Now that the holiday shopping season is in full swing, we here at HRAC will be serving up a number of installments of our specialized Holiday Gift Guide, with a focus on recommended gifts and gear for the discerning listener (i.e., you). In our first go-round, herewith are a titanic vinyl box set and a quite British collection sure to get you into the critical listening spirit.
Sting: The Studio Collection
This career-spanning vinyl LP box set featuring all of Sting’s seminal solo studio albums brought together for the first time — and it’s also the perfect companion to his just-released 57th & 9th album, which features one of my favorite songs of 2016, the quite poignant “50,000.”
The Studio Collection (A&M/UMe) includes eight albums across eleven discs: The Dream Of The Blue Turtles (1985), …Nothing Like The Sun (1987; double LP), The Soul Cages (1991), Ten Summoner’s Tales (1993), Mercury Falling (1996), Brand New Day (1999; double LP), Sacred Love (2003; double LP), and The Last Ship (2013). Both Brand New Day and Sacred Love are making their vinyl debuts.
All of the included 180-gram LPs appear in exact replicas of the original artwork presented in an exceptional slipcase package, with brand new vinyl masters cut at Abbey Road Studios.
This is a personally welcomed collection. While I bought the entire Police catalog on vinyl as it was released, subsequently upgrading to CD and SACD accordingly in the ensuing years (the latter format being especially welcome for its hi-res stereo and surround-sound mixes), I’ve only had Sting’s solo catalog on CD, DVD-Audio, and SACD. I’m quite looking forward to dropping the needle on tracks like Turtles‘ “Russians” (as relevant today as ever) and “Fortress Around Your Heart,” Sun‘s “Englishman in New York,” “They Dance Alone,” and “Fragile” (three of my favorite Sting solo tracks), Tales‘ “Fields of Gold” and “Love Is Stronger Than Justice,” Mercury‘s “I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying,” Brand New Day‘s “Desert Rose” (of course!), “Fill Her Up,” and the title track (with those magical Stevie Wonder harmonica runs), and Sacred Love‘s “Stolen Car” — for starters. O mighty turntable, bring on thy Sting!
The Human League: A Very British Synthesizer Group
When attempting to describe The Human League, their one-time manager, Bob Last, puts it best: “Pop music is a kind of lightning conductor for what’s going on. When it’s at its most exciting, it beats everything else; it beats film, beats books, and beats TV. These [are] magical moments when it pulls something out of the ether, out of what’s going on in everyone’s head and everyone’s lives, and focuses it. That’s what pop does at its best, and that’s what The Human League did.”
A Very British Synthesizer Group (Virgin/UMe) is a majestic Human League anthology featuring all the hits, and more. I wound up coming late to the party when I started buying HL CDs in the ’90s, but I always had a soft spot for the vocal blending of Philip Oakey, Susan Ann Sulley, and Joanne Catherall, and especially the sounds they got on tracks like the ubiquitous “Don’t You Want Me,” “Mirror Man,” “Love Action,” “(Keep Feeling) Fascination” (with that loping bass line that meshes so well with the lead synth line), and “Human” (with that great, muscular percussive backing track courtesy of the of-the-moment ’80s producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis).
The two-CD Deluxe Edition and three-LP box set versions cover the history of the group in 30 songs, including seven previously unreleased DJ edits from the earliest incarnation to 1981’s Dare and all that followed, including their work with the aforementioned Jam and Lewis, the return to being a live act, and the glamorous robotic pop of 2011’s Credo. Both packages include a 20-page booklet featuring a new essay by David Buckley, plus rare memorabilia and photographs. The three-LP box set includes special vinyl discs mastered at half-speed at Abbey Road Studios.
A Very British Synthesizer Group features the distinctive artwork of acclaimed Sheffield artist Pete McKee (as seen above), who says of the group, “The Human League’s look was totally unique and innovative, and it also provided one of those jaw-dropping moments on Top of the Pops that made your Dad angry, but inspired you. The League were unashamedly a pop band, but also had that edge that made them credible, The girls were no-nonsense working-class lasses who became fashion icons in their own right. [Their] makeup, hair, and clothes were imitated in night clubs and youth clubs across the country, but few boys dared to copy Phil’s hair and stiletto heels. It was a pleasure to work on the artwork for this fantastic anthology. I wanted to capture the League as the style and fashion icons who had such an impact on so many of us during the ’80s.”
The last word on The Human League goes to HL vocalist Susan Ann Sulley: “People think pop music is X Factor, and we’re still hankering after a Roxy-Bowie-Donna Summer-Chic version of pop. We don’t fit in. There are three of us, two of whom have never written a song and are pretty average singers, plus we’ve got a lead singer who doesn’t consider himself a singer at all, and can’t play any instruments very well. And yet we still think of ourselves as a pop group. If a market-research group got hold of us, they’d change absolutely everything. We shouldn’t have gone on as long as we have; we should have ‘gone rock’ by now, like Depeche Mode, Simple Minds, and U2 did. But we’re still a pop group.”