The best vinyl records to collect and show off your system
The best vinyl revealed - records that will sound fantastic on your record player.
Vinyl is going through a huge resurgence right now, with the format outselling CDs for the first time since the '80s. It's so popular even groups are taking matters into their own hands, when it comes to the physical production of records. Recently, Metallica revealed that it has bought its own processing plant to manage the demand.
This vinyl revival (as it must, by law, be called) hasn’t happened by accident. And it’s not just the invention of some wilful hipsters in thrall to anything old-fashioned and analog - as this best vinyl round-up proves.
The reason vinyl refuses to die is the way it sounds. Nothing delivers the sonic satisfaction of a vinyl record. Sure, they’re inconvenient, bulky, heavy, difficult to store and easy to damage. But they sound so much more, well, musical than any other format it’s easy to forgive all this.
It almost goes without saying that some recordings sound better than others. They’ve had time and money lavished on them, they’ve been produced by people who care about their sonic qualities - and the better your music system, the more impressive and more emotive some recordings sound.
And some records have better songs on them than others, obviously.
But Lord knows there are plenty of exquisite-sounding records filled with utterly unmemorable songs, and plenty of ropey-sounding records chock-full of brilliant ones.
What’s by no means as common is the superb-sounding record that’s packed with outstanding songs. You'll find 20 of them below.
Of course, there are a few more than 20 - but here we’ve picked out extraordinary feats of the vinyl art: records that sound amazing, that feature loads of amazing songs, and that as a consequence will make your system sound, well… amazing.
Best vinyl records to collect
1. Radiohead: In RainbowsView now at Amazon
Although initially most notable as a ‘pay what you like’ digital download, In Rainbows didn’t take long to establish itself as one of Radiohead’s most ambitious and most enjoyable albums. It’s brilliantly suited to vinyl - its numerous gimpy rhythm tracks, lopsided percussion patterns and undercurrent of imminent electronic breakdown sounds more coherent, more logical and more straightforwardly correct than via any other format.
Opening track 15 Step makes the point from its very first note. All the clatter and hiss, all the percussive spasms, are organised into a convincing pattern - and the rest of the arrangement hangs easily from it, like the baubles on a Christmas tree.
2. Joy Division: Unknown PleasuresView now at Amazon
It’s hard to know what has sold more – copies of Unknown Pleasures or knock-off t-shirts depicting the cover art. Either way, its place in the upper echelons of British music history is unquestionable.
The only Joy Division album released during lead singer Ian Curtis’s lifetime was recorded over three weekends in 1979 in a Stockport music studio using methods as unconventional as singing vocals down a telephone line and adding toilet noises.
Cold, complex, brooding and yet at times sing-a-long euphoric, Unknown Pleasures strangely never had any singles released by Factory Records, meaning you will just have to purchase the full remastered record instead. Oh darn.
In case you’re wondering, the cover was designed by artist Peter Saville CBE using a data plot of signals from a radio pulsar. One to impress your Tinder date with.
3. Dusty Springfield: Dusty in MemphisView now at Amazon
Dusty Springfield’s career was need of fairly serious intervention by the time she started work on her fifth album. And it doesn’t get much more serious than signing for Atlantic Records, decamping to Memphis, recording with a band including the Memphis Cats and the Sweet Inspirations, and being produced by Jerry Wexler and Arif Mardin.
Add a selection of indestructible songs (such as Son of a Preacher Man and Don’t Forget About Me) written by the likes of Goffin/King, Bacharach/David and Randy Newman, and everything is in place for a triumphant comeback. Naturally, Dusty in Memphis stiffed badly.
Nevertheless, this is a high-gloss, luxuriously analogue recording that can’t help but sound sweet and smoky on a well-sorted system. The midrange in particular, where Springfield’s effortlessly emotive voice sits, is capable of making the hair on the back of the listener’s neck stand to attention.
4. Kate Bush: Hounds of LoveView now at Amazon
Kate Bush’s genius extends to her business savviness given she owns the entire recording copyright to 1985’s Hounds of Love, as well as anthemic album opener ‘Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)’.
The track’s starring role in season four of Stranger Things sparked a streaming frenzy, ensuring 2022 was a very lucrative year for Kate. We’re not only pleased for her, but also the new generation of fans that now exist as a result.
