The Top Five Best Albums to use for reviewing hifi gear... or not.

“What the… who the hell is this?” my friend asked as he gave me side-eye from the sofa.

Paráilisis Permanente I yelled over the din of ‘80s Spanish surf-punk inspired drumming, keyboards, guitar power-chords and vocals with liberal studio compression added in post.

The band was only around a couple years between ’81 to ’83 and put out a handful of EPs and LPs, of which El acto was one of the few I could track down on a streaming service (thank-you Qobuz!) and while it’s the not the kind of album an audiophile is supposed to use for critical listening (I love the track “Te gustara,”) I enjoy it and don’t care whether it would past muster with the more critical reviewers or self-proscribed arbiters of what is “acceptable” out there who have half-a-dozen albums that are sacrosanct in their review repertoire ”Do you hear that slight midbass-suckout at 2200Hz?”. That attitude just sucks the life and joy out of listening for me and most of the music lovers I carouse with.

I often get asked what music I use when I’m assessing components for review, so I thought it was time to commit to page space a small fraction of the many albums I call upon or discover in the course of reviewing gear. I think using the same LPs again and again to conduct reviews or even for critical listening is teaching people new to this hobby that that’s what you’re supposed to do if you want to get the full “audiophile” experience. Sorry, but I disagree. Then there’s the dumpster fire that is an Internet comments section telling anyone who’ll listen what they should be listening to. Pick and play whatever you want – one of the greatest joys of listening to music for me lies less in listening to the same cuts again and again and more in hearing new music. Most of my music friends tend to agree. That said, there is merit in comparing tracks you know well on new equipment, but not to the exclusivity of any other music.

I’ve been eschewing the usual fare of recordings that seem to slowly seep into the (un)consciousness of reviewers for a while now and have no plans on going back to any of those old one-trick ponies in reviews that I thought were important to include because they were albums everybody out there reading the review would already have, or could identify with. I’d rather turn my readers onto to new music and expand their music libraries, not dust off old stalwarts. There’s waaaaaay too much new, or lesser-known, music out there to still sit and listen to the same old tired playlist of safe recordings many in the hobby cling to like the debris Kate Winslet lets DiCaprio slide off following their shared nautical disaster.

And will it continue to be the default to always include a classical album in there for the proper tenor of a hi-fi component review? No offence to classical lovers out there (full disclosure: I enjoy many great classical albums), but I know fewer and fewer music lovers under the age of 40 (and 30 in most cases) who care about classical as anything more than something which gets played in the background – a sad discovery to be sure. I’ve even overheard people in their 50s at hi-fi trade shows say they buy classical so they can understand what “massed strings” are all about (because they’ve read about it in a review or were told it was ”critical” that they do this) and whether their system is capable of properly handling them, which to me indicates Audiophile Nervosa more than a love for a string quartet.

Anyone remember when someone started playing Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories at a trade show (AXPONA? RMAF?) a couple years ago? I watched and then saw the septuagenarian eyes roll and sensed the disdain in the hallway as attendees exited the rooms of those who initially jumped on the idea of playing Memories after realizing it really could be considered “audiophile” material and had raced down to the marketplace on the lobby level to procure copies from the vinyl booths to spin.

It seemed to be regarded as folly by hifi cognoscenti for several hours and then it was all you could hear blasting out from almost every room on every floor of the show the following day as it was finally embraced… I guess it was Famous Blue Raincoat all over again, but hipper, cooler, modern and thankfully a complete 90-degree turn from the usual fare of Tin Pan Alley, Julie is Her Name, Kind of Blue or Hugh Masekela’s “Stimela” (Coal Train) that always seems to be in heavy rotation because these are all well-known cuts that lay in the sweet spot of the Venn diagram of music choices for show goers to listen to.

On to the list

OK, so I prefer to use disparate, perhaps lesser-known albums for listening to gear when reviewing, but I’m sure many out there on the Internet have their own processes for similar tasks, again these are mine and you’re welcome to love them or dismiss them, but as The Beatles sang so eloquently on “With A Little Help From My Friends:”

  • What do you see when you turn out the light?
  • I can't tell you, but I know it's mine

So too, my thinking on approaching high-fidelity hardware reviews from a more oblique angle where the music is new, unknown, or not considered a “standard.” It is different, it is mine and I tend to focus foremost on the reproduction of what I consider to be the most enjoyable music, as opposed to some status quo of well-worn grooves that must be trotted out.

