Music. The lifeblood of audiophiles.
Or is it?
I’ve had this conversation several times with friends, a number of whom have thrown their head back and laughed in derision. “No way,” they snort, “it’s all about the gear, and measurements; audiophiles don’t really like music, they just want to tweak, and tinker, swap out gear, and argue about whether those new speaker cables give more air to the upper registers on piano notes of Come Away With Me.”
So, perhaps this offering is a bit of a surprise for some: a bunch of audiophiles sharing their favorite albums of 2016. But here it is, nonetheless.
These are in no particular order. This is not a “Countdown to No. 1” list; the albums listed here merely reflect the personal composition of several music lovers who help make up Part-Time Audiophile, and whose tastes I respect.
My sincere thanks to those fellow scribes who sent me their picks. Merci.
24/96 version at HDtracks.
Com Truise, Silicon Tare
This is more of an EP, but I’ll take whatever I can get from the New Jersey “mid-fi synth wave, slow-motion funk” artist (his words, not mine). It’s Jan Hammer meets Shawn Lee’s Ping Pong Orchestra, and a good time is had by all.
Animals As Leaders, The Madness of Many
Some fans and music critics think the band ventured too far into the murky waters of “experimentation” on their 4th release. Me, I dig it. While perhaps not quite as heavy as the older material, it still unquestionably rocks, and keeps the listener guessing as to what the next track has in store. Not the best sound quality but hey, you can’t win them all – the musicianship on display more than makes up for it.
Aoife O’Donovan, Man in a Neon Coat
The prolific singer/songwriter with an interesting first name helped make some of my favorite music of the last decade with her bands Crooked Still and Sometymes Why. This live album reminds me why I love attending real performances – despite being comprised of material from her two solo releases, there’s a transcendent quality here which captures my attention and refuses to let go. If you haven’t had the pleasure of hearing Aoife do her thing, this is an excellent place to start.
Cypress String Quartet, Brahms String Sextets
I’m cheating a little here, as this one technically isn’t out until January 6th. Close enough. I had the pleasure of sitting in during this recording and the best description I can come up with is ‘masterpiece’. A beautifully expressive performance plus absolutely top-notch recording in a stunning venue…. I’ll have more to say about this one soon enough. This marks the group’s final performance together and makes a fitting end to a career spanning two decades. Buy it as a brilliant performance, or buy it as a reference-caliber recording, because I assure you it is both.
Ingvild Koksvik, Og sangen kom fra havet (Fyrlyd)
My favorite Norwegian singer delivered this ambitious LP to me with a signed cover and a hand-written postcard, but that’s not why it’s my favorite of the year. I love it because it is beautifully recorded, mysterious and like nothing else you’ve heard. This is the antidote to all those bland “female voice” LPs you hear at hi-fi shows.
Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam, I Had a Dream That You Were Mine (Glassnote)
Remember all those great, literate pop albums we used to get back in the ’80s from performers like Elvis Costello and Squeeze? Here is another. Ten fantastic, original pop songs with deeply poetic lyrics sung by a guy with a voice that’s distinctive without being strange or quirky. This is the album I keep listening to over and over.
Michael Kiwanuka, Love & Hate (Interscope)
Do you remember how you felt the first time your heard Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? This ambitious album will remind you of that day. Kiwanuka sings with a mixture of sadness and hope that might be overwhelming for those interested in background music, but this is pure emotion that deserves your undivided attention.
The Avalanches, Wildflower (Astralwerks)
Easily the weirdest and craziest album of the year and therefore the one that challenged me the most in 2016, Wildflower is the result of fifteen years of work, collecting sounds and voices, and slowly melding them into catchiest ’70s funk and modern hip-hop tunes you’ve ever heard.
Angel Olsen, My Woman (Jagjaguwar)
Angel is that girl from your past, the one who got away, the one who still haunts your memories because she was the one for you and you were too dumb to notice that. Her songs are catchy and fun, but they have hidden depths that are only uncovered after repeated listenings.
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith/Suzanne Ciani, FRKWYS Volume 13: SUNERGY (FRKWYS/RVNG)
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, EARS (Western Vinyl)
The above and “Sunergy” were covered here back in October. I don’t have a whole lot to add to those particular raves. Smith and Ciani take one of the oldest commercially available synthesizers, the Buchla, and reanimate it — resulting in two amazing albums that breathe much-needed life into both pop and the avant-garde. My only real regret her is that the vinyl of Smith’s “EARS” wasn’t mastered more…sympathetically.
Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie, Salero (original soundtrack) (Erased Tapes)
One half of Stars of the Lid and A Winged Victory for the Sullen embarks into soundtrack/film scoring and the result is stunning, even without the gorgeous visuals of the film. “Modern classical” doesn’t do this justice. It’s pure, genre-obliterating instrumental beauty. One to listen to after midnight, with the lights off.
A Winged Victory for the Sullen, Iris (Erased Tapes)
Not their finest work, but a (hopefully) brief bridge between the stratospheric orchestral-electronic pulchritude of 2014’s “Atomos” and their next studio album.
Sara Lov, Some Kind of Champion (Splinter/self-releasd)
This stunner was released in late October 2015, but I’m insisting upon including it here because, well, I’m special. Along with Heather Broderick and Janet Feder, here’s another artist whose remarkable artistry needs to be heard by so many more people. Lov writes moody lyrics that effortlessly merge light and dark, while exhibiting a startling dearth of affectation. Her delivery suits the material perfectly; her strong-yet-vulnerable vocals drive the atmospheres home in a manner not heard since some of Lisa Germano’s finest songs. And if that wasn’t enough, the vinyl is one of the best-sounding independent LPs I’ve heard in ages.
Here are three records that I scarfed up in 2016 and thoroughly enjoyed. As an inveterate and unrepentant analog animal, my picks are purely vinyl. However, you won’t need to swan dive into a dumpster, mortgage your house, or pry open the cold, dead hand of a fellow audiophile to add these discs to your collection because they’re all currently available. Be forewarned: I detest the vapid audiophile “demo” fare spun, read, or streamed supposedly to highlight a system’s capabilities. Call me crazy, but if there isn’t authentic musical content in the software sufficient to elicit the involvement of the listener (yours truly in this case), then all the gear, tweaking, and cash invested is pointless, no matter how good is sounds. Not to worry, though: these LPs have musical content up the wazoo in addition to having spectacular sonics. And if you’re looking for something to demo for your audiophile friends, I guarantee you there won’t be a yawn-o-saurus in the room when you drop the needle on one of these records. Here’s the best part: you don’t need a mega-buck system to appreciate the sound, it’s that good. And you sure don’t need a mega-buck system to appreciate the music!
On Movable Ground, Ciaramella Ensemble (Yarlung YAR 09261 819V)
I’ve always heartily concurred with the notion that old age is only a state of mind—especially as I’ve gotten older. But that idea not only applies our human condition; it applies equally to music. Here’s a record of music that’s over three hundred years old (at least), dance music in fact, and it’s as fresh and lively as it was when it first accompanied the gyrations of our boogalooing ancestors. The composers (Sanz, Falconieri, Piccinini, Ortiz) and the music are new to me and, since I’m neither a professional critic nor a musicologist, I can’t tell you whether the performances are great or mediocre. What I can tell you is that it’s obvious the Ciaramella Ensemble players are enthusiastic advocates of these compositions. Equally obvious is the care and attention to detail that Yarlung lavished on the recording. The fact that it’s a 45 should lead you to expect vivid dynamics and refined sound—and you won’t be disappointed.
Omaggio a Roma: Mendelssohn, Symphony #4 in A, op.90; Rossini-L’Italiana in Algeri Overture, Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, conducted by Myung-Whun Chung (Fone 061)
Mendelssohn’s fourth symphony and Rossini’s overture to L’Italiana in Alegri are two warhorses of the first water and maybe you’ve already got a few in your stable. But these works are warhorses precisely because they’re both so musically rewarding, charming, and accessible, and Chung conducts them with verve and style. Giulio Cesare Ricci’s recording is stunningly lifelike, which is fitting, as it was taken from a March 1997 live concert in Rome. There’s only one caveat: this LP is issued as a limited edition of 491, but I’ve done a quick online check and found it’s still available. Grab a copy while you still can!
Dvořák Sextet in A Major, performed by the Auryn Quartet with Christian Altenburger and Patrick Demenga (Tacet L 196)
If the Mendelssohn and Rossini works are of the warhorse variety, performances of Dvořák’s sextet for strings are about as common as a copy of Donald Trump’s tax return. So, if you’re not familiar with the sextet, join the club! However, it’s Dvořák, for goodness sake, so it shouldn’t be surprising that the sextet in A is a winner, given his remarkable track record of composing beautiful and interesting music. Luckily for us, Tacet decided to record it as only they can, with valve microphones and their renowned recording gear, combined with the secret sauce of years of experience. Even if you’re not a Dvořák or chamber music devotee, I think you’ll be happy you sprung for this disc.
