Wednesday, 31 December 2008

2008: A Year in Music [Part 3: Cutting room floor]

These are the albums that didn't make my top 5 albums of the year, which I will put in my next post. I didn't buy a lot of CDs from 2008 this year, so this will be a pretty short post.

R.E.M. - Accelerate

This was hailed by critics as a return to their rockier sound after a trilogy of more subdued affairs since the departure of drummer Bill Berry after New adventures in hi-fi. And for most of the time, it works pretty well as a solid and melodic rock album. It's great to see R.E.M. back in melodic form on nuggets like Man-sized wreath, Supernatural superserious and Until the day is done. And it's also good to see R.E.M. much more tight and focused on this album - at only 35 minutes, it's the shortest album of their 25-year career.

I have two gripes with this album. Firstly, despite its brief running time, it still contains a few songs which aren't particularly memorable to me. Opener Living well is the best revenge, despite providing a great statement of intent for the album, lacks a good melody. The title track doesn't excite me a lot either. And there's a few songs near the end (Horse to water and I'm gonna DJ) which don't particularly reward repeated listening for me.

My second gripe is more serious - this album is an unfortunate victim of the loudness war. It brickwalls on the first track and is turned up to 11 for pretty much the entire running time, except on a few ballads. I blame the influence of Jacknife Lee, who has worked on similarly loud albums by artists such as Bloc Party, Snow Patrol and U2.

I own all of R.E.M.'s albums, and if I find myself in the mood for listening to them I can't possibly see myself choosing Accelerate over Murmur or Automatic for the people, amongst other brilliant efforts. Call something a return to form as much as you like, but if you don't get an urge to listen to it, what's the point?

Elvis Costello - Momofuku

This album was recorded in a couple of weeks, and it sounds like it -- it's Elvis' rawest album since Blood & chocolate from 1986. On many of the songs, the rawness works really well -- the opening two tracks No hiding place and American gangster time are a great way to open the record, both classic Costello rockers. There's a few nice ballads to add a bit of variety -- the jazzy Harry worth, sentimental My three sons and melodic Flutter & wow.

It's a good album, but it lacks a little in cohesiveness, feeling more like a collection of songs than an album. The album was named after Momofuku Ando (the inventor of cup noodles) and, in a sense, the name is appropriate -- it's all a bit of a hodge-podge of genres and styles mixed up in a way similar to how meat and vegetables are thrown together in a stir-fry. A solid Costello effort, but for a latter-day album I'd choose The delivery man over this.

You Am I - Dilettantes

After the garage-rock rawness of Convicts, this was hailed as their return to the melodic form of their golden era (c. Hourly, daily). Sometimes I wonder whether critics really listen to the whole album when they do reviews. The album starts off really good -- the opening title track is a beautiful, melodic ballad that hints at their previous classics like Heavy heart. Disappearing has an interesting groove to it which makes it very listenable, and Beau geste (discussed in my last post) is a melodic little nugget and one of the best You Am I songs in years.

Unfortunately, I struggle to remember anything memorable about the rest of the album. The songs don't seem to have a direction, many of them lacking decent melodies; because of this they fail to maintain my interest. All of the songs tend to blend into one for me, and while I sometimes notice some decent songs amongst the mix while listening to it, I immediately forget about them after the album has finished playing. There's also (I know I'm getting boring here) a pretty severe lack of dynamic range on all of these songs, making the album aurally unpleasant to listen to at times.

I think we can safely say that the chance of You Am I ever releasing an album on par with any of their earlier classics is pretty close to nil. It's sad to see such a great band fall from such great heights. Luckily, we'll always have Hourly, daily and Hi-fi way to listen to, to remind us of how great they once were.

2008: A Year in Music [Part 2: Top 10 songs of the year]

We'll continue the 2008 countdown with a list of my top 10 songs of 2008. As with my lists from previous years, songs can only appear in this list if I own them legitimately on CD, and they were from an album that was released this year. Considering that I haven't purchased a huge amount of CDs from this year, some artists are included more than once.

10. You Am I - Beau geste [Link removed]

This was one of the few tracks from Dilettantes which lived up to the great reviews that were being bandied around various music publications. It starts with a few repeated guitar strums interspersed with what sounds like Tim Rogers sighing in relief, possibly after farting. That last bit was speculative, but I like my interpretation.

All said and done, this is one of the most melodic You Am I songs since the Deliverance album. And melody is something which has been sorely lacking in their recent output. Musically, the song has a nice groove to it; punctuated with moments of silence and reprises of the opening riff, it surprises with an atmospheric mid-section which adds a significant amount of interest to the body of the song. I haven't really interpreted (or even read) the lyrics, and the only bits I remember are repeats of the phrase You're the best.

It's a bit of a pity that the rest of the album, bar a few exceptions, didn't live up to the promise of this song.

9. Elbow - Starlings [Link removed]

Some piano tinkling for a few seconds, followed by the low frequency of a bass drum, and then the always pleasant sound of Guy Garvey's crooning. Just before we reach the minute mark, a blast of brass almost literally scares the shit out of the listener. A mere twenty seconds later, the listener is blasted again. Shortly after, we get the opening lyric of the album:

How dare the Premier ignore my invitations?

It's pretty clear at this point that Elbow are a little bit different from your average 2008 British indie band, and I mean that in the best possible way. There's obviously the quirky lyrical element, as illustrated above. But more importantly, there's the musical element.

I'm probably sounding a bit like a broken record with my discussions of loudness and dynamics, but this song is a perfect example of how a wide dynamic range can make music so much more exciting. This song builds up from minimalistic beginnings, building up over the course of its 5 minutes to an amazing climax that blows the listener away.

Elbow have always had a fairly quirky opening song on their albums, but none has lured me into the album as much as this eccentric little number.

8. Augie March - The slant [Link removed]

Their last album Moo, you bloody choir had a great song on it called Bottle baby. It was one of my favourite songs of 2006.

The slant is the Bottle baby of their new album. I'm not sure why it reminds me of that song, but I think it's in Glenn Richard's amazing vocals and how they stand out from the rest of the album by completely inhabiting the character of the song. The lyrics tell a story from the perspective of a petty thief who (accidentally?) murdered a 16-year-old boy and was sent to jail.

Musically, it's a fairly simple folk song in the tradition of Sunstroke house from Strange bird. It's one of the few songs from the new album that sounds like it could have been included on one of their first two albums, and this gives me hope that they haven't completely abandoned their more experimental sound in favourite of slick and sometimes powerful (see #3) indie pop numbers.

7. Brian Wilson - Southern California
[Link removed]

The closing track from the superb album That lucky old sun is quite similar to the rest of the album - it has the trademark Brian Wilson melody, and is very much seeped in nostalgia. What elevates it above many of the other songs on the album is the poignancy of the lyrics:

I had this dream
Singing with my brothers
In harmony
Supporting each other
Tailwinds, rear spin,
Down the Pacific coast
Surfing on the end
Heard those voices again

This is Brian Wilson looking back at his days in the early 60s, performing in the Beach Boys with his brothers Dennis and Carl Wilson, now both sadly deceased. Lyrically, it's simultaneously sad, touching and idealistic. And Brian shows why he is one of the greatest composers of the past 50 years by marrying the lyrics to a beautiful piano-based melody.

