Top Ten Worst Sounding Records, 1997-Present
efore you try and kill me, this list is a) highly subjective (the way we hear is as different as the ears we hear with), b) designed to infuriate you as much as educate you, and c) limited to just rock / indie / alternative / whateveryouwanttocallit records. Electronic, dub, jazz, improv, classical etcetera are a whole other ballgame. I could have chosen a list of easy targets, from Californication to Snow Patrol to System of a Down, but what would be the point in that? These records are (almost) all ones that I would otherwise love, and in some cases do, despite their hideous sonics.
01. Oasis - Be Here Now
Be Here Now is the reason I chose 1997 as the arbitrary start-date for this list. This record just seems to capture something, to define and embiggen a trend already begun—and take it to an intolerable level. (What's the Story) Morning Glory? was LOUD and harsh and brash, as was Definitely Maybe, but the OTT overdubbing that took place on this record took loudness, density, compression, and ugliness to a level that had previously been rightfully unimagined. With Be Here Now Noel Gallagher tried to make Oasis' very simple music complex, but he didn't do so by increasing the sophistication of the composition or palette, by bringing in new and esoteric influences, or by trying out rhythms, textures, and melodic patterns beyond the ken. He made it more complex by playing a thousand different easy guitar parts over every song for twice as long as necessary. And then getting Johnny Depp in to do another guitar part. And then drowning out Johnny Depp's bit with a few more overdubs. And then adding a coda with a few more guitar parts. It's no surprise that Oasis wrote Be Here Now
02. The Flaming Lips - At War With the Mystics
Flips records have been loud as hell since The Soft Bulletin, but At War With the Mystics is beyond the pale—so much so that digital clipping and distortion seem to be used as an instrument within the mix. It's done so frequently and nastily that this album, which ought to be much better than the deadly-dull and almost-as-loud Yoshimi… because it has energy, hooks, and no 8-minute Yes-pastiches about wizards, actually becomes the least-enticing thing in their discography.
03. Arcade Fire - Funeral
I knew from first contact that there was something basic that I disliked about Funeral but I couldn't figure out what it was. The songs? No, they were OK. The music? No, it was good. The conceit? Perhaps. The delivery? Slightly. Take a track off Funeral and drop it in Garage Band or something else that can give you a graphic of the waveform. Funeral is pretty much flatlined all the way through. As such, it completely lacks the intimacy, realism, and layered detail that their companion Final Fantasy makes use of in his records. Similarly Neutral Milk Hotel's highly-regarded In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a dead-on brick wall from the moment it starts. These aren't big commercial records on major labels—they're little, personal indie records for "discerning" listeners—so why mush them up?
04. The Shortwave Set - The Debt Collection
I said very nice things about this record, and immediately after I'd said them, it got filed away and I never took it out to listen to again. Now I realize why. The songs, production, ideas, and aesthetic of The Shortwave Set are all wonderful. But there's something wrong: it's too loud, too squashed, too unnatural. When you max-out a record during mixing and mastering, you literally make the sound of each instrument bigger on the disc. This causes the relationships between the sounds to become unnaturally close and, finally, overlap. But more than that, you pull all the character and shape out of music on a physical level.
05. Phoenix - It's Never Been Like That
Phoenix's aesthetic has always been hyper-smooth, AM rock radio sheen, crisp and shiny rather than deep or realistic. This was absolutely fine on United and particularly Alphabetical, where they achieved an almost R&B-like level of punch and shine. It's Never Been Like That, though, was supposedly an attempt to return to a rawer sound and, even though they may have recorded it with that approach in mind, it seems like it was mixed and mastered in the same way as their old sound, resulting in a claustrophobic, harsh, and unrealistic record that doesn’t rock at all and has none of the luxurious fake pleasure of their earlier work either.
06. Cocteau Twins - Heaven or Las Vegas (Remastered)
Cocteau Twins were never a warm listen. Their treble-heavy sound was a shimmering, brittle mess that either induced bliss or headaches depending solely on how you felt when you pressed play. Robin Guthrie oversaw the remastering of his former band's classic 4AD records himself, but you have to wonder whether he was drunk at the desk, such is the difference from album to album. The worst offender is, with the typical malice of fate, my favorite Cocteau Twins album. The remaster of 1990's Heaven Or Las Vegas transforms it from being an ethereal masterwork into a harsh and all-to-solid attack on the ears—bright, flat, and very, very bloody loud.
07. Bloc Party - Silent Alarm
On one level, this album sounds absolutely fucking awesome; the pounding drums, slashing guitars, crazy tempos, wild structures, and odd synths and FX dropped in the mix. On another level, it's a wearying, disorienting mess that I haven't listened to start-to-finish since about two months after I first got it. In a sense this is deliberate—Kele and co. are on record as saying they wanted to make a cold, hard, fascistic-sounding album, a modern-day Joy Division with dreadlocks. The thing is that, as well as being incredibly cold, hard, and fascistic, Silent Alarm is also incredibly bloody hot in a mastering sense, which makes the dense, airless, inhuman sound they were striving for even more alienating than they intended.
08. Radiohead - Kid A
In many ways, Kid A sounds amazing—"The National Anthem" is an awesome, propulsive piece of music—but in others… You could argue convincingly that it is meant to be a cold, alienating record, that, like the harshness of Public Enemy's early sirens & beats assault, it is designed to push you away with its sonics and lure you in with its groove and polemic, but… I know this is the case and Kid A still sounds wrong to me. Hell, OK Computer sounds wrong to me. Cold, flat, inhuman, distant. But more than that. "Everything in Its Right Place" and "Idioteque" ape the likes of Aphex Twin and Autechre, but they lack the full sonic range of those artists—the depth of the bass, the extreme synaesthetic detail. In short, they're electronic songs mixed and mastered like rock songs.
09. Massive Attack - Collected
This is oh-so-subtle, but it’s annoying. Take your CD of Mezzanine and take your CD of Collected, and play “Angel” back-to-back from one to the other. Notice how on the original album that ominous bass fades in from nothing; sense how deep it goes; see how sharp the rimshot is; feel the air around the bass drum and the shock of the guitars entering. But from this year’s beautifully-packaged Best Of, surreptitiously remastered, the bass is jarringly there from the get go, all width and no depth; the rimshot is flabby and indistinct; and there’s no sense of air or space. It’s like that for the rest of the CD—“Unfinished Sympathy” seems to have more of an impact on first listen but it’s less satisfying on repeated exposure, the strings that should soar are backgrounded, their timbre masked.
10. Keane - Under the Iron Sea
The amusing thing about Keane is that most people write them off as wimps, aimless bedwetting indie whingers with no muscle, when the reality is that their current album is one of the loudest, most sonically obnoxious records I've ever had the displeasure to hear. The treble is viciously sibilant, the bass wild and distorted, instruments completely unrealistic, with depth and detail almost entirely absent. When you add these sonic sins to the frighteningly efficient songwriting in evidence on most tunes (take three minutes to consider the lack of compositional fat on "Is It Any Wonder"—so fascist is its melodic imperative and momentum that singer Tom Chaplin, like a shark that will drown if it stops swimming, barely has time to pause for breath throughout its length), you have an album of profoundly robotic and dystopian inhumanity. If asked to hold up the best example of a bad, no, a disgusting sounding record, I would brandish Under the Iron Sea's tastefully modernist sleeve.