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This piece originally appeared in my journal on 23 August 2003.

My Ten Favourite Headphone Albums
Derek's entirely subjective list of music worth listening to through headphones, rather than in the car or through speakers

by Derek K. Miller

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Time for my own list. After reacquainting myself with music through headphones in the summer of 2003, I recalled that there are two types of albums that really benefit from that type of listening: spacey and intimate. Here are my top picks:

10. B.B. King, Live at the Regal (1964, intimate) - The Beatles weren't the only act the girls were screaming for in 1964. I own the Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab CD version of this album, which was very expensive, was pressed on a 24-karat gold, and is now out of print, but I expect the sound quality of the regular CD pressings is nearly as good. Later this year, the performance will be 40 years old, yet it sounds as crisp as any live CD made today. That it's live makes it better, in fact, because early stereo albums often tried too hard to separate the instruments, while here even those sounds that are panned hard to either side leak through the other stage microphones, giving the piece a warm, immediate, natural sound. What's amazing is the performance, and the interaction with the audience. B.B.'s blues are decidedly sophisticated and uptown, but the audience here shrieks like the crowds for the mop-tops of the same era, and the CD plays like one long song, with King's band laying back between songs as he tells stories or introduces the next number. Lucille, his guitar, sings as powerfully as B.B. does.

9. Midnight Oil, 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1 (1982, intimate) - Calling this album "intimate" seems strange if you've always listened to it through speakers or in your car, with its processed drums, drum machines, cheesy synths, and heavy vocal effects. And it's loud. Yet it remains one of Midnight Oil's best works, with some fantastic songs, and when you put on headphones it becomes a different recording. There are lovely, fuzzy electric guitars and rich, sparkling acoustic guitars. The drums and bass pop and thrum. Producer Nick Launay makes brilliant use of the stereo field, with some sounds ping-ponging back and forth, and others much more subtle, with the same guitar having slightly different equalization in each ear. The band and Launay worked very hard on the sound of this record, and the result is something worth hearing on every track, even those I used to dislike. And 20 years later, there's new meaning in a verse like "A smallish man Afghanistan/A watch dog in a nervous land/They're only there to lend a hand/The friendly fire a dusty smile/Wake up in a sweat at dead of night/And in the tents new rifles, hey, short memory."

8. Massive Attack, Mezzanine (1998, intimately spacey) - Any number of electronica acts can (and have) mixed up drubbing bass lines, sampled percussion, metal-distorted guitars, and eerie electronic soundscapes, but few have done it as effectively as Massive Attack—because they also wrote some wicked, memorable melodies and found great, gloomy singers to deliver them. There's enough sonic atmosphere to give you the willies, too.

7. Crowded House, Temple of Low Men (1988, intimate) - The purest album from this excellent band. Their first album, 1986's Crowded House, had the big hits, but Temple of Low Men finds the brooding heart of Neil Finn's unsurpassed songwriting. Mitchell Froom's production hits just the right notes, with antique keyboards and sound effects subtly complementing the band's drums-bass-guitar lineup. They (and Finn separately) went on to make more great music, but never with as much focus and dreamy melancholy.

6. Big Sugar, Heated (1998, spacey) - One of the most exquisitely produced albums of the 1990s. Most guitar-rock recordings overdo everything, but not here. Producer-guitarist-singer-songwriter Gordie Johnson cranks up the growly, crunchy guitars, of course, but keeps the drums, singing, and bass unexpectedly dry. That leaves space for echoing keyboards, keening harmonica, and even some reggae-style vocal testifying. Johnson has called this style "Black Uhuru meets Black Sabbath," and that's a pretty good description.

5. Norah Jones, Come Away With Me (2002, intimate) - An amazing, close-up recording highlighting not only Jones's smoky voice, but even the rattle of the strings on her accompanists' guitars. Working with some demo tracks Jones had already recorded, veteran producer Arif Mardin (known for the Dusty Springfield classic Dusty in Memphis, among other albums) brings you closer to the performances than you might have imagined possible. Listen to how Jones sings the words "fresh ice cubes" in the song "Turn Me On"—I bet you've never heard them sung quite that way before, just for you.

4. Blue Rodeo, Diamond Mine (1988, intimate) - Recorded in an old movie theatre, and you feel like you're there in the seats, with a real rock-n-roll band up on stage. There's nothing fancy, just Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor singing harmonies to their chiming guitars, Bobby Wiseman's off-kilter piano and organ, and straight-ahead rhythm from Bazil Donovan on bass and Cleave Anderson on drums. Producer Malcolm Burn does what few of his colleagues manage to: brings out great performances and then stays out of the way. Blue Rodeo has made more sophisticated albums since, but not a better one.

3. Pink Floyd, The Dark Side of the Moon (1973, spacey) - Well, duh. Best bit: the intro to "Time."

2. Peter Gabriel, Peter Gabriel (a.k.a. Security, 1982, both spacey and intimate, and thus really spooky) - Not an album for a bad acid trip. Gabriel has always pushed the limits of recording technology—on this album he was finally able to achieve the chilling creepiness he'd been striving for since his earliest prog-rock days with Genesis. The Fairlight CMI (Computer Musical Instrument) was one of the first digital samplers, and Gabriel used it to record scraped exhaust pipes, marimbas, grunts, growls, and a raft of unidentifiable sounds, then combined them with processed drums and guitar, percussion, bass, the Chapman stick, and vocals often on the edge of insanity. The album sounds the way its cover looks: you're not sure what the hell is going on, but it's pretty freaky, whatever it is.

1. Jean-Michel Jarre, Equinoxe (1978, spacey) - As organic and emotive as synthesizer music has ever been. This album edges out its 1976 predecessor, Oxygene, with more memorable melodies and neater use of burbling, bleepy stereo effects. Jarre took full advantage of the lack of good electronic percussion in the mid-'70s, by building rhythms and soundscapes out of other synthetic sounds, molded into two seamless sides of an LP record. You've heard most of it before, even if you've never heard of Jarre. Best listened to in total darkness.

Plenty of great albums are not best through headphones. For example, AC/DC's Back in Black, U2's Achtung Baby, the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street, James Brown's Live at the Apollo, Nirvana's Nevermind, and Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back all deserve to be cranked through some big speakers, so you can dance around the living room and feel them.

Before the '70s, stereo was too much of a novelty, often used more as a gimmick than as an effective recording technique. The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper is best in mono, since in 1967 the separate stereo version was an afterthought, and even Abbey Road, made for stereo, is distracting in headphones because the instruments are too separated—all the drums on the right, all the bass guitar on the left. The same symptoms affect other classic albums, from Van Morrison's Astral Weeks and Moondance to the Who's Who's Next.

Finally, aside from being mono, Chuck Berry's The Great Twenty-Eight simply must be played in a car, I think.

Donate with PayPal Useful article? I'd appreciate a donation (any amount, credit cards accepted) via PayPal for the Derek coffee fund. Alternatively, buy one of the albums using its Amazon link and I'll get a small cut. The rest goes to The Man.

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Page BBEdited on 17-Feb-04 (originally posted 23-Aug-03)

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