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.
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?
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.
"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.
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).
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."
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?
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).
It has been another year of great torment and turmoil in the world of recorded music. The loudness wars grow ever . . . well, louder. The confusion and profusion of formats continue to roil buyers of tracks and albums. And streaming services like Pandora and Spotify continue to bleed off purchasers of downloads and physical media. Yet at the same time, the LP, once derided as dead and gone, is back with a vengeance. In short, everyone has had to find their own waythe mix of online and physical that works for them. Fortunately, all this diversity and change have not kept fans from listening, or stopped the truly devoted from still needing their music. And happily, the old adage about audiophilism is still true: If you're willing to invest in quality gear, you probably own considerably more than five records.