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12 of my favourite albums for sound

by Ian Shepherd


Lots of people have asked me for albums I think sound great – so, here are some that spring instantly to mind. I should say upfront, this isn’t intended to be some kind of “top 12 best sounding albums ever” list, just some from my own collection that I love the sound of, for whatever reason.

If you take a listen, you’ll probably notice some pretty clear recurring themes – suggestions in the comments, please ! I’ve included the Amazon affiliate widget above so you can hear the songs, but if you live in Europe this Spotify playlist will be even better since you can listen to complete songs.

So, in no particular order:

Beck – Sea Change

Why ? Simply one of the best-sounding albums of all time. Big, warm, intimate, natural, atmospheric… and that’s not even mentioning the surround mix !

Favourite track ? “Lonesome Tears” – incredible drum sound, swooping, swirling strings, and a superb “Day In The Life”-esque climax. Oh, the strings…

JJ Cale – Troubadour

Why ? It just sounds so real, so natural, and and so cool. No fuss, no gimmicks, it just does exactly what it says on the tin. Eric Clapton owes this man a great deal.

Favourite track: “Cherry” Such an amazing double-tracked vocal sound

Burial – Untrue

Why ? Brooding, dark, glitchy, with rumbling subsonic basslines – what’s not to love ? A sonic world you can sink into and lose yourself in.

Favourite track: “Archangel”

Prince – Sign o’ The Times

Why ? This album is Prince at his peak – playing absolutely everything on many of the tracks, he hasn’t sounded this good since he threw away the drum machines. Dry, clean, bass-light, with his trademark guitar-sound and brass section. Sound effects, varispeed vocals, wild guitar solos – unparalleled.

Favourite track: “Sign o’ The Times”. No, “Housequake”. I mean, “If I Was You Girlfriend”. Oh hell, all of them !

Peter Gabriel 4 (‘Security’)

Why ? This was the other tape I played non-stop back-to-back with ‘Sign o’ The Times’ for a whole summer. Another artist at the top of his game, full of distinctive production techniques, including one of the earliest uses of that eighties staple – the gated reverb. Also chock full of Tony Levin’s stick bass playing : )

Favourite track: “I Have The Touch”

Bjork – Homeogenic

Why ? This album is another “sonic world” for me – almost entirely beats, synths and strings, and featuring some of my favourite Bjork songs of all time. Mesmeric.

Favourite track: “Joga”

Gil Scott-Heron – Pieces Of A Man

Why ? There are times when all you want from a production is straightforward, honest recordings of the instruments, and that’s what I love here. Powerful lyrics and simple, direct production.

Favourite track: “Lady Day and John Coltrane”

Frankie Goes To Hollywood – Welcome To The Pleasuredome

Why ? At the other extreme, I don’t see how anyone who loves music production can argue with this choice – where the producer played almost all of the instruments! Perhaps the perfect example of manufactured sound ?

Favourite track: “Welcome to The Pleasuredome”, especially the introduction. I just love the bird sound effects (or, are they synths ?) and the little vocoder-thing that introduces the beat.

Goldfrapp – Felt Mountain

Why ? Any album that seamlessly blends an operatic vocal with what sounds like a theremin and then changes one into the other until you can’t tell any more where one begins and the other ends is always going to get my vote… but there are so many moments I love on this album. Electronica, soundtrack, synth-pop, folk, cabaret… magic.

Favourite track: “Utopia”

Brian Eno & David Byrne – My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts

Why ? This album was insanely influential, and is an all-time favourite of mine. Production-wise, they invented sampling before the sampler existed – what more do you want ? OK then, how about complex african rhythms, startlingly innovative textures and a song that soundtracks an exorcism ?

Favourite track: “Regiment”

Imogen Heap – Speak For Yourself

Why ? Regular readers will already know how highly I rate Immi as a producer – check out her YouTube video diaries where (for example) she plays the light fittings in the ceiling of her studio, amongst other things. My only reservation is that if anything, her albums end up sounding a little too polished, so all those wacky sounds drift past without us noticing them properly. Luckily, we can always go and see her live !

