What were the audiophile records of yesteryear?


Before becoming an audiophile proper in the late noughties I’d never heard of Diana Krall or Patricia Barber. Or Jazz At The Pawnshop. From visiting various audiophile society meets and hi-fi shows over the past few years I realised that a very different world of music (to that which I was previously accustomed) had been sectioned off by middle-aged gentlemen congregating in front of multi-thousand dollar systems. It was – and still isn’t – my cup of joe.

That said, every year the audiophile scene takes a more mainstream release into its bosom. In 2013 it was Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. The year before that? Ummmm. I’ve drawn a blank

Robbie Robertson’s eponymous 1986 solo debut is one of the great sounding MOR rock albums of that decade. Each song unfurls with an epic majesty that Robertson failed to best with later releases; these aren’t just songs, they’re dirt roads that cut across huge landscapes. Sounds dart left and right. A voice swells up from below. It’s so good I don’t even mind the rather overrought cameos from U2’s Bono and The Edge. Peter Gabriel lends husky backing vox to the opening track “Fallen Angel” whilst “Somewhere Down The Crazy River” (that single) must’ve been a staple of hifi meets and store demos that year. Surely? (I don’t know – back then I was 14 years old).

It got me thinking: what were the mainstream records of yesteryear that enjoyed a good thrashing in hi-fi land?


I know for certain is that Paul Simon’s Graceland was an audiophile pick of the 1980s. Ditto Peter Gabriel’s So. Ditto Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly. Audio shows running in the late 70s would probably have been overrun by Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours? Right? Right. Jennifer Warnes’ Famous Blue Raincoat must’ve owned every show in ’87 and ’88. (I’d really love it if the Blue Nile’s sophomore release Hats had borne witness to some of those nerdy listening sessions. After all, it was released on Linn Records.

What about the 90s? There I draw a blank. Nirvana’s Unplugged In New York? R.E.M. Automatic For The People? Johnny Cash’s American series? Oh wait – Massive Attack’s Mezzanine would’ve been a biggie; I recall my local Richer Sounds having that one to hand *always* (as well as Björk’s Post).

The noughties: Jeff Buckley? Bon Iver?

I’m not looking for what might be great audiophile-quality records, nor greater recordings or masters from twenty or thirty years ago. Instead, I’m trying to uncover what was thrashed to death by audiophiles – at shows and at in-stores – way back when.






EDIT – I’m rolling in some of the comment and social media responses here:

Dave Matthews Band – Under the Table and Dreaming (1994)
Red Hot Chilli Peppers – Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1991)
Dire Straits – Brothers In Arms (1985)
Sade – Diamond Life (1985)
Stevie Ray Vaughan – Texas Flood (1983)
Jim Keltner / Ron Tutt ‎– The Sheffield Drum Record (1981)
Steely Dan – Aja (1977)
Jean Michel Jarre – Oxygene (1976)
Pink Floyd – Dark Side Of The Moon (1973)
The Eagles – Hotel California (1972)

Written by John H. Darko

John lives in the NOW + HERE = NOWHERE. He derives an income from the ad revenues of DAR. John is also an occasional staff writer for Stereophile, 6moons and TONEAudio.

Twitter: DarkoAudio
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  1. I seem to recall a little dittie entitled Dark Side of the Moon seemed to be rather popular from about ’73 onwards.

  2. I think Dark Side of The Moon was the standard from the time it was released…. In the early the 60’s I seem to remember Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass being considered a Hi-Fi standard. For pop anyway.

  3. Um, oh the 90’s. The darkest period of popular music IMHO. Was it the Anti Hi-Fi period???

  4. Hi John,
    if possible, have a listen to Ben Liebrands “Styles” from 1990. Maybe not mainstream per se but readily available. A great album in its’ own right and an excellent test disc in my opinion. A few Hi-Fi dealers have agreed over the years.
    Through the ’70s it was hard to escape Pink Floyd and Yes although Kraftwerk got a pretty good flogging. Lets not overlook Santana either. Also, Prog. Rock was peaking and some of the bands, like Colosseum and Nektar produced very dynamic recordings capable of testing any system.
    As well as the latter two, I’ll be digging out Robbies’ album this weekend for another listen, it’s been a while and I have a new rig.
    regards, Ian

  5. Ones I remember being used a lot
    Rickie lee Jones – Rickie Lee Jones
    Dire Straits – Sultans of Swing
    The Sheffield Drum Record (No really!)
    Pink Floyd – Dark Side
    Steely Dan – Aja
    The Prodigy

  6. Good question. I am seriously allergic to Dire Straits, Krall and other so-called reference albums. The music is usually poor ( I fall asleep instantly if I listen to Dire Straits, and I can’t really understand why Krall has made such a reputation, I mean she isn’t that much of a great singer!).

    I am also scared by the thought what music a 2nd hand purchased item might have been playing caused by that I bought some Almarro gear from a guy that had been playing hairy metal on tubes and horns ( I did a clean up with some good music, though taste of course is not the same).

