By Todd Whitesel
There was a long-running U.S. commercial for StarKist, where a tuna fish named Charlie tried to impress the higher-ups with his intellect and charm. His efforts were shot down with the tag line, “Starkist doesn’t want tuna with good taste. Starkist wants tuna that tastes good.”
In my mind, that idea also applies to audio recordings. There are numerous “test” records and “demonstration” discs recorded solely to impress with sonics that often have no real basis in melody or music. They may be cool collectibles, but I have no interest in records or discs that sound great but lack musical meaning.
The writing on the wall for high-res formats, such as SACD and DVD-Audio, seems more indelible with each passing month. Any new SACD releases — and there are plenty — are overwhelmingly devoted to classical music, and DVD-Audio is being replaced largely by Blu-ray. This means several high-res rock, blues and jazz releases have gone out of print and are now commanding prices three to four times (or more) than their initial MSRP. That makes acquiring many of the best-sounding discs a costly enterprise, assuming you have a machine capable of SACD and/or DVD-Audio playback.
The good news is that players such as Oppo’s BDP-80 can be had for less than $300 and handle all your disc needs, save for Blu-ray. As well, many of the best-sounding digital recordings remain in print. Here are 10 recommended high-res digital releases that not only have good sound but good music.
Miles Davis, “Kind Of Blue” (SACD)
Now out of print, but if you’re going to drop $50 or more on a jazz disc, this is where to start.
Davis’ incalculably influential album starts with little more than a whisper as Paul Chambers plucks acoustic bass, followed by Bill Evans’ angular piano lines, building until Davis enters with horn and the arrangement takes off. “Kind Of Blue” is a recording that makes you glad to be alive and even more so with an excellent SACD mix.
Allman Brothers Band, “Eat A Peach” (SACD)
What’s better than 33 minutes and 41 seconds of “Mountain Jam”? The same tune coming at you in high-res 5.1 surround, with the swirl of Butch Trucks’ and Jaimoe’s drums punctuated by Berry Oakley’s bass grooves and Gregg Allman’s organ chords, all while Dickey Betts and Duane Allman unleash searing guitar lines that seem to emerge from the amps themselves.
Jackson Browne, “Running On Empty” (DVD-Audio)
Browne’s classic live album was reissued in 2005 as a CD/DVD-Audio pairing. Even if you’ve heard this record a hundred times, you’ll discover something new on the superb DVD-Audio mix, whether the two-channel, 24-bit/192kHz version or the 24/96 surround mix.
Bob Dylan, “Blood On The Tracks” (SACD)
These performances are among the most passionate and aching of Dylan’s career. Listen to the strain and emotion in his voice, drenched with regret, on tracks such as “If You See Her, Say Hello” for the most personal look into this most personal album.
Emerson, Lake & Palmer, “Brain Salad Surgery” (DVD-Audio)
I bought this and a handful of other DVD-Audio discs during a retailer’s close-out sale, and I’m glad I did, as this release really opened my ears to what DVD-Audio could do. The high-res remaster brings out the smallest details in every song. What startled me most, though, was hearing Greg Lake’s guitar pick strike each individual string as he arpeggiates chords on “Still… You Turn Me On.”
Elton John, “Tumbleweed Connection” (SACD)
If one artist has benefited the most from getting the SACD treatment on his catalog, it’s Elton John. Six of his classic albums — “Elton John,” “Tumbleweed Connection,” “Madman Across The Water,” “Honky Chateau,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and “Captain Fantastic & The Brown Dirt Cowboy” — have been reissued on SACD, and they all sound terrific. “Tumbleweed” contains the fewest hits of the lot, but the Old West themes and arrangements are some of John’s and lyricist Bernie Taupin’s best works.
The two bonus tracks, “Into The Old Man’s Shoes” and original version of “Madman Across The Water” are as good, if not better, than anything John ever recorded.
Pink Floyd, “Dark Side Of The Moon” (SACD)
This venerable sonic adventure is taken to new and intimate heights on SACD. From the opening heartbeats of “Speak To Me/Breathe” to the final words spoken after “Eclipse,” this Moon is magnificent.
The Who, “Tommy” (SACD)
Want to invite Keith Moon over but don’t want to clean up after? Give “Tommy” a spin in multichannel SACD, and it’s like bringing the incomparable drummer and his kit right into your listening room. Roger Daltrey’s and Pete Townshend’s vocals are brilliantly served, too.
Porcupine Tree, “Deadwing “(DTS DVD-Audio)
Porcupine Tree mastermind Steven Wilson has long championed music in surround, and this 2005 release serves up plenty of around-the-room goodies, lush and lovely, savage and bleak. The high-res stereo (48/96) mix is just a warm-up for the stunning 5.1 mix. Hearing the monumental “Arriving Somewhere But Not Here,” with its android-like opening funneling through alternative and proggy seas before being bludgeoned by one of the nastiest guitar riffs in history — in surround — is best experienced loud… very loud.
Steely Dan, “Gaucho” (SACD or DVD-Audio)
It’s no secret that Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were studio perfectionists, demanding retake after retake until the results were like polished jade. “Gaucho” often takes jabs for being “too” polished, but I’ll take the horn-driven shine of the title track or the dark tint of “Third World Man” in their high-res beauty.