Jul 292020
 

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  20 Responses to “Once and for All…What’s the Best CD of the “CD Era”?”

  1. I’m going to keep thinking about this, but off the top of my head, I’d say “Rid of Me” by PJ Harvey. I really like that album and it was recorded by Steve Albini and explored the dynamic range of the CD in such a way that renders it nearly immune to casual listening; you almost need to sit in front of the speakers with the volume set reasonably high, to catch everything that goes on. Of course, nobody listens to music that way these days, which makes it even more of its era.

  2. Happiness Stan

    I resisted CDs for as long as possible, Having a Party With Jonathan Richman was the first I bought because it wasn’t available on vinyl. Something might come to me later, but I cannot think of a single CD package that wouldn’t be improved by being the size of an album. Even box sets the size of LPs are let down by resulting in eventually getting down to the CD inside. There used to be good reasons for bands only releasing double albums that had more to do with quality than value for money. It’s harder to produce seventy consistent minutes of classic music than it was to sustain for half that duration, there have been a ton of mediocre albums produced in the last forty years that would be killer classics if half of the tracks had been left out.

    It’s not even a hifi issue, either. I grew up listening to music on a tinny transistor and all our music radio here was on AM, some of it broadcast from a boat in the middle of the North Sea four hundred miles away with nothing to boost the signal inbetween.

    You could walk down the street carrying an album cover and anybody on the other side of the road could judge you instantly for your taste in music, like wearing a branded t-shirt. Nobody would notice you carrying a CD even at the closest proximity recommended during social distancing.

    On the other hand, I’m happy to embrace the MP3. I’d rather there be nothing physical at all than the crappy plastic box containing the record label missing the rest of the playing surface.

    I own tons of CDs, obviously, but they’re no more than a means of hearing specific music, and I long ago abandoned trying to read sleeve notes in them. I’ll sometimes take an inlay along to a gig to get it signed, since they’re of a size that can be transported without getting in the way.

    The format just never worked for me. Too small to be a fashion statement in days when I used to care about such things, too big to carry a lifetime of music about all at once, like I can now on a device it takes an hour to find again if I put it down somewhere in a moment of absent mindedness. I wouldn’t want to go back to vinyl, either.

  3. I’ll continue thinking about this question, but I keep coming back to reissues of beloved albums on vinyl, with bonus demos and artist-written liner notes. I won’t choose from among this bunch, but I’ll put down some thoughts.

    The best of that bunch may be the CD reissue I have of Get Happy!!, my favorite album of all time, with 20 bonus tracks, including Costello’s demos of songs like “Love for Tender” and “Riot Act,” complete with his (I presume) awkward drumming. While I didn’t like the fact that the Costello reissues disassembled Taking Liberties, he wrote about the songs and what went into them. The demos and outtakes for Imperial Bedroom were deservedly left on the cutting-room floor, for the most part, but that reissue had my favorite liner notes of the few I bought at that time.

    An old album that fully came to light for me as a CD reissue was Bowie’s Hunky Dory. I always liked that album, as a whole, better than any other Bowie album (excepting the greatest hits Changes One – on vinyl – of my youth), but among the demos on that reissue were things like “Quicksand,” performed solo by Bowie and what sounds like a 48-string acoustic guitar. Minus all the melodrama of the studio production, I got a deeper sense of the man behind that alien persona he projected.

    Now, onto the CDs of original music created for CD…

    I can’t recall what the first CD was I bought in a cover that was all paper, like a shrunken-down double-album cover (not a Digipak, which still had that annoying plastic base with the little teeth that inevitably broke), but that would have to qualify. Maybe it was Sloan’s One Chord to Another, an album that sounded like it could have appeared first on vinyl, another nod to my retro leanings. Does my copy have a second CD of their take on the Beach Boys’ Party record? I think that’s the one. If so, it’s a strong contender! That release had the benefit of NOT being 70 minutes long, which hampered a lot of new music releases that were coming out the first 10 years of the format.

