2016 Records To Die For Page 5

Sasha Matson

Shirley Horn: Here's to Life
Shirley Horn, vocal, piano; Johnny Mandel, arr.
Verve 314 511 879-2 (CD). 1992. Johnny Mandel, prod.; Al Schmitt, eng. AAD? TT: 62:00

Here's to Life has been a continual part of mine since its release, in 1992. Shirley Horn was a mature artist when this long-planned collaboration with composer and arranger Johnny Mandel finally came to fruition. It was a match made in heaven. Horn's deep mezzo is surrounded by exquisite arrangements and world-class orchestrations. The sound is beautiful, thanks to Al Schmitt's brilliant engineering. Unfortunately, no LP version exists—I hope someone will rectify that. The music is gorgeous, heartbreaking, magical! Miles Davis thought so, too; he'd agreed to play on two tracks, but passed away before that was possible. Here's to Life is dedicated to him.

Bernard Herrmann: Vertigo: Original Soundtrack
Muir Mathieson, City of London Sinfonia
Varèse Sarabande VSD-5759 (CD). 1958/1996. Robert Townson, prod.; Onno Scholtze, mastering; Joel Gastwirt, Ramon Breton, remastering. ADD. TT: 64:10

Exhibit A of the power of great music combined with a great film is Bernard Herrmann's score for Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 masterpiece, Vertigo. Herrmann brings searing emotional life to Hitchcock's profoundly unnerving film. Herrmann was the first true musical minimalist; Philip Glass should be sending royalties to the Herrmann estate. This release dates from the restoration of 1996, in which the original stereo music tracks were used for the first time. If you get hooked on this, as so many have, at some point you'll want to play this CD in a green Jag while driving the hills of San Francisco.

Paul Messenger

The B52's: The B52's
Island ILPS 9580 (LP). 1979. Chris Blackwell, prod.; Robert Ash, prod., eng. AAA. TT: 39:14

In 2008, the B52's finally realized their error and dropped from their name the "grocer's apostrophe," which was such an integral element of this 1979 vinyl release. The band was founded, almost by accident, in Athens, Georgia, and has a delightfully light touch—a fine sense of humor comes through strongly in numerous tracks, especially the wonderful "Rock Lobster." Can the B52's be categorized? Possibly not, but I hear echoes of 1950s rock'n'roll alongside punk-rock sensibilities, all underpinned by delightful tongue-in-cheek humor. This band never takes itself seriously, yet manages to be utterly original. Therein lies its charm.

Bob Dylan: The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan
Columbia CL 1986 (mono LP). 1963. John Hammond, prod. AAA. TT: 50:06

I was just 14 years old when this disc first appeared, so it's hardly surprising that it slipped through my net. The other day I saw the man himself perform live at the Royal Albert Hall—he played a wonderful version of "Blowin' in the Wind" that was quite different from the standout track on this album. Although I've long been chary of vinyl reissues, which usually lack the dynamic impact of my originals, I can say only that my recent purchase of this mono LP of Freewheelin' is very much the exception. It sounds just wonderful, it's well crammed with classic tracks—and it's back in print, including a hi-rez download version from PonoMusic.

Fred Mills

Spirit: Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus
Epic/Legacy EK 65003 (CD). 1970/1996. David Briggs, prod., eng.; Bob Irwin, reissue prod. AAD. TT: 54:20

There never was and never will be an American rock band quite so willfully (perversely?) eclectic as Spirit. Five colliding musical visions (six, if you count producer Briggs's) magically meshed on their fourth LP, from 1970: a masterpiece of psych, folk, pop, and rock. The quasi-concept album is a broad-reaching countercultural commentary equal parts utopian ideals and post-Altamont cynicism. Guitarist Randy California passed away in a tragic drowning incident in 1997, but luckily, the year before, had penned detailed liner notes for this reissue—expanded with four bonus tracks—of his band's acknowledged classic. I interviewed him in the early 1990s, and he remains for me an inspiring hero. (Vol.26 No.2)

Died Pretty: Free Dirt
Aztec Music AVSCD041 (2 CDs). 2008. Rob Younger, prod.; Dave Connor, Alan Thorne, engs. AAD. TT: 2:11:46

The mid-1980s were arguably Australia's golden era of independent rock, thrusting into the international eye such acts as Hoodoo Gurus, Scientists, Celibate Rifles, Stems, and Died Pretty. The Pretties' 1986 magnum opus, along with the preceding Out of the Unknown and Next to Nothing EPs (both featured on disc 2 of this expanded reissue, which also includes some excellent live tracks), have aged well enough to still stop you in your tracks, as much for Ron Peno's feral howl and Dylan-Reed lyrics as for the ambitious arrangements wrought by Brett Myers's blistering guitar and Frank Brunetti's magisterial keys. Translation: sinewy, cinematic psychedelia powered by pure punk poetry.

