Records to Die For 2021 Page 4

Jon Iverson

121r2d4iverson_great lakeswimmers_acoustic

Great Lake Swimmers: The Waves, The Wake (Acoustic)
Nettwerk ( FLAC download). 2019. Joe Lapinski, eng., prod.

Sometimes, less is more. Canadians Great Lake Swimmers—really just singer/songwriter Tony Dekker with a cast of characters—released a fully landscaped album with all the lawn ornaments. Then, a year later, GLS realized these songs might shine even brighter in a pared-back setting—hence this "acoustic" version. (The original companion album is also a wonder.) When the material is this strong, a lovingly rendered guitar and voice is all you need. Once described as "Ambient Zen Americana," The Waves, The Wake is perfect for that misty gray day as you sip your Mei Leaf roasted oolong tea.


The Tubes: The Tubes
Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MFCD 822 (CD). 1975. Alan Peter Kooper, prod.; Lee Rhett Kiefer, Don Seward Wood, engs.

On the short list of iconic '70s rock anthems, "White Punks on Dope," which closes the Tubes' debut album, stands tall. Conceived under the drummer's kitchen table during a San Francisco party in 1972, the tune's title was sparked by a random comment describing a typical Grateful Dead recording session: "Well, they smoked a lot of pot, and they had ashtrays full of cocaine. And it was just a bunch of white punks on dope!" The song grew into a Technicolor stage extravaganza that still closes every Tubes show in a barrage of chaos. Herb Alpert signed the band to A&M, Al Kooper produced the album, The Eagles screamed backing vocals on "WPOD," and the rest, as they say, is hysterical.

Anne E. Johnson


Deborah Conway: Bitch Epic
Mushroom Records (16-bit/44.1 kHz on Qobuz). 1993. Jim Rondinelli, Willy Zygler, prods.; Jim Rondinelli, eng./mix

Deborah Conway is so furious at the state of things that she opens her album in 5/4 time. On Bitch Epic, the Australian singer-songwriter distills rage into music, and the result is catharsis. The songs are jagged and brazen, her voice scraping, and her observations keen, like when she sings "It's been a long time since anyone meant what they said" in the chorus of "Alive and Brilliant." On the heavy rock track "Consider This," Conway harnesses the power of Chrissie Hynde multiplied by Debbie Harry. Then she surprises us with "Today I Am a Daisy," a metrically unmoored poem of wild hope in the face of chaos.


Rufus Wainwright: Out of the Game
Decca Records (16-bit/44.1 kHz on Qobuz). 2012. Mark Ronson, prod.; Alalal, eng.

When life takes Rufus Wainwright through intense experiences, he writes his strongest material. Getting married, having his first child, and losing his mother to cancer all impacted the composing of Out of the Game.

This was meant to be a scaled-down production to counter 2007's baroque extravaganza, Release the Stars. But under the guidance of producer Mark Ronson, the sonic layers kept building, dense yet cool with a '60s flavor, as if the ghost of Esquivel returned to take on serious topics. The contrast between content and presentation is exquisite and satisfying. Best of all is "Montauk," a quiet peek into the future of fatherhood floating over a burbling stream of piano triads.

Fred Kaplan


Michelle Mulcahy: Suaimhneas
Mulcahy, Celtic harp
Clólar-Chonnacht CICD-189 (CD). 2012. Mulcahy, prod.; Tony O'Flaherty, eng.

I didn't think I much liked Irish music until about five years ago, when my wife and I toured the west coast of Ireland. We happened across music in small pubs and huge festivals, and I discovered the beauty of airs, jigs, and hornpipes and, sometimes, the joy of reels (though too many reels still drive me batty). Michelle Mulcahy was one of the musicians we saw; I'd never heard anyone pluck and strum the harp with such glorious precision. I didn't know precision could be so glorious. I bought this album and have played it hundreds of times since, dozens since COVID-19 struck. It's stirring and mesmerizing, like bathing in salts. And the sound quality is amazing (as it is on many albums from small Irish labels): She's in the room; you hear every slight flutter of the strings and her fingers.


Kronos Quartet: Early Music
David Harrington, John Sherba, violins; Hank Dutt, viola; Joan Jeanrenaud, cello; plus guests
Nonesuch 79457-2 (CD). 1997. Judith Sherman, Kronos Quartet, prods.; Craig Silvey, eng.

I've loved the Kronos Quartet's unique brand of modernism since I first heard them in the mid-1980s. Back then, the fact that they didn't wear tuxedos or play much classical repertoire drove many trad critics to dismiss them as unserious. Decades later, they're universally lauded for transforming the concert-hall landscape to include music of many genres from around the world—much of which Kronos commissioned from composers who are now part of the contemporary pantheon. Early Music is one of their most unusual albums: 21 tracks of music across time, from Hildegard von Bingen in the 12th century to Schnittke and Cage in modern times, plus many in between. They're all interspersed, the ancient songs sounding modern, the modern sounding ancient, all infused with a mesmerizing spiritualism.

Sasha Matson


Billie Holiday: Lady Day (The Complete Billie Holiday On Columbia 1933–1944)
Sony Music/Columbia Legacy 88697930362 (10 CDs). 2001/2013. Michael Brooks, Michael Cuscuna, compilation prods.

This magnificent 10-CD collection of all of Billie's Columbia recordings was first issued in 2001 (and reissued in 2011); buy this one and not one of the many incomplete compilations in circulation, many with less-than-great sonics. The sound here is outstanding in balancing noise and music, an inherent issue with transfers from 78rpm shellac discs or other surviving pressing parts.

