Born Today: March's Children
Welcome to the Born Today series, where each month I highlight some of the most significant album releases of said month with a little help from the Rolling Stone 500 and other sources. Where info is available, the most recent and highest-fidelity versions (not always the same thing) are listed. Since it's 2013, we'll be celebrating the records that came out on the third year of each decade. It's a good excuse to bust out that weightless slab of digital file on your hard drive you haven't piped into your DAC yet. (But don't forget to check out new music the kids are making.)
NOTE: To test drive any of these albums, I recommend using the MOG streaming service, which, at 320 kbps, has the highest bit rate of any online music service. MOG also allows unlimited downloads to any Apple or Android device, in case streaming music from the One World Brain via phone lines and microwaves isn't your thing.
The Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd (March 1, 1973)
"Vanity of vanities, says the teacher, all is vanity! I have seen all things that are done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a chase after the wind." – Solomon
"Run, rabbit run. Dig that hole, forget the sun. And when at last the work is done, don't sit down it's time to dig another one." – Pink
From the opening heartbeat, it's clear that that Pink Floyd's eighth album is going to be both epic and a sonic trip to the Land of Oz. That heartbeat, a knob-manipulated kick drum, has so much texture it in it, with a slight flutter and an ambience like the inside of a battleship's hull, it' could be, and is, used to demo sound systems. Much of the sonic innovation of the album, which has yet to sound dated, is due to engineer genius Alan Parsons, who was a young button pusher at Abbey Road during the Beatles' Let It Be recording sessions. Anyone who so much as plugged in a mixing console during the Beatles' worst day was guaranteed a superstar career in audio production. But Alan Parsons got his own project, and DSOTM is the reason why. The album cover, designed by Storm Thorgerson of design legends Hipgnosis and depicting a beam of light changing into a rainbow and back, perfectly mirrors the album's infinite cycle theme.
"The sun rises and the sun sets, then presses on to the place where it rises. All things are wearisome, too wearisome for words." – Solomon
"And your run and you run to catch up with the sun, but it's sinking, and racing around to come up behind you again. The sun is the same in a relative way, but you're older and shorter of death and one day closer to death." – Pink
Of course, the band are equally innovative. The opening montage of sound was created by the drummer. "On the Run" is based on a drum loop, and with the divas singing in the background on the subsequent track, you have the formula for 90s techno. The guitar solo on "Time" contains hints of the band's early psychedelic days but sounds like something from the future. But many of the best moments on the album come from guests, like Clare Torry's vocals on "The Great Gig In the Sky". When the Voyager probes were launched in the late 70s, each containing a gold record with information encoded on them for extraterrestrials to decode, they should have put "Gig" on there. It would tell the ETs everything they need to know about humanity without a single word being spoken. Listen carefully to the very end of the song, the final fadeout of the last piano chord, for perhaps the album's most brilliant moment. The tape is slightly sped up for just a second, warping the sound. It's that one fatal flaw, that momentary lapse in reason that puts everything off balance.
"The covetous are never satisfied with money, nor lovers of wealth with their gain; so this too is vanity. As they came forth from their mother's womb, so again shall they return, naked as they came, having nothing for their toil to bring with them." – Solomon
"Money, it's a gas. Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash. New car, caviar, four star daydream, think I'll buy me a football team." – Pink
So much is conveyed through just the sound. In Gilmour's tripartite solo on "Money", the first part is your standard rock solo; the second part is completely dry, with no echo, the sonic equivalent of a grubby drifter; the third part is the filthy rich, massive ego, gone from the real world part, with the guitar disappearing into stadium-sized echo.
"Everything is the same for everybody: the same lot for the just and the wicked." – Solomon
"Black and blue, and who knows which is which and who is who. Up and Down, and in the end it's only round and round and round." – Pink
Then there's the regal atmospheric intro to "Us and Them" (surely a lesson U2 learned) that immediately sets the mood to the introspective lyrics about the futility of the various walls that separate humans from each other. And that saxophone… I wasn't around when this album came out; were the 70s really that depressing?
"Of laughter I said: 'Mad!' and of mirth: 'What good does this do?'" – Solomon
"The lunatic is on the grass, remembering games and daisy chains and laughs. Got to keep the loonies on the path." – Pink
Things lighten up a bit with the instrumental "Any Colour You Like". Then the album reaches its climax with two songs on the value of mental and existential health. The closing heartbeat wraps up the greatest concept album ever, after Sgt. Pepper.
