What are the best albums to have on vinyl? While artists, vibe, and genre all conspire to influence our musical tastes, what records really deserve to sit at the top of the audio mountain?
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What Are The Best Albums to Have on Vinyl?
One of the best things about starting a vinyl record collection is that it allows you to develop a new appreciation for a vast range of music and rediscover the classics.
Because vinyl is a niche market, you won’t find albums from the latest top 40 one-hit-wonders; these albums have stood the test of time and been loved and praised by generations of fans, critics, and music lovers all over the world.
The biggest challenge with must-have albums is that there is such a wealth of choice. Every music lover has their own taste and preference.
Our list of the best albums to own on vinyl is based on which albums truly sound best on vinyl, along with albums that have achieved legendary status for their importance and influence.
When you are looking for the absolute best vinyl albums to buy, these should be at the top of your list.
The 20 Best Vinyl Albums of All Time
Amy Winehouse – Back to Black
Back to Black, which includes iconic Amy Winehouse singles like Rehab and Back to Black, won Amy Winehouse and producer Mark Ronson numerous awards and recognition in 2007, and is widely considered one of the best albums of the century.
The neo soul/R&B sound is juxtaposed against Winehouse’s blunt, contemporary lyrics and the gritty funk of backing band The Dap-Kings, to make a masterful album full of tension, reflection, and complexity.
The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds
Pet Sounds was Brian Wilson’s magnum opus, a glorious experiment with a vast range of musical influences and groundbreaking production techniques to create a concept album, unlike anything that preceded it.
While it was initially not well received, as it was such a massive departure from the band’s earlier work, Pet Sounds would go on to become one of the most influential rock albums in history, inspiring a generation of not just musicians but also songwriters, sound engineers, and music producers.
Paul McCartney said that no one is educated musically until they have heard that album. What more needs to be said?
Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
The question of which ONE Beatles record should be owned on vinyl raises hot debate wherever it is discussed. Passionate arguments are made for Abbey Road and Revolver. Still, Sgt. Pepper isn’t just one of the best albums to own on vinyl or one of the best Beatles albums: it’s widely regarded as the best album of all time.
Sgt. Pepper is a seminal work in concept albums, psychedelic music, alt rock, and technical innovation. It affected not just music, but fashion, fiction, and youth culture.
Vinyl purists will love chasing down the best pressings of this album, searching for the version that best captures the Beatles’ original, immersive mono mix. Still, this album has something to offer every generation of music lovers with every listen.
Beastie Boys – Paul’s Boutique
Paul’s Boutique has been called the Sgt. Pepper of hip-hop, with a sound and an influence that defined the Beastie Boys and a whole music genre.
Working with the Dust Brothers, the Beastie Boys innovated the use of multi-layered sampling, which would go on to become a defining feature of hip-hop, along with some of the best rhymes in the industry. While the album was not regarded as a success, subsequent years have only heightened the legacy and importance.
Every decade of artists and critics has revisited Paul’s Boutique and found it more masterful, more complex, and more significant than ever. It’s one of the greatest albums of all time, ranking on pop, rock, and hip-hop charts every year.
Bob Marley and the Wailers – Legend
Legend is the bestselling reggae album of all time and ranked in 2020 by Rolling Stone as the 48th best album of all time. It spent 609 weeks on the Billboard Top 200 Album chart and 921 weeks in the UK Top 100 Albums. It’s a showcase of Bob Marley’s greatest hits, including Buffalo Soldier, No Woman, No Cry, and I Shot the Sheriff.
It has introduced generations of music lovers to Bob Marley and to reggae music in general. While fans will appreciate a deeper dive into Marley’s more complex work, Legend is an excellent introduction. It deserves a place in every vinyl collection.
The Clash – London Calling
London Calling is one of the most influential punk albums of all time, but it’s so much more than that. The Clash’s third album explores a greater range of musical styles, using the punk sensibility and aesthetic to explore sounds borrowed from rock, ska, R&B, and jazz.
At the time, some accused the band of abandoning their rebellious roots; today, this exploration offers welcome complexity and variety. London Calling consistently ranks within Rolling Stone Magazine’s top ten greatest albums of all time.
Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
Random Access Memories is not only one of the best dance albums of all time, but it’s also one of the few albums in recent years created for vinyl and takes full advantage of the dynamic range of a record.
For Daft Punk’s fourth album, they wanted to pay homage to the music of the 1970s and 80s and limit the use of samples, loops, and electronic instruments. Instead, they collaborated with legend Nile Rogers to make a disco album with live musicians in 2013, including the monster hit single Get Lucky.
Random Access Memories was recorded on analog and digital simultaneously and mastered with a warm, retro feel that won the Grammy for Best Engineered Album (Non-Classical).
David Bowie – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
Choosing a single David Bowie album for a vinyl collection is nearly impossible, as Bowie’s body of work was so complex, diverse, and influential.
Our pick is Ziggy Stardust because it is a concept album with a continuous storyline and remains one of the most important rock albums of all time. With Ziggy Stardust, Bowie created a guitar-led, glam/rock/proto-punk sound that launched him into international fame.
The album explores themes of drug use, fame, sexuality, and spirituality. Ziggy Stardust remains a cultural touchstone, the turning point from the peace, love, and denim of the late 60s to the glitter of a more jaded decade, and it’s still just as relevant today.
Etta James – Tell Mama
Tell Mama was James’ seventh studio album and the first to do her justice. It contains several of her signature songs, with a production that intimately captures her soulful, searing voice and made her a legend.
While the title track and Etta James’ rendition of Security hit the charts back in 1967, I’d Rather Go Blind has since become an iconic song, covered by everyone from BB King to Rod Stewart and Dua Lipa.
Fleetwood Mac – Rumors
Rumors was an instant hit, selling 10 million copies within the first month of its release and winning the 1978 Grammy for Album of the Year. It is another of the best albums of all time, ranked seven in Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
With Rumors, Fleetwood Mac aimed for an album that would be all hits with no filler, and even casual music lovers will recognize iconic hit after hit after hit on this album. The songs are intimate, layered, complex, and beautifully rendered on vinyl. Rumors is still one of the top ten albums sold on vinyl and is simply timeless.
John Coltrane – A Love Supreme
If you ever wanted to know what it would sound like to be in the room with John Coltrane at his best, A Love Supreme on vinyl is the answer.
This four-part jazz/bop/spiritual album was recorded in a single session in 1964 and showcased Coltrane’s incredible talent, range, and mastery. A Love Supreme is Coltrane’s magnum opus and one of the best jazz albums of all time.
Johnny Cash – At Folsom Prison
One of the things we love about vinyl is the warmth and detail in the mix, so most live albums wouldn’t rank in the top 20. However, At Folsom Prison is simply too important and essential a record to leave out.
Before it, Johnny Cash was just another country singer looking to make a career comeback; afterward, he was a legend. The album, released with little support or enthusiasm from record execs, was a smash hit, with an authenticity and emotion that crossed music genres and made Cash a household name.
The purity of the recording, on which you can still hear ordinary prison operations’ sounds, and feel the connection between Cash and the inmates, is evocative and intimate. It remains one of the greatest albums of all time.
LCD Soundsystem – LCD Soundsystem (2006)
Musical polymath James Murphy’s LCD Soundsystem is an eclectic electronic dance-punk album that sounds great on vinyl.
Murphy brings his musical talents, skill as a producer, and experience as a DJ to making an album that sounds great on vinyl and offers a great mix of inspired singles along with a cohesive progression over the whole album.
Led Zeppelin – II
Led Zeppelin II is the album that made the band famous, and it remains one of the most critical and influential heavy metal albums of all time. It refined and perfected Zeppelin’s unique merging of blues and hard rock and became the blueprint for a generation of musicians.
Singles like Whole Lotta Love and Ramble On became stadium anthems, while Heartbreaker would redefine the guitar riff and inspire artists like Eddie Van Halen and Steve Vai. This album has so much relevance and staying power that a 2014 reissue reached #9 in the Billboard Top 10.
Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On
Most people are familiar with Marvin Gaye’s legendary singles from this album, including the title track, Mercy, Mercy, Me, and Inner City Blues.
