Just as we asked the writers to pick their most important pieces of equipment since Hi-Fi Plus began, we also asked them to pick some of their top music choices. The editorial ‘brief’ here was just as ‘brief’ as before – pick an influential record from this century, and preferably one from the last. Nothing more. We didn’t want to influence writers to choose their best test LP or the album they thought they should like – we’ve even stripped out the format chosen for that reason – and instead we asked them to concentrate on the music.
Not only is this an attempt to highlight good music made since the time of Plus, but it also addresses a key grumble oft heard muttered by audiophiles – that there’s no good music anymore. Here is the proof that statement is complete nonsense!
The White Stripes: Elephant (2003)
OK, so Elephant is pretty far from ‘audiophile approved’ , and it’s not the first, last or (arguably) even the best album from the ex-husband and wife team, but it was this album that really pushed my buttons. In post-millennial slough of despond that the music world went through (the business is dying, there’s no good music anymore), the White Stripes lo-fi Grammy winning move to big label success showed just how wrong the nay-sayers (including this one) could be.
Recorded all-analogue in London’s valve and tape Toe Rag Studios in two weeks, Elephant cemented Jack White’s reputation as Rock God (with one of the best collections of weird guitar ephemera and old blues records) with its 14 tracks of mostly short, mostly loud, mostly twisted-blues masterpieces.
From the treated acoustic guitar as bass line of ‘Seven Nation Army’ that opens the album, through the classy blues wig-out of ‘Ball and Biscuit’, to the almost post-punk rocking out ‘Girl! You Have No Faith in Medicine’, it was full- on genius, with the sort of loud, shouty guitar solos that you know divided the rock world into ‘why didn’t I think of that?’ and people learning every single note. Loud, shouty and thin on a good system, but who cares... it woke up a music biz (for a while at least).
This is one of those albums you need to own on vinyl, and it needs to have been played to death, because it’s the kind of music where pops and scratches actually improve the sound of the album. Not because it’s a lo-fi recording, but because it’s the kind of music that makes a pristine pressing sound sterile and prim. It demands a story – if you can say something like “Yeah, it skips a bit here because it got hit by an ashtray during a drunken knife fight with a monkey. No biggie!” you get bonus points. The only downside with this album is no matter what, you will never be as cool as Jack White. Ever.
Mozart: Piano Concertos 20-25 Vladimir Ashkenazy, LPO
Made in the 1970s and 1980s, re-released as a two-disc set by Decca in the late 1990s, this is very much old-school classical recording technique. It’s got none of the ‘down the gullet’ close mic technique popularised by the recordings of Mitsuko Uchida, this is piano and orchestra, recorded in a public concert hall (although these are not live recordings and you are the audience). But it’s not some ‘made for audiophiles’ bland recording, it’s one of the finest interpretations of Mozart around, in my opinion.
My take on classical music has been mostly something close to the philistine for most of my years. The powerful orchestral side... I got in a kind of ‘film score’ kind of way. The technical brilliance of Bach I get in a ‘failed musician’ respect style. But I’ve always considered Mozart to be just too ‘chocolate box’. Outstanding virtuosity, but essentially musical confectionary. Then I heard Ashkenazy play. It wasn’t so much as he opened Mozart to me, but he opened up all that comes after you ‘get’ Mozart too. String quartets that I thought were cerebral noodling. Lieder that I dismissed as well-tuned gargling. I’m even beginning to open my mind to opera.
Yes, it’s a good recording, showing what middle-period Decca engineers could do with an orchestra and a piano. Yes it has a lot of the separation round the instruments that audiophiles like to hear. But ultimately none of that matters – it’s the ‘aha’ moment that came when I ‘got’ Mozart, which means I don’t tend to play this much as a test disc. It’s too important to me for that.