Take this, brother. May it serve you well.
-- John Lennon, Revolution 9
NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- There are people on Earth right now -- yes, even here in TheStreet offices in the heart of the world's greatest metropolis -- who have never actually held a vinyl LP disk in their hands, have never heard one or even seen one up close.
To those people, I would like to dedicate this list. Record Store Day is coming on April 19 -- the perfect opportunity for you to fill in this blank space in your cultural experience.
Vinyl long-playing records, or LPs, are still the best way to hear recorded music, and the larger packaging (a foot square) allows for a lot of additional artwork and information that make the recording more enjoyable and useful. If you're going to start a physical recorded music collection, it just has to be vinyl.
As TheStreet's Jason Notte points out, a lot of people are recognizing this aspect, sending vinyl sales up 33% while album sales in general are declining.
New recordings on vinyl or re-releases of famous records may be CDs in disguise, digitally mastered for the newer medium and merely transferred to the old analog format. Recent remasterings of the Beatles albums and much other older music suffer from this fault. Analog mastering techniques can introduce unwanted distortion, so digital remastering isn't necessarily worse. But digital has an inherent flaw in that it relies on sampling, excluding some portion of the audio signal; analog, where the sound is literally etched onto the surface of a record, offers the best chance for the most complete sound recreation.
On the other hand, some new LPs -- not many, but a dreamy few -- are being made using analog techniques, including the Foo Fighters' Grammy winner Wasted Light.
Look for the letters AAA on the LP jacket -- that means recording, mastering and finished format are all analog. ADA means it passed through the digital sieve. Absent those letters, records made before the mid-1970s can be safely assumed to be entirely analog.
My criteria for the selections on this list are pretty simple: Analog LP recordings that are justly famous and culturally significant. That said, the list is admittedly arbitrary. I have squelched my own preference for field recordings and experimentalism, but still tried to present recordings that have authenticity and genuine musical interest. If something of the packaging is interesting too, so much the better.
Audiophiles and music lovers will quibble with my choices, and I applaud that. The more discussion the better, as it only means more good music will get recognized.
You can find many of these titles online far more easily, and generally far cheaper, than in record stores. But use your head: LPs wear out and scratch easily. Covers and sleeves are easily abused cardboard and paper. Hint: A first-issue Beatles album selling for $10 is probably ready for the trash.
As you buy, don't forget to invest in a decent turntable, amplifier and speakers. The best recordings will sound better and last longer on a better system.
Otherwise, take these suggestions with an open mind, create a core for your new record collection and don't be afraid to branch out from there, following your tastes.
Led Zeppelin IV (ZoSo) -- Led Zeppelin
Any Led Zeppelin album would be a logical addition to this list. But the album that shook the music world hardest was the 1971 untitled release usually called Led Zeppelin IV and sometimes called ZoSo (because the first of the four symbols on the album's inner sleeve looks like it could be pronounced that way). Three hits from this album, Rock N Roll, Black Dog and Stairway to Heaven, entered perennial playlists on radios all over the world, with Black Dog and Stairway immediately entering the guitar curriculum in music stores all over the world.
But apart from those obvious tracks, the entire album is as close to flawless as this band ever got. With guitarist Jimmy Page producing the albums, the band was always better in the studio than live. Tracks like Battle of Evermore, Four Sticks, When the Levee Breaks and Going to California are still touted as pinnacles of recording studio technique.
Led Zeppelin was already a growing legend by 1971. But after the release of this album, the band was elevated to the status of gods and they've never fallen from that perch, even after the death in 1980 of drummer John Bonham. The album art is not as interesting as the interactive cover of Led Zeppelin III, but it is lovely and folds out like a double album to reveal different artwork inside. The original sleeve has, with no other explanation, the lyrics to only one of the album's songs: Stairway to Heaven.
Kind of Blue -- Miles Davis
AllMusic Guide gushes that the 1959 release Kind of Blue is "the definitive jazz album, a universally acknowledged standard of excellence."
There are many jazz albums that cross over to the realms of pure genius. But for reasons hard to pin down, Kind Of Blue really is a kind of pinnacle of jazz in the recording studio. Music amateurs will love the easy accessibility of these tracks, the unassuming virtuosity, the silky, casual sensuality. But experienced jazz players too have worn out the grooves on their copies. And still, they will hush you when tracks from the album come on, so they can listen again, like for the first time, mesmerized.
The band is to die for: Davis on trumpet, Bill Evans, piano, Jimmy Cobb, drums, Paul Chambers, bass and saxophonists John Coltrane and Julian "Cannonball" Adderley. Davis wanted an unusual approach, based on modal patterns rather than the chord progressions that were every jazz band's bread and butter. He sketched out a few skeletal instructions, coached them through the numbers as they were recording. The rest is something close to magic.
Forget whatever you've heard about the album's radical nature, about its cerebral aspects and the influence it had on so many subsequent jazz players. This album is and will always be a legend simply because of its sheer beauty.
