The xx: xx (2009)
In 2009 four young, perpetually black-clad Londoners released an album blessed with a rare feeling of what one could call "sonic unity": every track just fits. There’s something incredibly clean about the xx's self-titled debut, as though the band are performing in an hermetically sealed room devoid of furniture, fittings, dust, microbes and, well, anything that isn’t their instruments. Sparse drum machine beats, taut bass, a guitar tone polished to a mirror sheen and understated vocals from Oliver Sim and Romy Madley Croft make up a record of immense restraint. It’s almost the opposite of Phil Spector’s “wall of sound”: there’s an evidence of sonic space here that makes the xx’s gloomy brand of pop a joy to listen to.
Standout tracks: “Intro”, “Islands”, “Shelter”
Rage Against The Machine: Rage Against The Machine (1992)
Thanks to bands like Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park and Papa Roach, the fusion of hip-hop and hard rock would later become a byword for “horrific men saying horrifically dumb things”, but it all started in much better place: Rage Against The Machine’s eponymous debut album. While those other bands might have been angry at their parents, Rage were angry about the Western world, the military-industrial complex, the entire capitalist system. Very angry. Zack de la Rocha’s politically-charged lyrics and Tom Morello’s squealing guitar make for an incendiary mix, but Bob Ludwig’s mastering keeps everything from boiling over. We have no hesitation in saying that this is one of the cleanest, most audiophile-friendly hard rock albums ever made. Marxist political theory rarely sounded so funky.
Standout tracks: “Bombtrack”, “Killing In The Name”, “Bullet In The Head”
More after the break...
Jay-Z: The Blueprint (2001)
Almost universally regarded as Jay-Z’s finest album, The Blueprint is a hip-hop rarity: a record without numerous guest appearances. It’s a decision that allows Jay’s abilities as an emcee to shine – although he’s aided by the fantastic production, much of it from a young upstart named Kanye West. West’s soulful, vocal sample-heavy 60s-inspired tracks give The Blueprint much of its character, and from a pure sound quality point of view it’s one of the best albums in rap history.
Standout tracks: “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)”, “Girls, Girls, Girls”, “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)”
Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009)
When Baltimore psyche-pop oddballs Animal Collective turned to samplers and synths as the dominant instruments for their eighth studio album, few could have guessed that it would turn out to be their most successful on both the commercial and critical fronts (although it’s far from a mainstream pop record, and less open-minded listeners might find its unconventional song structure baffling).
The members of the band are older and have settled down, but their youthful joie de vivre hasn’t melted away in Merriweather Post Pavilion – it’s just shifted focus. There are songs about Avey Tare and Panda Bear’s families on here but not a trace of sentimentality, just soaring, luscious electronic soundscapes and harmony-heavy vocals that bring to mind a post-rave culture Beach Boys.
Standout tracks: “My Girls”, “Summertime Clothes”, “Brother Sport”
Fleetwood Mac: Rumours (1977)
Rumours’ meta-story is almost as compelling as the album itself: recorded against the backdrop of two intra-band breakups and rampant cocaine consumption, it signalled a new mainstream rock direction for the British bluesy throwbacks – one that propelled the group into new realms of popularity. Spurred by the songcraft of new American recruits Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, Fleetwood Mac produced an LP without a skippable song (well, maybe “Oh Daddy” if you’re feeling particularly mean), and the production and mastering are every bit as noteworthy as the hooks.
Standout tracks: “Dreams”, “Go Your Own Way”, “The Chain”