Every year I try to compile a list of the stuff that I’d be happy to get if I didn’t already have it. I’m a difficult person to buy for—I edit a popular blog, so people send me free stuff every single day. Truly I want for nothing when it comes to pop culture products, so I think this list might actually be useful if you’ve got someone infuriatingly difficult to buy for on your Christmas list…
My Lunches with Orson: Conversations between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles (edited by Peter Biskind) One of the best books I’ve read all year, one of the best books I’ve read period, My Lunches with Orson is a delight from cover to cover. Bitchy, gossipy, profound, funny, wise, egotistical, self-doubting—this book—culled from transcripts of dozens of hours of tapes—probably represents the final great trove of undiscovered Wellesiana. I pray for a sequel and an audiobook version!
The Graphic Art of the Underground: A Countercultural History (Bloomsbury) Ian Lowey and Suzy Prince’s book takes an ambitious survey through the decades of the underground press, psychedelic poster art, punk graphics, album covers, “lowbrow” pop surrealism, the work of Jamie Reid, R. Crumb, Linder Sterling, Winston Smith, Gee Vaucher and more, legitimizing rebel visions and putting them in their proper historical context.
Conspiracy theories 101: Two great books from Feral House that I could not put down this year were The Essential Mae Brussell: Investigations of Fascism in America, a reader of the written work of the mother of all conspiracy theorists, Mae Brussell (she was normally a radio broadcaster in the 70s and 80s, do a search for her on YouTube and it’ll send you down a rabbit hole from which you will take months to return from) and Caught in the Crossfire: Kerry Thornley, Oswald and the Garrison Investigation by Adam Gorightly about the man who was Lee Harvey Oswald’s one time army buddy as well as being the co-founder of the joke religion of Discordianism popularized by Robert Anton Wilson. I was already a huge fan of Gorightly’s earlier Thornley bio, The Prankster and the Conspiracy and this expanded book really sucked me in with its twisted plot. Wait, plot? This is a biography!
Cal Schenkel’s amazingly cheap art sale: Long associated with Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart, American artist Cal Schenkel has created some of the most striking, freaky and enduringly classic images ever seen on album covers. I’m a big admirer of his work and I was floored to find out how inexpensive his prints—and even his paintings—are going for on his site. Any Zappa or Beefheart nuts in your life? They will love you long time for a piece of art from the great Cal Schenkel!
Speaking of Beefheart, there’s also Sun, Zoom, Spark: 1970 to 1972—this excellent new box set collects the Magic Band’s classic early 70s albums Lick My Decals Off, Baby, The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot along with a fourth CD of primo, never before heard out-takes. The sound quality of this is exquisite and at long last there’s a version of Clear Spot on CD that doesn’t cut off the last part of the “long lunar note” at the end of “Big Eyed Beans from Venus.” Sacrilege!
If you haven’t noticed—and it would be easy not to, because the format isn’t showing up in many retail outlets yet, mostly just Amazon—over the course of the past two years UMe, the catalog division of Universal Music Group that puts out all of those “super deluxe” sets of classic albums, has started releasing high definition Blu-ray “Pure Audio” discs. These BD discs should be considered as close to the master tape, as heard in the recording studio, as is possible to recreate and experience in your own home. In terms of their HD-DTS Master Audio or Dolby TrueHD tracks, it’s probably not possible to give any more definition to a digital audio signal and expect the human ear to be able to detect it.
So far UMe’s roster of “High Fidelity Blu-ray Pure Audio” discs includes stalwart titles like Nirvana’s Nevermind and In Utero, Supertramp’s Breakfast in America, Miles Davis’ soundtrack album for Louis Malle’s L’Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud, White Light/White Heat and The Velvet Underground & Nico, Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key of Life, Derek & The Dominos’ Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, the fifty song Rolling Stones GRRR! comp, Let It Bleed, and Exile On Main St., Ella & Louis, I Put A Spell On You by Nina Simone, Selling England By The Pound by Genesis, John Lennon’s Imagine, Queen’s A Night At The Opera, Grace Jones’ Nightclubbing, Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire De Melody Nelson and a handful of jazz and classical offerings, about fifty in all. 5.1 surround mixes of The Who’s Quadrophenia and an expanded version of the Legend collection of Bob Marley’s greatest hits came out this summer via UMe and the label also released a three BD set of three complete 1970 Allman Brothers concerts at the Fillmore East.
The UMe BD releases, especially the ones with 5.1 surround mixes (which sadly ain’t all of ‘em) are nothing short of stunning. The two best that I’ve heard, in terms of their audiophile ability to knock your socks off are Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (you can actually hear the sound of his foot on the pedal of his grand piano) and Beck’s Sea Change (I normally don’t care about Beck, but this album is the first thing I grab to demonstrate the possibilities of high resolution surround sound.)
Another audiophile Blu-ray release of 2014 that was in the “speed rack” next to the stereo for most of the year is Rhino’s CSNY 1974 box set of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s mid-70s stadium tour. Graham Nash personally supervised the mix and it sounds phenomenal. The performances are great, too. It’s so good that the first time I put it on, I listened to the entire thing in one sitting (it’s three hours long) and then when it was done, started it over again and played it all the way through a second time.
