Top Artists – Elton John

Elton John – These Strings Are a Tough Test

More of the Music of Elton John

Reviews and Commentaries for Elton John’s Self-Titled Second Album

What’s especially remarkable about this album is the quality of Paul Buckmaster‘s string arrangements. I don’t know of another pop record that uses strings better or has better string tone and texture. Strings are all over this record, not only adding uniquely interesting qualities to the backgrounds of the arrangements but actually taking the foreground on some of the songs, most notably Sixty Years On.

When the strings give in to a lovely Spanish guitar in the left channel (which sounds like a harp!) just before Elton starts singing, the effect is positively glorious. It’s the nexus where amazing Tubey Magical sound meets the best in popular music suffused with brilliant orchestral instrumentation. Who did it better than The Beatles and Elton John? They stand alone.

Correct string tone and texture are key to the best-sounding copies. The arrangements are often subtle, so only the most transparent copies can provide a window into the backgrounds of the songs that reproduce the texture of the strings.

Without extension on the top, the strings can sound shrill and hard, a common problem with many pressings and one that positively ruins any chance of musical involvement.

Without a good solid bottom end the rockers (“Take Me to the Pilot”) don’t work either of course, but you can even hear problems in the lower strings when the bass is lightweight.

String tone on a pop record is a tough nut to crack, even more so on a record like this where the strings play such a prominent role. It’s the rare copy that allows you to forget the recording and lets you just enjoy the music.

For that you really need a Hot Stamper.

These Are Some of the Qualities We’re Listening For in Our Shootouts for Elton’s Eponymous Second Album

There are probably closer to a dozen, but some of the more important ones would be:

Ambience, Size and Space

High Frequency Extension

Midrange Congestion 

Midrange Presence

Smear

String tone and texture

Transparency 


Extraordinary Engineering

There are three amazing-sounding Elton John records on our Top 100 list, one of them engineered by the estimable Robin Geoffrey Cable, Trident Studios’ house engineer in 1972. His work on this album and Tumbleweed Connection marks him as one of the All-Time Greats in my book. Madman Across the Water, the album to follow, seems to be a more difficult recording to master properly. That said, the best copies — we call them White Hot Stampers – are very nearly as good sounding as the two titles mentioned above.

*The others are, in order of quality: Tumbleweed Connection (#1), Honky Chateau (#2), Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (#3) and Madman Across the Water (#5).

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Elton John – Self-Titled

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Reviews and Commentaries for Elton John’s Second Album

  • This is an original UK pressing with superb sound — it’s a Must Own album for all right thinking audiophile record lovers, not just Elton John fans
  • No modern record has ever sounded like this – these sides are HUGE, with sound that positively jumps out of the speakers
  • Some of the most remarkable string arrangements (and Tubey Magical string sound) ever recorded for a pop album
  • 4 1/2 stars: “Even with the strings and choirs that dominate the sound of the album, John manages to rock out on a fair share of the record. …Elton John remains one of his best records.”

Folks, if you’re looking for Classic Popular Music that still appeals to sophisticated adults fifty-plus years after it came out, this is the album for you. It’s one of the four Classic Elton John records (five if you count GYBR) that belong in every right-thinking audiophile’s collection.

(The others are, in order of quality: #1) Tumbleweed Connection, #2) Honky Chateau, #3) Goodbye Yellow Brick Road , and #4) Madman Across the Water.)

It’s full of analog Tubey Magic — the richness, sweetness, and warmth are nothing short of stunning. The transparency, clarity, texture, dynamics, energy, spaciousness, and three-dimensionality of this recording are really something to be heard.

The piano has real weight, the vocals are breathy and full, and the string tone is some of the best we have ever heard on a pop album.

Drop the needle on Border Song. When it hits the big “Holy Moses” chorus, you can pick out and follow all the different voices. What sounds like a harp on Sixty Years On is actually a Spanish Guitar. Whatever it is, it’s positively sublime on the best pressings.

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Elton John / Honky Chateau – Salvation Is a Great Test

More of the Music of Elton John

Reviews and Commentaries for Honky Chateau

More Records that Are Good for Testing Big, Clear and Lively Choruses

We award the Four Plus A++++ grade so rarely that we don’t have a graphic for it in our system to use in the grading scale. So the side two here shows up on the chart as A+++, but when you hear this copy you will know why we gave it a fourth plus. [We no longer give Four Pluses out as a matter of policy, but that doesn’t mean we don’t come across records that deserve them from time to time.)

