Below is a list of 52 albums we consider essential to own on vinyl due to a variety of factors to include: sound, production, mastering, album artwork, special features, etc.
To create this list we (your friendly Vinyl Me, Please worker bees) collaborated with the fine gents at Vinyl + Cocktails to expand, update and improve a best vinyl albums list they’d posted a while back.
When talking about albums to own on vinyl (a subject we’re all extremely passionate about) one must be careful to distinguish the “vinyl” aspect from simply a best albums list. This is not always as simple an endeavor as it may first seem. Most of the albums on this list would be equally at home on a best albums of all-time list, however we paid special attention to the qualities and characteristics that distinguished them as great vinyl albums.
The perfect list is as elusive an idea yet we love chasing after it…somewhere in the pursuit is a spirit of curation that we think leads to a better relationship with music overall.
This list is by no means exhaustive. We hope that it will create a discussion and you, the reader, will toss in your own picks as well in the comments section below. Enjoy!
To listen to Animal Collective is an experience. The best album to date from the collection of musical safari guides (Avey Tare, Panda Bear, Deakin, & Geologist) is also their most accessible & most uniquely them for those looking to see/hear what all the fuss is about. Said Mark Richardson at the time, “What they’ve constructed here is a new kind of electronic pop–one which is machine-generated and revels in technology but is also deeply human, never drawing too much attention to its digital nature. It’s of the moment and feels new, but it’s also striking in its immediacy and comes across as friendly and welcoming.” A complete album with one of the most recognizable album covers in recent times.
Produced by the Dust Brothers, the Beastie Boys’ sophomore follow-up to Licensed to Ill is arguably their best work and the 20th anniversary pressing of the album is incredibly well done. Triple gatefold with gorgeous album art, combined with a much-improved remastering means you’ll get one of the best hip hop albums ever made, looking and sounding its best.
Q: Why is Revolver the best Beatles album to own on vinyl?
A: Because it’s the best Beatles album period.
The artistic and technical innovation that occurred during the 300 hours of studio time for the Fab Four is as astonishing as it is unmatched, taking place while the band was truly in its prime. After producer George Martin created his own label, the group then had time to develop the album at their own pace without anxious record execs breathing down their necks. “Eleanor Rigby” features a string octet and is very much an example of Paul McCartney’s genius, although each of the members contributed to the lyrics. “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the final song on the album, stands not only as a forerunner to the psychedelic rock movement, but also reveals just how far ahead of the times the Beatles were, using automatic double tracking for Lennon’s vocals, reverse guitar, and multiple looped tape effects. With Revolver, one finds the right band at the right time with everything falling beautifully into place…to not own and know this album on vinyl is nothing short of a musical crime.
One of the greatest breakup albums of all time, Beck’s seventh studio album came on the heels of a split with his fiancée (9-yr relationship) on the eve of his 30th birthday.Produced by Nigel Godrich, Sea Change not only contains some of Beck’s best work (his best complete album in our opinion), but also has a lushness and clarity of sound that truly brings shivers down the spine when listened to on vinyl. Packing the studio with a who’s who of great musicians, the instrumentation has the tightness that can only come about in the flow of veterans applying their craft to a project they feel lucky to be a part of. When holding this album in your hands one feels lucky to be a part of it as well.
One of the biggest draws with a band like Beirut is their ability to create beautiful music with traditional instrumentation (not electric guitars) that you just don’t get in many other places. Zach Condon is an artist who can create an album that incorporates instruments like the trumpet, flugelhorn, ukulele, accordion, cello, melodica, upright bass, trombone, tuba, and glockenspiel without it sounding like circus music. The second album from Beirut was inspired by a turn-of-the-century Parisian balloon festival, with each track tied to a different French city, resulting in a musical masterpiece that will remain a timeless piece in your record collection.
