site banner

Friday Fun Thread for March 29, 2024

Be advised: this thread is not for serious in-depth discussion of weighty topics (we have a link for that), this thread is not for anything Culture War related. This thread is for Fun. You got jokes? Share 'em. You got silly questions? Ask 'em.

Jump in the discussion.

No email address required.

Over a year ago, I started a project where I gave a ranked countdown of all the albums of the 4000+ I’ve spent the last decade scrupulously evaluating. 186–102 are complete, but at that point a took along break. Basically, what happened was that the market for oil and gas work was getting inconsistent and I was finding myself with a lot more free time on my hands than I would have preferred, so I quit being self-employed and joined a litigation firm that requires me to actually show up to an office and bill hours. The engagement on my weekly updates was getting progressively lower, which discouraged me from spending my much-reduced free time on the project. Now that I’ve settled in, it’s time to finish the damn thing. So here’s the next installment.

101. Steely Dan — Gaucho (1980) The final Steely Dan album from their initial run doesn’t get as much critical acclaim as the others. The recording sessions were plagued by misfortune: Walter Backer had developed a heroin addiction, and then was hospitalized in a car accident that left him bedridden in the hospital. Becker’s girlfriend tragically died. A recording assistant managed to erase the tapes of what would have been the best song on the album. The duo’s notorious perfectionism was getting out of hand; Babylon Sisters, for example went through over 200 mixes before they were satisfied. They spent $150,000 for their engineer, Roger Nichols, to develop a primitive drum machine that would let them move samples around on tape. Critics said the album sounded tired, defeated, soulless, sterile, perfectionist to the point where the life was drained out.

The critics have somewhat of a point, but I think the perfectionism was worth it. I’m not too keen on the quantized drums, but the album has a silky, seductive feel. Bernard Purdie’s shuffling drums on the aforementioned Babylon Sisters are only one reason why it’s the best song ever written about a past-his-prime loser having a three-way with a couple of whores. And from there cue the usual Steely Dan parade of losers, outcasts, and addicts. It’s a dark album for sure, but the title cut (about a gay catfight) provides a bit of levity, as does the bluesy film noir of My Rival.

100. The Decemberists — Castaways and Cutouts (2002) The rock music scene in 2002 was rather grim. It was the age of nu-metal. Garage Rock was making a comeback, but there were limitations to how far one could take the genre. The lighter side was dominated by John Mayer-style wuss rock. Even the indie scene was largely dominated by 90s holdovers who established the genre under the presumption that grunge wasn’t, well “grungey” enough. I exaggerate of course, but this album was a breath of fresh air at the time. The production evoked a warmth that hadn’t been heard since the 70s, with acoustic guitars, organs, Rhodes piano, and drums that weren’t compressed to hell and back. The structures were complex. The melodies actually went somewhere. And the lyrics were “literary” in the truest sense of the word, evoking past times and distant lands, with no shortage of whimsy. Future albums would explore these concepts further, with mixed results, but the band never really beat their debut.

99. Joe Walsh — Barnstorm (1972) Joe Walsh spent the early part of his career rocking out in the James Gang, and he would later go on to provide the Eagles with a modicum of rock credibility. But his best work was in his solo albums. He had matured since his days with the James Gang and lent into the Progressive Rock that was popular in Britain at the time without totally betraying his Hard Rock roots. The Eagles ultimately made him more money, but there he was a mere hired hand who would contribute a song here and there but would never have the clout to realize a total artistic vision. If you want that, then this album is the best example. The songs are distinct, yet they flow together in a suite-like manner that completes the effect. The whole is grater than the sum of the parts, but the parts are pretty damn good by themselves.

98. Aphex Twin — Selected Ambient Works 85–92 (1992) In the Classical era, the third movement of a symphony was in a dance form, usually a minuet. But while the form was there, the music itself was not intended for dancing, and it certainly wasn’t expected that the audience would get up from their seats and begin dancing in the middle of the performance. As time went along, the “dances” became so stylized that they were virtually undanceable, there for listening only. Electronica took a similar path. Born in the 1980s underground rave scene, it emerged primarily as music for dancing. With this album, however, IDM, or Intelligent Dance Music, almost emerges fully formed. Its roots are obvious, but it’s music clearly intended for listening, not dancing. The idea of electronic music that wasn’t intended for dancing wasn’t a new one, but older material in that vein was either clearly outside the scope of the club scene (Milton Babbitt, Brian Eno, Jean Michel Jarre, Vangelis, Wendy Carlos, etc.) or was Ambient music meant for chilling out. The title notwithstanding, this album wasn’t intended as mere background music or accompaniment to a drug experience, but as something worth listening to on its own. Over the course of a tranquil hour and fifteen minutes, MR. Richard D. James presents us with a series of subtly changing electronic pieces that retain the rhythms of what would be considered dance music but also contain a complexity that rewards close listening. This album took Electronica out of the dance club and into the living room, making it something for ravers and nerds alike.

