Records to Die For 2017 Page 5

Paul Messenger


The Incredible String Band: The 5000 Spirits or The Layers of the Onion
Elektra EKS 5287 (UK LP). 1967. Joe Boyd, prod.; John Wood, eng. AAA. TT: 50:10

All latter-day hippies ought to have a copy of this splendid album, which features psychedelic cover art by The Fool and brilliant recording quality, thanks to the excellent taste of producer Joe Boyd. Clive Palmer had left for India, and now on this, the ISB's second album, the duo of Robin Williamson and Mike Heron took center stage in songwriting, singing, and the playing of sitars, gimbris, and the ubiquitous guitars. They formed a successful folk-oriented live act, with or without girlfriends, until 1974, and continued as solo artists thereafter—but I don't believe they ever bettered this album. (Vol.17 No.12, Vol.33 No.9)


Paul Simon: The Rhythm of the Saints
Warner Bros. WX 340 (UK LP). 1990. Paul Simon, prod.; Roy Halee, eng. ADA. TT: 44:34

Graceland may have been the first of Paul Simon's collaborations with overseas musicians, and may have attracted all manner of (sometimes political) attention, but I've long felt that this follow-up of four years later, based largely on Latin American rhythms, was very much its equal, though it attracted less attention. Although Simon's exploration of complex Latin rhythms is particularly interesting, this longstanding key member of the songwriting elite also maintains his high compositional standards throughout this impressively varied recording. It doesn't set a particularly high standard of recording quality, but it's remarkably homogeneous, considering the many recording locations and musicians used. (Vol.14 No.2, Vol.19 No.2)

Ken Micallef


Sonny Rollins: Alfie: Original Music from the Score
Sonny Rollins, composer, tenor saxophone; Oliver Nelson, arr., conductor; Phil Woods, alto saxophone; Bob Ashton, tenor saxophone; Danny Bank, baritone saxophone; Jimmy Cleveland, J.J. Johnson, trombone; Kenny Burrell, guitar; Roger Kellaway, piano; Walter Booker, bass; Frankie Dunlop, drums
Impulse! A-9111 (LP). 1966. Bob Thiele, prod.; Rudy Van Gelder, eng. AAA. TT: 32:50

Sure, you know the popular hit single composed by Burt Bacharach and sung by Dionne Warwick; this is the other side of the Alfie soundtrack. Sonny Rollins realized one of his most refined albums with Alfie, which, like the film, traces a day in the life of Alfie Elkins (Michael Caine). This emotional album is a feast for the audio senses and a wide-ranging work of diverse moods, with some of Rollins's most incandescent soloing. From the swinging opener, "Alfie's Theme," to the atmospheric ballad "He's Younger Than You Are" and the chaotic "Street Runner with Child," Alfie is a tour de force, and one of the greatest and least appreciated albums in jazz. (Vol.18 No.2)


Tower of Power: Back to Oakland
Warner Bros. BS 2749/Direct-Disk Labs SD 16601 (LP). 1974/1976. Tower of Power, prods.; Jim Gaines, eng.; Emilio Castillo, reissue supervisor. AAA. TT: 43:05

The fourth album by the blue-eyed "Soul Vaccination" crew, Tower of Power, Back to Oakland is a nearly perfect combination of extraordinary musicianship, fervent compositions, and emotional R&B crooning. ToP are renowned for their innovative use of funk rhythms based on the James Brown school, but Back to Oakland rose far above the funk and funk fusion styles then popular: The album's sublime songwriting and lavish production made it a masterpiece of mid-1970s horn-band funk. From the agitated funk burner "Squib Cakes" and the wistful jazz waltz "Time Will Tell" to the time-twisting juggernaut "Can't You See (You Doin' Me Wrong)," Back to Oakland is timeless Bay Area soul.

