Guide to the Best Rock and Roll Records

It was the perfect marriage of rising technology, expanding musical forms, visual art, and the purchasing power of the most populous generation in the history of human civilization.

The Rock & Roll LP.

It spawned its own commercial broadcast format, Album-Oriented Radio, or AOR for short, which, in turn, single-handedly flipped the script and made new-comer FM the dominant transmission process after a half-century of AM as the only type of radio anyone would care to own.

If you’re in the market for a new turntable, check out our interactive table below, which showcases some of the more popular (and affordable) turntables on the market:

Audio Technica AT-LP60XPlug and Play via Built-In Phono Preamp
Audio Technica AT-LP3Built-in Phono Pre-amp, Switchable On/Off + MM/MC
Denon DP-450USBRecord to USB flash drives in MP3 or WAV
U-Turn OrbitBuilt in Phono Pre-amp & Dust Cover
Victrola Stream CarbonStream to Sonos speakers (or traditional wired setup)
MoFi StudioDeckPre-mounted StudioTracker MM Cartridge
Music Hall MMF 2.3Plays 33 and 45 RPM records
Pro-Ject T1 BT (Black)Features Bluetooth connectivity

The Beauty of Vinyl

Now earlier recording and playback limitations made the high speed 78 rpm record king, but the speed limited the amount of playback time. The 45 rpm record allowed for smaller records, but did nothing to increase playback time.

The perfection of the stereo phonographic process, slowing the record to 33 1/3 rpm, and expanding to the Long-Playing (LP) format allowed artists to showcase more of their work in a stand-alone package.

The 12-inch-square flat packaging allowed an explosion of cover art that became more than just a photograph of the performer, and morphed from graphic art to a legitimate art form.

The Baby-Boomers, the primary creators and consumers of this new product, made it commercially successful.

Ten Albums You Must Have

There is some great music included in the albums I’m going to recommend today, but these titles evoke more than simple mastery of sound.  Packaging plays an important role, as does the possibilities, and limitations, of the LP itself.

Some began as efforts to push the limits of what an album could be in all its artistic splendors, others just ended up that way. Still others captured a glimmering moment in the history of the rock pantheon. Each has firmly planted itself in music history, if not cultural history, but they appear here because each has at least one reason why vinyl is the preferred medium, even for non-enthusiasts.

You should be able to get most of these titles wherever you purchase vinyl records.  So without further ado, let’s get started.

Cosmo’s Factory – Creedence Clearwater Revival, Fantasy Records, 1970

What a hit factory it was!

“Cosmo” is the nickname of drummer Doug Clifford. He and bassist Stu Cook served as the perfect rhythm section for lead guitarist/lead singer/writer John Fogerty, and his older brother, rhythm guitarist Tom Fogerty.

This quartet had been a working-class act for a decade by the time this record was created (think Travelin’ Band from this set, and Lodi), were on the brink of falling apart (the elder Fogerty would soon leave), and Factory refers to the nickname Clifford gave the band’s rehearsal space because of how much time John Fogerty made them spend there.

The result is an album that reads like a greatest hits compilation. Sprinkled with covers, it includes the powerful originals:

  • Travelin’ Band
  • Lookin’ Out My Back Door
  • Run Through the Jungle
  • Up Around the Bend
  • Who’ll Stop the Rain
  • Long As I Can See the Light

This list would serve as a career for any lesser band and it’s hard to imagine any other American band getting so much airplay from the songs off one album, including their driving cover of I Heard It Through the Grapevine.

On vinyl, you get a real feel for what masters of the 3-minute epic these guys were.

All Things Must Pass – George Harrison, Apple, 1970

A 3-disc set as a debut was, and is, unprecedented, and if it had been offered by any other performer, would have been too pretentious to be released, never-mind that the artist owned one-fourth of the label.

Neither John nor Paul had a sufficient backlog of material to make this album, and they certainly didn’t have the humility to employ the lineup of musicians George did at this nascent stage of their solo careers.

This album works on vinyl because of the packaging: a simple black and white cover photo of George decidedly solo in his own backyard with no one but his gnome statues sharing the space. Each of the 3 discs serves as its own album, including the third which feels like payback to the musicians with names like Clapton, Starr, Preston, Voorman, Badfinger, Delaney, and Bonnie who were allowed to stretch out on jams.

Harrison even gets a one-up on his former bandmates, becoming the first ex-Beatle with a number 1 record, this album’s My Sweet Lord.

Woodstock – Various Artists, Atlantic-Cotillion, 1970

“Rock and roll won’t last.”

“Fifty percent of marriages end in divorce.”

Are there any more iconic images and sounds of the sixties in general than what’s on this album? The cover photograph of a young blanket-shrouded couple among what has been described alternately as “breakfast in bed for 400,000, “ or just squalor, Richie Haven’s Freedom, Hendrix’s Star-Spangled Banner, or Country Joe MacDonald’s Fixin’-to-Die Rag, to name a few.

