By Dave Thompson
It’s official: Vinyl is back. Sales of new vinyl hit a reported 4.6 million in the U.S., with the 2013 figures paced to reach beyond the 5.5 million mark. An that’s just the figures tracked by Soundscan.
Add in myriad retailers whose performance is not tracked by the company, specialty stores, website sellers and so forth, and the figures are far higher. Indeed, with an estimated 25 million individual vinyl LPs pressed in the U.S. during 2012 (and, again, many more in 2013), the 12-inch platter is gnawing into the CD’s share of the market, at least so far as rock and roll is concerned.
There are days, in fact, when it feels as though someone has turned the clock back to the mid-1980s, and then flipped the reality switch to “reverse.” Back then, as so many of us bought into the notion that CDs were the ultimate musical medium, every week seemed to bring fresh news of the antique joys that were heading our way, and used music stores groaned beneath the weight of the vinyl LPs we offloaded.
Now, it’s CDs that are being replaced with pristine slabs of wax. Has anybody else noticed just how difficult it is to offload those little plastic discs? It’s not only we collectors who are sick of loading the shelves with old CDs we’ll never play. Dealers are sick of loading their shelves with old CDs they’ll never sell. And who can blame either of us for that?
Vinyl still has a way to go, of course; CDs and MP3s continue to sell. But as long as the music we want is available in a choice of formats, most of us will be happy. The only real cloud on the vinyl horizon? A new vinyl LP currently costs around double the price of a CD.
There are multiple reasons for that, of course, including increased manufacturing, storage and transportation costs. The average impulse buyer will still find greater temptation in a $12 CD than a $25 vinyl LP, so kudos to the handful of labels that counter that by adding another format or two to their vinyl releases. Those download codes and CD copies are much appreciated; thank you!
But enough with the chatter; let’s squeeze in some new releases.
There are three freshly pressed Black Sabbath albums: “Technical Ecstasy,” “Never Say Die” and the leviathan double greatest hits, “We Sold Our Soul for Rock ’n’ Roll (all via Warner Brothers). The hits package surely remains one of the worst-titled albums ever, regardless how well-loved its sprawling contents may be.
Tracing The Sabs’ tale from first album to fifth, with Sides One and Two given over in their entirety to the first two LPs, “We Sold Our Soul” is the ultimate Sabbath primer, ranging wide across the discs and the band’s musicianship. “Laguna Sunrise” and “Changes” both poke sticks in the eye of anyone who writes Sabbath off as mere metal riff merchants, and “Am I Going Insane (Radio)” is deliciously proto-punk frenzy. But then we leap to “Technical Ecstasy,” with that peculiar cover of two robots having sex on an escalator (ahhh, they don’t draw sleeves like that anymore), and we learn that was as good as it got. The last two Sabbath albums are essentials if you want to complete the set. But as listening experiences, they made for a disappointing coda to one of the decade’s most dynamic catalogs.
Still, the usual excellent job has been done with the mastering and artwork, and there are moments on both that it’s great to hear again. Plus, even bad Black Sabbath is better than some of the monstrosities perpetrated in the name of ’70s metal.
The next batch of beauties is in the Talking Heads catalog: Fabulous reissues of “More Songs About Buildings and Food,” the double live “The Name Of This Band Is …” and the still-epochal “Fear of Music” (all Sire) restate the sheer eclectic ambition that was Talking Heads’ trademark. True, the band occasionally grew a little too quirky for its own good, trying so hard to be clever that it forgot to actually play a song. But “Fear of Music” finds the band at its best, with performance and production melded in a manner that few bands have ever achieved.
In concert, of course, the band was even more impressive, with “The Name Of This Band” effortlessly lining up alongside the best double live albums of all time – especially on vinyl. It’s probably an indefinable ambience thing, but live recordings have always sounded better on vinyl, where the acoustics have room to maneuver without first being translated into a row of icy digits. This pressing sounds so open and welcoming, you feel like you’re in the front row.
I have often mentioned how I’ve been waiting and hoping for old favorites to return to vinyl, and Drastic Plastic has heeded my call with “We Are … The League,” the debut album by the Anti-Nowhere League.
Described as the last truly crucial album of the original U.K. punk era — despite the fact it wasn’t released until 1982, about five years after the rest of the contenders — “We Are …” retains its original strengths and energy, from the moment the needle hits the opening title track, through the magnificent “Streets of London,” and onto the closing “Let’s Break The Law.” In fact, I feel it actually sounds better now than it did at the time it originally was released.
The early 1980s, as we all recall, were dark days when it came to the quality of vinyl. Cost-cutting was the watchword of the day; who knows how many unsold copies of the “Sgt. Pepper” movie soundtrack were recycled to use the vinyl for new music? Wafer-thin discs and even thinner sleeves paved the way for the CD to take over, which it did. Now, however, we can listen to the era’s music as it was meant to be heard, and the glorious depth and volume of “We Are…” sets the turntable to “stun.”
Last but not least, check out a colored vinyl, two-LP pressing of Krokus’ “Stampede” (Sireena). Oh, sorry. I forgot to switch the amplifier on. This baby might be louder than all the others put together! GM
A prodigious writer, fierce music lover and longtime record collector, Dave Thompson is the author of Goldmine’s “Standard Catalog of American Records 1950-1990, 8th Edition” and Goldmine’s “Record Album Price Guide, 7th Edition.”