The best sounding music of 2015 (pictures)

The Audiophiliac picks the best of the best-sounding albums he's heard so far this year.

Steve Guttenberg
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 Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
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Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, "Live at the Tower Theater Philadelphia, 1975"

Good or bad sound can't be credited to or blamed on digital, analog, vinyl, CD, or even MP3 -- those are release formats. It's the innate quality of a recording and the choices the engineers made that make or break the sound, and that's what I'm talking about in these capsule reviews.

This one comes from the Live Bruce Springsteen website, and it's amazing. Springsteen and the E Street Band are young and they play their asses off! This awesome-sounding analog recording was transferred to high-res digital in 2015, and it's now available in a range of formats: MP3, CD, and lossless files. The site has a great selection of the Boss' shows from the glory days up to 2014.

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Colin Stetson/Sarah Neufeld, "Never Were the Way She Was"

Stetson's sax's deep-from-the-gut moans, while the textural cascades of Neufeld's violin run over and through your ears. This album sometimes sounds like a crazy film score or a somber meditation, cueing reactions over an emotionally treacherous terrain. Neufeld (who is also a member of Arcade Fire) and her violin sooth, careen or swoop like a wild animal. "Never Were the Way She Was" is an experience like no other.

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Led Zeppelin, "Led Zeppelin II"

This 2014 remaster by Zeppelin's Jimmy Page of the 180-gram LP album sounds fantastic. Heavy metal started with the band's debut, "Led Zeppelin," and only got better with the second album. This LP sounds clearer than ever, with a deeper, bigger soundstage; "II" is the best place to start if you're curious about why the Led Zeppelin legend looms so large.

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Craig Leon, "Bach to Moog"

To mark the 10th anniversary of Dr. Robert Moog's passing, Sony Classical released "Bach to Moog," a brand-new album showcasing the newly reissued Moog System 55 Modular Synthesizer and featuring the works of Johann Sebastian Bach. The synthesizer is accompanied by a beautifully recorded acoustic orchestra.

Even so, "Bach to Moog" must be compared with Walter (now Wendy) Carlos' groundbreaking all-Moog synthesizer album "Switched-On Bach" from 1968. That one sold millions of albums worldwide and is credited with bringing the synthesizer into the mainstream of pop music. "Bach to Moog" sounds better, more refined, and thanks to the acoustic instruments, more natural. That said, "Switched-On Bach" is still an extraordinary accomplishment.

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David Grisman and Tony Rice, "Tone Poems"

This album brings together two string masters, David Grisman and Tony Rice, mix bluegrass and jazz on a duets collection, playing vintage Martin and Gibson mandolins and guitars. "Tone Poems" and its follow-up, "Tone Poems II" were recorded, mixed, and mastered without any added equalization or dynamic range compression.

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Kirk Knuffke, "Arms and Hands"

Knuffke plays coronet, and leads his trio and guest players through a varied set of tunes. Knuffke's drummer's sound is massive, and his bassist is no slouch; together they lock down fierce grooves. Definitely the sort of CD you can use to show off your headphones' or speakers' sound to friends.

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Villagers, "Darling Arithmetic"

Villagers are pretty much all about just one guy, singer/songwriter, Conor O'Brien, and on his new album he quietly spills his guts. "Darling Arithmetic" is an intimate, mostly acoustic journey of a man thinking about relationships. The minimally produced, sparse instrumentation and quiet vocals really draw you in.

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Work of Art, "Winds of Change"

A stunning recording of a great band, led by Art Halperin. It's mostly acoustic, and Halperin's infectious tunes are performed with real joy. The title tune, "Wind of Change," is next to impossible to get out of your head. It's the sort of album that's easy to get into, and one you'll keep in heavy rotation. I listened to the CD, but "Winds of Change," is also available in high-resolution formats.

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Kronos Quartet, "Early Music"

With a title like "Early Music" you might assume the Kronos String Quartet was headed back to the 14th century, and while there's some of that in here, most of the music veers closer to our time. There's music by Arvo Part, Harry Partch, John Cage, Moondog, and more. In addition to the Quartet, some tracks feature harmonium, bagpipe, zhong ruan, nyckelharpa and drums. It's a lovely recording, full of space and air.

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Doug MacLeod, "Exactly Like This"

Doug MacLeod sounds so darn comfortable playing the blues as his band lays down the supplest of grooves. The sound is something else again, pure and clean as can be, with unencumbered dynamic range. This CD will probably make your headphones and speakers sound better than you've heard before.

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Jacky Terrasson, "Take This"

Terrasson's hands sound like they're on fire. For his latest album he's pounding the keys on acoustic and Fender Rhodes electric piano, and his hyper-kinetic rhythm section give their all. You hear African, Caribbean and Cuban influences -- and then there's the bass, deep and tight!

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Dick Hyman, "From the Age of Swing"

A bona-fide audiophile masterpiece, this jazz album sounds shockingly realistic, free of dynamic range compression and processing. Pianist Dick Hyman leads an all-star band with Phil Bodner, Urbie Green, Milt Hinton, Butch Miles, Bucky Pizzarelli, Joe Temperley, Frank Wess and Joe Wilder. If you want to hear how natural recorded sound can be, buy this album.

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