This is a somewhat different twist on other "Recommended Recordings" lists you may have read. Rather than a selection of all-time (or year's) best recorded performances---which are common enough---or a list of audiophile reference recordings---common enough in the audiophile press, at any rate, and a good thing, too---this is a list of stereo recordings that are both musically and sonically impeccable---in other words, the best, the tops, to die for---each item briefly described in a hundred or so words (except for JA, LA, and JGH, whose couplets runneth over).
Letters? Boy, did we get letters last year when we ran the very first "Records to Die For": subscription renewals, subscription cancellations, groveling gratitude, death threats, paeans, pans, madness, ecstasy, invitations to any number of sanity hearings (we sent our regrets)---and that was just from our own staff. How could we not do it again?
There's been a shift in the quality of in-house complaint from the Stereophile staff since we started the annual "Records to Die For" feature two years ago. At first, most of our contributing editors---especially the hardcore hardware cadre---weren't sure they could name a single disc that fit the seemingly simple criteria of world-class performance in world-class stereo sound. As this fulfilled all my nightmares of techno-weenies listening to equipment first and music second, if at all, I was not sympathetic. "So sue me," I growled in my best cigar-in-mouth, shoes-on-desk, tough-guy editor snarl. "Get real, runts. Wake up an' smell da vinyl. Da readers is countin' on youse. Geddoudamyface and just do it."
Here we go again---the usual Stereophile suspects rounding up some very unusual suspects of their own, and all collected in "Records To Die For," the highest annual concentration of surprising recommendations in the biz. Reviewers of wares soft and hard pick their absolute most favoritest recordings, each of which must be a) a topnotch performance in b) topnotch stereo sound. But be warned: some of us cheat (if we can get away with it).
"I've got a great idea, RL," said John Atkinson to me one fine fall morning five years ago, as we relaxed over cappuccino and croissants in the slowly rotating editorial suite of the imposing Stereophile Tower that---surmounted by a heroic statue of J. Gordon Holt, thumb down, lip curled, great bronze cigarette glowing triode-red---rises like a Tube Trap of the Gods to dominate the downtown skyline of our round brown town of La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asis. In a paroxysm of the editorial euphoria that comes upon him when he suddenly envisions page after page of Stereophile copy which he himself does not have to write, JA then outlined for me the annual list of the Greatest Performances recorded in the Greatest Stereo Sound that has since become the "Records To Die For" we all love and hate---one of Stereophile's most entertaining, annoying, and downright fun features.
Records To Die For creates one of two problems for the Stereophile writer: either she can't come up with the names of two (or, in the case of new writers, five) recordings of world-class music in world-class stereo sound, or he comes up with so many his hard-drive crashes trying to narrow down the choices.
When I first heard about "Records To Die For," I had to laugh. "Desert Island Discs," maybe, but Records To Die For? Laying down your life for a record? World-class hyperbole. Throw yourself on a sword for a glob of petrochemicals? Not me. If your house was burning down, would you a) grab your child, b) grab your photos and other irreplaceable items (cats, loved ones, etc.), or c) grab your records?
Death. It's something we all wonder about. Ever try to imagine your own? There you are, flinging yourself out of the trenches and over the top, clutching your blunderbuss and your copy of Alice Cooper's Killer. Or perhaps you wake up, the room's in flames, and you scurry about, choking, one arm around your cat, the other around your Leopold Stokowski boxed set. Or maybe you envision a mythic/gothic/celtic/druidic Bergmanesque kind of death—you, the leaden sky, your copy of Saxophone Colossus, and black-draped Death, all pasty and balding, leaning on its scythe with the same easy grace shown by members of the New Mexico Highway Department when they slump over their shovels.
One of the benefits of being music editor of Stereophile---after, of course, unimaginable wealth, unquestioned power, and hot and cold running editorial groupies---is that every year in February I get to write about death. That, and the rather odd personality traits of the Stereophile writing staff.
February 2000—We are now comfortably past all the millennial hype, which, by New Year's Eve, really had risen to a nauseating fever pitch. But it's hard not to look back to the times, the places, and, most of all, to the faces and personalities that populated the last hundred years.
Many years ago, I awoke one Saturday morning to find my girlfriend, with whom I'd had a knock-down, drag-out fight the night before, out on the street in front of our house having an impromptu yard sale. The sale featured my record collection. We broke up. I still have the records.
Once upon a time, when I was a mere sprout in journalism school, there came the moment when everyone had to decide which sort of writing and/or editing he or she wanted to pursue in the workplace of the real world—a harsh reality that was then fast approaching. Most of my fellow students, who ranged in age from 23 to 62, chose one of two paths: murder or scandal.
It used to be that, when I sat down to write the introduction to Stereophile's ever-popular annual "Records To Die For" feature, it quickly became an exercise in racking my meager brain for jokes about "dying for" records. But being funny, in print or otherwise, is tremendously difficult. I'm sure Groucho had a much more apropos, not to mention funny, quip about the trials of being humorous—but, as with the aforementioned jokes, I can't seem to think of it right now.