While it is certainly not in a league with her masterpiece, Heart Like a Wheel, (and I’m beginning to believe its perfection occurs but once in an artist’s career), Hasten Down the Wind is nonetheless representative of Ronstadt redivivus, of Ronstadt, the sensitive, introspective stirring we have admired all these years.

I’ve always appreciated Ronstadt’s good-natured approach to her remakes of rock ‘n roll oldies. The version of “That’ll Be the Day” included here neither alters my feelings for nor threatens the Buddy Holly original. Her reading could be tougher, but the music behind it — particularly the solo sparring between guitarists Andrew Gold and Waddy Wachtel — has enough bite to overcome the vocal shortcomings.

Ry Cooder’s “The Tattler” is one of the album’s two gems. Swirling electric piano figures and a barely audible mandolin establish an irresistibly exotic ambiance. Ronstadt’s interpretation is extraordinarily subtle, sly and witty. She sounds at peace with herself as she sings of foolish lovers who don’t take the time to discover love’s true meaning. She doesn’t battle the instruments; she doesn’t strain for high notes. She simply allows the beauty of this well-structured song to speak for itself.

Ultimately, there is the Ronstadt-Gold song, “Try Me Again.” As in “Love Has No Pride” and “Long Long Time,” something precious is at stake here. The song’s theme summons from Ronstadt myriad emotions; midway through the first verse, she is befuddled — not yet wanting to admit what is going on in her life:

Lately I ain’t been feeling right 
And I don’t know the cure, no 
Still I can’t keep from wonderin’ 
If I still figure in your life

Realization and abject resignation in the second verse turn into frustration by the third (“When you say you tried/And you know you lied/My hands are tied”), which elicits the final, desperate plea of the title.

Near the end of the song, Gold hammers out angry piano chords beneath Dan Dugmore’s sorrowful steel guitar lines, then comes back with a powerful guitar solo that is the instrumental topping for the quintessential Ronstadt performance.

Willie Nelson’s “Crazy,” an inspired choice, follows. After the tumult of “Try Me Again,” “Crazy”is rather a boozy coda; a “what the hell, you gotta give love a try” barroom ballad that is lighthearted and loose enough for Ronstadt to falter on the last line without destroying the mood.

This isn’t Heart Like a Wheel. But it is, despite its flaws, 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.

– David McGee, Rolling Stone, 10/2/76.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo – Shaka Zulu

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  • Insanely good sound throughout for this Grammy-winning record from 1987 with each side earning Triple Plus (A+++) grades or very close to it
  • This White Hot copy will show you just how good this Grammy winning record was supposed to sound
  • “In the wake of their participation on his Graceland album, Paul Simon produced this Ladysmith album, their most accessible work for Western ears, which is pristinely recorded and sung partially in English.” – All Music, 4 1/2 Stars

This Hot Stamper will show you just how good this Grammy winning record was supposed to sound, but for some reason (or reasons) never did, a story that anyone on this site is all too familiar with. In many ways this is actually a honest-to-goodness Demo Disc, with amazingly big, open, three-dimensional, clear and transparent sound. Both sides here probably show you what Roy Halee was hearing on the tape when he was mixing the album.

It may not be perfect, but it’s a whole lot better that the vast majority of records made in 1987, that I can tell you with no shortage of confidence. (more…)

Barbra Streisand – The Barbra Streisand Album

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A killer 360 original stereo pressing with Triple Plus (A+++) sound from start to finish – the first copy to hit the site in many years. We recently did a shootout for this album and were thrilled at how natural and immediate the sound on the best copies can be. Good Ol’ Babs (actually, a very young Babs here) sounds LOVELY on this pressing — her voice is rich, breathy and textured with stellar presence. The orchestra backing her sounds wonderful and there’s plenty of bass to set a nice foundation for the music.

Excellent, natural, unprocessed sound. And she does a very nice job with this set of standards. This, and the album Guilty, are the two Streisand records I’m most likely to play. (more…)