It was supposed to be so easy. We didn't even set ourselves the task of picking the absolute, definitive best 50 albums for audiophiles – and in reality this is just a selection of records from a collection of hundreds or thousands – but still it felt close to picking which of your limbs you'd least mind offering to a hungry bear.
We did, however, manage to compile the below list of 50 records (depending on how we feel it may even be 51 – plus some further listening for each) we feel span genres, styles of production and sonic character rather well. If nothing else, they'll give your hi-fi a workout and, hopefully, broaden your musical horizons at least a little.
- Our guide to the best test tracks to trial your hi-fi system
Radiohead – Hail To The Thief (2003)
Following a pair of heavily electronic-infused records in Kid A and Amnesiac, Radiohead here effectively returned to being a five-piece guitar band without forgoing the experimentation or genre blurring that made the aforementioned records so comprehensively seminal. Plus initial vinyl pressings played at 45rpm for additional willfulness points.
Buy it on Amazon: Radiohead Hail To The Thief (opens in new tab)
Mogwai – As The Love Continues (2021)
Stuart Braithwaite's post-rock Glaswegian outfit meanders along mostly reassuring, sombre, somehow cosy territory here, albeit permeated by tangible pangs of grief, moments akin to howling at the night sky (we've all been there) and the sense that Mogwai could irreverently dart off anywhere, at any point.
This is the band's tenth studio album. Whatever you do, listen to it a few times before you challenge its inclusion here – and then listen to Drive the Nail again.
Buy it on Amazon: Mogwai As The Love Continues (opens in new tab)
Like this? Try British Sea Power The Decline of British Sea Power & the Decline-Era B-Sides (opens in new tab)
Miles Davis – Bitches Brew (1970)
Miles Davis made his opinions on the term fusion as a descriptor for this period of his music stingingly clear. Nonetheless, Bitches Brew blended modal jazz with, essentially, a rock rhythm section to rebirth the fomer's position as the wildly influential genre it had always been.
Buy it on Amazon: Miles Davis Bitches Brew (opens in new tab)
Like this? Try Sun Ra A Fireside Chat With Lucifer (opens in new tab)
My Bloody Valentine – Loveless (1991)
Arguably the poster album for shoegaze, Loveless is a masterpiece combining elephantine riffs with dream-pop haze, awash with reverb and overdriven guitars - and complimented by an equally iconic sleeve of cherry-drop psychedelia.
Buy it on Amazon: My Bloody Valentine Loveless (opens in new tab)
Like this? Try The Jesus & Mary Chain Psychocandy (opens in new tab)
Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here (1975)
Can you really call yourself an audiophile if you don't own a copy of Wish You Were Here? Well, yes, of course you can, but most audiophiles own one regardless.
Buy it on Amazon: Pink Floyd Wish You Were Here (opens in new tab)
Like this? Try Tim Buckley Starsailor (opens in new tab)
The Beatles – Abbey Road (1969)
There are of course more experimental and, some might say, more interesting Beatles albums than this. But even if we disregard any sonic value in terms of production, Abbey Road in particular is (if nothing else) proof that 'straightforward' pop music can and should be art.
Buy it on Amazon: The Beatles Abbey Road (opens in new tab)
Like this? Try Big Star #1 Record (opens in new tab)
Daft Punk – Random Access Memories (2013)
If you're going to get Nile Rogers in, then a compressed and radio-friendly recording is never going to cut it. Recorded largely using live instruments, Random Access Memories is one of the few chart-topping dance albums that facilitates, in fact demands, deeper listening.
Buy it on Amazon: Daft Punk Random Access Memories (opens in new tab)
Like this? Try Tame Impala Currents (opens in new tab)
R.E.M. – Automatic For The People (1992)
Alongside the preceeding Out Of Time, Automatic For The People is one of the two R.E.M. records with, arguably, the most mainstream pop sensibilities. Where others can falter in combining hits with poignancy, however, Berry, Stipe, Buck and Mills here created a timelessly beautiful and pensive record.
Buy it on Amazon: R.E.M. Automatic For The People (opens in new tab)
Like this? Try Idlewild Warnings/Promises (opens in new tab)
The Flaming Lips – The Soft Bulletin (1999)
Their being so prolific has made The Flaming Lips' discography difficult to navigate for those who are only now being introduced, but The Soft Bulletin is a sonic photograph of the band at their best: an expansive and eclectic pallet of musical and lyrical brilliance.
