Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The ten best sounding albums of all time (Pop/Rock)


You may remember my series of articles published in 2012 where I tackled albums that, in my opinion, were 10 of the best / worst sounding. When I began them with this post, I initially planned to include a list containing Pop/Rock albums. But I soon discovered that I simply couldn´t find ten examples of well sounding mainstream releases. I´m not listening to crap usually described as sounding great, for example albums like 'Brothers in Arms' or 'The Dark Side of the Moon', this isn´t my music. Especially the latter album is pretty old and it sounds like that, despite having been remastered, what feels like, every two years. What about the favorite of middle-aged, str8 audiophiles, Alison Krauss? Oh, please, no Bluegrass for me! Besides, I wouldn´t want to include something I don´t listen to just for the sake of finishing an article. So I decided to not write that list, which, as a result, also nixed the 10-worst-sounding-albums of all time. But we have 2015 now, three years have passed and several new albums have been released (and bought by me) in the meantime which also made me rediscover old albums of mine. So go ahead and enjoy a new article. Other Best-of articles are:



After years of abuse of brickwall limiting, Tori Amos finally released 'Unrepentant Geraldines' in 2014. In my opinion, it is the best sounding Pop/Rock album ever released. It sounds very pleasant but not boring. The sound isn´t nervous for one second yet it still sounds crisp and dynamic. Apart from some slight limiting, dynamic compression is either absent or perfectly done (I assume the latter). I cannot find any flaw whatsoever with this album and it will sound well everywhere. But you will marvel at the immaculate recording of Tori's voice and several instruments (chief among them her Bösendorfer, of course) on good equipment only, articulation and spatiality really shine on neutral devices not faking anything - which rules out most boutique hardware trying to impress with something that isn´t there. The music? Well, it took me a while to get used to it, I was expecting something similar to 'Night of Hunters' which was a classical album. One day, I took the CD into our car and drove long enough to play the whole album - after that, I was in love. Not only does it sound wonderful, the music is wonderful, too. Example: "16 Shades of Blue".

Other well sounding Tori-creations

One advice: avoid the 24/96 version you can find on several HiRes stores, it is fake and the CD sounds better than 99% of most HiRes albums anyway. Not surprising given Tori's history of well-engineered releases. They aren´t perfect but they´re very, very good. Her milestone 'Under the Pink', released in 1994, has always been famous for its good sound. But don´t do it like me and buy the 2015 remaster... unless you want her gorgeous 'Pink'-B-sides. It is a bit more brickwall-limited than the original version and on two tracks ("The Wrong Band" & "The Waitress") there's an audible mastering error sounding like partially reversed polarity. 'Boys for Pele' sounds roughly the same as the original version of 'Pink', albeit less crisp. 'Night of Hunters', released in 2011, comes close to 'Geraldines' but it suffers from old-fashioned dynamic compression which doesn´t sound well on voices nor her piano.

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Kate Bush's 2011-album '50 Words for Snow' is one perfect sounding example of a recent analogue recording. The only flaw I´m able to find is a pronounced bass area which makes the piano bigger than necessary, apart from that it´s perfectly engineered. Expansive, yet restrained soundscapes with good placement of instruments and voices with great articulation - just listen to Elton John on "Snowed in at Wheeler Street". On equipment too warm and charming this album will sound like shit - again, boutique hardware shouldn´t be used. Kate has always taken great care with the sound of her albums, however, this one trumps all the others and is better than the rest. You can buy true HiRes versions of this album and I recommend you do that as they aren´t as much dynamically compressed as the CD.

More well-engineered concoctions by Kate

Musically, '50 Words' shows the artistic development Kate Bush has achieved throughout the decades. Compare the songs with the early '80s piece "December will be Magic again" and you will notice that she´s able to bring across a wintery atmosphere with a far less complex arrangement. This low-key approach didn´t fare well with fans who preferred her older, more dense albums, calling it either boring or pretentious. But it should have been clear for years that this is the road she wants to go, judging by 'Aerial' and her 2011-re-working of two of her older albums, 'Director's Cut'. I just love it, it calms me whenever I feel nervous or anxious. For everyone else, I can recommend her early masterpiece 'Hounds of Love'.

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I don´t know if Daft Punk has always sounded like they do on the 2013-success 'Random Access Memories' but to me it would be surprising if they didn't. 'RAM' showcases a level of engineering perfectness I´ve rarely heard from an album intended to be bought by the masses. Yes, the music is commercial, meaning, a bit bland and simple. But who will mind that if it sounds so fuckin' fantastic AND is a lot of fun? Brickwall limiting is, for the most part, well done and not too strong which was one hell of a surprise for me two years ago. Dynamics are otherwise perfect, articulation is too. Staging suffers a bit by being slightly 'unstable' (I hate audiophile speak). The HiRes version isn´t a fake, this album seems to have been recorded either in HiRes or analogue. Very recommended, will be sounding good anywhere.

