Audiophiles are a strange breed: here are a bunch of men (always men) who’ll happily fork out a week’s wages for power cables that provide “clean electricity” to their CD player, but refuse to part with a penny for any album they consider to be mastered in a sub-par way.
We can’t help but see their point of view (about the albums, not the power cables): today’s pop music tends to be mastered to sound “loud” even when it’s being played at low volumes – a compressed dynamic range means that there’s not much difference in decibels between the quiet and loud parts of the music. Listening to these albums through high quality audio gear can be an horrific assault on the lugholes, which is why audiophiles seek out albums that have been mastered with a wider dynamic range.
That doesn’t mean you have to resort to slapping some leather waistcoast-wearing, ponytail-sporting Austrian jazz fiddler’s latest opus onto your beloved turntable. Thankfully, a handful of today’s artists are still committed to well-mastered, exquisitely produced recordings and that, along with a plentiful supply of older albums that were either originally mastered well or have since been remastered, means there’s plenty of fantastic music to listen to. And here are some of our favourites.
Additional reviews by Stephen Graves, Marc McLaren and Tom Wiggins
My Bloody Valentine: Loveless (1991)
You’re going to want a weighty set-up for this one. When they perform Loveless live, MBV crank up the volume to such an extent that most fans don earplugs, and while we’re not suggesting you go that far, it’s an album that demands to be played loud. Recorded over two years in 19 studios and with almost as many engineers, it’s dominated by Kevin Shields’ trademark tremolo-heavy guitar plus layer upon layer of samples: sampled guitars, sampled drums, sampled vocals, sampled samples. The net effect is a modern wall of sound, at once hypnotic and chaotic, dreamy and thunderous, urgent and woozy. At its best – the delicate intricacy of “To Here Knows When”, the relentless hookery of “What You Want”, the rhythmic assault of “Soon” – it’s crying out for a system with great separation and precision. [MM]
Standout tracks: “Soon”, “To Here Knows When”, “Only Shallow”
Dr Dre: 2001 (1999)
Mainstream hip-hop isn’t the first genre that springs to mind when you think of audiophile-quality recordings: the majority of rap albums are compressed, lacking the dynamic range craved by golden-eared beard-strokers. Not so 2001.
Dr Dre’s second studio album exhibits a clean clarity and dynamic range that suits its sparse beats, bottomless bass, doom-y string samples and g-funk synths – it’s a great workout for any decent pair of speakers or headphones (Beats or otherwise). The lyrical content won’t sit comfortably with every listener, being an encyclopaedia of gangsta rap clichés but, well, it’s a gangsta rap album with a cannabis leaf on the front cover made by the co-founder of N.W.A. If it was mum-friendly it just wouldn’t be the same.
Standout tracks: “Still D.R.E.”, “The Next Episode”, “XXXplosive”
Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On (1971)
Deeply affected by his brother’s experiences returning from the Vietnam War and what he viewed as rampant, widespread injustice in America, Marvin Gaye shrugged off his soul loverman image and recorded a concept album about the state of the world.
All nine of its songs flow into one another and it ends with a reprise of its opening theme, all the better to tell the story of a Vietnam veteran who has come home from war to see his country in a new light. Gaye tackles poverty, drug addiction and even environmental issues not through angry political rants but from the point of a dismayed man who believes love – not more hatred and violence – is the answer.
As a recording the album exhibits a rare spaciousness, with each element able to be picked out clearly. Combining blues, jazz and soul elements, it’s a hugely influential album and over 40 years after its release, still highly relevant and relatable.
Standout tracks: “What’s Going On”, “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)”, “Inner City Blues (Make We Wanna Holler)”
Nirvana: MTV Unplugged in New York (1994)
MTV may be a dirty word these days, but the TV network’s Unplugged series served up several excellent albums in the 90s, most of them recorded with a “hey, I could be in the audience” fidelity. And this is one of them.
It would be Nirvana’s last album recorded before Kurt Cobain’s suicide, and hindsight adds extra weight to songs like “Pennyroyal Tea”, “Something In The Way” and the soul-wrenching closer “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”. That song is one of several covers performed by a band who appear to have consciously avoid picking their biggest hits for the acoustic treatment. But the reworkings of Cobain’s own songs, stripped of their grunge trappings, highlight just how much of a talent he was when it came to melody and lyricism – a talent that would be lost forever five months later.
Standout tracks: “The Man Who Sold The World”, “Pennyroyal Tea”, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”
The Beatles: Abbey Road (1969)
Recorded in eight tracks rather than the four of previous Beatles albums, Abbey Road was the first of the Fab Four’s records to be originally released in stereo. In 2009, along with most Beatles albums, it was remastered and rereleased, and this version is considered the best in terms of audio quality. At the time of its release, some critics claimed the band’s use of the Moog synthesizer was “inauthentic”, but in retrospect most of them – and the wider world – consider Abbey Road to be among The Beatles’ best LPs, and certainly their most painstakingly produced.
Standout tracks: “Come Together,” “Oh! Darling”, “Here Comes the Sun”