Buy it on Amazon: The Flaming Lips The Soft Bulletin (opens in new tab)
Stevie Wonder – Innervisions (1973)
An innovative melting pot of funk, gospel and soul, Innervisions is a record whose production toes the line marvellously between precision and abandon with ballerina-like poise.
Buy it on Amazon: Stevie Wonder Innervisions (opens in new tab)
Like this? Try Curtis Mayfield Superfly (opens in new tab)
Frank Sinatra – In The Wee Small Hours (1955)
So smooth and smoky is In The Wee Small Hours, it paints sonically the same picture of streetlights and cigarettes adorning the sleeve.
Buy it on Amazon: Frank Sinatra In The Wee Small Hours (opens in new tab)
Like this? Try Peggy Lee Black Coffee (opens in new tab)
Marvin Gaye – What's Going On (1971)
Does Gaye's soulful satin vocal, soaring as it does above What's Going On's spacious jazz- and blues-drenched arrangements, belie somewhat this remarkable record's themes of social injustice? Or does it elevate those messages beyond the realms of the archetypal political concept record?
Buy it on Amazon: Marvin Gaye What's Going On (opens in new tab)
Gustav Holst – The Planets
We could imagine Holst leaving us a nasty Facebook comment when he saw The Planets on this list, given how much he despised its popularity. Our apologies Gustav, but few classical suites cover so broad a spectrum of mood and tonality as this. Some have theorised The Planets also serves as an allegory for the tumult of life itself.
Eric Bibb – Spirit and The Blues (1994)
Though his father took him out of school early, Eric Bibb could hardly have had a better education in terms of music, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Bob Dylan and Taj Mahal. Spirit and The Blues is a virtuoso catalogue of Bibb's signature slide and fingerpicking playing, and blues- and gospel-steeped vocal.
Buy it on Amazon: Eric Bibb Spirit and The Blues (opens in new tab)
Like this? Try Eric Clapton Me and Mr. Johnson (opens in new tab)
Sigur Rós – Takk... (2005)
Inventing a language is usually the terrain of six-year-old girls at a sleepover but, the fact is, Jónsi's writing of the lyrics for many Sigur Rós songs in "Hopelandic" still doesn't detract from the beauty or grandeur of the band's music. Which is testament to how truly brilliant it is.
Buy it on Amazon: Sigur Rós Takk... (opens in new tab)
Like this? Try múm Finally We Are No One (opens in new tab)
The Congos – Heart Of The Congos (1977)
One of the finest roots reggae albums of all time, and undoubtedly Lee 'Scratch' Perry's finest hour-and-26-minutes. If ever there were a place to begin with Jamaican music, this is it.
Buy it on Amazon: The Congos Heart Of The Congos (opens in new tab)
Like this? Try Burning Spear Social Living (opens in new tab)
LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening (2010)
There are those who believe James Murphy worked out the algorithm for chart-bothering indie music and created LCD Soundsystem in its image - but something so calculated would not explain the digital-with-analogue glory and wit of their three albums. Here's to hoping Murphy's forthcoming return matches up to this, the last LCD studio album.
Buy it on Amazon: LCD Soundsystem This Is Happening (opens in new tab)
Like this? Try Hot Chip In Our Heads (opens in new tab)
Lewis – L'Amour (1983)
When this private press was picked up by a collector at a Canadian flea market and subsequently shared online, the mystery of the man known as Lewis caught the imaginations of record lovers as much as the music itself. Rumours circulated he was a con artist who fled Los Angeles after not paying for L'Amour's photo shoot, or that he was actually an extra-terrestrial. Lewis remains a mystery, but the merits of his velveteen croon certainly do not.
Buy it on Amazon: Lewis L'Amour (opens in new tab)
Like this? Try Azure Ray Azure Ray (opens in new tab)
Nils Frahm – Spaces (2013)
"I see this release more as a field recording project than a live record," Frahm writes in his sleeve notes for Spaces. Audiophile-wooing experimentation isn't restricted to the music on this ambient-cum-modern-classical album, either: "Some concerts were recorded on old portable reel-to-reel recorders, some on simple cassette tape decks. Some were roughly recorded on the house engineers' mixing desks, and others were more advanced multi-track recordings." Let him in, he's one of us.
