In the first of a new series, Bowers & Wilkins Brand Manager
Shaun Marin offers up his favourite acoustic albums. Don’t forget to let us know your favourite acoustic albums at the end.
10 Classic acoustic albums
Chris Smither – Live As I’ll Ever Be
I love this album. It’s what I consider to be a wonderful artist recorded where he works best – on the stage. Just him, his acoustic guitar, and percussion from his constantly-tapping foot.
An intimate recording, it really draws you into the performance, with the evocative songs occasionally introduced by Smither’s story telling in his evocative Southern accent.
Even though I didn’t see this concert, it immediately takes me back to the times I did see him. Amazingly open, and atmospheric, this is for me, a great acoustic album.
Bruce Springsteen – Nebraska
Growing up on The Jam and the post punk revolution in the early 80s, Springsteen was only on my radar as something to avoid. The roadhouse Americana of The River was followed in my mind by the stadium bombast of Born In The USA. It was only years later, with the benefit of hindsight and my dad’s record collection that I discovered Nebraska, and it caused me to not only fall in love with this album, but with almost all of his other albums.
Springsteen recorded Nebraska solo in between his other more famous early 80s output. It’s the intimacy in the recording that I find most engaging about this album. It still sounds relevant, even as it approaches its 30th anniversary next year.
Neil Young – Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House 1968
This wonderful album was released as part of the Archive series in 2008. It captures Young forty years previously, in front of a small intimidate, audience.If you don’t like talking on your albums, then this isn’t for you – as Young is in un-characteristically verbose form. But the beautiful versions of Young classics including The Old Laughing Lady, The Loner and I’ve Been Waiting For You make it all worthwhile.
Young’s voice is in particularly fine form on this album, plaintive, almost falsetto at times, and full of emotion and passion for the music he is introducing to an enraptured audience.
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – The Boatman’s Call
When I think of an acoustic album, I usually think of a man sitting there with a guitar. This is still a man at the centre of this 12-track minimalist classic, but he’s sitting at a piano. He’s also accompanied by a band, but the Bad Seeds are stripped back and predominantly acoustic here.
It gets off to a great start, with Into My Arms. This is one of Cave’s more personal songs, and sounds wonderfully focused with just him on piano. And the album just seems to go from strength to strength, although some people may find the closing Green Eyes a bit much. And, while many Cave albums suffer from undue compression, this simple recording offers audiophiles a little something, too.
Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – I See A Darkness
This is a long-serving test disc favourite of mine. It’s the first of Will Oldam’s albums as Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, and sees him switch from his lo-fi past into his much better recorded, country-tinged alter ego. It’s not the most uplifting collection of songs ever to be put together – as the title would suggest – but the passion and delivery makes it well worth the effort.
And yes, he does have a backing band, and there is the occasionally electronic instrument on here – mainly guitar and bass – but the overall feel is intimate and acoustic. It also offers a great sense of space, and you can really hear the room where it was recorded when listening to it on the likes of the PM1. It’s destined to live in my test-disc collection for many years to come.
Rainer – Live at the Performance Center
Rainer Ptacek is often described as a musician’s musician. He certainly achieved fame within the industry that went far beyond that which he achieved in the popular consciousness. His guitar style was certainly unusual, a deft blend of finger picking and slide, that delivers an unusually metallic sound thanks to his passion for Dobro and National Steel guitars.
This posthumous live release is a great introduction to the man and his music. Lovely crafted pieces of guitar craft, and smart lyrics delivered in his trans-Atlantic Eastern European/Texan voice. The steel of the guitar is a beautiful thing to hear in this intimate sounding venue, while the complex rhythms really do show just how much one man can achieve with a single instrument.
Nirvana – MTV Unplugged in New York City
The kings of grunge swap out-and-out noise for a more personal, acoustic set in this seminal album. It truly changed the way many people thought about Nirvana, as people who couldn’t previously see through the feedback and aggression could finally hear the subtlety and beauty of the lyrics – something I experienced with friends, who didn’t ‘get’ Nirvana until this album.
Not that it lacks aggression. There’s plenty of angst and despair too. There’s also quite a bit of distortion at times – albeit delivered from an acoustic guitar, and not the kind that stops you hearing what is being said. A selection of Nirvana classics, and some incredibly well selected cover versions, this was a major moment in the history of rock and roll caught for posterity. Still amazing to this day.
Lambchop – Is a Woman
A full band again, but one of the most sparse, paired back albums on this list. It seemed as though with each new Lambchop album they increased the number of musicians but reduced the sound. An act of self-restraint that resulted in this amazing album. I love this album not only because it’s great musically, but it’s also an incredibly well recorded album, that really shows speakers off at their best.
I remember the first time I heard the opening track The Daily Growl on a pair of 802Ds driven by Classé electronics, and it blew me away all over again – even though I must have heard it about 100 times before. This is an album that keeps on giving, and the better your hi-fi, the more you get out of it. It’s one of the few albums that I seem to play as much on CD as on LP, and always top of my list when listening to new kit.
Bob Dylan – The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
The second Dylan album is for me his best prior ‘going electric’, and the one I turn to most outside the holy trinity of Highway 61 Revisited, Blood on the Tracks and Blonde on Blonde. It still blows me away to hear the young Dylan, finding his song writing feet near the start of a career that now expands into six decades.
Audio quality on my favoured vinyl version is what you would expect from 1963, but that in no way detracts from what is a marvellous album, and it sounds far better than today’s overly compressed recordings. The highlight tracks are almost too numerous to mention, but it’s hard to get beyond A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall. This remarkable song is one of many pointers here to how Dylan was on his way to becoming possibly the most respected lyricist of his, and the next few generations.
Johnny Cash – American Recordings
I always loved Johnny Cash, but as a kind of guilty pleasure. In among my Smiths and Pixies albums always sat a copy of At San Quentin. He was far from cool and acceptable, but I loved it. Then American Recordings came out in 1994 and it seemed like I had been right all along! People praised not only this amazing Rick Rubin helmed colleciton, but started reappraising the Cash back catalogue as well. I doubt if the movie Walk The Line would have happened if it wasn’t for this album.
It may just be a man and his guitar, but it sounds full and sonorous throughout, with real audio texture. The following ‘American’ albums may have had a few tracks that were individually better, but none of them hold together as well this first one.
Those are my favourite acoustic albums, but I’m sure I’ve missed out some others. Let me know what would make your hit list of acoustic recordings.