The liner notes of The Black Keys second album casually explain that, “all songs were recorded and mixed december 2002 by patrick carney in akron ohio at studio 45 using his patented recording technique called ‘medium fidelity.’” This might seem like boring technical jargon until one discovers that “medium fidelity” was a tongue-and-cheek reference to the old, junky, and half-borrowed analog recording equipment used to record the album (1980’s Tascam 388 8-track recorder) and that their “studio” was, in fact, drummer Patrick Carney’s basement. Recorded in a non-stop 14-hour session, Thickfreakness is the Akron duo stripped down to their fuzzy-licious, ghost-of-Junior-Kimbrough, dirty blues core. Carney bangs the drums like a floppy-haired Thor and Dan Auerbach’s voice is 23 going on 60, full of cigarettes and gravel…in other words, perfect for a garage-rock blues album and drool-worthy on vinyl.
Damon Albarn is known for a myriad of successes throughout his career that include leading the widely popular band Blur in the 1990s through the early 2000s, as well as his genius work as the unsuspecting leader of Gorrillaz starting in 2001. Although many of his albums could have found their way onto this list, Think Tank belongs here not only for the musical beauty of the album, but also because it has a rare commercially-released cover by the widely popular graffiti artist Banksy; a genius in his own art realm. If not for the beautiful album of music contained on the vinyl, framing the cover and hanging it near your record player will be an easily appreciated musical and artistic conversation piece to say the least.
There are certain artists whose sound was born for the vinyl format and Boards of Canada certainly ranks very high up that list – complex, layered soundscapes produced with all sorts of machines, but feeling ironically organic & human when transposed into the grooves of a wax disc. Combining the influences of many early pioneers (Aphex Twin, Eno, etc.) of the electronic music landscape they combined them and repackaged them in a way that was like solving a Rubik’s cube of sound, thus paving the way for many spawn to follow. We’re still feeling the effects of this album on electronic music 16 years later so to say it’s a vital addition to any great record collection…easy kill.
We could have included ten Bob Dylan records because his sound lends itself so well to the vinyl format, but Blonde on Blonde is an easy standout even among his catalog. Largely accepted as one of the first double albums to be released by a major recording artist, Blonde on Blonde was Bob Dylan’s seventh studio album and was released in the summer of 1966. Although the record contains many great Dylan tracks, the beautiful 11-minute “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” was done in just one take at the end of an 8-hour recording session at 4 o’clock in the morning and is one of the greatest songs you could ever listen to on a clean cut of vinyl.
An album from one of our generation’s artistic geniuses at peak form, Justin Vernon’s sophomore album creates chamber-pop landscapes as intricate and beautiful as the album cover art (a painting by Gregory Euclide). Expansive and observational, the LP spreads out like a classical music piece, complete from end-to-end and more than simply “folk” music. Recorded in a remodeled veterinary clinic a short distance from the home Vernon grew up in, there is a sense of place in each song that feels like a continual discovery of the beautiful familiar.
To enter into the world of Daft Punk is to find yourself in a parallel world where man and robot (alien?) delicately interact as fellow sojourners of the musical universe. Coming together over the course of five years, the French duo’s fourth album pays homage to the late 70s, early 80s L.A. music scene. Excruciatingly produced, musicians like Nile Rodgers, Giorgio Moroder, Panda Bear, Julian Casablancas, Todd Edwards & Pharell were flown in from around the world to perform live instrumentation of all their parts – a distinctly human/analog approach to electronic music that combined to create one of the most incredible sounding LPs of the past decade.
When two successful artists join forces to create a supergroup the results routinely land on extreme ends of the spectrum – amazing or disastrous. Fortunately for Dave Harrington and Nicolas Jaar, the end they landed on was of the good nature….extremely good in fact. The first and last (both recently called it quits on the project) album was a perfect melding of talents and creative ingredients. Harrington’s dark, brooding instrumentation gave a late night backbone to Jaar’s often delicate & atmospheric style. On vinyl the result is a transporting experience that envelopes your senses and slows time while tracks like “Golden Arrow” & “Paper Trails” pound the point home with every beat — Darkside is a rare moment of perfect chemistry between two brilliant artists.
The fifth studio album from David Bowie, based on fictional rock star character Ziggy Stardust, is Bowie pushing the boundaries of his glam rock ethos into new worlds, literally. This is a tape-effect, end-of-the-world wisdom classic that demands the kind of attention and respect that the vinyl listening experience creates for listeners.