There are other songs on Hounds of Love equally deserving of your adulation, though. For a start, there is, well, ‘Hounds of Love’, ‘The Big Sky’, ‘Cloudbusting’, plus the criminally underrated ‘And Dream of Sheep’.
Our advice is to breathe in the 2018 remaster, then promptly move the needle back to the beginning on your record player and start all over again.
5. Brian Eno and David Byrne: My Life in the Bush of GhostsView now at Amazon
In between producing Talking Heads’ Fear of Music and Remain in Light, Brian Eno recorded this extraordinary mash-up of African, Middle Eastern and American rhythms with the Talking Heads main man. An incredibly forward-thinking record (described by Eno as ‘a vision of a psychedelic Africa’) that incorporated sampling and looping long before either technique was a) common or b) easy, its release was delayed by almost a year while Sire Records attempted to clear the various vocal samples of exorcists, evangelists and Lebanese mountain singers.
Abstract, insistent and funky in a weirdly warped way, this record has the sort of sinuous, fast-moving low-frequency action that separates great set-ups from the merely good. Keeping that bass organised while giving it all the tonal variation it demands isn’t a job for the faint-hearted.
6. Elvis Costello and The Attractions: This Year’s ModelView now at Amazon
Elvis Costello’s persona as the vengeful nerd from the accounts department was becoming established by the time of his second album, the first with his crack backing band The Attractions. This Year’s Model also hints at the musical polymath to come, though, with complex arrangements and cast-iron melodies featuring strongly.
But it’s Nick Lowe’s production that elevates This Year’s Model from superior pop-punk to a vinyl essential. The immediacy and unity of the performances, and the interaction and sympathy of the musicians, all play to the format’s inherent and celebrated strengths with rhythm and timing. This record absolutely vaults from your speakers and pokes you repeatedly in the chest, while its eyes are out on stalks the whole time.
7. Marvin Gaye: What’s Going OnView now at Amazon
Things have gone quiet on the Marvin Gaye biopic being produced by Dr Dre and Jimmy Iovine, and the confusion doesn’t end there because there are two different remastered versions of Gaye’s famous album doing the rounds. So, what’s going on?
It turns out a US version reworked by acclaimed engineer Kevin Gray is superior to the EU reissue, which isn’t. Both celebrate the 50th anniversary of Gaye’s masterpiece recorded in the midst of the Vietnam War. Only one is seemingly worth the outlay.
As well as the full album tracklisting featuring direct-to-analoge mastering from the original tapes, the two-LP edition also features rare cuts making their vinyl debut, plus all original singles and B-sides featuring Gaye’s achingly smooth tones.
8. Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin IVView now at Amazon
Hardcore fans will issue absolute pelters for this but here goes – the first three Led Zeppelin albums can be a bit of a tough listen. Fast forward to 1971’s IV, though, and you have yourself a fully formed masterpiece of gargantuan rock n’roll proportions.
It’s a strange thing to say with so many huge tracks to choose from, but it's perhaps the pacing of Led Zeppelin IV that makes it such a captivating listen. Openers ‘Black Dog’ and ‘Rock and Roll’ whizz by at breakneck speed before a welcome moment to draw breath.
Things settle down somewhat through the middle order with ‘The Battle of Evermore’ and all seven minutes and 55 seconds of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ before it’s time to gird one’s loins for LP two.
It’s left to drummer John Bonham to bring the curtain down in epic fashion on the reworking of 1929 country blues song ‘When the Levee Breaks’ by Kansas Joe and Memphis Minnie. Listen to the original afterwards… it will stabilise your heart rate.
9. Elton John: Goodbye Yellow Brick RoadView now on Amazon
With Elton John on his farewell tour and headlining Glastonbury, now is the perfect time to immerse yourself in the beauty that is Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. It's a near perfect record - Jamaican Jerk Off can, er, jerk off - with John on fine form. There's real warmth in the ballads and his piano playing is on top form, too. A classic that needs to be in everyone's collection.
10. Bob Marley and the Wailers: LegendView now at Amazon
The man, the myth, the legend that is Bob Marley doesn’t really need an introduction and neither do the 14 tracks of pure love and feeling to be found on this essential ‘best of’ collection… but we’re going to attempt to do them justice nevertheless.
