Music again? Yep, let's talk about good recordings

July 27, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

As I mentioned in my previous post, there are huge variances in the quality of recordings.  I think digital music has made the problem worse because there's a strong tendency to make the files as small as possible not only for download efficiency but also so it's possible to store every single recording ever made on your phone. 

But if you're more interested in high quality music, then it's a different game altogether and you have be a little careful when you're starting out.  

First off, ignore the iTunes store and Amazon downloads are nearly as bad.  The files they sell are way too small to be useful for serious listening.  

There are a number of places to purchase pure high resolution music but it could take a whole lot of searching to find what you like.  Over the past year one online company has really risen above the rest and that's www.hdtracks.com

One note right off the bat so you aren't surprised later on.  High res music is not cheap.  It's not crazy expensive either and you can download free samples easily, but overall be prepared to spend money if you want the good stuff.

My primary interest is in older Rock music and I like to throw in a healthy amount of Jazz and I have a soft spot for the old Windham Hill New Age music too.  

One big problem is that very few reviews of any recording provide a critique of the recording quality at all.  This makes searching for well recorded music a crap shoot at best. 

I have a list of recordings that I think are top notch, so if you want to experiment with higher end music, this list could be helpful.

By the way, we need more people to offer up reviews or thoughts on high quality recordings of all sorts.  

This list is in no particular order.

Dire Straits - Love Over Gold (CD).  This is one of my reference albums.  The production value is superb on either CD or LP.  There is a remastered version of this CD available and it is better than the original.  A must have disc.  The hit song Industrial Disease is on this album though I consider it the weakest song on the album.  Telegraph Road and Private Investigations are very unique and compelling and they sound great.

Grateful Dead - Terrapin Station (CD).  Another reference album.  I only listen to the title track and it's amazing and utterly incomprehensible.  There is a remastered version of this CD as well.  The remaster has a wider soundstage and is a bit brighter and very clean.  It also contains a few bonus tracks and are great additions to the original album.  I can't believe it's been over 30 years since this album came out. Crazy.

Primus - Pork Soda (CD).  Primus takes some getting used to.  If you don't like loud music then this band is not for you.  Most rock bands use vocals and guitars as the primary instruments.  The primary instrument Primus uses is the bass guitar with electric guitar accents and a strong drum underlayment.  The production value of this disc is just a bit below Love Over Gold and Terrapin, but still exceptional.  When I upgraded my preamp/processor I discovered some distortion on a few tracks that I had never heard before so it gets knocked down a bit for that.

Robbie Robertson - self titled (CD) A great album but the production wanders a lot. Some tracks are superb like Somewhere Down the Crazy River and some surprisingly bad.  

Robbie Robertson - Storyville (CD) Even better than the first album but production quality also wanders somewhat.  Every song is a great story though.  It's possibly the only rock album I've ever had that I'm willing to listen to every track.

Dire Staits - Dire Straits (their first album) (CD) Get the remastered version, the original is pretty poor but the remaster is exceptional.  I hear a bit of hiss and other odd noises in the background from time to time but overall it's very much worth having.  

Deep Purple - Machine Head (remaster and remix two disc set) This is absolutely THE disc to have if you like Deep Purple at all.  If you know that band at all you'll know that Deep Purple had constant and incessant line up changes.  This disc has what is called the "MK II" line up that included Roger Glover and Ian Gillan.  

Roger Glover remastered this album years after he was fired from the band and Ritchie Blackmore wandered off to obscurity.  Glover did the remastering as well as remixes which is simply the same songs with alternate vocal and guitar tracks.  It's interesting to hear the differences but it's the remaster disc that shines.  Smoke on the Water is absolutely thunderous as it should be and Glover included a quadrophonic version of Lazy that is really great.  If your stereo system has a 5.1 speaker set up, then this track played in an "all stereo" mode that uses all five speakers will blow you away.  This collection also includes a few bonus tracks that are also great listens.

