About twenty-five years ago in Chapel Hill, I jumped in a van to drive South. It was one of those last minute “sure I’ll go let me grab my tooth brush”- “hurry up, the bus is leaving” last minute road trips. The cast of friends was loose, the ultimate destination was the infield of Talladega. Somewhere along “the way”, which was a very serpentine route, we ended up in Tuslcaloosa to pick up a friend of a friend. It was raining. The kind of rain that slows you in your tracks, the kind of rain that makes six guys in a conversion van say “yes” to an invitation to a lake cabin with a roof from people you just met in a bar. I can’t remember the name of the lake, nor do I recall seeing it through the rain and fog from its high vista. We had a great time in that old Alabama lake cabin. Late that night the rain was pattering on the roof and most had found a cozy spot. There was a thump and a circling scratching hiss followed by the warped melody of Hank Williams “Cold, Cold Heart”.
I hadn’t seen or heard a record player since I was a child. Something about the warmth and emotion of old Hank was special. I was born long enough ago to say that the first music I bought was a J. Geils “Centerfold” 45. My early introduction to music was borrowing Traffic, Stones, and Who albums from my uncle and sneaking them into our living room to listen to them covertly through my dad’s Koss headphones. My nine year old self destroying the phono-stylus in the process.
Vinyl has made a huge resurgence. About five years ago, I found a nice crate of vinyl cleaning up the basement and decided to put together a system to listen. I started off with something really simple- a cheap turntable that connected to my computer speakers. While the lore of putting the needle in the groove was there for a time, I began to want more. Within a matter of months, I had a nice turntable. A tube amp. Restored vintage speakers. I hired an electrician to remove a ground loop interference in my listening room. I was in. Since then I have collected hundreds of 33s. I’ve built a second system in my little mountain cabin to listen by the fire.
There are far more qualified folks that could tell you about their records. Mine is not about building a valuable collection in a baseball collection sense. I’m a listener. The experience for me is about sitting down and enjoying a moment. The scene, the time to sit down, the warmth of music produced to be listened to the right way. I’ve thumbed the vintage shop crates for first releases of my favorite music, I’ve bought a bunch of new pressings, I’ve asked folks that I suspected have great music from the 60s, 70s, and 80s to let me find a kind home for the records in storage, I’ve been to garage sales and bought lots of gospel Christmas albums by the hundreds to find one gem. I have searched “what are the top 100 vinyl albums you MUST own” and have bought most of them. While owning Led Zeppelin IV or “Are you Experienced” is cool, you probably won’t find yourself coming back to them again and again as a whole sit down listening session. I am about to make a list. I must say that this doesn’t comprehensively reflect my musical taste. It is an honest list that matches the mood and setting of when I stop to pour a drink, dim the lights, sit down in that sweet spot between the speakers and hear that little thump of the needle- before all the little nuances that are missed in modern digital music.
Out of all the records I came about and even the ones I thought I had to have, here are a few records that find a way to the front of the playlist of late and perineal favs:
Talking Heads- Speaking in Tongues
One of my first experiences with good music was shooting bumper pool with a bunch of teenagers that were babysitting me in the early eighties. I still remember the vibe in the room when “Burning Down the House” came on. I like to say I can feel that way when I sit back and play this record. It’s a funky one. “Speaking in Tongues” plays like an album as a complete piece of art- the way records are supposed to. It’s a shame you have to get up half way through and flip it. It might not be the album for everyone, but it does a good vinyl system justice. It is included simply because it has stayed in the front of my record collection my entire life- even through the years I had no way to play it.
Van Morrison- Moondance
“Moondance” is a fireside favorite. Some music is just better listen to with reverence. All the good things in “Moondance” come out in vinyl and its texture matches being played this way. The perfect bassline under “Into the Mystic” deserves to be reserved for listening when it came be heard. Moondance simply doesn’t get old and makes you feel good. Through the album you can travel into its story, from the very beginning in “It Stoned Me” into the joyfulness of “Brand New Day”, “Everyone”, and “Brand New Day”. Not to mention, occasionally we dance to “Come Running” and “These Dreams of You”. If you have a good turntable, save it to be listened to on vinyl.
Ray Charles- Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music
Okay, this is a bit of an outlier for me but I’ve listed it here through the criteria of getting a bunch of play time lately. My record was bought at a yard sale for a dime. It is scratchy and pops and has that feel of the old Hank album I heard in Alabama- and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I have collected so many of my records for an analogue pure sound, but actually, I wouldn’t have this record any other way. It is a fine companion to add sparkling ambience to the cocktail hour. I feel like I am doing something right and honoring tradition when Ray is on- it feels good.
Rolling Stones- Sticky Fingers
If I had to list one Rock and Roll band to play on vinyl, I couldn’t leave out the Stones. If I was ranking Stones albums- for me it is this one.
Norah Jones- Come Away with Me
So part of my criteria for vinyl listening is mood. This isn’t the stuff you playlist on Spotify for your jog. I don’t think I’d listen to Norah Jones over and over in the car, but she always find a way back to the turn table. I remember seeing her on Austin City Limits and thinking- Man, now that’s very sexy and moody.
Marvin Gaye- What’s Going On
What I dig most about Marvin Gaye, is well, Marvin Gaye. When I get to heaven I want him to sing to me. What I dig about “What’s Going On” is its production. It is an album in entirety. In fact, the themes and movements carry from one track to the next and you lose yourself in it. If you search for greatest albums of all time- it will always be in the top ten. This can sometimes be a mistake. (I respect listening to Dark Side of the Moon, but I’m not inclined to do it often.) I have to confess that I don’t listen to it frequently, but if you are inclined to build a pretty good collection and dig Marvin, you should put this in your mix and pull out occasionally.
“Nevermind” was released on my seventeenth birthday, about a month after Pearl Jam “Ten”. I spent the better part of eleventh grade with these two CD’s in a carousel changer along with “Paul’s Boutique”, R.E. M.’s “Out of Time”, and the Connell’s “One Simple Word”. Pearl Jam and Nirvana will forever be linked in memory by genre, but “Nevermind” wins on vinyl. Sticking with the moody theme, there is an angry nostalgia that feels good to sink into. To say the least, the pounding three-chord songs and Cobain’s kerosene voice, aren’t as pure other chill choices- but “Nevermind” comes alive on vinyl. You hear all the rough edges and it deserves dedicated listening. (in a flannel shirt and combat boots)
Huey Lewis and the News- Sports
Look, if you know, you know. Huey went from cool to cliche really fast when I was a kid. It’s poppy and can get a bit corny. I found it in my childhood closet recently and it blew my mind. If you are just the right age, this record is worth having. I’d say with all the eighties dad-worship style that’s happening that it stands a chance to be considered by some of my younger readers. If you are listening to Mp3, you’ll skip over “Heart of Rock and Roll” and “I Want a New Drug”. They are just part of the over arching album, which is actually excellent. “Walking on a Thin Line” and “If this is It” are two great ones right on the end of side A. So eighties.
Miles Davis- Kind of Blue
I know very little about Jazz. That is why perhaps one of the most commercially available and greatest Jazz recordings of all time is the one that keeps sneaking to the front. This is a seminal “test album” for audiophiles. It is perfect in so many ways. As far as listening and mood, it is all mood- but some of the technical nuance of hearing the recording is phenomenal in this vinyl. I sink back in my chair an I am hypnotized by Jimmy Cobb tapping on that ride cymbal- and then suddenly you can hear him switch over to another one and you can hear the rivets on it jingle. Do yourself a favor and own a good pressing of it.
OKAY I GUESS YOIU HAVE TO OWN DARK SIDE OF THE MOON.