When I hear a record with a side this phenomenally good, with the stereo tuned-up and tweaked within an inch of its life to reproduce the album at the highest level I can manage, I will sometimes sit my wife down and play her a track or two. I did it for a Four Plus Deja Vu earlier this year [2016] as a matter of fact, playing Country Girl: Whiskey Boot Hill on side two, with that crazy HUGE organ blasting out of the right speaker — what a thrill!

For this record I played her Salvation, with one huge chorus following another, like powerful waves crashing on the shore, until Elton takes a deep breath and belts out the final, biggest chorus, hitting his peak an octave higher and taking the song to a level neither one of us had ever experienced. We followed it up with the lovely Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters, and that was about as much Elton John live in my listening room at practically concert hall levels we could take in one sitting.

Hearing Elton with such energy, standing right in front of use, with instruments and singers encircling him from wall to wall and floor to ceiling, was so powerful and immersive it left us both with tears in our eyes.

That’s what gets you a Fourth Plus around these parts. (more…)

Elton John – Too Low For Zero

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  • You’ll find outstanding Double Plus (A++) grades on both sides of this early British import LP – exceptionally quiet viny too
  • There’s 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, produced by none other than Chris Thomas – is a good reason to own the album
  • 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
  • 4 1/2 stars: “Happily, this is a reunion that works like gangbusters, capturing everybody at a near-peak of their form.”
  • If you’re an Elton John fan, and what audiophile wouldn’t be?, this title from 1983 is surely a Must Own
  • The complete list of titles from 1983 that we’ve reviewed to date can be found here.

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. It was 1975’s Rock of the Westies that went off in another direction.

The next six albums, from Blue Moves to Jump Up, at least to these ears, don’t sound good enough or have the kind of consistently high-quality material that was the hallmark of the six albums recorded from 1970 to 1973. Four of those are in our Top 100 Rock and Pop album list, and all four are Must Owns in my book. Pop music just doesn’t get any better.

So if Too Low For Zero reminds us in any way of those albums, especially in the songwriting department now that Bernie Taupin has rejoined team Elton after a too-long hiatus, that is all to the good.

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Elton John – Empty Sky

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More Debut Albums of Interest

  • This outstanding pressing of Elton John’s debut solo album boasts excellent sound throughout
  • With plenty of energy, killer bass, and clear, present vocals, this pressing has all the key qualities we look for in an Elton John record
  • About as quiet a copy as we can find — they’re usually pretty beat which is why you so rarely see them on the site
  • “… it also marked the beginning of his long and fruitful collaboration with lyricist Bernie Taupin. Empty Sky is quite indicative of the post-Sgt. Pepper’s era. With its ambitious arrangements and lyrics, it’s clear that John and Taupin intended the album to be a major statement…”

The undiscovered gem in the Elton John catalog

This original British Import demonstrates just how good a recording this is. The sound is excellent and the music is surprisingly good — and weird in a fun way! It certainly bears little relation to the middle-of-the-road pop songs Elton’s been making since the ’80s. These guys were young and figuring out their sound here, and this album takes Elton to some pretty interesting places. A fun debut album that is certainly worth a listen if you’re a fan of the classic albums that were soon to follow.

We’ve had dozens of these on our shelves for years but struggled to get this shootout done until recently. The main thing holding us back was how noisy most copies are, even the minty looking ones. Anyone who’s played DJM Brit pressings knows those guys had a very hard time pressing quiet vinyl.

This isn’t the best sounding Elton John album, but it’s certainly one of the best sounding copies of his debut we could find out of the dozen or so we played. While it varies a bit from track to track, the overall sound here is wonderful.

This is a bunch of young guys figuring things out — some of it works very well and some of it not so well — but I think any Elton fan is going to enjoy hearing this early material with sound that’s always correct and often wonderful. It’s been a long time coming, but we think in the end the music is worth all the trouble we went through to find quiet enough vinyl with good sound. (more…)

Letter of the Week – “Talking Old Soldiers is possibly, no IS, the most holographic a vocal and piano recording that I’ve ever heard…”

Can our records possibly be worth these prices?