If you spend any time wandering the audiophile forums of these great internets, you’ll often find Dire Straits continually popping up as a band whose albums sound particularly grand on the vinyl format. You can’t always trust the internet, but in this case it’s true. Find a copy of Love Over Gold, preferably a Japanese pressing (Google it) and be on your way.
The debut album from DJ Shadow is famous for being composed almost entirely of sampled content….something that, in the age of Girl Talk, may not seem so earth-shattering until you realize the content came from hundreds of vinyl records he obtained on numerous journeys to the record store (see album cover). Minimally, but expertly produced over the course of two years this album contains the downbeat, jazz-heavy, experimental hip hop that came from vinyl and to vinyl will return.
As the story goes, the Felice Brothers got their start by playing together at their dad’s Sunday BBQs and performing in New York City subways. Without leaning too much on that storyline, it does give you a context of what their early music might have sounded like. Their music was seemingly made to play on vinyl and to be enjoyed in thorough contemplation of life’s greatest stories. Beautiful ballads, sing-a-longs, tracks on the threshold of parlor music, and themes of death, murder, love, regret, hope, depression, and violence – it’s American music at it’s best.
Flowing from the creative momentum of the parking lot experiments and Zaireeka, the Oklahoma City rockers ninth album derived its name from the mixtape lead singer Wayne Coyne used to inspire the band en route to the studio…it was called “The Soft Bullet In.” Ditching previous rock aesthetics (their guitarist quit) they left the 90s-alternative guitar world and went lo-fi Disney instrumental…this confused people who first heard it as most genius pieces of art normally do. In the end, however, what The Flaming Lips did with The Soft Bulletin was create one of the greatest albums of the 90s and the type of album you’ll find yourself pulling from the shelf when in need of a creative injection.
Fleet Foxes self-titled debut, released in 2008, was an instant classic and phenomenal start for the 22-year-old Robin Pecknold. The vocal harmonies and stellar songwriting make this folk rock/baroque pop newcomer seem like an artist wise beyond his years. The album plays beautifully and flows naturally, like the perfect Sunday afternoon record. Fleet Foxes features a full-size bonus LP featuring the Sun Giant EP in its entirety, a welcome surprise for anyone who purchases this first album on vinyl. It also features cover art detailing “Netherlandish Proverbs,” a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
Anytime I want to quickly show an uninitiated friend how incredible vinyl can sound I pull this album out and drop the needle on Track 3 – “Never Going Back Again.” There’s something about the crystal clear guitar picking and warm vocal harmonies that showcase the human element of vinyl in ways few other tracks can. And then there’s the rest of the album. The epitome of late 70s rock culture, to include exorbitant recording costs, rampant drug use, incestuous band romance/conflict & extreme talent, one can say this landmark album happened because of, or in spite of, the previous…either way, it is an absolute must have on vinyl.
From The Storfer:
What can you say about the guitar solo on Maggot Brain that hasn’t already been said about the moon landing? What can you say about Maggot Brain that hasn’t already been said by basically everyone who has listened to the album? How, when listening to the first side of Maggot Brain, can you claim any album in the 1970s is better?
Every collection needs some artistic diversity, and Joanna Newsom will give you a lot of it in one bundle. Her box set vinyl release for Have One on Me is her third full-length LP, ringing in at over two hours of music, expertly showcasing her harp skills and unquestionably brilliant songwriting ability. There is a reason artists like Fleet Foxes, M. Ward, and The Decemberists readily cover her music; her songwriting ability is in another league and one that any focused listener can appreciate.
Recorded in one session at the Van Gelder Studio (Rudy Van Gelder…a very important name to know if you’re going to buy jazz records) this album is a four-part spiritual praise by Coltrane, a joyous melding of hard bop and free jazz that represent his best work and one of the top jazz sessions ever recorded. All the elements were present to make this an album born for both the sonic properties of vinyl. A must own.