Just when you think you know where the song is heading, the whoa whoa whoa it's magical bit that kicks in just after the two minute mark adds a beautiful counter-point which is reprised later in the song. The last thirty seconds is made up of (yet another) reprise of the title track, bringing the album to a close. A gorgeous song.

6. Elvis Costello - American gangster time [Link removed]

It's interesting to note that for an artist who has reinvented himself successfully so many times over the course of his career, my favourite songs on his latest album Momofuku were those in which he emulated the raw rock 'n' roll sound of his classic early years.

Vocals notwithstanding (his voice has definitely changed over the past 30 years), this track could quite easily be mistaken for a This year's model outtake. The Imposters emulate the Attractions sound to perfection, which isn't particularly surprising considering that 3/4 of the Attractions are also Imposters.

Steve Nieve's stabbing organ chords, Elvis' lyrics, the rawness of the production (the album was recorded in only a couple of weeks), the fun it sounds like they're all having - it's all here on what is sure to be remembered as a classic Elvis tune from this era.

5. R.E.M. - Supernatural superserious [Link removed]

"Everybody here, comes from somewhere" sings Michael Stipe on the opening of this song, the first single released from Accelerate, and a classic R.E.M. song. This is a return to the sound of some of their anthems on the I.R.S. label in the early 80s, before they went major label on Green.

It's simply a fantastic pop song, nothing more and nothing less. There's some great trademark backing vocals from Mike Mills on the refrain "And you cried and you cried" which is about as close as this song gets to a chorus.

Unfortunately the compressed mix lets the song down a bit, but that's only a small gripe. R.E.M. haven't rocked this hard since New adventures in hi-fi.

4. Oasis - The shock of the lightning [Link removed]

Ever since Be here now, Oasis have followed a fairly standard pattern when it comes to releasing the debut single from their new album. They have released a song which is pretty much Oasis-by-numbers, ignoring some of the subtle new directions they have explored on each new album, giving the impression to the casual radio listener that they have remained pretty stagnant over the past decade. See Do you know what I mean?, Go let it out, The hindu times and Lyla for some textbook examples of this. This song, the debut single from Dig out your soul, follows this tradition.

The truth of the matter is that Oasis have only released 2 classic albums (Definitely maybe and Morning glory) and 1 classic compilation (The masterplan). With each album it's become pretty clear that while they still have some amazing moments on their post-MG albums, they also have a helluva lotta filler as well.

All said and done, this is a great song which ticks all the boxes about what a great Oasis song should be. Beatles-esque fade-in? Check. Easy to remember singalong chorus? Check ("Come in, come out tonight"). Obvious Beatles lyrical reference? Check ("A magical mystery").

It's a bleeding obvious Oasis song, but it happens to be one of the best ones they have released in many years. And it's one of their few songs from this decade which manages to capture the youthful exhuberance of Definitely maybe.

3. Augie March - Lupus [Link removed]

Watch be disappear is easily the most accessible Augie March album to date, their stab at commercial success if you will. While initial reviews made me a little concerned that they had sold out, after purchasing the album I soon found out that it wasn't so much a sellout as a refinement of their sound. While previous albums did little to hide its experimental sound, the new album was built around some amazing pop songs like this one.

It takes about 17 seconds for the guitar riff to make its first appearance in the song, and it soon becomes the foundation of one of the catchiest songs of their career. The structure of the song is fairly simple: 3 line verse, 2 line chorus, repetition of the introductory guitar figure. Throw in a few amazing chord changes in key parts of the song, and it quickly ascends into the heavens.

I'm not sure if this song will help them achieve the commercial success they deserve, but every time I listen to it, it makes me happy. What more can you ask of a song?

It was all I ever do...

2. Al Green - Lay it down
[Link removed]

I started getting into old-skool R&B and soul music in a big way in 2008. It's interesting to note than one of my favourite R&B albums was released this year by an old performer showing that he still had lots of new tricks up his sleeve.

This song, the opening and title track of the Reverend's new album, is an amazing slow burner of a song. At the age of 62, Al Green still shows that he has "it" - the verses are all his, simultaneously smooth and showing the grittiness of his age, while Anthony Hamilton backs him up on the gorgeous refrain.

This is a sensational track that would be considered a classic even if it had been released in the 60s or 70s, during the golden age of soul and R&B.

1. Brian Wilson - Midnight's another day [Link removed]

The first 20 seconds is made up of some beautiful piano playing which would be the highlight of a song by a lesser artist. In the case of this masterful song, it doesn't even hint at what's about to come next.

This is one of the finest songs that Brian Wilson has written; from a purely emotional perspective, it's up there with some of the finer moments on Pet sounds. My interpretation of the lyrics are Brian Wilson dealing with his well-publicised bout with mental illness, shrouding the song in sadness.

While his vocals have nowhere near the range they did in the late 60s, they suit the lyrical theme perfectly - here is a man who is one of the greatest songwriters and performers of the 20th century looking back at his struggles and finally coming to terms with his life.

Musically, the song builds and builds, and then builds further. It's an epic song, one which is simultaneously longing for the past and hopeful for the future.

With the unfortunate number of bands and artists who are over-hyped by money-hungry record companies, it's so refreshing to see one of the elder statesmen of pop music show that he still has what it takes to write a song as gorgeous as this, my favourite song of 2008.

Update: Song links removed.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

2008: A Year in Music [Part 1: Overview]

Well, it's that time of year again. Time for my analysis and summary of the year in music that was 2008. As usual, this will be divided into 6 posts which I will try to get out before the end of the year (otherwise they may bleed into early January). For the newer readers, the posts will be broken down like this:

Part 1: Overview
Part 2: Top 10 songs of the year
Part 3: Cutting room floor
Part 4:
Top 5 albums of the year
Part 5: Musical discoveries of the year
Part 6: Re-evaluation of 2007 list

Part 1: Overview

I have a feeling that the posts in the series are going to be a bit briefer than those of the previous years. Why? Well, partially down to laziness. It takes a long time to write most of the posts on this blog, and I'll admit that I'm lacking a bit of motivation on this front. After all, I'm on holidays from work at the moment and I should really be relaxing.

The second reason is that, if my recent points haven't hinted this enough, I'm become gradually disillusioned with a lot of modern music. While it was pretty exciting compiling my top 10 albums of 2005, I'd be fooling myself if I said that I was as excited to be writing about my favourite albums of 2008. Most of my listening habits have tended towards older music which can be appreciated on its own merits, rather than a lot of the overhyped stuff that is released thesedays. How many bands have we had in recent years who have been proclaimed as the future of rock? While I used to buy into this hype in previous years, my bullshit detector is too finely tuned thesedays.

With these comments in mind, part 5 of this series is going to be the post which I will have the most passion in writing. Because it is these musical discoveries from previous years (90s, 80s, 70s and 60s) which have shaped my musical listening habits of 2008. I look forward to discussing the albums which really excited me this year.