Van Morrison, Keep Me Singing (Caroline Records)
Morrison hasn’t had a single track in the U.S. top 100 chart since 1978. But in the nearly four decades since then, he has released 30 albums that arguably are unmatched by any of his peers in terms of consistent quality. His latest, Keep Me Singing, continues that string, offering 13 solid tracks displaying his patented brand of mystical Irish soul. No one puts together a better backing band or arranges songs as beautifully as Morrison. In his younger days, though, he sometimes cut to pieces those inspired musical backdrops by pushing his blues wail too hard, not paying attention to diction and myriad other vocal tics. But now at age 71, Van seems to be mellowing slightly — but in a good way. Indeed, Keep Me Singing finds him practically crooning at times. If the album title is earnest, hopefully we’ll have much more Morrison to enjoy in the years to come.
Paul Simon, Stranger to Stranger (Concord Records)
My second best-of pick, oddly enough, comes from another 70-plus-year-old artist. Paul Simon has hinted that Stranger may be his last studio album. If that’s true, he’ll go out on a high note. Many artists who came up in Simon’s era have either retired by now or are just mindlessly touring the hits, but Simon retains his restless creativity. On Stranger, he brought in Italian Afrophile electronic musician Cristiano Crisci (also known as Clap! Clap!) to provide some beats. That allowed Simon to do what he does best, which is overlay lyrics that are by turns clever and heartfelt, intricate and simple, and detailed and obtuse. His best album since Graceland.
Peter Astor, Spilt Milk (Slumberland Records)
Astor is best known for his work decades ago with the U.K. jangle-pop band The Weather Prophets. That group, despite several strong albums, never was able to take off like the Smiths or other similar bands of the era. The impressive thing about Milk – other than the fact it even exists at all – is that the LP channels that era’s signature guitar sound so effectively. Astor’s songwriting has grown even stronger as well, making the new LP (pressed on white vinyl!) an unexpected and enjoyable trip into the past. I can assure you that there won’t be any crying over this one.
The Jazz Butcher, Last of the Gentleman Adventurers (Fire Records)
Pat Fish, aka The Butcher, built a cult following in the 1980s with his literate — but eccentric — chiming guitar-pop. Fish used his rapier wit and poison pen to skewer everything from social norms and relationship misadventures to political cluelessness and corporate greed. Sometimes, though, he just wrote about Bigfoot, goldfish and passing wind. Such behavior — along with a legendary fondness for alcohol — sooner or later will get you separated from your record contract. That and changing musical trends put The Jazz Butcher on the sidelines for a long while. Just when it looked like Fish would live out his days playing the occasional solo-acoustic pub set to small groups of distracted U.K. punters, a miracle happened: Executives at Fire Records, obviously not in their right minds, signed a deal to re-release The Jazz Butcher’s 2012 fan-funded Gentleman. As a result, Fish is back in business and is threatening to follow with another LP in 2017. God help us all.
Cowboy Junkies, The Trinity Session (Analogue Productions)
In 1988, three Canadian family members — a former punk-metal guitarist, a drumming brother and a sister who only sang around the house — joined a bassist friend to circle a single Calrec Ambisonic microphone hung from a Toronto church’s ceiling. They proceeded to spend a day laying down a haunting LP of hushed country-blues that almost three decades later still stands as an unmatched chill-vibe classic. Acoustic Sounds, bless them, recently reissued the album with fantastic sonics as well as cover art modified to the design the band originally envisioned. It’s the rare stereo-testing spectacular that appeals to both your ears and your heart. A must-have for the cover of Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane” alone.
No, I will not throw in just classic music releases, after all, I do listen to other genres (once or twice per month) and I want to make my recommendations have as much impact as they can, so you will only get a mere pair. But do dedicate a few moments and discover, if you’re not already familiar with, these masterpieces.
