The Funky Four + 1: 5 Albums That Sound Better At 128kbps

14 Nov

As the price of hard drives goes down, and the relative storage capacity increases (Moore’s Law), the unspoken corollary is that the size of information will increase to match it. Even flash-based mp3 players can hold 16 GB these days, and it’s not like the number’s going to go down. Greater broadband speeds and penetration (although the U.S. lags most developed countries–hell, we’re even getting lapped by some places where we wouldn’t even drink the water) are constantly reducing the speed and effort involved in sharing an album. In return, consumers (paying and otherwise) demand higher quality files, usually measured in bitrates. In the glory days of Napster, the thrill of free music was enough to make people overlook the 64kbps rips that cut off in the middle, punctuated by the alert sounds from the ripper’s AIM program. Now, anything less than 192kbps is considered not even worth stealing. When Radiohead gave away In Rainbows last year, they caught hell from audiophiles–and can we imagine a Venn diagram of audiophiles and Radiohead fans?–for encoding it at 160kbps. That’s right, people were complaining about something they were getting for free. VBR and 320kbps rips are fast becoming the standard, expanding in file size to match the increasing capacity to store them. Five years from now, music pirates of the future will probably turn up their noses at 320kbps rips as unlistenable. The Loudness War that’s going in the mastering rooms isn’t helping either, as accompanying the increased bitrate is a command from music engineers to flatten the dynamic range to optimize records for cellphones and tinny computer speakers.

And as the first generation to grow up without cassettes comes of age, the classic Maxell tape of the 1980s has achieved an iconic status. For these Millenials, mixtapes are something you download, not buy from the guy at the subway station (although the standards in cover art haven’t improved much). On the indie rock side of the dial, muxtape (R.I.P.) may have replaced mixtapes as the fastest way to a would-be lover’s heart, but High Fidelity types still fetishize the cassette regardless.

And as the Millenials age, it’s inevitable that crappy rips will take on a nostalgic element, whether it’s warranted or not. In anticipation of this, Black Ships is presenting the Top 5 Albums That Sound Better At 128kbps. Many considerations went into this list. Recent attempts, like Justice’s Cross, are penalized for intentionally aiming for this effect (it’s also mastered at ear-splitting levels). Hip-hop classics like Straight Outta Compton or It Takes A Nation Of Millions… would seem like logical choices too, but Dr. Dre and the Bomb Squad both took enough care to include a full dynamic range that, even accounting for the JVC boomboxes of the time that they were designed to be listened on, demand to be heard in high quality to be appreciated. No, this list comprises records that, through a combination of nostalgia, bad mastering, and low budgets, really flower at 128kps. Due to his prolific output, the entire career of Bob Pollard (Guided By Voices) is not eligible for this list.

Top 5 Albums That Sound Better At 128kbps:

5. Joy Division: Unknown Pleasures

After singer Ian Curtis took his own life and the band forged on as New Order, Peter Hook’s basslines grew even more prominent, and the guitar and synth lines explored new textures and tones that accompanied their plunge into rave culture. Before that, though, producer Martin Hammett enabled a punk band’s foray into a dark, lonely place. Even before their bleakness reached oppressive levels with Closer, debut album Unknown Pleasures carried a chill about it. From the iconic cover art to the judicious use of synths, everything about this album is a piece of one aesthetic. To listen to it on a great stereo is to add a warmth to it that was never intended. Low bitrates keep the feeling intact, just as God (and Martin Hammett) intended.

4. Wu-Tang Clan: Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
There’s countless essays that can be written on this album (and producer The RZA’s already written a book on its creation), but one feature of many that made this stand out in 1993 was its violently lo-fi aesthetic. Even by the grittier standards of the time, everything about his record was, well, kind of punk, from the hand-drawn cover art on the “Protect Ya Neck” single, to the damn-near impenetrable inside slang, and especially the music. The drums lurch like a drunk in an alley before periodically attacking the listener. Inspectah Deck’s crack about mountain climbers who play electric guitar notwithstanding, the album does in fact utilize electric guitar stabs placed at random intervals. Rumor has it that The RZA ran Method Man’s microphone through a Marshall guitar amplifier to roughen his voice up, and nothing about the album suggests otherwise. Regardless of the financial constraints that might have gone into making this album, everything about the sound feels like an aesthetic choice.


3. Gravediggaz: 6 Feet Deep

With a major-label budget at his disposal, an equally inspired creative foil in Prince Paul, and an apparently inexhaustible supply of free time despite producing three other classic albums that year, The RZA took a left turn with the Gravediggaz project. While the Wu-Tang debut summed up a lifetime of sherm sticks and grindhouse flicks, Gravediggaz was a self-aware attempt to test how exactly how violent a rap record could be. With an almost clinical flair, the participants adopted stage names for the project straight out of the E.C. Comics vault (the Undertaker, the Grym Reaper, the Rzarector, etc.) and invented horrorcore as we know it. While this requires a strong sense of irony (or a superhuman willing suspension of disbelief) to enjoy, real cannibals don’t have access to expensive studio equipment. Thin sound only aids the illusion.


2. Cat Power: Moon Pix

While any of her early (pre-You Are Free) albums would work, Moon Pix is the best of the bunch before Chan Marshall started modeling for Chanel. The Beastie Boys sample on “American Flag” sounds as out of character for her now as it does then. Even as she’s branched out into styles beyond the gauzy folk of her early years, most of her music avoids drums of any kind, never mind the cassette-based backwards sample from “Paul Revere” (here we go again with the cassette nostalgia…). In low sound quality, her spidery guitar lines don’t stand a chance against her voice. Even when she sounds like she’s faltering, or about to give in entirely, her voice overpowers everything in sight. The school of singing that treats it like an Olympic sport has only gained more currency in the last decade, but sometimes the most poweful statement is the one that doesn’t puff its chest out. Truly haunting.

1. Scarface: Mr. Scarface Is Back
By the end of the 1990s, Rap-A-Lot Records had assembled an in-house production team that rivaled that of any label. Not only did it separate Rap-A-Lot from the contenders nipping at its heels, but its unified aesthetic helped define the Texas sound as much as anybody, with the possible exception of Port Arther’s UGK. At the start of the decade, though, the book had yet to be written, and Scarface, fresh off the Geto Boys’ breakout success, launched his solo career with Mr. Scarface Is Back, an excellent album, but one that also showed a sound that was a work in progress. The cover art hails from an era before Photoshop (when they build a Southern Rap Hall Of Fame, Pen & Pixel graphics is getting its own wing in recognition of the ludicrous Photoshop jobs it’s performed for album sleeves). Mike Dean and N.O. Joe had yet to crystallize the gumbo-funk sound that would serve as ‘Face’s constant companion. The beats largely lean on the popular sounds of the time: the Bomb Squad is an obvious touchstone, but so is Sir Jinx, who was largely responsible for Ice Cube’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. And while glimpses of the hard-edged social commentary that would become Scarface’s trademark poke through, a lot of the album also mines similar territory as the Gravediggaz album would five years later (“Born Killer,” “Murder By Reason of Insanity”). The combination of low-tech mastering (label head J. Prince had only just come over from the used-car business), classic samples thrown at the listener in haphazard fashion and violent lyrics that border on goth (“I’m Dead,” anyone?) give Scarface the top spot on this list. Brad Jordan, come forward and claim your championship belt.

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