What did 2008 mean to me?

Less new music

As stated before, I have been buying much less new music. There are technical reasons for this, but I am also generally happy to wait until an album has been out for a bit to see if it's truly the classic which some reviewers make it out to be, or a flavour of the month which will be gathering dust within 6 months. Giving myself a year or so buffer is a good technique to shield me from this kind of hyperbole.

Old-skool R&B

I have always enjoyed real R&B music from the 60s and 70s, and not the modern tripe which is released under this genre thesedays. I'm talking artists like Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and Curtis Mayfield as well as some funkier outfits like Sly & The Family Stone, Stevie Wonder and Funkadelic. Well, this appreciation of African-American music has only continued to grow in 2008. I've also gotten into a few new genres this year, which I'll talk more about in the future posts.

Bring on eBay!

While I was previously a JB Hi Fi man for most of my music purchases, this has gradually changed and I now do most of my CD buying on eBay. Music on eBay has well and truly become a buyer's market in the last few years, and combined with the downturn in CD sales this has made it a great place to satisfy my CD purchasing addiction. It has also been great for picking up some rare albums that I haven't been able to find in retail stores. If you are a keen music purchaser, I highly recommend checking out the eBay market.


On the gig front, from a look at my blog posts of 2008, it doesn't look like I went to any gigs this year! This is probably the first time in many years where this has been the case. My next gig is scheduled for the end of January 2009 when I will be seeing My Morning Jacket at Billboard. Looking forward to that one.

Anyway, that's the end of the overview of 2008. I hope you enjoy the rest of the posts in this series!

Friday, 12 December 2008

Loudness war or: How I learned to stop enjoying modern music

The final straw

Just last week, I picked up Hold on now, youngster..., the debut album from Welsh indie pop outfit Los Campesinos! Many reviewers have described them as Belle & Sebastian gone punk. Belle & Sebastian are one of my favourite bands; the last time I picked up an album by an unknown band who were compared to B&S was Neon golden by the Notwist (the love-child of B&S and German electro-pioneers Kraftwerk), and that album paid high dividends for me. So picking up the Los Campesinos! album at the relatively cheap price I saw it at seemed like a no-brainer to me.

Hearing an album by a band you don't know for the first time can be an exciting yet daunting experience. In this case, I had no idea what to expect. Male or female vocalist? Quirky or old-skool punk? The answer to these 2 questions was both and quirky respectively.

But what I wasn't expecting (although maybe I should have, in hindsight) was the wall of noise I was confronted with, within only a few seconds of the opening track. This is the audio waveform of what I heard:

Unfortunately, Los Campesinos! are not alone in the noise stakes. The crazy brick wall you see above is part of a disturbing recording industry trend which has become known as the loudness war.

The loudness war is associated with the perceived need for albums to be mastered louder and louder as each year goes by. The additional loudness is achieved in the mastering process through excessive use of technology known as dynamic range compression.

I have been against the loudness war in all of its forms ever since I become aware of it. But this Los Campesinos! album was the first time that I have ever returned an album for a refund because the CD was too bloody loud to listen to.

Background reading

I'd like to thank Nick Southall, of the sadly departed Stylus Magazine, for his insightful article Imperfect sound forever. This article is essential reading for anyone who even remotely takes their music listening seriously. As an avid reader of Stylus Magazine back in the day, this was the article which enlightened me with information about dynamic range compression and its mis-use in the record industry.

Nick explains compression in a lot of technical detail, better than I could ever do. Nick has been a bit of crusader against the loudness war for many years, and I really respect his opinion on music.

My article will only gloss over the technical details, so please do some background reading if you are interested in further information.

My musical habits

I'm not an audiophile by any stretch of the imagination. Since I purchased my iPod a few years ago, 98% of my music listening happens on the iPod (the other 2% being on CD when I buy an album on the weekend and don't rip it until I come to work on Monday).

My music is ripped at 160kbps CBR AAC. While a lot of music fans would spit at such a low bitrate (and I'll admit that this is far from CD quality), this is good enough for me. Whenever you decide on a bitrate to use, you always need to weigh up quality vs. file size. Back in the day, I only had an 80GB iPod which was disturbingly close to being filled up. I made an executive decision (with invaluable input from MattT) to rip all of my music at 160kps; it was a happy medium between file size and quality.

Down in the music rut at midnight

Over the past few years, I have found myself much less excited about newer music. There are of course some exceptions, but my musical listening tastes have definitely headed towards music from the 80s and earlier (and I'm not just talking about the cheesy fluff here). On my shortlist of potential blog posts was one entitled Down in the music rut at midnight, where I was going to talk about how I was so sick of new music coming out and how old music brings so much more excitement to my ears. But that post will have to wait for another day.

There are many subjective reasons why new music may stop exciting you. After all, there's only so many ways that you can combine vocals, guitar, bass and drums in innovative ways before history will start repeating itself (obviously I'm focusing on rock music here). If it's been done before, it's bound to be much less exciting the 2nd time around; I've certainly alluded to this in previous posts.

But there are also objective reasons why new music may stop exciting you. When I compiled my top 10 albums of 2005, the Go-Betweens' last album Oceans apart made it into the 10th position. At the time, I said the following:

Robert finds a renewed energy in his songs Here comes the city and Born to a family, while Grant reaches the melodic heights that came so naturally to him during their golden years on The statue and Finding you. This album would be higher on the list if it weren't for what appears to be a mastering problem on some of the tracks, where they sound distorted (especially on the iPod). It's both unfortunate and frustrating that a great album has been tarnished by a technical problem.

I wrote this review in December 2005. This was before Nick Southall had published his article, before I knew about dynamic range compression and the loudness war. Back on those days, I thought the only war that was going on was in Iraq. It is only with the benefit of hindsight that I can look back at this post, and see how the loudness war was affecting my enjoyment of music.

From a pure songwriting perspective, Oceans apart was one of the Go-Betweens' finest efforts (only their masterpiece 16 Lovers Lane can beat it). It's only the disgusting production which lets it down. I'm now at the point where, if I feel like listening to a Go-Betweens album, I would choose any album but Oceans apart to listen to.

Excessive compression in music is a little bit like having a dead pixel on your brand new LCD television. You can wallow away in blissful ignorance, enjoying the entertainment and being none-the-wiser. But as soon as you are aware of it, you won't be able to ignore it. So on behalf of the readers of this post who are like me, I humbly apologise for (potentially) destroying your enjoyment of a lot of modern music.

What is dynamic music?

In its simplest form, dynamic music has quiet bits and loud bits. If we listen to an album that has a wide dynamic range, we'll often find that we need to regularly adjust the volume knob while we listen to it. This is because the quiet bits are a little too soft to hear (so we turn it up to hear the subtle details). Then the loud bit comes in, and the new volume we adjusted it to is now too loud so we quickly turn it down again. You may especially notice this while listening to dynamic music in a car, where background noise also interferes with your listening experience.

