Records to Die For 2021 Page 5

Julie Mullins


R.E.M.: Murmur
I.R.S. Records. The I.R.S. Years Vintage 1983, 7 13158 2 (CD). 1992. Mitch Easter and Don Dixon, prods.; Mitch Easter, Don Dixon, engs.; Sig Sigworth, reissue prod.

Before their sold-out stadium concerts there was early R.E.M.—in fine form here. The Athens, Georgia, band's essential elements emerge: Peter Buck's jangly Rickenbacker guitar, Michael Stipe's cryptic lyrics and folk-pop meanderings. Melodies and harmonies are pretty and catchy—some choruses singalong—but they wander intriguingly off-course. Might the title reference Stipe's quasi-unintelligible vocals? No matter. Bill Berry's taut strumming adds punch and energy. Songs like "Perfect Circle" sound sweet as Southern tea. Vulnerability permeates "Shaking Through." The songs are hooky yet quirky enough to transcend basic form and genre clichés. Distilled like moonshine, the quartet's playing has a raw, natural purity. An earnestness and a driving undercurrent hints at what's to come.


Buena Vista Social Club: Buena Vista Social Club
Nonesuch/World Circuit. 79478-2 (CD, LP). 1997. Ry Cooder and Nick Gold, prods.; Jerry Boys, eng.; Bernie Grundman, mastering.

I've never been to Cuba, but this rich slice of musical history hooked me from "Chan Chan"'s haunting opening chords. Reunited virtuosos play bolero, son, and other traditional styles with gusto and flair. Vocals are distinctive, from Ibrahim Ferrer's lively tenor to Compay Segundo's smoky baritone. Potent expression fills the album like cigar smoke in a sultry nightclub. The music is at once sophisticated and earthy: Omara Portuondo and Segundo's sensual "Veinte Años" duet; the stirring, mournful blues of "El Carretero." Laúd, congas, and trumpet transport me to Old Havana.

Yet there's still a sense of timelessness. BVSC's escapist appeal pushed this Grammy winner back into my heavy rotation stack. If layered percussion's snap doesn't make you move, check your pulse.

Tom Norton


Giuseppe Verdi: Aida
Rome Opera House Orchestra and Chorus, Georg Solti, cond.; Leontyne Price, Jon Vickers, Giorgio Tozzi, Robert Merrill.
Decca Music Group Limited, 483-1490 (2 CDs). Limited Edition, 1962/2017. Richard Mohr, prod., Lewis Layton and Rene Boux, engs.

I would never claim that what turned me into an opera buff was hearing the Triumphal scene from Verdi's Aida for the first time while sitting in my college library's audio listening area decades ago. But it floored me so profoundly that I later acquired the full recording. The audio here is hardly state of the art, and in some ways wasn't so even when recorded in 1962, particularly when conductor Georg Solti's aggressive brass fanfares kick in hard, lean, and bright. But the less stentorian passages are, by contrast, beautifully recorded, with the singers' placement spread wide and deep without unnatural spotlighting. It's annoying that the Triumphal scene is split here between discs 1 and 2. But the opera is so thrilling from beginning to end that none of this matters to me. The singing is consistently superb. A young Leontyne Price showed clearly why this would become the signature role of her long career. This box set includes two CDs (the version reviewed here) plus an audio-only Blu-ray version (2-channel, LPCM, usable only on a Blu-ray player).


Casanova Original Soundtrack
Hollywood Records 2061-62575-2 (CD). 2005. John Richards, Alan Silverman, engs.

It's no secret to those who've seen my earlier R2D4 recommendations that I'm a big fan of film scores. But this compilation of early classical music—mostly from Baroque-era composers that were near-contemporaries of the film's title character—is different than most. Vivaldi, Albinoni, Handel, Rameau, and others are well represented, plus a few period-appropriate additions from current-day composer Alexandre Desplat. The album is a delight from beginning to end and might well send you scurrying to acquire the full works from which these excerpts were gathered. The recording quality here is never less than good, and it's often superb. By the way, the 2005 film itself is a delightful romp, with Heath Ledger displaying surprising comedic flair in the title role.

Dan Ouellette


Various Artists: Stay Awake
Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films
A&M Records SP 3918 (LP). 1988. Hal Willner, prod.; George Cowan, Bridget Daly, Jeff Lippay, Frank Pekoc, engs.; Joe Ferla, David Glover, mixing.

Extraordinary producer Hal Willner fell victim to COVID-19 in 2020. The veteran SNL music director left behind a remarkable series of visionary homage albums to such heroes as Thelonious Monk and Kurt Weill. But Willner's best project of eclectic taste shines on Stay Awake, his epiphanic tribute to Walt Disney film music. It features top-tier '80s stars like rockers NRBQ followed by jazz diva Betty Carter; pop singer Sinéad O'Connor leading into Sun Ra Arkestra rollicking into the hot track, "Pink Elephants on Parade." Throw in The Replacements, Tom Waits, Natalie Merchant, Bill Frisell, Harry Nilsson, James Taylor, and Ringo Starr, among dozens of others, and Stay Awake imparts sweet dreams.