1) and 2) Radiohead, Amnesiac and Kid A

Recorded as part of some 20-odd songs that was first halved to become Kid A in October 2000 and then hit on again for Amnesiac in June 2001, the recording sessions took place some 18 months following lead singer Thom York’s mental breakdown after touring for and promoting 1997’s OK, Computer. These two flirt with the idea of being concept albums in many ways and are all about deconstructed emotional connections to me. They are albums that require the listener to dive deep. The better the sound system you experience their playback on, the deeper your dive into them both becomes. They are dense, layered and overdubbed, both chaotic, both feature York as a protagonist desperate to shift or transition his empathies between life’s brilliance and its most banal moments. Both LPs roil and inspire, fragment and reassemble, but both also calm and create a sense of uneasy balance following a listening session.

These are LPs as introspection for the sonic observer through the open window of the band’s creative process at their most disconsolate and brilliant peak in my opinion and I wouldn’t have them any other way. These albums will push your system to its limit and let you know exactly what it’s capable of reproducing with any aural believability. If there is a weak link in your chain between source and transducer these two albums shall lay them bare for all to hear. Unravelling some of the densest analog and digitally-created/enhanced musical passages with total resolution is the final goal for me. With the notes growling and braying like a pack of feral dogs residing amongst the highest and lowest octaves between your speakers, these LPs become wild animals in your well-kept home, so be prepared to deal with either hearing things mashed together or each instrumental and vocal thread clearly defined. Victory or defeat awaits.

3) Jimmy Smith, The Sermon

I don’t know about you, but unless a system can reproduce the lowest notes off a Hammond B-3 organ with believability I’ll always have doubts about how well it’s been curated. I’m a sucker for great piano, keyboard and especially organ playing and since Jimmy Smith, with one foot each firmly planted in soul and jazz almost single-handedly brought the two together like peanut butter and jelly on a slice of bread through his trademark noodling on the B-3, I use his albums to critically gauge every component I receive for review. The Sermon, recorded in the Manhattan Towers Hotel Ballroom on August 25, 1957 and February 25, 1958, is 40 minutes of Smith at his best. Overflowing with talent like a suitcase packed in a rush, this Rudy Van Gelder-engineered album is hot with both Art Blakey and Donald Bailey on drums, Lou Donaldson and George Coleman on alto sax, Tina Brooks on tenor sax, Lee Morgan blowing hard on trumpet and Kenny Burrell along with Eddie McFadden taking names on guitar; you simply could not ask for a better album to help judge how a component can handle pitch, timbre or tonal color/intonations and timing.

COMMENTS
Richard D. George's picture

I concur regarding "I Saved Latin"

Others (for me). Don't pre-judge by the artist unless you have heard the specific cut. Like these both for assessing systems and just for listening:

Zero 7 - "Simple Things"
Jazzanova - "Upside Down" and other albums
Bela Fleck & Flecktones - "Rocket Science"
Stanley Clark, Al Di Meola & Jean-Luc Ponty - "Rite of Strings"
Donald Fagen - "The Nightfly"
Jeff Beck - "Diamond Dust" on "Blow by Blow"
Steely Dan - "Aja" on "Aja"
Sting - "Never Coming Home" on "Sacred Love"

Shahram B's picture

Great choices here Rafe. I love those two Radiohead albums. Will definitely check out the albums in your list I haven't heard (Tangerine Dream, Jimmy Smith). I listen to the music I love when I test out systems as well and they're definitely not audiophile standards. Here are some of my favorites:

- Mogwai - Come on Die Young
- Wilco - Being There
- Aphex Twin - Syro
- Bill Callahan - Dream River
- James Blake - James Blake

Anton's picture

Well done, Shahram!

Shahram B's picture

:)

maelob's picture

Thanks for the recommendations, really refreshing

24bitbob's picture

Joan Armatrading by ummmmm, ..... Joan Armatrading. The CD is a little bright compared to my vinyl copy, but it takes a really good system to reveal this wonderful album in all its glory.

I bought this album when it was first released in 1975 or '76. I liked it a lot the time, but it was only later I realised what a good test of a system it is. One time I was buying a new CD player (I ended up buying a two piece TEAC player with the VRDS mechanism) when the owner of the disappeared for half an hour leaving me in the shop alone - he went out and bought his own copy of the disc.

