Sunday, 26 June 2016

Headphone Test Tracks (June 2016)

Here's a 10 tracks I've been found to be nice reference tracks when testing new headphones. Some are new, some are old, I like them all. Remember, headphones are for music and not the other way around. With that said, I hope you find something new and interesting here.

'Luminol' - Steven Wilson
The Raven That Refused to Sing (and Other Stories) (2013)

Luminol is that glowing blue chemical crime scene investigators use to turn up blood and other fluids. It's also an amazing prog-rock track from Steven Wilson, who you may also know from the group Porcupine Tree. The way this 12 minute track launches from its throbbing guitar riffs into the skylarking flute and piano parts of the middle section, before returning to its anguished, epic climax... well, what can I say? This is brilliant stuff.

Listen for: Big, meaty guitar crunches combined with instrumental and soundstage finesse.

[iTunes, Spotify]

'Rewind' - Kelela
Hallucinogen - EP (2015)

There's a great episode of the podcast Song Exploder that details how Kelela enlisted the help of 5 different producers to make this itchy, somewhat haunting track. Machine-slick beats combine with ghostly layered vocals in this alternative R&B stunner.

Listen for: The way Kelela's ghostly vocals float over the deep, visceral bass tones. Some of the sub-bass notes will simply not turn up on some equipment.

[Bleep (lossless DL), iTunesSpotify]

'Sticky Drama' - Oneohtrix Point Never
Garden of Delete (2015)

Oneohtrix Point Never is one of my favourite electronic musicians. In Sticky Drama he's made something snarling, visceral and unsettling. It's a track that lashes you with acidic synths and thrashing crescendos. Sticky Drama makes puberty seem very scary.

Listen for: The hiveswarm of synths that will clean your ears and congeal into sludge on sleepy headphones.

[Bleep (lossless DL), iTunesSpotify]

‘Oblivion’ - Patrick Wolf
Sundark And Riverlight (2012)

Patrick Wolf’s vocals have always sounded both youthful and powerful to me. The sparse production on this track really showcases the resonant quality of his singing, taking the original electronic version from 2011’s The Bachelor and making it a more intimate, personal statement. This is one of those well mastered tracks that sounds great on almost anything.

Listen for: The sense of studio space and blackness in between Wolf’s vocals and that rich guitar line.

[Bleep (lossless DL), iTunesSpotify]

‘Year of the Dog’ - Osso & Sufjan Stevens
Run Rabbit Run (2009)

An instrumental version of one of Sufjan Steven’s experiments in electronica, I love this track. I play violin (poorly), and therefore know that you can make a lot of interesting noises with a violin. This piece basically shows you most of them, weaving all the squeaks, slides and the drones together brilliantly.

Listen for: The strings, obviously.
‘4 Degrees’ - ANOHNI
Hopelessness (2016)

A recent study published in Nature predicts that with current trends, the Earth will be 4 degrees by the end of the century. In this anguished protest song, ANOHNI decries inaction by ironically begging for the temperature rise and the morbid effects it will bring.

I wanna burn the sky, I wanna burn the breeze
I wanna see the animals die in the trees
Oh let's go, let's go it's only 4 degrees

Listen for: The shiny, blaring, densely compressed production of this track combined with Anohni’s unique vocals is a good example of ‘maximalist’ production.

[Bleep (lossless DL), iTunesSpotify]

‘New York is Killing Me’ - Gil Scott-Heron
I'm New Here (2010)

This is an awesome ear-worm of a track. Gil Scott-Heron’s weary delivery, the percussive hand claps and electronic elements make this a gritty, raw listen. In terms of production it's also the hottest track I have in my entire music library, with a crispy, sizzling upper mid-range spike.

Listen for: This track is like squeaky bubble wrap and urban grit scratching your eardrums. A worse case scenario for mid-forward headphones.

[Bleep (lossless DL), iTunes]

Amphibian - Björk
Being John Malkovich Original Soundtrack (1999)

Playing during the credit sequence of the delightful mind-fuck that is Being John Malkovich, I feel like this track has been a bit forgotten. It’s a shame because I think it’s one of Björk's best. Her whispery, whispy vocals float around the listener, sounding both outer worldly and enticing at the same time.

Listen for: The soundstaging of this track is enveloping, mostly because of the hard panning of the vocals and instruments between the left and right channels. This track also has quite a lot of ‘hard S’ sibilants, and can be pretty painful with the wrong earphones.

New Slaves - Kanye West
Yeezus (2013)

I love Kanye West, but it took me a while to wrap my head around the raw, industrial anger of Yeezus. The album is West’s musical expression of ‘fuck you’, where he absolutely refuses to back down on either his egotism or political commentary. The production matches the content, and I think Yeezus is one of the best arguments for why talking about the ‘loudness wars’ can lead to some daft absolutist thinking. ‘Bad’, compressed, aggressive production can be used for fantastic aesthetic effect.

Listen for: This is one of those tracks that just sounds better on bassy, aggressive headphones. It’s not HD800 material, and it doesn’t try to be.

For You - Rie Fu
For You (2011)

I came across this track as the ending credit song for Hourou Musuko (Wandering Son), a painfully touching anime series about the lives of two prepubscent trans kids. It’s not really my kind of music, but I came to really like it as a little ray of sunshine after each of Wandering Son’s sad-but-hopeful 12 episodes.

Listen for: Rie Fu’s clear as daylight vocals, with the jaunty instrumentals and feel-good piano, are a natural fit with the house sound of so many Japanese headphones.