But What’s Going On is a concept album comprising a single song cycle, exploring themes of war, poverty, and injustice. It’s an iconic album and was a landmark in American soul and popular music. It consistently ranks as one of the greatest albums of all time, including lists of influential records that changed the world.
Michael Jackson – Thriller
With Thriller, Michael Jackson and producer Quincy Jones created the bestselling album of all time. It won a record-breaking eight Grammy awards in 1984, defined the art of the music video, and is credited with single-handedly saving the American music industry.
Jackson’s disco-pop sound on singles like Thriller, Beat It, Billie Jean, and Wanna Be Starting Something defined Jackson as an icon, with legions of imitators, but no competition. In fact, for many American households, Thriller has become something more than an essential album – it’s become a basic fact of life.
Nirvana – Nevermind
Nevermind was incredibly influential and remains one of the bestselling and most acclaimed albums of all time. While Nirvana is indelibly linked to the grunge movement, Nevermind touches on a broad swath of Cobain’s inspirations, with hard rock, pop, metal, and even classical influences.
Cobain wanted to explore melodic songwriting with heavy metal impact, creating songs with huge dynamic shifts and experimental instrumentation. The cover art is one of the most recognized images in music, and this album is an American classic.
Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon
Dark Side of the Moon from Pink Floyd makes every single must-have on vinyl lists, for a good reason. It’s one of the bestselling albums of all time and the 19th most acclaimed album in history.
While it’s best known for the singles Money and Us and Them, it’s a concept album based on musical experiments, early analog synth sounds, and live performances, exploring themes of greed, conflict, mental illness, death, and time.
The cover art is iconic, and a 2003 30th anniversary re-release was based on 180-gram virgin vinyl. However, many audiophiles prefer the 2016 pressing.
Dark Side of the Moon is the longest-charting album in the history of Billboard Magazine, with 1,574 weeks in the Top 200.
Stevie Wonder – Songs in the Key of Life
Songs in the Key of Life is the bestselling and most critically acclaimed album of Stevie Wonder’s career. It showcases Wonder at the peak of his powers, and songs like I Wish, Sir Duke, Pastime Paradise, and Isn’t She Lovely have influenced generations of musicians.
It’s Wonder’s favorite of his albums and a favorite of artists like Prince, Elton John, Mariah Carey, and Coolio. As recently as 2020, Rolling Stone ranked it as #4 on their list of the greatest albums of all time.
Waylon Jennings – Honky Tonk Heroes
Honky Tonk Heroes, reluctantly released by executives at RCA Records and producer Chet Atkins, went on to become one of the most influential records in country music.
By merging country themes with a rock and roll attitude, it established the outlaw genre and cemented Waylon Jennings as a legend. Honky Tonk Heroes is a concept album: Jennings felt that the songs written by Billy Joe Shaver were ‘of a piece,’ and had to be collected together.
The only song on the album not written by Shaver, We Had It All, has become a ballad covered by everyone from Ray Charles to The Rolling Stones. This album is a touchstone for outsiders and rebels and showcases Jennings’ greatest artistry.
Frequently Asked Questions About Vinyl Records
Is it Worth Buying Vinyl Records?
If you are considering starting a record collection for the first time, there is no clear-cut answer about whether vinyl is the right choice for you.
Vinyl records have been largely replaced by digital media for several reasons: Vinyl can be difficult to maintain and care for; isn’t easily portable or enjoyed on the road; records always include some amount of pops, clicks, and hisses.
For some people, these drawbacks are deal-breakers, and they don’t want to invest the time and money it takes to truly enjoy and appreciate vinyl.
On the other hand, for some people, vinyl records transform the simple act of listening to music into a deeply satisfying experience. Vinyl records engage all your senses in the music you love – they have a distinctive feel, smell, and sound.
Vinyl records have sleeves and artwork that demands attention. In contrast, the audio has unique character and complexity, and the physical act of dropping the arm can be extremely pleasurable.
It is definitely worth buying vinyl records for people who want to really sit down and listen to their favorite album with their full attention.
Are Vinyl Records the Best Sound Quality?
No, vinyl records do not have the best sound quality. Although this debate has raged for decades, in every scientific study and head-to-head comparison, digital music is of higher quality than analog. However, quality means very different things to different people.