97. Black Sabbath — Paranoid (1970) There’s some discussion among music junkies whether Metal is a subgenre of Rock or its own thing, the way Rock is distinct from Blues. While I’m inclined towards the former argument, the existence of Black Sabbath is the best evidence in support of the latter. When discussing the origins of metal, a number of bands — Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, The Jeff Beck Group, Iron Butterfly, etc. — come up in the discussion. But Black Sabbath stands out above the pack. The Hard Rock scene in the early 1970s was just that, Rock with more distortion. It was loud, for sure, but if there’s one differentiating factor between the Hard Rock of the 1970s and the metal of the 1980s and beyond, it’s the latter’s disposal with most of the traditional Rock and Roll elements, particularly the reliance on blues structures and any tendency to swing the rhythm. As much as Led Zeppelin was revered, they were always a Blues band at heart, and the others on the list even more so. I am of the opinion that one of the distinguishing factors between good Rock music and bad Rock music is that good rock music always retains at least some blues feel; it can move into the background but should never been absent entirely. While later generations of Metal musicians would strip as much of the Blues out of the music as they could without rendering it unrecognizable as metal, Black Sabbath understood this clearly, and while they were able to avoid the obvious Blues inflections of their Hard Rock contemporaries, they never succumbed to outright abolition. Instead, they gave the spotlight to the other structural elements that make Metal what it is and let the Blues simmer in the background. They first achieved this on their self-titled debut, but this is where the style would reach its apotheosis. Three of the cuts (“War Pigs”, “Iron Man”, and the title track) are radio classics, and the rest is on the same level, particularly the closing “Jack the Stripper/Fairies Wear Boots”. On future albums Black Sabbath would reach similar heights, but by wisely varying the formula rather than simply reiterating it. This was the height of the original style, and I don’t think Metal got any better after this.

96. Tangerine Dream — Phaedra (1974) This album is the inverse of the Aphex Twin album. While Aphex Twin took electronic club music and turned it into something that was worth listening closely to, Tangerine Dream made electronic music expressly for the purpose of close listening and almost inadvertently made it something worth dancing to. It’s IDM BC, provided you keep in mind that not only is it totally undanceable but also that it was never intended to have the effect that it did. Tangerine Dream were a trio who came out of the German Avant Garde scene who had been making experimental electronic music since 1969. While early synthesizer promotors such as Wendy Carlos were trying to adapt the instrument to existing forms, and plenty of Rock bands were treating the instruments like pianos and other keyboards, Tangerine Dream was more interested in exploring the full potential of the instrument. You can play Bach on a synthesizer, sure, but you can also play him on a harpsichord. What can you do with a synthesizer that can’t be done with anything else? A lot of groups would spend the next several decades trying to answer this question, but the development of the sequencer would change the game for Tangerine Dream. Put simply, a sequencer is a kind of synthesizer computer; it allows you to program a sequence of notes that will repeat. It’s the foundation of EDM today. Had Tangerine Dream simply made the first sequenced album, that would be a fine accomplishment but not necessarily make a five star album. They understood that a repeating sequence of notes was just that, and while it would later prove good enough for dancing, the intention was listening. So the sequences are integrated into a greater whole that stands on its own. They change — sometimes subtly, sometimes wholesale — in a way that moves the music forward as if one were going on a trip. It’s a dark, textured, and haunting album, and one that pairs well with psychedelics, or so I’m told. The ability of this album to repeat a consistent pattern and build on it would be influential in the development of Electronica, but his album is so much more than that.

