There’s been a smattering of talk around the internet these past few weeks about the degree to which 180-gram vinyl—heavier and thus more expensive than the normal stuff—is or is not simply a marketing ploy used by record labels to convince consumers that they’re getting something of higher, “audiophile” quality. One of the discussions started when the Captured Tracks label posted a note on their Facebook page stating, “40 [grams] of extra plastic does not make a record sound better... It was started to get people to buy the same record they already have, and now it’s convinced everyone that $19 is a fair price. We feel you’d rather save $4-$6.” As of this writing, the note has been “liked” over a hundred times, and there are 41 comments, most of them positive.
On that same day, July 8, there was a post on Village Voice music blog Sound of the City that listed Rhino’s new 180g reissues of the first four Ramones albums as proof that “the concept of ‘punk’ has reached an awkward age.” The joke, of course, is that the thought of something as crude as early punk rock ever being associated with the term “audiophile” is laughable, an affront to the very basis of the genre. The author of the post, Maura Johnston, reached out to some music writer friends for reaction, and the responses included a dismissive, “haha indeed” and a piss-taking, “I bet there are some Tommy production tricks in there that people will dig.”
Both Captured Tracks and Sound of the City raise interesting points, but neither paints the whole picture. Plenty of people will tell you that the extra weight makes it less likely that the record will warp, or that it allows the record to sit flatter on your turntable, which in turn causes the stylus to track more smoothly. These things can and likely will be argued forever, which may well be the ultimate proof that the difference, if there’s any at all, is negligible. And it’s worth noting that the difference in cost to produce them is as well. At most of the pressing plants I looked at, the bump up to 180g only costs about a dollar. If the mark-up is substantially higher, then yes, someone’s making a bunch of money.
But there’s something else at play too: With the Ramones reissues especially, you have to view “audiophile” as a relative term. When used to describe a piece of gear or a particular pressing, it merely implies that the sounds it produces are as close to the source material as possible, whether that means something as fussed-over and theoretically rewarding as Sgt. Pepper’s or, yes, even something as straightforward as the debut from The Ramones. It’s been nearly 35 years since the album was originally released, and it stands to reason that for a good portion of that time, many of the people who had original copies weren’t taking great care of them, causing sound quality to degrade considerably. So sure, you could dig and dig and dig for mint copies, but chances are better that the ones you’ll come across will be dusty and/or scratched. And let’s not kid ourselves: the cost of used vinyl has gone up in recent years too. It’s common to see records like this fetch upwards of $20 on eBay.
I don’t know if these four records (the debut, plus Leave Home, Rocket to Russia, and Road to Ruin) will sound any better for being pressed on 180-gram vinyl, but I do know that for $17.98 each, they’ll come without any of the ticks and pops and horrible surface noise that so many people have mistakenly accepted as part of some stupid, romanticized vinyl experience. What was committed to tape all those years ago was the sound of punk rock—everything that came after was just the sound of us letting our shit get ruined. We get to go back to the beginning now, and the extra dollar or whatever for heavier vinyl seems like a pretty small price to pay for the possibility that it’ll help us stay there for longer.
Fans of 90s indie-rock are having their day in the sun, with a fancy new version of Sebadoh's Bakesale just hitting shelves, and Archers of Loaf's debut, Icky Mettle, set to come out in a couple weeks. That's not all, though: The first three albums by the much underrated and sorely missed Modesto, California, band Grandaddy are being reissued by the Control Group. Led by songwriter/guitarist Jason Lytle, the band was most active in the late 90s/early 00s, when they, more so than anyone else, perfectly expressed the feelings (and, more specifically, the fears) so many of us had at that particular moment when everyone realized we had to think about what technology was doing to us. They did what Radiohead was doing, only they did it with a much-appreciated lighter touch, through relaxed, spacey folk-pop that would just sort of float pleasantly along, and then out of nowhere hit you with melodies that would stay with you forever. The Sophtware Slump< (2000) and Sumday (2003) are where it's at, but their first album, Under the Western Freeway, is worth exploring as well.
So too is the work of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, specifically the albums Extra Width, Orange, and Now I Got Worry, all of which are being reissued by the Shove label on August 16th. The band (Spencer, along with drummer Russel Simins and guitarist Judah Baker) blended soul, punk, hip-hop and blues in a way that was technically impressive, wildly inventive and at times just straight-up violent. For anyone who wonders what the Black Keys could be if they weren't so pleased with themselves all the time.