Fred Mills


Primal Scream: Screamadelica
Plain PLAIN 1061DLB (2 LPs). 1991/2016. Andrew Weatherall, Hugo Nicholson, Jimmy Miller, Andrew Innes, Hypnotone, prods.; David Burnham, eng. ADA? TT: 62:03

In 1991, a middling Scottish combo primarily known for its Byrds and Stones influences released an album that changed the face of British rock. Screamadelica, produced for the most part by Andrew Weatherall, of visionary techno team The Orb, mixed Detroit-styled heavy garage with then-burgeoning acid house, stirring in dollops of dub and pinches of psych, to create a heady mélange as danceable as it was gritty. Freeing the ass first, so to speak, so the mind would definitely follow, "E" optional (but suggested). Originally released on LP by Creation (UK) and on CD by Sire (US), Screamadelica got the expanded, boxed-set treatment in 2011—but this latest iteration, on two gorgeous discs of red-and-yellow-swirled vinyl, nicely returns it to its warm, analog, LP roots. (Vol.23 No.2)


Game Theory: The Big Shot Chronicles
Omnivore OVCD-174 (CD). 1986/2016. Mitch Easter, prod., eng.; Cheryl Pawelski, Pat Thomas, reissue prods. AAD. TT: 79:54

Although common wisdom advises that Lolita Nation, Game Theory's sprawling two-LP set of 1987, is the Cali power-pop kings' masterpiece, real fans favor its '86 predecessor. Omnivore's expanded and remastered reissue of The Big Shot Chronicles mounts a compelling argument that with this album, songwriter-guitarist Scott Miller (R.I.P.) reached an early, dizzying creative peak. The music, intuitively abetted by college-rock wunderkind producer Mitch Easter, is simultaneously serene and muscular, dropping sonic references to the likes of Big Star, Velvet Underground, and Todd Rundgren (among the bonus tracks: a cover of the Runt's classic "Couldn't I Just Tell You") while staking out a unique and permanent position in the Amerindie underground. Unlike many records from the mid-'80s, this one has absolutely stood the test of time.

Thomas J. Norton


Bear McCreary: Outlander, The Series: Original Television Soundtrack, Vol.1
Madison Gate 043396 406490 (CD). 2015. Bear McCreary, Joe Augustine, prods.; Laurence Schwarz, Ryan Sanchez, engs.; Pat Sullivan, mastering. DDD.? TT: 50:27

Film and TV composer Bear McCreary first made his mark in the early 2000s, with the reimagined Battlestar Galactica. With his score for the Starz TV series Outlander he took on a very different challenge. This fantasy, based on the novels of Diana Gabaldon, tells the story of an English woman thrown back in time from 1945 to the Jacobite uprising in 1740s Scotland. Season One calls for Celtic themes (some classic, others new) heavy on Uilleann bagpipes, fiddles, accordion, pennywhistle, and bodhran, backed by orchestral strings, vocals, and percussion. The result is haunting and compelling. It's also beautifully recorded, and, though mastered at a high level, sounds neither too bright nor compressed. The booklet, with notes by McCreary that provide extensive detail about the creation of the score, is a rare and welcome bonus.


Jonas Kaufmann: An Evening with Puccini
Jonas Kaufmann, tenor; Jochen Rieder, Filarmonica Della Scala
Sony Classical 8887 513025 9 (BD). 2016. Brian Large, dir.; Barry Clark-Ewers, prod.; Carlo Assalini, senior eng,; Matteo Costa, audio recording eng. DDD. TT: 115:00

Jonas Kaufmann, the go-to tenor of the early 21st century, is apparently opera's current matinee idol—if, at one of his performances, you wait for the fat man to sing, you'll still be waiting next Tuesday. His real gift is his magnificent voice, which is fully on display in this special concert. Most of the Puccini favorites are here, including the most overperformed aria of recent decades, "Nessun dorma," from Turandot. Be sure to check out the encore repeat of the latter, with an endearingly human development near the end of this long concert. The excellent sound is offered in both lossless DTS HD-Master Audio surround and 2.0 stereo PCM. The first-rate video is a bonus, and important for the full experience. But you'll need a BD or DVD player—this hasn't been released on CD.

