By Spencer. Last year, I became part of the problem. After years of rolling my eyes at them, I’m now one of those assholes who buys records on vinyl. Naturally, such a complete reversal of everything a man stands for could have only one explanation: it happened because of a girl. But while that quirky hipster artiste is long since out of my life, the way I listen to music is forever changed thanks to the phenomenal sound I heard from her record player one night. A few notes of Otis Redding through a proper turntable and speakers and I was hooked. So when I finally threw down the $300 for an Audio-Technica phonograph and started spending $20 a piece for albums I already owned in digital form, it made complete sense that I started with mostly vintage artists—Redding, Miles, Coltrane, Sinatra, The Beatles, Led Zep. Because as my record collection quickly expanded, I learned the first rule of vinyl is this: if it was recorded during the era when vinyl was still the predominant musical format, it really does sound better on vinyl.
This shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. Studio engineers mixed and mastered this music based on how it sounded to their own ears, and that’s inevitably influenced by the format on which they heard it. So while a lot of people say it’s the pops and crackles of a vinyl record that give it that certain nostalgic magic, this is really only part of the equation. With vinyl, you also get deeper, fuller lows and a sense of thickness that you just don’t hear in CDs or digital recordings. By reintroducing the tactile into the process—a needle skimming actual, physical grooves on the surface of the record—you get music you can feel just a little bit more.
And then there’s the tangible joy of having a box or two of full-sized LPs to riffle through—the satisfaction of holding an album in your hand, turning it over to check out the track listing. You get to enjoy the original album art as it was intended, too, and trust me, the artists of the 60s and 70s went out of their way to approach this part of the product with way more attention and creativity than you remember. The album cover for Physical Graffiti, for example, is a multilayered collage of details that change as you pull out the sleeve. These are the things we’ve lost in the digital era. But with the recent resurgence of vinyl popularity, a whole new generation is learning to appreciate the physical dimensions of music consumption once again.
So in that spirit, we’re starting a new series on S&N devoted (at least in part) to vinyl. With the idea that older music really does sound better in the original format, we’re here to help you build your collection with a deeper dive into some of the lesser-known gems you may want to include in your library. You can find the more obvious choices—Sgt. Pepper, Pet Sounds, Kind Of Blue, Led Zeppelin IV, Dark Side Of The Moon—on your own. Instead, we’re focusing on albums that you need to make the jump from casual collector to vintage connoisseur. And if you’re still all-digital, don’t worry. These are albums you can still find in good old-fashioned .mp3 and streaming formats too.
Chet Baker – Chet Baker Sings: If you know Chet Baker and you’re under 40, chances are you first heard of him in the 1999 Matt Damon film, The Talented Mr. Ripley, in which Damon and Jude Law are rabid fans. Best known for his dark and smokey take on “My Funny Valentine,” Baker is the classic example of a career eclipsed too soon because of drugs. But go back to his glory days in the early 50s and you find a musician with James Dean looks and a dual-threat talent. The sound of his trumpet on his instrumental works is quintessentially smooth, but he also stepped out from behind the horn to take on vocal duties on several albums—the first and best of which is 1954’s Chet Baker Sings. If you’re a jazz novice, Baker is a great place to start, because his style is so approachable, eschewing rapid-fire improvisation in favor of pop songcraft. Part-tortured artist and part-teen idol, Chet Baker was a rock star before there was such a thing.
Chet Baker – “That Old Feeling”
Junior Wells & Buddy Guy – Hoodoo Man Blues: Vocalist and harmonica player Junior Wells may get top-billing on this 1965 classic, but you might notice in the fine print someone named Buddy Guy playing the guitar. This was the debut album for them both, and to capture two Chicago blues legends together on one album like this is one of those rare historical opportunities to hear a tectonic shift in music as it was actually happening. Wells has a voice and a song style that almost sounds Motown. And Guy’s guitar, while not nearly as adventurous here as in the shredding solos he would later become known for, is like a runaway truck powering these songs with rhythm and flair. It’s the perfect album to spin while you’re having beers with friends, upbeat and never abrasive.
Junior Wells & Buddy Guy – “Snatch It Back And Hold It”
New York Dolls – Too Much Too Soon: Shifting gears completely, we come to the New York Dolls. They debuted in 1971 and only made two albums before their disbanding in 1975—but in those four short years they laid the blueprint for both punk rock and hair metal. You might question how two such diametrically opposed sounds could come from the same band, and all I can say is, listen to Too Much Too Soon. You hear the raw, grating guitars, fast tempos, and sneering vocals of punk. You also hear the soaring choruses and grander production values of hair metal, with horn lines and female backing vocals and a whole lot of sex, drugs, and alcohol. The combination makes this one of the most influential rock albums of all time. But more importantly, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
New York Dolls – “Babylon”
Francoise Hardy – Francoise Hardy: You may have heard Francoise Hardy in our musical tribute to Paris last fall, but if you want to hear more, there’s no better place to start than with her 1962 self-titled debut album (also sometimes referred to as Tous Les Garcons Et Les Filles for its most popular track). The first in a fad of French, female folk-pop stars known as “yeh-yeh girls,” Hardy’s bohemian style would end up influencing artists like Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, and Nico. Combining intelligence and emotion with sex appeal, it’s music that plays today with a certain Mad Men-like nostalgia. If you like this, her first five albums were recently reissued on vinyl by Light In The Attic Records, and they detail an artistic transformation full of surprising maturity and nuance, increasingly treading over time into what we would now call experimental rock.
Francoise Hardy – “Tous Les Garcons Et Les Filles (All The Boys And Girls)”
Blind Willie McTell / Charley Patton / The Mississippi Sheiks – The Complete Recorded Works In Chronological Order: If you’re looking to understand the true roots of blues music—I’m talking about those deep Depression years down in the Mississippi Delta, when the record industry was still in its infancy—you just might want to invest in this box set from Jack White’s Third Man Records. Presenting the works of three essential artists across thirteen records, this is a crash course in some truly vintage sounds. With all the crackle and pop you’d expect from the recordings of this era, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time. But you’ll also have a unique chance to see musical evolution in progress, as each artist creeps along at an almost Darwinian pace into something like fully-realized blues by the end. Blind Willie McTell is solo guitar music heavy on dirt and sweat, but might be a good starting point if you’re just looking to dip your toes into the waters. Charley Patton follows similar lines, but with a throatier, more moanful voice. But for my money, the best of the bunch is The Mississippi Sheiks, who usher in a full-band sound (incorporating fiddles and percussion) that straddles the line between early blues and country. Together, this box set is most appropriate for true music historians. But if that’s too heavy a commitment, the first three albums are also available in digital format on iTunes, Amazon, and Spotify.
The Mississippi Sheiks – “Sitting On Top Of The World”