Records 2 Live 4 2023

Once each year, since 1991, we've asked our writers, both hi-fi and music, to name two of their favorite albums of all time—albums that are, to them, "to die for." It has long been one of our most popular features.

Originally a light-hearted conceit based on a phrase that was popular at the time (footnote 1), there never was a real implication that anyone would give up their life for this music. Yet, for many of us, it has always carried that baggage. So, while this has long been my favorite Stereophile feature, I've never cared for the name.

Immediately after I became Stereophile's editor, I started playing around with the name. Music, after all, is the stuff of life. So what's all this about dying?

I quickly learned that the phrase "to live for" is much more popular than "to die for," and always has been. And, as measured by its appearance in published works, "to live for" has never been more popular.

My favorite formulation of this notion—because of how it captures the connection between living and dying—was laid down by the late music critic John Swenson, in his March 2021 My Back Pages essay. He called his favorite records "death-row discs." These are records that, at the end of your life, you'd want—you'd need—to hear one last time. Maybe the records—and that desire—would even keep you alive a little longer.

This year, I'm making it official: Records to Live For. R2D4—Records to Die For—is now R2L4.

How does it work? Writers choose two albums they care about a lot. There aren't many rules. Writers must not repeat a previous selection, although they can choose a new reissue of a previous choice. The other rule is that it must be possible to obtain the record, even if it requires sacrifice, loss of wealth, or serious determination. I've been soft on this rule: These recordings are worth some sacrifice to obtain.

Without further ado, here it is: Records to Live For, 2023.—Jim Austin

Footnote 1: Like almost every pop-culture phrase of the last half-century, this one has had a movie named after it—rather, three of them, including a well-known Gus Van Sant film with an all-star cast from 1995, the year the phrase's popularity peaked, according to Google's N-gram viewer. There have also been two novels. In music, there have three songs by that name (including a recent one by Sam Smith), an album (by hardcore metal band Integrity), and a Finnish goth-metal band (with slashes between the words: To/Die/For). In 2013, American pop-noise band Scarling released a single called "Who Wants to Die for Art?" Yes, that's it exactly! No one wants to die for art!—Jim Austin

ChrisS's picture

Say no more.

Jazzlistener's picture

Star Wars fan, my vote would have been for R2D2 - Records to Dance To. :)

cognoscente's picture

Crossover by Dua Saleh *

Greenzone 108 by Greentea Peng *

Forbidden Feelingz by Nia Archives *

Air by Sault *

A Light For Attraction Attention by The Smile *

Push the Sky Away by Nick Cave & Bad Seeds ***

The Specials by The Specials **

Shiva Feshareki: Turning World by Shiva Feshareki *

Itemporal by Sarah Davachi/Ariel Kalma ***

Bloom by Areni Agbabian ***

Combination of recent releases (*), rediscoveries (**) and delayed discoveries (***)

Lars Bo's picture

Thanks, Kalman - the Matangi Outcast recordings are really something.

Another recommendation of the Ukrainian Silvestrov: His "Silent Songs" w. Yakovenko/Scheps, on ECM (cd only). It must have been less than a spotless reel-to-reel used in 1986 in Moscow, but humanity and emotions are grippingly authentic.

volvic's picture

Kudos to Ms. Johnson for mentioning the extraordinary Pérotin recording from the Hilliard Ensemble. It is a mesmerizing performance that doesn't’ get the due or mention it deserves. Well done!!!

Some great recommendations from others here as well, question! Do I need another Beethoven series and a period performance of Mahler’s 4th?

Kal Rubinson's picture

Some great recommendations from others here as well, question! Do I need another Beethoven series.....

I own multiple sets of the Beethoven symphonies as well as many individual symphonies but I nominated the Savall Beethoven set (Syms 1-6) because I believe you do.

Poor Audiophile's picture

for me!

volvic's picture

Will let my fingers do the clicking and add it to the pile.

Kal Rubinson's picture

Considering the cost and despite my enthusiasm, I still recommend that you sample it on-line before making such an investment.

volvic's picture

I always do, but everyone is quite enthusiastic about these recordings, so just might take the plunge. Then again, everyone was enthusiastic over Hogwood's Beethoven cycle which doesn't really work after the 4th, but this could be different. The problem for me these days is lack of space in the ever shrinking Manhattan apartment.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

That's what I began to do after two Gramophone reviewers chose Savall's Beethoven 6-9 as their favorite recording of the year.

Kal Rubinson's picture

I was disappointed with the 6-9 as a set.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Hi Kal,

I haven't had time to listen to more than a few bits. Far more on my plate than anyone of normal appetite should dare attempt to consume in one sitting. It's on the list... the very long list. Until then, I greatly appreciate learning your opinion.


volvic's picture

Will start with the 6-9 set.

Kal Rubinson's picture

FWIW, 1-5 were recorded as the culmination of a deep immersion (described in the booklet) into the scores and the context in 2019, prior to the Pandemic. It was released in 2020. The 6-9 set was recorded in 2020 during the Pandemic which deeply intruded itself into the process and delayed its release until 2022. It is no wonder that the results are not as good as the earlier ones made in better times and without Pandemic constraints.

You can have my 6-9 set if you want it. It's good, such as it is, but not outstanding and not an urgent recommendation. My R2L4 recommendation was for only the 1-5 set.

volvic's picture

Just read about the recording timeline this morning and the obstacles the pandemic threw at the whole recording process. A shame. I will listen to it but not keep it; I will purchase my copy if I like it. Thanks for offering.

volvic's picture

Hello JVS, Happy New Year! I don't stream, for many reasons, so that option is out for me.

Kal Rubinson's picture

Hmmmm. Manhattan apartment, eh? Mebbe just borrow mine to decide. ;-)

volvic's picture

Many thanks for offering; too kind. I suspect we're not that far from each other; I'm in the UES. I will take the plunge and purchase. Just listened to his 9th, a live performance and was deeply impressed. I will be purchasing. Will revert when I listen to them.

Kal Rubinson's picture

ok's picture doesn't mean that much to us grownups anymore.

Kal Rubinson's picture

Then, why are you here?

ok's picture

it still means a lot :)

Kal Rubinson's picture

Hmm. OK.