What Good Audio Sounds Like for Listeners Lost in a Post-Spotify World
There will never be another era like the 1960s and 1970s for exposure to music. Radio was the all-ruling medium, and formats were so broad it was impossible to avoid music you hated. That may not sound like a good thing, but in between those tunes and the ones you loved, there was automatic exposure to so many points in between.
Today, we get locked into narrow rooms, where algorithms suggest new songs based on what we already digest. Streaming audio narrows playlists even tighter than contemporary broadcast radio. If there’s a market for Songs About Squirrels for People in Melancholy Moods Between First and Second Coffee on Sunday Morning, there’s likely a channel for that.
While being surrounded by music we love is a good thing, it’s much harder for many to venture out of the safe listening neighborhood. This list of 12 albums from across the last 60 years or so consists of great sounding music from a technical perspective, first and foremost. They are all commercially successful and, for the most part, critically acclaimed.
The deciding point is their awesome production and engineering values. Even if you don’t love the tuneage, you can turn your ear to the technical and come away with a positive experience. For instance, recording engineers of a certain vintage each have a copy of the Donald Fagen album, Nightfly. One minor hit, “New Frontier,” broke off the album, but it didn’t set sales records or light up the charts in a meaningful way. However, it’s regarded as a very clean, very well assembled collection of sounds, released at a time when digital audio was still finding its sea legs. The album still stands as a reference standard. It’s an example of what good sounds like.
If you’re not familiar with a title on this list, consider checking out it, if for no reason other than to expand your knowledge of good. Who knows, you may discover a new favorite by accident. The list is arbitrary, vaguely chronological, not ranked by quality, so no need to argue about the numbers. Yes, there are hundreds more albums than should, and probably were, considered. Don’t get angry, this is just a sampler!
By many measures, Kind of Blue is the most successful jazz album ever. Not only in terms of sales – it still sells briskly in all formats – but also in terms of progressing jazz beyond bebop into modal and free jazz. But you don’t need to know that to appreciate the sound and emotion. This is the album of a million candlelit Friday nights for two.
They all but created so many aspects of the music industry. Massive record sales, stadium concerts, music videos, the studio as an instrument, the Beatles are popular music’s most effective pioneers. Abbey Road is the only album the group recorded with 8-track technology. The masterful hand of George Martin producing kept everything tasteful.
The songs are among Joni Mitchell’s finest. They’re presented on this album with clean, organic and natural instrumentation. Whether you love her voice or not, there’s no arguing this is a spacious sounding record with plenty of ear candy. Blue defines the singer-songwriter genre of the early 1970s.
The mega album of the 1970s, Rumours could be disqualified from this list due to technical issues that kept it from sounding its best. Perfectionist Lindsay Buckingham ran the tape back for so many overdubs the original multitrack started to fray. It’s still included due to its wall-to-wall strong songwriting and great production that survived the tape wear.
One of the first, and still one of the best, blendings of hard rock and hip hop, everything is crisp, clean and angry. Unlike many, many hard rock recordings, the crunchy guitars never dissolve into noise. Though in hindsight it may feel a bit sterile, this is aggressive music that doesn’t cause ear fatigue.
The Beatles influence on “Karma Police” is pure White Album for the Turn of the Century. Thom Yorke is another vocalist who seems to have no middle ground. He’s loved or hated. Regardless, with lively and creative arrangements played cleanly and recorded with warm and richness, the best songs on OK Computer blend into a cohesive sound without ever losing discrete instruments. The screeching accents never fully harsh the mellow. A notable achievement.
The start of the album is a succession of surprises: a symphonic swell, a descent into near-industrial noise into a more traditional urban music tune that starts out virtually in mono before expanding into a detailed soundscape. There’s care about the craft of recording that perfectly supports the musical choices.
The second album from electronic artist Burial, the quality of sounds on Untrue are of such a quality that the noise even sounds tasty. Extreme bass is satisfying and never obnoxious. There are so many organic and acoustic sounds that it almost defies ‘electronic’ as a genre. Burial uses a comparatively primitive audio editor, creating electronic music in an organic way. Whatever. It works.
Trying to upset the popular critical acceptance of the band’s early success, they approached producer Steve Albini to forge a natural sounding record, free of studio tricks. Raw, raunchy and open, In Utero is potent and powerful. For the best listening experience, seek out the 20th Anniversary remaster, but the original has no weak moments either, so don’t wait if the remaster is hiding.
Essentially a duo expanding for live shows, the electronic music of Underworld could only have emerged with the technology developed since 1980, when the band formed. Second Toughest in the Infants was their fourth album, released in 1996, around the time of the movie “Trainspotting,” which featured the band’s music. The 2015 remaster reveals even more splendid, urgent detail.