30 essential albums for audiophiles

If your ears, speakers and headphones need a proper workout, you should start with one of these records. Or better yet, all of them

Audiophiles are a strange breed: here are a bunch of men (always men) who’ll happily fork out a week’s wages for power cables that provide “clean electricity” to their CD player, but refuse to part with a penny for any album they consider to be mastered in a sub-par way.

We can’t help but see their point of view (about the albums, not the power cables): today’s pop music tends to be mastered to sound “loud” even when it’s being played at low volumes – a compressed dynamic range means that there’s not much difference in decibels between the quiet and loud parts of the music. Listening to these albums through high quality audio gear can be an horrific assault on the lugholes, which is why audiophiles seek out albums that have been mastered with a wider dynamic range.

That doesn’t mean you have to resort to slapping some leather waistcoast-wearing, ponytail-sporting Austrian jazz fiddler’s latest opus onto your beloved turntable. Thankfully, a handful of today’s artists are still committed to well-mastered, exquisitely produced recordings and that, along with a plentiful supply of older albums that were either originally mastered well or have since been remastered, means there’s plenty of fantastic music to listen to. And here are some of our favourites.

Additional reviews by Stephen Graves, Marc McLaren and Tom Wiggins

My Bloody Valentine: Loveless (1991)

You’re going to want a weighty set-up for this one. When they perform Loveless live, MBV crank up the volume to such an extent that most fans don earplugs, and while we’re not suggesting you go that far, it’s an album that demands to be played loud. Recorded over two years in 19 studios and with almost as many engineers, it’s dominated by Kevin Shields’ trademark tremolo-heavy guitar plus layer upon layer of samples: sampled guitars, sampled drums, sampled vocals, sampled samples. The net effect is a modern wall of sound, at once hypnotic and chaotic, dreamy and thunderous, urgent and woozy. At its best – the delicate intricacy of “To Here Knows When”, the relentless hookery of “What You Want”, the rhythmic assault of “Soon” – it’s crying out for a system with great separation and precision. [MM]

Standout tracks: “Soon”, “To Here Knows When”, “Only Shallow”

Dr Dre: 2001 (1999)

Mainstream hip-hop isn’t the first genre that springs to mind when you think of audiophile-quality recordings: the majority of rap albums are compressed, lacking the dynamic range craved by golden-eared beard-strokers. Not so 2001.

Dr Dre’s second studio album exhibits a clean clarity and dynamic range that suits its sparse beats, bottomless bass, doom-y string samples and g-funk synths – it’s a great workout for any decent pair of speakers or headphones (Beats or otherwise). The lyrical content won’t sit comfortably with every listener, being an encyclopaedia of gangsta rap clichés but, well, it’s a gangsta rap album with a cannabis leaf on the front cover made by the co-founder of N.W.A. If it was mum-friendly it just wouldn’t be the same.

Standout tracks: “Still D.R.E.”, “The Next Episode”, “XXXplosive”

Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On (1971)

Deeply affected by his brother’s experiences returning from the Vietnam War and what he viewed as rampant, widespread injustice in America, Marvin Gaye shrugged off his soul loverman image and recorded a concept album about the state of the world.

All nine of its songs flow into one another and it ends with a reprise of its opening theme, all the better to tell the story of a Vietnam veteran who has come home from war to see his country in a new light. Gaye tackles poverty, drug addiction and even environmental issues not through angry political rants but from the point of a dismayed man who believes love – not more hatred and violence – is the answer.

As a recording the album exhibits a rare spaciousness, with each element able to be picked out clearly. Combining blues, jazz and soul elements, it’s a hugely influential album and over 40 years after its release, still highly relevant and relatable.

Standout tracks: “What’s Going On”, “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)”, “Inner City Blues (Make We Wanna Holler)”

Nirvana: MTV Unplugged in New York (1994)

MTV may be a dirty word these days, but the TV network’s Unplugged series served up several excellent albums in the 90s, most of them recorded with a “hey, I could be in the audience” fidelity. And this is one of them.

It would be Nirvana’s last album recorded before Kurt Cobain’s suicide, and hindsight adds extra weight to songs like “Pennyroyal Tea”, “Something In The Way” and the soul-wrenching closer “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”. That song is one of several covers performed by a band who appear to have consciously avoid picking their biggest hits for the acoustic treatment. But the reworkings of Cobain’s own songs, stripped of their grunge trappings, highlight just how much of a talent he was when it came to melody and lyricism – a talent that would be lost forever five months later.