Favourite track: “Hide and Seek”

Pet Sounds – The Beach Boys

Why ? This is one of my favourite albums of all time – but oddly enough, only since I heard the stereo mixes. There are people who swear by the original mono release, but I need the ear-candy. It’s just a sublime example of arrangements supporting incredible songs. I can’t recommend the “Sessions” box-set highly enough – hearing the instrumental backings alone, and the studio out-takes where Wilson experiments with combining sounds is a revelation. This man was using additive synthesis long before the synthesiser was ever invented…

Favourite track: “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)”

And finally, a few that nearly-made-the-list-but-didn’t, either because they were a bit “obvious” or because I wanted more variety: Blur – Parklife; The Beatles – Rubber Soul; Stevie Wonder – Songs In The Key Of Life; Pink Floyd – The Wall (Actually “Wish You Were Here” is the best-sounding Floyd album, but The Wall is another little sonic world…); Miles Davis – Kind Of Blue; Primal Scream – Vanishing Point (bass clarinet, baby !); Radiohead – In Rainbows; Steven Wilson – Insurgentes; Supergrass – I Should Coco; Underworld – Dubnobasswithmyheadman; The Strokes – Is This It; Nick Drake – Five Leaves Left; Pixies – Trompe le Monde… and many others !

Edit to add – almost anything by Alison Krauss !

Edit #2 – lots of great suggestions in the comments – how could I forget Nevermind ?! – but check out my comments about one of them in particular, in the next post – Personality In Audio

OK, let’s have it then – which are your favourite albums sonically, and why ?


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facebook comments:

42 Responses

  1. brett says:

    Watershed – Opeth
    The clarity of everything, yet the intensity. As you said Ian, the production complements the arrangement perfectly.

    Synchestra – Devin Townsend Band
    The very definition of grandiose. I will never hear anything this HUGE again.

    Dirt Floor – Chris Whitley
    A microphone thrown over a rafter in a barn. You can even hear the foot stamps in the dirt. Perfect.

    Mule Variations – Tom Waits
    Waits is a genius, and this one feels a little obvious.

    Animals – Pink Floyd
    The dryness. I don’t know what it is, but it gets me every time.

  2. Jones FoSho says:

    Burias’s Untrue has to be there definitely.

    Some other aditions I would have said:

    Gang Starr – Daily operation –Finest jazzy hip hop ever.

    Ed Rush & Optical – Wormhole –best dnb album, great dark organic ambiences and sounds, gritty…

    Red Hot Chili Peppers – Blood Sugar Sex Magik –Rick Rubin at its best

    i would continue until 12 more, but anyway, thats my 2 cents

  3. Paul says:

    I would put Rage against the Machine as my favourite album sonically. Why?
    First thing is because the mix pays equal attention to each instrument. None of the instruments outshine the other.

    As the album notes say, the only instruments used in the albums creation are of the standard rock arrangement a drum kit, an electric guitar, a bass and a microphone. By having such a simple arrangement in a high quality recording, RATM is able to draw images of a great band playing music that is loud and violent which is exactly how protest music should sound.

  4. Justin Guptell says:

    The National’s “Boxer” has to be on there as well. The incredibly dark strings, for one. Vocals are gorgeous, mixes are dense, and somehow airy at the same time. Oozes vibe. Read some threads with some guys who worked on it, and they had some crazy signal chains happening on that record! They’d do drum recordings ranging from two mics to 14. Great stuff.

  5. Shawn Daley says:

    Hemispheres by Rush… the sounds are good, but the arrangements are better, even with the few mistakes left in. Still, sonically it’s a lot of fun. 2112 was great too.

    Bad Religions “Process Of Belief” is great for punk sounds too.