Oh man, Joni Mitchell. When listening to the Canadian songstress on her fourth album you understand where a lot of the sentimentality around taking an old record off the shelf and spinning it owes its roots. Flowing out of a devastating break with James Taylor, Mitchell explained to Cameron Crowe in a 1979 interview, “…there’s hardly a dishonest note in the vocals. At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world and I couldn’t pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy. But the advantage of it in the music was that there were no defenses there either.” Emotions to vocal chords to tape to vinyl to your ears to your soul.
The iconic radio waves album cover…if it were only for that we’d still probably include this on the list, but wait! There’s more! (sorry *shakes head*) the music is immense. Described as “doomy,” “bleak,” “heavy,” the English post-punk band was initially disappointed in the production feeling it sounded too much like Pink Floyd. Regardless, they went along with Martin Hennett’s crazy ear and we all benefitted. An immersive musical experience best enjoyed via a wax disc and good speakers or headphones.
12 bit Blues is an epic blues-based album showcasing the talented DJ/turntablist/musician Kid Koala. Eric San used an E-mu SP-1200 sampler to create the tracks for this album over the span of three days without the use of modern day sequencing software. The result is 12 bit Blues, an album of re-invented blues music that will have you shaking your head in amazement of his technique. To be brief, the longest sample on the entire album is only 10 seconds long, which means no splice of any individual track would play longer than 10 seconds without San queuing the next part manually to keep the track alive (that’s a lot of work and a lot of samples to make an entire album sound this fluid). As a bonus for buying on vinyl, the LP is packaged with a cardboard, hand-powered turntable kit that actually works and plays music…the perfect way to teach any doubter how to really appreciate analog music.
Ducking into the studio between U.S. tours, the group used their studio time efficiently reworking a handful of old blues & rock standards and then writing originals that varied on the theme in a way that shaped their sound and hundreds of those that would come after them. Powerful, intoxicating music that was recorded when the band was at peak form pulling in the energy of their live shows, incredible solos and all. Many will say IV is the better album, but we say II edges it out by a slight margin…just enough to fit Jon Bonham’s motorcycle through.
Madvillainy was released in 2004 by Stones Throw Records as one of the most highly-anticipated underground hip hop albums in history. The collaboration between Madlib and MF Doom was a once-in-a-generation collaboration between two musical geniuses with very different approaches to their craft. As leaks began to spill out and buzz grew around what the two were cooking up, each focused their energy and in doing so produced an album that neither of them ever could ever have on their own. Full of rich, jazz-heavy beats and impeccable lyrics, and an iconic cover shot, Madvillainy is a unique hip-hop classic more than deserving of a spot on your shelf.
Marvin Gaye’s 11th album (man they made a lot of albums back then) showcases an artist ignoring his label and trusting his gut. Touted as the first album to be produced by the artist himself, What’s Going On is nine songs of clear, sage social commentary told from the perspective of a Vietnam War veteran returning home to find his country gone awry. One of the greatest albums ever made period, it comes from a time when albums were mastered for vinyl by people who had mastered for vinyl their entire lives. Buy it new if you want, but finding a decent copy in the used bin of your local record store means you’ll be holding a bit of history in your hand while you’re listening to it being made.
The greatest selling album of all time…so there’s that. Hmm, what else? $750,000 production budget, meticulously produced by Quincy Jones, contains “Thriller”, “Billie Jean” & “Beat It”, considered by many to be the best album of the 1980s….what else do you need….it’s Michael Jackson.
If your plan was to purchase only one jazz album on vinyl, first I would tell you what a horrible decision that is; Jazz is one of the best sounding genres on the format, with original Blue Note recordings fetching hundreds and even thousands of dollars at auction. However, if you persisted in your foolishness I would tell you to pick up Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. The best-selling jazz album of all time brought together a stunningly talented crew – John Coltrane, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, Jimmy Cobb, and of course Davis himself. The musicians were given the basic outlines of the songs, but little else, as Davis wanted to capture the spontaneity he knew was at the real heart of jazz. It worked perfectly and when played on vinyl you start to understand why great jazz is something you feel more than you hear.
A defining work of the shoegazing genre, MBV recorded their second album over the course of two years in almost 20 recording studios and with multiple engineers. To say that lead singer & guitarist, Kevin Shields, had a particular sound he was going for would be an understatement. All kinds of VH1 behind the music-esque drama strained band/label relations severely, but in the end an enduring, best-of-era album, managed to find its way through all the wrangling.
