This section focuses on great music, providing:
A selection of ESSENTIAL TRACKS chosen to give your system a workout, some of which are seminal recorded performances.
DOWNLOADS of superlative quality recordings in a range of high resolution formats.
Our ALBUM OF THE MONTH and some words on why we chose it.
Invited COMMENT from dCS and leading members of the hi-fi world – although in most cases we offer these anonymously!
The disco era is rightly derided for its outlandish kitsch, yet it delivered a rich seam of pop music throughout the nineteen seventies. It took the classic Motown soul tradition, mixed in funk and added solid, four-on-the-floor rock rhythms to create a sound that transformed the latter half of that decade. Although much of it was of little artistic merit, some great albums came from that era – and Chic’s C’est Chic was surely the genre’s finest moment. Formed in 1976 by guitarist Nile Rodgers and bassist Bernard Edwards, the band delivered a torrent of soaring dance floor anthems that captured the spirit of the age.
Rogers and Edwards were virtuoso musicians at the very top of their game, crafting a highly sophisticated sound that was as close to technical perfection as it was possible to get, back in the days before sequencers and drum machines took hold. Hits like Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah) (1977), Everybody Dance (1977), Le Freak (1978), I Want Your Love (1978), Good Times (1979) and My Forbidden Lover (1979), showed their breathtaking technical prowess. The music sounded so tight, yet there was a synergy between the two men that made it more than the sum of the parts. Indeed, Rodgers and Edwards became prolific session musicians and producers too, writing and playing for everyone from Sister Sledge, Diana Ross and David Bowie to Duran Duran, Madonna and latterly Daft Punk.
Steeped in the nineteen seventies New York club scene, they moved from session work with Walter Murphy to being the greatest disco band in the world in the space of just eighteen months. The band borrowed its concept from British avant-gardists Roxy Music; like them they would be immaculately dressed and their artwork would denote an escapist, luxurious world. Chic’s eponymous debut album released in 1977 won many friends, but it wasn’t until 1978’s C’est Chic that the band got into top gear. Le Freak was its smash hit single, and became an anthem for the disco era, selling an amazing six million copies. Released on August 11, 1978, it featured a welter of musicians including Tony Thompson, who contributed the superlative drum work, Robert Sabino for clavinet, acoustic piano and electric piano and Raymond Jones on Fender Rhodes. Marianne Carroll, Cheryl Hong and Karen Milne provided the soaring strings, and there was a superb brass section too.
Aside from Freak Out and I Want Your Love, the album has no other hits but is still a work of beauty from start to finish. The lyrics are sometimes plaintive yet never attempt to be deep and meaningful; instead the lushly orchestrated melodies do the talking. The result is uplifting to listen to from start to finish, with a uniquely rich and vintage sound. Recorded to a very high standard at the Power Station, N.Y., with Bob Clearmountain engineering, C’est Chic is treat for any self-respecting high end hi-fi system. The standard CD pressing sounds good, the Japanese HDCD [Atlantic AMCY-2725] even more so, but the widescreen hi-res FLAC version of 2014 is best of all.
To listen to all of our 2018 Album Of the Month picks visit our TIDAL playlist https://tidal.com/playlist/5c4a2912-a1ac-4e45-82f0-121bd77cd4e3
There was a time when the musical description ‘Country’ might bring a collective sigh of horror from Audiophiles – but no longer. The American Bluegrass scene has expanded beyond recognition and its influences extend far beyond the front porch or The Grand Ole Oprey these days. Labelling is a thing of the past. It’s also an area of music where you simply have to be able to play to achieve recognition or a recording contract. Some of the artists here are at the very peak of achievement and ability. They are largely acoustic musicians who combine truly formidable playing skills with a sweet harmonic sensibility hence the Lyricism tag. I hope you enjoy the music and use the artists featured as a springboard into a musical journey of your own.
