Best Albums in 2015

Yes, from time to time I write something fully off-topic.

If you look for tech stuff please scroll down just a bit 😉

I love listen to music. Every day. Especially when I travel my two friends (Pono Player and B&O H6 Headphones) are always with me. And at home I have a decent stereo system in my man’s cave. But this blog post is not meant about gear, it’s meant about music released in 2015.

When I look at “Best Record of the Year” in terms of popularity or sells I always get a bit scared. So please take the following list as purely based on my own views and likes. And let me say that I bought all these records or CDs as real media.
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2015 – A Vinyl Year 

For me 2015 was a true vinyl year. I purchased more than 75 LPs, some new, some from Used Record stores. I never sold my record collection as some of my friends did, I just kept it in good shape – and since this year I owe also a record washing machine which allows me to refresh especially used examples quite easily. I have a fairly good British turntable with a almost 10 year old Dutch cartridge mounted to it. One thing you’ll recognize immediately when listening to music on vinyl: you don’t skip songs. No playlists. And you’ll discover hidden gems on records you haven’t listened to for many many years.

But be aware when rushing down the road to your next record store. A lot of the oh-so-popular reissues settle on digital transfer copies, sometimes not even from the original master tapes but from a second sourced copy. Positive examples are the recent editions of Simon and Garfunkel and the huge Queen box. But others such as the Roxy Music collection or – the worst of the worst, shame on you, Klaus Meine and Rudolf Schenker – the 50th Anniversary Scorpions box and re-editions. Terrible sound. No dynamic at all. Luckily I have my copies of “Love at the First Sting”, “Virgin Killer”, “Blackout” and “World Wide Live” in good shape from the past.

Vinyl has another great aspect as well besides sounding often a bit better and warmer than CD:
I can read the lyrics without looking for a magnifying glass 😉

If you miss Adele, well, she has a great voice, no doubt. But I can’t really listen to deadly compressed music anymore. It makes me feel sick as all dynamics, all transparency gets completely lost. And music lives on things such as dynamics … if you don’t believe me look up Adele’s “25” CD edition in the Loudness War DR Database. Then you’ll see what I mean – the CD version will sound only well in your car or on an iPhone – but on a real stereo system it sounds like a dead fish … If you still don’t believe it come by and bring your “21” CD and we’ll compare it to my “21” vinyl edition (which is not a good pressing in terms of quality either).

Enough said.

Here’s my top 5 list of records in 2015

5. David Crosby – Croz (Vinyl)

Good ol’ David Crosby has still a marvelous voice. No idea how he could keep it when you read what he has to say about his crazy years in the 60s and 70s. It’s a miracle that he survived it. And his 2015 record titled CROZ is a very good collection of laid back folk and rock songs in the tradition of CSNY. The vinyl edition has an extra goody on side 4: a audiophile pressing at 45rpm of “What’s Broken” (with Mark Knopfler on guitar) and “The Clearing”. Plus it contains the digital download codes for WAV files. I’d wish other record companies would follow this outstanding example and deliver WAV or FLAC/ALAC files and not MP3 with their records.

4. Kamasi Washington – The Epic (CD)

So many things have been written about this jazz record. Most likely because it’s hip and cool and very unusual. People who are usually not into jazz can enjoy this 3 hour mammoth piece on 3 CDs. I’d say the critics overrated it a bit as if it was the only good jazz record in 2015 (which is not true). But actually all the jazz records I bought in 2015 where from the years before with Marcin Wasilewski Trio’s “Spark of Life” from 2014 or Stefano Bollani’s “Stone in the Water” from 2008.

Nevertheless, Kamasi Washington’s “Epic” is worth to listen. It’s fun. It’s fresh and old fashioned and funky and full of soul. It’s available on vinyl as well but when I purchased it the vinyl was not yet available. People rumor that the pressing should be quite good. You may read on here in my favorite US Audio magazine Stereophile.

3. Anathema – A Sort of Homecoming (Vinyl) 

My favorite Rock band – from Liverpool, England. They started their career 25 years ago as a Death/Doom Metal band – and when you listen today you won’t realize this. A Sort Of Homecoming got recorded in 2015 during their anniversary show in Liverpool Cathedral. A have seen Anathema live some years ago in Munich. And I would say it was one of the 3 best concerts I’ve ever been to. And I have been to many concerts so far. I have almost all of their CDs. For me Anathema is one of the best Rock bands on the planet. If you ever have the chance to visit one of their shows spend the €30-40,- and you’ll be amazed.

I bought the concert on vinyl on 3 records. But for those who prefer visual impressions and have a decent surround system the 5.1 mix of the BluRay is supposed to be excellent. They play the entire show acoustic with many of their die-hard fans in the audience. I wish I would have had a chance to be there as well.

2. Bruce Springsteen – Album Collection (Vinyl) 

Bob Ludwig remastered all the first 7 Springsteen albums. And I had to get it as many of Springsteen’s LPs never got a decent remastering treatment. “Nebraska” did not sound any good – given the circumstances under which The Boss recorded it this was expected. But the remastering let it sound way better than any version I’ve had heard before.

Before I write too many things you may read what Michael Fremer from analogplanet.com wrote about this awesome edition:

Bruce Springsteen: The Album Collection Vol. 1 1973-1984 Reviewed 

Springsteen Complete Album Collection

The only real caveats are:

  • The download code allows you to download only 320k MP3s – who needs that?
  • A bit more space in the box would have been better.
  • Two of my copies were warped.
  • The included “book” is more or less unreadable as pictures are generally overlapping the text.

