2017 Albums of the Year Coming Soon!

Get your Spotify playlists ready. My playlist is playing on Plex as I compile my 2017 AOTY. This year, the countdown comes from an unmistakable dad in his mid-forties. I’m trying to shuffle my work and personal life and there’s not nearly the time to discover new music like there used to be. (Also, too many albums for me to go digging through to post album artwork.) This list has a heap of “legacy” bands. But in retrospect, it was a really, really decent year for music. There were some albums that I expected to be better and others which really surprised me. Hopefully you’ll enjoy them all in a playlist of your own or just sit with them straight through.  Feel free to post your thoughts and objections in the comments.

The Sorta Ultimate Budget Turntable Setup

 

As I sit listening through my record collection, I take time to contemplate how I got here. Of course, the most important part is loving music.  Vinyl is an obsessive, fun, and slightly dangerous hobby.  However, of all of the things I could be doing at 42 that are obsessive, fun and dangerous, this seems pretty safe.

But if you’re reading this far, you might be curious to know what sort of setup I use to enjoy my collection.  “Audiophiles” may scoff at what I’ve pulled together here but it has served me well.  I’ve seen many guides recommending what to buy, poured over Steve Hoffman boards waxing poetic about the right tracking weight, tonearms and cartridges.  Sometimes I come off of those boards somewhat distraught.  But fear not, good reader. I have a – not necessarily the – solution for you:

1 – Pro-Ject Debut Carbon
1 – Clever Clamp
1 – Q-Up
1 – Pro-Ject Acryl-It Platter
1 – Carbon fiber record brush

This is a “build-on” setup.  I did not have all of these things at once but I have found that now having all of them is just about as good as it gets on my budget. I have my eyes on a whole new setup for sometime when I actually live in a house of which I can properly shake the foundations.  But for me, in a rental apartment, packed in like a family of sardines, this works great.

There are a few caveats.  The Pro-Ject Debut Carbon is an infamously flawed deck. The motor gives off considerable hum if not isolated. Mine was not properly isolated and I fixed it with some neoprene (cut out of a beer koozie) washers and some patience. Now I love it.  It’s warm sounding, simple and upgrade-able. Other decks are available in the same price range so choose your poison. This is just the one I have so I can recommend it.

Next up is the Clever Clamp.  It’s a must if you are going to go for the acrylic platter. Without a mat, records tend to spin under the carbon fiber brush. There are a ton of other record clamps for sale but for about $30 this one does not add any weight to put stress on your motor and it flattens out some (but admittedly not all) warped records that you might just happen to pick up at the local thrift store or from some bozo on Discogs that claims VG+ looks like the the oscillation of a stingray.  The fish, not the car.

The Q-Up was my last upgrade. But man, has it made a difference. It makes your turntable and vinyl obsession somewhat less so because you don’t have to run back to the living room in the midst of chopping a bulb of fennel just because you “mint” condition Jane’s Addiction record had hit the runout groove. You see, the Q-Up lifts up the needle for you when either, you have drifted to sleep after “Shine on You Crazy Diamond Part IX” or you are making the family’s next gourmet experience.  If I had to do this all again, I’m not sure the Q-Up wouldn’t be higher in the “buy” hierarchy.

The Acryl-It platter is supposed to lower resonance compared to the metal platter. I’m not sure if it does, like many things in the record collecting hobby, it’s subjective.  What I can tell you is that it completely cuts down on dust and static.  This thing made the last winter virtually static free.  It’s sort of the microwave of the turntable world – once you have one you never know what you did without it.

As for the carbon fiber brush, if you don’t know this by now, get one. Always turn it the same way.  It works wonders.

Now, as the second side of “Revolver” (Mono, a topic for a whole other post) comes to a close, I hope this has been helpful. I have spent many a night on the couch, headphones on (yet another post), contemplating the depth of the bourbon in my glass and other in depth mental pursuits.  This setup has yet to do me wrong.  Happy hunting.  Let me know if this works for you and if you have any rants/suggestions, let me know.  I’m going to get that house with the man cave some day and may just have a chance to put your opinions to use.

 

 

Gorillaz – ‘Demon Days’ Vinyl Review

The news of all of the recent deaths of rock ‘n rollers has had me examining my own mortality lately.  It’s also made me try to not get too caught up in the daily badness that confronts me at the office.  Of course, my favorite way to sort things out at the end of the day is to sit down with a pair of headphones and just get lost in a beloved chunk of vinyl. Last night’s piece was a long-coveted copy of Gorillaz 2005 effort, Demon Days.