It’s a late entry, but the third installment of UME’s stellar Velvet Underground sets The Velvet Underground - 45th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition is another winner, in fact, as great as the first two have been, I rate this one the highest due to the inclusion of the sparkling live material from the Matrix (which was even recorded in multitrack making it arguably the very best sounding live VU set we have.) The 64-track, six-CD package is housed in a hardback book and features several 1969 recordings that were supposed to be for the band’s fourth album, but that ended up rerecorded on Loaded and Lou Reed’s first two solo albums. Those same numbers came out in the 1980s on VU and Another View, but they sounded weak and this release greatly improves upon them.
William S. Burroughs-related
This year, the centennial of his birth, saw continuing fascination with the life and work of William S. Burroughs. I recently finished reading Barry Miles’ exhaustive Call Me Burroughs: A Life, which is, and is likely to remain, the single best WSB biography. It’s 635 pages with extensive endnotes. Another Burroughs biography of a decidedly more narrow scope than Miles’ 635 page book that I also enjoyed reading in 2014 is Scientologist!: William S. Burroughs and the ‘Weird Cult’ by David S. Willis. This book covers—in scholarly detail—Burroughs fascination with Scientology. Although it is widely known that the author was at one time Scientology’s #1 enemy, writing scathing criticisms in the underground press and men’s magazines, what is less known and understood is how deeply into the ideas of L. Ron Hubbard he really was. And for quite a while, too. Sets the record straight. Burroughs was a “Clear”!
Additionally, one of the most exciting developments in Burroughs scholarship in recent years is represented by the two books by Malcolm McNeil, his close collaborator on Ah Pook is Here, an ambitious graphic novel project from the early 70s that would never see the light of day. McNeil’s Observed While Falling: Bill Burroughs, Ah Pook, and Me is the memoir part of what amounts to a two volume set, while The Lost Art of Ah Pook Is Here is a large, glossy coffee table book collecting the gorgeous finished art and sketches of the project. No fan of WSB, unusual art or a compelling narrative (McNeil is a very good writer) will be unhappy with getting these books from you, but you should gift them both as they really go together.
Give the gift of binge watching: “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman!”
Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman: The Complete Series (Shout Factory) I received this last year and I am now about 2/3 of the way through it. If I only got the MH, MH box set (38 DVDs, 325 episodes, plus ten episodes of Fernwood 2Night with Martin Mull and Fred Willard) in 2013, it would still would have been my best Christmas ever. It is astonishing how well this show has aged, and just how far ahead of its time the humor was, too. In a longer post about Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, I said that this long lost, fondly-recalled series was arriving just in time for the binge watching generation and I am still enjoying it immensely over a year later. In a category of its own.
$$$$ (These next items are “big gifts” and would only be appropriate for someone who you really, really like)
The Complete Zap Comix box set. There is no way, none, that this hefty (23 lbs!) box set of the classic underground comic would fail to impress your loved one. Showcased in five sturdy volumes housed in an oversized box, the classic work of Robert Crumb, S. Clay Wilson, Robert Williams, “Spain” Rodriguez, Gilbert Shelton, Victor Moscoso, Rick Griffin and Paul Mavrides has never looked better and has been cleaned up nicely for this high quality publication. It even comes with beautiful lithographs of every Zap cover in a special portfolio. I’ve reviewed this beauty at length here, so I will send you there for more information. My favorite thing of the year, hands down.
This one is pricey, but it’s worth it: the OPPO BDP-105D Universal Audiophile 3D Blu-ray Player Darbee Edition, the Swiss army knife of fine sound and vision. Forget about how amazing it sounds (and looks—it does 4k upscaling on the video) and the quality of the build—like an Apple product—I find this player especially useful for music on USB drives. If you’ve got a lot of high quality digital music, this player will change your life. It’s got all sorts of bells and whistles that make getting something like this on Christmas day comparable to getting an entirely new record collection, because every single thing you own is going to sound better played on it. Even some vinyl die-hards are coming around to digital when it sounds as good as it does coming out of the OPPO BDP-105D Universal Audiophile 3D Blu-ray Player Darbee Edition. (Read the top reviewer, you’ll be salivating over this thing. It’s what convinced me to pull the trigger.)
Pioneer put out a line of low cost speakers designed by their chief speaker engineer Andrew Jones, a man known for making speakers that sell for $70k and now audiophiles who can afford speakers that expensive find themselves preferring these popular boxes. Jones set himself the challenge to make the best possible speaker for the lowest possible price utilizing Pioneer’s vast resources, bulk purchasing power and production chain. The result is that the various models in the line of Andrew Jones Designed speakers have absolutely mind-blowing sound for a fraction of what it normally costs to buy sound gear this crazy good. A pair of Jones’ bookshelf speakers—perhaps the best smaller speakers I have ever heard—cost just $125. Two of the towers will set you back $260, but the sound is pretty priceless if you ask me.
And finally, another item from last year that’s returning to this year’s: Dangerous Minds pal Alexander Rosson is the CEO and chief scientist/inventor behind the high end Audeze headphone line. The brand has been given every audiophile award under the sun in 2014. I describe them as being a bit like having tiny Magneplanars strapped to your head.. While Audeze headphones are certainly not cheap, it could be argued that for someone who aspires to own a $20,000 dollar stereo, but will never be able to afford it, these puppies are actually quite a bargain and built for a lifetime of use. The Audeze cans are featherlight and covered in supersoft leather. If Audeze are the Bentley of headphones, then Beats would be like… the Pinto.