95. The Who — Live at Leeds (1970) One of my pet peeves with the modern concert scene is that it usually involves people paying hundreds of dollars to see some well-known mega act and then evaluating the performances based on how close they sound to the record. Well, I can listen to the records at home, and for a lot less money. I want my live performances to offer something that I can’t get from a studio recording. Not all bands are able to consistently reinvent themselves like this, so most live albums end up being superfluous. The Who always had more of an edge than other British Invasion groups, but as the 70s dawned and Hard Rock took center stage heaviness became mandatory; what they had been playing only 5 years before now seemed a tad quaint. The performance of “Substitue” on here rocks harder than anyone could have predicted in 1965. “Magic Bus” had by this point become an extended performance piece. And “My Generation”, perhaps the definitive rock anthem, is extended to fifteen minutes, seemingly integrating every spare riff the band was playing with in that period. But that’s only part of the story. “Shakin’ All Over” and “Summertime Blues” are Hard Rock updates of Rock and Roll classics, bringing to the fore the raw aggression these songs always had buried somewhere in them. And then there’s the centerpiece, a cover of Mose Allison’s jazz tune “Young Man Blues”, which is the aural equivalent of being charged by a rhino with its incessant riffage. This album is a sonic assault in the best sense of the expression, being aggressive but not for its own sake. When I see a band — even a band that I love — has released a 3-CD boxed set of live performances, I often wonder if any 6 songs of the 52 or whatever they included can match the 6 presented here, and I shake my head knowing that the best 6 probably won’t come anywhere close.

94. Led Zeppelin — Led Zeppelin (1969) This is where the legend begins, kids. It’s not Led Zeppelin’s best album (spoiler alert!), but it does answer the question of how far one can push the Blues and still have it be the Blues. Pretty damn far. I don’t really have much to say about this one other than that it set the stage for pretty much the entire hard rock style. It isn’t as diverse as their later work, being mostly a Blues Rock album in the style of the Jeff Beck Group, but the 1-2 punch of “You’re Time Is Gonna Come / Black Mountain Side” preview their more sophisticated Rock songwriting and folk tendencies, respectively.

93. Bob Dylan — Blood on the Tracks (1975) Bob Dylan is at least partly responsible for three revolutions in Rock music. First was the expansion of lyrical themes from typical teenage concerns first to political and social commentary and then to oblique, symbolic poetry. Second was the expansion of song structures from verse-chorus arrangements to something more malleable and expansive. Third, he helped impart the idea that a serious musician writes his own material rather than relying on that of outside songwriters. By the 1970s, this revolution had spawned the Singer-Songwriter, an ostensible mini-Dylan who wrote and performed his own Folk-influenced songs about adult concerns. Dylan himself, however, never really fit into this mold, as the Singer-Songwriters sang mostly about personal matters while Dylan was anything but personal. That changed in 1975. Fresh off a divorce, Dylan finally embraced the style he helped developed and wore his heart on his sleeve for one album, letting out the anger, frustration, and other emotions out into the open.

92. The Allman Brothers Band — Brothers and Sisters (1973) Just as the Allman Brothers seemed to reach their height, everything came crashing down. Duane Allman, the band’s heart and soul, was killed in a motorcycle accident in October 1971. Only a year later, bassist Berry Oakley was himself killed in a motorcycle accident only three blocks from where Duane met his demise. Given the circumstances, it wouldn’t have been surprising if the band simply packed it in. Instead, they replaced Oakley with Lamar Williams and added Chuck Leavell as a second keyboardist and went on to record the best album of their career. While the track lengths aren’t any shorter than their previous work, the songs as a whole seem tighter, with less of the jam tendencies of the early material. It seems almost unfathomable that three of the band’s best-known songs, “Wasted Words”, “Ramblin’ Man”, and “Jessica”, would come from an album without Duane. Much of the credit goes to guitarist Dickey Betts, who took over much of the songwriting duties and direction in a band that was ostensible democratic. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t last. The band’s next album was widely regarded as a disappointment and would lead to their breakup. They’d reunite several times over the years, and while they put on good live shows, they’d never add anything to their repertoire that was even close to being on par with this album.

91. Lynyrd Skynyrd — Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd (1973) The Allman Brothers may have invented Southern Rock, but it was Lynyrd Skynyrd who consolidated it into a distinct genre. While the Allmans were essentially a Blues band that owed more debt than usual to Soul, Country, and Rock music, Skynyrd was essentially a Hard Rock band that owed more debt than usual to the same “Southern” genres the Allmans were into. The result was a baseline that other bands could take as inspiration and vary from; if the Allman Brothers were the progenitors, Lynyrd Skynyrd were the definers. Take the Skynyrd base with more of an emphasis toward Country and you have The Marshall Tucker Band. Emphasize Soul and you have Wet Willie. Emphasize Hard Rock and you have Molly Hatchet. Emphasize pop and you have Atlanta Rhythm Section. Etc. If someone wants to know what Southern Rock sounds like and you only have 45 minutes, playing this album will give them as good of an idea as any playlist you could come up with.