The performances are as great as anything ever recorded. When Teddy Wilson & His Orchestra (which includes Roy Eldridge, Benny Goodman, and Ben Webster) strut into "Miss Brown to You," it's musical heaven time. R2D4? It would be an honor.


Mighty Sam McClain: Give It Up To Love
Analogue Productions AAPB 1015-45 (2 × 200gm 45rpm LPs). 1993/2020. Joe Harley, prod.; Michael C. Ross, eng.; Kevin Gray, vinyl remastering eng.

Give It Up to Love has been one of my all-time faves since its release in 1993. Producer Joe Harley correctly identified red-clay R&B vocalist Sam McClain as someone whose musical career was due for a new act. The album continues to be an audiophile go-to; this latest issue by Analogue Productions generously spaces out 11 tracks over two 45rpm LPs. The sound was already standard-setting, whatever the format, thanks to engineer Michael C. Ross's superb "get." I can pretty much tell within moments how my system is sounding by hearing a few beats of Mighty Sam's vocals and listening to guitarist Kevin Barry sliding down over the frets at the top of "What You Want Me to Do."

Ken Micallef


Ella Fitzgerald: Ella Swings Brightly With Nelson
Ella Fitzgerald, vocals; Nelson Riddle, arr., conductor
Verve VG-4054 (LP). 1962. Norman Granz, prod.

Ella Swings Brightly with Nelson finds the ultimate female jazz singer in her late 1950s/early 1960s Verve sweet spot, when she could do no wrong. Her tone honeyed, her phrasing knowing, witty, and fun, Ella swings through one effortless performance after another, including the playful "I Won't Dance," a bluesy "When Your Lover Has Gone," and the soaring "I Only Have Eyes for You." Sure, Riddle takes a bit much from the Frank Sinatra charts he made famous, but no matter: Ella is the star from start to finish.


Sonny Rollins: Rollins In Holland
Sonny Rollins, tenor saxophone; Ruud Jacobs, acoustic bass; Han Bennink, drums
Resonance HLP-9048 (3x LP). 1967/2020. Zev Feldman, Frank Jochemsen, David Weiss, prods.; Fran Gala, Kevin Gray, mastering.

In the liner notes, Sonny Rollins describes his "take no prisoners" musical approach of the period; this galvanic, overwhelming, stupendous triple-LP Record Store Day release stands up to Rollins's other great 1960s albums without reservation. Recorded in the Netherlands live and in the studio, the trio performed without rehearsal and seemingly without a net. Rollins and top Dutch players Jacobs and Bennink fulminate through well-known material from the Gershwins, Davis, Rollins, Rodgers and Hart, and others with profound cohesion, improvisational fury, and considerable grace.

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,; 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.


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

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

It's not the first time.

volvic's picture

It is nice to see Previn's Rachmaninoff Second Symphony on this list. I love the recording, and his previous recording with EMI was also outstanding. Previn remains an underappreciated conductor, in my opinion. He was an intelligent and insightful musician, especially in his EMI recordings from the 60s and 70s. His Midsummer Night's Dream recording with EMI is one of my desert island recordings, and I think one of the top classical recordings of all time.

A special shout out to Ken Micallef for the Sonny Rollins - Rollins in Holland introduction, I never knew it existed, done, ordered. Thanks, Ken.

Kal Rubinson's picture

It is nice to see Previn's Rachmaninoff Second Symphony on this list.
Yes and his recording of Rachmaninoff's First Symphony is, imho, even better although the 1st, itself, is not.

volvic's picture

It is good, but not as memorable to me because the second is lyrically superior.

Forgot to mention the Aida/Solti recording as well. Anything with Price and Vickers is bound to be a winner. Meeting Vickers many years ago in Montreal and spending quite a bit of time with him chatting about his career and the conductors he worked with was unforgettable. He wanted to continue chatting but I had to call it a night - a decision I immediately regretted.

Kal Rubinson's picture

Well, I did admit that the 2nd is a superior work but, otoh, I am bored by it and I still can get a kick from the 1st. Another Previn winner is his Shostakovich 8 with the LSO.

As for that Aida, yes, too, although I am much more of a Vickers fan than a Price fan.

volvic's picture

You mean his Deutsche Gramophone 8th? that he did a few years ago? I find his later Shostakovich sometimes doesn't have that frenetic pace or edginess that Shostakovich requires. His earlier Shostakovich recordings better exemplified that although will admit I don't think I have his 8th on EMI, will have to check.

I was actually listening to Karajan's recording of Shostakovich's 10th the other night, the one he did in the 60s, and find he nails it, gets the tension and pace just right. I also compared that recording to a live recording of him and his orchestra live in Moscow and it is virtually indistinguishable from the recording, amazing how well he had them playing. He actually did very well with the digital recording from the 80s, but the sound is quite flat. It's a pity he never recorded more of Shostakovich's works.

But I digress, will have to seek Previn's earlier EMI of the 8th on vinyl.

FredisDead's picture

Julie Mullins that R2D4 is meant to bring to readers' attention long forgotten or overlooked gems. What is she going to bring to our attention next year, Holst's tP's or DSotM?

KEFLS50W's picture

Most of this music is not relatable for me and being relatable is the exact point of music. I really liked the music suggestions on Inner Fidelity.