Long live records. Just when we think we’ve come up with a superior means of playing music, the vinyl album comes back, reminding us of just how timeless tangible high-fi audio (and high-res audio) really is.
The immense popularity of vinyl records means that this kind of media is no longer the talking point of disk jockeys and psych-rock fanatics. It’s become the go-to way to stylishly play music. But more importantly, with the right turntable or record player, it’s often the best way to treat your ears to your favorite bands.
Records are not just the stuff of dust-covered crates in your dad’s garage. Many of the bands today often release vinyl, knowing full well that a lot of their audience probably owns a turntable. But a strong collection, like all things art, should combine the old and new. Your record inventory should be as informed by The Beatles as it is Charles Bradley. It should dabble in a variety of genres, from jazz and folk to pop and funk. This music reflects you, after all, so it ought to be a combination of masterful efforts by well-known musicians and lesser-known, more eclectic discoveries.
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road by Elton John
Sir Elton’s best offering is a majestic piece of piano pop and glam rock gold. Most artists can only produce six or seven great tracks in an entire career. Here, they fall on a single record—an impressive feat atop a career that was already extremely impressive at this point. Many see it as Elton John’s magnum opus or the album that made him a household name. The record includes hits like Benny and the Jets, Saturday Night’s All Right For Fighting, Harmony, Candle in the Wind, and Sweet Painted Lady.
A Night in Tunisia by Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers
With all respect for the likes of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, and more, this album, which was released in the late 50s, demonstrates the addictive complexity that is jazz. It’s tremendously busy musically, without sacrificing trademark swing and jaw-dropping improvisation. It’s also compelling in that Blakey, one of the brightest minds in American jazz, led his band from his throne at the drum it, a relative rarity in the field. The album truly is a jazz milestone.
Jolene by Dolly Parton
This 1974 treasure is the best record of arguably the best voice in all of country. It’s a style of music with plenty of legends — Willie, Johnny, Patsy, John Prine — but none quite possess the arresting voice of Parton. The title track is the most famous of the bunch but everything Parton touches gains an element of grace and candor, two key facets of the Americana sound machine. Just try to play I Will Always Love You without feeling fully loved, through and through.
Zombie by Fela Kuti
Good records sound wonderful. Great records inspire; or, in this case, infuriate as well. Released in 1977, Zombie points a stern finger at the government of Nigeria, where Kuti is from. The afrobeat star was beaten severely by the military on his commune after the tremendously popular album dropped. It’s a powerful and sobering message set to shimmering brass, bouncy percussion, and funk-driven melodies. Protest music is vital and something we genuinely put into an Americanized box, circa the 1960s. Step outside that box and drink in its international and highly stimulating nature.
Legend by Bob Marley and the Wailers
There’s hardly a more universal figure in the world of music than Bob Marley. This collection of hits is just about perfect, reminding the listener just how far above the reggae crowd the Jamaican icon was. There’s an almost medicinal quality to the record, never rushed, just patiently uncoiled on its own jam-centric schedule. You’ll feel better the moment the needle hits the groove, whether it’s the first or five hundredth listen.
The White Album by The Beatles
Just about anything from The Beatles is worthy of the highest honors but The White Album is a real musician’s album. It marks the band’s official foray into more exploratory genres, beyond the delightful LSD-fueled chaos of Sgt. Pepper’s. It remains the powerhouse band’s only double album ever released and maybe George Harrison’s official arrival as a songwriting force (most obviously with While My Guitar Gently Weeps). The Beatles do it all here, from the western country of Rocky Raccoon to the ragtime-y-ness of Honey Pie to the lullaby-like qualities of Cry Baby Cry.
The Yes Album by Yes
This is the album that deservedly launched the prog-rockers into the foreground. It shows the band’s out-of-this-world chops, namely in the form of intricate song structures, plenty of pace, and a jumpy style of rock very much informed by the limitlessness of jazz. It’s also where one of the best songs in all of prog-rock lives in the multi-faceted I’ve Seen All Good People. Every song feels like an amazing juggling act of highly organized multi-tasking mayhem.
The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd
An all-time great, this album has become embedded in our cultural fabric. Musically, it’s groundbreaking, flexing uncharted studio prowess and a vast horizon of experimental and cerebral rock sound. There are ten individual tracks but really it’s just a single organism flowing seamlessly like a wave from start to finish. The gorgeous vocals and guitar work are matched only by sharp sampling and post-production savvy that make the whole thing feel more like a multimedia installation than just a record.
