They say whats old eventually becomes new again. Can’t be truer then the current audio scene. While everything is available at your fingertips on streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music - the music they pump out of your speakers is castrated.
MP3, by definition compresses the hell out of the digital stream. In order to save ever precious time to download, it strips the treble that you probably won’t hear. It’ll drop the bass that your speakers couldn’t possibly reproduce. And the mid range, well the little 1s & 0s just turn them into indistinct mush. You are not hearing what the Artist intended you to hear. You are getting a cold, harsh digital representation of what an algorithm is calculating for you.
Sure, you can make the arguments that you can’t really hear what the MP3 drops. What they don’t tell you is that you can feel what they are leaving out. The bass lines that just hit you in the gut. Every nuance that comes into a wailing guitar riff. Its just not sound, its a feeling. And the only format that has captured that feeling is Vinyl.
But what vinyl albums should you have in your collection? Well here are my top 10 in no particular order:
In 1980, AC/DC looked to be on their way up. They had released a series of successful records, finally broke the US with their album Highway To Hell, and were set to record the album that would eventually become Back In Black. However, in February 1980, the band’s original singer Bon Scott was found dead in London. After Scott’s funeral – and with some encouragement from his parents – the band went straight to finding a new frontman, and Brian Johnson was announced as the new singer for AC/DC in April 1980.
The band pay tribute to their former singer with the album’s black cover: it was meant to be entirely black with embossed lettering, but the record label insisted on including grey for the band’s logo. The album also starts with bells ringing for Bon Scott. Apart from that brief opening, there are no reflective, mourning or sad songs. In general, the band stuck with what they knew: simple, hard-hitting rock and roll.
Back In Black is full of riffs that every novice guitar player will attempt to learn at least once, and has solos that experienced players wish they could emulate. Songs like You Shook Me All Night Long have infection choruses that suit the massive arenas they would eventually fill, and Shoot To Thrill is an adrenaline-filled rock anthem that would be used on film soundtracks years after its release. Back In Black’s catchy riffs and quotable lyrics are so synonymous with rock music that they are known by even the casual listener, and are still staples in AC/DC’s live performances to this day.
As anyone who likes unsociably loud music will tell you, heavy metal is popularly thought to have been born in 1970 when Brummie headbangers Black Sabbath released their self-titled debut album. Let’s go one further and suggest that heavy metal really hit its stride for the first time with Sabbath’s second album, Paranoid, a heavier, more threatening and more nuanced collection of songs.
The one-two opening shot of War Pigs and Paranoid itself simply cannot be bettered in the metal world. The former, a critique of warfare and in particular of the American government’s policies regarding Vietnam, sees lyricist and bassist Geezer Butler on peak form – even if he can’t find a better way to rhyme ‘masses’ than with itself in the couplet ‘Generals gathered in their masses/Just like witches at black masses’. The latter, a zippy paean to mental instability, is probably Sabbath’s best-known song, executed at a rare, non-doomy tempo. The album then moves on to the sensuous instrumental Planet Caravan, a beautiful, landscaped song, before the pulverising hammer blow of Iron Man. It’s not sheer power that makes Paranoid a unique album, although it has that to spare: it’s the keen awareness of songwriting dynamics displayed by Butler plus singer Ozzy Osbourne, guitarist Tony Iommi and Bill Ward, all still in their very early 20s at the time of recording. That a record such as this was written and delivered by such young musicians is nothing short of miraculous, albeit in the infernal rather than heavenly sense.
No record collector wants sticky fingers on vinyl. Sticky Fingers on vinyl, however, is a different story. Recorded over two years in three locations (Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama, frontman Mick Jagger’s own country home and Olympic Studios in London), Sticky Fingers was the first LP by The Rolling Stones to be released on their own Rolling Stones Records. The album is also the first to feature Mick Taylor, who replaced guitarist Brian Jones in 1969. Amongst the handful of guest musicians to appear on the record, The Who’s Pete Townsend is perhaps the most notable, believed to have contributed backing vocals to Sway.
As well as being revered as one of The Rolling Stones’ best, Sticky Fingers boasts one of the most classic album covers in rock. The artwork – concepted by renowned artist Andy Warhol – was photographed by Billy Name and features a fully-working zip on most original pressings. Due to the LP’s unique construction, hidden underneath the cover art is a second print of presumably the same model stripped down underpants embellished with Warhol’s name and the curious line: “This photograph may not be – etc.” The model was widely believed to be Jagger himself upon the record’s release, though is now known not to be the case. In fact the identity of the crotch’s owner remains a mystery. And though only small on the reverse of the record, Sticky Fingers was the first time The Rolling Stones’ now iconic tongue and lips logo had been used.
If 1983’s Pyromania had Def Leppard dipping their toe into pop’s waters, Hysteria was a cannonball at the deep end. From the beginning, the album’s concept had remained the same – to be a hard rock version of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, on which every track could be a hit single (and indeed seven of the 12 tracks were, one more single than Thriller). At just over 25 million copies sold worldwide, Hysteria remains the band’s best-selling record.
