1981

James Taylor / Dad Loves His Work – Our Shootout Winner from 2011

More of the Music of James Taylor

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This Hot Stamper original Columbia is THE KING, the Best Sounding Copy we have ever played — the sound was OUT OF THIS WORLD! In fact, side two went so far beyond what we’ve come to expect from this album that we had to award it the rare Four Plus (A++++) grade.

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.

Even recordings that are as heavily processed as this one. We don’t have a problem with that approach when it works as well as it does here. Mud Slide Slim this is not. It’s also 1981, not 1971. We prefer the recordings from 1971, undeniably the Golden Age for rock and pop recording quality[1], but we know that to expect the sound of the ’70s in 1981 would simply be setting oneself up for disappointment.

Those days are gone, as are the amazing sounding pressings that came out then, and nobody, repeat nobody, pressing records today can figure out how they did it.

The soundstage and depth on our best Hot Stamper copies is HUGE — this is without a doubt the most spacious recording by James Taylor we’ve ever heard. If you want your speakers to disappear, replaced by a huge studio full of musicians playing their hearts out, this is the album that can do it.

But of course there’s a lot more to the sound of the best copies than a big soundstage.

Tonality is key.

As usually happens in these shootouts, we learned that there’s so much more to this album than just great songs. What really makes this music work on the best copies was the result of two qualities we found were in fairly short supply:

(1) Correct Tonality

Most copies have a phony MoFi-like top end boost in the 10k region that we found irritating as hell. The longer we listened the less we liked the copies that had that boost, which adds a kind of “sparkle” to cymbals and guitars that has no business being there.

Now if you’re a MoFi fan and you like the boosted highs that label is famous for, don’t waste your money buying a Hot Stamper copy from us. Our copies are the ones with the correct and more natural-sounding top end. The guitars will sound like real guitars and the voices will sound like real voices.

(2) Lower Midrange and Bottom End Weight

When the vocals sound thin, bright and phony, as they do on so many copies of this album (partly no doubt the result of the grainy crap vinyl Columbia is infamous for) that hi-fi-ish sound takes all the fun out of the music. Many tracks have background vocals and big choruses, and the best copies make all the singers sound like they are standing in a big room, shoulder to shoulder, with the full lower midrange weight that that image implies.

The good copies capture that energy and bring it into the mix with the full-bodied sound it no doubt had live in the studio. When the EQ or the vinyl goes awry, causing Taylor and crew’s voices to take on a lean or gritty quality, the party’s over.

Transparency and That Feeling of Reality

Transparency is always a big deal on pop recordings such as this. Of course this has to be a multi-miked, multi-tracked, overdubbed pop record — they don’t make them any other way — but it doesn’t have to FEEL like one.

When you get a good copy it feels like all these guys are live in the studio. They may have their own mics, and are certainly being placed artificially in the soundfield to suit the needs of the track (kick drum here, hand-claps over there), but the transparency of the killer pressings makes them sound like they are all in the same room playing together, clearly occupying their own share of the space in the studio.

This is one of our favorite Taylor albums here at Better Records. It’s the last album by the man that bears any resemblance to the genius of his early work. It’s steeply, steeply downhill after DLHW. (Case in point: His specials for PBS of the last few years are a positive cure for insomnia, with every song slowed down and all the energy drained from the material.)

But he still had fire in his belly when he made this one — one listen to Stand and Fight is all the evidence you need; the song rocks as hard as anything the guy ever did. (And it’s got plenty of cowbell, always a good sign.)

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The Rolling Stones – Tattoo You

More Rolling Stones

More Rock Classics

  • Boasting superb Double Plus (A++) sound on both sides, this vintage copy of the Stones’ 1981 release will be very hard to beat
  • The midrange is both rich and clear, with Jagger’s vocals front and center, exactly where they belong
  • The piano has real weight, the grungy guitars are suitably distorted, and the tonal balance is correct from top to bottom – our classic Hot Stamper sound in a nutshell
  • 4 1/2 stars: “Tattoo You captures the Stones at their best as a professional stadium-rock band… “Waiting on a Friend” and the vigorous rock & roll of the first side make Tattoo You an essential latter-day Stones album, ranking just a few notches below Some Girls.”
  • If you’re a Stones fan, this title from 1981 is one of their better later releases
  • The complete list of titles from 1981 that we’ve reviewed to date can be found here

In the tradition of other late ’70s / early ’80s Stones albums (Some Girls, Goats Head Soup, It’s Only Rock And Roll), the sound is a bit raw at times, but a copy like this one gives you the kind of energy, body and richness to make for some very enjoyable serious listening.

The sound here is big and rich, with more “meat on the bones” as we like to say. The guitars are chunky and powerful, which exactly the sound you want for a song like Start Me Up, which leads things off here. The best sides have more extension up top and more size to the soundfield as well.