Thomas J. Norton

James Horner: Sneakers: Original Soundtrack
Columbia CK 53146 (CD). 1992. James Horner, prod.; Shawn Murphy, mix. AAD? TT: 72:31

Those who've been following "Records to Die For" for the past 20 years or so, or have burrowed into Stereophile's online archives, may have noticed that I first recommended this recording in 1995. Why again? Simply because this review, and the one that follows, reflect the fact that, in 2015, we lost one of the most prominent film composers of the modern era: James Horner.

Sneakers was primarily distinguished for its cast (Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, Dan Aykroyd, Ben Kingsley, River Phoenix), but its earnings barely covered its costs. It was released on DVD in 2004, but came out on Blu-ray only last year. Horner embellished the relatively obscure film with a subtle, reflective score that is one of his most original efforts. Like many film composers, who work on exceptionally tight deadlines, he was often criticized for "borrowing" snippets and themes, though he seems to have lifted mostly from his own earlier work. Nevertheless, his scores were always exceptional. I could have chosen a dozen of them, but Sneakers remains one of my favorites, and its extended "Playtronics Break-In" sequence is still one if my go-to demo cuts. The superb recording is laid-back, with impressive ambience rather than sounding dry and in your face. It captures the orchestra, wordless chorus, and Branford Marsalis's clarinet contributions to near perfection. (Vol.18 No.2, Vol.34 No.2)

James Horner: Apollo 13: Original Soundtrack
James Horner, conductor
MCA Soundtracks MCAD-11241 (CD). 1995. James Horner, prod.; Shawn Murphy, mixer. AAD? TT: 72:21

Unfortunately, an orchestral-score-only CD of the Apollo 13 soundtrack was never released. Of this CD's 72 minutes, 31 are filled with the original recordings of the 1960s pop music used here and there in the film, along with brief snatches of dialogue—an arrangement that was likely a marketing hack's dream of a platinum album. Fortunately, there are also 41 minutes of key music from one of James Horner's best scores (tracks 1, 9, 13, 14, 17, 22, and 23—the CD tray card's numbering is totally out of whack). Like Sneakers (above), Apollo 13 offers more than a trace of subtle, evocative music, but offers plenty of more energetic cuts as well.

Like many soundtrack albums, Horner's often include one or more "tone poems"—extended suites that are thrilling and often moving, even when experienced apart from the film. There are at least three fine examples here: "All Systems Go—The Launch" (track 9) "End Titles" (23), and "Dark Side of the Moon" (17). The last—no resemblance to Pink Floyd!—borrows heavily from Sneakers, but definitely works here.

As with Sneakers, the recording quality is outstanding. Mix engineer Shawn Murphy is, in my judgment, unsurpassed in his ability to convincingly capture a full symphony orchestra in any genre, not just the one in which he's chosen to work. Audiophiles first became aware of this with his work for Glory, another film scored by Horner. In addition to Horner (with whom he worked up to and including Titanic, in 1997), Murphy records nearly all of the scores of John Williams, James Newton Howard, and many others. He did some of his best work, including these two, at the old Todd-AO scoring stage, now sadly converted to office space—or something. Reportedly the largest such facility in the US, it had superb acoustics that are evident on both of these recordings, and was able to accommodate an orchestra of over 100 musicians.