"When I applied my mind to know wisdom and knowledge, madness and folly, I learned that this also is a chase after the wind. For in much wisdom there is much sorrow. What has been, that will be; what has been done, that will be done. Nothing is new under the sun. I went on to the consideration of madness, wisdom, and folly. And I saw that wisdom has as much profit over folly as light has over darkness." – Solomon
"All that you touch, all that you see, all that is now, all that is gone, all that's to come, and everything under the sun is in tune, but the sun is eclipsed by the moon." – Pink
Sept 26, 2011, saw the release of the Immersion Box Set, part of the Why Pink Floyd? extravaganza, which marks the 139th time Pink Floyd have remastered and lavishly repackaged their entire catalogue. Immersion contains a standard CD digitally remastered in 2011 by James Guthrie (although see the note that follows); a second CD with a live Wembley performance (2011 mix); a DVD with the 2003 Guthrie 5.1 mix at 448 and 640 kbps (both less than half the resolution of CD) and the original Alan Parsons quad mix (again at ultra-low resolution); another DVD with a documentary and some live footage; a Blu-Ray disc with the Parsons quad mix and the 2003 Guthrie 5.1 mix, both in 96kHz/24-bit (which means you're still better off with the 2003 5.1 SACD); and, finally, another CD with an early 1972 mix by Parsons and some demos and outtakes. Mention must be made of the confusing mixing and mastering history of this album. The stereo layer of the 2003 SACD has two unforgivable mastering flaws: from the very beginning, there's an insistent evil humming sound that is audible in quiet parts, which are the most dramatic and tense parts of the album, and, this is no joke, an unfortunately audible cheesy orchestral version of the Beatles' "Ticket To Ride" on the final fadeout, apparently the result of crosstalk picked up by the circuitry during remastering. These flaws are not apparent on the 5.1 mix layer or on the original 1973 LP (at least not that I've ever hears). Incredibly, the "2011" stereo "remaster" has the exact same problems, which suggests to me that this isn't a remaster at all, but the same exact sloppy remaster from 2003. Most people think "remastered" means "betterized". Here is a definitive example of how this is not always so. How this passed QC is beyond me. #43 on the RS 500 and one of ten landmark albums named by the Vatican's newspaper (!).
Please Please Me, The Beatles (March 22, 1963)
The British Invasion, actually a global revolution, began with Paul McCartney screaming "One, two, three, fah!!!" Please Please Me, with ten of its fourteen songs recorded in a single day, represents, according to John Lennon, "about the nearest it could get to knowing what we sounded like before we became the clever Beatles."
On November 12, 2012, the album was reissued as part of the Stereo Vinyl Box Set on 180-gram vinyl. It's a gorgeous box set that is a reminder of what album art used to be, but it's an underwhelming treatment of vinyl. All that's mentioned in the box is that the records were "sourced" from the 192kHz/24-bit masters. This would lead you to think that the records were cut directly from these masters. Unfortunately, this is not the whole truth. The original master tapes were archived to 192/24. But the remastering work was done in the 44.1kHz/24-bit domain. The remasters were then limited and dithered down to 16-bit for the CD release. The Apple USB contains the limited 44.1/24 files. The vinyls were cut from the original unlimited 44.1/24 remasters, which is the only conceivable advantage to this set. Then again, vinyl has a lower dynamic range than 24-bit, and you get the perennial problems associated with vinyl such as diameter loss. It should also be mentioned that Help! and Rubber Soul were sourced from the 44.1kHz/16-bit remixes George Martin did in the mid-1980s. Furthermore, EMI chose low-budget vinyl manufacturers in Europe and the US as a cost-saving measure, which ended up with tons of botched sets that had to be returned. To me, this mess is a watershed moment that is indicative of a much larger trend: most reissued and newly issued vinyl today is cut from a digital source, not from analogue tape. It can no longer be assumed that just because you have something on vinyl that you're listening to analogue. Nothing is real, indeed. #39 on the RS 500
For Your Pleasure, Roxy Music (March 23, 1973)
Their second album and the last to feature Brian Eno, who would go one to influence music (all of it), For Your Pleasure is also one of Roxy's best. The nearly ten-minute "Bogus Man" is one of the greatest, weirdest songs of the 70s. Featured another classic gatefold sleeve.
The album was flat-mastered to CD as part of the Complete Studio Recordings box set, which was released February 4, 2013. #369 on the RS 500.