The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie
If you feel like being taken aback by a kid prodigy, then this record is perfect for you. Released in 1962, the album also calls your name if you just like pure improvisational jazz. One of the first recordings of the great Stevie Wonder, this LP record clearly foreshadows a long and wonderful career. Better still, it feels like the kind of garage-set jam sessions where all the greats were born. There are no rules, save for playing to your heart’s content.
To Pimp A Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar
It’s only five years old but To Pimp A Butterfly already feels timeless. The record solidified Lamar’s voice as one of the best ever in hip-hop, one so razor-sharp that it ultimately earned him a Pulitzer. The references are astute, the instrumentation is mind-boggling, and the record’s detailed portrait of the Black American experience is more telling than ever. Throughout, there’s no subject or time signature where Lamar feels uncomfortable. His dense lyrics are the stuff of literature courses and are delivered effortlessly by a real master of his craft.
Black Velvet by Charles Bradley
The late Charles Bradley didn’t really experience success until his 50s. The former James Brown cover act from Florida broke late but never looked back. He’s responsible for some of the most impassioned vocals in all of music, buoyed by an incredible backing band that plays picture-perfect vintage soul and funk. It feels familiar yet new, revivalist but in an adventurous way. This final release from Bradley cements his all-star status in his own right as well as in his ability to brilliantly reimagine the songs of others (you’ll never hear Nirvana’s Stay Away quite the same way again).
Fetch the Bolt Cutters by Fiona Apple
The most amazing thing about this record is its ability to beautifully capture what it means to be alive in the world in 2020. Equal parts claustrophobic, anxious, tender, triumphant, and intrepid, it’s the album of the year and one that will always provide the soundtrack to these rather absurd times. Fiona Apple is like a magician here, weaving together elements of folk, gospel, jazz, rock, found sounds, and more. It reveals Apple as on the verge of being too brilliant for her own good and you can feel that tension. We’ve all had time to wrestle with our own mounting thoughts in 2021 but the way Apple does it here is genuinely remarkable and a joy to listen to.
Heaven and Earth by Kamasi Washington
Yup, a 2018 album can certainly be on the list, especially when you’re Kamasi Washington. The saxophonist and brilliant orchestrator is behind some of the best, most thought-provoking instrumental music out there today and it fares extremely well in vinyl form. This album in particular is grand and orchestral, just the thing for a spin on the old turntable. It’s an odyssey each and every time, like a nowadays jazz take on Dark Side of the Moon (which you should obviously also listen to on vinyl).
Emmaar by Tinariwen
West African music is a massive genre worth taking multiple deep dives into. Among the finest current acts within the category, Tinariwen is a sprawling band of hyper-talented Tuareg musicians. This is the sixth studio effort from the group and its finest, built around boiling blues guitar and jazz-inspired syncopation. There’s a depth to the sound you can only get with six (and sometimes more) musicians working tirelessly as a single unit. There’s an intriguing ruggedness to the LP and it jams to the core, built around communal riffing and charging rhythms.
Black Star by David Bowie
Bowie’s discography is marvelous from start to finish but there’s something both glorious and haunting about his final work. Black Star is the ultimate mic drop, a gorgeous parting statement from one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most towering and fluid figures. It eulogizes his passing with immortal sounds that will fill up “best of” lists fifty and a hundred years from now. We don’t need to get into Bowie’s prior work because we all know how special it was. But do go out this way is utterly graceful. He earned every right to phone in his last album but instead he did the opposite.
Is This It by The Strokes
There’s hardly anything more New York and Y2K-era cool than The Strokes. This definitive album from the indie rockers shows a band in untouchable form, capable of music that’s simultaneously radio-friendly and gifted with a bit of punk-rock grit. Any one of the band’s members could have off on noteworthy solo tangents (and some have) but this record shows the magic that can come from firing on all cylinders together. It’s full of memorable tracks, so much so that you distinctly remember exactly what you were doing the first time you heard Last Nite or Hard to Explain. It’s pretty incredible that it was the band’s debut studio effort.
Kid A by Radiohead
Many refer to Radiohead as the Beatles of the current generation and for good reason. Picking Thom Yorke and Company’s best release is no easy task but Kid A may just demonstrate how important the band’s been to music. It expertly marries electronica and rock with classical and experimental sounds to perfectly frame the culture of a brand new millennium (it was released in 2000). Like the truly great acts, Radiohead has never nestled too comfortably in one genre. The quartet is always adapting and this record shows just how ahead of the curve it always is, as it practically ushered in the popularity of electro-rock and a second wave of post-rock.
