09 November 2010

Ten Great Recordings (Pt. 1)

Right now I'm listening to a live CD by Patricia Barber, Companion (1999). My hair is standing on end. This is an audiophile recording, captured with 32 mics by a very talented sound engineer, Jim Anderson. Even on my decent-but-modest headphone rig, it sounds like I'm sitting right at the stage. I can occasionally hear a glass clink behind me in the audience. It's completely immersive.

Every time I listen to a recording like this, I wonder why most recordings, on a technical level, fail to sound even half as good. Live recordings often sound much better than studio recordings, benefiting from less slicing, dicing and production. So there is that. I've already discussed the loudness war. The producer's tastes and engineers' competence also have much to do with it. And sometimes magic just happens. Usually it doesn't.

I treasure like rare and shiny seashells albums that transcend the disappointing average. I wish I liked classical music more, because recording standards for classical are generally very high. But I couldn't recommend a single classical recording. Jazz recordings likewise are often engineered to very high standards, and I like jazz. Pop and rock are very hit or miss, mostly miss. Metal is a complete write-off.

Part of the problem is that very dense music, like rock or metal, fills up too much sonic space to permit rich dynamics. Jazz, folk, and even country breathes in a way heavier music just cannot. So the following selection of sonically great albums is necessarily skewed to "light" music. I also avoid rare stuff (MFSL, Japanese SHM-CD releases, etc.). Most of these are easily found on Zune, my preferred music service, or of course iTunes.

Melody Gardot, Worrisome Heart (2008) - This first album by breakout jazz artist Melody Gardot is not only beautifully recorded and mastered, it's simply beautiful. One of my favorite albums, period. Her 2009 sophomore offering, My One And Only Thrill, is also excellent in all respects, but not quite as intimate, using full orchestration.

Jenny Lewis, Acid Tongue (2008) - This second album from Rilo Kiley frontwoman Jenny Lewis is another personal all-time favorite. The album would be brilliant no matter how badly produced, but the recording and mastering may be the best you will ever hear on a rock album. When the chorus comes in on the title track, I guarantee you will get chills. The stereo mastering is almost binaural. It sounds like you're standing right in the studio with them.

Rebecca Pidgeon, Retrospective (2003) - This "Best of" compilation was issued by Chesky as a Hybrid SACD, meaning it has both CD and SACD layers. It is an audiophile disc and tracks from it are found are various audiophile sampler CDs. I find the disc a little uneven, but the best tracks ("Spanish Harlem," "Auld Lang Syne") are a delight. All of Pidgeon's recordings are very well engineered.

Brad Paisley, Time Well Wasted (2005) - This has been praised as one of Paisley's best albums, with especially strong songwriting. I wanted to include at least one country album here, and the recording and production work on Time Well Wasted is quite good. The instrumental break "Time Warp," for example, is dense but shows great instrument separation and placement, and sparkling dynamics. I think country music is typically less abused in mastering that pop and rock, where producers just want it LOUD LOUD LOUD.

Andrew Bird - Noble Beast (Deluxe Edition) (2009) - Andrew Bird is one of the most talented musicians that almost no one has ever heard of. One reviewer described him as a "hyper-literate singer/songwriter, genre-bending violin player, and peerless whistler." I saw him first on Austin City Limits and he blew me away. This a great album and well produced.

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