I asked Santa for that very record this year.  Little NH was even sweet enough to put it on her note to Santa for me.  I told her that he’d probably not have any luck finding it.  It was a limited run in 2005 and copies now fetch at least $200.  Santa apparently couldn’t find it but a couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to snag a copy on Ebay.  The vinyl in my set is brand new but a corner of the front cover looks like a cat or puppy had about 10 solid seconds to use it as a chew toy. Otherwise, it’s in great shape.  It was listed on Ebay as having “never been played” and I have no reason to doubt this.  It was clean and shiny.  Because of its less than perfect cover, I got this copy at well below the going price.  It’s still the most expensive record in my collection but I’m satisfied with the deal.

I’m not one to sit on “collection piece” copies of vinyl in my stash.  I have a couple that are unopened but the majority I buy to play and enjoy.  So, like driving a new car off the lot, my copy of Demon Days depreciated last night as the needle first hit the groove.

So, how did it sound, you ask?

It sounded like a top-notch, second hand, 10-year-old record.  There was a tiny bit of surface noise but all in all, it’s a quiet pressing.

The one gripe I had was that side A seemed to be lacking a bit in bass.  It was big and bold sounding but the low end just wasn’t as big as I had hoped it might be.  But that was just side A.  From side B on, things picked up considerably in the bass department.  This makes me think that either the first side was pressed with less bass to save room or my ears just got attuned to this as the record played on.  I had been listening to Atoms For Peace today on my commute through in-ear headphones so that may have distorted my idea of what to expect bass-wise.

Listening through headphones, I heard a lot on these records that I had never heard on digital copies before.  Lots of little production flourishes and squiggles of sound really popped out.  It’s a record mixed with a very wide stereo mix which is really pleasant to the ear.  The other thing that I noticed was what I thought at some points was surface noise, was actually analog artifacts from the Danger Mouse-procured beats and samples that litter the record.  “Kids with Guns” has such a sample and as soon as it finishes, the noise disappears.  Cool to be able to hear that in such detail and it really points out the meticulous production that went into this album.

The part of the album that floored me was the one-two punch of “White Light,” the last track on side C and “Dare,” the first track on side D.  I have heard “White Light” before but I have never actually heard it until now.  What a great track.  It’s just as crazy as anything Albarn has ever written, seemingly based on a sample he sang into his phone on the walk home after a night out at the pub.  And it absolutely slays.

“Dare” is just the single it’s always been but it sounds fresh in this context – like the first chip out of a newly opened bag.

There’s really nothing I love more than sitting down with a quality record, putting on my headphones and rediscovering an album that I know and love.  Demon Days did not disappoint and I’ll be excited to buy a copy of the inevitable reissue to compare it with this one.  However, if for some reason that never happens, I’m glad to have this copy and see myself coming back to it again and again.

Footnote:

After I finished “Demon Days” there was a little time left on the clock before my normal bedtime so I decided to pull out the Doors’ The Soft Parade and listen to the title track.  I have some weird repress that shows up as this on Discogs but man, it sounds great.  Often maligned as one of the Doors’ weaker releases, The Soft Parade, has been given short shrift in my opinion.  It’s a hazy, boozy, flipped out record of its era and is still brilliant. Especially the title track.

Thunder Review: Elbow – Vinyl Box Set

Elbow Vinyl Box SetI guess I was a good boy this year.  Mrs. NH got me the Elbow vinyl box set for Christmas.  She did so after I refused to stop talking about it.  I actually made the order.  But with her express consent.  So that’s a gift, right?

Last night I got time to sit down and inspect the set and give a few platters a listen.  First, the set itself.  It comes in a sturdy box with the Elbow logo.  The albums are all 180 gram double vinyl and the artwork is minimalist and familiar to all of the regular releases.  What is different on the vinyl is that one record of each album has a lyric scratched into the runout groove area.  A cool little touch.

As for the sound, I came away impressed.  Having listened through the first four albums (Asleep in the Back, A Cast of Thousands, Leaders of the Free World and The Seldom Seen Kid), all sound great.  Leaders is a little compressed sounding but as I recall, so is the original CD version.  Still, it sounds great.  But the real show-stopper was Kid.  The depth in my headphones and intricacies of the recording really shine through.  I heard instrumental flourishes that I’ve never heard.  The vinyl itself is quiet and this makes the listening experience a real pleasure.

With only 2000 of these in existence, I’m glad to have one in my possession.  This is one of the best bands on the planet at this time and the fact that the set leaves room for a “Coming Soon” release makes me think it’s going to be a pretty good 2013.

Thunder Review: Pink Floyd – “Dark Side of the Moon” 2011 180 Gram Remaster

Dark Side of the Moon PosterI just typed the title to this post and realize that I’ve crossed a Rubicon of sorts.  I’m seriously into records and actually pay attention to how much they weigh.  That’s just weird.  Even for me.

