Some records are more use than others when it comes to really finding out how good your system can sound. And, obviously, some records come with better songs on them than others.
As Record Store Day comes round once again for 2015, we've run down a selection of the albums that manage the by-no-means common feat of ticking both boxes...
1. Frank Sinatra - In The Wee Small Hours 
A failed suicide attempt, a divorce and the messy end of his most significant extra-marital affair brought Frank Sinatra to the point where only a magnificently unhappy album about loneliness, failure, isolation and depression would do. It’s possible that this is where the ‘concept album’ originated.
Lushly arranged by Nelson Riddle, In the Wee Small Hours has the sort of vocal eloquence and immediacy that can make the hair on your head stand to attention. Never has one man’s loneliness and vanishing sense of self-worth sounded so compelling or so lavish, or so at odds with the vivid orchestration from which it cries.
2. Charles Mingus – Mingus Ah Um 
You’re not short of choice where Charles Mingus records are concerned. Between 1950 and 1960, he released at least 23 albums. But it’s Mingus Ah Um – packed with compositions written for or about Mingus’ musical heroes like Lester Young and Duke Ellington, as well as less affectionate figures like Orval E. Faubus – that is the most consistently dazzling.
Those who know will tell you Mingus Ah Um is a post-bop jazz record, but all the rest of us need to know is that it’s elegantly played by virtuosos and recorded by people who care. The swing and syncopation so crucial to jazz is preserved verbatim, and where the most evocative details are concerned: the sound of sax-player’s breath as it escapes the mouthpiece of his instrument, a bassist grappling an instrument bigger than he is – Mingus Ah Um is alive with personality.
3. The Beach Boys – Smiley Smile 
For reasons too complex and psychedelic to go into here, The Beach Boys’ magnum opus Smile just never quite got around to being finished (this being the 60s, it was of course perfectly natural that main Beach Boy Brian Wilson attributed a fire at his recording studio to the power of his compositions). In its place came Smiley Smile, a ramshackle and lo-fi recording which was expected to meet the expectations raised by the Good Vibrations single six months earlier. It didn't.
On LP, this is a hugely atmospheric (if wildly variable) recording, with the kind of sonic signature that can only come from recording in a swimming pool or in a shower. But a system that can extract the finest details will reveal Smiley Smile as having a genuinely unique sound.
4. Neil Young – Tonight's The Night 
Young’s sixth studio album was mostly recorded in August 1973, but its release was delayed for almost two years (perhaps because, in the words of producer David Briggs, “it is a handful. It is unrelenting. There is no relief in it at all. It does not release you for one second"). A long way from the public’s perception of Young at the time as a vaguely hippified, vaguely countrified vendor of superior balladry, Tonight’s The Night is a sloppy, stoned, anguished howl of grief and loss.
The late-90s heavyweight-vinyl reissue of Tonight’s The Night is one of the most effortlessly revealing records you’ll hear. Every greasy finger-squeak, every exhausted bum note in the vocal, every zizzle of the snare beneath the drum-skin reacting to low-frequency sound is delivered with staggering immediacy.
The interaction between musicians (this is predominantly an ‘as-live’ recording) is made plain, and there’s real corporeality – especially to the bottom end. The timbre and texture of instruments is entirely convincing. And where resigned, wretched world-weariness is concerned you’ll never hear a more eloquent recording.
5. The Congos – Heart of the Congos 
All of the elements were in place for Heart of the Congos to be a singular record: three vocalists with supernatural harmonic sympathy, a top-of-the-line band including Sly Dunbar, Ernest Ranglin and Boris Gardiner, and a collection of strong, politically and religiously charged songs. Plus, of course, production by Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry at his Black Ark studio.
It’s the production that elevates Heart of the Congos from a superior roots reggae album to a peerless and unique recording. Absolutely drenched in reverb, endlessly echoing and repeating, with the most extraordinary noises punctuating proceedings (“what is that sound? Is that… is that cattle?”), it’s a sonic signature that’s unlike anything else you’ve heard. And even at its most conventional, Heart of the Congos is a warm, rhythmically engaging and thrillingly performed record.
6. Talking Heads – Remain in Light 
By the time they began work on their fourth album, Talking Heads were a disparate, ill-focused collection of people who didn’t especially get along with one other. But from the stew of mistrust, recriminations and the notoriously single-minded inputs of producer Brian Eno came this fever-dream of an album, short on chord changes but very long indeed on African-inspired polyrhythms, frenzied percussion, harmonic disruption and a sample/loop ethic years ahead of digital recording technics making such things commonplace.
There’s simultaneously density and weightlessness to the sound of Remain in Light. Everyone knows Once in a Lifetime, and that percussion-driven single, with its call-and-response massed vocal lines and New-Wave-meets-Fela-Kuti rhythmic abandon, is a broad template for the album as a whole. Dynamic, alive with texture and with some genuinely remarkable performances (Adrian Belew’s guitar on Listening Wind sounds like a keening animal of some kind), it’s an endlessly rewarding listen.