    But just to answer your Q: I would say Diana Krall would certainly qualify.


  7. SRV had more play at shows in the late ’90s than anyone else. Minus that dreadful Barber.

  8. What were the greats of the past? Because I worked with the man, I’ll post a few lists for those of you who wish to find out. I probably have many of them in an LP collection I am willing to sell in very good condition. The following are not my websites or list however.





    • Thanks AGB. However, as per the main post, I’m not really looking for greats of the past per se, more the records that earned notoriety through ubiquity.

  9. My HiFi buying career started in 1976 with a Trio KP1033 turntable, the smart alternative to thed very popular Pioneer PL12D. My suggestions come from around that period, the mid ’70s.

    As mentioned by other posters DSOTM was ubiquitous in the mid 1970’s. At that time the not very High Fi ‘Tubular Bells’ was ever present too. If you’re looking for a recommendation for some (still) fantastic music from that time that a few HiFi knowledgeable stalwarts cherished, you would do a lot worse than Little Feat, ‘Feats don’t fail me now’ being my favourite album from them. Fantastic music , as tight as a ducks backside , and recorded well.

    Other well worn demos from that era that I can recall include:
    10cc – pretty much anything, but ‘The Original Soundtrack’ with the ‘I’m not in Love’ single was played a lot
    Eagles – Hotel California
    Jean Michel Jarre – Oxygene
    Joni Mitchell – Hissing of Summer Lawns
    Bob Marley – Exodus, and
    Fleetwood Mac – Rumours

    By way of an indulgence, still my ‘must demo’ album is ‘Joan Armatrading’ by the lady herself. It sounds okay on an okay system, but absolutely stunningly sublime on a good system.



  10. The Sheffield records — Track Record, Drum record and Growing up in Hollywood Town.
    Chuck Mangione – Children of Sanchez
    Dire Straights – Private Investigations
    Pink Floyd – The Wall
    M&K Records – For Duke

  11. The red Joan Armatrading album was given to me by Saul Marantz himself in the early seventies at a Dahlquist demo at Audio Breakthroughs’s shop in Long Island…and I agree.

  12. I hear you John, the links though are a treasure trove for readers who still own analog systems, as well as just about all are great musicmaking. Sound alone is nice to have, but once one hears just good sound for the sake of sound with less good music, one gets bored quickly. It was the fate of many direct-to-disc LPs that dramatically bettered sonically the best on these lists.

  13. I’m not sure what got thrashed by audiophiles but here are a few recordings that got a lot of play on my system.

    Anything by Sarah McLachlan
    Fiona Apple – Tidal
    Paul Simon – Rhythm of the Saints
    Dave Matthews Band – Under the Table and Dreaming
    Pink Floyd – The Wall
    Dire Straits – Brothers in Arms
    Supertramp – Brother Where You Bound (a very under-appreciated album)
    Shawn Colvin – Steady On
    Melissa Etheridge – Brave and Crazy

  14. Search the Stereophile archives on line for show reports and you should find what you seek. That said, I recall Los Lobos’ Kiko being a big hit. Nirvana’s Nevermind got some raves from Corey Greenberg at Stereophile. Tom Petty’s Into the Great Wide Open might have been another.

  15. At the dawn of the digital age, along with the Nightfly, Brothers in Arms sold a lot of CD players.

  16. I remember shopping for speakers in the 80’s by carrying around Rickie Lee Jones’ Pirates, Mark Knopfler’s Local Hero and Respighi’s Church Windows (Reference Recordings). Hmmm, think I might have been influenced a little by an 80’s era Stereophile “Records to Die For” list.

  17. The Sheffield Track/Drum Record is probably the most notorious of the 80’s, me thinks. Gawd, I hate that drivel!! Come to think of it, a lot of the stuff from Sheffield Labs were popular among audiophiles; http://www.discogs.com/label/93546-Sheffield-Lab

    Then you had the condescendingly named Reference Recordings, supposedly still going strong today; http://www.discogs.com/label/28847-Reference-Recordings

    We also had to tolerate the insipid “new-age” shenanigans of Yanni and Kitaro for a few years, probably late 90s.

    Aside from those, I guess Pink Floyd’s DSOTM was (still is) played way too much for it’s own good. The moss-grown Al Jerreau seemed popular in a A/V show I once attended in Hong Kong, some time in the late 90s.

    Stuff by the Police too, though I quite like that band. Another artist that audiophiles and I seem to agree on is Sade.

    On the electronic side, I reckon Massive Attack, Chemical Brothers and Prodigy got the most phile-time.

  18. Thanks for all the replies so far chaps. I’ve begun rolling some of your responses into the main article. Keep ’em coming!

  19. I heard this one played to death at h–fi shows “back in the day”: Joan Baez singing “Diamonds and Rust.”

  20. Opening up the gates of memory once more, in Perth in the early ’70’s at least, the ability of a turntable/arm/cartridge to track the Emerson, Lake & Palmer track TANK, and for speakers to be able to cope with same was often mentioned.

