Records to Die For 2021

Records To Live For! In an ordinary year, the name of this annual feature, published every February since 1991, is a harmless, even amusing joke. In last year's opening essay, I evoked a heavily armed intruder perusing your record collection late at night and holding your favorite record in his hands: Would you risk your life by confronting him? That's hardly the first time that an author of the R2D4 lead essay made a joke about possibly dying.

The usual phrase—"Records to Die For"—would probably go over okay in 2021 as well. If I proceeded in the usual, lighthearted way or made ironic reference to our current circumstances, I doubt I'd get many angry letters. But, frankly, I don't have the heart to write it. The time isn't right.

We're in the midst of a pandemic, as a result of which more than 250,000 Americans have died. By the time you read this, one in every 1000 Americans will have lost their lives as a result of the disease. A vaccine was on the horizon at the time of writing this essay, so the future seems bright, but it won't be widely distributed for several more months; meanwhile, the virus is spiking across America.

If you find all this depressing and would rather not read this sort of thing in a hi-fi magazine, I offer my most sincere apology. It is depressing, and at first I was unsure about writing it. But, as I have written before, and more than once, for those of us who love it, music is part of life; it's important to keep this magazine rooted in that lived experience. I love my record collection, but, as I started to write this essay, in late November 2020, even the tongue-in-cheek suggestion of dying for a slab of vinyl seemed, well, off. This is not the right time for lighthearted jokes about mortality.

For this edition, then, I am using my editor's prerogative to rename this feature—just this one time—Records to Live For. I view the change as so temporary that I'm not even going to bother to change our iconic initialism: This may be Records to Live For, but it's still R2D4 2021. Then, next year, we return to our regular programming.

Music is life-affirming. It can shine at least a little light into even the darkest gloom. I've seen it do it all too recently.

Many of our writers, in making their selections, seem to have been thinking (or feeling) along similar lines. When I made my selections, I wasn't explicitly thinking about death and disease, but one of my choices was by the Ventures; what could be more mindless than that? What could be more joyful and life-affirming than Kanda Bongo Man's Amour Fou, one of Larry Birnbaum's choices, or more poignant than Chick Corea's Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, Larry's other choice. In London, Phil Brett chose Magazine's The Correct Use of Soap, commenting, "Add some neurosis and the very apt album title, and this defines me in these pandemic times." Sasha Matson chose Lady Day (The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia 1933–1944)—a singer who knew from suffering and yet provided much joy and eased much suffering through her music, and continues to.

Dan Ouellette chose Stay Awake (Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films) , one of several joyful, all-star productions from Hal Willner, who died in 2020 from COVID-19. (One highlight: The Replacements doing "Cruella de Ville"—pure adrenal joy.) Larry Greenhill chose Hans Zimmer's soundtrack from Blade Runner 2049, which, he wrote, "reflects emptiness and loss." One of Herb Reichert's picks is the score from the HBO series Chernobyl, which "evokes dread, hopelessness, and dystopian collapse."

Music provides catharsis, emotional uplift, and distraction. All three of those things are useful right now. Here's hoping that some of these selections hit home for you and that these next few months are safe and uneventful.—Jim Austin

COMMENTS
jimtavegia's picture

One of the best ever and much needed direction during the pandemic.

ChrisS's picture

...when I dropped by my local brick-and-mortar stereo shop not long ago and my wife expressed some "concern" at my music buying this past year!

mcrushing's picture

Two things that have kept me going all these months:

The constant stream of vinyl mailers that bring new music to my door, and fantasies of the moment I'll walk into a club again and hear it played live.

Looking forward to perusing the list.

2_channel_ears's picture

Records ARE to live for. Music is ALIVE. We think it, we breathe it, even taste it. Let's call it for what it is.

AnalogueFan's picture

Verdi in one of his best Aida
Why not highlight that this record is analog and is available in an analog edition (uncompressed)

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

This isn't my choice (although I love the recording), and I don't pretend to speak for Tom. But as far as I can tell, the CD/Blu-ray package is readily available, as is a 24/96 download at HDTracks and other sites, while the vinyl seems only available used.

There's also a potential fallacy in your statement. Do you know for certain that no compression was used by the recording engineers? I don't know, but I do know that many analog recordings were subject to compression.

AnalogueFan's picture

I agree, but with patience you can find a good copy near mint, and maybe with more luck NEW.
Analog is less compressed than digital. On vinyl this is the closest thing to the original master tape.
On my analog system that recording, Aida-Verdi-Solti-Price, sounds better.
Good hunting and happy listening. Thank you.

jimtavegia's picture

I know my hearing is going, but I bought a CD of an artist I love and have many recordings. I was having a hard time understanding all the lyrics that was being sung. I thought, am I losing it and my hearing getting worse?

