Once again, we have asked our staff to pick their 10 favorites from among the many recordings they have encountered, employed, and enjoyed during the past year. We think you will agree that this is quite an eclectic list, and we hope that you find it entertaining and useful. Enjoy!
My favorite non-classical release of 2004 is Bill Berry's Shortcake album (PA-004) available in vinyl only from Dennis Cassidy's Pure Audiophile label. I reported on this recording this past summer in issue 100. This is a limited edition heavy vinyl 2-LP set available from any of the audiophile mail order companies. Cassidy & Company have done an excellent job in bringing back the breath of life that Phil Edwards had given it for Concord Jazz back in the Seventies. Since it is a limited edition I recommend that you get this one before it's gone.
Speaking with my audiophile/music-lover voice, the year was one of my most eagerly anticipated in recent memory. Having considered Sony's new Super Audio CD/Direct Stream Digital medium as an improvement over PCM in 2001, much of my attention has been directed to learning of and sampling many of the reissues of vintage jazz and classical music that have been perennial favorites of mine as both a lover of great music and sound. In this regard, the past year brought us many reissues from all of the great jazz labels--Fantasy, Verve, Blue Note and Concord among them. In the classical realm, the great Living Stereo recordings from RCA and now the Mercury Living Presence icons have made their debuts. There were lots of classic rock reissues in multi-channel too, but I have been reluctant to try more than just a couple of these for reasons of personal taste. In many cases involving these reissues, audiophiles were given their first opportunity to hear these recordings in multi-channel sound. This development has been a welcomed one for many audiophiles, yet there are still some of us who hang on to the conventional two-channel playback mode loyally, and are not inclined to take the financial plunge to add three more speakers to our listening rooms.
Despite my eager anticipation, I must confess that I have been disappointed in many of the new SACD/DSD reissues I've sampled. The RCA Living Stereo SACD and Fantasy jazz releases were among those that disappointed me most. The good news is, though, that for SACD enthusiasts 2004 couldn't have ended on a more positive note. For as much as I was disappointed in those from RCA, I can't praise the Mercury Living Presence SACDs enough. I find these to be the most natural sounding of the reissues to come out this year, and they all receive my heartiest recommendation. So far I've sampled six of the ten titles currently available, and each of these has shown me some benefit over their PCM reissues of a decade ago. Classical music lovers will recall that Wilma Cozart Fine, who had been involved in the original recordings decades earlier, oversaw the conversion of these to CD. The results were then among the best analog-to-digital releases to emerge (and still are), but these new DSD issues demonstrate well just how limited the CD medium actually is in terms of its resolution and microdynamics.
Universal Music Group, present owners of the Mercury catalog, had the good sense to leave well enough alone, so the Fine-authorized versions from the Nineties appear on the CD layers of these hybrid disks. I verified this on three of these by comparing my CD versions with the CD layers on the new disks. In general, the new SACD conversions offer a greater sense of space, texture, dynamics and transparency than the earlier CD reissues. Here are some brief comments on each of the ten released so far.
Suppe & Auber Overtures, Paray/Detroit Symphony, MLP 470-638-2. This is, perhaps, the best sounding of the five MLP titles I have heard so far. The orchestra is spread deep and wide across the sound stage, with a transparency that offers a palpable aural glimpse into each of the sections. Tonal balance is superbly linear, and the dynamics are exceptional. If I were recommending only one of these titles, I would have a difficult time deciding if it should be this one.
Stravinsky: Firebird (complete), Song of the Nightingale, Dorati/London Symphony, MLP 470-643-2. If there is a better Firebird on record, I haven't heard it. I have Stravinsky's own performance of this on a Sony SACD, but the tape for that performance a suffered much damage; this one sounds as good as it always has. The SACD recording is a bit more open and ambient than the earlier CD.
J. S. Bach: Six Suites for Solo Cello, Janos Starker MLP 470-644-2 (2 disks). Were it not for the fact that many audiophiles prefer orchestral music to solo works (with piano accompaniment), Starker's reissue would receive my highest recommendation of these ten. The acoustic is nearly perfect; the performances are second to none. Since it is a two-disk set the price is double that of the other releases.
Hanson: Symphonies 1 (Nordic) & 2 (Romantic), Hanson/Eastman-Rochester, MLP 475-6181. Tape hiss is unexplainably not so prominent as it is on the CD layer. I would have thought the opposite would be true.
Chabrier: Espana, Suite Pastorale, Fete Polonaise et al, Paray/Detroit Symphony, MLP 475-6183. If the Suppe recommended above were rated 100 for sound quality, this one would be too. What I said above goes for this one too. Since they are both Paray/Detroit recordings the sound quality is almost the same.