Herb Reichert


Puente Celeste: Nama
M•A Recordings M084A (CD). 2010. Todd Garfinkle, prod., eng. DDD. TT: 60:58

When I find a tin of gold doubloons, I will buy every album ever released by M•A Recordings. Each title is genuine art, not audiofool pap. The music ranges from Romani "Muzika Orijinal" to Ito Ema playing J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations on a 1906 Steinway grand. Puente Celeste means Celestial Bridge, and this five-man group, assembled by Argentine percussionist Santiago Vazquez (of Será Una Noche fame), will give you a preview of that bridge's heavenly destination with their most quirky and sophisticated music, neither jazz nor pop. Each cut is a surprise package of musical invention. Nama, with sound to die for, was recorded at 5.6MHz with a Korg MR-2000 DSD one-bit master recorder.


Macy Gray: Stripped
Chesky JD389 (LP/CD/MP3). 2016. David & Norman Chesky, prods.; Nicholas Prout, eng. DDD. TT 51:07

One of her recordings went triple platinum in 1999. She won a Grammy in 2001, for "I Try." When I played an LP test pressing of Stripped for my girlfriend, bb, I told her, "I think you'll like this singer. I met her at a Chesky recording session. She used to be a backup singer, and now David is giving her a whole album. She sings with deep, authentic soul." Then bb yelled at me: "Backup singer?! You fool! That's Macy Gray! I own every record she ever made!" (Sorry. I never heard of her.) This recording completely defies Holt's Law (the better the recording, the worse the musical performance): these are five-star performances in five-star binaural sound.

Kalman Rubinson


James Matheson: Violin Concerto, String Quartet, Times Alone
Baird Dodge, violin; Esa-Pekka Salonen, Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Color Field Quartet; Laura Strickling, soprano; Thomas Sauer, piano
Yarlung YAR25670 (CD). 2016. J. & Helen Schlichting, prods.; Bob Attiyeh, stereo eng.; Tom Caulfield, multichannel eng. ADD/DDD. TT: 75:59

The two-channel version of this release, fine in its own right, is available on CD and on three individual LPs: Yarlung YAR65005-670V, YAR25668-670V, and YAR25669-670V. However, my real motivation for this R2D4 listing is the DSD256 five-channel version, downloadable from

With no prior knowledge or expectations of James Matheson's music, the slashing opening of Taut, energetic, the aptly titled first movement of his String Quartet, hooked me. Not only was the music gripping and appealing, the multichannel sound was completely involving. Matheson is a living composer for whom direct and emotional communication is not compromised by an unintelligible style or obscured by adherence to dated ones. His String Quartet is dramatic, his Violin Concerto virtuosic and witty, and oh, the lovely songs of Times Alone linger in my mind after the last notes fade.

The multichannel tracks of the String Quartet and the song cycle were recorded in November 2015 in DSD256 by Tom Caulfield, using his array of five carbon-fiber DPA 4006A microphones and a Merging Technologies Horus A/D converter. These are among the most vividly realistic recordings I have heard, and striking in the similarity of what I hear to the photographs of the Los Angeles recording sessions. The Violin Concerto was recorded in concert in December 2011 by Chris Willis, whose multitracks were downmixed to stereo using Yarlung's SonoruS Holographic Imaging processor. The five-channel surround mix was created from that. It's still excellent, but not nearly as convincing as the sound quality of the other works.


Willie Nelson: Night and Day
Willie Nelson, guitar, piano; Mickey Raphael, harmonica; Johnny Gimble, fiddle, mandolin; Jody Payne, acoustic guitar; Bobbie Nelson, piano; B. Spears, bass guitar; Paul English, drums; Billy English, percussion
SurroundedBy Entertainment SBE1001-9 (DVD-A). 1999/2000. Willie Nelson, Jim Mageras, prods.; Larry Greenhill, eng.; Bob Ludwig, surround mastering. ADD(?). TT: 35:20

This is one of my reference recordings; I've used it many times in my reviews of multichannel equipment. One reason is the absolutely beautiful depiction, in 24/96, 5.1-channel sound, of each and every instrument. In this very immersive mix, the players surround the listener—it's nothing like what you'd hear in a concert, but nonetheless, the sense of an ensemble performing in a real space is maintained, and seems completely natural.

