We are now very much in the midst of British Hi-Fi Week, and what better way to mark the occasion than by listening to some of the finest recorded music the UK has ever produced.
A definitive list of the 50 best British albums simply cannot exist, whatever its purpose, and it’d be futile attempting to rank even those we have selected here. But it is at least a number that we think offers a decent cross section of what this country has offered to the music world over the past several decades.
What’s more, these are all great test discs. In fact, if you’re in the habit of digging out the records we mention in our reviews, there probably isn’t much to surprise you here.
The albums below are not necessarily those with the highest production value, with every instrument polished to the bone, but they do all highlight those facets of reproduced sound that it is imperative any good system gets right. There are tricky rhythms, exaggerated dynamic shifts, and of course plenty of dense textures to sonically explore.
Your favourite album probably isn’t on here, and there will be at least a few you think are naff, but these are the albums we’ll continue playing on repeat nonetheless.
Hounds Of Love by Kate Bush (1985)
Few would argue against Hounds Of Love’s status as one of the great British albums, and those who would are fundamentally wrong. It wasn’t the first time Bush had used complex electronics and musical computers to guide her compositions, but it is this record that most comfortably inhabits the spaces in between the electronic and the human, the earthy and ethereal. And that’s not to mention the songwriting that witnesses Bush at the top of her craft.
Astral Weeks by Van Morrison (1968)
It takes less than ten seconds of Astral Weeks, his second studio album, for Van Morrison’s voice to be heard, and that’s exactly how it ought to be. At once laid back and effusive, the Northern Irish singer-songwriter’s voice is among the most iconic in Western music, and lays waste to anything attempting to reproduce it without sufficient dynamic aptitude or a spacious enough soundstage.
Ambient 1: Music For Airports by Brian Eno (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.
Selected Ambient Works 85-92 by Aphex Twin (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 by 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.
Black Sabbath by Black Sabbath (1970)
There are certainly more modern British metal albums 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. Just listen to the opening riff of the title track, if you need proof. This is an album as entrenched in psychedelia as it is heavy metal, and we defy any first-time listener to Black Sabbath to guess that this year it celebrated its 50th anniversary.
Entertainment! by Gang Of Four (1979)
Gang Of Four’s debut album as good as defines the word angular as a musical descriptor. Andy Gill’s guitar lines jut through Entertainment!’s schizophrenic phrasing like broken glass and benefit infinitely from having their lines finely drawn by a high-resolution reproduction and sufficiently talented hi-fi system.
Power, Corruption & Lies by New Order (1983)
Despite Movement having been released two years previous, Power, Corruption & Lies was arguably the record that defined New Order as being a band apart from Joy Division. Its use of synthesizers is far broader than on the band’s debut, but still intelligently intertwined with guitars and acoustic percussion for a sound that is at once texturally dense and refreshingly spacious.
Tomorrow's Harvest by Boards of Canada (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.
LP1 by FKA twigs (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. It was followed last year by MAGDALENE, an equally inventive but decidedly more vulnerable and refined record, which proved we’ve only just begun to experience the breadth of FKA twigs’s considerable talent.
The Hawk Is Howling by Mogwai (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.
Blackstar by David Bowie (2016)
No list of greatest British albums would be complete without Bowie, of course, but the difficulty is always deciding which to include. We have cherished this Tony Visconti-produced gem since its release on Bowie’s 69th birthday, only two days before he died, marvelling in the way his creative genius is complemented gorgeously by jazz saxophonist Donny McCaslin and his quartet. As parting gifts go, Blackstar has to be among the finest.
PSYCHODRAMA by Dave (2019)
It’s galling to think that Dave is still only 21 years of age. He was far from an unknown quantity ahead of releasing his debut album last year – with his punctuated delivery of often wryly humorous, always self-aware social commentary already having elevated him to semi-stardom with a list of singles and EPs – but PSYCHODRAMA is undoubtedly on another level. Indeed, it is on another level to much of what has come before it generally. His wordplay is such that references will still be being unearthed long after their cultural significance is lost, but it is toned down somewhat in an important collection of songs exploring what it means to be young, black and in tune with the fragility of mental health in today’s fractured UK.