How to Live with a Phantom by Shintaro Sakamoto
Japan’s version of Steely Dan, Shintaro Sakamoto has a rare brand of swagger and stage presence. The cult composer and musician from Tokyo crafts music that is specifically made for the hippest lounges across the globe. It’s undeniably stylish and this alternative/indie record is far and away his best. It’s art-pop according to a thoughtful and retro musical mind clearly in love with the funk-laced rock of the 70s. Sakamoto is at his very best, at once playful and highly refined.
Kaputt by Destroyer
Perhaps most famous for his work in the New Pornographers, Dan Bejar is also the brainchild of Destroyer. His solo work is fascinating, combining vivid lyrics and a contemporary sound with the confidence and composure of an experienced crooner. The result is an avant-garde kind of music that’s wildly sophisticated yet full of smooth-as-velvet entry points. It’s the work of a singer-songwriter with a real storytelling gift and an infatuation with the unexpected.
Melody A.M. by Röyksopp
Released in 2001, Röyksopp’s Melody A.M. is a great listen and doesn’t seem immensely valuable on the surface until you see that — at least with this limited pressing — the cover art is done by the iconic and ever-mysterious artist, Banksy. It’s a great bit of added flair to a smooth and underrated album by one of Norway’s greatest electro-pop music duo acts. With the addition of Banksy well before he gained international acclaim, this version of the record is quite valuable.
The Court of the Crimson King by King Crimson
This debut album from heady U.K. act King Crimson is nothing short of extraordinary. As such, it deserves much more than a free Spotify stream. Falling miraculously somewhere right smack-dab in the middle of blues, rock, jazz, and cinema, the album feels progressive even today, more than a half-century after it was released. It’s classic rock, for certain, but with a careful ear, you’ll detect all kinds of outside influences. And that kind of nuance is best enjoyed by way of vinyl and multiple listening parties.
We Will Always Love You by The Avalanches
Call me nuts, but I think this record will go down in some form of Hall of Fame, decades from now. It features all of the best current talent, woven into a happy pill of music, genres be damned. It’s got electro, pop, rock, folk, and much more. And I mean by some esteemed peeps and acts, such as Weezer, Cola Boyy, Kurt Vile, MGMT, and much more. Just set the needle to play and enjoy every single layer of this instant pop classic. It’s a complete lesson is how to bring on your favorite guests and blend them in seamlessly into your very own thing; not an easy task.
Agaeits Byrjun by Sigur Ros
Atmospheric music plays oh so well through vinyl. Especially if you have a decent setup and it’s Sigur Ros you are playing. The Scandinavian stalwarts of ambient glory never let you down and this album is arguably the band’s most animated and energetic. If you want a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs and all kinds of emotive energy, this one’s for you. Also, it’s on the earlier side of Sigur Ros releases so it will probably gain in value over the years, provide you treat it well.
Everything sounds better on vinyl. But, to nitpick, one could easily argue that the richer and more resonant genres of music sound better in this fuller, more robust sonic format. Great classical, jazz and experimental recordings do especially well here.
Like most collector’s items with vinyl, it’s all about limited runs and scarcity. That, and one-off pressings or foreign versions of iconic albums. Another thing to consider is the label itself. Oftentimes, an act will release an EP or LP through a handful of labels (or sometimes sub-labels of the overarching label). Some of these labels are long gone and therefore have accrued a sort of nostalgic value.
At the end of the day, it’s all about demand. Much like a Michael Jordan rookie card, the first release of now larger-than-life bands can be worth thousands, if not tens of thousands. Think Nirvana’s Love Buzz b/w Big Cheese EP from 1988 or The Beatles’ debut single Love Me Do from 1962.
In short, yes. However, given the popularity of the field and the mass-production at play again these days, the value is not the same across the board. If you do plan to collect and maintain or even increase the value of your finds, proper storage is key. Like wine, vinyl records need the right environment. Room temperature and reasonable humidity will keep your treasured musical discs from warping.
Also, be easy on the jacket and if the sleeve is still there, keep it on, you’re bound to spill something at some point. Don’t leave records in the turntable when not playing, especially if they might be subject to direct sunlight.
There’s value in the format but added value in the record maintaining its integrity. In other words, treat them well and invest in a proper brush and storage setup. And while you’re doing that, consider a few more records to add to your growing collection.
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