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Touch Yello: the 2009-album of Swiss electronica-band Yello would have fitted nicely into the '80s when it comes to sound (if the '80s would have been sonically perfect). It sounds what detractors and fans alike would call 'digital'. Precision, differentiation and tiny details are the prominent traits of this album... which can be a bit much on occasion, you won´t exactly find this album too pleasant. In part, this sound is caused by less emphasis on frequencies around 100 Hz, emphasis is on very deep bass instead. As a result, this one can be used to find out if your equipment fakes or misses something (don´t listen to this with Grado headphones!). Don´t play it on devices engineered to sound faster and crisper, you will hate it and run away because of all the abrasiveness. Doesn´t sound well everywhere but almost perfect on neutral machinery. Brickwall limting and way too loud? You bet. Though not readily audible. The music? Typical Yello, updated to sound recent, with an additional jazz flavor, featuring guest stars like Till Brönner, it certainly is an acquired taste and a throwback to early electronic music. I for one love it!

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Yes, I´m ashamed to include this one, the album 'The Memory of Trees' from 1995. Artistically speaking, there´s only one suitable title for it: "The sound of stagnation". Really, it sounds like anything Enya has ever done: masses of vocal clouds, cheap synthesizers, meaningless & pseudo-philosophical lyrics, bad Latin. But - and it pains me to write it - it is awful music that sounds fantastic. Enya's voice has been recorded with utter perfection, articulation and placement are top-notch. Her vocal clouds are placed well, surrounding the listener while sounding intelligible. Everything drowns in tons of reverb, of course,... but it doesn´t matter since it's well done and doesn´t disturb directionality. Beware: it will sound mellow and boring on bad equipment. Remarkable sound for an album that has just turned 20 by an artist usually not known for good sound. Her second album 'Watermark' sounds well, too - with the exception of her voice: it´s monaural - including the reverb - which yields a pretty strange effect. Musically, though, it´s superior (relatively speaking) so you might want to compromise if you decide to buy either one of them.

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I´m not ashamed to include this one: 'Ray of Light' by the one and only Queen of Pop, Madonna. Musically, it was the first album of hers that made the general public realize how good a songstress Madge really is (they seem to be deaf considering iconic songs like "Live to tell" or "This used to be my playground"). Centering around themes of personal development, religion and childbirth, it introduced a reflective Madonna, a grown woman coming to peace with herself. In retrospective, most of her albums since then (ignore 'Hard Candy' & 'MDNA') have been centering on themes close to her heart (her strongest is, in my opinion, 'American Life'). But - and I´m always surprised - nobody seems to realize that 'Ray of Light' also sounds wonderful. It isn´t brickwall-limited, you have tons of 0dBfs distortions instead. Those can be repaired easily with a tool like iZotope's Declipper, turning the album into one featuring mastering-quality sound. It can be used to determine if something colours or fakes dynamics. Take the titular song, "Ray of Light": it should never sound abrasive nor aggressive. Yet it also shouldn´t sound boring or too warm. It´s supposed to sound fast, like it was easy to playback, organized instead of chaotic. The same goes for "Swim"; of importance are timing, "prat" and if the bass is hollow or not. "Frozen" should have stable spatiality (lesser gear will make the placement of Madge's voice and instruments opague). In short: great music, pleasant to listen to, terrific for dancing, all embedded into a fine sounding package.

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Musically as meaningless as Enya above, Enigma's first album, "MCMXC a.D." was an extremely successful cash-in on the New Age crowd that extended to the mainstream. It also was an example of what happens when someone who is knowledgeable about electronic music production has some new toys to play around with (hello, Euphonix). By using samples from everyone and mixing Gregorian chants with dance beats, mastermind Michael Cretu created something that shouldn´t have existed but was stylish nonetheless. The concept proved to be marketable in the years after with 6 more albums released until 2008 (the 8th seems to be on its way). While they too had good sound, they failed to have the same mixture of elegance, style, easy melodies and balls. The first one is still the most sublime Enigma release and it´s surprising that it hasn´t dated that much sonically. Even though it is 25 years old, the Shakuhachi flute has been abused constantly by others and Gregorian chants won´t excite anyone anymore, it still sounds fresh. And very good, too! It won´t ever sound bad on mediocre equipment, you cannot use it to reveal weaknesses. Good sound everywhere, interesting, if a tad old-fashioned, it´s a New Age-release recommended to anyone.

