Every year about this time I write up my annual “Christmas Shopping Guide for Hard-to-Buy-for Rock Snobs” list of cool things for your musichead loved ones. Last year I was all about 5.1 surround, Blu-ray audio, “studio masters” and so forth. High tech, high quality, high resolution digital audio. I’d jettisoned a huge record collection in the mid 1990s that was crowding me out of my apartment and I never looked back. Then one snowy day this past February, a beautiful brand new high end turntable was sitting on my porch, a gift from my genius audio designer pal Alexander Rosson (the man who designed the famous Audeze LCD-3 headphones that you see in every good recording studio). And I mean, what does one do when one gets such an amazing toy as a gift? Obviously one needs some new records to throw at it. I immediately logged on to Discogs and decided to reconstitute much of the collection I’d sold off, repurchasing a lot of the very same stuff I used to own—at twice the price—over the course of… a matter of days. (I’m good like that.)
So yeah, Digital Dan reverted back to Analog Andy pretty fast. Anything that I have ever said in the past about the superiority of 24-bit digital audio to vinyl I hereby repudiate. I was stupid. I take it all back. Please forgive me.
To attone for my sins, I’ve compiled a (mostly) vinyl rock snob shopping guide this year. The object is not only to highlight what I think are the best releases of 2017 but also to provide a public service for my people: There is a certain type of “person” (okay, guy) who already has everything he ever wanted at the age of 12, and no matter how cool that sweater, new socks and wallet might be, he ultimately only cares about the stuff that they sell in record stores. Christmas is often so unsatisfying for this sort of chap, but if you follow my handy suggestions, even the most difficult-to-buy-for rock snob giftee on your shopping list will have a very merry Christmas this year and you’ll look like a genius.
Or even like you actually really care about them…
The classic 70s Brian Eno half-speed 2XLP 45rpm releases are THE BOMB. Since they only recently came out, it’s a safe bet that finding a couple of these under the tree will go down a treat. Here Come the Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy both blew my doors off and I know these albums like the back of my hand. Remastered from the best analog sources available, at Abbey Road Studios, the heavy, dead quiet pressings spread a single album’s worth of songs over two long players, allowing for an increased audio level to be cut into the lacquers for a superior signal-to-noise ratio. These albums have never sounded better. Usually I’m all about getting an original pressing of 60s and 70s classics, but I’m starting to be convinced that new pressings have much to offer, maybe more. Not always, but certain labels are really doing it right. If it’s sound quality vs. the “trophy” value of a certain original pressing that motivates you, “new” vinyl releases of vintage titles are looking better all the time.
And speaking of labels that really do it right, have you heard about the recently-launched ultra high quality audiophile vinyl concern known as Intervention Records? IR’s mission is to offer the very best-sounding pressings of classic albums by the likes of Big Audio Dynamite, Judee Sill, Erasure and Joe Jackson. Intervention’s release of The Gilded Palace of Sin by The Flying Burrito Bros. is probably the single best-sounding record that I have in my collection and is definitely the first thing I grab whenever I want to geek out and impress someone with my epic middle-aged man’s stereo system. No one who loves music and owns a turntable is going to be disappointed when they slap that particular slab on the record player, this I can promise you.
IR’s deluxe 2XLP 45rpm Judee Sill releases are the best those albums (Judee Sill and Heart Food) are ever going to sound and their Joe Jackson releases, same thing. The ball gets knocked squarely out of the park. There’s still a pretty dedicated Joe Jackson fanbase out there (I saw him in concert recently myself) and despite the fact that mint copies of most of his albums can easily be acquired for $5 in any decent used record store, remarkably these IR reissues still rate quite a significant improvement over records that already sounded good to begin with. If you told me that there was a pressing of Night and Day that was, say, 15% better than the original record (and a lot better than the CD) then that is something I need to hear, stat. Same for I’m the Man and Look Sharp. Intervention Records goes the extra mile and beyond. Support what they do.
The next three albums I’m going to group together because each features the participation of my pal multi-instrumentalist, singer/songwriter producer/studio owner Jonathan Wilson. He’s currently playing guitar on the second leg of Roger Waters’ world tour (he also sings many of the David Gilmour numbers in the set) and he’s all over Waters’ incredible new album (his first collection of original material for 25 years) Is This the Life We Really Want? Produced by Nigel Godrich and mostly recorded at Wilson’s Fivestarstudios, man did I play the shit out of this album in 2017 and consider it to be a strong addition to Waters’ legendary discography, the best since Pink Floyd’s Animals. (Allow me to direct you to a more fleshed out review here).
