HiFi-Plus 67: Top 10 21st Century Test Discs (part II)

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HiFi-Plus 67: Top 10 21st Century Test Discs (part II)

Last time, we served up 10 discs that have been made in the in the last nine years, but still offered the ultimate in sound quality. Then we asked you to do the same. This is the result.

To recap, we tried to find the replacements to Couldn’t Stand the Weather, Famous Blue Raincoat and the rest of the pantheon of test discs all created more than a generation ago. The records had to be within the rock/pop/ contemporary realm (because jazz and classical enthusiasts usually know their genre well enough to know – or reject – what’s current) and not necessarily audiophile recordings, because these should be the sort of albums normal people can buy on the high street… if there’s still a place to by CDs on your high street.

We picked the 10 most talked about, most recommended and most interesting discs from your letters and emails. They seemed to divide into three categories; new recordings from new bands, new recordings from old faithfuls and ‘lads and dads’ transmissions from teenage iPod to parental hi-fi system. Realistically, we could have put together a top 147 discs. So, our apologies if some or all of your recommendations didn’t make it; we consider all of them, but those who got more than one recommendation generally made the grade.

Biffy Clyro

Puzzle

Puzzle was the first major-label album from the Scottish rough-hewn trio. It’s a smoother, more poppy CD than previous outings for the band; this has caused the band’s original following some upset, but this meant Puzzle has migrated from teen iPod to home CD player. A small army of dads have heard their kids playing this album… and liked what they heard. Think Foo Fighters-esque raw rock with Queen meets Muse-like pomp, all wrapped up in an energetic and extremely dynamic recording. It’s not for everyone – it’s still raw, still angry and sometimes more than a little bit sweary – but it’s one hell of a disc… and it gives you a small amount of street cred with the younger generation. Outstanding tracks (for us old gits, at least) include ‘Living is a Problem because Everything Dies’, ‘Saturday Superhouse’ and ‘As Dust Dances’.

LCD Soundsystem

Sound of Silver

A healthy contingent of audiophiles were forged in the 1980s, which is why so many called for the inclusion of James Murphy’s second outing. Why? Because the NYC producer mixes in elements of everything from Brian Eno to Kraftwerk to Cabaret Voltaire and more besides. But it’s not stuck in the 1980s, there’s intelligent dance, post punk (and Daft Punk) music in there, with a wry sense of humour permeating the whole album. Taut and upbeat with a clear, deep bass, the album is as much geared toward listening as it is dancing. A sure sign of a good album is being unable to pick out a good track, but the first three – ‘Get Innocuous’, ‘Time To Get Away’ and ‘North American Scum’ – are real stunners.

 

Radiohead

In Rainbows

Perhaps better known for the controversy than the music, In Rainbows was first released as a ‘pay what you like’ digital download from Radiohead’s website directly before it was released on CD and vinyl. In fact, it’s also an excellent album, a far less politically-motivated version of Radiohead than previously seen in albums like Hail to the Thief and OK Computer. It’s also far more guitar-oriented than we’ve seen from Radiohead in quite a while. It takes a few listening sessions to get into, but the stark and sombre In Rainbows is in many respects Radiohead’s most complete album to date. Another album that’s hard to pin down, because every track works best when taken as a whole, although ‘Nude’ is a fine and very typically Radiohead song. Sonically not quite demonstration quality (although the 45rpm vinyl version is pretty damned excellent), it’s still one of the best albums of the last decade.

 

Green Day

American Idiot

Another generational crossover, another shift from young punks to commercial rockers. Green Day’s early output—such as Dookie—was loud, raucous and entertaining punk-kid pop thrash. By comparison, American Idiot is virtually a concept album, charting the life of a disaffected teenager in Bush’s America. Once again, the hard-core fans rejected this as mere commercialism, the themes of the album were far from clearly defined and their nature made the album less than palatable to American conservatives.

It’s still a raucous and often foul-mouthed ride through Americana, but like Puzzle, it’s worth the effort.

Shelby Lynne

Just a Little Lovin’

Country singer Lynne teamed up with producer legend Phil Ramone a couple of years ago and released this album of tributes to torch-song superstar Dusty Springfield. The 11 tracks – taken mostly from A Girl Called Dusty and Dusty in Memphis – are given a sparse, acoustic treatment (very different from the big orchestra works backing Dusty’s 1960s versions) and an almost root-and-branch reworking on each one. Perhaps not as forceful as the original Dusty recordings, this is nonetheless one heck of an album with Doug Sax mastering, and engineer Al Schmitt was nominated for a Grammy for the sound quality of this album (it lost out to Consolers of the Lonely, by the Raconteurs, which was in the first part of this Top 10 in issue 65). The outstanding track here is the first (the title track), but they all have their own worth.