When Japan formed in 1974, the signs were encouraging – although a little too obsessed with the style and sound of glam rockers the New York Dolls, it was clear that David Sylvian (vocals, guitar, keyboards), brother Steve Jansen (drums) plus Richard Barbieri (keyboards) and Mick Karn (bass guitar) were prodigiously talented. The band started at Catford Boys School, South London, as a way of escaping the boredom of their surroundings. The name was a working title, used in lieu of a better one that they never thought of. In love with Roxy Music and David Bowie, they epitomised the British ‘art school pop’ tradition, but when lead guitarist Rob Dean joined in 1977 and they signed to the Hansa-Ariola label, the horizon expanded. Their first two LPs, Adolescent Sex and Obscure Alternatives, were overlooked by the new wave-obsessed British pop market of 1978. Then Japan hooked up with Euro disco producer Giorgio Moroder, who co-wrote and produced the single Life In Tokyo – and things would never be the same again…
The stage was set for the band’s third long-player, Quiet Life. Released worldwide on December 1979, it showed the band morphing into a fully-rounded synth pop combo, just at the right time. It’s possible to argue that Japan was the original New Romantic band – even though David Sylvian repeatedly refuted the claim. The new decade saw an explosion in colourful synthesiser-dominated music and Japan was at the vanguard. Quiet Life is a fascinating work, melding Low-era Bowie, Roxy Music and Lou Reed with disco, funk and even punk. For the first time, we saw David Sylvian dropping his vocals down to baritone, and singing in a stylised way that many British electropop bands copied.
It combines sharp uptempo songs like the title track Quiet Life, with slow, atmospheric, brooding tracks like In Vogue and The Other Side of Life. Musically it is intelligent, sophisticated and more eclectic than any of its contemporary releases – and showcases the superb musicianship that the band had by now achieved. Mick Karn’s fretless bass guitar playing went on to influence a whole generation of eighties bass players, and provides a supple underpinning to the rigid electronic backing. Extensive use was made of sequencing, and the edgy guitar sounds were replaced by smoother synthesised textures. Rob Dean used an ebow on most tracks, and the production was awash with phasers and flangers, with heavy harmonising on the vocals. The result was an introspective and dark sounding album, but full of beguiling melodies and tender, thoughtful lyrics.
The album peaked at No.72 in the British album charts in February 1980, and acquired gold status in 1984 for selling over 100,000 copies. It was the beginning of the band’s harvest years – soon they signed to Virgin and released two more memorable studio LPs, Gentlemen Take Polaroids (1980) and Tin Drum (1981). The title track was re-released as a single, reaching number 19 in October 1981. Domestic squabbles caused the band to split in 1982, their last ever performance being on 16th December 1982 in Nagoya, Japan. Quiet Life still sounds superb today; the Japanese remaster (BVCM-37220) being an essential purchase.
To listen to all of our 2018 AOTM visit our TIDAL playlist here
Being a serious student of pop music back in the nineteen eighties wasn’t easy. Whilst some may look back nostalgically now, there was a huge amount of rubbish in the charts. The cool indie bands of that period – The Smiths, The Cure, The Cocteau Twins, New Order – barely and/or rarely made a dent. Yet the Pet Shop Boys transcended this; purveyors of catchy dance music that was lyrically intelligent and beautifully honed, New Musical Express called them, “The Smiths that you can dance to.” The synthesiser pop duo combined polished uptempo electronica with touchingly personal and reflective lyrics – instead of the usual “baby I love you” cheesiness that was the norm for mass market pop then.
The band’s first two albums brought Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe huge commercial success, yielding some stomping singles that practically defined their age – West End Girls and What Have I Done to Deserve This from Please (1986) and Actually (1987) respectively. By the time that 1988 came around, people were wondering how they would follow them up. Introspective was the answer, a subtle departure that was in some ways the band’s most commercial long player to date. While the first two albums had been mainstream pop, this fused the newly developing house music genre with the Pet Shop Boys’ own distinctive style. It added a more sophisticated production too, and more confessional and intimate lyrics from the duo’s songwriter Neil Tennant. Released at the end of a long hot summer on 11th October 1988, it caught that moment’s happy, optimistic vibe perfectly.
Introspective was the coming together of several fortuitous things. First, Tennant and Lowe teamed up with the producer of the decade, Trevor Horn, and one of the most accomplished studio engineers of his time, Stephen Lipson. It was recorded between 1987 and 1988 at Horn’s famous Sarm West Studio in London, where he had produced Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and made some great records with Propaganda, Art of Noise and Grace Jones. As well as this, it was packed with singles; the band’s epic cover of Elvis Presley’s Always on My Mind had already charted, as had their flamenco guitar-infused Ibiza tribute Domino Dancing. Left to My Own Devices was just about to assail the top ten, along with It’s Alright, and it also contained a stomping version of their self-penned I’m Not Scared, previously covered by Patsy Kensit’s Eighth Wonder. Small wonder then, that the album went on to be the duo’s second best selling ever, racking up 4.5 million copies, and peaking at number two in the UK album chart.