Herb Reichert

Moondog: The Viking of Sixth Avenue
Honest Jon's Records HJRLP18 (2 UK LPs). 1949–1995/2006. Compilation by Mark Ainley, Edwin Pouncey, Howard Williams. ADA? TT: 72:44

Louis Thomas Hardin, aka Moondog (1916–1999), is often compared to Sun Ra and Harry Partch. He was an artist whose eccentric wardrobe, edgy musical aesthetic, and dodgy relationship to the mainstream music industry were forged as poetic responses to the Great War, the Second War, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and the British Invasion. Terry Cox, Pentangle's percussionist, wrote and performed a song about him. High Water Sound's Jeffrey Catalano describes Moondog as "universal innocence." This world-famous blind street musician who dressed like a Viking was a gentle, worldly-wise poet whose every act—from making his own instruments and writing down each note of his compositions to publishing his own music and living in Central Park—was an act of love.

Aretha Franklin: Amazing Grace
Atlantic SD 2-906 (2 LPs). 1972. Aretha Franklin, Arif Mardin, Jerry Wexler, prods.; Ray Thompson, eng. AAA. TT: 94:18

It is no coincidence that most great American singers were praying and singing church people: think Blind Willie Johnson, Charlie Patton, Elvis, to name just a few. The church component was what made their music strong and deeply moving. And in my record collection, the Queen of Soul is surely also the Queen of Church. Aretha Franklin's soul-shaking live performances on Amazing Grace will show you heaven and shake all your devils out. It will also show you what a full-range, only lightly compressed live recording can do in your stereo system. Clean, deep bass; big, breathy space; and spiderweb detail combine with extraordinary tone to raise you up 'til you can see them shiny gates. (Vol.15 No.2)

Kal Rubinson

Biber: Baroque Splendor: Missa Salisburgensis
With: Sonata for 8 Trumpets and Timpani, Plaudite Tympana, Battaglia à 10
Jordi Savall, La Capella Reial de Catalunya, Hespèrion XXI, Le Concert des Nations
Alia Vox AVSA9912 (SACD/CD). 2015. Manuel Mohina, Nicolas Bartholomée, engs., mastering. DDD. TT: 71:40

It's always Biber time around here, for the passion that bursts from all his music. From the ecstatic but personal Mystery or Rosary sonatas (of which there are three marvelous new recordings this year alone) to this glorious Missa Salisburgensis, Biber's music never fails to communicate. Recorded in La Collégiale du Château de Cardona, this multichannel recording finds just the right balance of spacious, reverberant acoustic with clarity and coherence for the singers and players. This and Jordi Savall's magisterial pace reveal the rich complexity of Biber's 53-part scoring as no competing recording does. The additional works lead and prepare the listener for the thrilling experience.

Beethoven: Beethoven, Period: Complete Sonatas & Variations for Cello & Fortepiano
Matt Haimovitz, cello; Christopher O'Riley, fortepiano
Oxingale/Pentatone PTC 5186 475 (2 SACD/CDs). 2015. David Frost, prod.; Richard King, eng., mix, mastering. DDD. TT: 2:20:00

The boutique label Oxingale has formed a relationship with Pentatone; this is a tasty fruit of their efforts. Haimovitz and O'Riley bring fresh exuberance to their comprehensive survey of Beethoven's works for cello and piano. Rarely have I felt such a consistent sense of discovery from seasoned virtuosi. The feeling of novelty is enhanced by the use of period instruments, whose sounds intrigue the ears and engage the mind. All is captured in immediate and transparent multichannel sound that lets me savor the players' intensity and the subtle decays of their instruments' overtones. (Note: On disc 1, tracks 4 and 8 are swapped in the listings on the jacket and in the booklet.)

mmole's picture

Great to see Moondog included but Herb, I would disagree with your statement that "his every act...was an act of love." From Philip Glass's preface to Robert Scotto's biography, "The Viking of 6th Avenue":

"As amazing as he was, he was a difficult guy, and a bit of a racist too. He spoke of not liking black or Jewish people"

But his music is indeed divine.


I believe he was referring to Moondog's MUSICAL acts.

mmole's picture

,,,in early 2018.

Allen Fant's picture

I love the R2D4 episode. Stereophile has a rich history in this regard.

Axiom05's picture

I am happy to see some recognition for the late, great James Horner. Sneakers is a wonderful album which I can listen to at anytime. Whenever I can't decide on an album to listen to, I put on either the Sneakers soundtrack or the Patriot Games soundtrack. Great stuff!