To top it all I just noticed that it's about to be released on SACD. It's a real gem.

funambulistic's picture

Great selection Rafe! I certainly agree with the Radiohead selections as they are my favorite albums from their body of work. Boards of Canada are awesome as well. I have not thought about Tangerine Dream literally in decades – perhaps I need to look at their back catalog - and am listening to I Saved Latin! as I write this (so far so good!). Here are some select works that I like to have on hand when I am demoing new components because 1) they sound awesome and 2) I really enjoy them when I’m “just listening”:

Dead Can Dance – Spirit Chaser
Clint Mansell – Pi: Music from the Motion Picture
Massive Attack – Mezzanine
Thomas Newman – American Beauty: Original Motion Picture Score
Peace Orchestra (Peter Kruder) – Peace Orchestra
Various Artists – The Animatrix: The Album

Anton's picture

Kudos!

Richard D. George's picture

I have exceeded my limit but would like to add one more cut:

GoGo Penguin - "Hopopono" from "V2.0"

A piano, a stand-up bass and a drum set.
On a good system this cut is exquisite.

foxhall's picture

Wynton Marsalis: The Magic Hour
Yellow: Toy
Thomas Dolby: Aliens Ate My Buick
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 (Manfred Honeck/Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra)
Kyle Eastwood: Timepieces

djstoogie's picture

Fantastic selections, I would add the following:

Wretches & Jabberers is musically one of the best compilation records I own with too many fantastic performances to mention. The sound quality is amazing, recorded on an all analog McIntosh system, mastered by Bob Ludwig, cut by Bernie Grundman

The re-issue of Masterpieces by Ellington re-defines how great a 60 yr old mono recording can sound and rewards with fantastic extended playing from this brilliant band

And finally the most revealing, natural, warm acoustic recording I've heard is Ry Cooder & V. M. Bhatt's A Meeting by the River on Water Lily. Improvised recording with no overdubs from two disparate musical cultures that together sound of one voice. Recorded on an all analog tube system, the sonics are just breathtaking. And to think these two masters met for the first time mere hours before this session. Inspirational

Chuckles304's picture

If These Trees Could Talk - Red Forest (entire album)
The Birthday Massacre - Goodnight
Choir of King's College, Cambridge - Adeste Fidelis
Gladiator: Music From the Motion Picture - The Battle (track 3)
Delain - The Glory and the Scum

SLH's picture

Amnesiac ("Life in a Glass House) contains a wonderful clarinet solo by Jimmy Hastings. As Yorke sings "Once again it's time for a lynching," Hastings quotes "Strange Fruit." On tenor sax, flute, and clarinet, Jimmy Hastings cradles each note as if it were a separate composition (I've had the pleasure to have heard him live twice). His work with Caravan is (for me) essential audition material, but I'm going to recommend his long, legato (thanks to circular breathing) flute solo on Hatfield and the North's "Rotter's Club"

Jimmy Hastings, "It Didn't Matter Anyway"

Lol Coxhill's soprano sax solo on "Red, Green, and You Blue" from Kevin Ayers and the Whole World's "Shooting at the Moon"

Three female vocals:

The Unthanks' cover of "Starless" on "Last"

Anna Järvinen "Vals för Anna" from Anna Själv Tredje

Connie Smith, "Burning a Hole in My Mind" from "I Love Charley Brown"

Everclear's picture

Thanks Rafe for your album recommendations ......... All of your recommended albums sound excellent :-) ....

Here are some of my album/track recommendations ........

Pink Floyd .......... The Dark Side of the Moon ......... Favorite track "Money" .....
Stanley Clarke ......... At the Movies ......... Several favorite tracks ..........
Blue Man Group ....... The Complex .......... Several favorite tracks .........
Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, Doc Severinson et al ........... Unforgettably Doc - Music of Love & Romance ...... Favorite track "Memory" .........
Daft Punk ........ Tron: Legacy (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) ......... Several favorite tracks ......
David Garrett, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra et al ........ Explosive (Deluxe) ......... Several favorite tracks ........
Eagles ......... Eagles Live ........... Several favorites tracks ........
Enigma ......... The Platinum Collection ......... Several favorite tracks ..........

More of my album/track recommendations are coming soon .........

In the mean time, here is one track for the road :-) ...........

DNCE .......... "Cake By the Ocean" :-) ..........