Lyrically, the album was indeed introspective. It saw songwriter Tennant in a reflective mood, which was in dramatic contrast to the Chris Lowe’s hugely upbeat tunes. Technologically it is a fascinating snapshot of the late eighties, with layers of multitracked analogue synthesisers adorned by Fairlight CMI samples. Each song feels like a perfect three-minute pop single, that’s been elongated to play on a twelve inch vinyl single that you can dance to. Although not an audiophile album per se, it still sounds great on a serious system – especially the original Japanese market CD release [EMI CP25-5670].
Listen all of our AOTM choices for 2018 on our TIDAL playlist
Although everyone associates the band with ‘Madchester’ – that manic period of Manchester indie dance music that swept Britain in the early nineteen nineties – The Stone Roses started way back in 1983, when The Smiths were at their peak. Lead singer Ian Brown had been in bands for several years by this time, but things took off when John Squire got the lead guitar role and Alan Wren became drummer in May 1984. By the early part of the next year they were in the studio with respected producer Martin Hannett. The band’s first single came out that year, and they debuted I Wanna Be Adored on Piccadilly Radio. By early 1987 they had recorded Elephant Stone and Sally Cinnamon, and bass guitarist Gary Mounfield – Mani – joined. This made a huge difference to the sound. Brown later said, “it almost changed overnight. It became a totally different groove. Straight away, everything just fell into place.” Rough Trade’s Geoff Travis heard them live and promptly signed them up.
Live touring began on a greater scale, and the guys found themselves with an eight-album record deal courtesy of Silvertone – who bought the tapes from Rough Trade. Elephant Stone was released as single in October 1988, and then Made of Stone. Finally The Stone Roses album was released in April 1989, followed by She Bangs the Drums as a single. By the end of the year, the final part of the jigsaw was complete, with the release of Fools Gold/What the World is Waiting For. It’s hard to understate the importance of this double A-side. “We’re the most important group in the world, because we’ve got the best songs and we haven’t even begun to show our potential yet”, said a feisty Ian Brown at the time.
By this long and exhaustive series of record releases and gigs, The Stone Roses went from cult band to fully-fledged chart toppers. Fools Gold bridged their jangly, melodious eighties guitar pop – done so well by late period Smiths and early Primal Scream – to the indie dance craze that the band found itself at the height of. Its slack, shuffling rhythms spawned an entire generation of imitators, with everyone from The Charlatans to Happy Mondays later taking up the baton. The group’s most famous song, it brought the first top-ten hit and helped sell the album in droves – even if ironically the vinyl version didn’t actually feature either of the new songs at all. The Stone Roses became the launchpad for the band, selling strongly off the success of this seminal indie single.
Celebrated by many as one of the great British rock records of the decade, it is full of great tunes, catchy guitar riffs and a sense of purpose that’s rare in any young band. Brimming with attitude and assuredness, it’s clear that the people involved really believe in themselves and what they’re doing. Recorded at Battery Studios, London, the John Leckie-produced The Stone Roses is by no stretch of the imagination an audiophile record, yet still sounds great through a serious hi-fi system. The original British silver disc [Silvertone Records ORE CD502] is the one to have.
Listen to the Stone Roses and all of our 2018 Album choices on TIDAL
Despite massive chart success in later years, with a string of pop and disco-infused singles, Queen always thought of themselves as an authentic rock band, and a heavy one at that. Freddie Mercury (lead vocals, piano), Brian May (lead guitar, vocals), Roger Taylor (drums, vocals), and John Deacon (bass guitar) were all closer to Hawkwind than 10cc in the great pantheon of music. Yet A Night at the Opera showed that the band had the ingenuity and imagination to move well beyond the genre.