And then there is Father John Misty’s latest and greatest, Pure Comedy. I describe this sprawling, stunning album as 2017’s answer to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and what I mean by that is that it’s clearly a “prestige” release by a major “serious” artist, plus both have lots of piano. Obviously Sub Pop agreed as the elaborate packaging they sprung for announces this platter’s artistic importance loud and clear, just as it did with Elton John’s classic. Did I say classic? Yeah, I did and this new FJM album is as classic as it gets. Pure Comedy might a bit on the nihilistic side, sure, but when has a soundtrack for the endtimes ever sounded so lush and gorgeous? Here FJM comes off like an omniscient Harry Nilsson filled with bemused weltschmerz alternately mocking and pitying mankind or a particularly sardonic Loudon Wainwright III observing the folly human beings with a jaundiced eye and with the sort of grandiose orchestral tendencies associated with his son. And there is Double Roses, the second album by supermodel Karen Elson and produced by Wilson. Taking its title from Sam Shepard, Double Roses is a confessional divorce/breakup album in the mode of Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks or Joni Mitchell’s Blue. Her voice reminds me a lot of Tammy Wynette’s. I realize these comparisons are high praise, but they are also legitimately deserved. Elson was previously married to Jack White and here is the story of their divorce and the aftermath told in a way that anyone who has ever had a broken heart or been disappointed in love could relate to. If you know anything at all about the artist going in, you know exactly who she’s singing about, but even if you didn’t, it wouldn’t make any difference. Double Roses captured my attention from the first listen and seldom left my turntable for several weeks. If your reaction to the notion of an album by a top fashion model is skeptical, just get over it.
One of the best “various artist” compilations of 2017—and sure to please the most jaded and sophisticated musical tastes—is Follow the Sun, Anthology’s anthology of 1970s AM radio folk rock from Australia. This is one of those comps that’s so goddamn good that you just keep playing the first side over and over and over again before you ever play side two even once. I’m NUTS about this record and cannot recommend it highly enough (buy it for yourself, you won’t regret it). Another phenomenal comp that came out this year is the Numero Group’s Wayfaring Strangers:Acid Nightmares, a collection of obscure late 60s/early 70s sub-Sabbath barre chord rockers about drug addiction, freaking out, puking, etc. Surprisingly it sounds really good, not a low-fi thing at all. And a lot of it is really ridiculously catchy. And like I say, how can you go wrong with underground hard rock songs about bad LSD, popping pills, hypodermic needles, night sweats and so forth? YOU CANNOT.
My final musical recommendations are CD box sets. It wouldn’t be Christmas without them, right? They’re traditional! First up is Cherry Red’s box set collecting British folk supergroup Pentangle’s complete recorded output on seven CDs in replica covers with an informative booklet. It’s the sort of thing to lose yourself in for weeks. I have most Pentangle albums on vinyl, but the CD mastering here is exceptional. I’ve already written extensively about Cherry Red’s four-disc essential Luke Haines box set, Luke Haines Is Alive and Well and Living in Buenos Aires (Heavy, Frenz – the Solo Anthology 2001–2017) but that one is a winner for sure, and could set off a lifetime obsession with the great Luke Haines. (It’s also worth mentioning that Haines does paintings of Lou Reed and sells them online at really reasonable prices. Order one here.)
The last thing on the list is a book and that book is easily the best “rock” book of the year and also the best autobiography I’ve read in years. Beyond that it’s an important piece of literature that will resonate with future artists and troublemakers. I refer, of course, to Cosey Fanni Tutti’s Art Sex Music, the inside story of COUM Transmissions, Throbbing Gristle, Chris & Cosey and much, much more. I devoured this book like a great meal. Art Sex Music was everything I wanted it to be. It’s a tremendously satisfying read from one of the most important cultural figures of our time and it is also exceptionally well-written and structured. I couldn’t put it down. Highly recommended.
One of the more amazing revelations in Art Sex Music is that Cosey appeared in the music video for Sylvester’s immortal disco classic, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”!
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
Mythic motherfucking rock and roll: Why Luke Haines is the best British rock musician of our time
Every review you’ve read of the new Roger Waters album is wrong (except for this one)