Mark Smotroff cut his teeth doing PR for Sony and Sharp in the '80s in New York before moving to San Francisco in the '90s to drive a new wave of passion for video games with Sega, Acclaim Entertainment, 3DO, US Gold, and many others. Mark spent much of the first decade of this 21st century spreading the gospel about surround sound technologies for DTS, including the launch of DTS-HD Master Audio.
His knowledge of music and technology has also been put to good use a music reviewer and feature writer for numerous publications. In the 1990s, Mark wrote for EQ Magazine, Mix Magazine, and DISCoveries Magazine. More recently, he has contributed to AudiophileReview.com, HomeTheaterReview.com, Sound+Vision Magazine, and Big Picture Big Sound.
2015 was an interesting year for great-sounding and great-looking music-related releases across many formats and genres, from LPs to CDs to surround sound Blu-ray discs and high-resolution downloads. Here is a look at some of my faves from this past year. You can read more in-depth reviews of many of these picks over on our sister site, AudiophileReview.com.
The Beatles #1 +: Beatles fans need this. Music historians need this. Or if you just want to watch some fun videos from the dawn of rock 'n' roll, The Beatles #1 + is a great place to start. It features all 27 number-one hits plus an additional 23, totaling 50 complete videos. (Note: if 50 is too many, you can get the single-disc version with just the 27 number-one hits.) Mostly lovingly transferred to high-resolution audio and video, many of the promotional films have been digitally cleaned up and are appearing in uncut form for the first time here. The real treat for us home theater enthusiasts is, of course, hearing The Fab Four in 5.1 surround sound. Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!
Cheek to Cheek Live!, Tony Bennett & Lady Ga Ga: Lady Ga Ga impresses me on this live concert release. The sound of the Blu-ray Disc is good in a crisp modern manner; it's even warm at times, offering a nice concert-hall ambience. The disc delivers the sort of fine details and rich colors that one has come to expect from a modern concert production. But the real stars are in the performances: Tony is in fine form--he is the senior pop jazz statesman of our times--and Lady Ga Ga shines! I noticed her embracing the swing and zing of popular singers past to complement Tony's legendary finesse, so I had to smile as I heard echoes of Streisand, Garland, Minnelli, and others. Cheek to Cheek Live! is a great starting point for Lady Ga Ga's career reinvention and for turning on a new generation of listeners to the joys of theater music, pop-jazz, and much of the great American songbook.
The Wrecking Crew: Denny Tedesco's brilliant documentary about the under-appreciated (and mostly uncredited) musicians behind a remarkable number of 1960s pop recordings, The Wrecking Crew is an essential view. The Wrecking Crew (as they have come to be known) were the hottest studio musicians of the day, playing on a vast majority of hit sessions for The Beach Boy, The Byrds, Simon & Garfunkel, The Fifth Dimension, and many more. The spectacular soundtrack comes alive with nifty bursts of surround sound. Even with the intercutting of low-resolution footage and old film clips from the '60s, the overall effect is mesmerizing. A must-see on Blu-ray Disc or DVD.
Roxy: The Movie by Frank Zappa: They finally fixed it! Technical glitches have kept this fabulous concert film in the vaults since 1973. And even though the movie has possibly been visually (digitally?) cleaned up a bit too much, the music and performances are so spectacular that these nitpicks are a non-issue. Roxy: The Movie is easily the best Frank Zappa concert film to date, presenting the genius composer/musician at one of his peaks.
Surround Sound Audio-Only Releases
Gentle Giant's Octopus and The Power and the Glory: Producer Steven Wilson brings two prog-rock landmarks into the 21st century on Blu-ray Disc in wonderful 5.1 surround sound (plus remixed stereo and other bonuses). These audio-centric Blu-ray discs have wonderful images playing onscreen to keeping your TV screen refreshed and your eyes as engaged as your ears. On Octopus, we are treated to footage of a real Octopus slithering around the screen. On The Power and the Glory, compelling animated music videos sync with the music to help tell the underlying story. Not simply reissues, these are album reinventions.