Best known for the smash-hit single Bohemian Rhapsody, the band’s fourth studio album saw Queen as a fast-maturing combo that had just headlined US tour venues, wearing striking Zandra Rhodes-created costumes, with Elton John’s manager John Reid now aboard. The most expensive album ever recorded at the time, it was meant to be the band’s magnum opus – its Sergeant Pepper – and certainly delivered. It was released on 21st November 1975 to widespread critical acclaim. It’s a whimsical mixture of pop, heavy rock and even music hall – with the band unwilling to be pigeonholed musically. Tellingly however, buried deep in the sleeve notes is the phrase, “No Synthesisers!”, suggesting Queen still saw themselves as real, old school rockers.
A Night at the Opera has great strength in depth. It ranges from Mercury’s almost maniacal Death on Two Legs – a noisy and coruscating attack on the band’s former manager – to his jaunty, breezy Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon which has touches of George Gershwin. Taylor’s I’m in Love with My Car is a powerful, hard rocking number that is dedicated to roadie Johnathan Harris’s obsession with his Triumph sportscar, while You’re My Best Friend is a touching John Deacon composition, and ode to his wife. Sweet Lady is a high tempo, distortion soaked hard rock number from May, then we go back to whimsy with Mercury’s Seaside Rendezvous. May’s The Prophet’s Song is Queen’s longest studio song and sports interesting effects, while Love of My Life went on to be a popular singalong at Queen concerts. May’s Good Company channels Dixieland and sees him playing a ukelele and singing. Mercury composition Bohemian Rhapsody needs no introduction; amusingly its working title was “Fred’s thing” until the final recording session.
Critics were divided about the album. Some believed it was Queen’s finest hour, and put them in the premier league of the world’s great rock bands, others saw it as grandiose and overblown. What is not disputed is that it put the foursome on course to become a great stadium rock band, just at that genre’s height. A decade later they went on to play the 1985 Live Aid benefit and made themselves megastars, with record sales now estimated at 300 million. A Night at the Opera – which itself sold over six million copies – was the start of all this, a powerful yet quirky concept album packed with infectious tunes and brilliant musicianship.
By modern standards recording quality is not great, but a serious front end certainly lifts it. The Japanese 2011 SHM-SACD release [Island Records UIGY-9513] is surely the finest, although the CD reissue of the same year is most enjoyable too.
Click here to listen to all our 2018 album picks so far on TIDAL
More than any other musician of his generation, Herbert Jeffrey Hancock moved jazz music forward. He was an important artist for Blue Note – a great label that defined the post-bop era of the nineteen sixties and seventies. Born in Chicago in 1940, the son of a government meat inspector, Herbie started playing classical piano from an early age, and was regarded as something of a child prodigy. However, his heart was in jazz, where he soon developed a style of his own. The Hi-Lo’s were an important influence, as he later explained: “That’s when I really learned some much farther-out voicings – like the harmonies I used on Speak Like a Child… I really got that from Clare Fischer’s arrangements for the Hi-Lo’s. Clare was a major influence on my harmonic concept.”
At the tender age of twenty, he moved to Chicago and began working with Donald Byrd and Coleman Hawkins, where his reputation grew. Off the back of this, Blue Note offered him a contract, and Takin’ Off (1962) was the result. Watermelon Man caught the ear of Miles Davis, who signed him up for his band; he got to work with a stellar cast of young jazzers, including bassist Ron Carter, drummer Tony Williams and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. During this era, he recorded some excellent solo albums such as Empyrean Isles (1964) and Maiden Voyage (1965), which came to be seen as a template for the new jazz style. The two albums that followed – Speak Like a Child (1968) and The Prisoner (1969) are less celebrated, but no less beautiful…
The result was a beautiful, innovative sounding modern jazz record. Recorded in March 1968 at Van Gelder Studio, New Jersey, Hancock delivered some of his sweetest, most tender piano work, with brilliant accompaniment from Ron Carter on bass and Mickey Roker on drums. The alto flute of Jerry Dodgion, bass trombone of Peter Philips and flugelhorn of Thad Jones make for an unusual front line. The result is a rich but floaty sound with wonderfully lyrical playing. The harmonies give vibrancy and colour, the texture of the music is delicious, and the melodies are simple and catchy. “Of all the albums I’ve done, this to me swings the most”, said Hancock. For the best sound on silver disc, seek out the 1999 Japanese Compact Disc reissue (Blue Note BNST-84279).