    Buying jazz albums and other long-form music releases that could run all the way through, without the need for flipping the album over, was a revelation. John Coltrane’s Meditations, if memory serves, required an album flip on vinyl that interrupted a really cool, quiet dueling standup bass solo. Terry Riley’s In C was much better without the interruption of side 1 ending. So, stuff that wasn’t performed to neatly fit on an album side was a welcome excuse for a format I begrudgingly supported. But again, I’m mostly referring to albums I already owned on vinyl.

    I’ll go look through my collection later today, but in terms of music alone, maybe I let my memory work backward. The last GREAT album I bought on CD that was made for CD was a circa-1999/2000 release by Beulah called The Coast Is Never Clear. I still listen to that album regularly, although now on Spotify. Although Beulah’s music has older musical points of reference that bring me comfort, it’s music that was made of and for its time. The CD format is all I knew – I wasn’t going to shell out $20 for a vinyl version back then, assuming one existed. The only thing that album is hampered by is something a lot of bands got into doing in the late-’90s: the brief, (at least mostly) instrumental prelude. I don’t need gentle introductory music to prep me for an album that’s going to excite my soul. I don’t know who started that tradition, but I hope it’s gone away.

    More later!

  4. I’m with Happiness Stan. Couldn’t have said it better!

  5. diskojoe

    I still buy CDs as a matter of choice, especially since I remember how crappy vinyl was back in the 70s & 80s and also how overpriced the new vinyl editions are these days. The format has enough portability for me in that I can listen to them @ home & in my car & I don’t have to listen to music 24/7.

    Here’s some of my nominations for best CDs of the CD era:

    1. Blur/Parklife
    2. Kinks/To the Bone (US & UK versions)
    3. XTC/Oranges & Lemons
    4. Pulp/Different Class
    5. Oasis/(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?
    6. White Stripes/Elephant
    7. Barrence Whitfield & the Savages/Dig Thy Savage Soul
    8. Belle & Sebastian/Dear Catastrophe Waitress
    9. Paul Weller/Stanley Road
    10. Bob Dylan/Time Out of Mind

  6. cherguevara

    That’s a good list, diskojoe! I was thinking XTC’s O&L is a great example of a CD album – the length and the shiny sonics of it. I would put Prefab Sprout’s “Jordan the Comeback” under the same umbrella. But then, that’s me talking about two of my favorites, AGAIN. I think Stamey and Holsapple’s Mavericks has some aspects of note, while the music and recording has the warm fuzzies of a vinyl album, the booklet is laid out like a children’s book, I always liked that. It’s interesting that Geo brings up dynamics as criteria, for me that makes a strong case for Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden, which gets really quiet in places. Mr. Mod is right that the CD was a bonanza for bonus tracks and extras, which is good and bad because who doesn’t like extras but it messes with the original album sequences – I liked Tea in the Sahara as the last song on Synchronicity, rather than Murder By Numbers. Another consideration for me is the Soft Bulletin, because it seems to have been produced without any consideration for what might be difficult to cut into vinyl.

    But I’m going to punt, and propose the best CD is the Brian Wilson solo version of Smile. Sonically, it’s very clean, there is use of silence that works well in this format – plus, you know, stereo. The booklet has the same children’s book quality as Mavericks, with more of an Alice in Wonderland visual twist, and it came in a textured box, not just that crappy CD case where the hinges always break. At 18 songs, 51 minutes, it’s too long for a single album, too short for a double album, and divided into three sections that the vinyl version sequenced as sides. (I’m not sure what the 4th vinyl side is – it seems to be repeats of other songs on the album?). It’s kind of a reissue, but it isn’t. Oh, and the music is pretty good! I know it’s not the original recordings, this may still be a shadow of what might’ve been, but in terms of “best CD,” I think it ticks several boxes.

  7. diskojoe

    Thanks, Cherguvera, in fact, I should take out the Barrence Whitfield CD since it is post 2005 (sorry) & put in either Brian Wilson’s Smile or his first solo album from 1988

  8. diskojoe

    D’oh! I totally forgot Martin Newell’s Greatest Living Englishman, which is favorite CD from the CD era.

