Unbiased reviews of new vinyl releases, audiophile reissues, and more

Monday, December 14, 2009

2009: The Year in Vinyl

2009 has proved to be another great year to be a vinyl collector and audiophile. The vinyl resurgence continues to gain steam, and because of it, more new releases, archival material, and audiophile reissues are being released on vinyl. Here is a sampling of the best in vinyl from 2009.

Archival Vinyl Release of the Year

Neil Young: Sugar Mountain -- Live at Canterbury House 1968 (Reprise 200 gram vinyl)

In November of 1968, Neil Young was still on the heels of the breakup of Buffalo Springfield and had yet to release his solo debut. For two nights at the Canterbury House in Ann Arbor, Michigan, he would treat a small crowd to a preview of his new record as well as select cuts from his efforts with Buffalo Springfield. Canterbury House reveals a nascent performer engaging in goofy banter with the audience, who delivers a simple, raw vocal performance.

When you drop the needle, it's just Neil and his guitar with you in your living room. While this recording doesn't have quite the presence of Massey Hall, the simplicity of the performance and the recording comes shining through and this superb mastering from Chris Bellman should deliver genuine satisfaction to the audiophile purist and is essential for any fan of Mr. Young.

Honorable Mention

Crosby, Stills & Nash: Demos (Rhino 180 gram)

As great as a vinyl reissue can be, hearing unreleased material for the first time can be even better. CSN went back to the vaults to bring this collection of unreleased demo tracks recorded between 1968-1971. The songs have an unvarnished quality to them that allows you to experience something new and different from songs that you've undoubtedly become intimately familiar with over the past three decades. What sets this set apart from many demo packages is its fantastic sound, which Bernie Grundman accomplishes with a minimum of futzing, simply bringing the vocalist and guitars right into your living room.

45 RPM Jazz Reissue of The Year

Tina Brooks: Back to the Tracks (Music Matters 45 RPM)

With its entrance into the jazz vinyl arena two years ago, Music Matters has single handedly changed the definition of what constitutes an ultra-premium audiophile product. Team leaders Joe Harley and Ron Rambach have done everything right in this series. They're picking superb Blue Note titles--with few, if any duds in the bunch so far. They're using the original analog master tapes. The mastering and cutting of these double 45 RPM sets is being done by the veteran team of Kevin Gray and Steve Hoffman, resulting in consistently spectacular sound.

(Left to right: Kevin Gray, Ron Rambach,
Joe Harley, and Steve Hoffman)

Each two-record 45 RPM set comes in a gorgeous, glossy cover made of extra-heavy cardstock. And if all of this isn't enough, there are beautiful, glossy, archival quality Francis Wolff session photos contained inside the gatefold of each and every record issued. The photos alone could easily fetch more than the $50 price of each of these albums.

(Jackie McLean--archival quality photo)

While there are many titles that were released by Music Matters in 2009 that would qualify as superb reissues in the Music Matters series, I'm choosing Tina Brooks' Back to the Tracks for a number of reasons. Brooks happens to be one of my favorite Blue Note aritsts. The album features some of the very best session players of the day, including Blue Mitchell on trumpet and Jackie McLean on alto sax. It exemplifies the famous Blue Note sound, swinging from start to finish. And last but not least, it sounds fantastic--making you feel as if you are "in the room" with the players.

click here to buy
from Music Direct

Honorable Mention

Giant Steps Pictures, Images and Photos

John Coltrane: Giant Steps (Rhino 45 RPM)

Mastered from the original analog master tapes by Bernie Grundman, one immediately notices upon listening to this reissue of this classic title that the 45 RPM format can yield impressive results over 33 RPM, with greater dynamics, faster transients, and more detail immediately coming to the fore. The improved attack and accuracy of the cymbals and realism of the piano are also immediately revealed.

This 45 RPM edition of Giant Steps gives me a similar feeling to listening to my Kind of Blue 45 RPM set. It brings me closer to the performers than I have ever been--and it makes me want to buy a second copy.

Rock Reissue of the Year

Radio City [Vinyl]

Big Star: Radio City (Concord 150 gram, Classic 200 gram Clarity)

2009 saw vinyl reissues of both of Big Star's classic albums: their 1972 debut, #1 Record and their 1974 masterpiece, Radio City. While Chris Bellman did an admirable job on #1 Record, the sonics on his mastering of Radio City are as good or better than the original Ardent vinyl and may very well be definitive.

Available on both 150 gram regular weight vinyl and Classic 200 gram clarity vinyl, this album has simply never sounded better. The bright character of the music has been retained, yet the top end is never strident. The bottom end, as heard on this reissue, brings the music to life in a way that hasn't previously been accomplished. Finally, the all-important midrange faithfully conveys the organic crunch of the guitars and the complexity of the vocals. This reissue is now my preferred way to listen to this power pop classic.

Concord 150 gram

Classic 200 gram

Honorable Mention

Neil Young (Reprise 140 gram)

From the opening instrumental charm of The Emperor of Wyoming, to the fuzz-toned urgency of The Loner and I've Been Waiting for You, to the haunting background vocals of The Old Laughing Lady, this album makes for a compelling listen.

Chris Bellman has done a superb job of transforming this debut album from the sonic mediocrity it has always suffered. In addition to uncovering additional detail, he has kept the EQ on the warm side, and the predominance of vocals, acoustic guitars and strings seem to play better because of it. This is the best I have ever heard this album sound, and it is essential for any fan of Mr. Young.

Soul Reissue of the Year

Marvin Gaye: Let's Get it On (MFSL 180 gram)

This 1973 release was mastered by Shawn Britton for Mobile Fidelity and has very nice stereo separation and imaging, with increased bass extension, more realistic sounding cymbals, and better overall presence than the original Tamla vinyl. The ever-important midrange has also been left intact, allowing Gaye's vocals to shine through with superb clarity and character.

If you don't see your favorite title or you disagree with any of the above choices, feel free to place your comments below. And if there is a particular title you'd like to see reviewed, I'm happy to consider requests. Happy Holidays!


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