When most people think of audio quality, they mean something like, “does this sound as close as possible to the sound I would be hearing if I were in the same room as the musicians at a recording session?” But no professionally produced music is EVER made to give you that experience.
Even when you listen to musicians perform live and in-person, every instrument and vocalist has an individual microphone. The sound is routed through a mixing board where every sound is adjusted in relative tone and volume and then sent to the venue’s speakers.
What you hear live and in person is a combination of what the musicians are playing, how they are mixed at the soundboard, and the quality of all the audio equipment, cables, and connections on site. What you hear is also affected by where you are relative to the stage and speakers and your own ears’ physical characteristics.
The truth is that vinyl records and digital music are mixed very differently after they are recorded. Because of vinyl records’ physical properties, low notes may take up too much physical space on a disc. In contrast, high notes may be difficult for a needle to track.
For those reasons, engineers often reduce extremely high or low sounds in music mixed for vinyl, along with reducing sibilant sounds in vocals and altering the audio track so that it sounds best when played back on a record.
Because CDs did not have these physical limitations, and early digital playback devices were small and low quality, early CDs were mixed for louder volumes, in a phenomenon known as the Loudness War. Digital music mixed in this way has a more uniform audio wavelength, with less contrast and detail.
Because of these very different mixing techniques, people who care about audio quality noticed that digital music sounded dreadful in the 1990s. They prefer the greater contrast, detail, and complexity associated with the way vinyl was mixed.
The Loudness War peaked in 2005. More recent years have seen better, more attentive mixing in digital music, along with new standards for loudness and audio normalizing, so this distinction will soon be another relic of the audio format debates.
Is Vinyl or CD Better Quality?
CDs do a better job of accurately replicating real-world sound. Sometimes, vinyl music has been mixed for more clarity and detail, so it sounds nicer to listen to. The mix makes much more difference than the media.
What are the Best Vinyl Records to Own?
When compiling our list of the best albums to have on vinyl, we looked for:
- Music that sounds great on vinyl
- Timeless albums that can be listened to over and over for years
- Albums that create a musical journey
- Records with good cover and sleeve art
You can read our top 20 picks above.
Do Modern Vinyl Records Sound Better?
Generally speaking, old vinyl records sound better. The audio equipment used to create vinyl records peaked in popularity in the 1960s and 1970s. Almost no new record-pressing equipment has been made since then.
Modern records are often made on old machines working far past their designed lifespan or capacity, operated by people who aren’t really familiar with the technology.
Also, many modern vinyl records are simply pressed from a digital master. This means that the raw audio was mixed for a CD or digital distribution.
Then that audio file is pressed into a vinyl record. This means that the music isn’t mixed for the special audio properties of vinyl: In the best case, the music will sound identical to a digital download, but, realistically, it will sound worse because records are more prone to hissing and other minor distortions.
Are New Vinyl Records Better Than Old?
Most of the time, no. The equipment and experience needed to make outstanding sounding vinyl records have largely been lost in recent years; fewer audio experts know how to mix for vinyl, fewer companies who know how to press great vinyl, and fewer analog audio recordings to use for masters.
This doesn’t mean there aren’t some outstanding new records on vinyl and some great reissues, but well-kept old vinyl records sound better than most new ones.
The truth is, there aren’t many musicians or labels today who are willing to do the extra work to make an album that sounds great on vinyl. The ones that are have made our list of the best albums to own on vinyl above.
A Final Note on Vinyl Pressings
While these albums are the best to have on vinyl, it’s important to mention that not all vinyl pressings are the same. Many vinyl reissues of classic albums are re-masted from CDs. They may have lost the original dynamic range the album once possessed.
Many contemporary pressings are not very high quality. Thus, the current issue of the vinyl album doesn’t sound as good as it once did. For this reason, vinyl albums can range into the thousands of dollars, depending on the master and the quality of the pressing.
While our list is a great place to start, many collectors go on to do extensive research about the mix, master and pressing of their vinyl albums to ensure that they have the highest quality versions of these classics that they can afford.
Whether you are an expert or a casual listener, these timeless albums will offer you years of enjoyment, with fresh experiences in every listen. They have shaped the world of music and can shape how you understand and appreciate every album you collect.