James Taylor, Graham Nash, Linda Ronstadt, Stephen Stills, David Crosby – what could easily be the lineup for a music hall of fame concert is actually the list of vocal contributors on Neil Young’s fourth studio album. Including songs like “Old Man” and “Heart of Gold,” Harvest checks in as Rolling Stone’s 78th greatest album of all time. The original vinyl release featured a beautiful lyric sheet and soft jacket that added to the hand-crafted feel of Young’s music. If you can get your hands on the original LP, good for you, but if not there are several re-pressings that have garnered praise from critical fans in recent years. Whichever pressing you end up with you can be satisfied in knowing that you possess an album that helped define Americana. Ironically, it required a Canadian-born musician to do so.
There are legendary albums, then there are albums full of legend. The second and final release by the Jeff Mangum-led indie rock band Neutral Milk Hotel belongs to an exceptionally rare breed of album that confidently straddles both. The dreamy turn-of-the century sound (organ, accordion, brass, pipes) and accompanying album art alone provide fertile breeding grounds for a certain mystique, but the hazy connections to Anne Frank, whose diaries reportedly served as an emotional catalyst for Mangum, help push it into cult-like status. Considered by many to be one of the greatest indie rock albums of all-time, In an Aeroplane Over the Sea continues to rank among the top sellers on vinyl year after year, despite being released over 14 years ago. One might be tempted to shrug it off as indie nostalgia…don’t. The music is lo-fi indie perfection, the album artwork grandiose and lovely – but most importantly there’s an intangible weight and force to this album that makes it a must-have piece of rock history for any true fan of music.
One of the most accessible Animal Collective albums released to date, Panda Bear (Noah Lennox) created Tomboy shortly after the widespread appreciation of Merriweather Post Pavilion as a solo follow-up to his highly praised album Person Pitch. Although it is a significantly different sound than most fans might have expected upon release, to this day it is one of the most listenable albums to come from the unconventional group of artists. The limited edition vinyl release of Tomboy is a four-LP set, including the entire album on two discs with the Tomboy single mixes and several unreleased instrumentals, a cappellas, as well as the single “The Preakness” and a 16-page art book. And, just to make you feel like a philanthropist, all proceeds of the limited edition LP go to the American Cancer Society – as if you needed that as your reason to love Panda Bear.
Coming off a low point in his career, Paul Simon was given a cassette tape from a fellow musician containing the works of South African band The Boyoyo Boys. As bursts of creative inspiration often go, the sounds on the tape sparked a flood of new ideas for Simon who quickly began work on integrating elements of Zulu and Western pop into an album that hinted of both 50s rock ‘n roll and something new entirely….something quite incredible.
“I think Slanted and Enchanted probably is the best record we made, only because it’s less self-conscious and has an unrepeatable energy about it.” – Stephen Malkmus
Instigators of the indie underground movement of the 90s, Pavement is one of the bands that flew under the radar of a 90s musical scene that was heavy on TRL, light on substance. Eccentric in the ways you want a rock band to be eccentric, the album feels like the type of lo-fi production you’d get if you recorded the album in your ex-hippie drummer’s basement with very little equipment…oh wait, that’s exactly what they did. Low-tech, low-cost, 90s rock that makes one yearn for the days when digital was just a pixel on Mario Bros.
What can we write about Dark Side of the Moon that hasn’t already been written? What elements can we highlight that would suddenly make you believe in its greatness that haven’t already been brought up a million times before? How can you love vinyl and not have this sitting on your shelf? There’s nothing, it just is.
“Portishead’s long-awaited comeback proved more triumphant than anyone could ever have hoped for — Dummy and Portishead were both great, but this… this was something else entirely. Liberated from the self-doubt and obsessive perfectionism that paralyzed him for the best part of a decade, Geoff Barrow crafted something remarkable with Third, an album that drew on everything from gentle folk music through the influence of electronic pioneers Silver Apples to jarring, abrasive industrial elements to create a sound that was startlingly original.” – Tom Hawking, Flavorwire
Musicologist Robert Palmer had this to say about R.L. and it’s all that needs said….