More after the break
7. Brian Eno – Apollo: Atmosphere & Soundtracks 
Brian Eno already had plenty of previous where ambient music is concerned by the time he was commissioned to score a documentary movie called For All Mankind. In the end the film was left in limbo until 1989, by which time Eno’s putative soundtrack had created its own critical traction.
For a recording during which not much happens, and what does happen occurs at a leisurely and refined pace, Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks is a much more varied album than some of Eno’s earlier ambient work. There are the trademark texture pieces, of course, but also some smoother and more accessible moments.
And there are some moments of shining weighlessness delivered by Daniel Lanois’s superlative steel guitar. Drop a copy of this onto a system capable of revealing the ‘soft’ attacks produced by playing notes backwards with multiple effects, and prepare for a nice, calming blast-off.
8. Talk Talk – Spirit of Eden 
Unless you’d paid close attention, Talk Talk’s place in the public consciousness as a pop group – a sort of unsexy Duran Duran – seemed pretty reasonable. Some of those singles were damn catchy, after all. But Spirit of Eden, the band’s fourth album, is about as far from chart-friendly pop as it gets. If you want to know where the idea of post-rock gained traction, give this a spin.
Moody and sprawling, Spirit of Eden resulted from assembling a sizable number of disparate musicians and then editing down from their many hours of improvised performances. The resulting amalgam of jazz, rock, chamber and ambient music sounds stunning on a well-sorted vinyl system.
Hugely dynamic (Spirit of Eden at times runs from virtual silence to full-on orchestral overload and back again in an instant), alive with tiny details and with a sweeping unity to its more grandiose passages, it’s a huge test of timing and soundstaging.
9. Massive Attack – Mezzanine 
Altogether darker and more oppressive than Massive Attack’s previous two albums, Mezzanine is the sound of a band at war with itself, only periodically rising above the surface for air. Aside from some peerless arrangements and one gold-plated classic (Teardrop), Mezzanine is notable as one of the first times a major act made an album available for download before its physical release.
On vinyl, Mezzanine is an implacable recording; one that packs iron-fisted punch from a widescreen stage. Where scale, dynamics and earth-moving low-end attack is concerned, it’s among the most testing albums around. And the way the vocals (from the likes of Horace Andy and Elizabeth Fraser, who are about as emotive as they come) are recorded make Mezzanine a hugely affecting album when delivered by the right system.
10. Hot Chip – Made in the Dark 
Three albums in and, on the face of it, Hot Chip served up more of the same with Made in the Dark. There are certainly elements that could be out-takes from the band’s two previous records. But a closer listen reveals a definite forging ahead, a desire to broaden horizons. And some very affecting ballads too.
But Made in the Dark is primarily a great album to own on vinyl thanks to its winning, if hardly original, combination of absolutely withering low-frequency attack and close-mic’d, conspiratorial vocals. In fact, the better the system the more seismic the bass and the more approximate (and consequently charming) the singing. You won’t hear another record that’s simultaneously so exacting and so ramshackle for a long time.
11. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories 
If you’re going to get Nile Rogers in, then a compressed and radio-friendly recording is never going to cut it. For their fourth album, Daft Punk took you definitively back to the day when Studio 54 ruled and when Rogers was a superstar for the very first time. Painstakingly recorded and featuring a stellar cast of performers (when you can put J.R. Robinson and Omar Hakim on the drum-stool you know nothing can go wrong), Random Access Memories is that most un-2013 of things: a hi-fi recording.
Wide-open, punchy and dynamic, with ample breathing-space and each guest vocalist given plenty of elbow-room, Random Access Memories is painstakingly produced and high-gloss. Expect it to feature at hi-fi shows for the next 20 years.
12. Leonard Cohen – Popular Problems 
On the occasion of his 80th birthday, Leonard Cohen – songwriter, musician, poet, novelist, monk, lover and defraudee – released the 13th studio album of a six decade-long career. And not only did it prove Cohen still had plenty left in the tank, it contained some of his strongest, most vivid songwriting in years. Singing like a man who has fully inhabited every one of his years, and with the gravitas and authority of a prophet aware of his own flaws, Cohen lays it on thick and chewy: “…there’s torture, and there’s killing, and there’s all my bad reviews…” (Almost Like the Blues)
The sound of the album is every bit as painstaking as the writing. Lushly organic, with the emphasis on piano, organ and stand-up bass with periodic string- or horn-stabs for temperature and punctuation, it’s custom-made for vinyl’s acknowledged mastery of instrumental timbre and texture. The usual female chorus is on hand to counterpoint Cohen’s subterranean rumble of a voice, and the entire package is the very definition of good taste.