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Published on March 25th, 2012 | by Alan Cross

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10 of the Worst-Sounding CDs of All Time

When the compact disc was revealed to the world in late 1982, we were promised perfect sound forever. Not quite.

In fact, we often found that once we finally got the CD out of the longbox (remember those?) and slid them into our shiny new players, the “perfect sound” we were promised wasn’t there.  In a rush to transfer old analogue master tapes to digital discs, few labels bothered to correct the original errors and shortcomings. What we got was perfect digital representations of the things that made the vinyl sound so lousy in the first place.

I was burned plenty of times–and in an era when CDs cost $22.99 and up, this kind of shoddiness was totally inexcusable.

These substandard CD tranfers have long since been fixed in subsequent re-issues–well, most of them–but here are ten instances of original CD releases that I will never forget or forgive.  (Keep in mind that I’m not judging the quality of the music.  My issue is with the sonic quality of the CD.)

1.  Elvis Costello, My Aim Is True (1977)

Yes, it was recorded at the shoddy eight-track Pathway Studios in London in 1976 and 1977, but there was no excuse for issuing it on CD with that much tape hiss.  The opening bars of “Alison” are almost drowned out by the SSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS of the crappy tape machine.  I don’t think I own a CD with a worse signal-to-noise ratio. Unless you want to talk about…

2.  Jethro Tull, Aqualung (1971)

Why the original vinyl was mastered at such low levels is beyond me.  And when they made the transfer to CD, did they think fans would forgive the band for allowing the opening section of the title track to be almost completely subsumed by tape hiss? 

3.  Meat Loaf, Bat Out of Hell (1977)

The studio where this album was recorded–Bearsville in Woodstock, New York–cannot be faulted.  For some reason, producer Todd Rundgren decided to crank up the compression and smoosh the stereo image for many of the songs.  What we got was a CD that sounded like an AM radio.  Maybe that was the point, but if it was, it was stupid.

4.  The Rocky Horror Picture Show Soundtrack (1975)

Produced by Richard Hartley (RHPS creator Richard O’Brien’s cohort), this original cast recording has almost nothing going for it when it comes to proper fidelity.  “Science Fiction/Double Feature,” probably the best-sounding song of the lot, sounds thin and weak.  The rest of the soundtrack features overemphasis in the midrange which brings on listener fatigue far too soon.  Worst example?  “Time Warp.”  Atrocious audio.

5.  Queen, Queen II (1974)

I don’t recall being terribly upset by the original vinyl, but I was shocked at how bad the original CD issue sounded.  Hiss, too much compression, unweildy stereo imaging.  A mess.

6.  Neil Young, Harvest (1972)

Beautiful songs marred by tape hiss and extraneous noise.  The again, all the electric songs on the album were recorded in the barn at Neil’s ranch in California…

7.  Oasis, Be Here Now (1997)

Even Noel Gallagher admits that this album is a sonic mess.  He blames cocaine.  “When you’re on gak, everything sounds mega, everything sound great!” he told me, “So it’s ‘More guitars!  More overdubs! Bigger!  Louder!  Fatter!’  And it doesn’t help that cocaine dulls your ears ability to hear high frequencies, so I just turned it all up to compensate.  Sorry, mate.  I let down the side with this one.”

8.  Red Hot Chili Peppers, Californication (1999)

Here’s where the Loudness Wars begin to get really stupid.  There’s so much compression in the digital mastering of this CD that I hear distortion.  What were they thinking?  No wonder a properly mastered (i.e. less compressed version) has been circulating amongst fans on the Internet.

9.  Rush, Vapor Trails (2002)

Bill as a comeback album for the band after the terrible personal trials suffered by drummer Neil Peart, the record is mastered far, far too loudly.  “[I]t was mastered to high,” admits Alex Lifeson, “and it crackles, and it spits and it just crushes everything. All the dynamics get lost, especially anything that had an acoustic guitar in it.”

10.  Metallica, Death Magnetic (2008)

Totally unlistenable thanks to overcompression.  Clipping, distortion–awful.

Do you have any picks for hideous audio on CD?





