A few weeks back, Van and I did a show about music we love to listen to. The overarching principle was that as audio engineers, we need to know what music sounds like, and thus, we need to listen to a lot of good music. The challenge sometimes can be finding good music to listen to. While it’s not impossible to find really well produced music made in this decade, it is hard. The reasons for this are quite simple.
First, bands simply can’t afford to spend the time in the studio they once did. Back in the ‘70s, ‘80s and even early ‘90s, bands might spend several months in the studio recording and mixing a record. Some of my favorites were recorded over the period of a year or more. It’s really hard to achieve amazing, blow your mind quality when you have to track three songs a day.
Second, the loudness wars are still raging on, and it’s hard to find modern music that has dynamic range. Now I’ll admit that this has been going on for a long time, but it’s arguably worse today than it was 20 years ago. Finally, there was more money available on a per-album basis 30-40 years ago than there is today. There are so many more people making music today than back then, the pool of funds, while up, is diluted. So it’s hard for a band or label to be able to spend the money necessary to make something truly amazing. Again, it’s not that it never happens, it just doesn’t happen very often.
To find great stuff to listen to, you almost have to go back a ways. In fact, I think the newest stuff in my favorites category is 10 years old. And that was made by bands who were making some of my favorite music 30 years ago. So get out some great headphones, in-ears or high-end speakers (step away from the iPhone headphones and no one gets hurt), and take a listen. Ideally on CD. Or HD tracks. Spotify extreme quality if you must. In no particular order…
Boston Boston Their first album is arguably the best. I maintain that the B-side is better than the A-side. Van will say that Don’t Look Back and Third Stage are also good albums, and I won’t disagree. But the first one is the best. The writing is great, the musicianship is amazing and the production values are top-notch.
Kansas Left Overture This was their big, breakout album. A lot of money was spent on this one, and it sounds fantastic. The eclectic instrumentation is very unique, and the soundstage is pretty amazing.
Steely Dan Aja This is, in my opinion, one of the best-sounding albums of all time. My new hi-fi speakers arrived today, and when I cued up Black Cow, I was immediately blown away. Again. For an album produced almost 40 years ago, it stands the test of time. Again, it helps that they spent nearly a year recording and mixing it. You could also listen to pretty much anything Steely Dan did after (or before) Aja. Two Against The World and Everything Must Go sound incredible, though I really like the songs on Aja.
Sting All This Time This is another one Van & I brought up on the podcast. It’s a great collection of world-class musicians hanging out at Sting’s villa in France or something just crushing some classic Sting and Police songs. It’s also very poignant, as it was recorded on September 11, 2001. The emotion is palpable through the recording. The video is also great.
Pink Floyd Pick pretty much anything. Personally, I’m a big fan of Wish You Were Here and Dark Side of the Moon. Van will cast a vote for Meddle and Delicate Sound of Thunder. I won’t argue those. The Final Cut is also pretty great-sounding, but it’s really dark from a lyrical standpoint.
Natalie Marchant Tigerlily Natalie has an amazing voice. On this album, she shines. This is an album I can listen to on repeat and not get sick of it. Her vocals are so pure, so haunting and the mix so good, I just shake my head and think, “Wow…” You could also cue up some 10,000 Maniacs or any of her other solo albums and be amazed.
Mark Knopfler & Emmylou Harris Real Live Roadrunning This one has become one of my newest favorites. I just picked up the DVD and spent Saturday night in front of the TV, UE11s in my ears, marveling at the incredible talent both on and off the stage. It’s brilliantly performed and mixed just as well. If you’ve ever wondered what live music should sound like, listen to this.
Paul Simon Graceland He took some flak for this when it came out, but the fact remains it’s an incredible-sounding album. The vocal harmonies are lush, the instrumentation clever and the musicianship flawless. The mix is pretty spot-on, too. The 25th Anniversary edition is very cool because it also includes a bunch of demo tracks. It’s pretty neat to hear where some of the songs started out.
Eagles Hotel California, Eagles Live, Hell Freezes Over You really can’t go wrong with any of those. Arguably, Hell Freezes Over is the best-sounding, but it’s also the newest. If you grab the DVD and can listen to the full DTS version, it’s pretty spellbinding. That said, the acoustic guitar in Hotel California is the standard by which all others are judged. Bonus round, Don Henley’s solo work is pretty great, too.
Billy Joel The Stranger, Turnstiles, Nylon Curtain, The Bridge I don’t even know where to start with this. It’s all so good, and so different. Joel’s style evolved over the years, but every album remains great, and a great listen. Scenes from an Italian Restaurant is one of my all-time favorite songs. I just picked it up as an 88.2 Khz, 24 bit HD track; it’s solid.
Tower of Power 40th Anniversary Live Just a great album. Tons of power, energy and talent. The music is so tight, it’s great for tuning PAs. David Garibaldi is a monster on drums and the rest of the band is just as amazing. Very well mixed for a live album, too.
I could go on, but this should get you started. This is, of course, not a definitive list. It’s what I could think of as I’m sitting up in the Palatial Listening Room auditioning my new Canton Vento 820.2’s. Which sound frickin’ fantastic, by the way. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some more CD’s to try out…