KMFDM - Naive and Angst (CD) Also a band for a specific or acquired taste.  Very heavy industrial sound.  The low end of all KMFDM discs is enormous.  You'll not only shake your house, but also houses a few doors down. If you stereo is in your basement, seismologists are likely to note some odd tremors.  I no longer have moles in my yard because of these discs. The high end on these discs are clean but can sometimes seem a little restrained.  That's likely a good thing because I like to play these discs so loud that imminent hearing loss is definitely possible.

Concrete Blonde - Bloodletting (CD) Get the 20th anniversary remastered version.  All other Concrete Blonde discs are surprisingly poor in terms of recording.  This is the ONLY disc worth getting for audio quality.  It's too bad because Concrete Blonde is a great band.  Just as a note the album "Mexican Moon" is a really fabulous album with lesser production value.  It's not terrible but it could have been so much better.

Steely Dan - Aja (CD or LP)  I read a lot of people that say all Steely Dan albums have great production but I find that not to be true at all.  Gaucho is the only other album that sounds good to my ears.  Aja is outstanding and is also one of my reference albums.  A must have disc.

Type O Negative - Bloody Kisses (CD)  Interesting album.  The mid bass is nice and punchy but the low bass is very lean which is odd and you'd think it must be intentional becuase there are a lot of low frequency effects (LFE) going on too.  Very unique band that pays homage to horror films like White Zombie and Alice Cooper but with a greater sense of humor.  They do a cover of the old song Summer Breeze which I think was a Seals and Crofts song originally.  That song is worth the price alone. 

Godsmack - Voodoo (CD) Strange disc.  The song Voodoo is just about as perfect a mix as you could ask for, the entire rest of the album is terrible. I mean terrible.  I wouldn't pay more than a couple bucks for it on the used market. Free with shipping would even be better.

Simply Red - Stars (CD) A very nice Pop Rock album and very easy to listen to.  You won't play this at high volume but it holds up at high volume very well, and the sound quality is decent enough to make this list but nowhere near the top.  Certainly worth having.

Bruce Dickinson - Accident of Birth (CD)  This is one of my newer discs and the production value is very good.  Bruce Dickinson is the current vocalist of Iron Maiden, and I've found that all Maiden discs suffer from very weak bass.  Interestingly this disc is very similar and I have to apply an EQ that increases the low end in conjunction with a boost of the subwoofer to make it sound more balanced.  In all other respects it's pretty good.  

I swear that Dickinson is paying homage to Thin LIzzy with this disc because the twin guitar sound is so similar that I actually looked up the album to see if Scott Gorham or Brian Roberston had a hand in this album.  They don't.

Thin Lizzy - Live and Dangerous (ALAC high res download)  I consider this album to be the benchmark of live albums from the 70s.  The high res version is very noticably cleaner than either the original LP or the later CD versions and I think it's worth the price if you like Thin LIzzy at all.  A careful application of a custom EQ will do a lot to improve the sound of this album.  

Diana Krall - The Girl in the Other Room (high res ALAC digital download)  I often find Krall to be more Pop than Jazz and she seems to be a quite polarizing artist as well.  Some folks seem to love her and some sneer.  I fall solidly in the realm of "I like her music".  

This album is the the best recording I've ever heard and I think is clear example of how modern recordings with high resolution mastering kicks the crap out of anything that's come before it. Actually I think we're well beyond a simple butt kicking, it's more of a "kick to the gutter, then a head stomp, steal your wallet and then spat on".  It's that much different.  The clarity of this album is astounding, even if you don't like Jazz/Pop this is a must have album.  

I like the instrumentation on this album though I often find myself wishing the instrumental sections were longer.  The song Black Crow in particular sounds amazing.  Krall's voice has loads of texture and there are great instrumental sections that are really good, but too short and it seems that those sections could be more improvisational as well.  

Joe Sample - Sample This (CD) I first heard Joe Sample on a late night Jazz program on Western Michigan University's radio station, WMUK I think, probably in 1976.  Very much Lo-Fi music but I fell in love with Joe's sound even though I was a typical heavy metal head banger back then.  

Sample This is now an old-ish disc (1997) but the recording quality is very good, on some tracks the bass is heavy, way too heavy. Overall it's a nice clean album.  For me the standout tracks are Rainbow Seeker II, Free as the Wind and especially I'm Coming Back Again with Diane Reeves providing an amazing vocal performance that Diana Krall could probably learn a thing or two from.  You're not going to go wrong with any Joe Sample disc except maybe the original Rainbow Seeker.