One of our good customers had this to say about some Hot Stampers he purchased recently:

Hey Tom,   

Thank you VERY much for that one. Worth its weight in gold (last checked gold was $58.19 a gram, x 140 grams = $8,146.00) thus an absolute bargain for $750 – and have only listened to side two so far!

My god, Talking Old Soldiers is possibly, no IS, the most holographic a vocal and piano recording that I’ve ever heard, filling the room floor to ceiling and wall to wall with stunning realness right off the fresh master tape. Then into Burn Down The Mission, same thing, holy shxt! Best EVER.

More of those please and I owe you $7396.00. Lol.

All the best,
Mike S.

Mike, thanks so much for writing. As a special one time consideration, please keep the $7396 you owe us.

Best, TP


FURTHER READING

New to the Blog? Start Here

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Elton John – Just the Right Amount of Tubey Magic Is the Key

More of the Music of Elton John

More Titles Only Offered on Import Vinyl

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Elton John

You don’t need tube equipment to hear the prodigious amounts of Tubey Magic that exist on the best copies of Madman. For those of you who’ve experienced top quality analog pressings of Meddle or Dark Side of the Moon, or practically any jazz album on Contemporary, whether played through tubes or transistors, that’s the luscious sound of Tubey Magic, and it is all over the album.

The problem is that most British copies — the only ones that have any hope of sounding good in our experience — don’t have all the Tubey Magic that can be heard on the best copies. They are simply not as rich, tubey, and LUSH as the best that we’ve played.

This is the one quality that separates the winners of the shootout from the copies that came in second or third. Lushness isn’t the only thing to listen for of course. The rich copies can’t be too rich, to the point of being murky and muddy.

Achieving just the right balance of Tubey Magical Madman Sound with other qualities we prize such as space, clarity, transparency and presence is no mean feat.

It’s the rare copy that will do well in all these areas, and even our best Shootout Winning sides will have to compromise somewhere. There is always a balance to be struck between richness and clarity, with no copy able to show us the maximum amounts of both that we know are possible.

You’ll Know

Having said all that, it has been our experience that one copy in the shootout will make clear what the ideal blend of all the elements is — the right balance of Tubey Magic, clarity, space, weight, top end and much, much more.

When you find yourself lost in the music of Madman because the copy playing has the right sound, it shouldn’t be all that hard to recognize it. When the record is not only doing what it’s supposed to do, but doing more than you ever expected it could do, with more energy, more dynamics, more bass, more clarity, on a stage that’s wider, taller and deeper than you thought it could be, that’s when you know you have reached the highest level of sound.

Seeing All Sides

This will happen on each side independently of the other. That’s just the way records work. Sometimes a copy has two matching sides with that ideal blend — we jump for joy and happily award them our rare Triple Triple grade — but on a ridiculously difficult record to master and press properly such as Madman chances are good that one copy of the record will win for one side and a different copy will win for the other.

Engineering and Production

Elton John is one of the handful of artists to produce an immensely enjoyable and meaningful body of work throughout the ’70s, music that holds up to this day. The music on his albums, so multi-faceted and multi-layered, will endlessly reward the listener who makes the effort and takes the time to dive deep into the sound of his classic releases.

Repeated plays are the order of the day. The more critically you listen, the more you are sure to discover within the exceedingly dense mixes favored by Elton and his bandmates. And the better your stereo gets the more you can appreciate the care and effort that went into the production of the recordings.

Elton John albums always make for tough shootouts. His producers’ (GUS DUDGEON being the best of them) and engineers’ (KEN SCOTT and ROBIN GEOFFREY CABLE likewise the best) approach to recording — everything-but-the-kitchen-sink as a rule — make it difficult to translate their complex sounds to disc, vinyl or otherwise.

Everything has to be tuned up and on the money before we can even hope to get the record sounding right. Careful VTA adjustment could not be more critical in this respect.

If we’re not hearing the sound we want, we keep messing with the adjustments until we do. There is no getting around sweating the details when sitting down to test a complex recording such as this. If you can’t stand the tweaking tedium, get out of the kitchen (or listening room as the case may be). Obsessing over every aspect of record reproduction is what we do for a living. Pink Floyd’s recordings require us to be at the top of our game, both in terms of reproducing their albums as well as evaluating the merits of individual pressings.