Fragile by Yes: Yes, another Yes recording in the band's ongoing catalog restoration program has been revived/reinvented/restored by Steven Wilson, and this time it's the band's 1971 smash hit breakthrough Fragile. Neatly mixed into a new 5.1 surround sound mix, the reissue remains true to the intention of the original album yet with newfound clarity. The package includes hi-res versions of every imaginable variation on the album: from a needle-drop off an original UK LP pressing to the very different earlier 5.1 surround mix (which appeared briefly on the failed DVD-Audio Disc format in 2002). Essential for the Yes fan.
XTC's Oranges & Lemons: Swindon, England's finest export achieved pop superstar status in the late 1980s, and this was one of their finest releases. Newly remastered and remixed/reinvented in 5.1 surround sound by (yes, again) Steven Wilson, this deluxe Blu-ray Disc is a treasure trove of alternate takes, unreleased tracks, and live recordings. It's great fun, too!
David Gilmour's Rattle That Lock: A fine new album from Pink Floyd's (arguably) spiritual leader is a modern-day Pink Floyd album in all but name. Stunning animation for the title track on the Blu-ray Disc deluxe version and a fine high-resolution 5.1 surround mix make this a must-get release for the audiophile/videophile Floyd fan.
New Music You May Not Have Heard Before
Pugwash's Play This Intimately (As if Among Friends): On this fine (and hopefully big breakthrough) album by Dublin's pop purveyors named Pugwash, lush harmonies support Thomas Walsh's lovely, rich voice to create a modern-day pop classic with a vintage vibe. If you liked The Kinks, Badfinger, The Beatles, The Monkees, Big Star, XTC, The Raspberries, and every bubblegum band that ever existed, you need to listen to Pugwash. The LP version is pressed on lovely red vinyl; it's also available as a standard CD and MP3 download.
Dungen's Allas Sak: Ever wonder what it might have been like to have seen a band from London's psychedelic underground in the late 1960s--a scene that spawned bands like Pink Floyd and The Soft Machine? If you like vintage 60s psychedelic sounds, Dungen's Allas Sak will answer that question as they rock you, replete with moody keyboards, swirling electric guitars, flutes, congas, saxophones, and multi-part harmonies. It's heady stuff, yet very welcoming. Dungen is a remarkably accessible and fun band, even with the English language barrier (they are from Sweden and sing in their native tongue).
Leon Bridges' Coming Home: This is a modern soul and R&B recording with a seriously vintage vibe. The album proudly bears the sonic footprint of classic records from the early to mid '60s, and Mr. Bridges' voice sounds like Sam Cooke channeling a young Marvin Gaye. Not a bad place to start. But it is the songs that will grab you: Coming Home features classic pop songwriting with verses, bridges, and hooks. The album and download sound pretty great overall, with a live-in-the-studio sensibility that one doesn't hear much (if at all) these days. Get it.
Alone in the Universe by Jeff Lynne's ELO: A new record by Jeff Lynne and ELO is a welcome treat. Perhaps blurring the lines a bit across all his influences, from The Beatles to The Traveling Wilburys, Alone in the Universe is nonetheless a fine addition to the ELO catalog and a nice precursor to the upcoming world tour. Welcome back, Jeff. We missed ya! On LP, CD, and download.
The Goastt's Midnight Sun: This album takes cues from a heady melting-pot brew of pop and psychedelia; I hear echoes of The Pretty Things, The Move/ELO, Pink Floyd, The Kinks, Emitt Rhodes, Squeeze, and so many others. Soaring electric guitars go head to head with Vaudevillian/British music-hall sensibilities on this fine album by The Goastt (aka The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger). That this band is headed by Sean Lennon (as in John Lennon's son) makes this fine release all the more special, but really it stands on its own and has very little (if anything) to hint that this music comes from a son of a Beatle. It comes on great-sounding, quiet, well-pressed, multi-colored vinyl, to boot!