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Surprised? The third outing by the late singer Whitney Houston, 'I'm Your Baby Tonight' has always sounded well for an early '90s album. But I´m talking about the version clandestinely released sometime around 2014 or so. It has been remastered, it is in HiRes, not brickwall limited and available for cheap money on Qobuz. The remastering was able to improve the sound a lot, in fact, apart from a not too strong bass area it now sounds almost perfect for an overproduced studio recording aimed at the masses originally released in 1990. And again, it shouldn´t sound abrasive or too fluffy. If you like a mixture of badly dated dance tracks and strong ballads, you´re in for a fun ride.

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Timing is of the utmost importance with this album. You´ll notice immediately if bass seems to follow the rest of the frequency band. While 'Synkronized', the fourth album of funk band Jamiroquai, doesn´t sound too pleasant, it also shouldn´t sound too fast, meaning, abrasive or nervous. Crispness and prat are keys to its sound. There´s a reason I use it for reviewing gear. You can diminish the aggressiveness somewhat by removing the 0dBfs distortions. Like the Madonna album up above, it wasn´t produced using brickwall limiting, instead the mastering engineer just made it louder which crushed basses. It can be repaired, which I did for personal listening pleasure. Since then I´ve enjoyed wonderful sound aside from music I still like very much.

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This musical example of a paranoid, yet extremely talented and musical genius doesn´t sound too good. Bass feels sluggish most of the time, the singer's voice could be more pronounced on occasion, staging tends to favor width instead of depth, most songs sound a bit too brittle. On the other hand, the strenghts of its sound can be found in its ability to reveal weaknesses of the gear you play it with. As was typical for any Michael Jackson release, 'HIStory' was overproduced, yielding extremely dense and taxing soundscapes. The most prominent examples would be "Earth Song" & the titular track; the first has a mix so dense that it´s almost impossible to decipher everything contained in it. For example, there´s a tambourine on the right side that starts to play during the chorus, it can be used to test for resolution and balance. Try to listen to the tambourine player change the way he/she shakes his/her instrument: on mediocre equipment that is impossible, every colourization will cause it to disappear, sounding opaque. Furthermore, the song should never sound strained. The mix sounds as if it is on the brink of falling apart - it isn´t and it shouldn´t sound like that. Michael's voice is not supposed to sound raucous, you wouldn´t believe how often I´ve heard some gear doing exactly that by adding some artificial sounding element. With the song "HIStory" concentrate on the overlapping voices at the end. We possess the ability to select individual voices from a group of people all speaking at the same time. This works with recordings, too, but in this case, only uncoloured playback will enable you to select someone. Then there is something sounding at first glance like high frequency artifacts during the chorus of the song, you will hear them only if your equipment doesn´t sound "charming". Yet it isn´t supposed to sound strained or cold, so, again, the balance is most important. I have only two devices able to playback this album without any major flaw: the Xonar Essence STX and the Sony MZ-R 50 (!). The Essence STX even manages to reveal some nice spatiality. Summing up, this album will sound mediocre on bad hardware and good on neutral devices not hampered by distortions of any kind (which rules out tubes - and I don´t feel any compassion for people clinging to archaic electronics (just ignore for a moment that I like the MiniDisc, will you?)). And if you like your music to be aggressive, paranoid yet engaging New-Jack-Swing with some added R'n'B and some sappy ballads, this is for you. For me, it has always been one of my favourite albums.

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Last update: 30.06.2015

5 comments:

  1. Miss u much
    Welcome back

    ReplyDelete
  2. I'm looking for this Whitney album, are you sure it wasn't the re issue from 2008? Perhaps this one? https://www.discogs.com/Whitney-Houston-Im-Your-Baby-Tonight/release/3819273

    ReplyDelete
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    1. I don't know. But you can buy it at Qobuz, that's where I bought it :)

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  3. Now that you mention it, I see there is a clipping in Ray of Light. I never noticed it before. I feel that the songs "Frozen" and "Power of Goodbye" concluded an era during which pop music sounded good. The title song and Madonna's later output has too much electronic bite. I like songs "Rain" and "Playground" and "Bow" a lot.

    Yeah, you do hear the Shakuhachi a lot in new age and romantic pop music. Until recently I didn't know the name of this echoing flute sound...

    Izotope RX declipper works great.

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    Replies
    1. There are tons of 0 dBfs distortions on Ray of Light. The declipper of iZotope RX can remove those and "restore" (by interpolation) clipped peaks. Not the original, of course. But it is enough for a sound free of distortion. At worst, it is a pleasant sounding DSP effect.

      Madge's later output only has so much bite because it was engineered to sound like that. If you match relative amount of bass/treble (effectively boosting mids) you will end up with a sound much closer to Ray of Light. This is pretty evident on 'American Life' or 'Confessions'. The later albums (2008 & 2012) are more difficult.

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