Angela Hagenbach - The Way They Make Me Feel! (mid res ALAC digital download)  I got this album from HDTracks, which is where I get most of my digital purchases.  Strangely this album is only available as a 44/24 format rather than the more typical 96/24 high res format.  Nonetheless, the recording is very clean and nicely balanced.

Hagenbach can be hushed and breathy and I have to be in the right mood to enjoy her sound. This album sounds like a tribute to much older vocal jazz.  Most definitely worth a listen.

New York Sessions Volume 2 (high res ALAC digital download) Lots of big name Jazz artists on this disc and the music is fantastic.  This disc is on the Chesky label which is important because Chesky employs a very specific recording style.  That style is meant to reproduce a live feel to the recording.  To my ears though, I often find it dull and muted which I don't like at all.  

I prefer a more typical studio recording and mixing style.  If one were to play any track of this album and then switch immediately to a track from the Diana Krall album listed above, the Krall recording will sound tremendously more vibrant and alive.  And frankly I've been to a lot of small venue Jazz concerts and the Chesky recordings do not represent what I hear at a live event.

Having said that, it's not like these recordings stink.  They are most definitely worth checking out at the very least.  Chesky must be doing something right because there are a lot of recordings under that label.  

Windham Hill Sampler 88 (CD) This disc is on the old and defunct Windham Hill label.  It's a shame that Windham Hill is gone, it was a great label.  There have been no new releases in years, but the parent company (Sony BMG) does occasionally more or less recycle previously released materials in a new collection.  That is a HUGE shame and great deal of the albums released by Windham Hill seem like perfect candidates for remastering to a high resolution format.  Maybe someday.  Sooner is better.

This is a superb disc, the sound quality is excellent, strong, clean and deep bass and a clear high end.  Many different artists on this disc, being a sampler and all, there's something for everyone on this disc.  

George Winston - Plains (CD) Originally on the Windham Hill label.  This is a decent recording and worth having.  George Winston is a solo pianist only, as far as I can tell.  The song Dubuque is amazing.  I'd like to see a video of him playing this song, but have not been able to find one.  I think I know how he's making a piano sound like that, but I'm not completely sure.  That tune is a must-listen for everyone.

Golden Earring - The Continuing Story of Radar Love (CD remaster)  This is one of a number of Greatest Hits compilations from Golden Earring.  This is a very good recording.  Very clean but with occasional harshness on the high end.  Very much worth having in your library. It does include Radar Love and Twilight Zone but there are a number of other really fine, catchy tunes here.  

Golden Earring - Bloody Buccaners (CD)  This is a relatively new-ish offering from Golden Earring, 1994 as far as I can tell.  By the way, Golden Earring has a TON of albums, way more than just the two albums that we all know that has Radar Love or Twilight Zone. I find this album to be similar to their early-ish recordings such as Moontan that has Radar Love, Vanilla Queen, Candy's Gone Bad, etc on it.  The audio quality is top notch, a bit better than the disc I listed above.  

Billy Ido - Vital Idol (CD)  This is also an older album.  The audio quality is just barely good enough.  What makes this album worthy of the list is the song To Be a Lover, which is fabulous.  Different than what you probably expect from Billy Idol.  Great song and there's a section of it that goes holographic on my system and sounds amazing.  

The Nails - Dangerous Dreams (CD) Another band of the 80's and 90's, and one of those truly great bands that got no recognition.  This disc is their second release, probably around 1986.  Their first album Mood Swing is a good album in it's own right but Dangerous Dreams definitely is the better sounding disc by a good margin, and in my view, a better collection of songs as well.  

The Nails - Corpus Christi (CD) Their newest album released in 2000 and there is controversy around this release in that the band supposedly had no hand in it's release and does not acknowledge it or something.  IDK, and I don't care all that much either.  But I love this album.  It's my favorite Nails album and the sound quality is top notch.  I think Dangerous Dreams is the "quintessential" Nails album, but Corpus Christi is a must have.

 

More to come...

updated 4/17/2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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