Category Archives: 2014

Albums of the Year, 2014

I wrote in a previous post that, of late, I’ve been immersed in a deep dive of the past year’s best music in order to anoint my “Album of the Year” – a highly coveted award, I hasten to add. Past winners have included Sid & Susie, Susanna Hoffs, Juliana Hatfield, Neil Young, Steve Earle, Natalie Merchant, Tift Merritt, Paul Simon and Rosanne Cash. The selection process itself is fairly straightforward: I review all that I’ve purchased; and re-listen to those I deem worthy. But now, with 2014 fading fast to black, and as I reflect yet again on all that has passed, I wonder why I bothered.

Sometimes you just know – call it love at first listen. The first notes of the first song seep from the speakers with the grace of an Audrey Hepburn or the grit of a Humphrey Bogart and, well, that’s that. Without listening to the rest, you know that this is it, the one, the set of music that will fill the soundtrack of your life not just for the foreseeable future, but for the rest of it. The way it works with me is quite simple: When the album comes to an end, I play it again. And, as Denny Laine once sang with Wings, again and again and again, after that.

I’m being a tad hyperbolic, of course. Inevitably, another album comes along – think of it as the seven-week itch. Yet, the best albums draw us back, time and again, for the rest of our lives. When I look over my Album of the Year selections, for instance, I’m amazed at how many I still play on a regular, or semi-regular, basis. Natalie Merchant’s Tigerlily, my No. 1 pick for 1995, has been in constant rotation since we saw her in concert in July. And I re-ripped my twin picks for 1985, Lone Justice’s self-titled debut and the Long Ryders’ rollicking State of Our Union, just last weekend and loaded the FLAC files onto my Pono player. They still sound remarkably fresh.

Anyway, any year that sees not one, but two Neil Young releases is a good year for music. The first, A Letter Home, was a very cool collection of covers that he recorded in Jack White’s old-time recording booth. It’s intimate, touching and slightly surreal, akin to a dispatch from the past to the present – or vice versa. The second, Storytone, features Neil, backed by an orchestra, singing from the heart. It was the lesser of the two, in my opinion, but still strong enough to be mentioned here. Call them the Fourth and Fifth Runners-up.

Natalie Merchant’s self-titled album is my No. 3 for the year. I reviewed it before, so shall not dwell on it here. However, the more I listen to it, the more I love it – and I’ve listened to it a lot. “Ladybird” is amazing.

The final runner-up: Rumer’s Into Colour, which was released in England in early November. It’s a heartfelt, at times sublime set that conjures the glorious adult pop of the ‘60s and ‘70s – think the Fifth Dimension, Dionne Warwick and the Carpenters, with a dash of Laura Nyro and TSOP tossed in for good measure. I plan to review it in-depth upon its U.S. release in February, but for now here’s “Reach Out,” one of the stand-out tracks:

And, finally, the Old Grey Cat’s Album of the Year for 2014 should shock absolutely no one. From the moment I clicked on the YouTube video for “Cedar Lane,” which First Aid Kit posted a week or so before the release of Stay Gold, I knew. The song is familiar yet new, somewhat akin to a vintage coat purchased in a secondhand store. It’s comfortable. Stirring. Mesmerizing. The same holds true for Stay Gold as a whole.

I reviewed the album in July, so won’t do so again. But I will add this addendum to my initial thoughts: It’s grown stronger with each listen, and I’ve listened to it at least two hundred times over the past six months. In fact, my only knock against it is the same knock I have against much new music: The dynamic range is flattened out, so the highs and lows are neither high nor low. I’d love to hear them as nature intended – well, I did when I saw them at my Concert of the Year, but hopefully you know what I mean.

Other favorite concerts of 2014: the Bangles, Natalie, Neil and Jackson Browne. Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin were fun, too. And, with that… Happy New Year!

On Albums of the Year & the Pono Player

I’m deep into contemplating my much-ballyhooed Album of the Year honor. On a date yet to be determined, though definitely sometime between Christmas and New Year’s Day, I’ll bestow the award to what I deem to be the top release of 2014. Which means, of course, that I’m sifting through and re-listening to the candidates, and drifting away on the potent melodies therein. I’m cogitating, contemplating, deliberating, pondering and ruminating, as well as chewing, stewing and mulling over the music, and debating the merits of individual selections with Diane and Tyler, our all-knowing feline sage. It’s serious business, a major decision, the kind of thing that keeps me up at night.

(Or, perhaps, not.)

I began the practice in the late ‘70s after reading the year-end picks of music critics. Granted, those scribes had access to much more music than I. Back then, I relied on birthday and Christmas money, plus my allowance, to buy albums. Today, it’s not all that different: I still budget. And, like most folks, that budget often takes a hit from competing needs and wants. Also – I’m 49 years old. Most current music holds no interest to me. So, though I was and am a music obsessive, I don’t pretend to be an all-knowing seer of any particular year’s releases. Specific artists and albums? Yes. Music history in general? Yes. The Top 40, especially of late? No.