Let's compare this with music which is generally played on the radio, or through PA systems in shopping centres. Music which is transmitted on the radio is compressed so it fits into the frequency band allocated to the station. Music played on PA systems is hardly an intimate experience, and its purpose is often for background music. Neither of these types of music would generally be considered dynamic.

Let's get (a little bit) technical

Okay, I'm gonna try and keep it fairly simple here. I'm not an expert in sound recording techniques and I'm not going to pretend that I am. There are great articles on the web that could explain this much better than I can. Treat this more as a Dummies guide to dynamic range compression™.

Over the course of the past 15 years or so, the loudness war has lead to albums becoming progressively louder as each year goes by. Why? Well, record company big-wigs seem to think that loud records sound better and will sell more records:

"If my record isn't as loud as your record, it will sound less powerful, less punchy and less impressive. This means it will also get less radio play. And this will result in less record sales."

So what's the solution? We'll have to one-up you and make sure ours is even louder than yours. It's the musical equivalent of the bully in the playground picking on the little guy with glasses, just to make sure that he shows him who is boss.

So what does dynamic range compression have to do with loudness?

Unfortunately, the maximum amplitude of a CD audio waveform is fixed. Trying to increase the sound of the quiet bits will cause the loud bits to exceed the maximum volume. If the waveform exceeds the maximum, it needs to be chopped off to keep it within range. This results in a square wave at the peak, and when a square wave is played back through a CD audio player, it "clips" or sounds distorted. Have you ever tried to play a data CD through a CD player? It's the same sound you get from that, but a bit more subtle as the clipping may only last for a fraction of a second.

To prevent clipping but still maintain the loudness that is desired, the entire sound wave is compressed to a similar volume, and then the compressed signal is adjusted to the new loud volume. The idea is that the whole sound wave is flattened into a homogenous block, which can then easily be adjusted to increase loudness without the fear of distortion or clipping.

In practice, it doesn't always work out. Many modern recordings, despite the "best" intentions of the engineers, still end up suffering from clipping and distortion. This has become disturbingly more prevalent in the past few years.

Compression has proper and tasteful applications during the recording process. For example, individual instruments within a recording can be compressed to make them sound more punchy, or reduce their sustain. This is what producers and engineers do; utilise the studio as another instrument to help make the end result (the album) sound as good as possible.

The problem with compression is that the music industry has been mis-using this technology for the past 15 years or so. Instead of compressing individual elements within a mix, the engineer takes the (already mixed) recording and compresses the entire mix again before it is pressed to CD. This practice completely narrows (and sometimes eliminates) the volume gap between the quiet bits and loud bits, so that everything ends up at a similar volume.

What about data compression?

As I said earlier, I compress all my my music at 160kbps. This is what is known as data compression, and it is completely different to dynamic range compression.

MP3 (and other similar) data compression algorithms are concerned with reducing the overall size of the file so you can fit more information on to your portable listening device. This is achieved by removing the inaudible (to humans at least) portions of the music - mainly the very high frequencies (which only dogs can hear), and very low frequencies.

Data compression also involves other smart techniques. If the compression algorithm detects two waveforms being played simultaneously, one quiet and one loud, it will remove the quiet waveform as it will be drowned out (and thus inaudible) by the loud waveform anyway.

While some data is lost forever in data compression, if you choose a decent enough bitrate, most listeners (except the keenest audiophiles) will find it difficult to tell the difference between a compressed MP3 and the original CD audio.

Most importantly, data compression is designed to preserve the dynamics of a recording.

Musical enjoyment

Dynamic range compression sucks the life out of music. The excitement that you get from a snare hit is gone in a compressed recording, because it is the same volume as the rest of the recording. That funky bassline that seems to come out of nowhere becomes part of the furniture. The beauty of a quiet, whispered vocal is lost because the volume of the vocal is the same as the rest of the mix. It's just not musical.

The disturbing thing is that, to the untrained ear, loud and compressed records do sound better. INITIALLY. It is only with subsequent listens that the listener realises that there is absolutely no depth to the recording. No hidden details, no subtle layers, no instruments buried under the mix.

Why not just lower the excessively loud volume by using the volume knob? Sure you can do that, and it's probably a good idea if you respect your ears. But thinking that this will improve the sound is completely missing the point. The signal has already been compressed, which means the dynamic range has been lost forever. All the volume knob will do is reduce the overall amplitude; the variation (peaks and valleys) have already left the building.

Have you listened to any music from recent years that has given you a headache? It's probably a victim of the loudness war. The human ear can be fairly tolerant to loud music and noises, but its tolerance is inversely proportional to the length of time it is subjected to the noise. When the music has a wide dynamic range, the quiet bits give your ears (and head) a break and a little bit of time to recover. This prepares them for the loud bits when they come.


But I like my music loud!

So do I! A lot of music sounds much better when played at a loud volume. So if the CD you want to listen has been mastered at a quieter volume to preserve the dynamics of the recording, how do I enjoy it loud?

There's a very simple solution to this problem. Reach for the volume knob and turn it up. This will increase the overall loudness of the entire waveform, but keep the new waveform in proportion with the original, quieter waveform. The peaks and valleys will be maintained and the dynamics will be preserved. Music can be both loud and dynamic, as long as the dynamics haven't been compressed out of the CD.

Some examples

Here is the audio waveform of I'll regret it all in the morning, a tender ballad by Richard & Linda Thompson from their 1975 album Hokey pokey:

And here is the audio waveform of Cast no shadow, a tender ballad by Oasis from their 1995 album (What's the story) morning glory:

Think you can spot the difference? Note that these songs are both [supposed to be] quieter moments on their respective albums.

Look at the peaks and valleys in the Richard & Linda Thompson track. Notice the variance in the wave form. Even if this song isn't to your taste, you get a pretty good feeling from looking at that waveform that it will at least sound pretty good.

Now look at the Oasis waveform. It just looks like a wall of noise. There's very little variance in the track. There's no highs, no lows, and nothing in between. IT IS JUST CONSTANT NOISE. All of the emotional intensity, subtlety and nuance has been sucked out of the music by excessive compression.

Don't get me wrong - that Oasis album is in my top 10 albums of all time. I grew up with this music. But there's no denying that the production is absolute shite.

The brick wall you see above is not what Phil Spector dreamt up when he invented the wall of sound.


Remasters are one of the most disturbing casualties of the loudness war. Why? Because they take an album from the past which probably had brilliant (albeit a little bit quiet) sound and "remaster" it for the purposes of selling it off to a new generation of music listeners who may have never heard it before. The record companies would lead you to believe that a remastered recording is superior to the previous one in every way.

Unfortunately, the reality is a lot less pretty than this. In the modern age, remastering is often not a lot more than making the CD a lot louder so it sounds good when listened to next to modern CDs. As described earlier, there are limits to how loud you can make a CD, which is where our evil friend compression comes in. And as described earlier, compression of this form is completely lossy - once a CD is compressed, the dynamic sound is gone forever.