Def Leppard’s turbocharged fourth record infamously took almost four years to produce and at a cost just shy of $5 million. At a run time of around 63 minutes, Hysteria really stretched the limits of how long a standard album at the time could be – unfortunately for audiophiles, to the detriment of the vinyl pressings. Over an hour’s worth of music is way too much to squeeze onto a single platter and retain a high standard of audio quality. More recent vinyl releases of the album remedy this by running over two LPs, most notably the 30th Anniversary gatefold vinyl re-issue, featuring fully remastered tracks on a strikingly translucent orange 180g wax.
When Neil Young released Harvest in ’72, he was elevated to the status of household name, largely because of the hugely-acclaimed songs Heart Of Gold and The Needle And The Damage Done. The former is more easily digestible and catchier; the latter is darker, more gloomy in tone and production because it was recorded live, and also better. The Needle And The Damage Done, recorded in concert at UCLA the previous year, was a paean to those of Young’s friends who had succumbed to heroin overdoses, in particular his previous bassist Danny Whitten. It ends suddenly, halfway through a chord sequence, lending this otherwise slick album a threatening edge.
Critics didn’t give Harvest particularly good reviews at the time of its release: some felt that he was repeating the After The Gold Rush formula a little too readily. However, in years to come the album was recognised as an all-time classic – even by the members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, whose song Sweet Home Alabama was written in response to some anti-Southern sentiments expressed by Young in the song Alabama.
“Welcome to the Hotel California.” On the Eagles’ fifth studio album, they conjured up the allegorical hotel as a means to convey their disillusionment with the supposed ‘American dream’ – just the beginning of a wider commentary on the self-destructive nature of the rock music industry at the time, the United States and the wider world. Indisputably one of the most iconic rock albums of all time, Hotel California won the band a Grammy Award (Record Of The Year for the album’s title track) and has sold over 30 million copies (the Eagles’ second highest selling album of all, after the success of Their Greatest Hits (1971–1975).
Hotel California marked guitarist Joe Walsh’s band debut, whilst also the final LP with bassist Randy Meisner. The album was recorded at Criteria Studios, Florida and Record Plant Studios, California with producer Bill Szymczyk who had also worked on the Eagles’ previous record, One Of These Nights. Recording sessions at Criteria Studios were often disrupted by the noise from Black Sabbath working on Technical Ecstasy in the studio next door.
In reality, Zep were guided by Page and no-one else – which explains the direction Led Zeppelin III took. While Zep’s debut album and the follow-up, both released in 1969, had essentially been LPs of hard rock songs with a few acoustic parts here and there, III was mostly unplugged. A calmer, sweeter, more relaxed vibe permeated the record as a result, itself aided by the fact that Page and Plant composed the songs in a remote Welsh cottage called Bron-Yr-Aur. With no running water or electricity, the twosome pulled out acoustic guitars, began writing – and in doing so established the great rock tradition of ‘getting it together in the country’.
Sit back in your beanbag, slap some headphones on and immerse yourself in the opening cut, ‘Immigrant Song’ – the heaviest song on the album. Page’s classic octave-based guitar riff chimes in, while Plant delivers the wail for which he had already become famous. Friends is a deeper song, despite being largely acoustic: where it excels is with its unusual orchestration of Indian-sounding strings.
We all agree that III is a splendid album nowadays, but critics just didn’t get it at the time. Neither heavy enough for headbangers nor progressive enough for Jethro Tull fans, it fell between two stools, it was thought. How wrong they were, and how wonderful hindsight is.
On their 11th record, Fleetwood Mac crafted a bittersweet masterpiece fuelled by perhaps one of rock’s most infamous melodramas. Released in 1977, the intensely personal Rumours has become the seventh highest-selling studio album of all time with over 45 million copies sold worldwide. Also winning the five-piece a Grammy award for Album Of The Year in 1978, the iconic record not only features Fleetwood Mac’s best work but some of the best songwriting of all time.
The seminal LP featured the fifth incarnation of the band - the duo of guitarist Lindsey Buckingham and vocalist Stevie Nicks joining Mick Fleetwood, Christine McVie and John McVie two years previous following the departure of Bob Welch. A transition triggered on 1975’s eponymous release, Rumours completes Fleetwood Mac’s progression from a band of blues cliches to one of bright pop singles and immaculate songwriting.
Among the plethora of official and unofficial rereleases over the past 40 years, audiophiles will revel in the 2011 version that was released for US Record Store Day, which was cut at 45rpm on heavyweight 180g vinyl and remastered from the original analogue tapes to achieve maximum audio quality.
Often considered one of the greatest albums of all time, and cementing Jimi Hendrix’s status as the original guitar hero, Are You Experienced remains a significant milestone in the history of rock music over 50 years since its release.
