Listening #21 Page 2

Stereophile's readers don't all enjoy pop music, of course—but I think it's safe to say you all have at least some interest in home audio gear. So then, I'll play it safe and apply the same sort of thinking to...

The ten greatest amplifiers ever made
1) Naim NAP250
2) Fi 2A3
3) Conrad-Johnson Premier One
4) EAR 509
5) Audio Note Ongaku
6) Rankin Baby Ongaku
7) Quad II
8) Krell KSA-50
10) Lamm ML2.1

What I mean by greatest is a product that sounds wonderful, is well made, and has an influence, one way or another, on the rest of the industry. What I mean by ever made is, quite simply, an amplifier that I've heard more than once.

The Naim NAP250 holds the longevity record: It's probably at the heart of more English music-lovers' systems than any other amp. Fi's direct-coupled 2A3 (footnote 1) set the bar for very-low-power single-ended triodes, and its maker deserves praise for not pushing the price envelope in the manner of his more cynical competitors. C-J's Premier One was the first real superamp in the tube sector, its lack of rhythmic tautness made up for by uncommonly convincing spatial performance.

The EAR 509 proved that amps that sound sweet can also play tunes, and the Audio Note Ongaku added a near-terrifying level of purity and directness to that same mix. (Terrifying price, too.) Wavelength's Gordon Rankin has designed some of the world's finest amps, but my favorite is a design he gave away to readers of Sound Practices magazine: a capacitor-coupled 2A3 amp built around Magnequest's silver trannies. (It was, in fact, Magnequest's Mike LeFevre who built the pair I tried.)

The Quad II has a longevity record of its own: No amplifier has embarrassed it. Ever. In the mid-1980s the KSA-50 was perhaps the best all-arounder you could buy, and it remains my favorite Krell. Apart from sounding brilliant, the DNM PA3ΔS seems likely to influence other designers for at least the next half century. And the Lamm ML2.1 is simply the best amplifier with which I'm presently familiar.

I've heard a Halcro only once (lovely, though), so I can't really comment on that. The Ampzilla was never my cup of tea. Neither was the Dyna Stereo 70 nor the similar-sounding Audio Research D79, remarkable though they were in certain ways. And Mark Levinson amps are like Kinks albums: They confound list junkies, because there've been so many good ones that it's virtually impossible to select only one.

I had a lot of fun writing all that, and some of it may even be true. But this sort of list is to rhetoric as 'Nilla Wafers are to cuisine: road food. Which is to say, while useful and briefly entertaining, it has its limits. For an approach that generates as much light as heat, one must turn to a master.

The listener as artist
The most remarkable thing about Songbook, Nick Hornby's recent collection of essays on great pop music (Riverhead Books, New York, 2003), is the extent to which the writing mirrors the subject: To experience either is to gain more knowledge about oneself than any work so brief or so enjoyable would seem capable of giving, arguably because Hornby's essays are not as much about music as they are about listening.

Songbook is an annotated list of 31 songs that Hornby happens to love, and, as he suggested in his 1995 novel, High Fidelity—itself a rambling annotation spun from its protagonist's own obsessive list-making—popular music is so thoroughly intertwined with Hornby's life that the latter is unthinkable without the former. Hornby is a dedicated listener, in other words; he's not just a bloke who hears music and declares it pleasant, but one who decorates his cell with music in a manner that the music-makers themselves might not understand.

Thus, over the course of Songbook's 200-odd pages, we have Ani DiFranco rubbing elbows with Led Zeppelin, Soulwax, Jackson Browne, Paul Westerberg—artists who not only create wildly different kinds of music, but who almost certainly wouldn't appreciate each other's work. In fact, in interviews granted to Rolling Stone, Melody Maker, and the like, more than one of the 30 other people on the list have trashed Led Zeppelin—as has Elvis Costello, an oft-cited Hornby fave who didn't make the list—and while I don't know for sure, I can well imagine what Paul Westerberg, the onetime frontman of the Replacements, really thinks of Jackson Browne's "Take It Easy."