Nobody Wants To Be Here And Nobody Wants To Leave by The Twilight Sad (2014)
If you’re looking for guitar textures worthy of an archaeological dig, few have been offering them on the same scale as The Twilight Sad over the past decade or so. Nobody Wants To Be Here… is the band’s fourth studio album – preceding IT WON/T BE LIKE THIS ALL THE TIME’s release last year – and its songwriting is really the most complete, with certain anthemic melodies deserving of a larger audience. From a hi-fi perspective, its marginally reduced tempos open the window for more analysis of those grimy, reverb-drenched arrangements.
Pink Moon by Nick Drake (1972)
If the idea of this improved sound is to bring the artist closer to the listener, then there can be few better examples of its importance than a suite as intimate as Nick Drake’s Pink Moon. As much as you can hear fingers shuffling between the strings and live in the body of Drake’s guitar, it is said intimacy that here helps foster an even more tender relationship between the listener and the music.
Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division (1979)
Here lies another album it seems absurd was written in the last century, let alone more than 40 years ago. Unknown Pleasures shaped British guitar music in such a way that it is difficult to imagine where we’d be without its release, with such beauty to be found in the spaces between Bernard Sumner’s often hauntingly sparse guitar lines and Ian Curtis’s affecting vocal. This year marks four decades since Curtis tragically took his own life, and there seems no more fitting tribute than to celebrate his most seminal work at every given opportunity.
The King Of Limbs by Radiohead (2011)
To call this Radiohead’s least accessible album probably says quite a lot, but it is also likely the most rewarding through a competent hi-fi system. There are few phrases you’ll find yourself whistling as you make your morning toast – though that’s not to say The King Of Limbs is bereft of melody – and much of the arrangements’ ornamentation can appear arbitrary and haphazard when heard on sub-par kit. This is a lesson in organisation and the knitting together of a piece of music; when your system is tidy and times well, all of the decisions made on this record begin to make sense.
One World by John Martyn (1977)
Producer Chris Blackwell made use of his surroundings to achieve One World’s magnificently gaping sound, setting up a PA system to fire across a lake surrounding the idyllic Berkshire farmhouse at which the album was recorded. Two microphones were set up at the opposite side of the house to capture the sounds reflected back, with a further two placed close to the water’s edge to pick up the lapping water and no-doubt perplexed birds bobbing in it. “Between 3am and 6am was the toughest time on the mikes, but these quiet hours before dawn created the most magical atmosphere for recording,” said engineer Phil Brown.
New Hymn To Freedom by Szun Waves (2018)
London's burgeoning modern jazz scene is no more aptly showcased than by Szun Waves' improvised, unedited second album New Hymn To Freedom. The trio of saxophonist Jack Wyllie, electronic producer and experimental synth player Luke Abbot and drummer Laurence Pike craft a psychedelic landscape that is at once sonically dense and gloriously fluid. Though with a sound that is distinctively their own, it requires the same of your speakers as any great jazz recording: expert timing to navigate obscure rhythmic patterns, space for each instrument to articulate its lines and dynamic versatility to capture the nuance and unpredictability of its improvisation.
Singularity by Jon Hopkins (2018)
Blurring lines between ambient techno and acid house, Jon Hopkins's Singularity is a masterpiece of fractured beats and blissfully pulsing bass. At once seemingly minimal yet with deeper listening revealing auxiliary synth strands, without which the record would lose its sense of euphoria, it is a record deserving of a pair of speakers that possess the dynamic range to accentuate those leading notes that drive Hopkins's compound rhythms.
There Is Love In You by Four Tet (2010)
Undoubtedly, There Is Love In You marked a high point in Kieran Hebden’s solo career as Four Tet. The record’s somewhat idiosyncratic rhythmic patterns are often deceptively simple, choosing just a few overlapping motifs, often bound by an acoustic drum kit, over a cacophony of percussion. The key is in how these strands interact, dynamically and in terms of intensity, so they require a taut and subtly expressive system to reveal their full beauty.