On vinyl, you get the rare 3-disc set with side one backed by side 6, and so on, allowing for consecutive play of 3 sides with a record changer. When side 1 was done, the disc with side 2 would plop down on top of the first for automatic play, followed by the disc with side 3. Flip them all over as a unit, and you can play sides 4, 5, and 6 the same way. It’s hard to imagine that wasn’t hard on the records, but it’s history.

Rock and Roll has lasted, as has the marriage of the couple on the cover. Still together, they were interviewed during the 40th anniversary year of the concert.

The Beatles – The Beatles, Apple, 1968

Whether it sounds like a collection of solo recordings using other members of the band as sidemen or not, The Beatles, aka “The White Album,” offers up four sides of monumental recordings that cross the spectrum of musical genres.

Packaged with 8×10 glossies of the individuals, it became apparent that it was impossible to get the four of them together for a group photo during this period.

The included poster also unfolded to show candid shots of the group. . . alone together.

Side 4 on vinyl has the distinction of either containing 4 rarely-heard gems, or the most-played 8 minutes of non-song gobbled-gook on one of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums. Revolution 9 is cut 5 at nearly the end of the side.

Without being able to skip tracks as is possible with digital formats, LP listeners usually either muddle through that track after listening to the first 4 tracks, or skip that side altogether.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – The Beatles, Capitol, 1978

This could have been for the original release in 1967, with its cardstock insert of Sgt. Pepper cutouts, gatefold packaging, ground-breaking inclusion of lyrics to each song, or the iconic cover photo.

But it’s for the most kitschy of all official Beatles releases, the 1978 picture disc release, Cat. SEAX 11840.

Popular in the late 70’s and early 80’s, possibly as a last-gasp for vinyl prior to the rise of digital formats, picture discs took the cover art of some of the most popular albums of the day and pressed it into the vinyl. Imagine the cover of this album cropped into a circle, losing the corners. The record is then repackaged into a cardboard sleeve with a nearly equal sized circular opening making the disc visible from outside.

The saving grace of his release is that side 2 has a picture of the Sgt. Pepper drum covering the vinyl, making a nice 12-inch visual.

Sticky Fingers – The Rolling Stones, Rolling Stones Records, 1971

You say this isn’t the best Rolling Stones album? It does have a few standouts among its 10 tracks with Brown Sugar, Wild Horses, and Dead Flowers.

But can you get more Rock & Roll than that cover with the waist-down photo of a man’s jeans (Jagger’s?) complete with a working zipper fly, stamped with the album title?

Try streaming that.

Disraeli Gears – Cream, ATCO, 1967

Take the original rock power trio, a healthy amount of pink and magenta ink, and some quintessential psychedelic artwork, and you get a cover that can only really be appreciated in its original 12×12 inch size.

The very sixties album title helps, too.

The super music doesn’t hurt.

Strange Brew, Sunshine of Your Love, and Tales of Brave Ulysses are some of the most identifiable of the groups songs.

Dark Side of the Moon – Pink Floyd, EMI, 1973

Firmly ensconcing Pink Floyd as pioneers of art rock, this album made the band immortal.

With the wave of new laws across the country legalizing marijuana, the only way for a modern teenager to completely recreate the image of their forebears from the seventies is with this platter spinning in the background.

Especially if your entry level turntable is not equipped with auto shutoff.

Abbey Road – The Beatles, Apple, 1969

This represents the final recording sessions of these four together, and they knew it. They made it worthwhile.

They used every skill they had accumulated in their near-decade together as performers and thousands of hours in the recording studio to craft their legacy. As you would expect, there isn’t a weak song or wasted second on the album.

One of the most annoying aspects of the digital world is the lag between tracks, usually not an issue with clean gaps between cuts on most records, but on this album, the songs are precisely spaced, and of course, lead into each other on the celebrated back side. Vinyl is the only way to hear them correctly.

Even if that weren’t enough, every music lover needs to experience the euphoria of completing the sonic dirge of I Want You (She’s So Heavy) at the end of side one, turning the record over, and being rewarded with the uplifting optimism of Here Comes The Sun.

Who’s Next – The Who, Decca, 1971

Who can take a failed concept, cutting-edge instrumentation, a trio of musicians and a lead singer, and create what many consider the greatest rock album of all time. And don’t you forget it.

Pete Townshend wanted to follow up Tommy with a concept called Lifehouse. When that project became untenable, he scaled it back, added other songs, and created a tour de force for the relatively new electronic synthesizer.

Not programmed, as some expect, the synthesizers on this album are played by Townshend to the rest of the arrangements. Using it in concert meant taking copies of the synthesizer tracks on the road, duct-taping headphones to Keith Moon’s head, and playing live to the recorded music, much like a click track.

It’s not the only instrument besides drums and guitars on the album, but it takes center stage, dominating the lead off and ending tracks; Baba O’Riley and Won’t Get Fooled Again; bookend anthems like nowhere else in the recorded universe.

The beauty of the vinyl version here is not juxtaposition, ala Abbey Road, but a much-needed intermission between songs 5 and 6 of the 9-song set. There is so much going on musically on these sides that you’ll want to strap on the headphones (no tape, please!), add your own “We’re all wasted!”, and experience the non-stop energy of a Who performance.

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