Sivert Hoyem, Lioness
Former Madrugada front man and singer gave us this year his most interesting as in deep, refined and suggestive work. An absolute masterpiece of a record with powerful lyrics and acoustical music blended with northern light and Hoyem’s amazing voice. Songs like Sleepwalking Man and My Thieving Heart are instant classics. Had the chance to listen to him along with vocalist Marie Munroe and the rest of the musicians under the starry sky of Athens in September and came to the conclusion that this was among the best concerts of my life. Hoyem performed so well, he connected so deeply with his audience that the ancient marble columns of the Herodes Atticus theater almost came down from the crowds torrential applause. Lioness is available on CD, digital download and LP, I actually bought the record which while not exactly flawless and clearly made from a digital master sounds more visceral than the digital counterpart.
Teodor Currentzis, MusicAeterna, Don Giovanni
Fireworks is the word here. If you are even remotely attracted to opera, you must hear this ASAP. Not your run of the mill, me too version of Mozart’s masterpiece, this is a true work of art. While departing from the standard interpretations of yesteryear, Currentzis manages to extract every drop of talent the cast and orchestra have in their minds and souls, presenting a dark though human, effervescent while sentimental Don Giovanni. The rest of the Mozart project recorded for Sony (Le Nozze Di Figaro and Cosi Fan Tutte) is also memorable and together as a whole these works are transforming the rather unknown Greek maestro to a superstar (if such thing exists for classic music). Again, I was lucky enough to listen to Currentzis with his MusicAeterna perform live (on Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas along with Handel’s Dixit Dominus) and they delivered in spades. I am out of words, not sure what else there is to say to convince you to listen to this. Just do it.
I’ve included a mix of 2016 favorites here, because I just don’t have the time to write about all the fantastic music I’ve been exposed to this year through Tidal and Roon. I don’t care if it’s on vinyl, reel-to-reel, CD, streaming or high-res download. Music just needs an avenue to snake its way into your mind, and stay there. That is what these albums did for me: I kept coming back to them to recapture that certain feeling which each elicited from me.
Blood Bitch, Jenny Hval
To me this is a dark, textured, atmospheric sci-fi film soundtrack that travels through a sometimes bass-line driven gravity well of space and time lensed through the eyes of a mature, modern woman. One who’s not afraid to talk about secrets, uncomfortable social situations, or anachronistic taboos. Listening to this LP cranked in the dark can be absolutely terrifying, and often left me off-balance as dense, dreamy sonic tapestries are interspersed with pulse-pounding segues.
You Want It Darker, Leonard Cohen
The album I was waiting my whole life for from Leonard Cohen. Dark, moody, unapologetic as always, and with a sonic depth to the bottom end that I had always thought was too sparsely sown throughout previous work. If you’ve got a system that can really dig deep in the bass department, this album will satisfy your need for truly lower octaves. As always, Cohen delivers a bittersweet romp with his trademark irony, and sharp points of black humor that alternately had me smiling, and clearing my throat.
In My Head, Gurr
California surf punk turned on its head in the most delightful way imaginable to my ears. Just when I’d thought I had matured, and was moving away from jangly guitars, angst-driven bass hooks, and early ’80s percussion-infused harmonies this album came, and rescued me from myself. Lyrics like “underage drinking and fucking around” speak to the underfed core of my teen being (the one who came of age in the mid-eighties) when I used to skateboard to punk shows at Legion Halls, and hitchhike a ride home in the back of pick up truck at 2 a.m. This LP clocks in at just under 30 minutes (this translates to playing it again, and again), and goes by in a blur: Much like my gloriously wasted youth.
Unspoken, Matt Brewer
This little gem of jazz reminds me of a first date with a girl you are falling in love with: you don’t want to overdo it, but it’s killing you to not just throw everything you’re feeling on the table, and see what happens. So Brewer burns through several original tracks, and a couple covers to show that he really wants to be with you, but you’ve got to work too if this is going to be all that it can be. I was rewarded time again during listening sessions of Unspoken with an always re-affirmed emotional connection, and richly-textured sonics. An outstanding recording not just for the music lover, but for the gear nut who wants to see just what their system is capable of.
This came to me late in the year, and I’ve been coming back to it again, and again. Deep, chest-rattling percussive foundations anchor the bulk of the music here, and it is a layer cake of rich, jazz/tribal-infused sonics with enough plinking keys, and sudden dub-bass drops thrown in to throw you off-kilter, and make you re-think your impressions of each cut. English, and Yoruba (traditional Nigerian) lyrics help to communicate a level of ethereal transposition over instruments to form an unshakeable emotional handshake with your mind.