90. Fleetwood Mac — Rumours (1977) Evaluating the mega albums is always problematic. On the one hand are normies who say it’s one of the best albums ever because, we suspect, that’s what they think they’re supposed to do (Thriller being the most egregious example of this, though I think A Night at the Opera may eventually overtake it). On the other hand, there are the contrarians saying that this album sucks because popularity does not equal quality, blah blah blah. One thing I’ve learned about evaluating art is that in order to give it a fair shake you have to forget about every prejudice you have about it and listen with fresh ears. I don’t want to get into a whole essay about how cultural expectations influence our perception of cultural artifacts themselves, but I don’t think its controversial to suggest that the rubric by which we evaluate art is defined by how we perceive ourselves. Something as simple as being young may bias us against music for “happy hour at the old folks home”, whereas the serious, sophisticated listener may be instinctively put off by music he perceives as being marketed towards teenage girls.

Much has been made about the personal tensions that were underway when this album was being recorded, but less has been said about the creative tension that was inherent to this edition of Fleetwood Mac. They started as a Blues band in the 1969s, led by Peter Green, but Green went nuts and they spent the first half of the 1970s rebranding as an average to above-average Pop/Rock band. Constantly adrift, they recruited Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks solely on the basis of the album the duo made together, and Buckingham agreed only on the condition that he be given an inordinate amount of creative influence for a new member. This actually turned out to be a good idea, as he was easily the most creative member of the new lineup. Creativity is, of course, a double-edged sword, as there’s also an inherent weirdness baked into most creative people. Luckily, these tendencies were balanced out by Nicks, who was much more conventional, if less daring, and Christine McVie. Buckingham was always in charge of the arrangements though, so nothing escaped Buckingham’s influence. The results speak for themselves. It wasn’t a massive hit because it appealed to the lowest common denominator, but because it knew how to appeal to the lowest common denominator while still being sophisticated enough to stand on its own two legs. Fleetwood Mac’s future albums would be beset by various problems to which there was no obvious solution (I also give Tusk 5 stars, but I admit that Buckingham kind of went off the rails here and he lost influence because of it), but this is the one place where it all clicked.

89. The Eagles — Hotel California (1976) Sticking with the mega albums, here’s another doozy. When Rock documentaries get to the punk years, this album is almost always cited as the reason Punk had to happen. It’s emblematic of the general decline the second generation of Rock artists foisted upon the genre. The initial youthful drive of Chuck Berry, the Stones, and the Who had been replaced with sanded schlock meant to appeal to California housewives, not pissed off teenagers. Rock stars weren’t outcasts from society, but multi-millionaires with comfortable lives, making music for young professionals with comfortable lives. The idealism of the 60s had been replaced with the materialism of the 70s; the hippies were well on their way to becoming yuppies (not that the Punks had any love for hippies or idealism, but I digress). I’m not going to argue that any of this isn’t true. I am going to argue that art isn’t subservient to ethos. This is especially true for music, which is, by its nature, and abstract form. Dylan went through the same thing in the 60s, when the Folk community cast him out as a Judas figure, first for refusing to commit himself to validating their politics, then for daring to go electric, thereby completing the betrayal by abandoning folk altogether for the siren song of the dreaded “Pop music”. While I can’t say that these days people have forgotten about that, as it’s an essential part of Rock mythology, I’m unaware of anyone today who seriously thinks the world would have been better off if Dylan had kept making solo acoustic albums about politics, Folk fans included.

The upshot is that the Eagles aren’t cool, a sentiment that’s best exemplified by the scene in the Big Lebowski where The Dude is kicked out of the cab for daring to say that he hates the fucking Eagles. The Dude, original author of the Port Huron Statement, member of the Seattle 7, consummate 60s radical and aging hippie don’t give a fuck extraordinaire — of course he hates the Eagles. I feel like the context of the joke is largely lost on the generation who embraced that film (that is to say, my generation), but the point is well taken. The question is whether there’s anything about the music itself that’s lacking, and there isn’t. Some things are popular for a reason.

88. Cream — Disraeli Gears (1967) It never really occurred to me until now how closely cream parallels The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Power trios that include guitar gods, fundamentally based in the blues but who added psychedelic touches and would set the stage for hard rock and jam bands. The most prominent difference is that Cream was more directly rooted in the British blues scene and would never embrace the all-out freakery that Hendrix would, though they did more closely presage jam bands. Other than that, I don’t have much to say. I’ve listened to this album so many times its become embedded in my DNA at this point, and asking for my opinion on it is like asking for my opinion on breathing. I’ll be happy to field any questions or address any criticisms on the off chance that someone else is as familiar with this as I am.

