As much as David Bowie, Nina Simone and every Hans Zimmer soundtrack on earth have become staple listening material in our testing rooms, we at What Hi-Fi? are always eager to discover (and re-discover) new (and old) music – an easy feat nowadays thanks to the fastidiousness of music streaming services.
Every month, we’ll be figuratively opening our test room doors to share what we've been listening to and the new releases we're looking forward to hearing.
So if you find yourself regularly hovering tentatively over a music service’s search bar, or you want a new CD or vinyl recommendation to stop you listening to The Dark Side of the Moon again, this one’s for you…
The album we've rediscovered
S&M by Metallica - Andy Madden, content editor
In my formative years I found Metallica a bit, well, loud. All that screaming, shouting and thrashing might have made sense to hoards of moshers worldwide but, being perfectly honest, a significant chunk of their music went straight over my head. Having said that, I did have time for some of their tamer tunes such as The Unforgiven and Nothing Else Matters.
But in 1999 all that changed with the release of S&M (Symphony & Metallica). Some thought partnering Metallica with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra was only going to end in tears (or a brawl). But it didn’t.
In fact, the combination managed to add layers of depth, dynamics and drama to some of the band’s best known tracks. It appealed not just to die-hard followers, but to casual fans alike.
I distinctly remember running in a pair of B&W 602 S3s with the album and switching between Nothing Else Matters and Enter Sandman, both of which sounded suitably epic. And the intro to One? Wow. The strings just elevated the opening seconds to another level.
A special mention also has to go to No Leaf Clover, a track written specifically for the album and one that still holds its own to today. Percussion, strings and wind instruments, reinforced with metal - a great combination.
This is one experimental album well worth experimenting with.
Buy S&M on CD at Amazon (opens in new tab)
Buy S&M on vinyl at Amazon (opens in new tab)
The album we've used for testing
Puberty 2 by Mitski - Adam Smith, staff writer
With 2016 seen by many, not least in the music world, as something of an annus horribilis, Mitski’s album embraced the doom and gloom felt by many around the world.
The album focuses on the 'second puberty', the time between being a teenager and adult, often punctuated by late-night worrying about rent, insecurities and your place in the wider world.
Not just a fine album for anyone going through growing pains but also a good album for testing your system. Songs such as Your Best American Girl is an abrasive mix of distorted synths and deep drums, with Mitski’s vocals rising above the instruments.
Your system needs to be detailed enough to bring out all the ripples of the guitar riffs, deliver a strong enough bass that the low, electronic thuds pack a good punch, and be organised in order to allow the vocals to emerge clear and smooth.
If your system is up to it, you'll be treated to haunting, evocative melodies from an articulate songstress.
Buy Puberty 2 on CD at Amazon (opens in new tab)
Buy Puberty 2 on vinyl at Amazon (opens in new tab)
The album we wished we'd heard earlier
Young Americans by David Bowie – Kob Monney, buyer's guide editor
It’s been over year since David Bowie's death, and it's a testament to his body of work that many of us are still discovering his music afresh.
Young Americans is the album Bowie made as he moved from his glam rock stylings and explored the African American soul and R&B music scene of the early 70s.
It’s still unmistakably Bowie – his voice remaining as distinctive as ever - and while it may not be authentic R&B, it is a fascinating mish-mash of styles.
The album alternates between toe-tappers and slower, lusher efforts built around his voice, with stand out tracks coming in the shape of Young Americans, the fantastic opener; Fascination, a funky, slow-building track; Right, featuring a great saxophone part; and Fame with that guitar riff.
If you've never heard it, now's a great time - and there's a remastered version due in February 2017.
Buy Young Americans (2016 Remaster) on CD at Amazon (opens in new tab)
Buy Young Americans (2016 Remaster) on vinyl at Amazon (opens in new tab)
The guilty pleasure
Backstreet's Back by Backstreet Boys - Kashfia Kabir, first tests editor
Let me start off this entry by saying that I have no guilt whatsoever with loving this album. I was just nine years old when I first heard it, and I still know every single word to all the songs. Even the rubbish ones (there are no rubbish ones). 20 years on (yes, really) and Backstreet Boys are still one of my favourite bands of all time [!? - Ed.].
All this nicely coincides with the 20th anniversary of the band's second studio album – Backstreet’s Back. It’s the album that catapulted them to stardom, thanks to some endlessly catchy tunes that went on to define the 90s boyband phenomenon, but it’s a handful of tracks that really stand the test of time.
There’s the eternally cheery As Long As You Love Me, which I guarantee you’re humming in your head right now, and the softest of soft ballads All I Have To Give. But the star track of the album has to be Everybody (Backstreet’s Back). A ridiculously upbeat, head-bopping anthem that’s part pop, part rock, part dance, with a great Thriller-inspired video that made it even more memorable. A 90s classic? I think so.
It’s just plain fun. All together now: "Everybody….yeah…."
Buy Backstreet's Back on CD at Amazon (opens in new tab)
The album we're looking forward to hearing
Return to Ommadawn by Mike Oldfield - Becky Roberts, staff writer
Any fan of horror, or more specifically, The Exorcist, will hold those few poignant bars of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells very close to their heart. And it was those bars which provided my personal portal to Oldfield's work.
Alongside Bells and Amarok, Oldfield's third album, Ommadawn (1975), was one of his most genuine and accomplished works, combining traditional Celtic sounds with African drums and fizzing electronic riffs.
Some 42 years and 22 albums later we have a sequel: Return to Ommadawn. Going back to his old, two-part format, it sounds, from a pre-released snippet of Part One, to pursue the original album's motif. Whether it'll make the same impact today as its predecessor made in the 70s remains to be heard, but one thing is for sure: we look forward to finding out.
Buy Return to Ommadawn on CD at Amazon (opens in new tab)
Buy Return to Ommadawn on vinyl at Amazon (opens in new tab)