Record companies try to argue this by saying that the majority of music listeners in this day and age listen to music on their portable listening devices, such as iPods. The justification is that if you put your whole music collection on shuffle, you should be able to listen to an old (quietly mastered) Beatles song followed by a new (over-compressed) Muse song without having to get up and adjust the volume.

As I said before, I do practically all of my music listening on the iPod too. And last time I checked, my iPod had a feature on it called Sound check which automatically normalises the volume across subsequent songs so you don't run into this exact problem the record companies are trying to avoid. I'm not sure if other MP3 devices have a similar feature, but I don't care. Maintaining a consistent volume across songs on an iPod is no excuse for over-compressing music on the CD itself.

I'm now at the point where I will actively track down the original CD pressings of old albums, even if it means having to buy them 2nd hand on eBay. This is coming from a guy who only a few years ago sold a few of his original CD pressings to "upgrade" to a remastered version.

One thing to be aware of is that there are always exceptions. Some remasters are done tastefully, and with respect for the music. This is where the power of the Internet at your fingertips is a great thing. Read reviews, and not just from professional critics (who I suspect are often getting kickbacks from record companies). Read user reviews on Amazon and similar websites. You'll quickly find out whether a "remastered edition" is an improvement or butchering of the original album.

The good, the bad and the ugly

Bob Dylan was recently quoted as saying the following:

"I don't know anybody who's made a record that sounds decent in the past 20 years, really," ... "You listen to these modern records, they're atrocious, they have sound all over them. There's no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like ... static."

While this is largely true, there are luckily still a few
artists and bands out there who have the balls to stand up against the evils of the loudness war. These musicians have my utmost respect for standing up against this disturbing trend.

Manchester band Elbow have stood up against the loudness war, refusing to over-compress their music like many of their contemporaries, including Coldplay. Their latest album even has the Turn me up! logo on it, a non-profit organisation campaigning for the release of more dynamic records.

Ben Harper's latest album Lifeline proudly boasts that it was recorded entirely on analog equipment, with no use of Pro Tools. And you can hear it on the recording - rich, warm and dynamic. This is how music is supposed to sound; when listening to this album (from 2007) next to other albums from the same year, it sounds like a real musical experience and not a manufactured one.

Other recording artists with integrity, like Tom Waits and Augie March, have also maintained a high degree of dynamics in their recent releases.

I wish I could say the same about Oasis, R.E.M. and You Am I; despite the fact that they have written some great songs on their albums this year, the over-compressed sound doesn't make me want to listen to them again in a hurry. No matter how good the songwriting is, bad production can still ruin it. Even the (usually reliable) Elvis Costello went a bit too loud on his recent effort, although not as bad as some of the others.

Metallica are where it gets ugly. Their latest album Death magnetic is considered by many to be one of the loudest albums ever released. Take a look at this wave-form analysis. It's a monstrosity of music production, and it also suffers from excessive digital distortion or clipping. Which is a real pity, because apparently the songwriting and performance on the album is some of their best in years.

Most people will get a headache after listening to Death magnetic for longer than 10 minutes. You only need to listen to Master of puppets or Metallica (the "Black album") to know that music doesn't have to be compressed to the max to be powerful. Quite the opposite really.

The good news about the botched production job on Death magnetic is that many fans have noticed it and complained. Metallica are a very popular band, and I hope the flood of complaints will lead to some sort of revolution against the loudness war.

It must stop!


Thanks for reading my ramblings. While I am definitely not the first to write about the loudness war and dynamic range compression, I hope you found this article informative. If you find that newer music isn't exciting you as much as it used to, I hope this helps to shed some light on why this may be the case.

Further reading (and viewing)

The Loudness War - A great YouTube clip demonstrating how compression is affecting music
Imperfect Sound Forever - The article that started it all for me
Loudness war - Informative Wikipedia article
Top 10 worst sounding records, 1997-present - Nick Southall's list of poorly mastered albums...
Top 10 best sounding albums, 1997-present - ...and his list of the best sounding albums
Turn Me Up! - Organisation aiming to bring dynamics back to music

Monday, 1 December 2008

RIP: Richey James Edwards 1967-1995

Hmmm...this is quickly turning into an rockstar obituary blog.

And while it looks like I'm reporting 13-year-old news (hear it first on Wireless Cranium!) there's a twist to this one.

Richey Edwards, rhythm guitarist, lyricist and founding member of Welsh band Manic Street Preachers, disappeared on 1st February 1995. It's almost 14 years on, and no body has been found. On 23rd November 2008 he became officially "presumed dead". Hence, this obituary.

Richey embodied the spirit of early Manics. They released 3 albums in his lifetime: the patchy and overlong (but brilliant in parts) debut Generation terrorists (1992), underrated follow-up Gold against the soul (1993) and dark tortured masterwork The holy bible (1994). While he was a pretty poor rhythm guitarist by all accounts (James Dean Bradfield made up for it with his stellar lead guitar work), it was his dark, tortured lyrics which he became known for.

Richey was also quite a troubled young man, into self-mutilation and the like. In hindsight, it's no surprise that he became a member of the not-so-exclusive 27 club. Like Elvis, there have been many Richey sightings over the years. But I think we can safely say that if he is alive, he doesn't want people to know about it.

It's been a long time, but rest in peace Richey, wherever you are.

Here's one of the Manics' darkest songs (about anorexia) from The holy bible.

MP3: Manic Street Preachers - 4st 7lb [Link removed]

P.S. Apparently the Manics' 9th studio album, Journal for plague lovers, will contain many lyrics from the late Richey. It will also be produced by Steve Albini.

Update: Song links removed.

Friday, 21 November 2008

RIP: Mitch Mitchell 1947-2008

[This news is just over a week old now, so this is hardly a newsflash. For some reason I never posted about it last week.]

Mitch Mitchell, the drummer from the superb musical trio The Jimi Hendrix Experience, passed away of natural causes last Wednesday at the age of 61.

Guitarist and singer Jimi Hendrix, an unfortunate member of the 27 club, passed away at the peak of his talent in 1970. In what has now become a rock-star cliche, he died after asphyxiating on his vomit after an overdose of sleeping pills (although it may have not been his vomit; after all, you can't really dust for vomit).

Bassist Noel Redding died in 2003, at the age of 57.

That makes The Jimi Hendrix Experience one of the few bands I can think of where none of the band members are with us anymore.

If you don't have any albums by this brilliant trio, be sure to pick one up now. They only released three albums in their short lifetime, and all of them are worth getting. And I would probably recommend buying them in chronological order.

Their debut Are you experienced? is their most accessible, with a lot of their well known hits like Foxy lady and Manic depression (and a lot of fantastic bonus tracks like Purple haze and Hey Joe).

Their follow-up Axis: Bold as love is a bit more psychedelic and experimental, with some of my favourite JHE tracks like Castles made of sand and Little wing.

Their swansong Electric ladyland is an epic album (double vinyl album on a single CD) which is easily their bluesiest effort, and in my opinion their finest hour (or 75 minutes). It's a massive jam, but because it's a bit less accessible it's probably better to wait until the first two albums make you a fan before you pick this one up.