Exile on Main Street -- Rolling Stones
Recorded in 1971 in a drug and alcohol haze in a rented villa in France, Exile on Main Street brings the British invasion's celebration of American roots music to its logical, orgiastic conclusion. Traces of blues, country and early rock 'n' roll vein through every track and, on songs like Tumblin' Dice, become what we now think of as the classic, mature Rolling Stones sound.
The acid burn of the lyrics, Mick Jagger's howling vocals and Keith Richards stabbing guitar riffs are equally important parts of the equation that also includes a genuine devotion to the music. The uneven mix often mirrors the sloppy, chaotic party that surrounded the entire endeavor.
In 2003, commenting that Exile wasn't his favorite Stones album, Jagger referred to the "drunks and junkies" surrounding the project. While he took full responsibility, he noted, "when I listen to Exile, it has some of the worst mixes I've ever heard."
You'll likely agree. Even the 2010 remastered version can't hide the basic truth: Exile is a perfect mess. And it may be the best capture of the Rolling Stones experience on vinyl precisely because of those flaws.
The musical West Side Story redefined expectations for Broadway -- and that was the point. The 20th century American classical genius Leonard Bernstein, legendary conductor of the New York Philharmonic and a significant composer of orchestral music, wanted to bring together the popular musicals crowd with the "serious music" fans of the Philharmonic.
Lenny was a wild guy. Born to a middle-class family in Lawrence, Mass., near Boston, he was a child prodigy, a brilliant man and a born star, living that experience to the hilt his whole life.
In West Side Story, he celebrates his working-class roots by creating a Romeo and Juliet tale set amid the street gangs and immigrant populations of 1950s New York City. There's no denying that seeing a street fight cast as a dance number is corny as hell. But the music is equally undeniably compelling and many of the songs from this "musical" have become standalone hits: Maria, Something's Coming, When You're a Jet and of course Somewhere ("There's a place for us...").
This recording landed for 54 weeks at No. 1 on Billboard's album charts when it debuted in 1961 and was a staple in households throughout the 1960s and '70s.
Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music -- Ray Charles
Ray Charles was the first to blend gospel and popular music, influencing basically everyone that came after him. He was famous enough by the early 1960s that he could write his own ticket in the music business, a claim no one, not even Frank Sinatra, could have made at the time.
So he did. In a brilliant, ruthless business move, he abandoned his longtime home with Atlantic Records and signed a contract with ABC Paramount that entitled him to unprecedented control over his projects and ownership of their future, a deal that would have been impossible at the much smaller Atlantic label.
In 1962, he used that power to push through a project nobody in the executive suite supported: a crossover record of country hits. It seemed like brand suicide. Instead, it became one of the best-selling albums ever on record, reaching well beyond his normal wide fan base and into popular Nashville territory and, more importantly, into suburban living rooms across the country.
There's no pedal steel or banjos or even much acoustic guitar work. Instead, Charles' trademark soulful gifts and sincerity, together with some large, lush arrangements, warmed country hits like You Don't Know Me, stripping them of the hokum and celebrating the music's essence.
This album has fallen temporarily out of popularity and could be cheap if you can find it in used record stores. If you can score a copy in good condition, definitely buy it -- as an investment if nothing else. Ray Charles will always be regarded as one of pop music's great geniuses and that purchase will likely increase in value.
Dark Side of the Moon -- Pink Floyd
This album came out in 1973 and was one of the first concerts I ever saw -- Pink Floyd at Pittsburgh's Civic Arena, where they performed a lot of this material. The concert started hours late and the crowd was rowdy, but the show -- maybe as a consequence -- was even better than I could have hoped. They opened the Civic Arena dome for the song Breathe and vast plumes of cigarette and marijuana smoke poured out, looking for all the world like the spirit of the music ascending to its rightful place in a perfect Heaven.
Hey, I was 14. What do you want?
Turns out, I was just like the rest of America. Practically ever song on this album was a hit and still gets radio play. Dark Side of the Moon instantly transported Pink Floyd from its Syd Barrett-led cult status to mainstream "album-oriented-rock" Olympus, a spot they naturally occupied for... well, forever. Subsequent albums, like The Wall, may have become more important to more fans, but none holds the iconic status of this effort, an eternal symbol that an artist with the determination to do the best work can be recognized and loved for it.
Switched-On Bach -- Wendy Carlos
Yes, in the early days, synthesizers were analog instruments. And this synth extravaganza is some of the most brilliant analog programming and playing you will ever hear. Every electronica artist you know who was a child in the 1970s knows this album, I promise you.
As your elementary school music teacher should have told you and probably didn't, J.S. Bach was one of the most prolific musical geniuses who ever lived, penning thousands of timeless works before he died at 65 -- and I mean "penning," as in quill pen and candlelight. He died in 1750, when the American Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and the New York Stock Exchange were little more than gleams in the eyes of capitalists.
Wendy Carlos naturally decided to use that repertoire to showcase the new electronic instrument built for her by Robert Moog. Her meticulous, musical approach and undeniable virtuosity at both the traditional keyboard and the nontraditional patch cords and dials transformed a potentially kitschy project into an incredibly important body of work. Released in 1968, the sounds sparkle and layer color and vitality as highlights on the strands of Bach's complex and beautiful musical weave.
