Going Japanese: Must-have SACDs for 2011

By Todd Whitesel

Music collectors and audiophiles have long looked to the Land of the Rising Sun for hard-to-find LPs, CDs and exotic stereo gear that was unavailable elsewhere. Some record collectors are obsessed with Japanese pressings, seeking them out for the quality of the vinyl and the cool extras that we don’t get with our North American platters, such as the coveted OBI strip and perhaps a poster or lyrics printed in the beautiful but complicated Japanese script. For the new year, I’ll be “going Japanese” to satisfy my craving for some long-overdue high-resolution reissues.

I’ve lamented the near halt in production of rock and jazz SACDs over the last couple years. It seems the record labels committed to SACD are concentrating almost solely on classical music. I love classical music and have put together a nice collection of high-resolution discs as such, but there are countless other non-classical albums that I wish would find their home on SACD. I can’t imagine going back to a non-SACD disc of Bob Dylan’s “Blood On The Tracks” — listen to “If You See Her, Say Hello” in 5.1 surround and you’ll know what I mean. Incidentally, that SACD is now out of print and still-sealed copies can go for $50 and up — and it’s worth it. Now, and in the coming weeks, several truly classic albums are being reissued on SACD by Universal Japan. Each is a limited edition and likely to become very collectible, very soon. Get ’em now before they’re gone!

1. Stevie Wonder, “Songs In The Key Of Life” — From 1972 up to the release of “Songs In The Key Of Life” found Stevie Wonder on a path of unbridled creativity. In fact, two LPs weren’t enough to contain all the material Wonder wanted to put on “Songs,” so a four-song EP was included in the package. All this after the triumphs of “Music Of My Mind,” “Talking Book,” “Innervisions” and “Fulfillingness’ First Finale!” I can’t remember a song that got more radio play in the 1970s than “Sir Duke,” Wonder’s tribute to the great Duke Ellington. It’s bound to sound even better here.

2. Asia, “Asia” — The 1982 debut of Asia brought together four of progressive rock’s biggest names — bassist/vocalist John Wetton, guitarist Steve Howe, keyboardist Geoff Downes and drummer Carl Palmer — into the much-maligned “supergroup” arena. The surprise, though, was that instead of 10-minute jams and ventures into the cosmos, Asia delivered a set of nine radio-friendly songs, none of which broached six minutes. The album, with its classic Roger Dean artwork, was a huge success and remains the group’s finest effort.

3. Rainbow, “Long Live Rock ‘ N’ Roll” — Ritchie Blackmore and the vocalists he’s worked with have always been something of an oil-and-water mixture, never really settling down for long. Rainbow fans can argue whether Graham Bonnett had better pipes than Joe Lynn Turner, but we wouldn’t be talking for long if it wasn’t for Ronnie James Dio and his inimitable delivery on records such as “Rising” and 1978’s “Long Live Rock ’N’ Roll.” I can’t wait to revisit the great title track on SACD.

4. Kiss, Destroyer — I would never associate Kiss with audiophile-quality recordings, but I love the band’s early ’70s output, and I can’t imagine an album that was more influential or popular at its time than “Destroyer.” Although the record contains the even-for-Kiss overblown “Great Expectations,” the foursome never hit harder than with cuts such as “Detroit Rock City” and “God Of Thunder.” I welcome this reissue and am very curious to hear the “hottest band in the world” in high-res.

5. Gentle Giant, Octopus – Wow! Gentle Giant on SACD? If any band deserves such treatment, it’s Gentle Giant. I’ve spent the last couple months digging into the Giant’s complete back catalog and have come away with a newfound respect that borders on awe. Octopus is probably the first album I’d recommend to those wanting to investigate this unique band, and it features everything from the tricky time signatures and arrangements of tunes like “Advent Of Panurge” to the graceful beauty of “Think Of Me With Kindness.” And, yes, this features the original Roger Dean cover art with the cephalopod rising from the waters instead of the original reissue, where the mighty mollusk is trapped inside a jar. Who would do such a thing?

6. Fairport Convention, “Liege & Lief” — This is British folk-rock at its best. Sandy Denny’s vocals are unmatched and for my money this record betters Unhalfbricking all around. “Matty Groves” remains the measuring stick.

7. Caravan, “In The Land Of Grey And Pink” — If the “Canterbury Sound” could be distilled into one album, this would be it. From the humorous “Golf Girl” and the hippie-esque title track to the sprawling “Nine Feet Underground,” this is essential British prog.

8. Wishbone Ash, “Argus” — I already have three copies of this often-overlooked classic. The original recording is pretty good, but I’m guessing the sparkle and energy of Andy Powell and Ted Turner’s guitar playing will sound even better this time around. “Time was” when I couldn’t get this LP on SACD and I was sad (inside lyrical joke to those who know the tune).

9. The Rolling Stones, “Beggars Banquet” — Man did I miss the boat in 2002, when ABKCO reissued a set of early Stones’ classics on SACD. “Beggars Banquet,” along with “Let It Bleed,” were two that I should have jumped on immediately. To quote Pete Townshend, I won’t get fooled again.

10. Free, “Fire & Water” — I would buy this just to hear “Mr. Big” in high-resolution. For my money, no band has wrapped more attitude around a riff than Free on that track. Paul Kossoff erects a fortress from a three-note phrase as Andy Fraser runs through the grounds with his endlessly imaginative and looping bass lines. Paul Rodgers struts like a peacock finally freed from prison. Meat and potatoes rock was never tastier.

One thought on “Going Japanese: Must-have SACDs for 2011

  1. I really like your descriptions. Very well researched and knowledgeable. Your description of Free was spot on. Andy’s walking bass sounded like a stick tuba. I still give this to bass players to hear. The best bass lick of all time. Only the Japanese could compile such an interesting selection of music.

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