Lists, lists, lists. They’re out there. The best of this, the best of that—everyone has an opinion. And nowhere is this truer than with music. Best of the year, best of the decade, best of the century. Whether you like rock, country, rap, folk, industrial metal, or all of the above, there’s a rundown somewhere for you. To many music lovers, the vinyl era never ended.
In this day in age, vinyl is on a serious surge, and instead of only downloading their favorite artists’ albums, people are also buying records to spin in their new or old-school record players. New records can cost you a pretty penny, but here’s a list of classic vinyl that’s actually worth buying. These albums don’t only hold great music, but they also set the tone for the importance of cover art in the music world.
With these 40 essential vinyl records, they’ve been rated using these five categories:
- Album Cover
- Artist/Album Fame
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What Made a Vinyl Record “Essential”
When defining a classic album, more often than we are looking for three of the following conditions.
Coherence – oftentimes there is a theme. Something the artist is going through. Occasionally, this produces a concept album, but this isn’t necessarily the rule. Sometimes, the emotion of life is so strong that we have projects recorded in the space of a week.
Good albums can conjure this emotion in the listener for a few songs (even if they are on picture disc vinyl).
Great albums do it consistently.
Impact – although it might not receive immediate critical acclaim, the repercussions and influence of the project can be measured across time.
Replayability – there have to be enough quality songs to make subsequent visits worthwhile. From personal experience this requires a minimum of 6 great songs.
Of course, there are other significant factors that determine a classic album, track order, production and mastering. However, coherence, impact and replayability can make an album transcendent. These albums are examples of that, and must own records for your vinyl collection.
50 Essential Vinyl Records to Own
Let’s begin with The Allman Brothers Band.
1) The Allman Brothers Band – Live At Filmore East (1971)
Hear pretty much the best guitar playing ever. A classic live album, and possibly the best ever pressed to vinyl.
2) The B-52’s – The B-52’s (1979)
A crash landing of alien surf riffs, sci-fi trash nostalgia and punk attitude that sounded like nothing before it and doesn’t sound like anything since. It seems cringe, but this is actually an incredible record.
3) The Band – Music From Big Pink (1968)
Funny thing about The Band is everyone is still trying to be you in 2018—Mumford and Sons, Fleet Foxes, My Morning Jacket. Some of those artists even joined a supergroup to cover your music.
4) Beastie Boys – Paul’s Boutique (1989)
A hip-hop classic and landmark in multilayer sampling. Early Def Jam was an incredible thing.
5) Beach Boys – Pet Sounds (1966). Today! (1965)
Phil Spector invented the wall of sound, and The Beach Boys took that idea to its zenith on the perfect Pet Sounds. Meanwhile, Today is the best of the hit Beach Boys albums. Smiles forever.
6) The Beatles – Abbey Road (1970)…or Let it Be (1970) or…The White Album (1968)
Get all of these Beatles’ albums, plus they’ve all been recently reissued. If possible, grab them in their older, original pressings. That can get difficult, and pricey.
7) Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath (1970)
The album that started it all for Ozzy and co. also helped launch metal as a genre. Don’t tell me Dio was better for Sabbath, it’s not true.
8) David Bowie – Ziggy Stardust (1972)
Eschewing the hard-to-find records (Low, Lodger, Heroes etc.) and the best-of Changes ones (which are both essential), this glam-rock opus sounds amazing. With headphones, please, to do the record justice.
9) James Brown – Live at the Apollo (1963)
The Godfather of Soul in all his raw glory, just a pure, visceral listening experience. James Brown live was something else.
10) Captain Beefheart – Trout Mask Replica (1969)
A mad classic, and riddled with a very incredibly weird history behind such a visceral artist. Cue Marc Maron screaming about “getting” Beefheart.
11) Johnny Cash – At Folsom Prison (1968)
Classic country is the staple of bargain bins and thrift stores around the country, and classic country records from Cash, Loretta Lynn, Hank Williams, Tammy Wynette, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton and others help make for a great, affordable starter set. Another live album for the record books.
12) The Clash – The Clash (1977), London Calling (1979)
The Clash are more than just a patch on a jacket, an emblem of punk and some radio hits. Pick up these records and immerse yourself in the legendary punk band. There’s a lot of Clash influence in modern rock, some 40 years later.
13) John Coltrane – A Love Supreme (1964)
This is one of two albums I play for people who don’t “get” jazz. It’s a must. This is a bit more fun of a listen than Kind of Blue, so this is an essential piece.
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14) Aretha Franklin – Lady Soul (1968)
A tossup between this and I Never Loved a Man The Way I Loved You, but really, you need both. If you don’t dig soul music, it won’t matter during this record.
15) Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On (1971)
A spiritual, strange, soulful trip. Marvin Gaye set forward this pop way of approaching soul that would help pop get a little more soul for years to come.