But while an artist is often condemned to a limited point of view—I wouldn't have wanted Joey Ramone to have a soft spot for Broadway show tunes—it's a good listener's responsibility to make sense of everything: to synthesize and come away from the experience knowing more, not less, about the world (footnote 2). In that sense, being a good listener is more like being a conductor than a composer. (At the beginning of his career, Arturo Toscanini studied composition—until he heard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, at which point he gave up writing his own music and dedicated himself to interpreting the music of others.)

Now go back to that list of amplifiers and ask yourself: Could any of those designers really appreciate the other products on the list? The answer is no, because that isn't their job. But it is ours, because we're listeners.

And think: Just as an artist can change the way we look at this or that part of our lives, so, too, can a good and convincing listener change another listener's way of experiencing that art, especially by getting people to broaden their horizons somewhat. Hornby's essay on Ian Dury's "Reasons to be Cheerful" made me hear that song anew—as something more than just a likable novelty. And his chapter on Jackson Browne made me stop and reconsider that artist, too: Yes, on the one hand, my erstwhile disdain for "Late for the Sky" came from being fed up with introspection, overslick California session players, and bland chord progressions that rely overmuch on banging back and forth between the tonic and the suspended fourth. But more than that: I also thought Browne was irredeemably uncool. Hornby, above all other rock writers (footnote 3), manages to put all concern for cool in its proper perspective: Fun's fun, but don't let that baby go down the drain, old Art Dudley. Or, as Hornby puts it, "You're either for music or you're against it, and being for it means embracing anyone who's good."

None of the songs on Hornby's list are older than 40, and if I didn't know better—which is to say, if I didn't already trust the author's candor and intellectual honesty, from having read a few of his earlier books—I'd swear some of the selections betrayed a bit of self-consciousness, or what the paleocons still titillate each other by calling political correctness. Never mind that. To a large extent, the songs and the artists themselves are irrelevant, as the author himself seems to declare—as when Hornby sets up Costello and the Clash as icons, then proceeds to ignore their output.

Songbook isn't that kind of list. Hornby hasn't set out to infuriate you or pat you on the back or provide conversation starters to patrons of trendy fern bars—or to me and my fellow travelers, for that matter. He just means to make us listen a little better.

Okay: just one more before I go, please—but a nice one. A non-snobby one. Here are my choices for...

Twelve huge pop albums that everybody—critics, record buyers, radio programmers—got right
1) The Rolling Stones: Sticky Fingers
2) The Beatles: Revolver
3) Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Southern Accents
4) Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited
5) Joni Mitchell: Ladies of the Canyon
6) Radiohead: The Bends
7) Jimi Hendrix Experience: Are You Experienced?
8) Crosby, Stills & Nash: Crosby, Stills & Nash
9) Stevie Wonder: Innervisions
10) Roxy Music: Avalon
11) Neil Young: Harvest
12) Nirvana: Nevermind

...and I'm sure there are a dozen more. Or at least ten.

Incidentally, the best meal I ever had was the duck at L'Autre Saison in Montreal, the most consistently good songwriter is Andy Partridge, and the most overrated film director is a tossup between John Sayles and Jane Campion.

Footnote 1: Don't get hung up on the name: The amp sounds magnificent with 45 tubes, as well—although that requires a different rectifier tube.

Footnote 2: Contrast this with the critic's job, which is to rend and split and drive away all sense. And consider: For every Eduard Hanslick, the Brahms confidant who made a career out of loathing Wagner, there is a George Bernard Shaw, who dismissed Brahms's music as having no more artistic consequence than "reflections seen in a shop-window"—and so it goes.

Footnote 3: The only person I know of who writes about pop music with greater candor than Nick Hornby is the aforementioned Martin Newell, the latter usually in the liner notes to his own records. From his notes to his song "Mad March Hare": "Hares were boxing in the fields and I came over all poetic. Pathetic really. A couple of pints and a shag would have done me more good."