Top Ten Headphones Albums

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Written for Stylus, but we ran out of time.

If you hadn’t realized already, I view a decent pair of headphones or three as an essential accessory in the armory of any self-respecting music geek, whether they be for the walk to work, privacy in the office, or those late nights when you don’t want to upset the neighbours.

Cleary many people will say that EVERY record sounds better through headphones, and that therefore a ‘top ten’ is redundant. This is broadly true for most things bar the latest Keane album and its siblings in digital limiting, where all proximity breeds is pain, but nevertheless there are certain records, and certain types of records, that most assuredly gain something extra special when you play them through a pair of good headphones.

10. Spoon – Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
Spoon’s latest is remarkably well engineered, but a little aggressively-mastered, which can make it slightly wearing over a pair of speakers. Run it through headphones that are good with guitars, though, and as well as the drums, brass and six-strings all being rendered beautifully, all the low-level studio chatter and ambience starts to come through; all of a sudden you’re aware of someone humming the guitar riff just before it starts in “Don’t You Evah”, for instance.

9. Augie March – Moo You Bloody Choir
Augie March’s profile is criminally low outside Australia, and even in their native country they’re not exactly superstars, so I don’t feel at all guilty for having included them in three of my recent top tens, because they’re brilliant. What makes Moo You Bloody Choir great on headphones is the scale, depth and variety of the arrangements; Augie are essentially a bloozy bar band, but they ambitiously augment their songs with piano, brass and strings with a cloudy, ornate and inscrutable sophistication way beyond the remit of general indie rockers. The intimate moments are agonisingly personal, the grand passages irreverently pompous, and the rocking bits genuinely rocking; a good set of headphones helps you fully appreciate the scope of what’s going on.

8. US Maple – Talker
I’d never heard of US Maple until a certain scatological violinist recommended Talker to me via email as “the deepest and most rewarding headphone listen of the last 10 years”, and indeed it might be; the extraordinary interlacing of guitars, drum rhythms and gruff, incomprehensible vocals is difficult to take in at first, but on repeated exposure reveals itself to be truly something to behold at close quarters, like a really deranged Magic Band circa Trout Mask Replica accidentally run through a filter of grunge by people who’ve never spoken to anyone bar their immediate family. Particularly astonishing are the outrageous guitar textures, the like of which I really have never heard before.

7. Cornelius – Point
You’d be forgiven for assuming that Cornelius makes records purely for the headphone addict, given the joie-de-vivre with which he applies the stereophonic panning, mixing desk tricks and flippant textural changes. Point in particular lays it on thick – from field recordings of running water to upshots and downshots of guitar flitting from ear-to-ear, every second is crammed with sensuous detail; so much in fact that it can be overwhelming if you’re not in the mood.

6. Mark Hollis – Mark Hollis
Spirit Of Eden and Laughing Stock are both common and very understandable shouts as ‘great headphones records’, but I’ve written about both before, and if anything this decade-old solo album by Mark Hollis takes their aesthetic even further into the austere. Recorded live in a room on two carefully-placed microphones, with no overdubs and as little electricity as possible, Hollis spent seven years preparing for this album, teaching himself classical composition amongst other things. It’s great on headphones because no other record I’ve heard puts you in a room the way this does; it’s the fall of the piano keys in “The Colour Of Spring”, the space between them as the notes decay and the tangible sense of fingers depressing different areas of the keyboard; down and up, left and right. And then there is the brass, the drums, the strings… Listening to this album feels almost intrusive.

5. Disco Inferno – Technicolour
I’ve written about Disco Inferno at length before on Stylus; suffice to say that their bizarre, prescient amalgam of environmental sampling and postpunk is absolutely dazzling on headphones. By Technicolour especially they had mastered their art to the extent that they were creating hooks and riffs from found sounds; the opening title track uses slashes of guitars alongside an array of breaking glass, screeching brakes, ringing alarm clocks and parping car horns. Elsewhere across the album splashes of water, whistling winds, erupting fireworks and untold other effects jostle with orthodox instrumentation to concoct some truly bizarre pop songs; remarkable.

4. PJ Harvey – Rid Of Me
It may seem ludicrous to choose such a relentlessly visceral album for a list of records that work best on headphones, but I’ve found nothing as wildly exciting as running Rid Of Me through a pair of Alessandros at frantically stupid volumes; if I tried to get anywhere near this with speakers I’d either burst my bass drivers or have the police round inside three songs. It’s something to do with the pronounced dynamics of this Albini-produced beast; the quiet parts, on headphones, lull you in like nothing else, before the frightening crescendos threaten to rupture your cerebellum in the most deliciously tinnitus-inducing way. I wouldn’t recommend listening to Rid Of Me in this manner every day, but I’d certainly suggest trying it before you die.

3. The Beta Band – Hot Shots Part 2
It’s a combination of cavernous space and minute attention to detail that makes Hot Shots II so rewarding through an expensive pair of cans running off a proper headphone amp; subtle arrangements of live and synthetic percussion, snippets of acoustic guitars, melodica, piano, sub-tectonic bass, textural inserts drawn from r’n’b and electronica plus intricate layers of Steve Mason’s forlornly beautiful vocals paint wide but intimate refractions across the inside of your head. After the haphazardness of their eponymous debut album, Hot Shots II is a remarkably subtle and controlled affair that reveals more of itself each time you listen, especially when you’re as close as only headphones can get you.

2. Califone – Roomsound
Tim Rutili’s post-country outfit consistently produces such richly textured and beautiful records that choosing them for a list like this seems almost redundant; it’s also incredibly difficult given the high quality of each of their full studio albums. So as a cop-out, I’ll pick their debut, which showed the ex-Red Red Meat members emerging with aesthetic fully formed. The amalgam of slide guitars, feedback, improvised and electronic percussion, mumbled, growled and crooned vocals as well as delicate, spacious layering of atmospheric and found sounds makes this album an experience on headphones like almost nothing else. That the riffs and melodies underneath are insidiously catchy and emotive is more than a bonus.

1. Orbital – In Sides
I think the single experience that convinced me I’d have a long and happy relationship with headphones was listening to this album on a walkman for the first time; specifically the moment when “Out There Somewhere (Part 2)” starts and the scary alien pre-amble suddenly bursts into stereoscopic delight, the melody flitting from left-to-right like points of light in a darkened room, sparking your senses to life. It’s not just that, though, which makes In Sides such a headphone treat; the subtle heartbeat-bass of “The Girl With The Sun In Her Head” being slowly rattled awake by drums and exalted by intertwining layers of synthesiser; the zither textures of “The Box”; the crawling ambience of “Dwr Budr”; the martial tension of “Adnan’s” – every track unveils itself further and further the closer you get to it, and while this is ostensibly a ‘dance’ record by genre, it’s definitely more headphone fodder than club banger.


Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Blogger mm1 - 4:42 pm

hi nick.

well, maybe you, TB and all at Stylus don't want to talk about the reasons Stylus' closing, but... some people here, in Italy, are asking themselves why one of the most [type a compliment here] internet magazine is shutting down.

isn't possible to know something?
so, so thanks,


ps. that "caparezza" album Dom gave an "A" is totally crap ;)


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Nick Southall was born in southwest England at the tail end of the 70s, and is the youngest of three brothers. He has a degree in popular culture and philosophy and has written about music for Stylus Magazine, The Guardian and Drowned In Sound, amongst others. He likes red wine, expensive headphones, spicy food, and the Hungarian national football team of the 1950s. His favourite record is the last one he listened to. You can contact him by email via sickmouthy @ gmail dot com should you so wish.

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