Listen to all our 2018 AOTM suggestions on TIDAL
In the late nineteen eighties, Al Jarreau had one of the most famous voices in the world. As the singer of the theme to Moonlighting – the smash-hit US romantic TV comedy – his dulcet tones conjured up images of modern sophistication. It was the first time that many had heard him – despite being having been a jazz vocalist of repute for nearly twenty years by then. Smooth and creamy yet tonally rich and wonderfully expressive, Jarreau’s vocal style perfectly soundtracked the chemistry between the glamorous Cybil Shepherd and a raffish looking young Bruce Willis.
Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Jarreau was forty eight years old when he recorded Moonlighting in 1988, effectively mid-way through his career. He sang in church as a child, educated himself up to Masters Degree level and then started singing in a nightclub in Marin County, California. In 1968 he went professional and quickly found himself on TV shows such as Johnny Carson and David Frost, soon beginning to write his own song lyrics to reflect his Christian spirituality. His first album, 1976’s We Got By, gave him fame and 1981’s Breakin’ Away brought critical respect. After his smash hit Moonlighting at the end of the decade, Jarreau focused on touring – and it’s this period that Tenderness showcases…
He collaborated with a veritable constellation of jazz and soul greats during this time, including David Sanborn on alto sax, Michael Brecker on tenor sax, Marcus Miller on bass guitar and Joe Sample on keyboards. Released in 1994, Tenderness sees these musicians right at the top of their game. The song selection is unadventurous and clearly aimed at commercial appeal, but the quality of the musicianship is spectacular. Anyone with any interest in jazz, funk or soul will instantly be hit by the virtuosity of Jarreau’s band, which is breathtakingly tight despite recording in front of a live studio audience. The music conjures up a magical mood that’s louche yet beguiling; the worst criticism that can be levelled is that it’s rather ‘cocktail jazzy’, which is not to everyone’s taste.
Everything from Jorge Ben’s Mas Que Nada and Oscar Hammerstein’s My Favourite Things, to Lennon and McCartney’s She’s Leaving Home and George Gershwin’s Summertime gets the treatment. Jarreau’s vocal style is distinctive, expressive and gymnastic in the way it runs around the melody. Each song is rendered in a refreshingly different way to the original, and there’s no sense that he’s trying to recreate someone else’s idea of it. The really impressive thing is how Tenderness plays as an entire album – it sounds ‘all of a piece’, whisking the listener away to a special time and place.
Even those who are not natural fans of this beautifully nuanced, butter-smooth music will be astounded by the way the album sounds. Mastered by Doug Sax at The Mastering Lab in LA, it is one of the finest sounding modern jazz albums ever made. There are no hi-res versions commercially available, but even the cooking Compact Disc (WEA 4509 93778-2) on a dCS front end sounds staggering, with an amazing sense of space and insight that most hi-res recordings would kill for.
Listen to all our 2018 AOTM here: https://tidal.com/play…/5c4a2912-a1ac-4e45-82f0-121bd77cd4e3
Nobody’s really quite sure when the term ‘heavy metal’ was coined for music. Some say it was that line from Steppenwolf’s Born to be Wild, others think it came from Hawkwind. What everyone agrees on however, is that no one expected 1987 to be a vintage year for the genre. Indeed, by the mid eighties, things had taken a distinct term for the worse – there had been a real buzz just a few years earlier, with the likes of Saxon, Whitesnake and Rainbow propelling huge crashing tunes into the pop charts, but by the latter part of the decade many people seemed more interested in the emerging ‘house music’ movement. Then, a band that nobody had ever heard of before came out of California with a fresh, modern heavy rock record, infused with melodies catchy enough to be chart-topping pop…
Guns N’Roses released Appetite for Destruction on July 21, 1987. It was like a bolt from the blue, going on to sell thirty million copies worldwide, despite getting a lukewarm reception from critics who saw it as formulaic. Since then however, the band’s huge global success has forced many to re-evaluate it. Although not ground breaking in any way, there’s no denying that this great rock album hit the music charts with the force of a speeding freight train. Its singles (It’s So Easy, Sweet Child o’ Mine, Paradise City and Nightrain) were all very strong, the second and third releases becoming massive hits. Despite using a relatively obscure producer (Mike Clink) and being on an unfashionable label (Geffen), the band sounded like a supergroup that had been playing for decades, and at the top of its game.