  6. Ian Shepherd says:

    Thanks for all the suggestions – some new ones for me to check out there, keep ‘em coming !

    @brett Yup, Tom Waits is a favourite of mine, too. And definitely Opeth – I was lucky enough to author the surround mix DVD of “Still Life” which sounds great.

  7. brett says:

    @Ian I am in awe…

    Have heard Devin’s new albums Ki, and Addicted? What are your thoughts if any production-wise?

  8. Marko says:

    I have to confess that I’m a sucker for such list posts.

    It’s great to find albums on there that you like yourself and it’s maybe even better to discover new music you haven’t heard before.

    I’d like to add my fav produced album: “The Seduction of Claude Debussy” by The Art of Noise.

  9. Adam says:

    Great Ian!

    I remember commenting on one of your updates about asking for you opinion on great sound albums. Fantastic list!

    Totally agree with RATM. Fantastic album

    I would also include

    This Town Needs guns – Animals. Clean and fantastic audio with the ‘Math’ guitar recorded in stereo. Sounds delicious!

  10. Jones FoSho says:

    +1 on the RATM suggestion.

    Also, i wouldnt say BR’s Process of Belief for punk albums. Perhaps because its not one of their greatest albums. I think No Control has a more signature sound, compact wall of guitars and fast, catchy vibe. Process of Belief benefits from having 3 guitarrists in the band. Some Rancid records have a great sound, i would point them out as a suggestion.

    Nobody has mentioned before Nirvana’s Nevermind, its sound has always driven me nuts.

    Thanx for all those good suggestions that ive never heard before. Some new stuff to dig out is always welcomed.

  11. My friend turned me on to Imogen Heap a while back and i just love her music! Great list I totally agree.

  12. Ian Shepherd says:

    More suggestions to check out, thanks ! Art Of Noise & Nevermind I totally agree.

    Rage Against The Machine – yes, it’s a great-sounding album. BUT there’s a “but”… which I think I might save for another post.

  13. Dan says:

    What about Nine Inch Nails’ Year Zero?

  14. enigmafon says:

    Hi Ian.
    Actually there is not theremin in Goldfrapp’s album Felt Mountain. What sounds like a theremin is actually Alison’s vocals run through the filter of a Korg MS-20 analog synth. She has also been reported to use this setup when playing the Felt Mountain songs live.
    I did something similar.. (running vocals through the MS-20 filter) on my own album and the results are eerie.

    Thanks

  15. Ian Shepherd says:

    @ enigmafin You’re right, I meant to describe the way it sounds, rather than how it was done – it sounds like theremin to begin with, and then it sounds like processed voice, and then you aren’t sure any more… either way, I love it :-)

  16. Thanks for putting this up Ian. Lonesome Tears by Beck struck me the same way and it was satisfying to read your thoughts. Also great now to listen to Lonesome Tears as your example of a great mix. Gives me calibration here in my DIY center as I mix my own stuff. This is the best audio blog on the internet. I come in here when I need inspiration and wisdom. Tons of gold nuggets can be found within this blog for folks of varied experience.

    ELECTROHERMIT

  17. Ian Shepherd says:

    Thanks David, Glad you like the blog !

  18. Bruce says:

    I’ll try and list some not mentioned….Kinda got carried away here but….if I had to pick 10 they would be the first 10 on the list

