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Feature Articles & Reviews
Here we are, closing in on the end of another year. It’s been a doozy, with political storms equivalent to the 1960s, seemingly endless gun violence, and nightly reports of sexual abuse by entertainment bigwigs and national politicos. On the positive side, we’ve had a breadth and quality of music that spanks the intellect and caresses the spirit. We’ve even had some wonderful films, though you’d have to be Sherlock Holmes to find them.
But we find ourselves at another Christmas, and I admit to feeling a responsibility to help you out with ideas for gifts you might hope to get yourself this year. If your family’s like mine, Christmas is always preceded by requests for gift lists.
“What do you want this year?”
“I don’t know. What do you want?”
“I don’t know. What do you want?”
And so on. But here’s a chance to save yourself some time and effort. Just print out this column and circle in red the things you want -- or, if you’re rich and well loved, give them the whole list!
Note that, in writing this article, your humble servant spent most of his time digging through what will be happening everywhere over the next three or four months: some form of Remembering the Music of 1968, or 50th Anniversary Music, or another way of saying, “Gosh, this music is a half-century old and it still sounds good!” I divided the music by month of original release so that you can listen to it when it hits its actual 50th birthday. While you may be familiar with many of these albums, I wonder how long it’s been since you sat down and carefully listened to any of them. More anon. All prices in USD.
This has been a great year for loudspeakers, and for me, the King of the Hill was Barefoot Sound’s Footprint01 ($3495/pair). Yes, there’s a waiting list; yes, they’re somewhat expensive. But I’d say they’re a good value for what you get, and no speakers have given me this level of pure joy since, with sadness, I abandoned my much-loved ATC SCM50As ($17,000/pair) to be underappreciated by the buyer of our last home, who said, “Oh, honey, let’s tell them they have to throw in those speakers. I bet they cost $500!” Indeed, after some arm twisting from my realtor, I understood that the ATCs’ cost was a mere drop in the bucket of our home’s total price -- but as a lover of stereo, boy, that hurt. Well, the Barefoot Footprint01s, listened to in the nearfield with the Oppo HA-1, using a Mac and Roon, make me a happy camper.
Two other speakers that have gotten my attention are the Eclipse TD-M1 ($999/pair) and Sonos Play:1 ($199 each). The ultra-high-tech, egg-shaped Eclipse TD-M1s are stunners for their ridiculous price, which includes their built-in DACs, amps, Wi-Fi receivers, secure stands, and fully stable power supplies. These speakers have the ability to completely “disappear” from the sound chain, leaving just pure music. The Eclipse TD-M1 constitutes one of the best values you’ll find in the marketplace today.
Sonos has blazed so many important trails that it’s been interesting to see how many other companies have, shall we say, followed them down those trails. So you can’t blame Sonos for taking a page from someone else’s playbook for a change. In this case, rather than endlessly reinvent the wheel, or become another supplicant in the needless line of Dragon wannabes, they’ve shared Amazon’s Alexa, which at least has the benefit of working. That, along with the Sonos system of room correction, makes the Sonos Play:1 system a top performer. I’m already on record as a Sonos convert, but really: for $199 each, these speakers are phenomenal bargains.
Powered speakers that I haven’t had in my home but have had enough connection with to feel they’re worth seeking out are KEF’s LS50W ($2199.99/pair), Kii Audio’s Three ($12,950/pair with stands), and Genelec’s series of speakers called The One ($4990 to $8590/pair). All use varying strategies to correct problems with the room’s acoustic. I think all of these are worth seeking out and listening to.
Speaking of room correction, I love the fact that so many electronics companies are shoehorning a computer with room correction into the precious breadboard space. A partial list includes MartinLogan’s Forte ($599.95), Paradigm’s PW Amp wireless amplifier ($499.99), Elac’s EA101EQ-G integrated amplifier ($699.98), Arcam’s FMJ SR250 ($3600), and NAD’s C 368 ($899.99). Each of these companies is a strong maker of amps or is connected to one. I don’t yet know which amp will win my little contest, but I currently have a Forte (shown below) in for review, and it packs a powerful weapon: Anthem Room Correction (ARC) software. Stay tuned for a review, coming soon in WesWorld.
Dirac has also wildly expanded its product line, including the ability to add its room-correction program to your Mac or PC ($460). I’ll be trying it out soon, to see how it works with an Oppo HA-1 and Roon.