Here's a taste of the genius of The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Enjoy!

Rest in peace, Mitch. Your music will live on.

MP3: The Jimi Hendrix Experience - Burning of the midnight lamp [Link removed]

Update: Song links removed.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Confessions of an 80s music fan

I was born at the tail end of the 70s, at about the point where generation X meets generation Y. I guess you could say I belong to the XY generation, which is kind've appropriate considering my chromosome makeup.

Due to my point of entry in this world, I'll always refer to myself as an 80s kid. Most of my younger years were spent in the decade of the big hair, and I still have the acid wash jeans somewhere to prove it. This was before the days of the Internet (at least in widespread popular usage), before the putrid slop of reality shows (what we now call entertainment), and before we made people famous for the sake of being famous. I'm looking at you, Paris.

I grew up with matchbox cars, marbles, MAD magazine, Garbage pail kids and You can't do that on television. I was always afraid to say I don't know, lest a bucket of slime land on my head. One of my first memories of seeing a movie was seeing the original Back to the future with my parents when it first came out. I was so restless and annoying that I pretty much ruined the movie for them. It was only years later when I finally watched the movie and understood it. Of course, 1.21 gigawatts!

And of course, there's the music.

One of my earliest childhood memories was dancing to Van Halen's Jump in my next door neighbour's living room in the mid 80s. I also remember (in the latter half of the 80s) seeing Perfect by Fairground Attraction and The only way is up by Yazz and the Plastic Population on the music show of the day.

These were more innocent days; or, I was younger and more innocent. Before music clips consisted of scantilly clad women grinding against a pole. Sure that kind of stuff would be exciting for a teenager, but I'd like to think that 7 year olds could be shielded from that kind of stuff for a few more years.

Music from the 80s was without inhibitions. It was daggy, it was flamboyant, but in an ironic sense it was more real than most popular music released nowadays. It also made you happy. I challenge anyone not to smile when they hear the opening of The final countdown by Europe.

Yeah, I know it's the rose coloured glasses talking. We always look back fondly at our youth, forgetting the bad things, and romanticising the rest. It's human nature I guess.

It was my 2nd wedding anniversary last week, and my beautiful wife Lorin kindly bought me the following CD set (ok, I hinted that I wanted it):

I'm normally against compilations of this ilk. I almost put them in the same category as those 50 best songs to listen to while driving around with a truckie and eating a meat pie with sauce and the sauce has just fallen all over your shorts type compilations.

These decade-based compilations are not quite as bad, because at least they have some objective merit and aren't entirely based on what a record company hot shot thinks an Aussie bloke likes to hear at a BBQ. After all, there's probably a lot of Aussie blokes who dig classical music, and a lot more who never need to hear Khe sanh again.

Back to my point about objective merit - it's more difficult to argue with the choice of what songs to include on a CD called 101 80s hits. Firstly, a song should only be included if it had been released between the years 1980 and 1989. Secondly, the song should be a hit of some sort. I guess this term is a bit more subjective, which is where so many compilations fail.

When browsing these sorts of compilations in stores, there's a commonly recurring sneaky record company practice which I have noticed over the years. They put a few corkers at the start of the compilation, with slowly diminishing returns over the rest of the CD(s). The careless buyer will see the first few songs, think they are on to a winner, and buy the CD. It's only when they get home later that they realise it's an EP masquerading as a long player.

But this 5-CD set is not like that. Here's a sample of 5 great songs from each CD. Notice the tracks numbers of the selections:

1. Blondie - Call me
5. The B-52s - Rock lobster
8. Men At Work - Down under
13. J. Geils Band - Centerfold
17. Survivor - Eye of the tiger

2. A Flock of Seagulls - I ran
5. David Bowie - Modern love
13. Nena - 99 luftballoons
16. Limahl - Never ending story
20. Dead Or Alive - You spin me round (Like a record)

7. Philip Oakey & Giorgio Moroder - Together in electric dreams
9. Simple Minds - Don't you (Forget about me)
14. Huey Lewis & The News - The power of love
16. A-ha - Take on me
19. Starship - We built this city

2. Divinyls - Pleasure and pain
3. Mr. Mister - Broken wings
10. Cutting Crew - (I just) died in your arms
13. Europe - The final countdown
18. Rick Astley - Never gonna give you up (the Rick Roll himself)

5. Robert Palmer - Simply irrestistible
7. Fairground Attraction - Perfect
11. Fine Young Cannibals - She drives me crazy
19. Martika - Toy soldiers
20. Deborah Harry - I want that man

And that's just a sample of 25/101 songs!

I wouldn't expect those from generation Y to have have the same emotional attachment to some of these songs. And if I was coming to these songs fresh, without having grown up with them, I would probably laugh in the face of their 80s production awash with drum machines and synths. But for someone born in the same era as me, this 5 CD set is a treasure chest of memories.

Those who know me well know that I don't download music, even from legal online stores like iTunes. Everything that's included in my iPod has to be legitimately purchased in physical CD format. It makes acquiring new music so much more fun - downloading is just too easy. The thrill of the chase, etc.

I used to be more of a purist, and never would have considered buying a compilation CD set like this. Which is kind've why I have been getting more into soundtracks lately - they feel less dirtier than a compilation like this, as they have more of a conceptual unity to them (they were all in the same movie!). But to get this many great songs from the 80s through the purchase of single artist compilations or soundtracks would be a massive expense in both time and money. Considering that many of the songs on this compilation are from one-hit wonders, it would be a pretty fruitless task as well.

These songs and me will be together in electric dreams for many years to come. I look forward to them coming up in the shuffle on my iPod.

MP3: Philip Oakey & Giorgio Moroder - Together in electric dreams [Link removed]


The most notable omission for me in this set is Come on Eileen by Dexy's Midnight Runners. I may have to buy one of their albums to get that song. As Homer Simpson once said, we haven't heard the last of them.


I also would have liked to substitute Drive by The Cars for Tonight she comes. I already have Drive on their 1984 album Heartbeat city. Tonight she comes is more difficult to get hold of, as it's only available on their Greatest hits CD (which is redundant for me now) and possibly some soundtracks as well.


Amazingly, I only had 6 of the 101 songs in this set already. Considering I always been an 80s music fan, having such a small overlap with the rest of my collection is pretty amazing.

Update: Song links removed.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Good old days

"Weird Al" Yankovic is probably the most famous song parodist of the modern musical age.

A lot of his song parodies are embedded in pop culture - some notables include Fat, Eat it, Like a surgeon and Pretty fly (for a rabbi).

But those who have heard some of his albums in their entirety know that he is also the master of the style, or genre parody. His favourite genre has always been the polka; he almost always includes a polka of some form on his albums. I still remember how much I laughed when I first heard Bohemian polka, a word-for-word remake of Queen's classic Bohemian rhapsody. polka form.

For me, a lot of his songs transcend parody. The guy is an incredibly underrated musician and lyricist. Sure, it's novelty music. But it's novelty music done to perfection by an accomplished performer and songwriter. Someone has to do this sort of music well, and I'm glad that it's Weird Al.

