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The Beginner’s Guide to Vinyl

Or, how to get hi-fi street cred without really trying

It’s time to get reacquainted with hi-fi sound. We’re not talking about those tinny red boxes they used to sell at Urban Outfitters. Think back to the days when alcoholism and philandering were generally tolerated, if not encouraged (as long as you were male, that is). Would Don Draper let a UO “turntable” take up residence on his stylish rosewood credenza? The answer is no. Hell no, even. If you want to be considered an audiophile (or just hang out with them), you’d better listen closely.

As many point to vinyl as the gold standard of pure, unadulterated sound, it seems like a good enough place to start. The Renaissance of Records, so to speak, has enjoyed a long gestation period. Vinyl is great, for many reasons—one being the calming, ritual-like quality of the process. But is it actually better? That depends on your components.

If you’re going to do it right, you have to treat home audio like home theater. Seemingly no one has a problem jamming surround speakers, and their labyrinthine wires, directly into walls in the holy name of movies. Similarly, if you love music, you’ll need to invest in the following: a stereo amp, a pair of speakers, and a legit turntable (or source of some kind). Just keep in mind that in the campaign for “Smaller and Lighter!” the importance of power, speaker size and spacing are oft ignored. Ipso facto, stifle your surprise when the life-altering listening experience you were hoping for doesn’t come from something the size of a shoebox.

Is vinyl the end-all? Hardly. MP3s on your laptop will ripple with newfound nuances when played through a proper stereo. Yet, there’s something undeniably alluring about setting that needle that makes parties more memorable. And, hey, nothing aids a romantic evening with a new flame like the proper soundtrack lingering in every corner of the room, preventing those inevitable gaps in conversation from becoming too unbearably awkward.

Once you get your setup straight, you’ll need something to set the mood, hence the reason we’ve compiled this list of five masterfully recorded and engineered albums. Consider it a jumping-off list. You’re welcome.

1. Steely Dan, Aja

Many will deride this as yacht rock. It’s not. That would be far too lofty praise for the average yachtsman (or woman). Aja is the pinnacle of the “California sound,” complete with impeccable artistry, jazz DNA and razor wit so surgically sharp you won’t notice when it cuts you.

2. Fleetwood Mac, Tusk

Dismissing Lindsey Buckingham as a simple pop singer contradicts the depth of his talent. Besides being a guitar maniac and a brilliant songwriter, he’s one of the best producers of his era. Tusk wasn’t the commercial atom bomb that Rumours was, but it’s no less interesting. Every big-name band goes for a double album at some point, and, surprise, they tend to be more challenging. Tusk is no different, shifting thematically and stylistically through its two-disc recording master class.

3. The Allman Brothers Band, At Fillmore East

The Allman Brothers Band is generally counted among the first Southern rock bands, though Gregg Allman himself never took to the term. The Allmans were as close to genre-less as could be, mixing blues, jazz, rock and folk into a cocktail more delicious than any bartender could craft. This recording of the 1971 concert is a veritable historical document, capturing the band at its best, before tragedy struck.

4. Beck, Sea Change

Beck stumbled his way to the pop podium with lo-fi takes on hip-hop tracks, “Loser” and “Where It’s At.” In spite of the immense popularity of both, Beck still views himself as more of a folk singer. Sea Change was his major coming-out party. Audiophiles consider it one of the best-sounding albums of all time. That’s high praise from a notoriously finicky group.

5. Herbie Hancock, Head Hunters

While Hancock didn’t invent jazz-funk, he certainly brought it to quick maturity with the knottiest, funkiest band ever to accompany a jazz immortal. Pioneering the synthesizer as an improvisational tool, Hancock and his band shred through four irresistibly funky jams on this memorable album.

Michael Nissenbaum is a lawyer by day (and night), and a writer by night (and day). You can follow him on Twitter @gnarsenbaum.


Photography by Veer

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