Vinyl is making a comeback. Here are all the essential albums to add to your record collection. These are all of the albums you need to know, and what you should collect! They have changed the music game and are full of sounds that can only be heard on vinyl. Keep reading to find out more.
An entire genre can’t be reduced to just a single album, but if you only own one jazz album in your collection, you’ve got to own Kind of Blue. The best selling, most popular, most frequently cited jazz album of all time, Miles Davis takes his superstar sextet through five blazing tunes that have now become standards. Chances are you’ve heard “So What” or “Flamenco Sketches” somewhere before, maybe in the background of a movie or TV show, but now is your chance to pay attention. Eminently relistenable and smooth as hell, this is one of the rare times where the most cliched pick is actually still the best.
It’s the first line of the final song that summarizes the album’s philosophy: “Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream.” The psychedelic swirl of “Tomorrow Never Knows” is reason enough to own Revolver, but it’s the variety of styles that color the album that really makes it the most essential of all Beatles records to have in your stash. From the garage funk of opener “Taxman” and baroque drama of “Elanor Rigby” to the subtle sublime of “Here, There and Everywhere” and the goofy singalongs of “Yellow Submarine”, the eclectic mix and sonic experimentation is best experienced through a pair of Hi-Fi speakers.
There’s so much classic southern soul from the 60s and 70s that choosing just one album feels almost impossible. The production, instrumentation, and mixes on albums like Otis Redding’s Otis Blue or Aretha Franklin’s I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You are beyond perfect, so it feels sacrilege to give this pick to a white British singer. But the truth is that Dusty in Memphis has all those same elements: a killer backing band and singular Atlantic Records production team (the same that elevated Franklin during her time on the label). “Son of a Preacher Man” might be the single greatest song to play on 33 RPMs, and “Don’t Forget About Me” sounds right at home with the classic crackles and pops of a vinyl record.
While southern soul was getting down and dirty, Motown Soul was crafting perfectly arranged pop music. The apotheosis of the classic Detroit sound was Marvin Gaye’s woke masterpiece, What’s Going On. Meant as a complete song cycle, this was the first album putting on the headphones, turning down the lights, and letting the music take you away was a full-on requirement. At the center of it all is Gaye’s voice, as smooth and rich as any that ever existed, pairing calming melodies with righteous indignation and the need for necessary action. The contrast between the highly political lyrics and the music’s spiritual swirl is hypnotizing, and it’s enough to warrant a spot at the front of your record collection.
Vinyls weren’t always about popular mainstream music. For a number of years, the majority of albums released in the format were broadway recordings, classical music collections, and movie soundtracks. A Clockwork Orange combines the latter two in the best possible way. Wendy Carlos, who pioneered the use of the Moog synthesizer through 1968’s Switched on Bach, bridges nearly 200 years of music history through a lens of dystopian adolescent angst the same way the film itself does. Featuring a number of compositions that you recognize but might not know what they’re called, including Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the William Tell Overture, and Pomp & Circumstance (which you definitely walked down the isle to during your high school graduation), A Clockwork Orange a great two-for-one album to represent both film soundtracks and classical music in your collection.
Taking the concept album/song cycle format to its zenith, Pink Floyd masters lighting up and zoning out while letting the record spin on your turntable. The Dark Side of the Moon is their most immersive journey: a tale of life and death, greed and power, violence, and madness, all told through prog rock’s most accessible entry point. The Floyd might be every stoner’s go-to selection, but there’s a reason it’s become a cliche. Spending an unprecedented 950 weeks on the Billboard 200 and selling an estimated 45 million copies, Dark Side is the definitive vinyl album, and no record collection feels complete without it.
Dub is the wacky musical cousin of reggae and ska. Also born out of Jamaica, dub takes the rhythms and instrumentation of reggae, cranks up the reverb and studio wizardry, and aims to give the listener a visceral experience. Produced by their madcap leader Lee “Scratch” Perry, Blackboard Jungle Dub shows The Upsetters pretty much inventing the genre in real-time and is best experienced on a turntable. There’s something lost when listening to it on Spotify or YouTube or any other digital platform: it sounds thin and contained, whereas, on vinyl, you can practically feel yourself swimming in the heady sounds.
