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This article explores five albums that changed the sonic landscape and influenced the sound of countless recordings after them. That doesn’t necessarily mean they sound flawless—in fact some of the albums are on this list because of their flaws.
At the time of their release and to this very day, these albums sound original, urgent and exciting. They’re the kind of albums that make you want to pick up a guitar, fire up your favorite mic, and start recording your own masterpiece. Be sure to check out the SoundsGood player at the bottom of the article to hear songs from each of the albums on the list.
THE PIXIES: SURFER ROSA
Recording engineer Steve Albini is probably best known for his work on Nirvana’s seminal album “In Utero”, as well as classic albums by PJ Harvey, Bush, The Breeders, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, and many more. But guess where Kurt Cobain got the idea to record with Albini? After he heard The Pixies’ album “Surfer Rosa”. The thundering drums and minimalist production that define Albini’s trademark sound is on full display on this classic indie rock album.
FLEETWOOD MAC: TUSK
Sure, Fleetwood Mac is on everyone’s list of best-sounding albums for “Rumours”. But on “Tusk”, guitarist/producer Lindsey Buckingham spent over $1 million on what amounts to an album full of studio experiments. On the title track, you’ll notice the drums sound huge…and a little strange. That’s because Buckingham rented out Dodger Stadium in LA and hired the UCLA marching band to play on the track. At the time of its release (1979), “Tusk” was considered a total flop. But like a fine wine, the album has aged well and has gone on to influence countless indie rock bands who are drawn to its experimental take on pop music.
THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO: S/T
The Velvet Underground’s debut album is considered an all-time classic, and has influenced generations of musicians across a wide range of genres. But can we talk about the way it sounds? Andy Warhol is credited as the producer, but I’m pretty sure he knew absolutely nothing about recording. The drums sound like a kid beating on cardboard boxes. The guitars are thin and brittle. The vocals are dry and muffled. And while I know there’s bass on the album, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard it. But by some kind of miracle, it all works really well together! If you’ve ever heard an album or band described with the buzz term “lo-fi”, this album is where that term originated.
LED ZEPPLIN: IV
Here’s an album that everyone who’s ever listened to rock and roll should be at least somewhat familiar with based on “Stairway to Heaven” alone. But I’m not talking about that song—I’m talking about the groundbreaking drum sound on “When the Levee Breaks”. It’s huge and has been the holy grail of all drum sounds since 1971.
The album was partially recorded in a three-story stone mansion, and the tale goes that producer Andy Johns got John Bonham to set up his drums in the lobby of the building. He then placed two dynamic mics in the stairwell and hit record, and the natural reverberation in the room colored the sound. That’s it—game, set, match. What’s remarkable is that no other mics were used on the kit. What’s even more remarkable, is that no one was using room mics on drums at the time. Truly a revolutionary moment considering that room mics are considered standard practice when recording drums today.
KRAFTWERK: COMPUTER WORLD
Kraftwerk’s influence on music is so great, it’s actually hard to measure. Not only did they build their own synthesizers and drum machines, they essentially invented electronic music. “Computer World” is their eighth studio album, and if I’m being honest, their earlier albums probably broke more ground… but “Computer World” is where they perfected their sound and pushed it to new heights. The song “Computer Love” is a stunner—it’s beautiful, haunting, catchy and strangely alien sounding. Coldplay liked it enough that they stole the main riff for their song “Talk” (Kraftwerk’s song is way better if you ask me). The album explores the rise of computers, technology, and their influence on society. That’s pretty forward-thinking for an album originally released in 1981.