Even some of the best LPs play no longer Vitality on vinyl doesn't always mean life on CD

April 04, 1993|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

Face it: The age of the LP is over.

It isn't just that records, so prone to wear and surface noise, have been made obsolete by quiet, durable CDs; the fact of the matter is that old-style LPs have been virtually pushed off the market by the digital revolution. Walk into almost any "record" store, and all you'll see are cassettes and CDs -- even in the singles section. It's as if black vinyl had never existed.

As a result, a lot of music fans are slowly but surely replacing their music libraries with CDs. Granted, it's hard to blame them; who wouldn't prefer the clean sound and convenience that comes with having all of "Blonde on Blonde" or "Exile on Main Street" on a single 5-inch disc?

Lord knows I do. My collection started to go digital in 1984, and I sometimes wonder how I endured the fuss and bother of LPs. Even things like shelving -- no small consideration when your collection is large -- seem simpler when reduced to the 5-by-5-inch world of compact discs.

Yet I still find myself occasionally clearing a couple of stacks of jewel boxes off the top of my turntable to play an LP or two. I don't do it because I prefer the sound of analog vinyl, though many audiophiles do; when I reach for an LP these days, it's because I have no other choice.

Why not? Because not every great album has made its way into the digital bitstream. Whether it's because the album didn't sell well in the first place, was released by a company that went out of business, or is tied up in an ownership dispute, there are still quite a few wonderful albums that exist only as old LPs. And there's a good chance that some of your favorites are among them.

Plenty of mine are. Granted, a number of them would have been doomed to out-of-print obscurity even if CDs hadn't been invented, if only because they never attracted much of an audience in the first place. But popularity isn't the only criterion for CD reissue. A lot of better-known albums remain unavailable, while many equally overlooked albums have somehow sneaked back into the catalog. And the reasons vary.

So, as an exercise, I put together a pile of albums I'd love to see issued on CD, and started checking around. Some actually were back in print, like Keith Jarrett's "Ruta and Daitya," an electric, eclectic 1973 album he cut for ECM with Jack DeJohnette. I figured this one was gone for good, since Jarrett long ago repudiated the electric piano and his recordings thereupon, but "Ruta and Daitya" slipped back into the catalog in February. (Buy one quick -- Jarrett may yet think better of bringing it back out.)

Then there was "Nick Mason's Fictitious Sports," a 1981 release that posed as a solo album by Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason but came on like one of Carla Bley's quirky jazz-pop concoctions (no wonder, since it featured Bley and most of her band). At the time, "Fictitious Sports" seemed like a non-commercial labor of love, and soon after slipped quietly out of the catalog. But last month, the folks at Sony Music Special Projects revived it and the rest of Mason's output -- much to my surprise and delight.

Still, quite a few of my favorites remain gone without a trace -- for reasons both good and bad.

Ray Charles' "Renaissance" (Crossover, 1975), for instance. Seeing as he's one of the great voices of American popular music, you wouldn't think anyone would allow some of Ray Charles' best work to get away, would you? An astonishingly eclectic album, "Renaissance" finds him singing everything from Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City" to "It Ain't Easy Being Green," making it an amazing testament to Charles' versatility and intelligence.

But if you want a copy for yourself, you'd better get it from him. Like everything he recorded between 1961 and 1975, Charles owns the masters, and ultimately controls whether or not the albums will ever be reissued.

Funkadelic's "One Nation Under a Groove" (Warner Bros., 1978). If you caught the Red Hot Chili Peppers performing at the Grammys, you no doubt noticed that midway through "Give It Away," the Chilis and their guests went into a couple of choruses of "One Nation Under a Groove." And maybe you wondered why you hadn't heard that song in a while.

Well, the answer is simple: Warner Bros., which originally released the album, no longer owns it. "We gave it back to George Clinton," says Warner Bros. vice president Bob Merlis. "The right to put that out is not ours." It may not even be Clinton's, given the current legal squabbling over Funkadelic's name. So do what the rap guys do -- stock up on the LP while you can.

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