With the Wailers providing the wobbles, Legend is the biggest reggae album of all time and one where every song has a kind of healing quality that soothes the soul whenever you listen.
The Jamaican icon continues to transcend generations and no matter how bad the world around us seems to get, hearing Marley reassure us ‘everything’s gonna be alright’ makes it all ok, for a few minutes at least.For the number of plays Legend will likely get, we recommend investing in the 2019 double vinyl version, remastered at Abbey Road Studios, for a more detailed presentation of the original cuts.
11. The Roots: Things Fall ApartView now at Amazon
Has there ever been a more serious-minded, more artistically questing hip-hop act than The Roots? Throughout Things Fall Apart there is constant tension between musicianship, high-level MCing, and beats so hard and substantial you could roller-skate on them - and the result is a recording that’s compelling, unsettling and immersive all at the same time.It goes without saying that vinyl’s facility with low-frequency detail and texture is perfectly suited to high-end hip-hop like this - but what’s equally striking about the way this album sounds on a record player is the relentless immediacy of the rapping in the mid-range. Black Thought bites off the words, chews them up and spits them out with complete commitment and striking urgency - only the vinyl format is able to give complete expression to his concerns.
12. Massive Attack vs Burial: Four Walls / Paradise CircusView now at Discogs
The one that got away. Limited to a thousand hand-numbered copies, this spellbinding collaboration between Massive Attack and Burial fetches circa £1,000-a-pop if you’re lucky enough to find one for sale. It was originally released for £25.
That’s an astonishing figure for a record containing two songs totalling 25 minutes. Still, longer than a Pusha T album these days so who’s counting? What you do get, aside from the exquisite gold glitter sleeve designed by Massive’s Robert ‘3D’ Del Naja (maybe Banksy, maybe not) is Burial at his mesmerising best.
The elusive Londoner remixes unreleased Massive Attack track ‘Four Walls’ followed by a resplendent reworking of ‘Paradise Circus’ (the theme song from Luther). The fact vocals for both are provided by the ethereal Hope Sandoval (her of Mazzy Star fame) makes this an unwitting supergroup collaboration as rare as the record itself.
13. Four Tet: There is Love in YouView now at Amazon
On the face of it, Kieran Hebden’s releases as Four Tet are straightforward. Simple, even. A politely attacking beat, some glitchy electronics and a fractured riff of some description… then repeat to fade. But listen a little more closely - the subtlety, the careful layering and interlocking of sounds, and the stealthy hooks will have these pieces lodged in your subconscious for months. Years, sometimes.
There is Love in You is one of his prettiest recordings, and that’s meant in an entirely positive way. The aural collages are delivered as a unified whole when heard on vinyl, the beats are weightier and more serious-minded, and the occasional flashes of an acoustic instrument - guitars, ocarinas, hammered dulcimers - sound glaringly real against their processed backdrops. Proof positive that electronic music can be every bit as emotive as any other type.
14. 10,000 Maniacs: Our Time in EdenView now at Amazon
10,000 Maniacs’ fifth album is a perfect aural illustration of the moment when the late-80s American Indie movement (of which R.E.M. were the unarguable poster child) tipped into the mainstream. Wide-eyed, sincere, and so authentic it’s enough to give you a nosebleed, Our Time in Eden captures the exact moment a band who were expected to make a meaningful commercial case for themselves fell just short.
This is a carefully produced record in any case, one with the sort of quality of songwriting (and the sonic priorities) that makes it a complete joy on vinyl. Natalie Merchant’s vocals, her purity of tone, take the spotlight both figuratively and literally - on a sympathetic set-up there’s a torrent of detail revealed about her phrasing and her breath control. No other format delivers the human elements of a recording so well.
15. Leftfield: Rhythm & StealthView now at Music Mania
Leftfield’s second album reached number one in the UK in 1999. It was also Mercury Prize nominated, eventually losing out to The Hour of Bewilderbeast by Badly Drawn Boy, which is fitting because we’re a little confused too.
For some reason, Rhythm & Stealth has never truly been accepted as a British dance music classic, but not only is it a blueprint for masterful production, it’s a record that will sound insanely powerful on your record player.