87. Grateful Dead — Workingman’s Dead (1970) Speaking of jam bands, the Dead is probably the jam band par excellence. But that has nothing to do with this record. Speaking of psychedelic music, the Dead is probably one of the most oft-cited examples of a San Francisco psychedelic band. But that has nothing to do with this album. The secret is, that, at their best, the Dead were a roots-rock band, and their best work was when they kept this in mind. I don’t want to say too much at this point because the Dead have a complicated legacy and can be difficult to talk about like one talks about other bands. That’s the minefield I’m entering that I didn’t much have to worry about earlier — when you’re discussing obscure bands no one has any preconceptions about them, and it’s not a hot take to list one at number 139. Hell, at a certain point I’ll probably have to start posting this in the Culture War thread. But the point is that, for all the bullshit that’s wrapped up with the Grateful Dead, there is nothing on this album that should turn off anyone who is already predisposed to like roots-rock in general. Most of the songs are acoustic-driven, if not entirely acoustic, and evoke a nice, laid-back atmosphere. Perfect for listening to on a quiet Saturday afternoon.

86. Deep Purple — Machine Head (1972) No, It’s not metal, but it’s hard rock at its finest. It’s got “Highway Star”. It’s got “Space Truckin’” It’s got a bunch of lesser-known songs that are just as good. And it’s also got that other song, the one I need not mention. The one that’s right up there with “Pinball Wizard” and “Stairway to Heaven” as one of the most recognizable songs of all time, the band’s business card, their definitive symbol, the riff that become synonymous with the entire concept of the electric guitar. Yup, that song.

Q- should I bother with FLAC

Yes, why not? It's higher quality than mp3 and disk space is cheap.

But what does /u/Rov_Scam think?

Sorry for the delayed reply — it's a holiday weekend and I've been spending time with my family. To answer your question, the short answer is what @sarker said. The longer answer is, as with a lot of things, it depends. I personally try to use flac whenever possible, though a large part of my collection is mp3 I got before I decided to switch over everything circa 2014, and I just haven't updated it yet. But, and this is a big but, I also do most of my listening on one of two serious stereos I own or a pair of over-the-ear headphones which are top of the line for wireless ones. So keep that in mind.

So it depends on what your starting point is and what you expect to gain. High quality lossy formats are virtually indistinguishable from lossless formats. Subtractive testing has shown that very little audible material is lost in 320 kbps mp3 as compared to flac. That being said, different program material responds differently to compression; a solo acoustic guitar piece is going to be much easier to compress than a symphony. So I keep mine in flac not because there's an obvious audible difference, but because there might be and audible difference and I'm not going to A/B every single file to save a little bit of hard drive space. But I'm also listening on a relatively high-end system; any differences are going to be less audible on less transparent hardware. If you're system consists of a pair of airpods, a Bose lifestyle system, and a portable bluetooth speaker, and you don't have any expectation of ever upgrading, then the chances of there ever being an audible difference is going to be much lower.

Another consideration is the current makeup of your collection. I've spent a decade making the transition to flac, but my collection contains nearly 100,000 files and I'm very particular about tagging and artwork so making the changeover is going to be harder for me than for someone with 10,000 files who's satisfied with autotagging. Do you currently rely on a streaming service? If you're happy with streaming then it would probably make more sense to switch to a hi-res platform like Tidal than to start a collection from scratch. If you're looking to get off of streaming and starting from scratch or close to it, then flac makes sense if space isn't a concern. Is space a concern? Mp3s first came to prominence in an era when a 20 gb hard drive was considered large, and continued to make sense for large collections even as average sizes were in the hundreds of gb. But now that you can get a 5 tb hard drive for like 150 bucks, there's no reason to worry about space.

Unless, of course, you intend to keep your entire collection on your phone, in which case file size still is a concern, and you may want to consider a lossy format, though mp3 is outdated at this point and there are better options on the market, though since I switched to lossless I'm not hip to the exact details. I personally listen to music on my phone, especially when I'm at work/hiking/biking/in the car, but I listen to entire albums compulsively and work from lists I've made, so I just keep a rotating collection of 20-30 albums on my phone from what's next on the list. So to conclude, it depends. If you give me more detail on your setup, plans for the future, and listening habits, I may be able to give you a more definitive answer, but I hope that's enough to get you started.