Notwithstanding, Friday night found me on a crash course with fate.  I came across a brand new copy of the 2011 vinyl remaster of the aforementioned Pink Floyd masterpiece in a record store here in Prague.  The price was actually cheaper than what I would have paid online so I snatched it up.

There has been some harsh talk about the quality of this pressing on the Amazon site.  However, the UK pressing gets stellar reviews.  The copy I found was pressed in the UK.

After the kids were put to bed, the dishes were done and my wife retreated to the computer for some overdue e-mailing, I put this hefty classic on my Stanton and put the volume on a very moderate 10:00 pm level as to not disturb the neighbors.

Now, I’m not an audiophile and my receiver is over 10 years old, but I can tell you, this album sounds better than ever.  All of the punch is there and there’s a real warmth to the sound.  It is the best sounding record in my collection by far.

Listening to it in a room lit only by the monitor behind me, I greatly enjoyed the 45 or so minutes of Floyd at its best.  In the end, with vinyl, I’ll argue that the sound is “warmer” (that has to be heard to be believed) but the real thing about the medium is that it really forces you to sit the heck down and listen.

The other night there were no kids in the room, no electronics on my lap and no twitterverse sending me messages about things that don’t matter.  It was just me and an album that first landed like an atom bomb in the middle of my youth and continues to make a huge impact to this day.

Lightning Review: Stanton T.62

It’s 9:45, the kids are asleep, I’m halfway into a bottle of Cabernet and the Replacements “Waitress in the Sky” is pouring out of my speakers.  Hello, mid-life-crisis.  I think I love you.

My Stanton T.62 is set up and spinning my collection.  It’s kind of forcing me to slow down and listen to the music.  Hell, when the first side is over, the needle doesn’t even go back to the start.  You have to get your butt off the couch, gather your faculties and lift it yourself.  That’s the real definition of interactivity.  Take that Google +!

There’s a bit of a buzz from the ground I made immediately following preparation of a ziti dinner.  I used a United Airlines headphones set (one of the double pronged ones) for the ground wire.  Vinyl makes me multi-task my rear end off.  Did I mention how much I’m loving this?

Side one is over, back in a second….

“We are the sons of no one!!!!”  OK, sorry.  That’s just the start of side two.

What more can I say about this turntable.  It sounds great.  It looks cool; the strobe on the left shows me that even through a voltage converter, this direct-drive baby tracks perfectly.  The white light bathing the stylus in illumination just adds to the fetish.  It’d only be sweeter in red.  With a really small lady dancing on top.

I’d rate this a strong buy.  Nothing like the battery powered number I bought and returned a few months back.

“Here Comes A Regular” is over.

Well hello, Pleased to Meet Me.  I love 180 gram reissues. Goodbye Amazon birthday gift certificates.  See you at 39.

Crosley Revolution Turntable (Updated)

What you see above is the Crosley Revolution Turntable spinning my copy of U2’s War album.  The turntable was an impulse buy yesterday and thanks to Amazon’s next day delivery, I received vinyl gratification this morning around 10:00am with FedEx’s speedy delivery.

Since I arrived in Texas, I’ve been snatching up new and used vinyl in shops, on Amazon and on Ebay.  You might recall me professing my love for the medium a few posts ago.  My enthusiasm grew after a recent conversation with my older brother about how our joint vinyl collection had met an untimely end at the teeth and claws of a family of mice in his basement.

A shrink could have a field day with me right now, I suppose.  He might say that in the midst of fatherhood and a new baby I’m reliving my childhood.  He might just be right.  All I know is, listening to the first few snare raps of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” seems like the way that the album is meant to be heard.  It’s distorted, woozy and gritty – even in remastered digital CD form.  On vinyl, the album teeters on the edge of warmth and utter metallic distortion.  It’s a sound that needs to be heard to be appreciated.

Which brings me back to the Crosley Revolution.  It’s a portable turntable.  It runs on 6 AA batteries (and has just finished its 5th album today on said batteries), has an internal speaker, headphone jack, USB connection, and FM transmitter.  It is a glorious piece of retro-tech.

After seeing me put on the first record, Little NH asked if she could play with it.  Two records later, she asked for one for her birthday.

See?  Cool tech is cool tech.  No psychoanalysis needed.

UPDATE:

It is with a heavy heart that I must write that after a couple of days of playing with this seemingly great turntable, it just wasn’t to be.  A couple spins of 180 gram vinyl revealed an underpowered platter that resulted in horrible “wow and flutter”.  When listening to a $20 chunk of virgin vinyl, even my nostalgia couldn’t overcome the limitation of the device.  The UPS Man just came to pick it up.