Pulsating opener ‘Dusted’ featuring a peak Roots Manuva sets the scene, ‘Afrika Shox’ with Afrika Bambaataa and ‘Phat Planet’ (from the famous Guinness surfer advert) grab the headlines, while the album’s more soulful moments cut equally as deep.Rhythm & Stealth is rare vinyl at its best, but before getting your fingers burnt on a second-hand copy, pre-orders for a 25th anniversary reissue are beginning to be listed.
16. Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders and the London Symphony Orchestra: PromiseView now at Amazon
Oh, it’s a classical record. The selections above are a lot to take in, so Promises provides a moment of zen to gather your thoughts. Settle down for an exquisite 46-minute composition from British electronic musician Floating Points… and friends.
Those illustrious pals consist of the famous London Symphony Orchestra and acclaimed American jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders – poignant in that this was his last record before passing away.
Ambient, dreamy, heavenly – whatever you want to call it, Promises is a cathartic gem of such critical acclaim it’s due to get its live debut in a one-time concert at the Hollywood Bowl in September 2023 featuring Four Tet and Caribou.
17. The Upsetters: Super ApeView now at Amazon
‘Dub it up’, advises the sleeve to Super Ape, ‘blacker than dread’. And it’s true: Super Ape is a none-more-black, none-more-dubby journey into the remarkable mind of producer and chief Upsetter Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. Never before or since has a dub reggae recording been so wide open, so bone-dry yet drenched in reverb, so reliant on the spaces between sounds, so singular in the sounds it deploys.
Really, vinyl is the only way to hear Super Ape. It makes the most of the echoing, endlessly repeating percussive elements, gives authentic weight and momentum to the subterranean bass lines, and allows the occasional vocal contributions all the space in the murky mix they need. Whether or not you’ll have the energy to get up and turn the record over when it reaches the end of side one is a genuine question, mind you...
18. Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a ButterflyView now at Amazon
If reggae star Bob Marley transcends generations, rapper Kendrick Lamar goes beyond genre, and yet To Pimp a Butterfly is widely considered the best hip-hop album of the 21st century so far.
The 2015 release is a conceptual and technical masterpiece shining a spotlight on what it means to be African American in the face of racism. So profound, it won Lamar a Pulitzer prize for music.
Big-hitting singles ‘King Kunta’, ‘The Blacker the Berry’ and ‘Alright’ – the latter becoming a protest song for the Black Lives Matter movement – are intertwined with elements of jazz to often mind-boggling effect.Aside from the sociopolitical messages and musical brilliance, some of the greatest joy from To Pimp a Butterfly can be found in descending down a rabbit hole of producers and guest artists that made the cut, and those that didn’t.
19. Nova Twins: SupernovaView now at Amazon
And now for something completely different. The term ‘ripsnorting’ doesn’t get used much these days, but that’s exactly the word to describe Amy Love and Georgia South’s bass-heavy fusion of rock, rap, grime and punk.
Supernova was nominated for the Mercury Prize in 2022 and produced by Jim Abbiss – best known for the Arctic Monkeys’ debut album, plus the critically acclaimed best LPs from Kasabian, Ladytron and Adele – it was never likely to be a lacklustre affair.
Strap yourself in for this one because when Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello is a fan and Rolling Stone call you the most vital rock band in Britain right now, you know you’re about to get a blast of something very substantial indeed.
The Nova Twins are signed to Marshall Records – of legendary guitar amp and wireless speaker fame – a perfect excuse to plug your turntable into a Woburn III and turn this one up to 11. Your poor neighbours.
20. Daniel Avery: Song for AlphaView now at Amazon
A record in which Bournemouth’s most renowned (unless you know otherwise) DJ and producer dials down the Big Night Out energy in favour of some precise, superior machine-funk with very few sharp edges. Song for Alpha may have its moments of understatement and distance, but it’s always inventive and always quite coercive. These are characteristics that vinyl brings into sharp focus.
When it comes to straight-edged, clean management of rhythms and tempos, vinyl is untouchable. And the well-controlled aggression of Avery’s arrangements is given exactly the correct amount of heat and drive when it’s committed to vinyl - everything flows.
- The best vinyl records boxsets, revealed
Additional writing: Simon Lucas