Now, this isn't what you asked, but since you're obviously interested in sound quality, I'd be remiss if I didn't include it. Bitrate and compression are only part of the equation. Different masterings of an album will have much more of an impact on the sound of a recording than the file format. For instance, a record released in the 1971 may have several vinyl pressings from various territories. Then, with the advent of the CD in the 1980s, there are US, Japanese, UK, and European editions, all of which sound quite different from the others. Then there was a "Remastered Version" from 1995 with a few bonus tracks with the same mastering used for each territory, and then a 2 CD "Deluxe Edition" from 2012 with yet another mastering followed by a single CD edition from 2015 which doesn't have any bonus tracks but uses the 2012 mastering. And there's also an audiophile gold CD from Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab or DCC from 2001, and an audiophile vinyl edition from 2009. Whether you're getting your music from legitimate sources or the high seas, the easiest one to find is usually going to be whatever mass-market edition is currently in print (and it will often be the only one that is legitimately available for download or streaming), and this will usually not be the edition with the best sound quality, given the casualties of the loudness wars and tendency towards noise reduction and questionable EQ choices.

So finding the best sounding version of a record isn't always a straightforward process (though relatively new music will only have one mastering). It often requires perusing online forums to find the internet consensus, and I may even download multiple versions of an album before settling on the best one. As I alluded to above, this is more of a problem for older material that's been reissued numerous times, and that was recorded in the analog days when recording wasn't always great and when original master tapes weren't always used for CD reissues. I can provide more information about this aspect if you're interested, up to and including my own personal recommendations, but for now I at least wanted to make you aware of it. Again, sorry for the delay but I wanted to give you a complete answer rather than a pithy yes or no.

Amazing write-up. I’m collecting FLAC, but sometimes wonder if it is worth it (especially on private trackers where it might count excessively against an upload ratio).

I’m interested in hearing more about remasters. The only time I would probably encounter this would be on - I only know what is available and seldom hunt down specific editions unless there are bonus tracks etc.

As far as my setup goes, it’s been random budget audiophile picks in 2.1 setup doubling as a home theater. I probably would not go above $500 in any situation, I just haven’t heard good enough speakers to justify the spend.

If you're on a private tracker it's a different story. I haven't been on a private tracker since the days of, and I haven't felt the need to get on one since you can find pretty much anything on Soulseek or rutracker (though if you've got an invite I won't turn it down). As for your system, that's enough for it to be worth the difference in quality. Generally, if you have a "real stereo" that has a separate receiver and speakers you're there. If you've done any research into your purchases then you're probably chasing rainbows if you spend more than a few thousand on a system. For full disclosure, my system consists of a few hand-selected pieces I bought used about a decade ago and I spent less than a grand on it if you exclude the amount I spent on stuff for vinyl.

As for remasters, the rules of thumb are that audiophile remasters by record companies like Mobile Fidelity, DCC, Audio Fidelity, and Analogue Productions are probably going to be the best, though some of the earlier MoFi stuff may be questionable (though not bad, just not the best). SACD releases are usually good, with a few exceptions, but it's all because of the mastering, not the bogus "hi-res" designation. For records that were originally released between the mid 70s and the mid 90s, the first CD edition is usually the best. This was the era when most of the questionable recording practices from years prior had been dispensed with and before the loudness wars started. If the record was originally released before the mid 70s, then the quality of the source tapes used comes into play in a much bigger way. Early releases may have used inferior tapes, and later releases may have been casualties of no-noise and the loudness wars. For newer stuff the options are limited, and there is often only one mastering available, and if there is more than one it is either an audiophile release or isn't any different in quality than the original CD. There are exceptions, of course, and the best course of action is usually to search the Steve Hoffman forums for the consensus on what the best release is, just be forewarned that if Steve mastered any of those albums then that version will always be the consensus best version, though not without reason (he has a very warm style of mastering that I absolutely love, but he can be a bit smug about his abilities and there's some backlash online). If you're wondering about any releases from the classic rock canon, DM me and I can tell you, or just give you my Soulseek handle so you can look me up and grab it yourself.

especially on private trackers where it might count excessively against an upload ratio

You're downloading more, but you are also seeding more, right?

Hard to compete with other seeders, if I could upload a FLAC of some new release and seed it would grant me many more MP3 rips. Maybe I should finally invest in a proper seedbox.