I also, from time to time, get it wrong. A great, recent case in point: 2012. I was smitten with Susanna HoffsSomeday album, which was – and remains – as perfect a pop record as I’ve heard. I listened to it again last week and again tonight, in fact, and it’s as wondrous as I remembered, if not better. But my runner-up for that year, Psychedelic Pill by Neil Young & Crazy Horse, has become one of my most-played albums of recent vintage. It’s home to propulsive rhythms, swirling and whirling guitars, and, above all, majestic melodies. To my ears, “Driftin’ Back,” “Ramada Inn” and “Walk Like a Giant” rank with Neil’s greatest works.

Yet, I can’t help but to think that the most important music-related item of the past year hasn’t been a recording, but a player – the Pono Player, to be precise. I wrote about it a few posts ago and now, almost a month later, thought I’d expand upon that initial critique.

First, as I think I said last time out, I am not an audiophile. The emotional raison d’être of music has always superseded “sound quality” for me. Through the years, I’ve enjoyed – some may say obsessed over – music via staticky AM radio, cassettes worn so thin that the music on the flip side seeped through, and muddy vinyl (and later CD) bootlegs. But there’s something magical about unencumbered music. It’s akin to the differences between standard-definition TV and HD. If landscapes in HD look incredible, then high-resolution soundscapes are spectacular.

Sometimes.

The difference is stark when comparing lossy MP3s to the high-resolution FLAC files. The differences between a well-mastered CD (or CD-equivalent ALAC or FLAC files) and high-res ALAC or FLAC files are negligible when listening via my mid-tier, THX-certified Logitech desktop speakers. “Walk Like a Giant” from the high-res (24-bit, 192kHz) Psychedelic Pill that came with my player sounds just about the same to me whether it’s coming from the Pono Player or the ALAC rip of the CD via my MacBook Pro.

I think I hear a difference, but I could be wrong, and if there is a difference it’s not much of one. When moving between the Pono Player and my iPhone 5, however, the difference is obvious. On my mid-tier Bose headphones, the high-res version is a richer experience – similar, in a sense, to comparing an old-school 4×3 TV picture to the now-standard 16×9 widescreen. Likewise, when listening via our decade-old, mid-tier bookshelf system downstairs – “fuller-bodied” springs to mind. The ALAC-encoded “Walk Like a Giant” sounds good via my iPhone, mind you, but the high-res FLAC file via the Pono Player sounds complete. And in my car, there’s no comparison. The high-resolution music sounds immense. (When I upgrade my desktop speakers, which will likely occur mid-2015, I’ll report back.)

I’m still unsure what it is, exactly, that makes the difference. 16- vs. 24-bit? 44.1- vs. 96- or 192kHz? The DAC (digital-to-analog converter) that’s housed in the oblong Pono Player? All of the above? Or a combination of some? I will say this: my CD-equivalent, ALAC-rip of Susanna Hoffs’ Someday sounds fresher, warmer and richer than via my iPhone. “Picture Me” is a pure delight. It’s Beatlesque, beautiful and utterly sweet.

All that said, there are areas where the Pono player could stand improvement. Battery life is one. I don’t think I’ve gotten more than six hours out of a charge. (It’s not a big deal for me, as during the workday I charge it via my work computer, but it may make a difference to others.) Also, file sizes are much larger than typical MP3s or AACs, so larger storage is necessary. It comes with 64GB, and can take up to a 128GB microSD card, but given the low cost of flash memory, why not up the internal to 128GB or even 256GB? A larger screen would be nice, too, so long as it doesn’t negatively impact the battery life.

Now that I’m used to it, the Pono Music World software (used to transfer the digital files to the player) works great – when my Mac sees the player, that is. Sometimes I have to dock and undock it several times before it’s picked up. And while purchasing high-res files from the Pono Music store can be done from within the software, I’ve found it easier to do via a web browser. Navigation in the store, as it’s currently designed, is a chore – it’s not intuitive, and high-res content isn’t readily identifiable until you click onto an album to see the track listing. Of course, like the player, both the software and store are first-generation affairs – I assumed, going in, that some kinks would need to be ironed out.

All that said, when or if the Pono Player gets around to a Version 2, which I hope they do, I’ll spring for it. I’m no audiophile, as I said above, but after listening to high-resolution files and regular CD rips on this first version, I can’t imagine not having one.

Pono Music

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These past few weeks I’ve immersed myself in alternate universes: Fringe, which I’m re-watching, and The Gilmore Girls, which is brand-new to me. One of the things that amuses me about the latter is Lorelei’s stream-of-consciousness/beat-like patter; another is Rory’s friend Lane’s music obsession. In between watching those shows, well, there’ve been the usual suspects: Covert Affairs, Homeland, The Big Bang Theory and Once Upon a Time, plus the occasional Law & Order rerun.

There’s also been plenty of music.