    Yes – Big Generator
    Def Leppard – Hysteria
    Joe Jackson – Night and Day
    Machines Of Loving Grace – Concentration
    P.M. Dawn – The Bliss Album
    Sisters Of Mercy – Floodland
    Phil Collins – No Jacket Required
    Madonna – The Immaculate Collection
    Prong – Cleansing
    Alanis Morissette – Jagged Little Pil
    Catherine Wheel – Feremnt
    Dream Theater – Images And Words (or Awake)
    Don Henley – Building The Perfect Beast
    Eric Johnson – Ah Via Musicom (or Tones)
    Extreme – Pornograffitti
    Faith No More – King For A Day
    Guns N Roses – Appetite For Destruction
    INXS – Kick
    K.M.F.D.M. Nihil
    Pantera – Cowboys From Hell
    Megadeth – Countdown To Extinction
    Metallica – And Justice (Tight and Dry)
    Michael Jackson – Thriller
    Midnight Oil -Diesel And Dust
    Ministry – Lay Lady Lay (Single)
    Porno For Pyros – Pets (Single)
    R.E.M. – Automatic For The People
    Red Hot Chili Peppers – Blood Sugar Sex Magic
    Public Image Limited – Happy?
    Rush – Power Windows
    Seal – Seal
    Spin Doctors – Pocket Full Of Kryptonite
    Steve Vai – Sex And Religion
    Stone Temple Piolots – Tiny Music
    The Farm – Groovey Train (Single)
    Tool – Undertow
    Sisters Of Mercy – Vision Thing
    The Verve (Lucky Man and Bitter Sweet Symphony)
    The Verve Pipe – Villians
    Toad The Wet Sprocket – Dulcinea
    Type O Negative – October Rust
    Wang Chung – Mosaic and the (Dance Hall Days single)
    Cheryl Crow – Everyday Is A Winding Road single
    Peter Gabriel – So

  19. Deep says:

    Pink Floyd – Dark Side Of The Moon

    RATM – RATM

    Alan Parsons Project – Tales Of Mystery And Imagination (1987 Remix)

    Camel – Rain Dances

    Dire Straits – Love Over Gold

    Fleetwood Mac – Rumours

    GnR – Chinese Democracy

    John Mayer – Continuum

    Mark Knopfler – The Ragpicker’s Dream/Sailing To Philadelphia

    Roger Waters – Amused To Death

    Robert Plant – Pictures At 11

    Tracy Chapman – Tracy Chapman

    U2 – The Joshua Tree

    Van Halen – Van Halen

    David Gilmour – On An Island

  20. Warstub says:

    I agree with Bruce on Tool’s Undertow. Although the album is mixed quite low, every instrument can be heard, and nothing overpowers anything else. This mix really displays Danny Carey’s amazing abilities as a drummer.

  21. boyan says:

    great post, Ian… I was catching up on the loudness war and came across your blog, etc…
    most of the suggestions here are really nice.

    How do you like “Waiting For The Punchline” by Extreme? “Cynical”, “Naked”… “Better Of Dead” is a track that ddin’t make the album, but has one of my favorite guitar sounds. Everything on the album sounds huge.

    How do you like Curtis Mayfield’s “There Is No Place Like America Today”? “So In Love” and my favorite – “When Seasons Change”. beside artistic value, I think everything sounds great.

    King’s X have great sound, beside being a totally awesome and under rated band. “Dogman” (“Sunshine Rain” sounds great, check out the vocals in “Shoes”, esp. after the solo) is their most famous album, i believe, but I like things throughout their discography… “Mr Bulbous” felt like a conceptual album, i listened to it so much… maybe it’s the dropped tuning. if you think about it, it doesn’t make sense because Ty Tabor recorded it with a POD – a tone sucker… I guess the subjectivity of music comes to play here, because i still like it for what it is.

    “Dark Side of The Moon”, RATM, “Blood Sugar Sex Magik” – i love them too.

    A lot of “old” music sounds absolutely kick ass, great clarity, punch, dynamics – Ray Charles (the Atlantic jazz/blues stuff), James Brown, Muddy Waters…

    I think my top choice for best sound/production and artistic value will be “Beneath The Surface” by Incognito. Have You checked it out? What do you think?
    it has great arrangements, very complex, yet it has clarity, punch, definition, etc.. great players and singers on this one, and technically perfect IMHO.

    Regards,

    Boyan

  22. boyan says:

    How could I ever forget… Mark Sandman… Morphine… talk about signature sound.. nothing ever has or will come close…

  23. Ian Shepherd says:

    Hi Boyan,

    Thanks for commenting – I’m going to check out your suggestions, thanks !