But the overall sound quality is very good compared to the original editions.

1. Steven Wilson – Hand. Cannot. Erase. (CD, DVD-A)

This is THE album of 2015.

Not only for myself. But also for many magazines.

You may have never heard of Steven Wilson as he’s not present usually on your regular radio station. But for almost everybody interested in prog rock he’s called the “God of Prog” for reasons. He is/was the mastermind of Porcupine Tree, he runs many side projects such as No-Man and Blackfield – and he recently did awesome remasters of some of Jethro Tull‘s, Yes‘ and Gentle Giant’s classic records. No idea when he finds time to sleep because he seems to be on tour almost half of the year.

I’ve seen him live several times, with Porcupine Tree as well as with his recent line-ups supported by guitar hero Guthrie Govan and drum legend Marco Minneman. And I’ll see him again in January 13, 2016 in Munich. He’s fantastic. Concerts are more a celebration of rock played at perfection levels but with a lot of energy and full of heart and passion.

Just as an update:
The show happened last night in Munich at the Philharmonie Classic Concert Hall – a quite unusual and suboptimal setting for a prog rock show. But it was truly awesome. Fantastic band (with Dave Kilminster from Roger Waters’ Wall tour band replacing Guthrie Govan and Craig Blundell replacing Mario Minneman). Wonderful 2.5 hours of fantastic prog music …  

Hand.Cannot.Erase. is inspired by a real story. In 2001 young London based Joyce Vincent died – but got found only more than 2 years later. Nobody noticed her disappearance. And this concept album is not only about this woman but also about isolation and our society not taking notice on anybody else. My favorite songs are Happy Returns and Perfect Life. But the entire album is full of great songs. It’s an awesome piece of music.

It’s actually the album I have listened the most often when being on the road.

If you’d like to read more:

No Loudness orgy done for this album 😉

Happy New Year 🙂

–Mike

5 thoughts on “Best Albums in 2015

  1. Happy Holidays and merry chirstmas to you Mike.

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  2. Great posting!!! Only few people even are aware of the loudness war and what DR stands for, even less know what it means in practice. I was surprised to learn you are aware of it. My conclusion is, that you must not only be a music lover but a musician or mixing engineer as well?

  3. I agree with your complaints about excessive compression in modern recordings, some of that stuff really is difficult to listen to.

    I have to say that I don’t get vinyl. I sold my record collection and turntable twenty years ago and haven’t looked back. I don’t get wanting to own vinyl these days any more than wanting a wine bottle with a cork when a screw cap works much better.

    You say,

    "A lot of the oh-so-popular reissues settle on digital transfer copies"

    But, what on earth is the problem with that? Digital recording of sound is a solved problem. The digitization process does not affect the recorded sound in any perceivable way. This has been true for decades. Analog media, like analog tape and especially vinyl, distort the recorded sound noticeably. Further, the sound quality diminishes with every time the recording is played.

    It could be that I listen to a lot of classical music.

    Something that really bothers me, and I’m surprised doesn’t bother a lot more people is the very audible watermark that Universal has put on a lot of its music. Something really should be done to fix that.

    http://www.mattmontag.com/music/universals-audible-watermark

  4. Hi Claus,

    neither one is true – I only love to listen to music in decent quality. But reducing the dynamic range just makes music "flat". And that annoys me a lot as it is completely nonsense.

    A very good example is Black Sabbath’s "13" which I love a lot. I have both, the CD version and the vinyl version. And playing both side by side and switching back and forth you can not only hear but literally "feel" the difference. And even the vinyl is dynamically limited. I bet Rick Rubin could have produced a way better version.

    If anybody wonders about this Loudness War, this is a really good and short demonstration with a popular Michael Jackson track:


    Mike

  5. Rusell/Guest,

    the problem with digital transfers is that there’s difference between the master tape and a transfer copy. That happens for every copy. And I don’t agree that those issues are solved.

    There are of course cases when there’s no way to rely on the original masters. For the recent Simon & Garfunkel vinyl issues sources say that some of the master tapes where either unusable or got lost due to shipment issues. Or the marvelous Queen LP box is supposed to sounding great as well.

    But there are other examples where the usage of digital transfer files just happens to save money. It is more expensive to go into a studio and have the right tape machine equipment set up and create a wonderful sounding record from it than just using the input file as a 24bit/96kHz digitized copy and use that.

    When you compare the recent Peter Gabriel vinyl editions with the one done by Classic Records years back on a decent turntable you’ll immediately realize what I mean. Often the editions based on digital copies lack transparency and space. They sound flat. The Rolling Stones 2015 vinyl reissue of "Sticky Fingers" is such a bad example.

    And thanks for bringing the Universal watermark problem to my attention. I wasn’t aware of it. And I don’t use any streaming service. But it is awkward. Terrible.

    And you may not wonder that Universal is the company who does the most lousy LP reissues, not only in terms of sound quality but also in terms of pressing and packaging quality.

    The music industry’s giants have a talent to ruin themselves just by going for the big bucks right in this moment – but not thinking twice. There are numerous examples such as the famous SONY root kit, the overall CD pricing policy, the 100 mio dollar contracts for so called stars etc etc etc.

    Cheers
    Mike

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