  9. cherguevara

    A while back I stumbled across this: http://harkive.org
    Once a year, they get onto social media to ask about how people listen to music. This usually turns into “what music did everyone listen to today?” but it’s also about how people listen to music, and that led me to think about associating music with specific formats. Maybe an easier target is “what’s the best 8-track tape?” but I didn’t really experience that medium myself.

    All this to say, maybe the best CD is your favorite album from the years when it was the dominant format, and in that context, one might pick one of the “classics” of the era, like Nevermind or OK Computer. At first, it was such a futuristic format, and maybe the “best CD” suits that image – shiny, small, with lasers! No physical contact, doesn’t deteriorate (so they said), no surface noise! Hi-fi music of the future, a format so amazing it may reveal limitations of the original source tapes (sure, sure). Designed to hold enough data to listen to Beethoven’s 9th without interruption! And look at the CD now, in the discount bins at the record store, at Goodwill or a yard sale. Fifty cents for Porno for Pyros, Matchbox 20, Mariah Carey or that MC Hammer album you always wanted. The data is still valid, more so than what you get from Spotify (which just crashed on me), but the storage format isn’t efficient anymore. So maybe the “best CD” is more defined as a great album you can find in one of those bins. Totally an academic, mental chewing gum kind of question.

  10. diskojoe

    Here’s a list of some CDs that I picked up @ my local Savers for $1.99 each:

    1. Replacements/Let It Be (Rhino reissue w/bonus tracks)
    2. Rolling Stones/Exile on Main Street (Virgin Records reissue)
    3. ABBA/Gold
    4. Elvis Costello/Goodby Cruel World (Rhino reissue w/bonus disc)
    5. The Life Aquatic Studio Sessions Featuring Seu Jorge (the guy who sang the Bowie songs in Portuguese in the movie)
    6. Monkees/Live 1967
    7. The Best of Slim Harpo

  11. trigmogigmo

    I’ll go with cher’s basic criteria — favorite albums of the CD-dominant years — but I’ll focus on the first few CDs that I bought and it actually stretches back to 1986-7. In other words, the best of the beginning of CD era as I experienced it. I’m looking at my iTunes^H^H^H^ Music.app library and the following stick out as probably the earliest CDs that I bought and listened to endlessly. I must have recorded these to cassette because I can remember walking across campus with some of these albums playing in my ears all. the. time. and I would not have had a portable CD player that early.

    1. Julian Cope – Saint Julian
    2. Depeche Mode – Black Celebration
    3. Peter Gabriel – So
    4. Stan Ridgway – The Big Heat
    5. Siouxsie and the Banshees – Tinderbox
    6. The Smithereens – Especially for You
    7. The The – Infected
    8. World Party – Private Revolution
    9. XTC – Skylarking
    10. The Cure – Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me

    From that list, I was going to say that “So” is surely far and way “the best” — extraordinarily successful while still living in Peter Gabriel’s unique little sonic world, though definitely glossier than before.

    However:
    – “The Big Heat” occupies a big space in my head.
    – “Skylarking” and “Infected” are masterpieces, fully completed visions. I’ll nominate those two as my toss-up personal #1.

    If you have access, check out the “Classic Albums” documentary of “So” available on Amazon Prime Video, which I found really interesting:

    But even more fascinating is a BBC doc on Youtube for the amazing prior PG IV/Security album with tons of work-in-progress material showing the material evolving:

  12. trigmogigmo

    I forgot that links are problematic… maybe this will work better for those documentary videos:
    PG So: https://www.amazon.com/Peter-Gabriel-So-Classic-Albums/dp/B07KFPKV3C/
    PG IV / Security: https://youtu.be/scmYG1Pv1_Q

  13. diskojoe

    Speaking of Skylarking, when my local FYE store (where I got that Jellyfish box set for $0.25) was closing down, I found an original CD copy from 1987, w/the original price tag of $18.99, for a buck. It was beat up a bit, but I cleaned it up & it sounds fine, better than the vinyl version in the same condition.

