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. So, here are some of our favourites.
Additional reviews by Stephen Graves, Marc McLaren and Tom Wiggins
NEIL YOUNG - ROXY: TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT LIVE (2018)
Released in 2018 but recorded 45 years earlier, this exceptional album perfectly captures the atmosphere, warmth and raucous energy of Young’s live show with The Santa Monica Flyers – the inaugural gig at now-legendary LA nightclub The Roxy. Despite its critical success, the studio version of Tonight’s The Night is among Young’s thornier records, consisting mostly of loose, off-kilter one-take recordings and festering with end-of-the-hippie-dream cynicism; death, drugs and darkness abound. Harvest it most certainly is not. But here, presented in the concert context with jokey stage banter intact, those same songs (and a couple of others) take on a livelier, more vibrant tone – this is a party, not a wake for departed friends.
Make sure to listen to it in 24-bit/192kHz master quality (should your bandwidth be broad enough) at Young’s online archive, which currently features almost his entire catalogue, for free, in high resolution.
NINE INCH NAILS - THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL (2017)
Originally released in 1994 but now available remastered in a “definitive edition”, Nine Inch Nails’ second studio album is an alt-rock trailblazer, blending heavy metal, ambient, industrial rock and techno elements into a textural tour-de-force that’s left it regarded as one of the 1990s’ most important and influential records.
A concept album based around a man’s psychological breakdown, The Downward Spiral is an aggressive and abrasive record that tackles all manner of transgressive subject matter – self-harm, drug addiction, alcoholism, suicide – while sounding appropriately discomforting. Produced and recorded by NIN frontman Trent Reznor and Flood in the house in which Sharon Tate was murdered by the Manson Family, there’s a dark power to its sonic perfectionism that conveyed best on a high-quality hi-fi setup.
ARCADE FIRE - FUNERAL (2004)
Bringing a maximalist attitude to chamber pop, showcased by euphoric singalong anthems like “Wake Up” and “Rebellion (Lies)”, Arcade Fire first caught the wider world’s attention with the strikingly overwrought, lyrically dramatic and sonically lush Funeral, a record that showcases the band’s accomplished multi-instrumentalism and its ability to make songs both hauntingly personal and reassuringly universal. Few albums about death sound as vital and life-affirming as this one.
The War on Drugs: A Deeper Understanding (2017)
Kurt Vile’s former band are pretty much the definition of drivetime rock, with echoes of Springsteen, Straits and even a hint of Bryan Adams (it’s not a bad thing) to their widescreen epics (seriously, only three songs on this album clock in at under six minutes). But you can tell every single note on A Deeper Understanding has been recorded and re-recorded until it sounds exactly right, with slightly more focus on shimmering synths than their previous records. And while it’s hard to shake the feeling that this is a quintessential ‘white men whining about stuff’ album, when it sounds this good, you just have to let them get on with it.
KENDRICK LAMAR: DAMN. (2017)
Kendrick Lamar’s one-man mission to change hip-hop was well underway by the time he released Damn. this year, with the kaleidoscopic To Pimp A Butterfly already pushing the genre to places it had never been before in 2015. Damn. is another concept album, with Kendrick’s confrontational poetry telling another story about being a young black man in America. More thoughtful than the shock and awe of ‘90s gangsta rap, it can actually be played in reverse order, flipping the narrative on its head. Perhaps most impressively, it features Bono on a song that’s not rubbish.
RADIOHEAD: A MOON SHAPED POOL (2016)
With some songs of its songs sitting on Radiohead’s back burner for 20 years before being committed to tape, it’s hardly surprising that A Moon Shaped Pool is a treat for the ears. Opener Burn The Witch dates back to the Kid A sessions, although it’s far less familiar to fans than long-time live favourite True Love Waits, which has its mournful piano bolstered by a bed of fluttering percussion.
The lilting Present Tense and the record’s highlight Identikit have their roots in older albums too but Decks Dark and the urgent Ful Stop prove A Moon Shaped Pool is much more than just the sound of a band clearing out its drafts.
RADIOHEAD: OK COMPUTER OKNOTOK (2017)
Radiohead’s OK Computer turned 20 years old in 2017 and the band’s seminal record has had a nip and tuck for its birthday. Completely remastered from the original analogue tapes, OKNOTOK also includes three unreleased tracks and eight B-sides from the period. For those unfamiliar with the album, it caught Radiohead right on the cusp of the experimentation that would spawn Kid A, and marries it with the kind of choruses that would have 90,000 fans singing every word back at the band from in front of Glastonbury's Pyramid stage that summer. A genuine all-time classic.