“Chaos, chance, charm and luck are a primary blues paradigm, of course, and a late twentieth-century scientific paradigm as well. The Chaos Theory of post-relativity physics tell us of Strange Attractors – inexplicable higher-order functions that provide a kind of boundary or shape or structural dynamic for chaos systems – and this model fits R.L’s music as well. The essential character of R.L.’s blues is chaos-on-wheels; it rocks as hard as any music on the planet while spreading sonic waves of sex and mayhem far and wide. But it is grounded in an implicit order: the rhythmic and melodic deep structures of North Mississippi blues.”
Something I wrote once upon a time and still believe to be true…
Upon hearing the opening notes of ‘Everything in Its Right Place’ one senses, somewhat uneasily, that this is not a rock album. It is Radiohead taking everything about the genre, everything about themselves as a group, all the press, marketing, and corporate greed, dousing it with gasoline and breathlessly lighting the match. They weren’t pushing the boundaries of their music they were completely cutting the cord.
The instrumentation is complex, inspired by everything from Aphex Twin to Charlie Mingus. The lyrics are intentionally cryptic (for some lyrics Yorke reportedly cut up words and phrases and drew from a hat) and at times nearly inaudible. The combination, however, captures not just the mood of the current times, but of those to come. In ‘Killing Yourself to Live’ author Chuck Klosterman described the album as an, ‘…unintentional but spooky foreshadowing of the events of 11 September 2001 attacks.’
There’s really no end to what can be drawn from an album that seems to flip Maslow’s hierarchy of needs on its head, starting with self-actualization and sweeping the rest of the more base needs into the dust bin. The album offers nowhere to stand, nothing concrete to grasp, only fleeting thoughts and questions, but very intentionally so. Kid A was Radiohead’s attempt to take everything they knew about music and blow it up. We’ve spent the past 12 years frantically digging through the rubble looking for clues.
Swedish hardcore band – check. The most influential hardcore album ever made – likely. Visceral, vein-popping energy and focus – yup. Best served on a spinning platter – but of course.
Few albums so completely sum up a genre of music as Exile On Main St. did for rock & roll upon its release in 1972. Rebellion, check. On the run from the taxman the band wrote and recorded a large portion of the album in the basement of rented villa in southern France. Drugs, check. Lots of heroine. Love, check. Mick Jagger got married during the making of the album. What makes Exile on Main St so head-shakingly good, however, is its magnetic pull on all the rock & roll influences up to that point in history. Guitarist, Keith Richards, was in peak form and in his own words was using, “…five-string, open tuning to the max.” A double album’s worth of classic, hip-shaking rock, with artwork that can only be appreciated on vinyl, to not have it in your collection…well, we don’t want to go there.
It’s hard to imagine a time when people didn’t look at Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós as a staple of contemporary music, but in 1999 when the band’s sophomore album was released, it largely fell on the ears of the uninitiated. An album’s album, the band created a self-referential piece of music with extreme attention to detail and huge doses of risk — vocals in a gibberish language called Vonlenska, palindromic string sections, and experiments with recording speeds to name a few. An album best viewed as a piece of art and an example of a band going in a completely different direction than anyone at the time and succeeding…you need this album.
Some bands come and go without much notice, only to be appreciated years after when the musical stars align in such a way that people finally “get” what they were doing…such is the case with Slint. Entering the recording studio in August of 1990 to begin recording on their sophomore LP, Spiderland, the Louisville, KY rockers made an immediate impact on producer Brian Paulson (known for a “live” recording style). He remembers, “It was weird while I was doing [Spiderland] because I remember sitting there, and I just knew there was something about it. I’ve never heard anything like this. I’m really digging this but it’s really fucking weird.” Four days later recording was complete on an album that made little more than a ripple on release, but has since come to be known as one of the greatest albums of the 90s – a visceral experience best absorbed in a listening room with a turntable and 39:38 minutes of active, focused, listening.
