How to make your speakers sound better: Play better-sounding music

Face the music: subpar recordings make your speakers or headphones sound, well, nowhere as good as they can be. Here's a list of awesome-sounding recordings.

Decent-sounding records are becoming increasingly rare, so I'd like to point out the great-sounding ones that have come my way in recent months. For more good stuff, check out my previous " Top 10 must-have CDs " lists from 2009.

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, The Live Anthology

First, I have to admit I'm not a big TP fan, but I love this four-disc live collection culled from a database of 3,500 songs, including 169 takes of "American Girl" performed between 1980 and 2007. The tunes aren't arranged in chronological order, but the sound quality remains high from start to finish. Vocals are clear, dynamic range kicks butt, and you hear the fans whooping it up to good effect. Petty does a lot of covers, my favorites run from "Goldfinger" to the old Fleetwood Mac tune, "Oh Well."

Drive By Truckers, "Live From Austin, TX"

This show, from September 26, 2008, has something for everyone: it rocks, it smokes, and it's very easy on the ears and eyes. You can buy the CD or the CD packed with a DVD of the same show. That's what I have, and the band really does put on a terrific show. Sound is clean and clear; I don't think they mucked around with it very much, though I do prefer the CD's sound.

Owen Pallett, "Heartland"

Owen Pallett, aka Final Fantasy, isn't exactly your average rock musician. For starters he plays violin, and if you're a fan of Arcade Fire, Grizzly Bear, or Beirut, you've heard his sound. "Heartland" is an expansive work, with densely orchestrated tunes, but don't get nervous; it still appeals to an indie rock crowd. Sound quality, on CD and 45 RPM LP, is spectacularly good. You're going to see "Heartland" on a lot of best-of-2010 lists in December, but why wait?

The Doors, "Live in New York"

The Doors' "Live in New York" contains all of the Doors' performances at the Felt Forum in New York in 1970. All four shows were recently mixed and mastered by the band's longtime engineer, Bruce Botnick. Sound quality is, and not just for a 40-year-old recording, exceptional. It's very dynamic and totally vivid. This six-CD set ain't cheap, but Amazon is listing a "Live in New York" LP that'll come out in March for a lot less than half the price of the CD set.

Loudon Wainwright III, "High, Wide, & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project"

For this project folk singer Wainwright assembled a large group of players, including his children Rufus, Martha, and Lucy Wainwright to play the music of, or inspired by, Charlie Poole. The sound is clear and absolutely pure, with no artificial processing or effects, just beautiful voices and acoustic instruments. They sound real and fully alive. This is LWIII's best record in years.

My Canadian Girlfriend, "Time Was We Had World Headquarters"

This one came to me as a 45 RPM LP, and boy, the sound hit me hard. My Canadian Girlfriend plays fresh-sounding rock, loaded with jangly guitars, hooky lyrics, propelled by a seriously potent rhythm section. This five-song LP is pure analog--no zeros or ones ever touched the music--and it sounds better for it. It was recorded and mastered in Chicago.

Nellie McKay, "Normal as Blueberry Pie"

McKay is a 28-year-old singer/songwriter, but on this record she covers tunes associated with Doris Day. Whatever; the jazzy arrangements and McKay's sassy vocals sound mighty fine together. Recorded in one of New York City's best studios, Sear Sound, "Blueberry Pie" is so warm and rich it sounds like a throwback to a classic 1950s sound. I've only heard the CD, but I'm sure it sounds even better on the available LP.

Walter Booker Quintet, "Bookie's Cookbook"

This is a pure audiophile recording, captured "live" in the studio, without any dynamic range compression, equalization, noise reduction, or processing of any kind. Bassist Booker's nimble jazz group sounds like they're having a blast. But it's the sound that really blew me away; over a decent hi-fi the band will materialize between the speakers. It sounds realistic in ways few CDs ever do. "Bookie's Cookbook" came out in 2000, but it's so good I had to include it on this list.

Tell us about your favorite-sounding records in the Comments section below.

 

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