The other area generating some excitement is video projectors. After what seems like decades of leadership, JVC continues to offer some of the best projectors on the market. Their mid-level model, the DLA-X770R ($6999.95), is ideal for anyone who cares about a high-quality TV picture. I do, but I have to tell you that, now that I live in a loft, the Epson LS100 ultra-short-throw projector ($2999) holds major attraction for me. Yes, the screens are expensive, but if you want a big picture in a small space, nothing beats an ultra-short-throw projector. I wouldn’t go to the trouble of having a normal-throw projector if I didn’t use it as a rear projector, but that’s just me. If I’m going to go to the expense of buying a projector that can produce the quality of image of a JVC, then I want a glass screen, and I want to look directly into the guns -- and that means having the projector in a room behind the screen. It also means having a big house, but the gains in picture quality are huge.
Music and movies
In 2017 we constantly heard about this or that album’s 50th anniversary: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Surrealistic Pillow, Are You Experienced, Their Satanic Majesties Request. Granted, 1967 was a very good year (apologies, Frank).
But 1968 was pretty damn good, too. So, to get into the queue just a bit early, here are some music and movies that have stood the test of half a century. Each is a work of art that still has cultural relevance and can fill the heart. The films range in visual fidelity from gorgeous (2001: A Space Odyssey, Once Upon a Time in the West) to dismal (Night of the Living Dead, Faces), but every one is good enough to warrant inclusion in my “Collector’s Corner” column. (Three have been featured there already.)
The 1968 albums are those special productions that still sound great -- their fidelity is strong, and the music avoids being cheesy or too rooted in the era of its birth. I’ve organized them by month of original release, in hopes that a few of you might get a gift certificate for a streaming service -- or, better, a record store! -- and use it on the anniversary of each album, then spend the next 40 minutes or so listening to it from first track to last -- the way albums were meant to be listened to.
The Byrds: The Notorious Byrd Brothers
Chris Hillman and Roger McGuinn dominate. No hits, but great music.
The mix of jazz, rock, and psychedelia is simply perfect. Jimi Hendrix wanted Randy California to play guitar in his band. Is that recommendation enough?
Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood: Nancy & Lee
“Some Velvet Morning” is one of the best songs ever written. Thank you, Lee.
Blood, Sweat & Tears: Child Is Father to the Man
Al Kooper’s original version of the band, with lots of great songs.
The Rascals: Once Upon a Dream
Featuring one of the Rascals’ great songs, “It’s Wonderful.”
Mason Williams: The Mason Williams Phonograph Record
“Classical Gas” is the big song.
Laura Nyro: Eli and the Thirteenth Confession
Chock-full of songs that became hits for others.
The United States of America: The United States of America
Possibly the weirdest LP here; “Love Song for the Dead Ché” is simply sublime.
Joni Mitchell: Joni Mitchell (aka Song to a Seagull)
It would be foolish to say that any of Mitchell’s LPs is her best, but this is my favorite.
Simon and Garfunkel: Bookends
S&G’s Sgt. Pepper’s.
The Zombies: Odessey and Oracle
By the time it was released, the band had thrown in the towel. Listen to their last breath and be amazed. “Time of the Season” is just the start.
Spanky & Our Gang: Like to Get to Know You
Extremely sophisticated pop-rock with a touch of psychedelia.
Quicksilver Messenger Service: Quicksilver Messenger Service
“The Fool” and “Gold and Silver” are QSM’s best songs ever.
Richard Harris: A Tramp Shining
Wherein Jimmy Webb offers King Arthur some of his best songs, including the one about the rain ruining the cake.
John Cash: Live at Folsom Prison
Cash sings “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.” The audience cheers. Chilling. Still.
José Feliciano: Feliciano!
Feliciano’s cover of the Doors’ “Light My Fire” shows his soulful vocals, but it’s his three matchless Beatles covers that really shine.
The Beach Boys: Friends
Brian Wilson is still involved, and the first two songs show his absolute gentle genius. A sweet, quiet album for a rainy afternoon.
Randy Newman: Randy Newman
Newman is a weirdo, but anyone who can write “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” and arrange it like this is ace in my book.
The Band: Music from Big Pink
An album that changed the world. Where Americana began, from a band four-fifths Canadian.
The Doors: Waiting for the Sun
Third classic in a row from the Doors, with engineer Bruce Botnick offering near-perfect sound. Side 2 of the original LP is perfect rock, culminating in the frightening crush of “Five to One.”
Mike Bloomfield, Al Kooper, Stephen Stills: Super Session
Two days of jamming, millions of dollars in sales, and it all still sounds great, especially “Season of the Witch.”