LCD SOUNDSYSTEM: AMERICAN DREAM (2017)
After a relatively short-lived hiatus, LCD Soundsystem returned in 2017 with their take on the American Dream. James Murphy’s encyclopedic knowledge of music from the past 50 years informs a more melancholy record than fans might’ve been expecting; a meticulously recorded tribute to his recently lost heroes rather than a triumphant celebration of the band’s return. The electro-punk that made the group famous in the early noughties isn’t entirely absent (which is just as well, because Call the Police and Tonite are probably the best two songs on the record) but for LCD Soundsystem 2017 isn’t much of a party.
NIRVANA: IN UTERO 20TH ANNIVERSARY DELUXE EDITION (2013)
This 2013 special edition of Nirvana’s third and final studio album, released exactly 20 years after the original, includes a remastered version alongside brand new remixes by Steve Albini.
Albini was sound engineer the first time round, but label interference lathed off some of his rougher edges – he evidently couldn't pass up the chance to take another shot at such classics as “Scentless Apprentice”, “Rape Me”, “Heart Shaped Box” and “Pennyroyal Tea”, adding greater texture to the original versions.
But for many, the originals were well produced anyway – and it’s here than the remasters’ value is seen, or rather heard: with less compression and greater dynamic range in these versions, Kurt Cobain’s songs have rarely sounded so nuanced.
MOGWAI: EVERY COUNTRY’S SUN (2017)
Glasgow’s Mogwai might have left behind the quiet/loud song structures that helped them to put post-rock on the map back in the ‘90s, but their recent albums have been no less dynamic, building on the drama and intensity that made them famous and evolving it. Every Country’s Sun (named after a clanger dropped by a friend of the band) is often surprisingly upbeat, finding warmth where previous records have had a tendency to feel a little clinical and cold. It’s also less reliant on their trademark guitars, but with songs such as the penultimate track Old Poisons, Mogwai show they haven’t forgotten where the volume dial is when it’s required.
INTERPOL: TURN ON THE BRIGHT LIGHTS: THE TENTH ANNIVERSARY EDITION (2012)
Giving The Strokes’ Is This It a good run for “the most New York debut album of the early noughties”, Turn On The Bright Lights is the record that put Interpol on the map, and also high on the list entitled “bands who people always say sound like Joy Division”.
And while this album’s sound is certainly rooted in post punk – there’s a precision and texture to the playing that create a sense of space, clarity and almost clinical detachment that seems perfectly suited to post-9/11 New York.
Interpol's trademarks – angular guitars, expressive bass and the studied, effective monotone of Paul Bank’s vocals – sound pleasingly bleak and clean in this remaster, all the better to express TOTBL’s sketches of pain and squalor.
THUNDERCAT: DRUNK (2017)
With a guest list that includes both Kenny Loggins (of Top Gun soundtrack fame) and Wiz Khalifa, you should press play on Drunk with your expectations left at the door. Thundercat - a virtuoso bass player born Stephen Bruner - meows, farts and grooves his way through 23 tracks that give a brief insight into his unique musical mind. That might make it sound like an exercise in zany showboating, but on the whole, Drunk isn’t as oddball as its ingredients would suggest. That doesn’t mean it’s ever predictable but there’s far more restraint here than you’d expect from a man who toured with Suicidal Tendencies and has a pet cat called Turbo Tron Over 9000 Baby Jesus Sally Hot Carl.
CHILDISH GAMBINO: “AWAKEN, MY LOVE!” (2016)
When Childish Gambino (aka Community’s/Atlanta’s/Solo: A Star Wars Story’s Donald Glover) released “Awaken, My Love!”, Questlove from The Roots woke D’Angelo up at 4am to make him listen to it because he was so blown away by its funk-inspired sound. When you have that effect on musicians as respected as those two, you must be doing something right, and the multi-talented star’s switch from straight-up hip-hop to a groovier, more multi-layered style of music couldn’t have gone much better. Redbone is the standout track but as an album it’s still a remarkable funkadelic trip that only makes you wonder what Glover will do next.
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”