I dragged a file into Sony Sound Forge 14 and there is was: compressed and then the flat top wave form .1db under 0...full scale. Well, that engineer didn't want any "Overs". lol

There were points in each song where the music was above the vocalist. I always viewed the vocalist as a boat on water; big dynamic range might look like giant ocean waves in my editor which is fine if they are below 0 db. If the music is more gentle like a ripple in a lake the vocalist could be in a row boat or a nice wood bodies inboard boat, but always above the waves.

This seemed to be followed more by vocalist and engineers in the 40's, 50"s, and 60's like Sinatra, Bennett, et.al; and now Krall, Buble' and many others. Sad, but true.

It seems that with all the options in DAWs these days that recordings can be made worse by doing more engineering. It needs to be dialed back.

JA1's recordings are always a benchmark for me. His choral work is the best as are recordings by Eric Whitacre. When you can understand what the entire choir is singing you know the engineering is top notch.

Allen Fant's picture

Great List- Guys!
good to see a few 2020 titles make the grade.

tonykaz's picture

Seems like a comedic cliche,

Are we intending to make it into an Institution here ?

It's bad taste that isn't funny.

We should take a leadership stance and describe these Albums as Hall of Fame Albums with each getting its own individual Number and date of enshrinement. ( Of course, if these Albums are actually deserving , which I think they are )

Stereophile needs to hold the Higher Ground in matters like this.

Tony in Venice Florida

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Dear Tony,

You frequently amaze me. Stereophile's Records-To-Die-For already is an institution; it has appeared every year for a very long time. Are you suggesting that Jim Austin consider renaming the feature "Records to Live For?"

As for needing to take a leadership stance, I think that this long-standing feature and the magazine as a whole already do. Do you disagree?

Your "shoulds" suggest that you're ready to apply as our new editor. An interesting prospect, to be sure. Perhaps first, since you live on the FL coast and the consequences of global warming are being felt everywhere, you might consider moving to Higher Ground.

Be well. Without your thoughts, the comments section would never be the same. I hope as many people look forward to my contributions as they look forward to yours.

jason

Anton's picture

Tony's lost a step.

He forgot to whine about the word "records" while mewling about "to die for."

But, he skipped his usual retelling of how he owned a Hi Fi business, so that's a step forward.

Timbo in Oz's picture

I'd need a good original instrument recording before I'd expect that.

HIP is high fidelity.

With JSB's music for harpsichord on a Grand Piano you can't DO it, as you have to leave notes out.

:-)

tonykaz's picture

"to die for" is a 20th Century expression, born from a Comedic Movie. It is a tired expression about selfish greed for a Prada Purse. It's Cultural to a life of privilege and a disrespectful reference to a shallow pursuit to competitive acquisitions. It's a Bubble-Gum expression.

Our best recordings and the talent creating them "should" find a place of Distinction, documented for all time with Stereophile and Staff being the Curators. ( who is better equipped ? )

Great and Outstanding Recordings are the Bedrock Foundation of our wonderful hobby/avocation. We have a duty to Honour them with something they earned and achieved : Placement in Stereophile Staff's Hall of Greatness !

Stereophile could & should/could become Stereophile News & Record Review.

Higher Ground : I live 16 feet above Sea Level, am fully insured for Water, Storm Surges, Hurricanes and high winds. My residence is built to withstand 132mph flying bits. It's a Tropical Paradise. I can no longer tolerate returning to the frozen North, for any reason including participating in another Progressive Political Movement. Temperatures can drop to 50F and increase to 90F, our Pool floats at 88F, swimming is a weightless nirvana.

Thank you for writing, corresponding with you has always been a rewarding experience.

Tony in Venice Florida

gregmav's picture

With all due respect to Mr. Austin, his "vindication" of U2 seems to be a bit perplexing, based on the claims he makes in his review of their album War. While U2 has indeed carried on as a functioning band for longer than the Beatles did, they have not lasted "much longer" nor have they "sold almost as many records." Based on the numbers I have seen the Beatles total claimed sales figures are listed as anywhere between 500 million to 1 Billion units sold, with "Certified" sales of 282.3 Million. U2 on the other hand has total claimed sales of 150 Million and "Certified" sales of 111 Million. Perhaps Mr. Austin's idea of "nearly" and mine are different, because, in my opinion those respective numbers for each artist aren't even remotely near each other. And I like U2. Nothing against them.

Briandrumzilla's picture

I have the MFSL cd, The Tubes, in my collection. It is very good and played often. Would like to have seen something from the Van Halen catalogue make the list. I was waiting for a flight home in McCarran when the news arrived that Eddie Van Halen died. Once home, I went on a binge of Van Halen records for the next several days.

As for live music, we spent the Christmas week at Lauderdale By The Sea and the restaurants and bars by the beach were busy and featured many local two and three piece musical acts playing a great selection of music. We enjoyed it immensely!

pbarach's picture

I'm happy to see Starker's Mercury recording of the Bach cello suites here. I haven't heard it on vinyl, but the 3-channel tracks on the SACD are incredibly lifelike.

Kal Rubinson's picture
Quote:

I'm happy to see Starker's Mercury recording of the Bach cello suites here.

It's not the first time.

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