Recording for the album was done in between a busy schedule of live performances, though the trio notoriously laid down entire tracks with minimal fuss. Most notably, ‘The Wind Cries Mary’ was reportedly recorded in a single take having only been written the night before by Hendrix. It’s estimated that the album cost no more than £1,500 to produce.
The original UK release of the LP in May 1967 featured a mono mix, but a stereo mix was also produced when the record made its way to the US in August of the same year. There are several differences between the two mixes, including a drumroll on May This Be Love and the sound of Hendrix turning pages of lyrics which are not audible on the mono mix.
To this day, Appetite For Destruction is the best selling debut album, and one of the best selling albums of all time. Guns N’ Roses brought an edge to rock music inside and outside the studio that hadn’t been seen since the Rolling Stones days.
Appetite For Destruction features the singles ‘Welcome To The Jungle’, ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ and ‘Paradise City’, which all made it to the top ten in the US charts. The opening of ‘Welcome To The Jungle’ perfectly captures you by teasing with light echoing guitar before building and then exploding into the blues-grooving main riff. Rather then having a Side A and Side B, Appetite For Destruction has a G and R Side, with the Guns side featuring the songs on drugs and life in Hollywood and the Roses side comprised of songs on love and sex.
The original vinyl release had a different cover to the iconic Celtic cross with the skull of each band member. The first release of the record featured artwork by Robert Williams of a woman being sexually assaulted by a robot and a monster about to attack the robot. Stores refused to stock the album and the record label replaced the artwork with the one we all know. The version with the banned artwork isn’t hard to find if you look through online auction sites, but you should expect to pay at least double what you would for the same album with the reissued artwork.
Entirely written by Pete Townshend, Quadrophenia follows teenager Jimmy: a misfit kid struggling to work out his place in the world – until, that is, he discovers the mod movement and The Who. Fed up of his life at home, his dead-end job and relationships with friends and family, he moves from London to Brighton. Jimmy suffers from schizophrenia and has four personalities, which explains the album title. Each of the personalities reflects a member of the band, and explores a theme which reoccurs in the album. Quadrophenia spoke to teens of the time who could relate to its teenage angst.
On the vinyl release, inside the gatefold is a summary of the plot of Quadrophenia as well as a booklet of photographs showing Brighton and London during the mod scene, when then album was set.
A Night At The Opera cemented Queen as a household name and – pardon the pun – music royalty. The album features Queen’s normal variety of genres, as well as experimentation of sounds and recording techniques. There are tracks that are all-out rock but the band doesn’t seem to take themselves too seriously in their music. Take for example Seaside Rendezvous, where Mercury imitates woodwind instruments using just his voice.
However, they have the occasional serious moment such as in the opening track Death On Two Legs, which is said to be a hate song directed towards Queen’s original manager. Love Of My Life was written by Freddie Mercury about his then-girlfriend Mary Austin, but Brian May would later rearrange the song and after Mercury’s death, dedicate it to him when playing it live.
You can’t mention a Night At The Opera without bringing up ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, the best-selling commercial single of all time in the UK and one of the band’s most well-known songs. It was also the most expensive single to produce at the time of its release, being recording in multiple studios and taking over three weeks to make. It was twice the length of most singles and received only mixed reviews at the time, if you can believe it. Now it is one of the most well-known rock songs of all time; it has topped charts around the world and remains to be a popular choice with drunk karaoke singers everywhere.
Led Zeppelin IV sounded amazing in 1971 and it sounds amazing now. It has an essential purity, four towering musicians locked together, making music that is setting their spirits free. It arrived at a moment in pop history when rock was reconfiguring itself. The Beatles had broadened the scope of popular music to such an extent that it is not really possible to consider them purely as a rock band but, in their wake, there were a lot of bands trying both to get back to the more primal drive of the original electric music that had inspired them and to carry it into bolder, more adult places. Jimi Hendrix was pushing the guitar towards the sonic outer limits, Pink Floyd were concocting lush space age soundscapes, The Who were adding keyboards and sequencers to their gobsmacking hard rock crunch, The Rolling Stones were digging down into the music’s bluesy roots, David Bowie and Mick Ronson were waiting in the wings with their glam sci-fi inventions. But when it comes to the absolute essence of power, sexiness and rhythmic attack of guitar, bass, drums and voice, Led Zeppelin were the band in the driving seat. They had essentially already invented the genre of heavy rock and were at the height of their confidence, creativity and youthful ambition. Led Zeppelin IV threw down the gauntlet for a whole generation. Even when punk came to knock down everything that came before, this album was left standing.
Many bands preceding Zeppelin rocked everybody’s socks off, and there are absolutely classic albums from The Who, The Doors, The Rolling Stones and Hendrix. In the years since, The Sex Pistols, U2, Nirvana and Radiohead are all guitar bands who have had musical moments that shook the whole world. But even their best albums cannot stand up against Led Zeppelin IV. It is, quite simply, the greatest rock album ever made.