30 essential albums for audiophiles

Daft Punk: Random Access Memories (2013)

Less an album than a love letter to disco, Random Access Memories will never be the most beloved of Daft Punk records – “Get Lucky” aside, there’s nothing here that gets its hooks into you like "Around The World" or "One More Time". But thanks to the use of original instruments and some of the most talented session musicians (almost every sound on the album comes from a “real” instrument) and collaborators in the game, it’s an exquisite body of work. And it sounds amazing: rarely has deep sub bass every sounded, well, so bassy, so real and so gigantic as it does on RAM. There’s a wide dynamic range here, so this is one big recent release that hasn’t fallen victim to what horrified audiophiles refer to as the "loudness wars".

Standout tracks: “Giorgio by Moroder”, “Get Lucky”, “Contact”

Miles Davis: Kind of Blue (1959)

Probably the most famous jazz album of all time – and almost certainly the best-selling, Kind of Blue represented a new direction for Miles Davis, as he discarded the complex chord progressions of hard bop for something different: improvisations based on scales, or “modal” jazz. The result is an album of gentle, evocative numbers that influenced not only the jazz scene but other genres like rock and classical. Ever the innovator, Davis later abandoned Kind of Blue’s laid-back style, regarding it as a product of its time that no longer moved him.

Standout tracks: “So What”, “All Blues”

Sigur Ros: Agaetis Byrjun (1999)

Before Iceland’s Sigur Ros became the go-to band to soundtrack every Attenborough documentary they sat awkwardly on the edge of post-rock – but it was a genre that never seemed to fit them. There are elements of Agaetis Byrjun that qualify it for such categorisation – it sounds epic in the true meaning of the word, not what you say when you’ve just eaten a really nice biscuit – but if anything it’s more post-folk, like Mogwai with flutes, horns and an orchestra rather than delay pedals and a volume dial. It creaks, moans and soars with the sounds of the band’s near-Arctic home, and, without wanting to make it sound too much like some sort of hipster Enya record, there’s even a hint of whale song to Jonsi’s vocals. [TW]

Standout tracks: "Olsen Olsen", "Ny batteri", "Svefn-g-englar".

Neil Young: After The Gold Rush (1970)

Whether wrenching a feedback-drenched wall of noise from a battered Les Paul or strumming his way through a gentle countrified ballad, Neil Young has always been an artist who cares about sound quality: he favours releasing albums in Hi-Res formats like DVD-Audio and Blu-ray, and is about to launch Pono, a portable Hi-Res Audio player.

While you could argue for days about which of Young’s 40-odd LPs is the best, few offer as complete a picture of his range as a songwriter than After The Gold Rush, an all-killer-no-filler record offering mournful piano ballads (the title track and “Birds”), down-home sing-alongs (“Cripple Creek Ferry”) and angry axe-wielding stompers (“Southern Man”).

There are several versions of this album available, all of which sound wonderful, but a forthcoming Blu-ray reissue with 24-bit/192kHz versions of the songs may end up being the reference edition.

Standout tracks: “After The Gold Rush”, “Southern Man”, “Don’t Let It Bring You Down”

Radiohead: OK Computer (1997)

At the start of 1997 Britpop was on a life support machine. By the end of the year two albums had killed it completely: the bloat-rock of Oasis’s Be Here Now and OK Computer. While the former represented everything bad about alternative music in the ‘90s, the latter was a sign of better things to come. OK Computer is the record that caught Radiohead right on the cusp of the experimentation that would produce Kid A, and marries it with the kind of choruses that would have 90,000 fans singing every word back at the band from in front of Glastonbury's Pyramid stage that summer.

Standout tracks: “Paranoid Android”, “Climbing Up the Walls”, “Lucky”

More after the break...

Prince: Sign o’ the Times (1987)

This double album is made up of castoffs from three aborted records, but Prince being Prince, a collection of odds and sods turned out to be a masterpiece and one of the 80s’ greatest LPs. As usual, Prince not only sings but plays many of the instruments, including programming the drum machines and samplers that play such a huge role in the record’s sound. On CD, it’s not widely regarded as the best-mastered of Prince’s records, but audiophiles should do their best to seek out the superb Japanese SHM-CD version (or the vinyl).

Standout tracks: “Sign ‘o the Times”, “U Got The Look”, “If I Was Your Girlfriend”

The Congos – Heart Of The Congos (1977)

Few producers have been so innovative and influential as Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, and The Congos’ 1977 debut is without doubt his most consistently brilliant piece of work. Recorded at Perry’s Black Ark studio in Kingston, Jamaica, it’s a mind-altering blend of reverb-heavy rhythms laid down by the studio’s house band The Upsetters plus the perfectly matched harmonies of its three vocalists: tenor ‘Ashanti’ Roy Johnson, falsetto Cedric Myton and baritone Watty Burnett. Somehow, Perry recorded it on an ageing four-track, but you’d never know it from the lush “Fisherman” or “Open Up The Gate”, with the producer using found sounds and a battery of tricks to create the effect he was after. Roots reggae at its finest. [MM]

Standout tracks: “Open Up The Gate”, “Fisherman”

Pink Floyd: Wish You Were Here (1975)

Pink Floyd is probably regarded as the archetypal band for audiophiles: prog rock giants serving up complex and immaculately produced albums full of lengthy songs. And never more so than on Wish You Were Here, an album that features only five tracks but runs well over 40 minutes. The whole album is essentially a tribute to Floyd’s founding member and creative tinderbox Syd Barrett, whose heavy use of psychedelic drugs had led to him stepping away from the band and society in general. Even if noodly prog isn’t your thing, it’s an album that will give your speakers or headphones a full body workout.

Standout tracks: “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”, “Wish You Were Here”

Jeff Buckley: Grace (1994)

David Bowie considers Grace to be the greatest album ever made, and while we won’t go that far it’s hard to see it as anything other than an excellent record from a singer-songwriter at the peak of his powers: his tenor voice is faultless and the songs, whether his own or covers, are memorable. It’s a beautifully well recorded album too: play it on decent equipment and Buckley could almost be singing in your living room.

Standout tracks: “Hallelujah”, “Last Goodbye”, “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over”

Michael Jackson: Thriller (1982)

Thriller’s cultural and commercial significance is well documented, but Michael Jackson’s masterpiece is also one of the best-recorded and most immaculately produced albums of the 1980s. Producer Quincy Jones and Jackson enjoyed (or perhaps endured) a strained relationship during the making of Thriller, and every track was painstakingly remixed (a week was spent on each song) because neither was happy with the initial recordings. The hard work resulted in a record that blended disco, soul, rock and R&B and a template that would inform pop music for the next 20-plus years. Oh, and it's comfortably the best-selling album of all time.

Standout tracks: “Billie Jean”, “Beat It”, “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”

Massive Attack: Mezzanine (1998)

Trip hop pioneers Massive Attack had already established themselves as Britain’s best-known proponents of what the Americans call “electronica” when they dropped Mezzanine, initially as a legal MP3 download on their website (they were among the first major acts to embrace digital distribution) and later as a physical release. Despite the Bristol trio apparently hating each other’s guts during the making of the album it’s a prime example of a record which uses ambient sounds to create rich texture, depth and atmosphere. The trade-off is perhaps a lack the hookier songs that loomed large on previous Massive Attack albums, but when a new direction results in songs like “Teardrop”, we’re definitely on board. An LP you should play loud on headphones on dark, moody nights.

Standout tracks: “Teardrop”, “Angel”, “Inertia Creeps”

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