Harry Nilsson: Aerial Ballet
“One,” “Everybody’s Talkin’,” and a lot of pretty pop.
Big Brother & the Holding Company: Cheap Thrills
Get an idea of how feral this band really was.
Donovan: In Concert
Find the superior-sounding two-disc version, Complete 1967 Anaheim Show, if possible. Donovan backed by a jazz quintet, digging deep in his glorious catalog.
The Byrds: Sweetheart of the Rodeo
The second nail in Americana’s disputations on popular music, and if it wasn’t quite as earth-shattering as the Band’s, it came close.
Giles, Giles and Fripp: The Cheerful Insanity of
Imagine King Crimson sounding more like the Incredible String Band.
Ravi Shankar: A Morning Raga/An Evening Raga
Shankar made a number of great albums for World Pacific in the mid-1960s. This is the one that keeps me coming back.
Fever Tree: Fever Tree
From a little studio in Houston, Texas. Starts hard with a trio of viciously rocking songs, then finishes with two of the prettiest of the entire decade.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Electric Ladyland
Feeling pretty manly? “I stand up next to a mountain / Chop it down with the edge of my hand.” Match that.
The beginning of Todd Rundgren’s fame, along with the original and superior version of “Hello It’s Me.”
John Martyn: Tumbler
Hard English folk with a jazz touch. Beautiful sounds.
Stevie Winwood and Dave Mason both in the band, lots of great songs. Winwood was 17 when he had his hits with the Spencer Davis Group, 19 when he formed Traffic, and 20 when this fine album came out.
The Beatles: The Beatles
Lots of filler, mostly by Paul (“Why Don’t We Do It in the Road,” “Wild Honey Pie”), along with some of the Beatles’ best.
Van Morrison: Astral Weeks
For emo musicians of the last three decades, this is probably the single most transforming LP. When it was first released, no one cared.
Jerry Butler: The Ice Man Cometh
The soul man supreme.
The Pretty Things: S.F. Sorrow
Rock opera predating Tommy. Check out “Trust.”
Neil Young: Neil Young
His first three albums are his best, and this one has such killer songs as “The Loner” and “Old Laughing Lady.”
The Monkees: Head
Weird. Weird. Weird.
James Taylor: James Taylor
James himself doesn’t like it. Shame about that. It’s by far his best album, whether you consider the quality of the songs, the arrangements, his playing, or his singing. Produced by Peter Asher for Apple Records.
Spirit: The Family That Plays Together
Clean bass, clear drums, wicked guitars, superb Fender Rhodes, strong songs.
Stevie Wonder: For Once in My Life
The beginnings of genius. He’d soon be blowing the Rolling Stones off their own stage.
The Rolling Stones: Beggars Banquet
Wherein Mr. Jagger begins to become a parody of Mr. Jagger. Still great songs, though, and the reliance on acoustic instruments means it still sounds great today.
Films from 50 years ago that don’t suck and should be seen again!
The chase scenes have been imitated but never surpassed.
The Conqueror Worm (aka Witchfinder General)
See softee wine lover Vincent Price go all out as a crazy torturer.
John Cassavetes was a genius when it came to showing the tough emotions humans have to deal with when in pain. This was the beginning of his run of masterworks.
Hang ’Em High
Revenge, Clint Eastwood style.
Still the best concert film ever made.
Night of the Living Dead
Completely changed the horror film. Still pretty gross.
Once Upon a Time in the West
Unbelievable close-ups of Henry Fonda’s and Charles Bronson’s eyes, along with Claudia Cardinale’s gorgeous self. And a great western.
A small movie with a scary core.
Funnier than the play. Really.
She-Devils on Wheels
Ever wonder what they used to show at trashy drive-ins in the Deep South? Here it is, led by (move over, Roger Corman) the most perfect drive-in director who ever lived, Herschel Gordon Lewis. If you don’t know that name, you’re in for a treat. Anyone who’s made it to adulthood without experiencing his Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964) has not lived a complete life.
The Thomas Crown Affair
Do we have stars today to match the power of Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway?
2001: A Space Odyssey
On a good projector system (see JVC, above), still one of the prettiest films of Kubrick’s oeuvre.
Where Eagles Dare
Amazing scenery and twists. Don’t let anyone tell you how it ends!
Wild in the Streets
Just kidding -- it’s dated and it does suck, but it’s great fun anyway.
The Beatles spend a few of their millions. The idea sounded good while stoned on LSD? It still looks gorgeous.
So . . . lots of fun things to get for Christmas. Enjoy!
. . . Wes Marshall