The other reason to cherish Night and Day is that the arrangements and performances of this eclectic collection of songs are equally natural, engaging—and danceable. Willie Nelson released this entirely instrumental recording on a small label at a point in his career when any income derived from his singing would have gone directly to the IRS. Rather than being a way to skirt such garnisheeing, Night and Day seems the result of Nelson's need for expression—it is one of his most personal albums. Tragically, the hi-rez DVD-A is now out of print and commands high prices—but the CD is equally enjoyable for the music.

BradleyP's picture

If you like Jon Iverson's recommendation of Tikiyaki Orchestra, you'll also like "The Exotic Moods of Les Baxter." Only it's 50 years older. It's one of those 50s recordings that leaves you shaking your head convinced that stereo recording hasn't gotten ANY better since then. It's a beauty.

dalethorn's picture

Interesting collection! It sounds almost like they used a different studio for each track, so you not only get a different composition each time, but a different presentation too. BTW, the Baxter album in question is one of the most highly reviewed albums on Amazon.

Bluejimbop's picture

We lost the universally admired Bobby Hutcherson in August of 2016.

Allen Fant's picture

Another great list of recordings. Stick with R2D4.

alank's picture

I picked up a quad pressing several years ago in great condition which was manufactured in Germany.I had an sq
set in the 70's.I still have a cartridge for four channel with a shibata stylus.I'm thinking of perusing ebay for a decoder for sq.The record sounds great in stereo and I might plug it into my home theater receiver and see how it sounds in surround mode.

Mrubey's picture

For those of us lucky enough to live in the Texas Hill Country this album is one of our treasures. Back in the day I played it until the grooves wore out. I have always assumed that the elderly right hand on the cover belonged to Johnny "Hondo" Crouch. Hondo owned Luckenbach and was the spiritual inspiration to much of the Texas creative impulse of the time. I was blessed to have known Hondo when I was just a boy. His influence has never left me. I can still picture him whittling a ball inside a cage while chewing plug tobacco and opening doors to secret worlds in a oak leaf. Hondo let me know that there are such a things as magical people in the world. It is due to him that my faith in humanity has endured.

freejazz00's picture

What serious record collector or audiophile would leave records un-sleeved sitting flat on the floor? This is not a well-thought-out image for a Stereophile article.


That's how cats get to appreciate your LPs.

Bluejimbop's picture

Liquor is a harsh mistress.

Herb Reichert's picture

Hello John Swenson . . . interesting pairing. Way back in the 1970s in New York City, Mark Bingham (post Indiana pre-New Orleans), hung with old friend Kevin Teare (MX-80 Sound) and my artist/painter gang in Tribeca. Late late nights Mark would play the Meters, Longhair, and the Nevilles. Mark, Kevin, and Brian Kelly turned me on to a lot of the music I love now. That's is one of the ways music binds us all together.

Anon2's picture

I have seen this periodic summary before. While the assessment has always been excellent, the Stereophile staff has assembled the broadest, and most interesting, range of recordings that I've seen yet.

I look forward to seeing this line-up in greater detail. I also look forward to purchasing some of these recordings.

For fans of the Tiki-torch orchestra, Youtube put this full album of a related theme in the "you might like this" section of their webpage. It appears to be another classic of the late 1950s early 1960s exotica:

gbroagfran's picture


Should this be titled

"records that died 30 years ago?"

rschryer's picture

Great music floats above the pap-du-jour to live on indefinitely. That's how you know for sure it's a R2D4.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Not only is Robert Schryer's comment about the timelessness of music right on, but I'm afraid you've missed a helluva lot of the listings. The first page alone has 4 recent issues, and one newly available historical issue. The second page has 5 recent issues, plus several newly available remasterings that show the music in best light. The third page has four new recordings, and others that are certainly less than 30 years old. My two choices are of retired classical sopranos, one now dead, who have never sounded this good since their original LP issues... which is to say, that the digital engineering has finally begun to catch up to the original analog sound.

gbroagfran's picture

What I meant by new music is not a recording that is from 1967 and reissued. I mean new music, that which has been written and recorded in the past year or two. Something that someone younger than 60 might have heard of.

rschryer's picture

You like to exaggerate, don't you?

gbroagfran's picture

Well, I am on cheap, crappy drugs, so I guess I must have hallucinated that new would mean a year or two old.