70s jazz rock from possibly the greatest studio band ever formed (that’s right, we said it). The sixth album from Steely Dan is an album every aspiring sound engineer should spend a lifetime studying with a clarity and musicality of sound that can’t be described in words, it can only be absorbed through an experience with it going into your ears from a pristine vinyl copy and into your heart, brain and soul.
In the lukewarm bathwater of the early 2000s music scene, The Strokes came in and lit a fire. Their debut album pulls all the right energy from 70s and 80s garage rock, while feeling at home in the modern NYC. With the above album cover deemed too racy for America, the band switched up the domestic version prior to release (the rest of the world got the good stuff). With tracks like “The Modern Age” “Hard to Explain” and “Last Nite,” Casablancas & co. came out with an album that showed rock wasn’t quite dead yet and that some kids in New York City could still get together and form a band and make music that actually sounded human and, frankly, badass.
Sufjan Steven’s fifth album, Illinois, is his second state-based theme album. It contains people, places, and events relative to the title. The songs are not about the state explicitly; they just make a reference to the state in one way (sometimes direct, often indirect) or another. It’s not just beautiful music; it is an exercise in listening intently for the genius references while still making an album of incredible songs. This deep and active listening is what the vinyl format helps champion and with Sufjan, it’s a very rewarding exercise.
Written and recorded after a move to rural New York with his wife, Moondance is the album that put the Northern Irish singer-songwriter on the map. Blending jazz, soul, rock, and blues, the album contains a nostalgia that is easier to feel than describe. Much like Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, Van Morrison brought into the studio little more than a basic outline of the songs, allowing the album to come together in a more creative and spontaneous manner. The highly subjective it-just-sounds-better-on-vinyl argument comes into play here with many fans describing fuller mids and lows on the LP in contrast to its CD/MP3 counterpart. Regardless, one really can’t go wrong adding such a classic from one of the century’s most gifted artists.
Some may scoff at the notion of putting such a young album on a list of this caliber…scoff on, we stand by it. Drawing on bouts of paranoia and depression following their Slave Ambient tour, lead singer Adam Granduciel wrote his way through it. The result is a more personal, razor-sharp style that serves as the backbone of an album that feels equally at home in any decade in the past 40 years…in other words, timeless. With flavors of Dylan, Springsteen and Dire Straits, Lost In the Dream is a nod to the days when the term “rock” was enough to stand on its own. No pretense, just real music with a humanness that jumps off the vinyl.
If listening to music on vinyl is a mild rebellion against the digital age, then Elephant, the fourth studio album by The White Stripes, is the French Revolution. Jack and Meg White chose to intentionally avoid modern recording technology or computers in the production process using an eight-track tape machine and decades-old gear while laying down the album in just two weeks. The fifth-best album of the decade according to Rolling Stone, Elephant contains the well-known, “Seven Nation Army” in addition to a pulverizing cover of Burt Bacharach’s, “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself.” The combination of old analog production equipment paired with the Whites’s characteristically distortion-rich shredding helps produce a rock album born for the turntable and a must-have for any true fan of the genre.
The story of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is the classic tale of the artist triumphing over an increasingly bureaucratic and money-hungry record label. After a grueling year in the studio they handed the album over to Reprise Records only to have them refuse to release it without major changes. The Chicago-based band didn’t budge, trusting their artistic instincts over the judgment of the suits at Warner. This put the label in an awkward and soon very public position that eventually led to the album rights being transferred back to Wilco, who were then free to take it elsewhere. Finally released in April of 2002, the album was met with high praise from fans and critics alike who viewed it as the group’s most ambitious work to date and one of the best albums of the decade. This is an album to own not just because of its musical beauty and integrity, but because of what it represents – artistic conviction in an era too often marked by compromise and apathy.
Led by RZA, Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album is a gritty, lo-fi, lyric-slinging masterwork that reestablished the East Coast rap scene as something to reckon with. Fed by the canned goods stolen by Ghostface from the local corner store, this was the Clan when they were still young and hungry, promising world takeover and believing it was possible. To love rap means to have 36 Chambers in your collection. To love 36 Chambers means to know a time in rap history when many of the players had no certainty of fame and riches, but knew that they loved the game.