Bach sounds great on just about any instrument. But, if I may presume, he sounds terrific on the synthesizer -- better, to my ear, than the monochromatic harpsichord on which his keyboard music was mainly composed and is often played these days. Classical music fans will string me up for such vulgar blasphemy -- but I don't care. It's true.
Bottom line: Bach sounds best played by the best artists. For synth work, no one is better than Carlos.
Of interest to shoppers and the LGBT community alike, original pressings of this recording were under the name Walter Carlos. She plays down the gender switch in her official press material, preferring to talk about her professional accomplishments. So let's honor that decision, shall we?
Abbey Road -- The Beatles
We could just as easily say, Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band or the White Album. In fact, both of those come with a folded double-wide cover and better artwork: a large poster with lyrics on the back and individual portrait photos of the bandmembers in the White Album; and a famous cover photo with lyrics inside when you open the cover in Sergeant Pepper's.
For that matter, any Beatles album is worth owning, just for the rich musical experience. Beginning with the 1964 Beatles For Sale, each album is different, as the band pushed beyond their own limitations and the expectations of their audience, changing the landscape of pop with each step into new territory.
But I have to recommend Abbey Road above all the others. Its perfection of the album form, its flawless musical instincts and its high production values distinguish it. Listening to this album it is easy to forget the growing tensions within the band that were driving its members apart. It's easy to forget that this is the last true Beatles album.
John Lennon and Paul McCartney apparently agreed to separate their work to opposite sides of the record, with two George Harrison songs and a Ringo Starr number mixed in. But they worked closely together in arranging and recording all the music. As a result, there is something unified here. It's as if to avoid rancor they were even more tightly focused on the music.
In addition, something like a quantum leap happened in the recording quality between the White Album and Abbey Road (ignoring Let It Be, which came in between, since it was recorded under vastly different circumstances). Abbey Road just sounds better -- more space, more subtle textures, more glitter to the tone.
Abbey Road's simple cover is possibly the most famous shot of the four bandmembers, taken on the crosswalk outside the recording studio. Its simplicity attracted thousands of conspiracy theorists, who hunted the image for clues to the rumored death (in a car crash, supposedly) of the real Paul McCartney.
But let's not get into that. Put the album on and play it from start to finish. You won't be disappointed.
Songs in the Key of Life -- Stevie Wonder
Personally, I prefer Stevie Wonder's Innervisions and Talking Book, but there is no denying the impact the 1976 double-album Songs in the Key of Life had on the musical culture and its enduring place in listeners' record collections. The album was an instant success, winning a Grammy for Album of the Year.
Wonder is enormously talented and was at the height of his powers during the making of Songs in the Key of Life. He was a workaholic, deeply involved in every aspect of almost every track.
The project is ambitious. Wonder has a natural curiosity for a wide range of styles, which makes the collection of songs extremely diverse. But it succeeds as an album because of that tight control, the force of his personality on every detail. Like the White Album, Songs has the feeling of an expose, a showcase for the artist's scope and strength. Wonder takes a few other tips from the White Album: running the tracks together with no silence in between, for instance, or juxtaposing classical string and harp arrangements with unusual synthesizer treatments.
Some of Wonder's edgier rock and funk sounds are mixed in here, along with some characteristic politics born of social concerns. But mostly, he is showing off his happy, sentimental side. The biggest hits from this album, Isn't She Lovely?, I Wish and Sir Duke point firmly in that direction.
But there's also the funk of All Day Sucker, the oily motor of Black Man, the sensual mellotron classicism of Village Ghetto Land, the ominous groove of Pastime Paradise (known to later generations in its reinvention as Gangsta's Paradise by Coolio) or the high-energy jazz fusion of Contusion. The album is an extended playlist of a genius artist at his best.
Blood on the Tracks -- Bob Dylan
Among U.S. pop stars, Bob Dylan is rightly regarded as one of the great poets and most influential songwriters. But his early albums tended to be sloppy, impromptu affairs with casual, boring arrangements and little thought to production values.
That all changed with Blood on the Tracks. Recorded in 1974 and released in January of 1975, the album is a tightly focused body of work, with interesting arrangements and a deliberate attention to the details of recording.
I could talk about the songs -- the kaleidoscopic storyline of Tangled Up in Blue, the poignant folksy of Meet Me in the Morning, the incredibly tender regret of If You See Her Say Hello -- but all Dylan albums have great songs. It's the way these are framed and presented that makes the difference, makes this into less a bag of songs and more of a complete work, an album.
It's probably, in fact, his greatest album ever.
Not to say anything bad about The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan or Blonde on Blonde -- those are great records too, in their own way. But if you have to have only one Bob Dylan album, this is the one. The album won a Grammy for best liner notes, making the purchase of an original vinyl copy that much more appealing.
-- Written by Carlton Wilkinson in New York