Ambitious Lovers: Greed
Virgin Records 90903 (LP). 1988. Peter Scherer, prod.; Roger Moutenot, eng.

Of three Ambitious Lovers LPs recorded by the wildly creative duo of guitarist/vocalist Arto Lindsay and keyboardist Peter Scherer, 1988's Greed, its second, is the best. It's packed with catchy, sometimes delicious melodies and indelible choruses fueled with an experimental mix of funk, jazz, Brazilian music, hard rock, and sharp synth shards and samples. Ambitious Lovers scores with its inclusive blend: New York's Downtown movement (cameos: saxophonist John Zorn, guitarist Bill Frisell), the Black Rock Coalition (with Vernon Reid), and samba (starring percussionist Naná Vasconcelos) with a festive and unexpected Brazilian percussion jam in the mix. The full-charged "Copy Me" and the soft "Caso" set the pace for this surprising, exhilarating journey.

Herb Reichert


Sons Of Kemet: Your Queen Is A Reptile
Shabaka Hutchings, prod., composer, lyricist, saxophone; Tom Skinner, drums; Theon Cross, tuba
Impulse!/Verve B0027970-01 (LP). 2018. Dilip Harris, prod., mixer, eng.

Young British saxophonist/bandleader Shabaka Hutchings is the main force behind these incendiary Sons of Kemet compositions, which are intended to remind listeners how British history reflects classist hierarchies and not the diasporic experience of its black immigrants. The album's title alludes humorously to the Reptilian conspiracy theory, but track titles allude humorlessly to who the Queen of England is not. The compositions, which are anchored in Afro-Caribbean rhythms, suggest in their titles alternative queens like Harriet Tubman and Angela Davis. If you have big speakers, my favorite track, "My Queen Is Nanny of the Maroons," will pound your room with wall-bending deep bass.


Chernobyl: Music From The HBO Miniseries
Hildur Guðnadóttir, main artist, composer, lyricist; Sam Slater, Chris Watson, sound effects
DG 483 7225 (CD), 483 7225 (LP). 2019. Sam Slater, Gunnar Tynes, prods.; Simon Goff, Antonio Pulli, Francesco Donadello, recording engs.

I am always aware that my skin has been scarred and corroded by potentially lethal doses of silent, invisible ultraviolet radiation. That awareness was my emotional entry point to the HBO miniseries Chernobyl and its score by Icelandic cellist and avant-garde composer Hildur Guðnadóttir. This intense, mostly electronic (plus Foley, cello, and vocal) sound collage materializes our collective fear of atomic radiation by organizing "atoms" of pure tones into eerily resonant, three-dimensional sound spaces. The emotional effect of these constructions is nearly religious. This high-energy score evokes dread, hopelessness, and dystopian collapse. You'll want a dosimeter.

Kal Rubinson


Handel: Concerti Grossi, Op.6, Nos. 1–12, Concerti Grossi, Op.3, Nos. 1–6
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin with Bernard Forck (Op.3) and Georg Kallweit (Op.6)
Pentatone PTC 5186737, PTC 5186738, and PTC 5186776 (SACD). 2019. Renaud Loranger, prod.; Jean-Marie Geijsen, Karel Bruggeman, engs.

Handel was primarily a composer of theater and church music. The "Twelve Grand Concertos" of Op.6 were his first instrumental compositions; the earlier Op.3 was almost certainly prepared by his publisher without Handel's approval. What we have here is a brilliant explosion of melodies, original or adapted from his Organ Concerti and theater works and those of others. The level of inspiration is consistently high and puts even the delightful Op.3 into the shade.

There have been many wonderful recordings of these concerti over the years, but none exceed these in spirit, pacing, or tonal richness. Moreover, the multichannel recording is superior to all of them in its clarity and balance and in its recreation of a live band in Berlin's Nikodemuskirche. I play these constantly.


Prokofiev: The Fiery Angel
Maya Fridman, cello and piano arr.; Maya Fridman, cello; Artem Belogurov, piano
TRPTK TTK0009 (DXD download from 2018. Brendon Heinst, recording and mastering eng.

Along with his wit and charm, I love Prokofiev's depictions of anxiety and torment, as in the Symphony No.3, which employs melodies and rhythmic themes from his at-the-time-unperformed opera The Fiery Angel. I relish the opera itself for an occasional deep emotional wallow. Fridman compacts all the opera's passion, angst, and veins of sweetness into less than a half-hour of dazzling musicmaking for just two instruments, cello and piano (plus a surprise). Orchestral scale is lost, but the intensity is enhanced by the performance and the immediacy of TRPTK's transparent 5.0, 24/352.8 recording. It is devastatingly realistic.

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.