Have a listen to Good old days, from his 1988 album Even worse.

This is both a musical and lyrical parody. Musically, it takes the piss out of the whole early 70's singer-songwriter genre. It's a country ballad that wouldn't sound too out of place on a James Taylor or Jackson Browne album.

But it's the lyrical content that brings a smile to my face, but maybe that's because I'm a bit warped. The closest reference point is Warren Zevon, whose catchy melodies were mere fronts for his macabre lyrical content. The juxtaposition of the cheery music with the morbid lyrics is something that had to be heard to be believed.

When I was on RocKwiz in early 2005, I told Julia Zemiro that the first album I ever purchased was Even worse. I just listened to the whole album on my lunchtime walk, and it still holds up well over the years. Yeah, it's probably the nostalgia talking. But it's also the quality of songs like Good old days, which bring a smile to my face every time I hear them.

Weird Al is the man.

MP3: "Weird Al" Yankovic - Good old days [Link removed]

Update: Song links removed.

Monday, 22 September 2008

"Cold fact" revisited

I'm so glad that Cold fact has been re-released. I truly envy those people who are about to hear this album for the first time. My personal experience with discovering this album (through my brother Danny) was one of enlightenment. Where had this album been all my life? How come this guy wasn't as big as the Beatles?

I just hope that the engineers who worked on the remastering have some respect for this music, and don't butcher the remastering job. I love my original CD; the pops and crackles that make it sound like it was burnt straight from vinyl only add to its considerable charms.

My original CD also ends with Like Janis instead of Jane S. Piddy; there is a lot of confusion about these two tracks, and which is meant to be last. On the 2008 re-issue, Jane S. Piddy is now last; I guess this admits that there was a mistake in the original track order. I won't be reprogramming the order on my iPod - it just wouldn't feel right continuing after Like Janis for me. It just works so perfectly as a closing track. Anyway, here is more detail about this track order confusion.

Anyway, I don't need to review this album again. I have mentioned it countless times on this blog, so you can read my previous posts for yourself:

2004: A year in music - when I first discovered it
Cold fact - my original review
Musical memories and discoveries - a Rodriguez-esque stream-of-consciousness
Top 10 albums that have "the vibe" - guess which album makes the cut?
Rodriguez gig review - even includes a photo of me with the man himself

But, seriously.
Get this album.
You will not regret it*.
Lost classic.
Hidden gem.
Yadda yadda yadda.
You get the drift.

MP3: Rodriguez - Rich folks hoax [Link removed]

*If you don't believe me, here are some other reviews from more reputable publications:


The Observer
Pitchfork Media
Tiny Mix Tapes
The Age (article)

Update: Song links removed.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

RIP: Rick Wright 1943-2008

Rick Wright, founding member and keyboardist from progressive rockers Pink Floyd, has sadly passed away at the age of 65 after a battle with cancer.

Dark side of the moon is one of the most popular albums of all time, and for good reason. It was voted the best album of all time in a recent Australian television show. Not just a critic's darling, it truly is a masterpiece. Even if it isn't a secret soundtrack to The wizard of oz, as the conspiracy theorists would lead you to believe.

As good as DSOTM is, you can't forget other excellent PF albums like Meddle and Animals. At their peak, they were a band who were truly ahead of their time.

I'm sure Rick is playing with Syd at the great gig in the sky(TM).

MP3: Pink Floyd - The great gig in the sky [Link removed]

This song was composed by Rick Wright, and is one of my favourite Pink Floyd songs. Truly stunning.

Update: Song links removed.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Hidden gems #1: Songs in the attic

This is the first (and keeping in mind my recent prolificacy, probably last) blog post in a new series which aims to raise awareness of hidden musical gems from musical history. This series will cover albums that most have probably never heard, but should.

I can understand how those who only know Billy Joel from his over-played radio hits probably regard him as a schmaltzy MOR singer-songwriter, an artifact from the 70s best left there. I agree that some of his songs have been played beyond death; I don't think I will ever feel the need to hear Just the way you are or Uptown girl again (unless it's Homer Simpson singing the latter).

The Billy Joel of the 70s was a different beast entirely. Not to say that he squandered his talent quite like Rod Stewart did (who too had a very promising career in the 70s before he lost all respect), but the early Billy Joel had something that the more popular Billy Joel never quite matched.

The live album Songs in the attic was released in 1981. Billy became a lot more popular after his breakthrough 1977 album The stranger, and this live album was intended as a vehicle to raise awareness of his earlier songs. To this end, it achieves its goal flawlessly. I'm normally not a fan of live albums, and with only a few exceptions, I have almost always regretted purchasing them. Mainly because they don't improve on the studio versions, and also because they tend to consist mainly of the overplayed hits.

But this live album is an exception in many respects. Firstly, it only includes obscure (to radio listeners anyway) songs from his first four albums. It doesn't even include his signature song Piano man, the title track from his second album! Secondly, all of the live versions on this album rock a lot harder than any of the original studio versions. It's not uncommon for production values and songwriting quality be at odds with each other, and Billy Joel's early albums are a great example of this. But the versions on Songs in the attic sound awesome - even on my original, non-mastered CD pressing.

If you've only heard Billy Joel's radio hits, I highly recommend getting this album. It's one of the first albums that truly blew me away. It's simply fantastic music, and the fact that it is live doesn't even matter when you are listening to it. The bits on opening track Miami 2017 where the NY audience cheer when the Yankees, Brooklyn, The Bronx and other NY icons are mentioned still gives me goosebumps to this day.

You can pick this album up dirt-cheap thesedays - I have seen it for $5.00 on many occasions.

Buy it, turn it up, and rock on.

MP3: Billy Joel - Miami 2017 [Link removed]

Update: Song links removed.

Monday, 11 August 2008

RIP: Isaac Hayes 1942-2008

Isaac Hayes, pioneering funk/soul singer-songwriter, record producer and actor (amongst other things) has passed away at the age of 65.

In recent years, Mr Hayes has become more known for being the voice of the Chef character on South Park, and also his belief in Scientology. He eventually left the show after the South Park creators made an episode lampooning Scientology.

I only recently picked up his landmark 1969 album Hot buttered soul, and it's a good listen. Many of the tracks on this album have been sampled by other artists, the most notable being Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic which was sampled by Public Enemy on Black steel in the hour of chaos, from their classic It takes a nation of millions to hold us back album.

Rest in peace, Isaac.

MP3: Isaac Hayes - Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic [Song link removed]

UPDATE: Song links removed.

Friday, 18 April 2008

The art of a great compilation CD (Part 2 of 2)

As promised in my previous post, I will now provide a list of my top 10 favourite compilations of all time. All of the compilations in this list are pretty close to perfect in my opinion; please don't hesitate to pick them up!