The search for the ultimate turntable continues!

Vinyl Fetish

Nostalgia is a part of getting older, I suppose.  Maybe that’s why I was pretty dang excited to find myself in a record store the other day.  I was buying a buddy of mine his birthday present.  I don’t usually exchange gifts with friends but he bought me this unbelievable bottle of gin for my birthday and I decided to return the favor.  Anyway, I was in the Bontonland store in downtown Prague where I picked up his gift, a DVD.

Years ago, when I first started coming to Prague, I spent quite a bit of time in this store.  The prices were always weird.  Some things would be two times the price of the same thing back in the States and others would be half the price.  But there was just a lot of stuff I had never seen before.  Box sets that were unheard of in the US market but had made it to the heart of Central Europe.  There were enough Jazz DVD’s to boggle the mind.  It’s because of this place that I got to see John Coltrane on video in his prime.

But the real gems of this store were the small but not insignificant stacks of vinyl.  Records.  LP’s.

I have had a long, sordid love affair with this medium for as long as I can remember.  I listened to “book and record” stories on an Emerson record player when I was just a little kid.  GI Joe, Batman and The Rescuers were favorites.  They had awesome records and the artwork inside really sucked me in.  Many of the copies had yarn tied around the spine of the cover to keep the well-worn pages in.  To this day I can remember the cold feel of one particular old metal 45rpm spindle adapter.  It was sort of gun-metal blue and made a satisfying “clunk” when you put it on the platter.

As the years went on, I graduated from “book and records” to Disco Duck, the Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack, comedy records in my folks stash and KISS albums borrowed from friends.  All the while, those black circles were spinning on my record player, and a deep seeded fetish was taking root.

However, if any group sealed my love of vinyl, it would be the Police.  I recall seeing the Synchronicity LP that one of my older brother’s buddies had loaned him to dub onto cassette.  It was translucent, purple vinyl.  My mind was blown.  The cover was black and white save for three primary color swipes of paint on each side.  The pictures seemed like some sort of riddle to why the Police kicked so much butt.  “Every Breath You Take” got turned up louder than any other song I had ever heard.  Over and over.

That album also paved the way for me as a collector.  The Police’s last album spawned many singles and I soon would be combing the record stores of downtown Lincoln, Nebraska picking up terms like “import,” “bootleg,” “limited edition” and “picture disc” while collecting these singles.  I was smitten.  My brother and I saved up all of our money from our window washing business and managed to build up a pretty sizeable, shared collection of LP’s, 12 inch singles and 45’s.  This was the root of my b-side love as well.  Ah, b-sides – that’s a whole other post.

Fast forward a few years to find me a poor, 18-year old in Madrid, Spain.  “Madrid Rock” by the Plaza Mayor sustained me through this year and I ended up coming home with a 10-12 inch stack of records at the end of my year as an exchange student.  The reason? My host mother had an awesome turntable but the other part was strictly economics.  Albums were $6-$8 on vinyl and $15-$20 on CD.  I bought Lou Reed albums up the wazoo.  Doors bootlegs became an obsession as well with some of them even pressed on marbled green vinyl.  “Achtung Baby” came out that year and I bought it the day it hit the shelves.  I listened to it once, determined that U2 had lost its way and sold it to a friend.  Now I love that album and vinyl editions from Spain go for about $200 on eBay.  Ouch.

So, my love of vinyl has been there for years.  I took a few years off from collecting but my obsession seems to be coming back in full force.  I just bought a (purple vinyl!) triple vinyl U2 album from the fan club and Super Furry Animals double LP of “Dark Days/Light Years” as well.  So it was fitting that while looking through stacks of CD’s in Bontonland this week, something in my brain pinged.  “They have records here,” I thought.  I found them, a flight of stars down in a corner bathed in harsh flourescent light.  Right in front of the “New Releases” section was LCD Soundsystem’s “This is Happening.”  I bought it right away.  Johnny Cash reissues, U2’s first four albums reissued on 180 gram vinyl were also in the stacks.  (Achtung Baby should be reissued soon.  I won’t make the same mistake twice.)  The good thing is, all of these albums are about the same price that they are on Amazon and cheaper than eBay.

Today I unwrapped the LCD Soundsystem LP, thereby reducing its resale value by approximately half.  I do not care.  This album has it all.  Gatefold sleeve.  Double LP.  Lyric sheet.  And even cryptic sentences etched on the smooth final 1/2 inch next to the center.  “Beauty is rare” was one of the etched messages that comes to mind.

Not in the case of vinyl.