One of the biggest historical criticisms of the audiophile hobby is that many old-school traditionalists sometimes fall into a habit of listening to audio more than listening to music. In a perfect world, your audio system should be able to faithfully reproduce the sound of your favorite records with ease. In reality, not every system is up to the challenge and, more specifically, sometimes the music that we really want to listen to is poorly mixed, mastered, or produced. As an old golf instructor of mine used to say: “rub all you want… you can’t polish a turd,” and he was right. A $25,000 DAC or a pair of $400,000 speakers on a pair of $250,000 monoblock amps isn’t going to fix a poorly made recording.
With that in mind, I asked some of our contributors which albums they love for the music, but wouldn’t necessarily reach for as reference material. In other words, we’re not going to let poor sound quality keep us from listening to these records, but we sure do wish they sounded better. And I’ll start with a selection of my own.
Metallica …And Justice for All (Jerry Del Colliano)
I could easily make an argument that Metallica’s Master of Puppets (buy at Amazon) and …And Justice for All (buy at Amazon) are the two best metal records ever. I can follow that up with the sickening concept that Metallica’s St. Anger (I can’t let you buy this at Amazon) and their collaboration with Lou Reed on LuLu (also, I can’t let you buy this record at $89 on Amazon on CD) are the two worst metal records ever to make it to store shelves. You know that your band is in a bad place when your life coach is playing bass on a major label release when you are one of the biggest acts in the history of rock and roll.
…And Justice for All was released at a time when the band had just lost their original bassist in a bus accident. They hired Jason Newsted to replace Cliff Burton on bass guitar, but Newsted never really fit in, nor did the band treat him very well. The best example of this behavior could be how the …And Justice for All record was mixed. Literally, you can barely hear any bass guitar even on the best of speakers. It is just mixed out of the sound of the album. If given the chance to spool up the tapes and remix/remaster the record, the first thing that I would do is to bring the bass up a little bit to make the overall mix more robust and balanced. Much as I don’t believe in using CGI to remove guns from movies or stripping out the Phil Spector production on Let It Be… Naked (buy at Amazon), the idea that one could buy a unique but alternate mix of …And Justice For All with more bass guitar in the mix would be an interesting alternative to the original mix. Let me be clear, the original …And Justice for All record is my favorite record of the genre, so changing it in any way could be potentially creatively dangerous. With that said, I would be first in line to buy the record all over again at full retail price if they were to right this historical wrong. The album doesn’t need to be rerecorded. It just needs to allow the listener to hear some of the bass guitar. That’s all.
Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (Steven Stone)
I doubt there has ever been a more influential rock album than Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (buy at Amazon). But, as far as fidelity is concerned, it’s a hot mess. The first and foremost clarity-killer is the murky mix – with the keyboards often blending in with the rhythm guitar parts. And then there’s Carl Raddle’s furry, fuzzy-edged bass, panned hard-left. Why?
Via Roon, I have access to seven different “Laylas” from Tidal, Qobuz, and my home library. Every version, bet it the original release, the 40th Anniversary version, the Deluxe Edition, or the Layla Sessions albums, sounds essentially the same in terms of mixing. To get a sense of how Layla could have sounded, though, listen to the bonus track on The Layla Sessions: “It’s a Mean Old World.” It has better sound than any of the originally released tracks. The five jam tracks included on the Sessions album are somewhat interesting (if you like stoned jams) and maybe you can listen to them all. I can’t.
But back to the original Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, though. The musical chemistry that Clapton, Allman, Radle, Whitlock, and Gordon displayed on Layla has rarely been equaled, even by groups that spent far more time together than only one album. So it’s worth listening to and cherishing, even if it sounds far worse than it could.