  21. Aja-Stelly Dan
    Hotel California-Eagles (BTW, 1976, not ’72)
    DSOM-Pink Floyd
    Fleetwood Mac-Fleetwood Mac
    Hissing of Summer Lawns-Joni
    Black Market-Weather Report
    Jean-Luc Ponty-Live
    Spyro Gyra-Spyro Gyra
    Let It Be-Beatles (Reel-to-Reel)
    Presence-Led Zeppelin
    Just One Night-Eric Clapton
    Tejas, Tres Hombres-ZZ Top
    Zenyatta Mondatta-The Police
    Jaco Pastorius-Jaco

  22. The one I recall is The Blue Nile “A Walk Across the Rooftops”, released by Linn Records in 1984. The ‘Glaswegian adult contemporary pop’ was everywhere. I remained completely and utterly baffled by its success. At least Diana Krall looks attractive and is married to Elvis Costello. That already makes her more interesting than The Blue Nile.

    Also, big shout out for 10cc ‘How Dare You’, Queen’s ‘A Night at the Opera’ and ELO ‘Out of the Blue’

    • I really dig The Blue Nile but I can definitely see how it might sound too cloying for some, especially Hats.

  23. this is great, so many I’d forgotten! I’ve got a few good weekends ahead catching up with some of these mentioned so far. Keep ’em coming.

  24. The first time I was attending a big AV-show in ’88 (Amsterdam) I took a seat in the Wharfedale booth and this song came along and sounded very nice, I heard ELO before but didn’t know this one back then.
    Electric Light Orchestra – Can’t Get It Out Of My Head [’74]
    Other albums…
    Police – Reggatta De Blanc [’79]
    Talk Talk – The Colour Of Spring [’86]
    The 90’s actually do have some great ones too. 😉
    Crowded House – Woodface [’91]
    The Jayhawks – Hollywood Town hall [’92]
    Paul Weller – Wild Wood [’93]
    Sting – Ten Summoner’s Tales [’93]
    Guru – Jazzmatazz volume:1 [’93]
    Jamiroquai – Emergency On Planet Earth [’94]
    Herbie Hancock – Return Of The Headhunters [’98]
    Travis – The Man Who [’99]
    And on the electronic/techno side of things…
    The Orb – Little Fluffy Clouds, single [’92]
    Tricky – Maxinquaye [’95]
    Air – Moon Safari [’98]
    Björk, Erykah Badu, Roni Size Reprazent, Goldie Presents Metalheadz.

    • Oh yeah. Now that you’ve mentioned Goldie, I’ve heard his album Timeless play at a few A/V shows, though can’t recall whether those were audiophile or professional orientated booths (sometimes they’re all in one big hall). Great album, btw.

      Also, I’m not sure if this counts, but I saw Funktion-One at an A/V expo here in Singapore a few years ago. They were clearly in the audiophile section, but were targeting businesses (clubs, lounges, etc). Not surprising since that’s supposedly their core market. They were playing Sasha’s Xpander (Original Mix) at the time. Many of the jazz-head old audiophile guys flocked to the booth, wondering what kind of alien had landed. Quite a sight.

      • That Sasha tune is terrific, hey. Probably sounds a bit dated now? Airdrawndagger doesn’t though and we have Charlie May to thank for that.

  25. Upon reflection… I personally used Ry Cooder’s beautifully recorded Paradise and Lunch to audition many things but I am not sure how common it was….

  26. Direct to Disk was all the rage at the hi fi stores and shows in the late 70’s. Carol Pope and Rough Trade was one of the first, then Sheffield Labs cut Dave Grusin’s Discovered Again. I just pulled it out and played for the 1st time in 30 years – wow it sounds great – went all the way through without the cartridge or arm rising out of the groove – that means the RB300 is better than the Hadcock, Grace or Mayware that I had back then.

  27. there was a time that you couldn’t go into a hifi store without hearing Carly Simon’s “No Secrets” or Cat Stevens’ “Tea for the Tillerman”. dave grusin’s “discovered again” and harry james’ “king james version” , and thelma huston’s “pressure cooker” . there were many more by supertramp and others that as good as they were, that you dreaded hearing over and over. that is likely why there are people who occupy much of their time denigrating diana krall. her live series of recordings, especially with anthony wilson, is where i diverge from that pack, so good are they as to transcend the seemed commonality.

  28. Neil Young – Harvest.
    That and Graceland are my main albums for testing HiFi.
    Those two particular albums have a much lower volume than the others in my collection, which would put them high on the loudness-war ranking!

  29. Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On (1971)

    To me, it has always sounded good. But the 192/24 Version of HDtracks sounds phenomenal

  30. Robert Miles – Dreamland (1996)
    Rusted Root – When I Woke (1994)
    Flim & the BB’s – Big Notes (1985)
    The Alan Parsons Project – Eye in the Sky (1982)
    Dave Grusin – Discovered Again! (1976)
    Mannheim Steamroller – Fresh Aire (1975)