Buy it on Amazon: Nils Frahm Spaces (opens in new tab)
Like this? Try Ludovico Einaudi Elements (opens in new tab)
Lubomyr Melnyk – Rivers & Streams (2015)
Our consistent lauding of this Ukranian continuous-music pioneer is really rather fitting when you think about it. It's usually best not to think when listening to Lubomyr Melnyk, however, rather meditade and bask in his ambient glory.
Buy it on Amazon: Lubomyr Melnyk Rivers & Streams (opens in new tab)
Shye Ben Tzur, Jonny Greenwood & The Rajasthan Express – Junun (2015)
Paul Thomas Anderson documented the recording of this collaboration in his film of the same name, so you can actually follow the album being created. And what a group it is collaborating: Israeli guitarist Shye Ben Tzur, Radiohead creator-in-chief Jonny Greenwood and Indian ensemble Rajasthan Express recorded Junun in the latter's home state, with Nigel Godrich's light-fingered production letting the sounds of nesting birds and surrounding streets permeate a fusion of musical culture that perhaps oughtn't work but absolutely does.
Like this? Try Shye Ben Tzur Heeyam (opens in new tab)
Boards Of Canada – Tomorrow's Harvest (2013)
Boards Of Canada's blend of field recordings with often ambient synth lines has inspired a hoard of software plug-in developers who'd seek to emulate their immediately recognisable signature sound. Perhaps Tomorrow's Harvest isn't always the most accessible of records, but it's an intriguing and affecting listen.
Buy it on Amazon: Boards Of Canada Tomorrow's Harvest (opens in new tab)
Like this? Try Four Tet There Is Love In You (opens in new tab)
Kiasmos – Kiasmos (2014)
While Ólafur Arnalds' piano compositions are often more minimalist than those of label-mate Nils Frahm, alongside Janus Rasmussen in Kiasmos he created a classical-inspired house record that is at once a departure and unmistakably his. Though live sets are largely comprised of knob-twiddling, the record was produced with live instruments that give Kiasmos its own sonic bent on the ever-expanding house music landscape.
Buy it on Amazon: Kiasmos Kiasmos (opens in new tab)
Like this? Try Rival Consoles Sonne (opens in new tab)
Nina Simone – Baltimore (1978)
Another record the artist would possibly balk at us including, the recording of Baltimore was not a particularly enjoyable time for Nina Simone, who seems to have disagreed with pretty much everything jazz producer Creed Taylor decided to do. Astonishingly, she ended up recording her vocals for the album in a single hour-long session.
Buy it on Amazon: Nina Simone Baltimore (opens in new tab)
Like this? Try Etta Jones My Mother's Eyes (opens in new tab)
Dr. Dre – 2001 (1999)
"And when your album sales wasn't doing too good/Who's the doctor they told you to go see?" Effectively, 2001 is a sonic argument as to why Dr. Dre is widely considered one of the world's finest composers of hip-hop beats.
Buy it on Amazon: Dr. Dre 2001 (opens in new tab)
Like this? Try Notorious B.I.G. Ready To Die (opens in new tab)
Brian Eno – Ambient 1: Music For Airports (1978)
Brian Eno's fascination with complexity born of simplicity is spotlighted marvellously on Ambient 1. For its second track, for example, Eno simply recorded each 'ah' sound and left them to loop with varying delays to create a cavernous, overlapping soundscape that in our minds remains one of his finest ambient compositions.
Buy it on Amazon: Brian Eno Ambient 1: Music For Airports (opens in new tab)
Like this? Try Moby Wait For Me: Deluxe Edition (opens in new tab)
Aphex Twin – Selected Ambient Works 85-92 (1992)
It's difficult to comprehend, but Richard James has claimed blissful ignorance to any of the classical or electronic artists by whom he appeared to have been influenced while creating Selected Ambient Works. Regardless, there is a definite otherness to the record that, despite its apparent forebears, keeps it from being at all derivative in a way that tempts us to believe those comments are true.