16) The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Are You Experienced? (1967)
Pick up the UK version to impress your friends. Better yet, listen to this album and contemplate whether or not Hendrix is better than Stevie Ray Vaughan. It’s a timeless debate.
17) Michael Jackson – Thriller (1982)
Yes! Also find Off the Wall, which some would say is even better! Not me though, Thriller is an album that really defined the 80s, only 2 years in for that matter.
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18) Elton John – Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973)
I finally got into Elton John and it was like, where have you been all my life? These songs STILL stand the test of time and have a lot to say.
19) Led Zeppelin – IV (1971)
Nearly every Led Zep album is essential; peruse the bargain bins to find the first four in particular. IV just so happens to be, in my opinion, the most complete. Also immensely popular.
20) Joni Mitchell – Blue (1971)
One of the best folk, singer-songwriter, guitar, everything records. Mitchell is above Bob Dylan in my books.
21) Nirvana – In Utero (1993), Nevermind (1991)
Both of these have been reissued and are absolutely crucial. In Utero, in particular, has aged well. Nevermind is a top album of all time, whether you’re into heavier stuff or not.
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22) Notorious B.I.G. – Ready to Die (1994)
One of the best rappers ever. This first album is his most perfect statement—morbid, funny, sadly prescient. No bad tracks on this one.
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23) OutKast – Stankonia (2000)
This album and Is This It? were everything in the early 2000s. In the words of Big Boi, “the south had something to say.”
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24) The Pixies – Doolittle (1989)
Kind of like The Velvet Underground & Nico for the ’90s—every one of these tracks seems to map out a subgenre to follow. This is almost a complete guide to indie songwriting, still being used today.
25) Prince – 1999 (1982), Purple Rain (1984)
These are what I would consider no brainers, if there is such a thing. Even in death, Prince still gets spins on radio and streaming services now that it’s uploaded.
26) Queen – A Night at the Opera (1975)
Sure, it’s got “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which is awesome and all, but the rest of this record is classic. Skip the movie, grab this record instead.
27) R.E.M. – Murmur (1983)
“Talk About the Passion” and “Sitting Still” are two wonderful arguments for this record on this list, even though other REM albums may be more popular. This started it all. Oh, and did I mention “Radio Free Europe?”
28) Radiohead – The Bends (1995), Kid A (2000), OK Computer (1997)
The greatest band of our generation. No contest. Radiohead rewrote rock music for the new millenium.
29) The Rolling Stones – Exile on Main Street (1972)
I’m not even a real big Stones fan, this album, however, is wonderful.
30) Simon & Garfunkel – Bridge Over Troubled Water (1970)
Basically too beautiful for words. S&G are a duo that didn’t put out a bad record, and if you can grab a live one from Central Park or 1969, do that as well.
31) Paul Simon – Graceland (1986)
Find out where Vampire Weekend got all those neat ideas! That’s right, kids, global influenced pop music didn’t start with four kids from Harvard.
32) Frank Sinatra – In the Wee Small Hours (1955)
The king of standards, Sinatra’s ninth album tells the other side of the story of Sinatra as an artist on this moody, lovelorn masterpiece. Cry yourself to sleep with this spinning.
33) The Strokes – Is This It? (2001)
This really was it in 2001. They were the band we’d been waiting for, and Is This It? captures lightning in a bottle. Next albums were good, but this was a great moment for music.
34) Talking Heads – Remain in Light (1980)
A complete arc in only eight songs, from exuberant, afro-pop post-punk to a deeply dark conclusion.
35) The Smiths – The Queen Is Dead (1986), The Smiths (1984)
They’re worth every penny. British alternative was not better than these two albums. To be honest, alternative for decades wasn’t better than these two albums.
36) The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)
The beginning of everything, the end of everything, R.I.P. Lou Reed. This album is played about once a week in my house.
37) Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
Controversial as a person, this album is not controversial in its place at best rap album of the 2000s. Legendary producer, confusing individual, amazing record.
38) Wu-Tang Clan – Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993)
The Wu-Tang Clan now almost seems like it didn’t happen—how could they have fit all of that talent in one band without stepping on each other or sounding like a mess? 36 Chambers still sounds lean and mean, even with its massive (and massively influential) cast of characters.
39) Neil Young – Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969)
You don’t have to tell me that Harvest and After the Gold Rush are worth mentioning, but this is one of Young’s classics we have in stock, housing proto-punk single “Cinammon Girl” plus two awesome jams, “Cowgirl in the Sand’ and “Down By the River.” You know what, just get all of his records already.
40) The Zombies – Odessey & Oracle (1968)
A wondrous pop record that always begs to be rediscovered. It’s one of those that you may not have grown up listening to with your parents, but you’ll want to show it to your kids.
When compiling a list for must own vinyl records, there are many you can turn to, but this list was meant to span time and genre.
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