When you love it, it’s not work, it’s fun. Tedious, occasionally exasperating fun, but still fun nonetheless.


Further Reading

Records that Sound Best on the Right Early Pressing 

Records that Sound Best on the Right Import Pressing

Elton John – Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

More Elton John

More Reviews and Commentaries for Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

  • An excellent early British pressing with big, bold Double Plus (A++) sound on all FOUR SIDES
  • Finding a copy with no marks or issues is no easy task these days, and the DJM vinyl on this pressing is about as quiet as these UK LPs ever are
  • There’s real Tubey Magic on this album, along with breathy vocals, in-your-listening-room midrange presence and no shortage of rock and roll energy
  • Overflowing with great songs, way too many to list – “Candle In The Wind,” “Bennie And The Jets,” and “GYBR” all sound outstanding here
  • A Top 100 Title: “…its individual moments are spectacular and the glitzy, crowd-pleasing showmanship that fuels the album pretty much defines what made Elton John a superstar in the early ’70s.”
  • If you’re an Elton John fan, this has to be considered a Must Own Title of his from 1973
  • The complete list of titles from 1973 that we’ve reviewed to date can be found here.

GYBR has the best rocker Elton and Bernie ever wrote: Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting. Of course, it’s one of the tracks on side four we used to test with — if you’re going to listen to GYBR all day, why not play the songs that are the most fun to play? On the good pressings, the song just KILLS. (more…)

Letter of the Week – “Wish You Were Here is maybe the best sounding record I’ve ever heard…”

More Letters and Commentaries for Wish You Were Here

One of our good customers had this to say about some Hot Stampers he purchased recently:

Hey Tom,  

I want to say a big THANK YOU for the Hot Stampers you sent to me.

Wish You Were Here is maybe the best sounding record I’ve ever heard (as you know I have a lot of Hot Stampers). I’m so amazed and lucky – I can’t describe it. The copy sounds out of this world with soooo well-defined bass, stunning clarity, warmth and richness, immediacy, astonishing transparency…

It murders my old copy.

Another Passenger and Honky Chateau are also Demo Discs of the highest order. 

Erik S.


FURTHER READING

New to the Blog? Start Here

More Hot Stamper Testimonial Letters

Basic Concepts and Realities Explained

Elton John / Goodbye Yellow Brick Road – What to Listen For

More Elton John

More Reviews and Commentaries for Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

The richness, sweetness and freedom from artificiality is most obvious where you often hear it on a Pop Rock Big Production like GYBR: in the loudest, densest, most climactic choruses.

We set the playback volume so that the loudest parts of the record are as huge and powerful as they can possibly become without crossing the line into distortion or congestion.

On some records, Dark Side of the Moon comes instantly to mind, the guitar solos on Money are the loudest thing on the record.

On Breakfast in America the sax toward the end of The Logical Song is bigger and louder than anything on the record, louder even than Roger Hodgson’s near-hysterical multi-tracked screaming “Who I am” about three quarters of the way through the track. Those, however, are clearly exceptions to the rule. Most of the time it’s the final chorus of a pop song that gets bigger and louder than what has come before.

A pop song is usually designed to build momentum as it works its way through the verses and choruses, past the bridge, coming back around to make one final push, releasing all its energy in the final chorus, the climax of the song. On a good recording — one with real dynamics — that part of the song should be very loud and very powerful.

Testing the Climaxes

The climax of the biggest, most dynamic songs are almost always the toughest tests for a pop record, and it’s the main reason we play our records loud. The copies that hold up through the final choruses of their album’s largest scaled productions are the ones that provide the biggest thrills and the most emotionally powerful musical experiences one can have sitting in front of two speakers. Our Top 100 is full of records that reward that kind of intense listening at loud levels.

We live for that sound here at Better Records. It’s precisely what the best vintage analog pressings do so brilliantly. In fact they do it so much better than any other medium that there is really no comparison, and certainly no substitute. If you’re on this site you probably already know that.

Two to Listen For

Number one: Too many instruments and voices jammed into too little space in the upper midrange. When the tonality is shifted-up, even slightly, or there is too much compression, there will be too many elements — voices, guitars, drums — vying for space in the upper part of the midrange, causing congestion and a loss of clarity.

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