Rimsky-Korsakov: Russian Easter Overture, Le Coq d'Or Suite et al, MLP 475-9194. The sound on this one is equally superb, but I have always been partial to Boult's performance of the Russian Easter Overture for Decca. This recording is deserving of its many accolades from critics nevertheless.
The following items have not been auditioned, but are listed for your reference.
Respighi: Ancient Dances and Airs for Lute, Dorati/Philharmonia Hungarica, Mercury Living Presence (hereinafter MLP) 470-637-2. This one has been backordered from my supplier, but the reports on its sound are excellent.
Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos 2 & 3, Byron Janis (piano), Dorati/Minneapolis Symphony, MLP 470-639-2. I have not ordered this one, but reports are that this disk will malfunction on some Sony SACD players; other brands appear to play the disk as intended. I recommend that the reader wait for a second pressing of this title if he/she owns a Sony player.
Fennel Conducts Sousa, Fennel/Eastman Wind Ensemble, MLP 475-6182.
Rodrigo: Concierto de Aranjuez et al, The Romeros (guitars), Alessandro/San Antonio Symphony, MLP 475-6184.
I am happy to receive comments or questions regarding Super Audio CD or the recordings discussed in my columns. My email address is email@example.com.
In a year during which the presidential election was allegedly decided on "moral values" and the mounting chaos in Iraq invoked stoic denial among the nation's leadership, I found myself silently thanking the gods for the messy pandemonium of rock'n'roll, preferring a frank admission of life CAREENING MADLY OUT OF CONTROL! over the self-conscious byproduct of cultural polarity. Despite the earnest efforts of the record company suits to foment a predictable uniformity of taste and product consumption, rock simply insists on being the multi-cultural bad boy, the imp on the block that no one can tame. And just when you think you've got him under lock and key, your windows get soaped, the elm tree TP'd, or the flivver egged. Hail, hail, rock'n'roll.
My Top Ten or so; Carousel Corner review issue in parentheses.
Guster, Keep It Together (No. 100). When your 11-year-old asks, "Dad, is that Guster?", you know (a) you're raising the kid right, and (b) you've sure been playing the CD a lot.
Fountains of Wayne, "Welcome Interstate Managers" (No. 100). Again my 11-year-old paves the way, "Can I play 'Stacy's Mom' again, please?" Now you know who owns the real musical brains in our house.
The New Pornographers, Electric Version (No. 100). My copy's missing. I have a sneaking suspicion that my mother-in-law found it and trashed it. Pornography, indeed! And with an 11-year-old in the house! Okay, that was unfair. It's just lost. (I know she did it ...)
Mary Chapin Carpenter, Between Here and Gone (No. 101). My buddy, Ricky the Roughrider, said something about Mary Chapin Carpenter being on a tough streak what with a couple of loser albums in a row. It was either laugh or deck him. So I decked him.
Los Lobos, The Ride (No. 101). I just program out the Costello track.
The Dandy Warhols, Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia (No. 101). If you truly believe that the nation has misplaced its moral compass, whatever you do, don't buy this disc. Just don't go there. No, really. The rest of you: have a blast ...
Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros, Streetcore (No. 102). What it's all about. The gentle paean to John Lennon, "Johnny Appleseed", is worth the price of admission.
J.J. Cale, To Tulsa and Back (No. 102). In spite of being "the source" for too many others, Cale's center is immutable.
Bill Frisell, Unspeakable (No. 102).
The Hives, Tyrannosaurus Hives (No. 102). Howlin' Pelle Almqvist, ladies and gentlemen ... Howlin' Pelle Almqvist!
Franz Ferdinand (No. 102). Ferocious band; great disc.
The Shins, Chutes Too Narrow and Oh, Inverted World (No. 102). You have to hear these to believe them.
Spinning Jennies, Stratosphere (No. 102). In memoriam.
Calexico, Feast of Wire (No. 102). Odd, eclectic, utterly compelling.
The Subdudes, Miracle Mule (No. 102). Black gospel done well by white guys.
Tift Merritt, Tambourine (No. 102). Okay, this one's too heavy on the hype, but she's got great pipes, good material, and a crack band.
Modest Mouse, Good News for People Who Love Bad News. See review this ish.
R.E.M., Around the Sun. See review this ish.
Bjork, Medulla. See review this ish.
Scissor Sisters. See review this ish.
The Finn Brothers, Everyone Is Here. See review...