Top Ten Best Sounding Records, 1997-Present
nce again, a warning: this list is pulled entirely from my own mind and reflects my ears and my brain. As such, you'll probably disagree. I hope you do—and fill the comments box with lists of great sounding records by way of protest. And, again, it's pretty much just the rock / indie / whatever records I'm bothering with here. Here we go…
01. Spiritualized – Ladies & Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space
Starting the list as a counterpoint to Oasis’ lumpen, fussy Be Here Now, Ladies & Gentlemen… is 1997’s perfect example of the right way to make an ambitious, complex rock record. Just as layered and dense as Be Here Now, Ladies & Gentlemen…’s juxtapositions between delicate beauty (“All of My Thoughts”) and seething chaos (“The Individual”) are rendered with incredible intimacy and majestic scope and power. When the two combine, such as on “Cop Shoot Cop,” the results are little short of astonishing. But Ladies & Gentlemen… doesn’t just trounce Oasis sonically—it also makes that other great statement from 1997, the one that EVERYBODY raves about, seem like a hollow, cold, and samey venture. Next to Ladies & Gentlemen…, OK Computer gets shown up rather badly; it simply doesn’t have the depth, clarity, or scope of Spiritualized’s masterpiece, in terms of music or production.
02. Jim O’Rourke – Insignificance
Jim O’Rourke has gone from being a curiously interesting figure to something close to a hero for me over the last 12 months—pretty much everything he touches is guaranteed to at least sound wonderful, even if the music itself isn’t to your taste. Gastr Del Sol, Sonic Youth, his solo albums, Loose Fur, and a whole host of others sound magical—detailed, rich, realistic, dynamic. Probably the best example of O’Rourke’s genius is what he did to Wilco. Play “Sunken Treasure” from Being There back-to-back with “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The difference is astonishing.
03. Lambchop – Nixon
Lambchop is a BIG band—something like 16 regular members and an array of others play on Nixon, from your standard guitar/bass/drums dudes to horns, strings, organs, backing singers, and the like—but never once over the course of this incredible, luscious record does it feel out of control. Both dense and spacious, intimate and expansive, subtle and dynamic, Nixon is a complete tour de force of sumptuous, emotive, elaborate country/soul. Just when you think strings are going to overwhelm, guitars drop in. Just when drums break loose, trumpets pull you back. Magnificent.
04. Scott Walker – The Drift
2006 has, thankfully, seen plenty of records that sound wonderful—Guillemots, Howe Gelb, Final Fantasy, Joan as Policewoman, Midlake, Ray Lamontagne, Grizzly Bear, Jarvis Cocker, Bonnie "Prince" Billy to mention just a few—but Walker’s massive, dark opus is probably the most staggering. It isn’t just avant-garde because it features 11-minute modern classical compositions about the wives of fascist leaders—the completely uncompressed production makes it sound radical on a basic, physical level. Oh, and the arrangements? Walker’s daemonic wail, the massed strings, swarms of insects whether real or created, a dead pig punched as percussion—the combined effect is disturbing, hallucinatory and frighteningly realistic, pin-drop quiet passages luring you towards the speakers before massed assaults hurl you backwards, shocked at the aural glory and terror of it all.
05. Primal Scream – XTRMNTR
Blah blah compression is bad blah blah digital distortion is horrible blah blah; yes, I know I’m risking becoming a bore, but just so you know I don’t only want to listen to minimal acoustic reveries recorded live in a shed with one microphone and no overdubs, committed straight to analogue tape and then delicately played through speakers with cones made from the plaited hair of untouched virgin girls, THIS is how to do compression, beats, nastiness, distortion, etc. RIGHT. From “Kill All Hippies” through “Shoot Speed/Kill Light,” XTRMNTR isn’t meant to sound natural and live and spacious, and thank Bobby (or, more accurately, Andrew Innes) for that. Bands like Muse, Bloc Party, and Franz Ferdinand pump up the levels into white-hot territory and lose the depth of what they’re doing because they’re bands; on this album, Primal Scream wanted to sound like anything but a band. Yes it’s harsh, yes it’s fascistic, but it’s also genuinely exhilarating, and without completely killing detail or depth. Dirty, sinful sonic genius.
06. MAKE-UP – Save Yourself
You can say what you like about Ian Svenonious and his post-Nation of Ulysses venture—many already have and I’m sure yet more will—but you have to admit that Save Yourself is a fantastically recorded album. The energy of punk, the freedom of jazz, the depth and warmth of soul and gospel—Save Yourself somehow captures it all. The piano and horns on “Come On Let’s Spawn” are brilliantly subtle, while Svenonious’ muffled, affected vocals carry mad, dangerous atmosphere. The rhythm section is perfectly cavernous and rattling, while the guitars, never full-on attention-seekers, slash and jive at the sides like a girl showing you too much hip and not quite making eye-contact. “I’m a cardboard box, baby, dressed like a man!” indeed.
07. At The Drive-In – Vaya EP
Relationship of Command, while an awesome record, suffers from Ross Robinson syndrome—it’s loud, flat, and obnoxious. That being said, it broke El Paso’s finest into the mainstream (well, sort of) and so can be forgiven. Possibly. (Although the effect an album’s sonics have on its commercial success is probably considerably less than, say, the marketing budget of the label / PR people.) Vaya, however, is astonishing. A vibrant, textured, propulsive and dynamic work, it reveals untold depths on repeated exposure. Just check the literal resonances that begin “Raschuache,” and the incredible dynamics of “198d” as the band jump from delicate, solitary silence into glorious full-throttle. Why the hell don’t all rock records sound like this?
08. Tom Waits – Mule Variations
I was divided between this and Kate Bush’s immaculately domesticated and romantic return to the public sphere, Aerial, but while both are beautifully recorded adventures in musical idiosyncrasy, America’s favorite Hellboy-resembling troubadour wins out. The grinding, mumbling rattle of “Big in Japan” sits oddly next to the hushed classicism of “Picture In A Frame” and the spoken-word atmospherics of “What’s He Building,” but it all works. The sound is incredibly classy, but also rickety, lived-in, and carved by hand from dinosaur bones, ancient sailboats, and bourbon bottles.
09. Bark Psychosis - ///Codename:Dustsucker
///Codename:Dustsucker is a synaesthetic soundworld, layers of music and noise bound together with rhythm and melody, a voice here, a guitar there, a 303, trumpet, sheet of interference, dub cavern… The music itself is ominous, complex, and darkly-humored, but the presentation and attention to detail is something else altogether. Dustsucker is far from a quiet, polite record, but it still manages to contain huge amounts of space amidst its occasionally hellish miasmas of noise, the delicately-rendered acoustic guitars and vocals of “Burning the City” at odds with the slow consumption in feedback of “Shapeshifting” and the acidic squalls and deathly pace of “INQB8R.” It’s not just a record to listen to—it’s a universe to climb inside.
10. The Beatles - Love
Never mind what you think of the concept; remixing and remastering has finally, at long last, made The Beatles absolutely come alive on CD. Those early 1987 pressings were done before the medium was fully understood, and as a result the stereo mixing is appalling—for twenty years people have been moaning that Ringo’s a rubbish drummer purely because he’s squeezed into one channel. Now, his rolls and fills are playing right across the soundstage and he sounds awesome. A lot of modern CD remasters seem to exist purely as ways of making older artists sound as loud and obnoxious as their modern day counterparts (the recent Talking Heads releases, while exciting, are a touch too in-your-face and flat, for instance). Some are done sensitively and add to the music—Can and Love spring to mind—but George and Giles Martin’s work, and especially Steve Rooke’s, on Love have to be taken as the benchmark now.