    Ian

  24. Warstub says:

    Yeah just backing up Boyan on the Morphine suggestion. The Night is a brilliant album – definitely check it out.

  25. boyan says:

    Thanks, Ian and Warstub.

    I could be biased for Extreme’s “Waiting For The Punchline”, the same way people are biased for RATM… It’s the music really. “Punchline” has great playing… I also like Californication, even though it’s pretty squashed…

    Morphine however, they are a category of their own. I think everythting they put out is very special… There is a collection of the solo work of Mark Sandman called “Sandbox”. Ian, you talk about signature sound and how you can tell a recording, JJ Cale’s, etc.. I feel the same way about Mark Sandman’s solo work – not only he used harmonica microphones a lot, which is a signature sound by itself, but just about everything he recorded has that special Mark Sandman touch. He was a DIY guy and absolutely brilliant.

  26. Elrik Merlin says:

    My own picks would include the following (not in any order):

    Klaatu – first album (different US/UK titles): excellent all round. Terry Brown production I recall;
    Pet Sounds: DVD-A version is stunning; I do like the original mono but the stereo is great too IMO;
    Toy Matinee: stereo or surround versions very impressive;
    Thunderclap Newman – Hollywood Dream: “Accidents” includes the coolest bass sound I’ve ever heard;
    Beatles, Love: wonderful piece of work sound-wise as well as mixwise. Again, the DVD-A is brilliant;

  27. [...] If you’re lacking ideas on what constitutes a great mix, Ian over at Production Advice has a great post on his favorite albums. [...]

  28. Elton says:

    Opaline by Dishwalla. Beautiful

  29. Benjamin says:

    I’m with RATM too. Very curious to find out what’s your bug BUT Ian… To me, it is one of the most intense albums ever made, and the consistency throughout the entire thing is also very rare.

    Happy to see you included Goldfrapp!

    Oh, and there’s WAY too little Fleetwood Mac in this thread!

  30. Ian Shepherd says:

    @ Benjamin – Oh, you’re right. “Rumours”, for example…

    I talked a bit more about RATM here:

    http://productionadvice.co.uk/audio-personality/

    Let me know what you think :-)

  31. Paul says:

    Two years on. Ian, I read your article on RATMs sound when it was first posted. While I agree with the main point that albums need a sonic signiture, I don’t see how RATM lacks one. Maybe its a difference of taste?

    Honestly though, this is an album that does not pull any punches. Its an album written by a band as a means for them to play the songs live at a rally, and as a consequence they end up sounding that way too. RATM is their best album. Evil Empire and Battle Of LA do not even come close to touching it.

  32. Patrick says:

    Just stumbled apon this list! Wow!!! Have I got some vinyl to buy! This is goooood stuff!

    A couple of my fav’s

    Stereo
    CSN – Deja Vu
    Heart – Dreamboat Annie
    Rush – Permanent Waves
    Traffic – Traffic
    Santana – Abraxas

    Surround
    Joe Satriani – Strange Beautiful Music
    Roy Orbison- Black and White night
    Mark Knopfler- Sailing to Philadelphia
    Alan Parsons – On Air
    Nora Jones – Come Away with Me
    Procupine Tree – Stupid Dream

  33. textoen says:

    Yes – fragile
    Hendrix – electric ladyland
    Roxy Music – avalon
    Little Feat – the last record
    ABC – the look of love
    Heart – little queen
    Led Zep – houses of the holy
    Kraftwork – autobahn
    Bill Nelson – atom shop
    Talking Heads – more songs about…

  34. Silver says:

    Not Darkside mmmmm Wonder why Ian ?

  35. Chaka Khan says:

    um….. Aja

    I mean, come on ya’ll!