Diana Krall

Live in Paris

Al Schmitt may have missed out on a Grammy for Just a Little Lovin’, but he fared better when he engineered Diana Krall’s seventh album, Live in Paris. The album won the Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album in 2002. As the name suggests, it’s an album of live sets of jazz standards recorded at the Paris Olympia, between November 29 and December 2, 2001. Krall (on piano, vocals and Fender Rhodes) is at her improvisational peak, and her associated musicians are exceptional here, both at traditional standards like ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ and ‘S’Wonderful’ and with more contemporary classics, such as Billy Joel’s ‘Just the Way You Are’.

The whole album gives a sense of live, natural recordings space and soundstaging that could put many an audiophile recording to shame.

 

The White Stripes

Elephant

Jack and Meg White’s fourth studio album saw the duo pitch up at BBC Maida Vale and the famously retro and analogue Toe Rag Studios in Shoreditch. Staying within the band’s successful garage blues rock formula, this time with a big label and just as grumpy as ever, Elephant features perhaps the best opening track of any album this decade—‘Seven Nation Army’. Add in sultry numbers like ‘In the Cold, Cold Night’ (featuring Meg’s coquettish vocals) and showy tracks like ‘Girl, you have no faith in Medicine’, and the whole package takes the lo-fi White Stripes and gives them a recording with as much zest and energy as the band itself. And that’s impressive.

Early White Stripes albums sound like they’ve been recorded on a portastudio in a living room (because, sometimes, they have) and later albums suffer from ‘loudness war’ compression, but Elephant got the formula just right. Perfect for checking out dynamic range of any system, especially at volume.

 

John Fogerty

Revival

Best known as one of the founding members of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Fogerty returned to the public gaze in the late 1990s. His first studio album in three years, 2007’s Revival sees Fogerty back with his old Fantasy label and on top form with an album of solid country-infused swamp rock. He’s never far from his old Creedence roots – one of the best tracks on the album is called ‘Creedence Song’ – but it’s now a happier connection than it has been for many years. Don’t expect earth shattering, ground-breaking stuff – although ‘I Can’t Take It No More’ brings a smattering of Punk to the CCR rock ‘n’ roll formula – and there’s lots of songs about cowboys and gunslingers, but it never once descends into soft-rock Eagles style country. A good no-nonsense album, but one that’s also perfect to give your speaker cones a good rattlin’.

 

Mastodon

Crack the Skye

The most recent launch in the list is also one of the heaviest ever recommended in Hi-Fi Plus. As you might guess by the name, Mastodon are officially Very Metal; the Georgia based band are a key player in the New Wave of American Heavy Metal movement (along with acts like Biohazard, Prong and System of a Down). Mastodon’s fourth album was released in March this year and is the tale of an astral projecting quadriplegic, mixing in Rasputin, the devil and Stephen Hawking. Think Hawkwind, but with more graunch.

This marks a bold shift for the genre, a more away from just grinding guitars and throaty lyrics and toward more structurally dense, progressive and thematic form of metal. It’s hard to develop grown-up themes in a genre that is often dismissed as the domain of teenage boys, but if anyone can, Mastodon can. And, from a musical perspective, it’s good to hear a new metal album that is not beset by compression.

 

Katie Melua 

Piece by Piece

Breathy Georgia-born jazz songstress Melua hit the ground running in 2003 with her Call off the Search debut. It brought her fame, fortune and a perfect songwriting partner in one-time Womble Mike Batt. She had the perfect singing voice for the music too, but by her second album that had been smoothed and refined still further.

Beautifully produced to stay just the right side of saccharine, the dozen tracks on Piece by Piece are bluesy, jazzy and elegantly crafted.

You could be mistaken for thinking you are listening to Norah Jones-lite, but the bright and breezy summer’s day sound draws you in all the same. Outstanding tracks include the singles ‘Nine Million Bicycles’ and ‘I Cried for You’, but except for the almost unforgivable cover of ‘Blues in the Night’, every track offers up perfect slices of adult oriented jazzy pop. 

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