Tuesday, October 16, 2007


Recently I’ve made the jump from being a part-time vinyl listener to becoming an all-out convert. I’ve sold CD copies of many albums and bought the LPs instead and, with the exception of albums that have little to no chance of a vinyl release, I’ve pretty much stopped buying CDs. I won’t get into detail why, because I’ve already done that on another post.

While nearly every album sounds better on vinyl (to my ears at least), certain albums just sound infinitely better on wax than their digital counterparts. I usually find that music that relies heavily on ambience, nostalgia or a dedicated low-end are especially well-suited, so I made a list of some of my “must-have-on-vinyl” favorites.

(NOTE: I’ve kept off the obvious classics, such as Hank Williams or Louis Armstrong in order to focus on more modern or lesser-known works. Just know that if I were including them, they’d be pretty damn high in the list—play Satchmo’s version of “Stardust” and I’m easier than a drunk girl on prom night)

Karen Dalton, “In My Own Time”

Karen Dalton has only recently received a long-overdue re-evaluation by music critics and fans. Once described by “my favorite singer”, Dalton has a voice that sounds like a throaty, froggy cross between Janis Joplin and Billie Holliday, a voice that sounds older and craggier than its years betray. It is nearly impossible to reconcile with the sepia-toned portrait of a beautiful young woman pictured on the album cover

Not only are Dalton’s timelessly ancient vocals perfect for the warm crackle of a vinyl album, but the crystal-clean production of the bluesy, soulful instrumental arrangements sound amazing as well. Put the needle down on Katie Cruel and transport yourself back in time to the sound of gypsy fiddle and Dock Boggs-esque banjo plucking.

Bonnie Prince Billy, “Greatest Palace Music”

Will Oldham just seems to have one of those voices that lends itself to analog, producing timeless, complex and gently masculine tones that can melt both women & men like a candle with an extra-long wick.

“Greatest Palace Music” is one of my favorite Oldham albums, and I love how the reverb on Oldham’s vocals, the twangy guitars and the bassy piano blend into a virtual Sunday morning snuggle in a warm bed when played on vinyl.

Low, “Trust”

Low seems to be the only band that made it out of the “slowcore” movement of the late 90s/early 00’s (remember Bedhead anyone?). While they seem to be getting a lot of attention for their recent sonic evolution “Drums and Guns”, I’m still a fan of Low’s older, more dreamy work. While my favorite Low album is probably 2001’s “Things We Lost In the Fire”, I prefer the thick ambience of the follow-up album “Trust” for vinyl playback. The atmospherics are so foggy and dense that by the end of the first track “Amazing Grace” you already feel like you’re drowning at sea.

Sparklehorse, “It’s a Wonderful Life”

I pretty sure that if it was up to Mark Linkous, Sparklehorse would probably not release their albums on anything except vinyl. Hell, maybe even acetates or cylinder tubes would be more appropriate. The warm pops and crackles of an old vinyl record are so important to Sparklehorse’s sound that they even included them on the recording of “Babies On the Sun”. “It’s a Wonderful Life” is Linkous’ masterpiece, a clever blending of pop rock and lo-fi nostalgia that guarantees to both creep you out & get your foot tapping.

Beach House, "Beach House”

I’m not even sure why they bothered to release this album on CD—it almost seems like it was written and recorded specifically for a 180 gram platter. There is something majestic about how the lo-fi drum loops, fat synth tones, spacey slide guitar, halcyon vocals (all covered with enough reverb to kill a horse) come together to make the musical equivalent of a handful of Percocet. Such an underrated album; shame on those of you who missed them at Higher Ground last month.

Tom Waits, “Blood Money”

Ok, I guess any Tom Waits album could have made this list, and there are certainly a lot of better albums than Blood Money (“Small Change”, “Mule Variations”, “Rain Dogs”, “Bone Machine”, etc). However, “Blood Money” is still my top choice for vinyl Waits if only for a single track—“Coney Island Baby”. The song sounds like it could have been recorded as a drunken outtake from a turn-of-the-century Tin Pan Alley recording session. It’s about as haunting and beautiful as music can possibly get, and listening to it on vinyl can be absolutely paralyzing.