About the Author

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker.

In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.


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36 Responses to 10 of the Worst-Sounding CDs of All Time

  1. Shane Smith says:

    Dangerous Toys "Hellacious Acres"
    All high and no lows. The sound quality is so bad that you can't tell the difference between the cassette and CD version. If you into glam metal you should give it a try and try to ignore all the hissing.

  2. Clark says:

    Thank you for including Vapor Trails. I still have a difficult time listening to that disc. Such a disappointing long-awaited release.

  3. Me says:

    My Bloody Valentine – Loveless. Great record though.

  4. Willie says:

    Flaming Lips' "Embyonic" is probably the worst offender in my library. Its loud master is horrendous. I've yet to listen to this album all the way through because I can't get past all that distortion. Why labels and bands go for a master that makes it sound as though your speakers are blown is beyond me.

  5. Doug says:

    To be fair, many of the first CDs were transfers of 2nd or 3rd generation tape masters. Especially bad sounding were / are a lot of Greatest Hits compilations, where masters had been licensed and copies used. As far as I can tell there is no such thing as a decent sounding Sly And The Family Stone CD.

  6. Tyler says:

    And "Be Here Now" was voted as one of the Best Albums of All Time in 1998 or 1999 (forgot which year) in Q Magazine. Silly Brits.

  7. Adam says:

    Yeah, Silly Brits, what do THEY know about music, eh? EH?

    Or it could be one magazine's take on what was a much-anticipated third album from one of the country's greatest bands, which did sell very, very well and fans adored despite the album's compression, but I don't know….

  8. Cam says:

    Pixies' Surfer Rosa wins the award for "Worst sounding album that also features a topless lady on the cover"

    It's a shame since the songs are beyond fantastic.

  9. Ken says:

    I would add to this list the first CD I ever purchased, Unforgettable Fire. Purchased in 1986, and I still have it, i brought it in to Bay Bloor Radio to buy my first CD player. The dude looked at it and said, "wow, you couldn't have chosed a worse CD." And he was right. Sound like the band was under water while they played. Just Awful.

  10. Ian says:

    I'm surprised you mentioned Harvest. I actually thought the original cd didn't sound bad at all. I do have the remaster, and the remaster does sound better, but I didn't think original sounded bad.

    I would add Icky Thump to the list. You cannot turn it up at all. It sounds terrible. It's surprising too, because Jack White is really into sound quality, but a lot of his cds sound terrible.

  11. Mark A. says:

    Loveless sounds bad, yet is a great record? That comment doesn't make any sense to me. The muddy sound is what makes the album for me. I'm not sure what else it's supposed to be.

    Oh well, there's a remaster coming out in May which may appeal to you then.

    I'm actually drawing a blank on recalling poorly-mastered albums. But related, She Sells Sanctuary sounds great on whatever version of Love I have, and the Pure Cult compilation. For some reason though, the tape hiss is insanely loud on the Pure Cult DVD.

  12. Steph D says:

    At the opposite end of the spectrum of all these albums that were mastered way too loud, is one of my biggest pet peeve albums: Collective Soul's Hints, Allegations and Things Left Unsaid.

    The whole album seems like it was recorded at half-volume of any other CD I own. My first CD player was a 5-disc turntable, and putting that album in a random set meant constantly fiddling with the volume control. Really unfortunate too, because there are some great acoustic-based songs that feel empty when needing to be cranked up (amplifying the accompanying hiss with it).

  13. sammy smith says:

    The original cd releases of the first three Ramones albums sound like your speakers are in a tin can

  14. Greg Uebele says:

    "once we finally got the CD out of the longbox (remember those?)"

    We didn't have CD longboxes in Canada. The first time I saw them was when I saw footage of people buying Metallica's "Black Album" and I was very confused as to what they were.

  15. Kevin says:

    We had longboxes in Canada (I still remember my copy of Bryan Adams' "Into the Fire" and its longbox). But they were gone by 1988 or so.

  16. Greg Uebele says:

    Ah, ok. I didn't get my first CD player until June of '89.