Love Deluxe by Sade (1992)
Sade Adu’s velvet vocal is no better showcased than on the nine tracks that make up Love Deluxe. The Nigerian-British singer is often sonically at odds with the accompanying instrumentation, distorted guitars and hard-hit trip-hop percussion, which at times pierce the album’s soulful grooves, but the juxtaposition only ever serves to further highlight her gorgeous tonality. An album made as if solely to please your system’s midrange.
Heaven Or Las Vegas by Cocteau Twins (1990)
Shoegaze ended up a genre with so many imitators it was chastised by vast sections of the music press, and often used as an insult stickered to pretty much anything similar enough that it didn’t like. But a minor resurgence in recent years has given us all reason, if needed, to revisit the shimmering guitars and gliding vocal lines of Cocteau Twins’ Heaven Or Las Vegas. The often indiscernible lyrics might mean we end up singing along with all the wrong words, but there is so much here to dig through that it usually pays to listen in silence.
Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam by Ghostpoet (2011)
The title of Obaro Ejimiwe’s debut album as Ghostpoet somewhat belies its darkness, to be listened to after midnight with city lights reflecting through the window. It rides on a wave of grimy, undulating synths and fractured beats, with Ejimiwe’s languid delivery hovering like a cloud of industrial smoke. Nominated for the 2011 Mercury Prize, as was his third album Shedding Skin four years later, Peanut Butter Blues… was far from ignored upon its release but only seems to improve with age.
In Our Heads by Hot Chip (2012)
There’s more than enough time in our listening rooms for chin stroking and pensive reflection on mids, treble and stereo imaging, but if that were in lieu of simply having fun then we’ve entirely missed the point of music. After 2010’s One Life Stand saw Hot Chip mature somewhat, adding more dimensions to their dance-pop song craft, In Our Heads focused almost single-mindedly on playful entertainment. The record offers a few breathers, chances to ponder, but mostly it’s a test of your system’s timing and punch – as well as how loud it can go.
Cocoa Sugar by Young Fathers (2018)
Young Fathers softened some of the edges with this, their third studio album, but the result is no less arresting. Cocoa Sugar could perhaps be described as much as an experimental electronic record as a straightforward rap or hip-hop album, driven by often off-kilter rhythms and served with a generous helping of low-end that your speakers will have to keep taut while also delivering textural insight.
In The Court Of The Crimson King by King Crimson (1969)
Combining blues, jazz and classical influences, with grand orchestration and regularly changing time signatures and tempos, King Crimson’s debut is one of the first and undoubtedly one of the most influential progressive rock albums ever recorded. Countless subsequent bodies of work in the genre have appeared little more than a good workout for your system, but, while In The Court Of The Crimson King still definitely serves that purpose, it remains an exquisitely well stitched-together record irrespective of its instrumental mastery.
The Scream by Siouxsie and the Banshees (1978)
Recorded in a week and mixed in three, The Scream’s conception somewhat echoed the frenetic nature of the Siouxsie and the Banshees’ fabled live shows that preceded it. That feverish atmosphere is just as well harnessed in the recording itself, with Siouxsie Sioux’s manic vocal encouraged by distorted, discordant guitar lines and tribal drumming that could appear one-dimensional were it not for the variety on offer within.
Orchestra Of Wolves by Gallows (2006)
Gallows’ debut was another British album attempting to capture a frenzied live show on disc, with terrifying results. It’s a hardcore punk record that feels as though it couldn’t have been made anywhere else in the world, with Frank Carter’s often-incomprehensible cries still always carrying the inflections that take us right back to his home in Watford. Rarely does a band sound quite this tight at these breakneck speeds.
Rid Of Me by PJ Harvey (1993)
This follow-up to critically acclaimed debut Dry finds Polly Jean Harvey’s twisting songwriting meld beautifully with the abrasive production of Steve Albini, forging an abrasive 14-song set that juts between loud and quiet without a moment’s notice. Its contrast with the album before it provided early insight into Harvey’s marvellously varied output, which has rightly positioned her as a British music icon.
Big Conspiracy by J Hus (2020)
Everything on Big Conspiracy, from J Hus’s lazy vocal to the way he shimmies between beats and genres, sounds effortless. A definite step forward from his acclaimed debut Common Sense, this is 45 minutes of crafted transitions, somewhat mellowed but still precise, that not only showcases his mastery of several styles but also lets his own coat every cool rhythm.