Maybe to you, records to die for means new copies of the same old stuff, but not for me. I already have lots of classic rock and jazz albums. The records to die for in my life are the ones that make me stand up and say," Wow, what was that?" It isn't the job of these reviewers to find just technically good records, but stuff you have never seen or heard. They are record reviewers, but apparently, not very adventurous.

rschryer's picture

"The records to die for in my life are the ones that make me stand up and say," Wow, what was that?"
Couldn't agree more. It's exactly what I asked myself when I heard Paul Messenger's R2D4 pick of The Incredible String Band's 5000 Spirits... album. It came out in 1967.

gbroagfran's picture

Ah, 1967. I had a Weathers turntable, old dual-mono tube electronics and custom speakers. I also had two hits of good acid, a handful of joints, a cute, furry hippie gal with no underwear and every record the String Band had made. I still have the records. I like them. That's my point. Now, in 2017, for "oldies", I want to hear Hank Three and Kammerflimmer Kollecteif.

In the last couple of months, I have purchased vinyl by the following artists;

Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats, Goat, Kadaver, Dave Alvin, Seasick Steve, King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, Fat Boy Slim, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, Doc Pomus, SCOTS, and a compilation of 40s-50s voodoo music from the Caribbean.

What have your purchased that might interest the readers?

rschryer's picture

As a music lover, I enjoy the familiarity of the old and discovering the new. But here's the thing, as far as I'm concerned: It's all about context. This segment is called R2D4, not Album that Caught My Fancy in 2017. There's a weightiness at play here that I think should not be overlooked.

I believe that for a record to merit the distinction of being one to die for, hyperbole aside, its music has to have proven itself with the listener/R2D4 judge OVER TIME. Like true love.

The albums you've listed may be great, but will they stand the test of time FOR YOU? Those that continue to find a place in your heart over, say, a 10 year period, will have earned their nomination as a R2D4. The rest, however fun they may have been to listen to in the spring of 2016 but never again, will not.

Bottom line: I believe that time is of the essence when it comes to choosing one's R2D4.

gbroagfran's picture

1. I clearly stated that I like the Incredible String Band and have listened to their albums for 50 years. I have been a stereo fan since 1959. I have seen more than most.

2. Hundreds of other albums, none of which appear on these lists, have stood the test of time of 5-50 years for me, but most audiophiles have never heard of them because they only listen to 100 albums, over and over. They are generally looking for the records that make their systems sound better. My system exists to make my records, all of them, sound better.

3. How about a "rule" that a piece of music can only appear once on these lists? Once a record has appeared, you can easily go back and look at the previous years' lists. Personally, I find almost all remixes and remastered records worse than the originals. Elvis should sound like he is coming out of a car radio. Pink Floyd should sound very loud, bass and 60's. Phoebe Snow should be played on a Quad system from the 70's. That's historically relevant.

rschryer's picture

"My system exists to make my records, all of them, sound better." This statement, as far as my experience goes, better sums up the audiophile ethos than your 100-album cliche that precedes it.

And again, R2D4 is not a list of arbitrary album reviews. It represents albums that are, for personal and unique reasons, meaningful to those who picked them. On this basis, it wouldn't be fair to prohibit a writer from listing a R2D4 because someone else beat him or her to the punch.

gbroagfran's picture

My friend has a collection of 60,000 records. Even he says he listens to the same 100 over and over. Everyone does.

rcwortman's picture

I bought the Cecile McLorin Salvant record that two people recommended months ago after I ran accross a rave review from MF. Once again I was disappointed by audiophile approved vinyl. The record had areas in it that were inexcusably noisy for a new pressing and frankly the music left me flat. Old standards reinterpreted and stylistically butchered to the point of being unrecognizable are not my cup of tea. I need to find someone who likes this sort of melodically jarring wretchedness to give it away to.