Buy it on Amazon: Aphex Twin Selected Ambient Works 85-92 (opens in new tab)
Like this? Try Burial Untrue (opens in new tab)
Darkside – Psychic (2013)
We have Will Epstein largely to thank for the existence of Darkside. It was he who recommended multi-instrumentalist Dave Harrington when electronic musician Nicolas Jaar was searching a third musician for his live band while touring his album Space Is Only Noise. Psychic is an exploration in genre and instrumental arrangement that is sonically unparalleled by anything else we've heard.
Buy it on Amazon: Darkside Psychic (opens in new tab)
Like this? Try Nicolas Jaar Space Is Only Noise (opens in new tab)
Biffy Clyro – Infinity Land (2004)
This is the last album before Biffy Clyro made the switch to chart-topping anthemic rock, and Simon Neil has admitted to wilfully toying with his audience. There's the electro intro to album opener Glitter and Trauma, designed to trick listeners into thinking they'd bought the wrong CD, a choral precursor to the record's most acerbically raucous track There's No Such Thing As A Jaggy Snake, and the hardcore intro/outro sandwiching what is in essence a pop song in The Kids From Kibble and The Fist Of Light. It'd be pure gimmickery if Infinity Land wasn't such an incredible album, full of melodic beauty meshed with angular guitar riffs and obscure rhythmic patterns.
Buy it on Amazon: Biffy Clyro Infinity Land (opens in new tab)
Like this? Try Oceansize Everyone Into Position (opens in new tab)
FKA Twigs – LP1 (2014)
Nominated for the 2014 Mercury Prize, where it was pipped by Young Fathers' also-brilliant Dead, LP1 is a meld of electronic experimentation and sharp-tongued lyricism juxtaposed with Tahliah Barnett's almost angelic vocal.
Buy it on Amazon: FKA Twigs LP1 (opens in new tab)
Like this? Try M.I.A. Kala (opens in new tab)
Nine Inch Nails – The Downward Spiral (1994)
Were there a mob family dealing in industrial music, Trent Reznor would be its Godfather. This is probably Nine Inch Nails's best-known work, though even those who've never heard the name before now might recognise Hurt, which Johnny Cash covered for his 2002 album American IV.
Buy it on Amazon: Nine Inch Nails The Downward Spiral (opens in new tab)
TV On The Radio – Return To Cookie Mountain (2006)
TV On The Radio appeared to be in less experimental mood on their unexpected latest album Seeds, the first since multi-instrumentalist and co-songwriter Gerard Smith died of lung cancer in 2011, but Return To Cookie Mountain is the record that really gets to the heart of band. Recurring themes of alt-rock, gospel, hip-hop and electronic music are interspersed with so many other genre influences you'd probably need your toes as well as your fingers to count them all.
Buy it on Amazon: TV On The Radio Return To Cookie Mountain (opens in new tab)
Like this? Try Young Fathers White Men Are Black Men Too (opens in new tab)
The Mars Volta – Deloused In The Comatorium (2003)
In many ways, the story of Deloused In The Comatorium begins with At The Drive-In's last record before they split: Relationship of Command. "One of my only regrets out of anything I've ever done is the way that record was mixed," says Omar Rodríguez-Lopez. "People think that was a raw and energetic record, but what they're hearing is nothing compared to what it truly was before it was glossed over." He righted those wrongs on Deloused, producing the record himself, alongside Rick Rubin, and in the process creating a record that almost 15 years later still feels like being punched square between the eyes. Punched with such technique and craftsmanship, however, you can't help feeling admiration as you fall to the floor.
Buy it on Amazon: The Mars Volta Deloused In The Comatorium (opens in new tab)
Like this? Try At The Drive-In Relationship Of Command (opens in new tab)
The White Stripes – Elephant (2003)
Would Elephant still be one of the finest garage rock records ever written if it weren't for the dirt beneath its fingernails? But don't read lo-fi here as recorded-in-a-teenager's-bedroom: read it as raw, in the best possible way.
Buy it on Amazon: The White Stripes Elephant (opens in new tab)
Like this? Try Yeah Yeah Yeahs Fever To Tell (opens in new tab)
Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath (1970)
There are more modern metal albums, such as Slipknot's debut, that could easily have made this list, but this particular record is proof that it doesn't take eight distortion pedals and a double kick-drum to create a petrifyingly heavy sound. As entrenched in psychedelia as it is heavy metal, we defy any first-time listener to Black Sabbath to guess it is now 50 years old.
