By Stephen M.H. Braitman
THE CONCEPT OF THE FIVE-STAR ALBUM is as amusing as it is intriguing.
Certainly there are widely varying conceptions of what constitutes “five stars” in a ranking of quality, fame, and even notoriety.
Another term that is equally amusing is “Conventional Wisdom.” Conventional wisdom has it that Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side Of The Moon,” Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” Nirvana’s “Nevermind,” The Rolling Stones’ “Exile On Main Street,” and The Who’s “Who’s Next” are masterpieces and deserve five stars however we might define the rank.
Conventional wisdom is something one should always be careful about, in politics and in record collecting. Five stars to whom? Not a rockabilly fan, for certain, or a classical music aficionado. Someone may like pop and dance music but not any of that rough stuff from The Stones or The Who. A prog- rock enthusiast may only ridicule the “Seattle Throat” style of Nirvana.
These kinds of highly visible mainstream albums, while undoubtedly popular and huge perennial sellers, have never set the record-collecting world on fire. Of course, one might find some very active bidding for a new-condition promo, or some odd foreign issue, but, in general, popularity does not translate into collectibility and high value.
That doesn’t stop people from trying. Within a day of Michael Jackson’s death — maybe on the day — eBay was crowded with sellers of MJ memorabilia. It was a constant source of amusement to find all the million-dollar “Thriller” listings.
Searching eBay for Michael Jackson material can still elicit howls of laughter from what the hopelessly naïve hope to gain from their “Beat It” singles and “Bad” (indeed) vinyl.
Record price guides may be partly to blame for this situation. The “6th Edition Goldmine Record Album Price Guide states that the regular first edition of “Thriller” is worth $8, but the entry includes a note that prices “are expected to rise 20-50 percent and possibly more” due to Jackson’s death. That “possibly more” is worth a million dollars to some, undoubtedly.
So, “five stars” — when it means popularity — generally is a poor investment choice.
When five stars is a critical consensus, however, the temperature rises. Think of the records today that were once ignored or only regionally popular. Albums by many of these artists are now highly regarded, and highly valued: The Velvet Underground, The Wizards From Kansas, The Sonics, Johnny Burnette & The Rock ’n’ Roll Trio, Linda Perhacs, The Shaggs, Chocolate Watch Band (above) … you get the idea.
Sometimes, it’s not a five-star album, but a five-star label. Blues collectors have their Paramounts and Vocalions, classical fans look out for RCA shaded dogs and Mercury “Living Presence,” and rock fans now know that they shouldn’t pass up anything on either the Harvest or spiral Vertigo label.
When appreciation catches up with the music, people realize that artistic value is only part of the equation. The rush is on.
Naturally, with few copies sold when first issued, those few originals are rare and precious. These are five-star records with five-star desirability.
Stephen M.H. Braitman is a music writer and collector. The most recent LP he’s won at auction is a copy of the 1965 U.K. Decca anthology, “Bumper Bundle,” with hits by Small Faces, Them, The Zombies, Twinkle and others. He is also a music appraiser: www.MusicAppraisals.com.