Poll: The most atrocious-sounding music

A lot of new recordings sound really bad. Granted, personal taste plays a big part in defining good or bad sound. Tell us about the worst of the worst.

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
2 min read

The worst sounding recording of 2007, so far.

Iffy sound quality isn't a new problem. Bad sound can't directly be blamed on digital, analog, vinyl, CD, or even MP3. Those are release formats; the quality of the recording itself is what I'm talking about.

Granted, personal taste plays a big part in defining good or bad sound. For every person who says the sound is clear and detailed, there's another who thinks it's ragged and harsh.

That said, the trend of late is toward spitty distortion, the kind that obscures the sound of the vocals and instruments, and buries them in grunge. I'm not opposed to grit that adds an edge to music, but I can't stand recordings made by people who either don't know what they're doing or are too deaf to notice the error of their ways.

Bob Dylan, of all people, agrees with me.

"You listen to these modern records--they're atrocious, they have sound all over them. There's no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like--static," Dylan said in a Rolling Stone interview with Jonathan Lethem in September 2006.

He's not just referring to other people's records; he included his own record, "Modern Times," in his rant: "Even these songs probably sounded 10 times better in the studio when we recorded 'em." I believe Dylan. That album was a blurry wall of sound. You can hardly hear individual instruments.

The worst recording of 2009 so far--it's still early--is the Heartless Bastards' "The Mountain" CD. It's too bad because I really like the music. It rocks hard, and I love Erika Wennerstrom's strange voice, but there's severe distortion whenever she sings loud.

The distortion was so incredibly annoying that my speakers' tweeters sounded broken. If the distortion just appeared on the hard-edged, bluesier numbers, I might have thought that it was intentional, but the sound was just as ragged on "So Quiet," in which Wennerstrom is accompanied by violin.

The vocal distortion varies from tune to tune. It's worst on "Could Be So Happy," another acoustic tune. Besides the distortion, the sound is dynamically compressed to the hilt, so despite the music's undeniable passion, it sounds lifeless.

I'm frustrated, I like the music, but I can't listen to it without wincing. For what it's worth, "The Mountain" was mastered by Howie Weinberg. Nice job!

Runner up for worst sound of the year: Bruce Springsteen's "Working on a Dream." What a mess! That's true for most of the Boss' albums, but the sound of "Dream" may be the worst in any Springsteen album to date.

Tell us about your picks for worst sound of the year, or all time worst sound.