I feel bad for the good old compact disc. While other physical music formats are seeing a resurgence in popularity lately (sales of vinyl continue to grow, cassette tapes are making a comeback in hipster circles, and heck, I recently saw a Japanese 8-track copy of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here on eBay for nearly five thousand bucks) the poor, pitiful CD is derided from both directions. Analog audiophiles dismiss CDs as lifeless and brittle. The bulk of the music-buying masses write the format off as a relic of the past while they fill their phones with iTunes downloads.
And yes, I’ll concede that most CDs are horribly mastered. And yes, I know that popping a five-inch disc into a big black box isn’t as handy as downloading bits and bytes from the interwebs. But for a sublimely uncompressed two-channel musical experience that runs no risk of snaps, crackles, pops, and other cereal-related analog audio shortcomings, give me a well-recorded, well-mastered CD through a good DAC and a good set of speakers any day.
Which well-recorded, well-mastered CD exactly? I’m glad you asked.
Styx: Greatest Hits
Best Track: 15–“Mr. Roboto”
It’s telling that Styx’ Greatest Hits CD hasn’t been remastered since it hit shelves in 1995. It doesn’t need to be. Tracks like “Too Much Time On My Hands” are packed to the gills with exactly the sort of delicious dynamic range you just don’t hear in music mastered these days. Okay, you can stop laughing anytime now. You may remember Styx as the cheesy mullet band of your youth (if you’re old enough to remember them at all), but put aside your FM radio reminiscence and I promise this is one of the best-sounding rock discs you’ve ever heard. It’s telling that Styx’ Greatest Hits CD hasn’t been remastered since it hit shelves in 1995. It doesn’t need to be. Tracks like “Too Much Time On My Hands” are packed to the gills with exactly the sort of delicious dynamic range you just don’t hear in music mastered these days. There’s a swirling, swooshing, room-filling stereo effect that you probably never noticed pouring out of the back of your (okay, my) ’78 Camaro.
But by far the best speaker demo on the disc is also incidentally the single cheesiest song of all time, “Mr. Roboto,” which is guaranteed to own your sound system from the mystical floating keyboards of the intro to the punctuated, distorted staccato outro.
The gorgeous thing about the intro is the way the amorphous high-pitched synthesized elements create a bubble of sound that ebbs and flows in space. Try as you might to maintain some respectable composure, I don’t think you can keep your hands out of the air when the majestic refrain of “Dōmo arigatō misutā Roboto” explodes out into the room at the 45-second mark and that massive drum roll rips a hole in the space-time continuum as it barrels through the room from left to right.
It’s just such a deliciously dense, multilayered audio experience that you can’t help but love, especially during the verses, where the throbbing bass provides a solid bedrock for Dennis DeYoung’s gravitational lead vocals–“You’re wondering who I ammmmmm!”–and the choral response–“secret secret, I’ve got a secret!”–which fights against the mix like outright antigravity. And then, right around the 2:45 mark, just after DeYoung’s wails of, “We all need control!” blast forth from center stage, the bass, guitars, and rhythm break off an in instance of silence that leaves a whisper echo of reverberation wafting through the air. It’s the stuff that pure audio bliss is made of.
Man of Steel:Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Best Track: 17–“What Are You Going to Do When You Are Not Saving the World?”
Hans Zimmer’s score for the Big Blue Boy Scout’s return to the big screen this summer will make your sound system positively soar. Richard Donner may have made you believe a man could fly in 1978, but Hans Zimmer’s score for the Big Blue Boy Scout’s return to the big screen this summer will make your sound system positively soar. Assuming your speakers are up to the task, that is. I positively ruined a pair of headphones listening to this CD due to its ridiculously gargantuan dynamic range, but if your system can handle it, get ready for a big, bombastic two-channel experience unlike any other.
The last cut on the CD (or the last cut on the first disc if you opt for the Special Edition) embodies everything I love about this score: it starts gently, sweetly, with a gorgeous solo piano accompanied by subtle ambience and the occasional bass note, which even at such low volumes, has the potential to liquefy the foundation under your feet. You might be tempted to reach for the volume knob. Don’t! The track builds in intensity on its own terms, and even when the track’s 12 drummers–including Sheila E. and Jason Bonham, to name just two–join the fray at around the 1:22 mark, this amazing cut still has plenty left to give. If you’re not careful, the heart racing, triumphant crescendo that kicks in around 1:39 will rip your face right off your skull. But in a good way.
Steely Dan: Aja
Best Track: 4–“Peg”
This one has been remastered and re-released more times than I care to count, but to my ears, none of the releases sounds nearly as good as the plain old Original Recording Remastered release from the late ‘90s. Ask most audiophiles which Steely Dan disc is their favorite, and the name Gaucho will come up a lot, especially the excellent 5.1-channel DVD-Audio. But in the CD realm, few of Fagen and Becker’s efforts–few pop records, period–can compare with 1977’s Aja. This one has been remastered and re-released more times than I care to count, but to my ears, none of the releases sounds nearly as good as the plain old Original Recording Remastered release from the late ’90s (the first CD on the list if you search for Aja on Amazon). “Peg” in particular is positively luscious, with its looping, knotted bass lines sounding their richest, the chipper palm-muted guitars slicing beautifully through the mix, and Michael McDonald’s joyous, soul-lifting backing vocals slicing through the air in the room like hot-buttered sex.
Best Track: 8–“Bottle of Blues”
Beck’s Sea Change has long been a favorite for trade show demos, but back up a few years to the similar Mutations and I think you’ll find the better-sounding CD. Here’s another one where I think audiophile consensus may agree with me on the artist, but not the album. Beck’s Sea Change has long been a favorite for trade show demos, but back up a few years to the similar Mutations and I think you’ll find the better-sounding CD. The entire album is tonally rich and musically interesting, but something about “Bottle of Blues” draws me in like no other track. Maybe it’s the little tinkle that pokes through the strumming acoustic guitars at the beginning–glockenspiel, maybe? With this album, who knows? Or maybe it’s the way the Moog synthesizers, steel guitar, and harmonica join together in the middle to create a delicious midrange mélange that sounds like country and western music by way of the Death Star. But I’ve never heard anything quite like it pour through my speakers, and I’ve rarely heard my speakers sound better than when they’re cranking out this deliciously kooky, but utterly gorgeous sounding mix.