Catcher10's picture

CD/SACD are not "records".....just sayin

kursten's picture

It would be really swell if someone put all of the Stereophile R2D4 on a public Tidal playlist everyone could enjoy. I have compiled a couple years worth of R2D4 material, but it is really time consuming. Plus, I don't know how to make a playlist public - but, folks on Audiostream comments boards have done so with wonderful results.

kursten's picture

Here's a link to said playlist. It has some of Audiostream's Lovely Recordings, but it's mostly old R2D4 with a few recent lists, too.


Bob Levin's picture

My R2D4 in their catalogue is "The Colour Of Spring"
The music itself is gorgeous and has amazing sonics.
It's my go-to album when I challenge friends to an A/B test between analogue and digital.
I've seen many jaws drop to the floor when they hear how much better it sounds on vinyl. (In my case, it's E.M.I. America ST-1719 Mastered by Wally Traugott, versus E.M.I. CDP 7462282, the original U.K. CD)

partain's picture

Conversely , might be a poor CD.

Chris Hunter's picture

Is there anybody under the age of 30 on the Stereophile staff? No wonder Millennials are buying soundbars in droves.

It would have been great to see some observations on recordings that people actually buy in reasonable numbers. You know, popular music.

dalethorn's picture

Stereophile serves its customers very well I think. At times they've had someone like Ariel Bitran, who has recommended music that I've bought - even music he participated in.

But there's a more important issue here. Is it better to look for Stereophile to represent all age groups in some way, or might it be better to include other sources in the search for different genres of audiophile music?

Chris Hunter's picture

I think there's a danger that this excellent magazine will end up like Harley-Davidson — catering to an increasingly older and insular market.

There is a fair bit of 'new' or cutting-edge music that is well recorded, or uses sound in unusual ways. The latest Daft Punk album 'Random Access Memories' sounds stunning, for example.

dalethorn's picture

There is a danger for magazines like this, but one of the unique things about Stereophile in particular is how even the middle-age guys dabble in the various pop musics. I can't speak for them (someone has to ask them individually, for what should be obvious reasons), but I can speak for myself. I'm into nearly everything - Daft Punk, Alt-J, Armin van Buuren, Enslaved, Katy B, Nouvelle Vague, ...... but come to think of it, since Stereophile is more a hi-fi gear mag than a music mag, I'd say that the gear tests will generally drive the acquisition of new music tracks, rather than the need to fill out R2D4 issues. That's how it works for me.

Bob Levin's picture

So if I say, "Never trust anyone under 30"........
(There is no Sanctuary.)

dalethorn's picture

Yeah - everybody wants to live to old age, but they still dread it.

worldofsteveUK's picture

I've always thought Weather Report eponymous LP was hugely underrated, for me a great choice. Interesting list, thanks.

GuillaumeLN's picture

I have a major problem with people, and especially reviewers, calling any and all electronic music, electronica. Electronica is somewhat new age, quite feminine and vastly uninteresting. This kind of inappropriate labeling should not happen from people with an educated ear. Electronic music is among the most difficult music to reproduce in an audiophile set up, I feel reviewers overlooking this category are inapt to review.

spucket's picture

Let's see now, checked out 2015-16 dubious "records to die for" and so far the only recording worth a damn is mahler's 9th. This means 99.9% of the remaining selections of "records to die" are utter cacophany. How to account for the musically impaired stereophile staff? Easy answer: EMPLOYEE'S (self-explanatory). INVESTOR's (self-explanatory) An editor with its head up the investor's A** - little wonder.

Whats worse than that? the predictable empty reponses to this post (assuming it doesn't get deleted) defending stereophile's poor taste equal in nature and consequence to the united states governments responses regarding 911 -> COMPLETE BS

what a let down.

John Atkinson's picture
spucket's picture

Hi johnny boy.. just read your (well deserved) snide reply. Still, you illustrate my point better than I do. It's unfortunate you think "holding down a job" is a relevant parameter pertaining to the intrinsic value (or worth as you would put it) of a human being. Are you aware if this were the case, there would be no need for music in the first place? Where to even begin to explain.

Well, here are some links for you:

Edgar.Villegas's picture

I think that audiophile equipment and music are indivisable one does not exists without the other, that's why stereophile magazine should try to bring more music articles and recomendations to it's content. Will be nice to know which popular music is been auditioned by stereophile reviewers.