As with any Stones album, don’t expect any sonic miracles. Hot Stampers aren’t going to turn this into Tea For The Tillerman. If you want to hear an amazing sounding Demo Quality record, this ain’t it, but if you love this music and are frustrated with the sound of the typical pressing, I bet you’ll enjoy the heck outta this one. (more…)

Liszt, Ludwig, Grundman and Sax

Liszt & Weber / Ballade No. 2, Mephisto Waltz / Bar-Illan

The Liszt side here actually has the best sound, earning a seriously good grade of A++ to A+++.

This is one of the few audiophile-label recordings I have ever played that actually sounds NATURAL and CORRECT. This is a very real sounding piano; there are not many recordings that can capture that instrument’s weight, but this one sure does.

Side One

A++ sound, very open and real. This is a big piano with a solid bottom end playing in a big room. A trace of smear on the transients keeps it from the full Three Plus grade.

Side Two

A++ to A+++, less smeary so we raised the grade a bit. The music is dark and somewhat “out there” but the sound is AMAZING. 

A top quality solo piano recording from an “audiophile” label? I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t heard it for myself.

That’s not really being fair, though. Some of us remember that Robert Ludwig cut another “audiophile” pressing, this one for Athena, and did a great job on it. (The other four records Athena released before they went out of business were awful, including the one mastered by Doug Sax.)

I suspect that if Ludwig hadn’t stopped cutting records years ago, we would not be complaining nearly as much as we do about the sound of the modern Heavy Vinyl pressings currently inundating the market.

Bernie and Doug really started letting the record lovers of the world down beginning as far back as the ’90s.

The muddy messes Doug Sax cut for Analogue Productions and the awful Living Stereo records Bernie cut for Classic Records were sad chapters in both men’s body of work. Here were two of the All Time Greats. Their fall was precipitous and painful for those of us who never gave up on analog. In those dark days they mastered one record after another so unlike the amazing sounding ones they had made in the ’70s and well into the ’80s.

We have nothing personal against either one of them, of course. We just haven’t liked the sound of very many of the records they’ve mastered for the last thirty years, and we have never been shy about saying so.

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Tom Petty – Hard Promises

More Tom Petty

  • This vintage copy boasts outstanding Double Plus (A++) grades or BETTER from top to bottom
  • Recorded at Sound City, home to some of the greatest analog sound ever recorded, this 1981 Backstreet pressing still has plenty of ANALOG magic in its grooves
  • 4 1/2 stars: “…filled with great songwriting, something that’s as difficult to achieve as a distinctive sound… ‘The Waiting’ became the best-known song on the record, but there’s no discounting ‘A Woman in Love,’ ‘Nightwatchman,’ ‘Kings Road,’ and ‘The Criminal Kind,’ album tracks that would become fan favorites… it has a tremendous set of songs and a unified sound that makes it one of Petty’s finest records.”
  • If you’re a fan of Tom Petty and his hard-rockin’ bandmates, this is a classic from 1981 that belongs in your collection
  • The complete list of titles from 1981 that we’ve reviewed to date can be found here.

The album tends to be bright, thin, edgy, pinched and gritty — radio friendly, maybe, but not especially audiophile friendly.

We hate that sound but we are happy to report that some copies manage to avoid it, and this is one of them.

Is that richer, fuller sound the sound of what’s on the master tape or did the mastering engineer “fix” it?

We’ll never know, now will we?

What we can know is the sound of the pressings we actually have to play, and this one is killer.

Recorded by Shelly Yakus at Sound City, Van Nuys and at Cherokee Studios, Hollywood, CA, this vintage Backstreet 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.

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Stevie Nicks – Bella Donna

Albums with Stevie Nicks Performing

More Fleetwood Mac

  • Both sides of this Hot Stamper pressing are punchy, big and clear, with plenty of hard rockin’ energy – exactly what you would expect from the team of Shelly Yakus and Jimmy Iovine
  • Two of her biggest hits are here (and they still hold up): Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around and Leather And Lace
  • 4 1/2 stars: “Equally engaging are less exposed tracks like the haunting ‘After the Glitter Fades.’ Hit producer Jimmy Iovine wisely avoids over-producing, and keeps things sounding organic on this striking debut.”
  • If you’re a Stevie Nicks or post-1974 Fleetwood Mac fan, this title from 1981 is surely a Must Own
  • We think this is the Stevie’s best sounding album. Roughly 150 other listings for the Best Sounding Album by an Artist or Group can be found here.

It’s easy to hear what the good pressings are doing. They’re big and rich, never thin nor harsh. They open up on the top end and go down deeper on the bottom. They’re smooth and full-bodied in the midrange. Stevie’s vocals are breathy and present. The energy of her performance drives the music the way you want it to.

In short, the best copies demonstrate the sound one could expect on a good Tom Petty album. Nothing surprising there; this album, like Petty’s, was produced and engineered by the same team, Jimmy Iovine and Shelly Yakus. They’ve made some great records together, Damn the Torpedoes being the best of the bunch for sonics.