The Beatles by The Beatles (1968)
If there’s one band you should hear today, it is The Beatles. This Liverpudlian quartet were shamefully overlooked at the time, but after a number of bootlegs emerged at car boot sales around Merseyside, they are finally getting some of the recognition they so deserve. Nobody knows for sure whether this record, named simply The Beatles, did originally have its own artwork, but it is today known among fans as The White Album due to its being found in a blank sleeve. Folklore aside, it is quite frankly one of the greatest pop albums ever made.
The Dark Side Of The Moon by Pink Floyd (1973)
In many ways, The Dark Side Of The Moon is akin to classic literature. For one, far fewer people have actually heard and enjoyed it than claim to – at this point t-shirt and poster sales must almost outweigh physical copies sold of the album – but it is also unquestionably one of the most influential British records of the past 60 years. There’s little to say about it that hasn’t already been written and then plagiarised a hundred times, but there is still no way we could have left it from this list.
Original Pirate Material by The Streets (2002)
“I do the science on my laptop, get my boys mashed up,” poses Mike Skinner on this album’s lead single, Has It Come To This?. Indeed, few before or after the release of Original Pirate Material have manipulated the potential of a computer and digital audio workstation with such mastery. Recorded mostly within the confines of his Brixton home over the course of about a year, Skinner’s debut album as The Streets is an inventive collage of beats and lazily delivered lines about life among Britain’s working class that proves there is worth in music recording now being at every person’s fingertips.
Bicep by Bicep (2017)
Belfast duo Andrew Ferguson and Matthew McBriar are continuing the British tradition of creating euphoric, four and five-minute long electronic tracks that feel equally at home on the dance floor, on prime time radio and in a sun-drenched field with a pint of cider in hand. If you consider Bicep the genesis, then the pair’s rise has been rapid, but in reality the album is the culmination of almost a decade’s work that began with the Feel My Bicep blog shining a light on forgotten house, techno and Italo disco tracks and grew with the birth of a label by the same name – and shows no sign of ending here.
SEXWITCH by SEXWITCH (2015)
You could either deny SEXWITCH’s place on this list for not being British enough, or celebrate it as a shining example of the melting pot of global influences that has continued to make the UK such a fertile musical environment. A collection of six groove-led 70s psych and folk songs from Iran, Morocco, Thailand and the United States, this covers album – recorded by Toy and Natasha Khan (Bat For Lashes) – is at once globetrotting and seemingly from another planet entirely.
xx by The xx (2009)
At the turn of the last decade, there was barely a moment of dramatic TV viewing that wasn’t coated in The xx’s sparse, reverberant guitar lines and breathy vocals. The band’s self-titled debut album would likely still be accompanying all relevant programming now, had it not been so overused back then, thanks to its marvellously subdued yet atmospheric arrangements, that feel at once intimate and still wide open for analysis and blissful relaxation and reflection alike.
90 by 808 State (1989)
It feels crass to pigeonhole any genre with one definitive album, but if needs must then 90 would surely be it for acid house. Certainly it is an album to which British electronic music owes a huge debt, helping pave the way for musicians on these isles to reinterpret rather than ape the great American art forms of house and techno. It is equal parts atmospheric and aggressive, blending beats and infectious melodies at tempos that refuse to allow you to remain sedentary.
Obey The Time by The Durutti Column (1990)
Most evidently influenced by 808 State and their acid house contemporaries was Vini Reilly, who wrote and recorded this Durutti Column album almost by himself. Introducing his guitar to the electronic music scene, Reilly accomplished a miraculous crossover feat that eschews genre without disgracing any of those styles from which he pinches tropes. You perhaps wouldn’t instinctively pair this and the above album if you heard them both for the first time – Reilly’s take is often a more ambient affair – but they make fine bedfellows thanks to their rightly iconic hooks.
Spirit Of Eden by Talk Talk (1998)
Standing somewhat alone from the rest of the band’s catalogue, Spirit Of Eden is more of a meditation than collection of Talk Talk songs. It feels meant to be listened to as a whole, fashioning an immersive ambiance rooted in texture as much as melody or driving rhythm. It flirts with jazz and avant-garde without coming across trite or contrived, providing a soundstage ripe for sonic exploration.