  17. Brent Chittenden says:

    Death Magnetic is another one where there's a fan version floating around that was ripped from the full album tracks for Guitar Hero.

  18. Jamie says:

    If you hate tape hiss, avoid the original CD issue of Kraftwerk – Radio-Activity. That said, I really like the ambiance that it creates for the album.

    Also, the 40th Anniversary Edition of Aqualung has absolutely none of the problems found on previous versions.

    Cam: You really think Surfer Rosa sounds bad? Really?! It must suck to have your ears.

  19. Lindsay says:

    The 1983 Snow Goose sounds a bit dodgy to me. Maybe it is meant! Camel of course being the artist.

  20. Billy says:

    The 2011 twentieth anniversary ‘remaster’ of Nevermind. The loud-quiet dynamics are totally gone and it’s just loudness all the way through.

    I’ve only listened to Stadium Arcadium once. At the time I bought it I had never heard of the ‘loudness wars’ but I knew there was something not right about it. I didn’t consciously notice the music sounding distorted or clipped or anything, but it left me feeling fatigued. It’s uncomfortable to listen to. I actually remember the feeling of discomfort more than I remember any of the songs.

  21. klockwerk1 says:

    In reference to Jethro Tull, Aqualung (1971), Meat Loaf, Bat Out of Hell (1977), and Neil Young, Harvest (1972), I gotta wonder if you were even alive at the time, or part of some alternate reality.

  22. Ben says:

    Some labels seemed to do better with their first-generation CD issues than others; I found that the earlier CBS/Sony releases were often thin, muddy-sounding messes. It also bugged me how the Canadian releases replaced the back cover art/design with generic boxes featuring the track titles.

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  26. mikeladano says:

    I trusted Alex to kill it with Vapor Trails. Only took them a remix album to finally get it right.

  27. MICHAEL LYNCH says:

    Original Magical Mystery Tour by The Beatles, all over the place sonically.
    Duke – Genesis, someone reckoned the engineer just did a KTel flat master.
    Friendly Fires, so loud it’s distorting.

    • Andrew says:

      Genesis probably held the record for releasing the longest playing times of albums, with 5 albums previous to Duke at over the 50 minutes mark. Duke being the longest at 55 minutes and considering 40 minutes is considered as optimum, therefore, problems may arise. Just turn it up!

  28. Sebastiendg says:

    Not because of hiss or bad master tapes, but the volume the original (Canadian) release of Pink Floyd The Wall on CD is much too low!…

  29. dave davis says:

    the TROLLS soundtrack

    my neighbor asked me if i could fix the scratches their kid put on the disc. after i loaded it up in my computer to check for any skips in the files. i couldn’t believe how shitty is sounded. the only way i can describe it, is that it sounds so compressed that i can actually hear where, well, it sounds like it’s trying to catch it’s breath. like how the hell can anyone listen to music like that is beyond me. it sounds awful!

  30. Joe Crofts says:

    The 20th Anniversary remaster of Pantera’s Cowboys from Hell is especially bad – the treble has been cranked up to 11 and the hi-hats sound like rattlesnakes because of it. Here’s a link to the title track: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bBERbwHDVps

  31. Phil says:

    Killers Hot Stuff. Sounds like it was recorded through a headphone jack.

  32. Daryl says:

    Another example of a poor greatest hits release – Trooper – Hot Shots. Low volume, lots of hiss.

  33. Rob says:

    Sometimes the remasters are worse than the original. Now this will make people laugh I’m sure, but I’ve just discovered that the “remastering” on Aqua’s Greatest Hits “remastered” album is “dump a load of compression on it so you can imagine you’re listening to it on the radio in the 90s”. It’s amazing that they made something originally recorded digitally worse in the remastered version. (I landed on this page while googling to see if anyone else had noticed).

  34. Andrew says:

    I think it might be worth pointing out that it’s not always the CD itself that’s at fault but cheap players and especially those included within personal computers and portables, and hi-fi separates of anything under several hundreds of dollars/pounds/euros.
    A modern day Blu-ray player is better than any of these and may very well improve playback sound quality.

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