Buy it on Amazon: Black Sabbath Black Sabbath (opens in new tab)
Toots & The Maytals – Funky Kingston (1972)
As far as whacked-out reggae goes, there are few purveyors on par with Toots & The Maytals. This is the group's first record made with producer Chris Blackwell, who tailored their sound for an international audience without sacrificing their roots-inspired signature.
Buy it on Amazon: Toots & The Maytals Funky Kingston (opens in new tab)
Like this? Try The Ethiopians Engine 54 (opens in new tab)
Charles Mingus – Mingus Ah Um (1959)
Between 1950 and 1960, Mingus released more than 20 albums. But it's Mingus Ah Um - packed with compositions written for or about his musical heroes, such as Lester Young and Duke Ellington, as well as less affectionate figures, such as Orval E. Faubus - that is the most consistently dazzling.
Buy it on Amazon: Charles Mingus Mingus Ah Um (opens in new tab)
Like this? Try Thelonious Monk Underground (opens in new tab)
Neil Young – Unplugged (1993)
With so many superlative live records from which to choose, and indeed so many studio albums by Neil Young, you may wonder why we chose this to represent both. Listen to Like A Hurricane without getting goosebumps and perhaps we'll consider changing it.
Buy it on Amazon: Neil Young Unplugged (opens in new tab)
Like this? Try Nirvana Unplugged In New York (opens in new tab)
Cut Chemist – The Audience's Listening (2006)
Cut worked for 18 months on this, his first solo LP, having left both rap group Jurassic 5 and Latin funk outfit Ozomalti. Those bands, of whom he was a founding member, hold a few clues as to the eclecticism of his influences. The Audience's Listening is not merely a collage of regurgitated samples over scratched hip-hop beats - on it you'll find samples diverse as Quincy Jones, Boards Of Canada, Jefferson Airplane and beat novelist William Burroughs.
Buy it on Amazon: Cut Chemist The Audience's Listening (opens in new tab)
Like this? Try Jurassic 5 Feedback (opens in new tab)
Mogwai – The Hawk Is Howling (2008)
A lot of the material for The Hawk Is Howling was written for a Colombian film soundtrack, though it was never used. As such, it lies somewhere between the OSTs and studio albums that make up the rest of Mogwai's heady catalogue, conceptually diverse but never disjointed. If for no other reason, who wouldn't want to spin a record with pieces titled I'm Jim Morrison, I'm Dead, or Scotland's Shame, or I Love You, I'm Going To Blow Up Your School. Absurd brilliance.
Buy it on Amazon: Mogwai The Hawk Is Howling (opens in new tab)
Ghostpoet – Shedding Skin (2015)
Obaro Ejimiwe picked up the 2011 Mercury Prize for Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam, his debut album as Ghostpoet, and recieved similar critical acclaim for his second, Some Say I So I Say Light. They set a blueprint for his almost-performance-poetry sitting moodily atop stark electronic arrangements that was all but torn up for this record. He introduced a backing band, effectively making Ghostpoet a four-piece, that gives Shedding Skin more the feel of a post-punk album than hip-hop or electronica, allowing Ejimiwe greater scope to explore his undoubted musical and creative talent.
Buy it on Amazon: Ghostpoet Shedding Skin (opens in new tab)
Like this? Try Roots Manuva Run Come Save Me (opens in new tab)
Arcade Fire – Funeral (2004)
Among the plethora of astonishing facets to Funeral is it took only half a year to record. Produced and engineered by the band themselves, that's half a year to record an army of guitars, pianos, synthesizers and organs, xylophones, violins, cellos and horns, harp, percussion and vocals - and then turn it into one of the finest albums of any genre to be released this side of the millennium.
Buy it on Amazon: Arcade Fire Funeral (opens in new tab)
Like this? Try Animal Collective Feels (opens in new tab)
The Blood Brothers – Crimes (2004)
The Blood Brothers' post-hardcore noise isn't for everybody's taste, but its intensity, and the fact they've succeeded where so many artists fail in traslating that to a studio recording, is the kind any audiophile ought be able to appreciate. This is probably their most diverse and so probably least divisive record, with breakneck scream tracks broken up by what (by Blood Brothers standards) you could almost list as pop songs or ballads. Crimes is unpleasant, but violently creative.
