Styx – Equinox (audiophile series)

One of the downside to audiophile pressings is you pay more for them and you don’t get any of the extras, like liner notes and such, that might have come with the original album. But there’s compensation for that: sound quality.

The masters for audiophile albums are cut at half speed to improve accuracy and virgin, non-static vinyl is used for the final pressing. The result is loud passages being more defined, quieter passages coming through at their cleanest and clearest, and a recording that shines through sounding the absolute best it can. Audiophile pressings are vinyl at its absolute best. Sure, you don’t get the liner notes and other extras, but if you buy an audiophile pressing, you probably already own the original copy of the album. What you do get is the best sound quality possible.

I don’t know why I ever hesitated buying an audiophile pressing of Styx’s fourth album, “Equinox”. It is one of the most overlooked albums from the ’70s. It’s also one of my all-time favorites. I already had a original release of “Equinox”, so I asked myself why I needed another one? The answer was simple: sound quality. I wanted to hear it at its absolute best. To hear “Equinox” like this is pure bliss.

The Doors – Greatest Hits

I’ll always remember “Light My Fire” by The Doors as the number 2 song on the Rock and Roll 500 in the ’70s. Year after year, after year.

Growing up in a an East side Detroit suburb, Memorial Day weekend meant three things to me: The St. Clair Shores parade, the Indianapolis 500 race on TV, and the Rock and Roll 500 on the radio.

The Rock and Roll 500 was a pretty simple concept. Weeks prior, listeners would submit their favorite rock songs to the local radio station and sometime over Memorial Day Weekend the station would countdown the 500 most popular songs. Although there were always surprises to the list each year, the top three songs always seemed to be constant. “Freebird” by Skynyrd would always take the third position, Zeppelin would take top honors with “Stairway to Heaven”, and sandwiched between the two would be “Light My Fire” by The Doors.

Sure, it took away from the suspense. I mean, after the first couple years, I kind of knew what was coming once they got to the top of the 500, but they were all great songs, so why should I care? I still listened to them. Year after year, after year.

R.E.M. – Murmur (Japanese pressing)

Although I loved “Murmur” from the first time I heard it, I always thought the overall recording sounded muddy, with the individual instruments buried among themselves…until I heard the version released in Japan.

When released in other countries, albums can sometimes come out on different record labels. Sometimes, that can mean two versions of the same album. Most of the time, there’s an extra song on one of them or the song order is changed. But sometimes, the albums sounds noticeably different. I think anyone who has heard both, will agree that the sound of the Japanese version of REM’s 1983 debut, “Murmur” is significantly better than its US counterpart.

Athens, Georgia band REM released “Murmur” in 1983. It came out on I.R.S. records in the Unites States; the album’s Japanese release was on the CBS/Sony label. Even though they came out at the same time the Japanese version was mastered with a brighter sound that more clearly defines the individual instruments. Bill Berry’s bass is significantly more noticeable. It gives a more driving sound to the songs. The brighter sound also helps bring Peter Buck’s jangly guitar stylings more up front.

I got rid of my US version of “Murmur” long ago. After hearing the Japanese version, there was no desire to keep it. The Japanese version is far superior.

Emerson Lake & Palmer Works Volume One

Emerson Lake & Palmer were known for being self-indulgent and often accused of being pretentious. Self indulgent? Sure. Pretentious? No way. That would imply that they presented themselves as being more talented than they actually were. ELP individually and collectively always tried to push themselves to their musical limits. They never failed to cut the muster, especially on “Works Volume One”.

For their fifth studio album, ELP decided to double it up; two records, four sides. The first three sides focused on the individual writing and arrangement talents of Keith Emerson (keyboards), Greg Lake (guitar and bass) and Carl Palmer (percussion). Side four focused on the collective creativity of all three members.

The album starts off with what is my favorite track (and side) on the double album: Emerson’s “Piano Concerto No. 1”. This is most often where the accusations of pretentiousness come in for “Works Volume One”. I mean, how dare a rock and roller write and classical music! What could they possibly know about treal music? And then to perform it with the London Philharmonic Orchestra! That’s blasphemy! Well, at least it was to most traditionalists. But true to any composer of any era, Emerson incorporated influences past and present. He pushed the boundaries of classical music, incorporating jazz chords and structures into the fold. I’m convinced it’s nothing Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, or any other classical master wouldn’t have attempted had they been exposed to Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and other jazz greats.

Greg Lake’s side is fairly straight forward acoustic singer/songwriter material. Although there are a few moments that ventures outside that territory. “C’est La Vie”, with its french bistro middle section is one of the more notable.

As one would expect, Carl Palmer’s side consists mainly of compositions with rhythmic complexities. Not surprising for a percussionist. His selections lean heavily on polyrhythms, leaning more into modern jazz territory than that of rock.

Side four highlights all these elements coming together cohesively in two
extended progressive rock performances. “Fanfare for the Common Man” is a piece written by the 20th century “Dean of American Composers”, Aaron Copeland. Arranged by ELP, the epic takes on an urgency that transposes classical and rock music. Pirates is an equally esoteric piece that closes out the album. A record that not only highlights the musical passions of each member of ELP, but equally showcases the collective synergy they exhume together.