Happy listening :-) ...........

keggeron's picture

Great article, Rafe. I had to chuckle at Radiohead because I've been playing those albums almost continuously on my new LS50w system in my office and absolutely love it. Some albums I love to audition equipment with are:
1. Rush - A Farewell to Kings. This album has great range and is well mastered.
2. Depeche Mode - The Singles 86>98. Though many decry the compression applied to all music of this genre, I (and many others) listen to this type of music quite a lot.
3. Steve Miller Band - Fly Like An Eagle.
4. Amadeus - OST. Though not the best mastering, "Die Zauberflote Aria" is an incredible track for classical female vocals mixed with deep string instruments.
5. Paul Simon - The Rythm Of The Saints.

Everclear's picture

Here are more of my album/track recommendations :-) .......

Fleetwood Mac ......... The Very Best of Fleetwood Mac (Remastered) .......... Several favorite tracks ......
Foreigner ......... No End in Sight: The Very Best of Foreigner (Remastered) ........ Several favorite tracks ......
Frank Sinatra ......... Sinatra at the Sands (Live) ........ Several favorite tracks .........
Giorgio Moroder .......... Deja Vu .......... Sevral favorite tracks ........
Various Artists ......... Fifty Shades of Grey (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) .......... Several favorite tracks ...........
Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band ......... Act Your Age ........... several favorite tracks ........
Gotan Project ......... La Revancha del Tango (Bonus Track Version) ........... Several favorite tracks .........
Huey Lewis & The News ........... Greatest Hits (Remastered) ........... Several favorite tracks .........
Imagine Dragons ........ "Whatever it Takes" ...........
Imagine Dragons .......... "Believer" ..........
Imagine Dragons ........... "Thunder" ..........
Imagine Dragons .......... "Natural" .........
Kings of Leon .......... "Sex on Fire" .........
Lucas Graham ......... "Not a Damn Thing Changed" ...........

I'm gonna post some more of my album/track recommendations soon :-) ........

In the mean time here are two more track recommendations to celebrate with your favorite imported beverage :-) ............

Shinedown ......... "Second Chance" ............
The Cranberries ......... "Zombie" ........ Stars: The Best of 1992-2002 ........

Happy listening :-) ............

Everclear's picture

Here are some more of my recommendations :-) ...........

Bruce Hornsby ............ Greatest Radio Hits (Remastered) ............. Several favorite tracks ........
Creedence Clearwater Revival .............. Chronicle: The 20 Greatest Hits .......... Several favorite tracks ...........
Dire Straits ............. Private Investigations .......... The Best of Dire Straits & Mark Knopfler ........ Several favorite tracks ..........
Electric Light Orchestra .......... All Over the World: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra ........... Several favorite tracks .............
Journey ............ The Essential Journey ............. Several favorite tracks ...............
Meghan Trainor .......... "All About That Bass" ............
Meghan Trainor .......... "Bang Dem Sticks" ...........
Meghan Trainor .......... "Title" ..........
Meghan Trainor ........... "NO" ..........
Meghan Trainor ........... "Kindly Calm Me Down" ............
Michael Jackson ........... Bad ........... Favorite tracks ............ "Bad" .......... "Dirty Diana" .........
Michael Jackson ........... Thriller ........... Favorite tracks ....... "Beat It" ......... "Billie Jean" ..........

I'm gonna post some more of my album/track recommendations soon :-) ........

In the mean time here are a few tracks to enjoy with your favorite domestic beverage :-) ..........

A. R. Rahman & The Pussycat Dolls ............. "Jai Ho! (You Are My Destiny) [feat. Nicole Scherzinger]" .........
Alexandra Stan ............ "Mr. Saxobeat" ...........
Alexandra Stan ............ "1,000,000 (feat. Calprit)" ...........
Aqua .......... "Barbie Girl" ..........
Mark Ronson ........... "Valerie (feat. Amy Winehouse)" ...............
Tavares ............. "It Only Takes a Minute Girl" ...............
Tavares ............ "Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel" .............

Happy listening :-) .............

spartree's picture

Great to see “real” albums rather than the typical pristine yet emotionally lacking audiophile recordings. Props for that. Radiohead is one of my favourite bands (even went to Iceland to see them - it was awesome) and I totally agree with your two recommendations. While I love their latest record, for me the density of the arrangements and the emotional impact on Kid A is unrivalled. That album takes me to another universe. Also a big fan of Boards of Canada.