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Back in March, I signed on as a backer of Neil Young’s Pono Kickstarter campaign, pledging for one of the limited-edition Neil Young & Crazy Horse-branded players. “Pono,” for those who don’t know, is Hawaiian for righteous; and the player is definitely that. I wrote a rather long and convoluted post about it, but decided to nix it and start again, beginning with the description from the Pono page:

“The PonoPlayer transports you to a sublime musical experience, from the most delicate passages of a string quartet to the thunderous power of a heavy metal band. This portable audio player uses circuitry taken straight from Ayre’s own top-of-the-line products, costing tens of thousands of dollars, for unparalleled sound quality and unrivaled listening pleasure. Pono supports playback of high-fidelity audio of up to 192kHz/24 bit resolution.”

It’s an audiophile’s version of an iPod, essentially.

Now, some audiophiles will tell you that, long before the shift to MP3s and AACs, digital distilled the warmth out of music. I disagree. A well-mastered CD sounds as good to my ears as vinyl ever did. Natalie Merchant’s self-titled album from this year is a good example. The sound is warm and spacious – phenomenal, actually. But in the early days of CDs, an assortment of variables iced the sound – not all the time, mind you, but often enough. The use of production masters meant for vinyl, for one, resulted in what might best be called “mimeographed audio.” The music was faint, thin and flat, not full and well-rounded. Another variable: nth-generation masters, which – just like nth-generation cassette copies –  sported degraded sound. There are also stories (and they may well be urban legends) of record companies, in those early years, of using cassettes as the source for some CDs in their mad rush to get product out the door.

By the time that was sorted out, the early- to mid-1990s, another variable was introduced: loudness. The volume was pushed to the max in the mastering process, resulting in clipped highs and lows. Dynamic range went out the window, in other words. (See this excellent explanation on CDmasteringservices.com for more information.)

To shift gears for a second: Store-bought MP3s and AACs are generally encoded at 256kbps. That a CD is 1411kbps, consumers are told (often by one another), is beside the point. Compression algorithms ensure that we’ll hear a faithful representation of the source material. So an MP3 or AAC of a subpar track is going to sound equally lousy. Conversely, a great-sounding CD that’s been encoded into MP3s or AAC will, in many instances, sound “good enough.” Almost everyone multitasks these days, after all, and for many people the music is pushed to the background when doing so. I see it in my office, where many folks, including me, often have headphones on while focused on their work; and, at least with me, I’m often so focused that I don’t even hear the music.

But for serious listening “good enough” isn’t good enough. FLAC and the Apple lossless equivalent, ALAC, have always been the way to go. Until now.

In an A-B test pitting the PonoPlayer against my iPhone 5, using my mid-tier Logitech desktop computer speakers and standard-def FLAC and ALAC (Apple Lossless) files of Rumer’s “Dangerous,” “Sam” and “I Am Blessed” (from her new Into Colour album), Pono delivered a wider and deeper soundscape. The music is more visceral, immediate and – dare I say it? – warm; and her luscious vocals are whipped-cream rich. The same’s true when listening with my mid-tier Bose headphones. That’s due, no doubt, to the Pono’s singular focus on audio; unlike a smart phone, it need not be all things to all people.

A quick comparison to my MacBook Pro with the same files, however, reveals a negligible difference. If I wasn’t the one hitting stop and start, I likely wouldn’t have known which was which.

Where the Pono has the edge: Its ability to handle high-resolution audio. That means 24 bit and up to 192kHz vs. the iPhone’s CD-quality 16 bit/44.1kHz limitation and the MacBook’s native 24 bit/96kHz support. Theoretically speaking, the high-resolution files should be akin to the original studio masters, with no limits on the highs or lows, and no compression.

It’s been said (and proven) that humans can’t hear all the additional frequencies included in high-resolution tracks, and I am one who believes in science. But there is a difference. The deluxe Paul McCartney reissues, which I’ve religiously purchased since they began in 2010, come with 24 bit, 96kHz “unlimited” downloads in addition to the physical CDs. The opening tracks of the high-res Venus & Mars reveals a slightly richer, well-rounded sound – that’s evident via listening on my MacBook, but on the PonoPlayer they sound even better. And the same result is had when comparing the 24 bit, 192kHz version of Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s Psychedelic Pill, which came with the player, to my Apple Lossless version.

Comparing the high-resolution tracks to MP3s of the same source material, however, is akin to comparing day to night. Joni Mitchell’s Blue is a sheer revelation; you hear the vibrato of the plucked guitar strings. It’s magical. And Dusty Springfield’s classic Dusty in Memphis conjures the smell of new vinyl.

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At present, the biggest issue I’ve had hasn’t been the player or its sound, but the PonoMusic ecosystem. The software is somewhat clunky, especially for one coming from iTunes or Windows Media Player; and the store, though well stocked of standard-resolution content, lacks much of the same high-resolution material that can be had elsewhere (HDTracks.com) – and is a tad overpriced. I expect both to change in the coming months, however, as more people sign on.

Oh, and one more thing: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere rocks. It’s the best version of that classic (one of my Top 10 albums of all time) I’ve ever heard.

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