Eliminator, ZZ Top (March 23, 1983)
Imagine twiddling knobs on your amplifier for hours on end, until you become a millionaire. That's pretty much what lead-guitarist Billy Gibbons did, creating one of the most distinctive guitar sounds in rock. Why do certain sounds sound so good? I don't know. But I could listen to Billy riff on "Legs", "Gimme All Your Lovin'", and "Sharp Dressed Man" for hours on end. Filled front to back with classic tunes, Eliminator is practically a greatest hits album.
The album was rereleased in 2012 as part of the Original Album Series CD box set, but there appears to be nothing new about the audio. #398 on the RS 500.
For the Beauty of Wynona, Daniel Lanois (March 23, 1993)
Regarded as either one of the greatest-living record producers or one of the worst over-producers (in the tradition of Phil Spector), Grammy-winning Daniel Lanois certainly makes his presence felt on the albums he's produced, including mega-hits by U2 and career-revitalizing albums by Peter Gabriel and Bob Dylan. But Lanois is a brilliant composer and musician in his own right, and one of the greatest guitarists on the planet. Those audiophiles and rock critics who consider his atmospherics to be a corruption of natural sound misunderstand his art, which to use circuitry to channel the human spirit into your ears. Just listen to the sticky bass sound and chiming guitars on "The Unbreakable Chain" to hear that the equipment is being abused for a good cause, to convey the sound of the love and attentiveness in his heart and that ethereal misty beauty he hears in his head. It's not an egotistic style of production. Instead, it's a humility that seeks to serve the music. Both earthy (and natural) and ethereal (chemical), Lanois is a true, uncompromising artist who's music and sound occupies a special place between heaven and earth.
Available on the original CD and LP. **** - AllMusic
The Bliss Album…?, P.M. Dawn (March 23, 1993)
I don't know if these guys only record during magic hour or play only the black keys or what, but "bliss" is the best word to describe their sound. Their brand of hip-hop, with bouncing, complex, subsonic bass lines and chattering percussion (check out "The Ways of the Wind"), creating an unstoppable, hypnotic momentum, is completely unique. P.M. Dawn represent one possible path hip-hop could have taken, with its uplifting and compassionate themes and spiritual mysticism, before violence, money, and misogyny took over the genre.
Later CD pressings are missing the track "So On and So On", one of the best tracks, due to copyright issues, so look for the original. Voted second-best album of 1993 by Entertainment Weekly.
Surfin' USA, The Beach Boys (March 25, 1963)
With its complex, beautiful harmonies, this is where Brian Wilson began to take over as composer and vocal coach. The instrumental "Stoked" was stolen and transformed to "Stoned" by the Rolling Stones later that year.
The album was remastered by Mark Linett and reissued on October 9, 2012. The mono and stereo versions are included on one CD. **** - AllMusic
Houses Of The Holy, Led Zeppelin (March 28, 1973)
A bit less intense than I through IV, Houses sees the band looser than they've ever been and genuinely having fun with funk and reggae influences. There are still mystical musings from Middle Earth, though, such as "Over the Hills and Far Away" and "No Quarter", which is the world's first Radiohead song. The artwork by Hipgnosis was the most epic album cover since The Dark Side of the Moon.
Houses is slated to be rereleased, along with the rest of Led Zeppelin's catalog, later this year. There are no details yet on what the format(s) will be, but it's a safe bet Redbook fans won't be disappointed. At least it will be betterized (we hope). #148 on the RS 500.
Suede, Suede (March 29, 1993)
The fastest-selling debut album in UK history at the time, many consider this the birth of the Britpop phenomenon, although if this is true then The Stone Roses, released in 1989, must be the conception. Looking back, it's odd to think that Radiohead, with their debut album released just the month prior, were completely overlooked by the press and the public in favor of Suede ("The London Suede" in the US due to copyright issues). Today Suede are a mere rumor, while each Radiohead release is a worldwide event. Still, the public and press at the time were right. Suede blows Pablo Honey out of the water, and I can't help but think that Radiohead's inexplicable quantum leap from Pablo to The Bends had something to do with Suede, both in terms of influence and competition. I must admit I was put off at first by the thin, airy sound and Brett Anderson's Bowie-meets-Morrissey vocal style. After repeated listens, however, the album's majestic cathedral of sound has seduced me, and Anderson's voice is wholly his own, a beautiful instrument in its own right. Also, Bernard Butler was one of the greatest, most innovative guitarists of the 90s.
The album was remastered and released as a deluxe CD box set on May 30, 2011. Won the 1993 Mercury Music Prize and listed in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.