Bella Donna may not reach those exalted heights, but it’s still quite good, especially for 1981. As the decade wore on things went south very quickly, sonically and musically, so we must be thankful that this record came out early in the decade and not much later.

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Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays – As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls

More Jazz Fusion

More Jazz Guitar

 

  • As Falls Wichita… finally returns with outstanding sound on both sides — reasonably quiet vinyl too
  • This is the sound of the Master Tape — worlds better than what most record lovers have ever been granted the privilege of hearing in analog
  • This spacey music needs huge amounts of reproducible recording space to work its ethereal magic, and you will have no trouble finding that space on this very pressing
  • The best sides were always the biggest, clearest and most three-dimensional, assuming they were able to retain the rich, natural, balanced tonality that is inherently key to a good record, or a great one in this case
  • “This joint solo effort by Metheny and regular pianist and collaborator Lyle Mays is an impressive outing. In the process of stretching out away from the confines of the quartet setting of prior albums, Metheny and Mays presage the sleeker and more ethereal sound of the band’s Geffen years on portions of the title track…”

This superb pressing of Metheny’s ECM Chart-Topping release from 1981 shows you just how well recorded the album is. We don’t know how you feel about ECM recordings in general but we tend to think they are pretty lifeless and boring. Not so here!

We guarantee this copy has more CLARITY, ENERGY and DYNAMICS than any pressing of the album you have ever heard. Where is the muck? The blurry bottom end? The smear? All gone. And the bass is monstrous.

If you’re a fan of this album, this copy will show you what you’ve surely been missing all these years — the kind of sound that lets this music breathe. (more…)

The Police – Ghost in the Machine

Reviews and Commentaries for Ghost in the Machine

More Sting and The Police

  • With outstanding Double Plus (A++) sonic grades on both sides, this vintage UK pressing sounds rich, smooth and sweet – exceptionally quiet vinyl too
  • Some of the band’s most sophisticated hits: Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic, Invisible Sun, Spirits In The Material World, and more
  • Hugh Padgham took over engineering duties for Ghost and The Police’s next album, resulting in a dramatic improvement in the quality of their recordings
  • “This album has more variety than the menu in a Bangkok brothel. In particular, Sting’s voice has taken on a new depth and fresh maturity. The opening song, ‘Spirits In The Material World’, may have what sounds like a dumb title, but the song is a dream of close harmonies and nicely understated drums.” Record Mirror

If you’re looking for big hits, this is the album for you. I mean, get three tracks in and you’ve already heard Spirits In The Material World, Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic and Invisible Sun — not a bad way to get things started!

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George Harrison – Somewhere in England

More George Harrison

More Beatles

  • This domestically pressed Dark Horse LP boasts very good Hot Stamper sound or BETTER throughout – exceptionally quiet vinyl too
  • Dramatically richer, fuller and with more presence than the average copy, and that’s especially true for whatever godawful Heavy Vinyl pressing is currently being foisted on an unsuspecting record buying public
  • “Harrison’s first album since 1979 is one of his finest, featuring his moving tribute to Lennon, All Those Years Ago. Harrison’s signatures – crystal-clear production, buoyant backup and chimelike guitar runs are all here. This record is both entertainment and a musical giant’s defiant tribute to the value of life.” (Author unknown)
  • If you’re a George Harrison fan, this title from 1981 is surely a Must Own

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Unreleased UHQR Test Pressing

More on the UHQR

Good Sounding Digital Recordings on Vinyl – Really?

This is a UHQR JVC Test Record in a white generic jacket.

The RAREST of the RARE! I’ve never even seen one offered for sale!

For those of you who do not know the complete story, the UHQR — the ultra high quality record — was invented by JVC as a test to see how good the ultimate vinyl pressing could sound. It was thicker, had a longer pressing cycle, and other technological improvements, all with the goal of making the ultimate lp.

Mobile Fidelity produced limited editions of eight titles on UHQR, and both Reference and Telarc produced one each.

Apparently tests were done by others as well, because here we have some M&K recordings on UHQR. I believe they are not known to exist — until now. I bought them from M&K myself many years ago, along with some Flamenco Fevers and a box full of unplayed For Dukes. That was a good day for Better Records! (more…)

Billy Joel / Songs in the Attic

More of the Music of Billy Joel

  • Incredible Demo Disc live rock concert sound with both sides earning Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) grades or very close to it
  • This one has it ALL — the sound has so many wonderful ANALOG qualities when you get a good copy — the hardness of the typical pressing just disappears, leaving surprisingly transparent and sweet sound on virtually every track
  • The WHOMP FACTOR here is off the scale. There are few studio recordings that have these kinds of dynamics. We forget how compressed most of them are. It takes a record like this to show you how much LIFE there is in LIVE MUSIC
  • “Songs in the Attic is an excellent album, ranking among his very best work… even if Joel wasn’t a celebrity in the early ’70s, his best songs of the era rivaled his biggest hits.” – 4 Stars

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