So the albums below are some of what I use when evaluating. I mean in general I use whatever I’m listening to at the time, but these represent a good reference for me. All music that I love, all emotionally involving, and all capable of holding a system to task. I’ll refrain from listing any Radiohead and Boards of Canada albums as you are clearly already familiar.

Nicholas Jaar - Space is Only Noise
Genre: Electronic
Particularly the tack Colomb. This one allows me to really get a sense of soundstage width, depth, and projection into the room. Very cool sounds and songs that will transport you.

Timber Timbre - Selftitled
Genre: Folk/Blues
For me, this album will quickly reveal how a system is voiced. Taylor Kirk’s vocals occupy a frequency range that can either sound bloated or too thin depending on the system’s disposition. In a balanced setup his vocals project from an isolated blackness that is moving and even a bit spooky.

Mount Kimbie - Maybes EP / Sketch on Glass EP
Genre: Post-dub
These are zone-out records. I particularly like the track Vertical on the Maybes EP for the mix of percussive sounds. Musically quite addictive as well. Sketch on Glass gets a little more dubstepy, but not in a grimy way. Lots of deep bass on that one.

Andy McKee - Dreamcatcher and/or Art of Motion
Genre: Instrumental (acoustic guitars)
If you want to get a sense of what the full range of an acoustic guitar sounds like on a system, Andy McKee’s music will do it. Either of these albums will easily reveal how nimble the speakers are as Andy’s playing is lively and full of quick harmonics. On the right system these albums project a clear, huge, dynamic sound. Very impressive when played loud!

Ahmad Jamal - At the Pershing
Genre: Jazz
I imagine you’re familiar with this one already, but nevertheless here it is. For me this is like the everyday man’s jazz lounge record. Audiophiles love to tout Arne Domnerus’ Jazz at the Pawnshop because of the atmospheric qualities and the excellent recording/mixing/mastering - and it does sound great, but the music does nothing for me. By the third track I’m not even paying attention anymore. On the other hand, Jamal’s record still provides that “I’m there” sort of feeling, but it’s because I’m just way more into the music; tapping my foot and shakin my butt in my seat.

Just a few of my favourites.

Cheers,
Jon

Rafe Arnott's picture
So many great musical listening picks here from so many readers, I thank you all with sincerity for taking the time to share your thoughts and such compelling material for all of us to look up and sample ourselves.

I know there's more than enough songs and LPs here to keep me busy for a full weekend!

Cheers all,

–Rafe

Everclear's picture

Here are some more of my recommendations :-) .............

Amy Macdonald .............. "The Days of Being Young and Free" .............
Amy Macdonald ..............."This is the Life" ..........
Amy Macdonald .............. "A Wish for Something More" .............
Andy Grammer ................ "Honey I'm Good" .............
Andy Grammer ............ "Good to Be Alive (Hallelujah) ...............
Amy LaVere ............ "Rabbit" ............
Amy Winehouse ........... "Rehab" ...........
Audioslave ............ "Like a Stone" ...............
Audioslave ............ "I Am the Highway" .............
The Avett Brothers ......... "Live and Die" .............
The Avett Brothers .......... "February Seven" ..............
The Avett Brothers ........... "Shame" .............
The Avette Brothers .......... "I and Love and You" ...........
The Avette Brothers .......... "Head Full of Doubt / Road Full of Promise" .............
The Avette Brothers ........... "Ain't No Man" ...............
Avicii .............. "Days" ............
The Band of Heathens ........... "Enough" ...............
The Band of Heathens ........... "Hurricane" ...............
Bebe Rexha .............. "Meant to Be (feat. Florida Georgia Line)" ................
Beck ........... "Blue Moon" ..............
The Beatles .............. The Beatles (White Album) ............ Many favorite tracks ...........
Jimi Hendrix ............. Axis: Bold As love ........... Several favorite tracks ..........

I'm gonna post some more of my album/track recommendations soon :-) ..........

In the meantime, here are a few tracks while enjoying 'Sex on the Beach' :-) ..............

Timbuk 3 ................ "The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades" ................
Timbuk 3 ................ "Shame On You" ..............
MC Hammer .............. "U Can't Touch This" ..................
Dazz Band .............. "Let It Whip" .................

Happy listening :-) ...............

X