Paul McCartney – Снова в СССР

Glasnost. A Russian term meaning transparency and openness often associated with the end of the cold war era between the USA and Russia. It happened in the late 1980s when Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev headed the two most powerful countries in the world. Tensions were relaxing between the two superpowers.

In 1988, as a gesture of peace and cooperation between the nations of the Western world, Paul McCartney made arrangements to have a studio jam session that was done while prepping for his next album pressed and released only in Russia. It was didn’t take it long to become a huge success in Russia. It also didn’t take long for copies to be smuggled out of Russia and sell upwards of $100 in the US and the UK.

“Снова в СССР” is Russian for “Back in the USSR”. The album is a collection of covers performed by McCartney and his band. They are in top form, playing all the songs live in the studio which give the album a very unique feel. It’s easy to pick up on the joyous vibe between McCartney and his band just having fun playing familiar songs.

“Снова в СССР” is one of my favorite albums by Paul McCartney and not because of its scarcity. Actually, it’s not that scarce any more. In order to prevent the smuggling across the border, “The Russian Album”, as it became known, was released to the rest of the world in 1991. This copy however is not one of the reissues; it’s one of the original russian copies.

Florence + The Machine – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful

In a 2009 interview, Florence Welch cited Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane as one of her musical heroes, specifically noting the song “White Rabbit” as having changed her life. I knew there was a good reason I love Florence + The Machine’s music so much.

Although decades separate the music both women created, I hear a lot of Grace Slick in Florence Welch. Sure, there are differences. Florence Welch isn’t one to copy; she is too much of a true artist. Still, the vocal stylings of Grace Slick are impossible to not notice in Florence’s voice. The same goes for the independent “f*ck you, we do what we want” attitude of both in regards to their music.

Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane (and Jefferson Starship) has forever been one of my favorite female vocalists. Florence Welch of Florence + The Machine forever will be.

Robyn Hitchcock And The Egyptians – Globe Of Frogs

When I think of 1980’s alternative rock, one of the first bands to pop in my head is Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians.

Between his early work with the Soft Boys and his solo work, both with and without the Egyptians, Robyn Hitchcock was one of the most influential and legendary artists to shape the sound of college radio stations and the emerging commercial alternative rock stations.

“Globe of Frogs” was the album that really should have broken Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians out. It was their first on a major record label and it was incredible from start to finish. The thing was that while most college stations seemed to put Hitchcock’s stuff in a heavy rotation, the emerging commercial alt-rock stations never jumped on board. They played scads of bands that were heavily influenced by, and even imitated Hitchcock, but not the innovator himself. That, plus the fact that by 1988 the emerging alternative rock stations in the US started gravitating towards the heavier sounding bands that resulted in the grunge rock movement in the ’90s.

Yeah, Robyn Hitchcock deserved more success, but anyone who listened to his albums in the ’80s remember songs by a groundbreaking, highly influential artist that went beyond commercial success. They remember a musical legend.

Cream – Best of Cream

The original power trio.
The original supergroup.

Cream was Ginger Baker on drums, Jack Bruce on bass and vocals, and Eric Clapton on guitar and vocals. By 1966, each of them had established reputations as possibly the best rock musicians on their respected instruments. It became quite the buzz when the three decided to join forces and form Cream.

Cream only stayed together for a little less than three years. But during that time, they released four albums (one of them a studio/live double album) and left a legacy that still influences bands more than fifty years after their final album came out.

As the title implies, “Best of Cream” is a compilation of the best tracks from those four albums. One of the best things about it, at least for American record buyers, is the inclusion of “Spoonful”, a song omitted from the US release of their debut album, “Fresh Cream” in 1966.

‘Til Tuesday – Voices Carry

With ’80s new wave and alternative rock breaking into the mainstream, the timing couldn’t have been better for ‘Til Tuesday’s debut album “Voices Carry”. Of course, having a collection of great songs sung by Aimee Mann’s distinctive voice didn’t hurt either.

It’s no surprise that Aimee Mann would go on to great solo success in the 1990s and 2000s. She really is the shining star here. In addition to singing, she also plays bass guitar, wrote all the lyrics and helped to compose the music for every song. (She can also play guitar, though she doesn’t on this album).

It may be Aimee Mann’s voice that gives first notice to ‘Till Tuesday’s songs, but underneath, it’s her bass lines being very up front in the mix that becomes the glue holding them together. She has the restraint to keep things simple when necessary but also the ability to lay down some impressive low-end. The bass line to the album’s opening track, “Love in a Vacuum”, is a perfect example, as is her funk driven playing on “Looking Over My Shoulder”.

Big Country – The Crossing

Did you know that with the right effects and technique, you can make a guitar sound like bagpipes? Scottish band Big Country did, and they used it to great effect on numerous songs on their 1983 debut album “The Crossing”.

Big Country’s bagpipe guitar sound helped give their music a unique, slightly celtic nuance that was unmistakable. I couldn’t resist buying their debut album after hearing just one song by them. “In a Big Country” starts off with a complex drum intro that leads into the “bagpipes’ and double vocals that immediately grabbed me. Along with its Celtic undercurrents, that lead-off song on “The Crossing” set the tone for the entire album.

Absolutely one of my favorite records from the ’80s.