King Crimson's Thrak Box: Imagine an entire multi-disc (CD, DVD-Audio, and Blu-ray) boxed set dedicated to one album from 1995, featuring the double-trio incarnation of one of the most challenging progressive rock groups in music history: two drummers, two guitarists, and two bass players. Pit these impossibly talented musicians against all manner of intense complex compositions, and you have the essence of King Crimson's Thrak Box. Standouts include a spectacular Blu-ray disc that contains two full (visually dark but great-sounding) live concerts from the period (San Francisco and Japan), a 5.1 remix of the studio album (Thrak), loads of outtakes, and audio-only concert recordings. With fidelity ranging from great to spectacular, the only challenge with this set is finding the time to explore it all. This is not a one-sitting boxed set. You'll be coming back for more Thrak! Vroom! and B'boom!
Bruce Springsteen, The Album Collection 1973-1984: The Boss' entire catalog (up to Born in the USA) has been lovingly revived to sound (arguably) better than the original releases, thanks in part to Plangent Processes' tape-restoration process. I've only heard a few of these reissues on high-resolution download (including Greetings From Asbury Park and Born to Run), but so far but they sound fantastic. Nebraska was the biggest surprise, revealing incredible details (for what was originally a cassette-multitrack home recording) on the 192-kHz/24-bit download. The LPs are supposed to sound great, too (I have yet to get them), but I do know that the CDs sound excellent, all things considered. Classic music sounding better than ever. Also keep an eye out for official high-resolution downloads of Bruce's concert archives (old and new shows, also restored via Plangent Processes). I checked out one from 1978 (Cleveland), and it sounded wonderful.
Andrew Gold Live 1978: The good folks at Omnivore Records unearthed a gem here, finding Linda Rondstadt's one-time arranger/producer and the writer of several mid-'70s pop gems rocking out live in Los Angeles. The thing that sold me on this collection as essential listening is his spectacular cover of The Beatles' "Dr. Robert." Here Mr. Gold pulls off a complex cover version way before it was common for bands to cover Beatles songs properly (as many do these days). And yeah, this is the guy who wrote that song that became the theme song for The Golden Girls' TV sitcom in the 1980s: "Thank You for Being a Friend of Mine." A fun listen.
Wes Montgomery's In The Beginning: A great archival boxed set (on vinyl and CD) of previously unheard early recordings by the late and massively influential guitarist Wes Montgomery. It includes embryonic live recordings showcasing the emergence of his chordal soloing technique and also unreleased recordings produced by none other than Quincy Jones. Mastered by Bernie Grundman and pressed at RTI, this is a great one for fans of jazz guitar.
Zero 7's Simple Things: Every now and then, a recording jumps up and grabs me by the throat with a fine combination of melodic hooks and cool production aesthetics. Simple Things by Zero 7 is one such album that I discovered last year upon its first-time issue on vinyl. A nice mix of real instruments (strings, live drums, guitars, and such) and sampled/synthesized sounds, this album was originally only on CD. Now on LP, it is spread out over two nice, thick, perfectly centered, dead-quiet 180-gram black vinyl records. Call it down-tempo, call it chill-wave. Whatever. I'll put it this way: if you liked the way Beck blended grooves with acoustic flavors on his brilliant Grammy-winning Morning Phase album from 2014, then you need to hear a track like "Destiny," which sounds almost like a blueprint for Beck. I mean this in the best possible way, mind you. The best album from the year 2000 that I (and perhaps many of you) never heard before...
The Ladder by Yes: Yes, there are two Yes recordings in this roundup, but the real heroes on this one are the good folks at Music On Vinyl, who did a stellar job resurrecting and reinventing this 1999 gem from the legendary prog rockers for a (pretty much) first-time appearance on vinyl. An underrated gem in the Yes catalog, The Ladder sounds tremendous on LP, way better than the original CD release.
Are there any gems you've been listening to lately that we should know about? Share them in the Comments section below.
• Making Show Demos More Compelling for Real-World Consumers at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Apple Rumored to Be Launching 24/96 Streaming in 2016 at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Six AV Trends We're Thankful For at HomeTheaterReview.com.