Choosing a favorite record is like choosing a significant other. Even a friend you normally respect and consider kin is liable to have wildly different, head-scratching taste. Picking ten we can all agree on is impossible, so the omissions here will be as glaring to some as the inclusions. If we missed your favorite, please forgive us. (And maybe leave it in the comment section so we can steal it.)
In light of that, we aimed for a list of musically unforgettable albums that are further elevated by top-notch production. That said, some genres are under-represented, as the format tends to work better for some styles (jazz, classical, acoustic) more than others. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get that 8-disk electronic drone set you’ve been dying to hear, but don’t be disappointed if it sounds unremarkable and doing sixteen record-flips in one play through detracts from the experience.
In no particular order…
Jazz just works better on vinyl. Like classical, there is no definitive jazz album (although some might disagree with Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue”). For its kind, “Blue Train” is hard to beat. In the style of hard bop, Coltrane and his band play an almost harried form of the genre, like they’re late to catch a bus that’s just blocks away from the studio. In that tempo, the level of virtuosity is astonishing, thanks in no small part to a band that would go on to become apart of Art Blakey’s Art Messengers. There are nerdy takeaways here for aficionados–the saxophonist’s signature “Coltrane changes” make their first recorded appearance on the album. But if jazz is less an obsession than a piece of ambiance, it’s just as copacetic as a dinner-party soundtrack.
“Random Access Memories, ” Daft Punk
Seeing how Daft Punk consciously embraced analog recording and performance in “Random Access Memories, ” it’s no surprise that it shines on vinyl. From the tiniest high-hat quiver to the exceptionally massive bass, the electronic duo’s obsessive attention to detail extends into this modern disco classic’s high-quality mastering. On a turntable, it gives you a depth of listening that you just can’t get out of laptop speakers.
“Blood on the Tracks, ” Bob Dylan
“Another Side, ” “Blonde on Blonde, ” “Self-Portrait”…well, maybe not “Self-Portrait.” But it’s impossible to pick just one Bob Dylan album. If pressed, you can make a good argument for “Blood On The Tracks.” Not only is there nary a bad song in the bunch (“Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” is a confusing inclusion against the album’s otherwise soul-wrenching grain), but from groove to groove, side A is flush with some of Dylan’s greatest songwriting achievements. If you can get your hands on the pricier Mobile Fidelity pressing, all the better.
“Nighthawks at the Diner, ” Tom Waits
This is a relatively deep cut, but a worthy inclusion to any record collection. Tom Waits is in noir mode on “Nighthawks, ” spinning yarns to an in-studio audience between jazz solos and narrative asides. It’s the rare live album that benefits from its crowd, as Waits works the room like a seasoned stand-up. Through the right speakers, it’s as if you’re there with him, dodging cherry stems and caterwauling along to “Better Off Without a Wife.”
“The Band, ” The Band
Go figure that it took a Canadian band to make the best Americana rock album of all time. The so-called Brown Album features The Band’s best-known numbers that even your dubstep-obsessive neighbor could join on the choruses of if the spirit moved him. Famously recorded in a West Hollywood pool house, the album sounds remarkably intimate for how jovial it is, like Robertson and co were caught in a drunken sing-along with old friends. It’s one of those albums that makes the most sense as a record. Few things sound as right as “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” pulled through a stylus.
“Beethoven: Symphonies Nos. 5 & 7, ” Carlos Kleiber
Like jazz, the warm distortion of a vinyl record elevates the classical music listening experience. While it’s cruel to reduce the entire genre to one piece, Kleiber’s take on Beethoven’s 5th and 7th symphonies is a singularly impressive recording. A handful of Beethoven’s crowning achievements feature, many of which you’ll recognize. (Yeah, that “dun dun DUN DUN” one is on here.) Even if you don’t like classical, enough time with this record could change your mind, or at least instill a respect for the intricate musicianship that goes into making this sweeping music. At bare minimum, put it on before your S.O.’s parents come over. Like magic, it can turn the dirtiest den into a drawing room at the drop of a stylus.