In 1978, when Dire Straits released their first album, Dire Straits, punk and new wave were rising, and disco’s days were numbered. A glance at the albums released that year, however, shows that there was still interest in the roots-based music that was Dire Straits’ specialty. Mark Knopfler, Dire Straits’ songwriter and lead singer, wrote songs that took in jazz, folk, blues, and more, and his lead-guitar playing was imaginative and elegant. Guitar heroes by then were unfashionable, but Knopfler’s emphasis on melody over flash and his skills as a composer made his band -- younger brother and rhythm guitarist David Knopfler, bassist John Illsley, and drummer Pick Withers -- stand out from the pack.
My first best-of-the-decade list was a defensive reaction to the frequently revived notion that jazz is dying, or worse. Those kinds of negative notions were swirling again in 2009, so I decided to look back at the recordings that had caught my ear over the previous ten years.
This year is the 80th anniversary of Blue Note Records, the venerable jazz label established by Alfred Lion and Max Margulis in 1939. While other record companies played important roles in documenting jazz, Blue Note’s presence in the marketplace overshadows them. It’s doubtful that any other jazz label is better known, or has more recordings currently available in various formats -- the number of Blue Note titles in circulation on CD, as downloads, or on recent vinyl pressings is staggering. Blue Note is also a favorite of audiophile reissue labels, several of which have licensed albums from its catalog to release as new LPs.
Twenty-five years after Frank Zappa’s death from prostate cancer at age 52, it’s still difficult to assess his career, in part because it was so multifaceted. Composer, guitarist, satirist, free-speech activist -- Zappa had many sides, and while they often overlapped, it’s easier to appreciate each of them separately: he was almost compulsively prolific. In his last 27 years he released 64 albums, many of them multi-disc sets, and since then the Zappa Family Trust has released an additional 49 albums, bringing the total of available Zappa releases to 111.
By the early 1970s, rock music was firmly established as a cultural force, and the influx of cash from increased album sales gave record companies incentive to try new things. It was a time when musicians beyond category, such as Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa, could have recording contracts with a major label. The ambition of bands both famous and obscure over the previous five years had opened the minds of listeners to all kinds of possibilities, and that willingness to permit and encourage experimentation extended to pop music of all genres. Stevie Wonder, to choose just one example, released some of his most ambitious and groundbreaking recordings in the early ’70s.
Newvelle Records is a Paris-based label that offers jazz recordings on vinyl by subscription. For an annual fee of $400 (plus shipping), the subscriber receives a newly recorded LP every other month and, at the end of the year, a handsome, heavyweight slipcase to store them all in. This year is the third for this service, but you can buy each of the previous annual collections, while still available, for the same price as the subscription.
The recent launch of Schiit Audio’s Loki equalizer, which I first saw at the 2017 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, inspired me to rethink some of the ideas I’ve long held about audio. The Loki provides a simple, affordable ($149 USD) way to alter the sound of the music you’re listening to. That the Loki is one of only a handful of equalizers ever marketed to audiophiles spotlights a paradox in high-end audio: It’s generally considered verboten to use an equalizer to change the sound of the music you’re listening to, but it’s perfectly OK -- and, in some camps, preferred -- to alter the sound of music through the use of speakers and electronics that add their own sonic color. Check out the comments sections on audio websites and you’ll see that many audiophiles shun the most scientifically advanced, sonically transparent speakers (PSBs, Revels, etc.) and embrace speakers with demonstrably colored sounds -- such as any model using a full-range dynamic driver.
When I got into high-end audio, around 1990, I was attracted to its focus on achieving more realistic reproduction of the music that has been my passion since I was eight or nine years old. But I’m starting to feel that high-end audio now often aims at a different goal.
I’d thought that the measuring of headphones was improving, but some recent developments have made me not so sure. Last year, the introduction of some excellent new lab gear made it possible for experienced engineers and technicians to make more useful measurements than ever before. But the introduction of some very cheap, nonstandard measurement gear has made it possible for almost anyone to make headphone measurements that are less useful than ever before.
My recent review of the Monoprice Monolith M300 earphones, and my friend Steve Guttenberg’s review of the M300s on CNet, have raised a timely question. The M300s seem to be a knockoff of one of Audeze’s iSine planar-magnetic earphone models, but they arrived so soon after the iSines’ introduction that it makes me wonder if some third party isn’t dealing to both sides. The provenance of the tech products we buy is increasingly unclear, a situation that prompts me to ponder: Today, what does a brand mean?