Guns N’Roses comprised W. Axl Rose (lead vocals, synthesiser, percussion), Slash (lead guitar, rhythm guitar, acoustic guitar, slide guitar, talkbox), Izzy Stradlin (rhythm guitar, lead guitar, backing vocals, percussion), Duff “Rose” McKagan (bass, backing vocals) and Steven Adler (drums, percussion, backing vocals). All were too young to have heard the classic Steppenwolf track at the time of its original release, yet played like they were steeped in heavy metal folklore from the beginning of time. Many of the songs had been well campaigned on the Los Angeles club circuit that the band had made their home. This gave the album a remarkably mature and sophisticated feel, considering that Axel Rose was just twenty five years old when his band hit megastardom.
Recorded at several studios around LA, this is a powerful and coherent sounding album that showcases the musicians’ obvious talents and makes a great statement of intent. The guys seemed to capture the sound of Led Zeppelin of fifteen years earlier, strip it back down to basics and then add their very own magic. Although derivative and in no way avant garde, the quality of the writing, playing and production on Appetite for Destruction is still so strong that it never needed to break new ground. After hearing this, a new generation of hard rock fans was born. For those seeking out their very own copy of this seminal ‘modern classic’ rock album, the original Japanese Compact Disc pressing (Geffen Records 32XD-821) sounds the best, with power aplenty.
Switch on a transistor radio back in the nineteen seventies, tune into any pop station, and alongside the sounds of Carol King and Rod Stewart, Glen Travis Campbell’s hits such as Gentle on My Mind (1967), By the Time I Get to Phoenix (1967), Galveston (1969) and Rhinestone Cowboy (1975) would ring out. By this time, he was star with ten Grammy awards under his belt. Upon his death last year, he had released seventy albums and sold nearly fifty million records, including twelve gold albums, four platinums and one double-platinum. Not bad for a boy from Arkansas who began his professional career as a Los Angeles session musician thanks to a chain of events starting when his uncle Boo bought him a five dollar guitar, back when he was just four years old.
Things really began to take off for Campbell in December 1964, when he became a touring member of the Beach Boys, filling in for Brian Wilson playing bass guitar and singing falsetto harmonies. Yet it took another three years for him to reach his creative height with the album Wichita Lineman. Recorded in 1968 with his backing band the Wrecking Crew, the single of the same name achieved only modest chart success, but has now become what many think is one of the greatest pop songs ever recorded. Written by Jimmy Webb – of MacArthur Park fame – Campbell’s treatment of it is sublime, with a deep, empathetic quality that reduces many people to tears. It ushers the listener into the solitary, lovesick life of a county workman. The story goes that while driving through Washita County, Oklahoma, Webb saw a lineman and, “put himself atop that telephone pole and put that phone in his hand.” Campbell later said that it alluded to Webb’s first love affair with a woman, who later married someone else.
Released on November 4th, 1968, the album featured Campbell (vocals, acoustic and electric guitars), Al Casey (acoustic guitar), Carol Kaye (bass guitar), Jim Gordon (drums) and Dennis McCarthy (piano). Al De Lory produced and wrote the beautiful orchestral arrangements. Wichita Lineman has its own highly distinctive sound, thanks in no small part to Carol Kaye’s bass guitar playing – she also guested on Phil Spector, Brian Wilson and Simon and Garfunkel hits, and gives things a wonderfully fluid feel. As well as its iconic title track, the record sports excellent cover versions of standards from a variety of artists, including Otis Redding’s (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay, Jacques Brel’s If You Go Away and The Bee Gees’ Words. In truth, the album sounds a little disjointed, but the quality of the singing and musicianship is first rate. Had it not been blessed with a stellar title track, the other songs’ quality would have been more evident.
Thanks to Al De Lory’s genius and the class of the Hollywood-based Capitol Recording Studio, Wichita Lineman sounds spectacular – way better than most rock recordings of that period. Even the standard issue Compact Disc remaster (Capitol Records 7243-5-35229-2-6) from 2001 is blissfully rich, vibrant and expansive sounding, especially when played through a dCS digital front end.