While it might have only been two years since 1972’s folky For the Roses, Joni Mitchell had progressed lightyears in terms of style and composition by the time she made her sixth album. Embracing pop and jazz, Court and Spark is a singular artistic vision from an even more singular artist. Mitchell was completely autonomous with her music: she wrote all the songs, produced the album herself, and often arranged the music to only feature herself on guitar or piano. Court and Spark indulges in the full band setup for songs like the rock-inspired “Raised on Robbery” and the loungey finale “Twisted.” Still, it’s the intimate moments of just Joni and her piano that make this an essential part of any vinyl collection.
There’s a certain breed of vinyl record fanatic whose interest is based largely on the sound’s quality rather than the quality of the songs. For these Audiophiles, there’s one go-to record to test their equipment against Aja. Steely Dan was the 70s answer to explosive rock excess. Whereas most bands were trying to figure out how to get louder and louder, Steely Dan didn’t care about volume or distortion. Instead, it was all performances, mic placement, and mix, making them the arbiters of high production value. Every note on Aja is perfectly placed and crystal clear, and it’s one of the last albums from the Golden Age of Vinyl, where the medium was pushed to absolute perfection. While it may seem like a secondary concern, don’t worry: the songs are pretty great too.
Sometimes one record just isn’t enough. When The Clash went into the studio to make their third album, they had too much to say to condense it into just two sides of vinyl. The double album London Calling still has some punk on it, but it’s also a reggae, rock, and jazz album that demolishes the restrictions of a single genre. It’s the first punk album that doesn’t sound like it was made in a basement in two hours, and the first to highlight arrangements as a major artistic leap forward for the genre. And, like all the albums on this list, it has a great cover, which is reason enough to add it to your physical album collection.
The 90s were the wilderness years for vinyl records. Most musicians embraced CDs in the future. The Loudness Wars were utilizing digital recording techniques to brick wall the volume on most albums, causing audio quality to suffer. As versatile as it is, vinyl works best with analog recordings and softer, more subtle textures, which is why So Tonight That I Might See is one of the best sounding vinyl of the decade. Leaning into the hazy arrangements of shoegaze and the acoustic chill of coffeehouse music, Mazzy Star was made for turntables, with singer Hope Sandoval’s murmuring melodies floating over waves of alternative rock. It’s a soothing balm to the bombastic grunge music of the day.
There’s a major misconception with vinyl: music made without the medium in mind doesn’t sound good on it. This seems to get repeated a lot for hip hop (even though the original forefathers of the genre used turntables and old Chic records to build the foundation that all other artists have built upon since). While some of the more processed productions can sound tinny and thin, Madvillainy is the complete opposite: an engrossing, fully immersive world of jazz samples superhero sound effects, created by producer Madlib bassy lethargic meditations on everything from sex to food, courtesy of MC MF Doom. Doom’s flow is legendary, and the one-off nature of Madvillainy puts it in a world no one else can touch. The duo never made another album, but that’s only because it’s hard to follow perfection.
Music made with modern technology can sound great on vinyl (as previously mentioned). Still, there is something to analog equipment, live instrumentation, and organic sounding mixes that are ideal for the medium. In that way, no album combines retro cool with a modern mindset quite like Back to Black, Amy Winehouse’s’ second (and unfortunately final) album. There’s just no substituting that horn-heavy, in-the-pocket groove, and holy hell does Winehouse have a killer voice. Recalling the days where singers only had vinyl records as their references, Winehouse was a standout soul performer in an era of processed pop. Her career arc and life afterward were cut tragically short. Still, every spin of Back to Black is proof of her legendary status.
A vinyl-first mentality won’t win you any major converts or sales figures in the modern-day unless, of course, you’re already a huge rock star. One of the few current artists who still prefer vinyl, Jack White, creates records meant to jump off the needle and explode through the speakers. Blunderbuss, his first solo album, pairs the gigantic riffs and old blues fetishizations of his work with The White Stripes with folky daydreams that create his own unique vision outside of the constraints of a democratic band atmosphere. It’s the kind of album that sounds like it was made for record players, most likely because it is.
Why get vinyl in the modern-day? The era of physically owning music is over. Most people don’t have record players, and why pay extra for something that already comes with your Spotify Premium subscription? Because there’s something about the sound of vinyl, the warmth and three-dimensional swirl of sounds, that digital media just can’t replicate. If you want a modern example of this, take a look at Folklore. Taylor Swift has made a career of jumping across genre lines, and her turn to folk music precipitates a turn back to the long-written off medium. Vinyl sales reached a new peak in 2020, beating out CD sales for the first time since the 80s. The vinyl revival is here, and even major artists like Taylor Swift are starting to return to 33 RPMs.
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