10. Cold Chisel - Chisel

For 73 minutes of fantastic Aussie rock, it really doesn't get much better than this superb disc. If you have any relatives or friends who live overseas and want to know what popular Australian music is like, this is the disc to give them. It starts with a bang with the classic cock-rock radio staples Standing on the outside, Rising sun and You got nothing I want. There's a few ballads around the middle of the disc (Breakfast at Sweetheart's, Choir girl) which show that these guys could write beautiful melodies as well. It keeps a few classics for the latter half of the disc, including Flame trees which is possibly my favourite Chisel cut. And, knowing that they wouldn't be able to top it, they saved their most well-known song until the end with Khe sanh. A gutsy move.

9. Madonna - The immaculate collection

The only compilation in this list that I don't have in my personal collection (although my wife has it); I felt it would be a travesty of justice if I left this one out. Say what you want about her as a person, and her more recent musical endeavours. The fact remains that this is a note-perfect collection of some of the best pop that the 80's and early 90's had to offer. Even the "never before released" tracks of Justify my love and Rescue me sit comfortably alongside her earlier classics such as Like a prayer, Borderline and Holiday. This is the template for how good pop compilations can be.

8. Tom Petty - Greatest hits

I was surprised when I picked this CD up recently how many of these songs I knew. It's a great feeling when you buy a CD expecting that you only know 2-3 songs and you end up knowing 5-6, and liking them too! This chronological ordered CD of Mr Petty's greatest hits is probably the only CD of his that you need to get; the melodies never end and you can't help but smile as it gets you caught up in its groove.

7. Creedence Clearwater Revival - Chronicle

The finest swamp-rock/blues fusion band released their fair share of great albums, but no disc is more satisfying than this stupendous collection of 20 classic old-skool radio station staples. Starting with a few songs from their traditional blues debut album, practically every song on this album screams out "classic" to the discerning listener. So many bands have tried to emulate the sound that these guys perfected on their fantastic run of singles, all of which are collected here. These guys are almost up there with the Beatles in terms of their sheer consistency, which is represented perfectly on this compilation. My only gripe with this album (and many other critics have commented on this) is including the 11-minute version of I heard it through the grapevine which unfortunately disrupts the flow of the CD, considering that most of the other tracks hover at around the 3-4 minute mark. But it's a small gripe relative to the beautiful tunes contained within.

6. Elvis Costello - The very best of Elvis Costello and the Attractions

Declan McManus has released many compilations throughout his career, but this one (now unfortunately deleted) tops the list. Why? Because it ticks that one "great compilation" box I mentioned in my previous post: it focuses on his golden years. Elvis changed record labels halfway through his career, recording with Columbia 1977-1986 and Warner Brothers from 1986 onwards (he changed record labels a few times more recently as well). With the record label change came a change in his sound as well, and this compilation wisely (in my opinion, anyway) focuses on his golden years from 1977-1986 (okay, so Goodbye cruel world wasn't so golden, but luckily there is only one track on here from that overproduced mess of an album). Like the Tom Petty compilation mentioned earlier, you may be surprised at how many of these songs you know. And as for the ones you don't know, well isn't about time you were introduced to the genius of Elvis Costello? This is also a great entry-point into his vast discography, and the songs you like on here will help steer you in the right direction when purchasing some of his proper albums which you will inevitably want to do. Pick it up on eBay if you can.

5. Crowded House - Recurring Dream

I absolutely envy anyone who hasn't yet heard anything by this Aussie/Kiwi band (although it's unlikely as they had some pretty big international hits early on in their career). Before getting this album, I knew a few of their songs: Don't dream it's over, Better be home soon...and a few others as well. But really, how can one band write so many fantastic songs and so many memorable melodies? This compilation, while not chronological, does a great job at covering a great cross section of their first 4 albums (the only 4 albums until Time on earth was released last year); it includes 4 tracks from each album, and 3 never-heard-before tracks. In doing so, they didn't make any of their albums redundant which meant that there was so much more to explore when you inevitably fell in love with them. And the 3 tracks aren't poor quality cast-offs strategically included to make the hardcore fan buy the album; Not the girl you think of you are may actually be my favourite Crowded House song of all time. That, my friendly reader, is a big call.

4. Queen - Greatest hits I

I received the double disc set of Greatest Hits I & II as a birthday present one year. Greatest Hits II covers most of their 80's output, which includes some classics (Under pressure) and some less than impressive material as well (Radio ga ga). But Greatest Hits I, which focuses on their peak 70's output, doesn't really have a dud in the bunch (I'll forgive them for Flash, because that was specifically for a movie soundtrack). Freddie Mercury was a genius, one of the finest singers of his (or any) generation. And the other guys were pretty bloody good as well. You probably know most of the tracks on this compilation, and some of my favourite songs of all time are contained within this hour-long set.

3. Bob Marley - Legend

A perfect example of showing restraint when it comes to releasing a compilation from an artist as influential as Bob Marley. They could have so easily released a double-disc set of his material, but instead they kept it to a lean 14-track 62-minute compilation. All of his classics are here: opening with the lovely Is this love, moving on to the beautiful live rendition of No woman, no cry...the tunes roll of this album like one of his joints before he smoked it. This isn't only some of the finest reggae music of all time, it's some of the best music.

2. The Cure - Standing on a beach

While the Cure are also a great "album band", they have also released many fantastic singles, and this disc collects the singles from the early part of their career, 1979-1985. This is one of the compilations in the list where the singles are played chronologically, and it really helps for a band who have been through so many different phases as the Cure. On tracks 1-4, they showed us why they were one of the best post-punk bands. On tracks 5-10, they moved into their more well-known (and pigeon-holed) gothic phase. The rest of the disc showed them edging more towards pop territory, which reached its peak on their The head on the door album from 1985 (the last album represented on here). They mastered every genre they tried, and proved to be influential to many bands who formed after them. And because it focuses on their earlier period, you still get to hear Disintegration from 1989 (arguably their best album) untarnished by hearing songs out of their context.

1. Sly & The Family Stone - Greatest hits

Really, just go out and buy this one now. I don't care what music you're into; country, metal or techno. Just get it. You can buy this so cheaply now - I was lucky enough to get it for $5 which is easily the best value in terms of dollars per listen that I have ever had in my entire music collection. I almost feel guilty, and feel that I should send Sly Stone a cheque to compensate for how cheaply I got this disc.

Anyway, this is life-affirming music of the highest order. That sounds like a wanky think to say, but it's true. Sly & The Family Stone were a multi-racial funk/goodtime band who broke all sorts of boundaries when it came to music. This is a 12 track 40 minute compilation, which makes it pretty short by compilation standards. It borrows from their earlier albums up until 1969's Stand!, and includes a few tracks which are unavailable elsewhere including the absolute classics Everybody is a star and Hot fun in the summertime. By stopping at Stand!, it avoids some of their darker moments like those on 1971's There's a riot goin' on; that make this the ultimate party album.

Even if you end up buying all of their albums after hearing this (and believe me, you will), this compilation is worth getting just so you can get those tracks. Seriously, go out and buy it now and let me know what you think. You will not regret it, and you will have a new favourite band.

Honourable mentions:

The Police - Greatest hits
The Kinks - Greatest hits
Pet Shop Boys - Discography
Paul Kelly - Songs from the south
Badfinger - The best of Badfinger