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”
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”
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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”
OutKast: Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (2003)
The fourth killer record in a row from Atlanta hip hop duo Andre 3000 and Big Boi, this is essentially two solo albums in a single case. In hindsight, it was a signal that a creative partnership that had proved so fruitful in the past had run its course – but when each of the albums is as good as these, who cares? Andre 3000 morphs into an manic electro crooner and Big Boi brings all manner of cleanly-produced, P-Funk-influenced club-friendly jams.
Standout tracks: “The Way You Move”, “Hey Ya!”, “Roses”
Steely Dan: Aja (1977)
In all honesty, if we had the space we could put all of Steely Dan’s studio albums on this list. New York jazz-rockers Donald Fagen and Walter Becker are nothing short of slaves to perfection when it comes to recording and mastering, and consequently each LP is an audiophile’s dream. But if we have to pick a single one, we’ll say 1977’s Aja, which features something like 40 session musicians and some of the band’s most seamless production yet. Jazz-rock may conjure up nightmares of Kenny G soullessly noodling his sax, but their songs’ cynical, acerbic lyrics have always elevated “the Dan” to something more than the sum of their parts.
Standout tracks: “Black Cow”, “Deacon Blues”, “Peg”
Guns N' Roses: Chinese Democracy (2008)
Whatever your opinion on Axl Rose's reworked, Slash-less Guns N' Roses, there's no denying that his 13-years-in-the-making Chinese Democracy is a treat for audiophiles.
In defiance of the ongoing loudness war, Rose and engineer Bob Ludwig opted to avoid using compression on the album – so it's packed with dynamics and details, from Nine Inch Nails guitarist Robin Finck's raw, wailing tones to the psychedelic shred of six-string virtuoso Buckethead. It might be heretical to say it, but you won't miss Slash. And with US$13m worth of guitar overdubs, orchestral tracks and electronic bleeps and bloops to pick through, it's great for highlighting the nuances of your hi-fi setup. [SG]
Standout tracks: "There Was A Time," "Better," "This I Love"
Joni Mitchell: Blue (1971)
Joni Mitchell’s masterpiece, Blue is a spare, sparse record showcasing the Canadian’s pure stripped-down songwriting: most songs feature little instrumentation beyond Mitchell’s acoustic guitar or piano. It’s recorded to be highly revealing (with headphones, you can hear the piano pedals moving in the title track) which is entirely appropriate given the confessional nature of the songs, in which Mitchell details her life, loves and struggles with depression with unflinching transparency. Mitchell herself later said of the album, “There's hardly a dishonest note in the vocals. At that period of my life, I had no personal defences. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes.” It’s all there, clear as a bell, in the recording.
Standout tracks: "Blue", "A Case Of You", "California"