Buy it on Amazon: The Blood Brothers Crimes (opens in new tab)
Thundercat – Drunk (2017)
It'd be criminal to pigeonhole Thundercat as a virtuoso bassist. Drunk is Stephen Bruner's third solo studio album, showing off songwriting that ranges from somber to comical and spans enough genres to make him a fusion artist. Though 'fusion' is insufficient to properly describe his sonic mastery.
Buy it on Amazon: Thundercat Drunk (opens in new tab)
Like this? Try Kamasi Washington The Epic (opens in new tab)
J. S. Bach – Brandenburg Concertos
This collection of concertos written for Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg (though there's no evidence he ever actually heard them) really acts as a gateway drug to Baroque music. Bach here gave solos to each orchestral family of instruments, so in hi-fi terms it's about as comprehensive a workout as you'll find in terms of detail and tonality.
Like this? Try Beatrice Rana Prokofiev & Tchaikovsky Piano Concertos (opens in new tab)
Percy Sledge – The Percy Sledge Way (1967)
The title of this album really says all you need to know about the record: it's a collection of 11 songs made famous by other soul and R&B stars, done in that oh-so iconic Percy Sledge way. It's majestic and effortless, infusing each with the heartache conveyed in apparently every note he ever sang.
Buy it on Amazon: Percy Sledge The Percy Sledge Way (opens in new tab)
Like this? Try Clarence Carter This Is Clarence Carter (opens in new tab)
Mbongwana Star – From Kinshasa (2015)
Hypnotic, exciting and at once recognisably Congolese yet unlike anything else we've heard come from thriving Kinshasa, Mbongwana Star's debut album is really only world music in the sense it doesn't come from North America or Europe. Like many of the albums on this list, you can't be entirely sure it came from this world at all.
Buy it on Amazon: Mbongwana Star From Kinshasa (opens in new tab)
Like this? Try Konono No1 Congotronics (opens in new tab)
Queens Of The Stone Age – Songs For The Deaf (2002)
If stoner rock were a video game, Josh Homme would be who you'd have to defeat in its boss level. On Songs For The Deaf, Queens Of The Stone Age ramped up the intensity somewhat while retaining their effortless sunglasses-in-a-darkened-room chill, writing some of the heaviest and off-beat-est riffs on any of their six albums to date.
Buy it on Amazon: Queens Of The Stone Age Songs For The Deaf (opens in new tab)
Like this? Try Kyuss Welcome To Sky Valley (opens in new tab)
Blakroc – Blakroc (2009)
Blakroc began when Roc-A-Fella Records co-founder Damon Dash began listening to Ohian garage-blues rock duo The Black Keys and got in touch with the idea of pairing them with rapper Jim Jones to make an album. Story goes that Mos Def interrupted a session and ended up recording with them as well, and over 11 weeks an army of artists including Ludacris, Q-Tip and RZA contributed to a truly unique rap record.
Buy it on Amazon: Blakroc Blakroc (opens in new tab)
Like this? Try The Roots Rising Down (opens in new tab)
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – The Boatman's Call (1997)
As with many of the other artists on this list, we could have pinned the tail on the Nick Cave record to decide which we'd include. In being entirely piano-led The Boatman's Call was a bit of a departure from Cave & The Bad Seeds' records to that point, with arrangements framing perfectly its frank and often sombre lyricism.
Buy it on Amazon: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds The Boatman's Call (opens in new tab)
Like this? Try Tom Waits Mule Variations (opens in new tab)
David Bowie – Blackstar (2016)
You almost thought we'd left Bowie off the list, didn't you? What better way to round off this group of 50 albums than with Blackstar, a Tony Visconti gem on which Bowie's creative genius is complemented gorgeously by jazz saxophonist Donny McCaslin and his quartet. Quite a way to go out, in all senses.
Buy it on Amazon: David Bowie Blackstar (opens in new tab)
Like this? Try Iggy Pop Post Pop Depression (opens in new tab)