  36. Ian Shepherd says:

    I just think “Wish You Were Here” sounds even better :-)

  37. Silver says:

    Ah Music is so subjective
    I played at an End of the World party
    last night
    did 2 covers
    Hey big Spender
    The Right Stuff ,,Bob calvert song he who penned Silver Maschine and
    “perfect Tranquilizer” my song My song got the biggest thumbs up from the crowd Wow was I chuffed !!
    merry blah blah and Happy thingimigig lol

  38. rogelio z says:

    Mmmmhhh,
    David Sylvian Gone to Earth Virgin single CD edition
    Cocteau Twins Head Over Heels 4ad France
    Public Image Limited 9
    Cranes Forever RCA edition
    Lycia Cold Projekt Records edition
    Massive Attack Mezzanine
    Tangerine Dream Ricochet original Virgin CD nonremaster
    Kraftwerk TransEurope Express Electrola edition
    If I remember more I’ll add to the list.

  39. Steve Rogers says:

    Here’s my list – six 70′s albums that I think have managed the feat of “breaking the fourth wall” of the studio – they make me think of gigs and excitement, not perfectionist desk work and overdubbing sessions :-)

    Deep Purple In Rock – rough and violent, with incredible use of distortion, not only in the backline amps but also in the recording itself.

    Led Zeppelin I – the most powerful and dynamic rock album ever made, with a winning balance between clean recording and different reverb/echo spaces for each song.

    Larks’ Tongues In Aspic – great dynamic range even on vinyl, and a huge palette of instrumental colours and compositional styles.

    Red – single-minded devotion to a sort of grinding darkness but full of cathartic feeling.

    Tales From Topographic Oceans – one of the most epic progressive double albums, but the basic track was recorded live in the studio by a great gigging band, and it shows in the warmth. Lush reverb effects on the drums and Mellotron.

    Tarkus – a tight, focused studio sound that emphasises the composition and playing.

  40. fricker says:

    honestly i have to say this has been an amazing conversation about RATM. Personally, it is on my list of 12 albums with great production, due to the fact that the pounding of the drums, the angry vibe of the vocals which only De La Rocha could do, Timmy C’s bass blasting on tunes like township rebellion, and of course the man himself tom morello with his epic guitar (Underline GUITAR) work. Me saying underline guitar, i reference page 7 of the CD booklet, which in bold print, it states “NO SAMPLES, KEYBOARDS, OR SYNTHESIZERS USED IN THE MAKING OF THIS RECORDING”, which clearly is needed for the guitar work morello produced for the record. Songs like Wake Up and Freedom on the album were the hardest hitting, and had some of the best instrument tracks produced for each song, backed by the amazing vocals of course.

    Now for my list,

    12.) Paranoid – Black Sabbath

    11.) Smash – The Offspring

    10.) Hybrid Theory – Linkin Park

    9.) City Of Evil – Avenged Sevenfold

    8.) Ace Of Spades – Motorhead

    7.) The Number Of The Beast – Iron Maiden

    6.) Vulgar Display Of Power – Pantera

    5.) Nevermind – Nirvana

    4.) Rage Against The Machine – Rage Against The Machine

    3.) Among The Living – Anthrax

    2.) Inhuman Rampage – Dragonforce

    1.) Super Collider – Megadeth (HAAAH!!!!JKJKJK LMAO)

    Actually Megadeth is at No.1 with Rust In Peace (I just love the quality listening to it now knowing how old it is. this is an opinion of course, and honestly i wish i could have gotten some other bands on it like slayer, korn,acdc and such, but this wasnt about my favorite albums it was about production of the albums.

  41. vin says:

    Some from punk i would like to include even though not as good but
    Refused – shape of the punk to come
    cro-mags – age of quarrel

  42. Saddle says:

    So many… Two that I can think of.

    Chuck E’s In Love – Rickie Lee Jones

    Trio – Emmy Lou Harris, Dolly Parton, Linda Rondstant
    Produced/engineered George Massenburg

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