Christopher Cross: Another Page (Paul Wilson)
Singer/Songwriter Christopher Cross seemed to suddenly burst from obscurity to winning five Grammy’s for his self-titled 1979 album release (buy at Amazon). This album contained the Yacht Rock anthems “Sailing” and “Never Be the Same.” Perhaps his sudden global popularity was due in part to the Dudley Moore movie, Arthur, in which the track “Arthur’s Theme (The Best That You Can Do)” was featured. On long car trips, I would put “Ride Like the Wind” on and crank the volume up as a way to make the miles pass more easily. I became an instant fan of his music.
His 1983 follow-up, Another Page, found Cross with several hits and one song, “Think of Laura,”was even used on the soap opera General Hospital. While this is all well and good, I find the CD version of this album to be catastrophic. The gain is so low that I need to dramatically increase the output volume on my preamp just to be able to hardly hear the music. There are virtually no dynamics and it almost sounds as every instrument was level matched at a barely recognizable volume. I also find the clarity to be sadly deficient and imaging just doesn’t exist. If I am letting Roon pick music at random, if something from this CD begins, I quickly press the skip button. What is especially confusing is that I also have the LP version and it sounds perfectly fine. It is particularly frustrating to have this release by an artist I so admire yet cannot stand its sonics. I suppose I could always get the LP out, clean and dry it for five minutes and play it, one track at a time. Better still, a remaster hopefully correcting all the many problems on the original 1983 Compact Disc would be welcomed.
Dave Matthews Band: Crash (Michael Zisserson)
In 1996, long before being known for dumping 800 pounds of blackwater from their tour bus onto a boat sailing the Chicago River, Dave Matthews Band (DMB) released their second album, Crash (buy at Amazon). This one contains the band’s most famous song, “Crash Into Me.” It is a shame this album also contains some of the worst-engineered and -mixed, most dynamicall compressed garbage I have ever heard on my stereo system, headphones, car, or elsewhere. Yet for me, music is what it is all about, and if all you listen to is great sounding recordings, you will miss out on a lot of great music. DMB is no exception to this rule with their unique, jam-band-complex, yet relatable music. As a bonus to DMB’s musical complexity, it is anchored by one of the greatest open-handed drummers of all time, Carter Beauford.
Dave Matthew’s guitar playing is excellent, and the violin/sax that is thrown in DMB’s music keeps it light and highly entertaining. So why would the recording engineers butcher it all? The fans may never know. What we do know, because it is what we are left with, are two instruments (sax and violin) that are difficult to listen to because the soul was sucked out of them by compression during the studio mastering. What’s more, Dave Matthew’s somewhat-nasally voice is mixed the hottest of all. That is a lot of hashy-trash sound in a very sensitive frequency range for our ears. There is a reason for everything, and I would like to believe this recording of very good music got the what-for because it sounded great while my high school sweetheart was sitting next to me, cruising down Route 1 on the way to the beach on a warm New England summer day. I still remember the roar of that 1988 Chevrolet Camaro IROC-Z. I had the top down, cassette tape loaded, and the Spark-O-Matic replacement speakers were doing the heavy lifting of the track “Drive In, Drive Out.”
I guess out of all the noise, the compressed and grainy nature of Crash simply had to be the noisiest of all modern recording that I can think of. If this album got a new look in the remix and more importantly remaster level, I believe a whole new generation could discover why Dave Matthews Band exploded onto the musical scene in their heyday.
There you have it. Our wishlist for great music that we wish could, retroactively, be remixed or remastered by modern standards to present the art with a little more resolution, balance, and grace. Will it ever happen? It could, as these records are mainly classics that payout as an evergreen for the record labels. Why not give core Metallica fans a chance to hear …And Justice for All like never before? With the quirky popularity of Yacht Rock, could “Sailing” justify a fresh look for a 2023 remaster? Absolutely. Layla is a culturally and musically important classic rock record well deserving of a new look. The Dave Matthews Band is, to this day, a great concert draws with a very loyal fan base. All of those DMB (and Phish) fans have money and will spend it to re-live a little bit of their musical youth.
OK, it is your turn. In the moderated comments below (sorry, we have to because of the trolls and bots) would be on your list for remixing and remastering? We can’t wait to hear from you!