Standout tracks: “The Man Who Sold The World”, “Pennyroyal Tea”, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”

The Beatles: Abbey Road (1969)

Recorded in eight tracks rather than the four of previous Beatles albums, Abbey Road was the first of the Fab Four’s records to be originally released in stereo. In 2009, along with most Beatles albums, it was remastered and rereleased, and this version is considered the best in terms of audio quality. At the time of its release, some critics claimed the band’s use of the Moog synthesizer was “inauthentic”, but in retrospect most of them – and the wider world – consider Abbey Road to be among The Beatles’ best LPs, and certainly their most painstakingly produced.

Standout tracks: “Come Together,” “Oh! Darling”, “Here Comes the Sun”

More after the break...

Bon Iver: Bon Iver (2011)

Trading the intimate “folk music pity party in a log cabin” feel of debut album For Emma, Forever Ago in favour of a more expansive, ambitious sound, Justin Vernon’s second album as Bon Iver flirts with R&B-style crooning, country hoedowns and, at one point, Bruce Hornsby and the Range-esque MOR (well, that’s what it takes to win a Grammy as an indie artist these days). But there’s beauty throughout: Vernon’s multi-tracked voice and his band’s rich instrumentation evoke the icy northern reaches of America just as deftly as For Emma did – but in a far grander way. There are landscapes conjured by this record, and they are vast.

Standout tracks: “Holocene”, “Towers”

R.E.M.: Automatic for the People (1992)

R.E.M. were no strangers to chart success by the time they released Automatic for the People, but this was the album that cemented the Athens, Georgia natives as the mainstream’s favourite alternative rock band. And you can’t say they got there by continuing down the jangly, upbeat pop furrow they’d ploughed with earlier songs like Shiny Happy People: Automatic features only three tracks that move above mid-tempo (two of which became singles) and for the most part, it’s a sombre, ballad-dominated affair. It might be a dark journey, but it’s also musically irresistible thanks to the lush arrangements, in which organs and strings feature prominently.

The album is available in the Hi-Res DVD-Audio format.

Standout tracks: “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”, “Everybody Hurts”, “Man On The Moon”

Dusty Springfield: Dusty in Memphis (1969)

In an attempt to boost her musical credibility, British swinging sixties icon Dusty Springfield decided to make an album of soul songs – and record it in a city forever associated with the origins of soul and blues. The result was Dusty In Memphis, a record that didn’t make many waves when it was released but has since been recognised as one of the best releases of the 1960s – or any decade. The tracks are arranged and recorded with a rare perfectionism (Springfield ended up re-recording all her vocals in New York because she was unhappy with the Memphis takes) and the songs hit a sweet spot between soul and pop that suggests Dusty was way ahead of her time.

Standout tracks: “Son of a Preacher Man”, “Breakfast In Bed”, “The Windmills of Your Mind”

Burial: Untrue (2007)

Believe it or not there was a time when dubstep wasn’t the sound of adverts for energy drinks. These days Burial’s Untrue is barely recognisable as dubstep: there’s no pumped-up euphoric drops and it barely hints at the wriggling ‘wub wub’ bass that was to come. Play "Etched Headplate" in most clubs and the only way you’d empty the dancefloor quicker would be to release a wolf onto it. That’s because Untrue isn’t a record for dancefloors; it’s a record about the lonely, 3am bus ride home, or the feeling of unease you get when walking alone late at night. While Untrue is not an album with any daylight in it, it's a long way from The Dark Side of the Moon. You don’t listen to it to appreciate the stereo image of your expensive hi-fi, you listen to it for its heavily textured yet spacious tunes, and samples that sound like coins or bullet casings falling to the cold pavement. [TW]

Standout tracks: “Archangel”, “Near Dark”, “Untrue”

The Flaming Lips – The Soft Bulletin (1999)

Boom! Boom! Crash! Boom! Subwoofers at the ready – it’s a Flaming Lips album… Although actually, The Soft Bulletin isn’t just a Flaming Lips album, it’s THE Flaming Lips album, the high-point of a career now spanning 31 years and 14 albums. It’s also the finest moment in the career of producer Dave Fridmann, a man regarded as the indie-rock Phil Spector (but without the murder) and whose CV also takes in such classics as Weezer’s Pinkerton and Mogwai’s Come On Die Young. Fridmann ramps up the percussion on The Soft Bulletin, turning drums and cymbals into weapons of mass destruction. But if the sound’s big, the songs are bigger still – from string-drenched opener “Race For The Prize” to the searingly honest “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate”, it’s a work of musical and lyrical genius. [MM]

Standout tracks: “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate”, “Race For The Prize”

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