Music that'll make your speakers sound better

Despite a lot of evidence to the contrary, great-sounding CDs are still being made.

Great-sounding albums are becoming increasingly rare, so when I find noteworthy efforts I'm happy to share the news. The goal is highlighting new stuff--or at least newly recorded/remastered music--so there's no need to include Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" or Steely Dan's "Aja." I assume you're already hip to the best music from decades past; I'm trying to spread the word about the best new music over a range of styles, with something for every taste.

For more sonicly superior music, check out my " How to make your speakers sound better: Play better-sounding music " and " The best-sounding music of 2010 " blogs from last year. Feel free to chime in with your own music suggestions in the Comments section.

The National, High Violet

The National, "High Violet"

I've always loved this band's music, but I have to admit I wasn't thrilled with the sound of "High Violet" the first few times I played it. There's a lot going on--maybe too much--they've got the band, plus strings, horns, and choirs, so the mixes seemed crowded and the reverb felt overly dense. Talk about too much information. But now I think that's what makes it great. Just let the music wash over you. It's simply gorgeous.

Doug MacLeod, "Brand New Eyes"

Doug MacLeod is a blues singer and guitarist, but he doesn't mine old blues standards. No, he sings his originals; he's a very talented writer, and a bona fide master of the Piedmont and South Delta blues. Sonically, "Brand New Eyes" is nearly perfect, I just wish Macleod's vocals had a wee bit more body and soul. But the guitar sounds uncompressed and tonally spot-on. It sounds real.

The Dirtbombs, "Party Store"

The Dirtbombs are a Detroit-based punk garage band--at least I thought they were. Here on "Party Store" they take on a more Germanic/techno stance, but their Detroit roots are still visible. There are covers of techno tunes like "Strings of Life," "Bug in the Bass Bin," and "Cosmic Cars." Whatever--the Dirtbombs' rock is unstoppable. This is one of those records that sounds best turned up nice and loud.

Charlie Hunter, "Public Domain"

This time it's all about Hunter. He's my favorite living jazz guitar player, and on this new release there's no band, it's just Hunter and his seven-string guitar. He simultaneously plays the electric bass and guitar parts on that instrument. As the title implies, he covers old tunes; all picked by his 99-year-old grandfather! The sound is close up, with a delicate halo of reverb surrounding the instrument. Hunter recorded the entire album in one day at a studio in Brooklyn. Everything is live, with no edits or fancy effects.

Dado Moroni, "Live in Beverly Hills"

I had never heard of Dado Moroni before I popped his new CD on my Oppo player, but the Italian jazz pianist instantly made a strong impression. Repeated plays only deepened my appreciation, thanks to Moroni's hard-hitting grooves and stellar melodic invention that never quit. Moroni's piano trio makes it all sound completely effortless and fun. Morini's Fazioli piano is a magnificent instrument, and over good speakers or headphones you'll hear one of the best, most realistic sounding piano recordings made in this century. "Live in Beverly Hills" comes with an equally good-sounding DVD of the same live concert.

Miles Davis, "Bitches Brew Live"

The performances were recorded at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1969 and the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970. The three previously unreleased Newport tunes sound great, but the six tunes from Isle of Wight are even better. The Wight band--Gary Bartz (alto sax, soprano sax), Chick Corea (electric piano), Keith Jarrett (organ), Dave Holland (bass), Jack DeJohnette (drums), and Airto Moreira (percussion)--are on fire! Miles was out to win over the festival's rock audience, and he kicked up the energy level a notch or two over what you've heard from the studio version of this iconic album.

Simon and Garfunkel, "Bridge Over Troubled Water: 40th Anniversary Edition"

S & G's last and best studio album is full of surprises and variety, leaping from "The Boxer" to a Peruvian folk tune Simon wrote lyrics for, and "Bye Bye Love," an old Everly Brothers song, and the still spine-tingling title track. The new remaster is spectacularly vivid and yet maintains the LP's analog warmth; the sound is definitely still capable of raising goose bumps. The set also includes a DVD with a terrific new making-of documentary and a 1969 TV special, "Songs of America."

Savage Aural Hotbed, "Glove of Sound"

Savage Aural Hotbed is an all-percussion group hailing from Minneapolis. They play drums large and small, along with jugs, metal rods, springs, graphite fiber prosthetic limbs, PVC bagpipes, and a massive 750-gallon plastic barrel, with mics strategically placed inside and out. Savage Aural Hotbed's rhythmic dexterity and sheer density of sound will test the limits of even the best hi-fi systems.

Want more? Check out Stereophile Magazine's Records to Die For best-of list. It's a kind of mini window into the musical souls of its contributing editors.

About the author

Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Home Theater, Inner Fidelity, Tone Audio, and Stereophile.

 

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