  14. cherguevara

    I have (had?) a CD of Skylarking a friend brought to me from Germany, it had the original sequence with Mermaid Smiled. I ripped it and some time later discovered the disc had “rotted” – there are clear holes where the metal used to be. My CD copy of Mummer “bronzed,” which is when the disc has a chemical reaction with the paper booklet and gets bronze colored blotches. Eventually they figured out to put a clear ring of plastic around the outer edge, so the inner metal part didn’t make contact with air. I’m still pretty die-hard about sticking with the original sequence, sans “Dear God.”

    “So” is a great CD choice – I know Security was one of the first “must have” CDs, especially because it had that misleading “DDD” code on it. It’s crazy how much CDs cost when they first came out. I paid a stupid price for a Japanese import of the first Peter Case album, because it wasn’t available on disc at the time. Depeche Mode’s Music for the Masses and the 1st Crowded House were the first two CDs I bought. It was a funny time for me, because it aligned with when I left my parents’ house for college, so I abandoned my records (for a while, anyway). But living in dorms or shared apartments wasn’t conducive to continuing music listening as I had done in my high school years. That’s a different subject, though.

  15. Hey Cher,

    Last night, I kept racking my brain for a single CD I bought and enjoyed by a current artist. And just for the record, current for me means something that was released anywhere between 1984-2020. I’m happy to say I did recall one title that I still enjoy from beginning to end: Tomorrow the Green Grass by the Jayhawks.

  16. That Jayhawks CD, EPG, is also a highlight of that era for me!

  17. Yup, that really holds up well. The other CD I had in mind was Apples in Stereo: Tone Soul Revolution, but in retrospect, it’s kind of spotty. And, I didn’t think this was possible, but Robert Schneider may possibly be more annoying than Andy Partridge.

    I’m thinking of hosting a small gathering of those unearned arrogance assholes: Andy Partridge, Robert Schneider, Todd Rundgren, Ray Manzarek, Thurston Moore, Don Was…help me out if I’m missing anyone…, filming it, editing it down to a two hour documentary, and sending it out to all their fans so they can see why all my ranting and raving is necessary.

  18. BigSteve

    OK Computer is a good choice. One of the characteristics of CDs is that you put them on and they can play up to an hour and fifteen minutes of music, so they lend themselves to music that is immersive. You put it on and drift with it, and you can even repeat it endlessly if you want. I’m also thinking of other 90s classics like MBV’s Loveless, Primal Scream’s Screamadelica, and Massive Attack’s Mezzanine.

  19. Happiness Stan

    Having thunk, and pondered some more, I’m nominating Freedom and Rain by June Tabor and the Oyster Band.

    It meets the criteria only in that it was never released on vinyl, as far as I could ascertain at the time, and the cover would have benefitted from being twelve inches square with a record inside. It’s most definitely analog length and should be paused in the middle to breathe.

    Also, the last truly great Jonathan Richman album, Surrender to Jonathan, which also feels like it’s inhabiting the wrong format.

    Quite a few of the other albums nominated here from the transition period have taken me by surprise, since I bought them on vinyl and think of them as real records, all perfectly valid under the criteria as they would have been released n both formats, probably cassette as well, I was just a luddite when it came to the new format.

    CDs arrived about the time policemen were looking younger and all hop and house music sounded the same. My brain was protesting against being forced to file and recall every fact about every twentieth century musician ever and the end of vinyl felt like the right time to stop.

  20. diskojoe

    Happiness Stan, if you don’t mind asking, what has turned you off on later Jonathan Richman? I hung on for a bit until an album that had a song about his mother dying & I couldn’t take it. I traded away most his later post 1986 stuff after that.

    I try to listen to much of my collection as possible. There are some areas that lay fallow for a bit, but I really don’t leave anything to gather dust.

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