As audiophiles, we put a lot of care into our listening devices, always striving to find the next level of clarity, atmosphere, and immersion. For many, what got us so fascinated in high fidelity audio in the first place was a love for music. In trying out new headphones and amps on the market, I constantly find myself discovering songs and artists that I feel shine best in the world of high fidelity sound. Of course, a great speaker, headphone, or amp should make all music sound as good as possible. However, some albums are performed, mixed, and composed in a way that makes them take better advantage of our listening devices. I wanted to open up a dialogue to discuss the interaction of recording, engineering, composition and performance in relation to HiFi audio. Albums like Abbey Road, Pet Sounds, and Random Access Memories have become stapes for many audiophiles, but there’s a plethora of music being released or hiding in the past that’s begging to be listened to by your masterful ears. Here I’ve compiled a list of some of my current favorite albums to explore as an audiophile. I feel each of these albums accomplishes some level of mastery in their field, baring unique sonic signatures and bringing out the best qualities in your headphones.
In addition, I’ll be starting some weekly-updated playlists of new releases and discoveries across genres I think are worth checking out and seeing how they translate on your system. It will be linked at the bottom.
- Choose Your Weapon – Hiatus Kaiyote
Hiatus Kaiyote has a polarizing sound, their music’s definitely not for everyone. But if it clicks with you, you’ll be hooked from your first listen. With strong roots in funk and jazz, they hop across genres in the blink of an eye, creating a sound that’s on a new level of eclectic. Their lead vocalist, Nai Palm, keeps her vocals raw and up front. She explores countless timbres on each track, sculpting ominous vocal stacks and harmonies. If you’re looking for intimate, high energy vocals, she’s got you covered. Her meandering melodies and inflections will challenge the dynamic range of whatever you’re listening on, as will the production of these otherworldly pieces. You’ll find the instrumentation of every Hiatus Kaiyote song utilizes a wide array of unexpected instruments and techniques, often pairing jazz guitars with screaming synths and blanketing classic keyboards in powerful synthetic percussion. Peaks and valleys are an essential part of the band’s sound, with atmospheric breakdowns on tracks like “Molasses” and “Breathing Underwater” providing lush soundscapes full of textures to explore. All of these complex pieces are masterfully mixed and come through with incredible clarity and body. Even if you don’t love all the writing of these songs, you’ll certainly appreciate their sonic capabilities.
Resolution Availability: FLAC on Tidal
2. Travelogue – Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell is one of the most hailed songwriters of all time as you may well know. While I could write on and on about any of her albums, my most recent fixation has been on Travelogue. This album came out in 2002 and contains 22 orchestral renditions of some of Mitchell’s most praised work, all of them with rerecorded vocals. The contrast of Mitchell’s folky writing style and the huge, cinematic orchestra creates a sense of warmth and tranquility about Travelogue. I’ve found it especially great for exploring the soundstage and imaging of headphones, in addition to seeing how they translate this legendary vocalist. Mitchell projects with a level of power not found in many of these songs’ original recordings, the orchestral reconstructions often calling for added drama. This is one of those albums that never fails you. It feels like it sounds good on even my least favorite headphones, and blows me away when I’m playing it on the best of the best. The mixes on every track are vast and thundering, commanding attention as each song builds and shifts. Whether you’re a long time Joni Mitchell fan or have barely scratched the surface of her discography, Travelogue offers an unforgettable sonic palette.
Resolution Availability: FLAC and MQA on Tidal
3. Shabrang – Sevdaliza
Sonically, I could see this album rubbing some audiophiles the wrong way. Sevdaliza, an Iranian-Dutch vocalist and producer, adds an extremely specific impression to every piece of each track. What you may notice first is that the vocals on most of these mixes are bright, and I mean bright. There’s an unnatural level of high end added to many of the vocals on this album, giving them an enchanting, ethereal quality. With the right listening setup, her voice feels silky and often chill-inducing. Experimenting with synthetic ballads often reminiscent of other audiophile-loved artists like FKA Twigs and James Blake, Shabrang has a captivating, distinctively haunting sound. On “Joanna” deep sub bass underlies an eerie violin melody, creating a pleasant, captivating sharpness. On “All Rivers at Once,” Sevdaliza departs a bit from her primarily electronic sound into a more rock-influenced piece, while still keeping with her signature sound over rolling drum fills and destructed guitar plucks. On “Darkest Hour,” a somber piano ballad evolves into a dark techno-inspired groove carried by an expertly tailored analogue sound. I always put on a track or two from Shabrang when I want to see how well a pair of headphones can transport me, as this album truly creates a world of its own.
Resolution availability: FlAC on Tidal and FLAC, AAC, Ogg Vorbis, ALAC, WAV, AIFF on Bandcamp
4. Shelter Island Heights – Scott James
This album is probably the least known on this list. Scott James is a relatively illusive artist, you won’t find much on him no matter how deep you dig. And his mysterious sound matches this description. He often reminds me of a modern day Nick Drake , with the combination of folk influence and more cinematic elements like string sections. This EP is full of hard-hitting drums, engulfing synths, and glistening guitars. It takes advantage of James’ powerful falsetto and ponderous writing. There’s a beautiful melancholy laced into Shelter Island Heights and presented through the lens of each song’s clean, rich production. You’ll find a lot of peculiar instrumentation and layering going on, with an idyllic harp cascading over the pumping rhythm of “Ropes” and a soaring string section carrying “Belvedere” only to give way to a synth pad filled breakdown. What makes this album such a satisfying listen is how thoughtful the composition and production is. It feels like each individual stem is constructed and mixed with extreme refinement and tightness in order to hit your auditory pleasure centers. It’s both relaxing and riveting; one of those albums you want to see translated as beautifully as possible on your headphones. To truly capture the scope of its divine instrumentation and James’ breathtaking voice is no easy task, but if your headphones manage to do it, it’s blissful. Shelter Island Heights feels like a well-kept secret: so vast and enigmatic you’d expect it to be known all over, but you’ll seldom meet anyone who’s heard it.
Resolution Availability: FLAC on Tidal
5. Blood – Kelsey Lu
Long time collaborator of artists like Solange and Blood Orange, Kelsey Lu already had an impressive resume before she released her first full length solo album. Blood is packed full of emotional performances and impressive arrangements. Lu is a classically trained cellist, writing, performing, and recording meticulous string sections for many of her songs. Reminiscent of anomalistic artists like Kate Bush and Björk, we get many powerful, theatrical pieces from Lu throughout the album’s diverse sound. Blood ranges from alternative to pop to disco, all given a unique spin. You’ll find this album has a beautiful midrange due to Lu’s resonant voice and vibrant cello arrangements. Generous amounts of reverb give a misty air to each track. On the title track, you’ll be taken through unexpected chord changes and unique vocal runs. In “Poor Fake,” a highly-polished disco sound takes the album on a quick hiatus from its darker foundation, coming across like a modernized, sophisticated take on old dance floor classics. I’m not going to lie, this album isn’t mixed perfectly. There are numerous parts I always wish were tweaked a bit differently or cleaned up a bit more, but somehow I always come back to it when listening to new headphones or amps. The recordings on this albums retain so much beauty even through their imperfections, managing to thrive on most headphones I’ve used.
Resolution Availability: FLAC on Tidal
I started a thread here for anyone who’d like to share their current favorite listens and discuss music.