Bob Dylan, “New Morning”

“New Morning” is probably the most criminally overlooked Dylan album (a couple of years ago I would have said “Self Portrait,” but Wes Anderson took care of that by including “Wigwam” in “The Royal Tennenbaums”). “New Morning” is the culmination of Dylan’s attempts to truly “bring it all back home”, creating a country-tinged pastoral nostalgia that turns its back on the urban, amphetamine blues of his late sixties period.

No matter where I am, I can drop the needle on “New Morning” and immediately feel like I am sitting on the porch of a cabin deep in the woods on a cool, drizzly fall day, draped in corduroy and sipping a cup of coffee, limbs humming with a warming sense of peace and contentment. Whether it’s the warm, buzzing bass & organ tones, the intimate parlor piano tones, or the crisp pedal steel, there is something about this album that soothes the savage beast and absolutely begs for the physical ambience of vinyl.

Cat Power, “Moon Pix”

Sure, “The Greatest” is a fantastic album, but I’m still a fan of old school Chan Marshall. “Moon Pix” finds her at her most raw yet most elegant, combining melancholy & droney indie ballads (“No Sense”) with imaginative covers of covers (her version of Bob Dylan’s version of the Irish pub favorite “Moonshiner”) and even a bit of experimental rap-rock (“American Flag”). This is just far too intimate and dense of an album for passive listening—grab a cup of tea, put “Moon Pix” on the turntable and zone out on the couch for a half an hour. Then get up, flip the disc & do it again.

Sunn O))) & Boris, “Altar”

I will go out on the proverbial limb and say that “Altar” is, so far, my favorite album of the 21st century. The equivalent of a drone metal supergroup, “Altar” finds the drone lords of the East (Sunn o))) and West (Boris) coming together for the first time for a full-out collaboration, along with guest appearances by Dylan Carlsson (Earth), Kim Thayil (Soundgarden) and beautiful vocals by Jesse Sykes.

“Altar” has all the makings for a great vinyl release—heaving, fat Moog Rogue basslines, thick atmospherics, growling electronics and heavy guitar fuzz. Southern Lord records must have recognized that and in turn went all out for the record: a 3 x 180g set with full artwork and a poster that weighs over four pounds. Guess it’s not just the metal that’s heavy…

The set is fairly limited and a bit pricey (around $30) but it’s worth every penny if you can find one.

Anthology of American Folk Music

Ok, this one is kind of unfair…the set (compiled by the great Harry Smith) was originally released in 1952 on vinyl and is damn near impossible to find (and ridiculously expensive if you do). It was re-released on CD in 1997 as a beautiful six-disc box set with a 96-page booklet. The sixth disc is an enhanced CD that contains photos, interviews and (my personal favorite) Harry Smith’s early experiments in abstract animation.

Sounds pretty great, huh? Not good enough. For some reason, they never bothered to re-release the set of vinyl. And this music is just begging to be played on a turntable—it filled with haunting vocals, crackling recordings, twangy banjos and thousands of subsonic howls from the ghosts of America’s musical past. The fact that I have lived 28 years without having heard Dock Boggs’ “Sugar Baby” coming through a diamond-tipped needle at 33 1/3 is an abomination.

One piece of good news--a recent addition to the set (Vol. 4) has been released, and it IS available on vinyl. Let's hope the sales are high enough. to encourage them to press the main set.


Tanner M. said...

killer post; i agree with you entirely with the beachouse as well as the oldham... his west palm beach on that album is pure diamonds. Another album i'd add to that list would be Ys, Newsom's voice warms up so much on vinyl.

and anything by neil young.

jay said...

Funny you mention Joanna Newsom---they had a copy of Ys at Pure Pop last night & I had to pass it up for the new Akron/Family.

The only thing by Neil Young that I have on vinyl is "Time Fades Away", which you recommended & I absolutely love. I want to get "After the Gold Rush" and "Harvest" but they're so damn expensive. And why the hell haven't they released the "Live at Massey Hall" concert on vinyl?

Tanner M. said...

should be able to find a used copy of either of those albums on vinyl for no more than 5-7bucks. And i wonder the same thing about the Massey Hall show... been waiting on that myself.

Neil's a weird dude.

Should make sure to get tonights the night on vinyl as well... preferably an old scratchy whiskey stained edition with a ripped cover.

Geoffrey said...

Pretty helpful material, thanks so much for the article.
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