These are trying and distracting times, and they’re likely to get worse before they get better. One thing that’s helped me “deal” has been reducing my TV time. I dropped CATV last year, and the recovery of mindshare has been notable. There’s been a lot less “white noise,” and a significant increase in clearer thinking.
I always have found comfort and solace in music — singing it, playing it and listening to it. My formative music was jazz. My parents owned a small club when I was a toddler, and I guess it’s now safe to let Child Services know that I was often put to bed behind the bar in that smoke-filled space. A bit later, when I was about six, my mother took me to hear Andres Segovia in concert, and I fell in love with the classical guitar — which I studied (unsuccessfully) for about 14 years.
I suck at the guitar, but there was a time when I was a better-than-average singer. I sang with the Yale Russian Chorus, the Cathedral Choral Society and other large and small groups during college, law school and afterwards. In addition, I inherited an addiction to hi-fi from my father, who built his first audiophile rig (turntable and electronics from kits; speakers homemade with University drivers) when I was about four. I’ve always had a “record player”, and still have the first LP my father gave me as a child — Several Shades of Jade by the vibraphonist Cal Tjader.
Anyway, I’ve been powering down over the holidays with music, and thought I’d share (in no particular order) some of the albums that stuck with me this year. I don’t know that any of these was recorded in 2016, but I listened to them in 2016, which is what counts.
Note: Almost all of this music is available in CD quality through the $25/month TIDAL music service. TIDAL is like Spotify, but because it’s lossless (CD quality), it sounds better. If you have an internet-connected device and a good pair of earbuds or headphones (which I’ll recommend below), there’s no longer a reason to own a CD library. Gitchu some TIDAL (which will work across your phone, tablet and laptop/desktop computer), and tell ’em I sent you!
Jimmy Scott: All The Way. I’m listening to this album as I write this article. It’s heartbreaking, as is the story behind Mr. Scott.
Flora Purim: Flora Purim Sings Milton Nascimento. One of the world’s great vocalists sings songs by one of the world’s great songwriters. (in Brazilian Portuguese)
Bebel Gilberto: Momento. She’s got the DNA for it, and takes bossa nova to the next level — bossa nova nova? (in English and Brazilian Portuguese)
Lindsey Webster: Back To Your Heart. Lindsey Webster’s been around for a few years, but I just discovered her a couple of weeks ago. She’s from the lower Hudson Valley area of New York, and probably performs in the City, so I’ll try to catch her live sometime.
Gene Ammons: Boss Tenor. A jazz classic that’s beautifully performed and recorded.
Aaron Copeland: Fanfare for the Common Man, Appalachian Spring & Symphony No. 3 (Minnesota Orchestra). This Reference Recordings version of classic Copeland will blow your mind. Check it out.
Catherine Russell: Harlem On My Mind. I believe this album is new this year. It’s both masterly and fun.
Mario Biondi and the High Five Quintet: Handful of Soul. A joyful album that will pick you up and sweep you along with its spirit. Listen to this, and you will be cool.
Ismael Lo: Jammu Africa. A hauntingly beautiful album from this Senagalese singer. (in several languages, including French and English)
Luther Vandross: Never Too Much. Nothing new here, except for the fact that seven of the eight tracks on Luther’s debut album went on to become classics. This is what pop/R&B was like when singers could actually…you know…sing.
The Fairfield Four: Standing In the Safety Zone. There actually are five members of the Fairfield Four. The average age is about 100, but this gospel a cappella group gets it done. I consider their version of every song on this album to be definitive.
Somi: The Lagos Music Salon. An East African in Nigeria via New York City, Somi has assembled an outstanding album of exquisite singing and musicianship — reinterpreting a Nina Simone classic (as below), and mixing in lots of other great stuff.
Okay, that’s the first 12 I could think of, but there are probably 30 to 40 more. Start with these and let me know what you think.
Budget Audiophilia: A Quick Guide
Digital files and streaming services; smartphones and good, inexpensive headphones; earbuds and outboard digital-to-analog converters mean that anybody can put together a killer “system” for not that much money.
The most expensive piece is the smartphone, which you probably already have for other reasons. Bear in mind that these recommendations apply to smartphones, tablets and/or laptops or desktops — anything connected to the internets (which I think is a series of tubes).
To your internet-capable device, add:
- TIDAL lossless (CD quality) streaming service. About 30 million tracks and growing, including curated playlists and exclusive videos (which I haven’t even gotten to yet). TIDAL is the darling of the audiophile community, and well worth the premium price over Spotify and other “lossy” or compressed file streaming services. $25/month.
- SoundMagic E10C earbuds. Read the review here. Buy them from Amazon for $50 (just do it). I own a pair, so believe me now and thank me later. Consider augmenting your order with a pair of Comply T-400 replacement memory foam tips for $15 from Amazon. The Comply tips will give you a better fit, which will deliver better bass from the SoundMagics.
That’s it! You’re done. But if you want to take things a step further, consider the recommendations below:
- iPhone or laptop/desktop upgrade: Adding an outboard digital-to-analog converter to your iPhone or laptop/desktop will deliver sound previously unavailable for less than several thousand dollars. The best outboard DAC for the least amount of money is the $99 AudioQuest Dragonfly Black USB DAC/headphone amp. The size of a USB thumb drive, it plugs into your…you guessed it…USB output — circumventing the 5-cent digital-to-analog converter that’s built into your iPhone or laptop/desktop, and feeding you a level of sound quality that has to be heard to be believed. I own one o’ these, too. To use the Dragonfly (or any USB DAC) with your iPhone, you’ll need a $29 Lightning-to-USB Camera Adapter from your Apple Store.
- Earbud upgrade: There are tons of earbuds on the market, and choosing among them is nearly impossible because nobody stocks them for comparison listening. You just have to read the reviews and trust recommendations from people who seem to know what they’re talking about. I recommend the Focal Sphear (which, you guessed it, I own) for the best combination of sound quality and comfort for the money. As of this writing (01/01/17) Amazon is blowing these out for $79.95 (down from $149.95 retail) for Prime members. B&H Photo also has them for $79.95 (down from their regular price of $129.95, and I see that other online retailers have them for at or near that price. They must have been discontinued, so grab a pair at this price while you can. No need for Comply memory foam tips with the Focals, as they come with a Focal-branded pair. With the Focals at $79.95, you should buy those over the $50 SoundMagics.
- Headphone upgrade: Headphones are tough, because even those advertised as compatible with portable devices often require more power than a portable can supply. If you’re listening via laptop/desktop with a USB DAC, a pair of Oppo PM-3 planar magnetic ‘phones (which I own) will treat you right. Though not inexpensive ($399), they are extremely high value — comparable, in my opinion, to other offerings up to the low four-figure price range. However, the Oppos do not come fully into their own when used with portable devices — despite what Oppo says. I use mine with a very powerful headphone amplifier connected to my main system. If you’re using your phone, you’ll do better with the far less expensive (especially today) Focal Sphears at $79.95, or even the $50 SoundMagics. With the Focals at $79.95, you should buy those over the $50 SoundMagics. Again, believe me now and thank me later.
That’s all for now. I hope you enjoy the music I’ve highlighted, and I look forward to your comments.