Violator by Depeche Mode (1990)
In Violator, their seventh studio album, Depeche Mode crafted the perfect synth-pop album, and the world evidently agreed. It is a collection of nine songs, any of which could have been released as singles (almost half were), which remains strikingly fluid despite the apparent rigidity of their definite rhythms. There remains wide-open space in the mix, which never threatens to be clogged despite the vast collection of auxiliary lines there to be discovered.
Steve McQueen by Prefab Sprout (1985)
Released as Two Wheels Good in the United States, due to a threat of legal action from Steve McQueen’s estate, Prefab Sprout’s second studio album is an undeniably smart and sophisticated example of great British indie songwriting. Backed by a gang of clean, reverberant guitars, and held aloft by Thomas Dolby’s sparkling production, Paddy McAloon’s smooth vocal guides us through 11 tracks that pass like a cool breeze, begging us to do lap after lap in order to take in every last detail.
Disintegration by The Cure (1989)
The fact that songs such as Lullaby, Lovesong and Pictures Of You can be considered the singles from a top ten album is a glorious reflection on British music, as far as we’re concerned. It isn’t that they aren’t melodious – Robert Smith’s move away from the pop sounds that garnered The Cure much of their mainstream appeal wasn’t at the expense of some masterful songwriting – but this album’s dense, thoughtful textures along with its almost psychedelic gothic bent is far from the clean-shaven production you might expect to do well in the charts.
Dummy by Portishead (1994)
Involving, menacing looped beats contrasted with Beth Gibbons’s gorgeously mournful vocal, and some of the finest theremin work outside of the theme tune to Midsomer Murders, Portishead’s debut was hugely influential in the 90s ascent of trip hop and yet it doesn’t feel to have aged a day. That’s in part due to the fact Dummy was already intended to sound somewhat ‘vintage’ at its time of arrival, but that’d mean little were it not for the inventiveness of its hooks and guitar playing in particular.
Sleep by Max Richter (2015)
Born in Germany but brought up in Bedford, Max Richter is among this country’s foremost purveyors of modern classical, and Sleep is arguably his masterwork so far. Composed for piano, organ, strings, soprano vocals and various electronics, this 8.5-hour project, comprised of 31 compositions, is so called due to its intention of scoring a full night’s slumber. The only problem is the ease with which you can get lost in its blissful arrangements, floating in between the notes and so never really nodding off in the first place.
Hats by The Blue Nile (1989)
In stark contrast to the rapid turnarounds of many of the albums on this list, the gestation period for The Blue Nile’s Hats was five years. The time between debut A Walk Across The Rooftops and this was in fact the shortest gap between any of the band’s four records, but certainly it was long enough to create a near-perfect misty pop album, where it is often the space between the lines, and a refusal to settle for pedestrian melodies or instrumentation, that invite our ears for deeper listening.
Kala by M.I.A. (2007)
While British music is responsible for the creation and mastery of many styles, it is equally able to celebrate those artists who appear not to fit into any particular category at all. Kala brought Maya Arulpragasam her first major hit with the single Paper Planes, but the album as a whole is more agitated and eccentric than you’d expect anything with chart success to be allowed. If nothing else, M.I.A.’s ability to piece together chopping rhythms from sonic scraps is something to behold.
Broken English by Marianne Faithful (1979)
The story surrounding Broken English is well told – Marianne Faithful had been squatting in a roofless, bombed-out building in London, dependent on drugs and seemingly creatively washed up – but it’d be criminal to reduce this album to mere folklore. While admittedly intimate and vulnerable in much of its subject matter, there is a rhythm and sass to prove Faithful had foregone none of her singular personality in a somewhat strangely triumphant return.
The Stone Roses by The Stone Roses (1989)
There was no shortage of admirers for The Stone Roses upon its release, thanks to its dexterous fingering of rock and dance music injected with an enviable swagger, but it was arguably some years before the album received its due appreciation. Lighting a torch carried by the copious British guitar bands that ruled the 90s, this is an album with a lasting impact that still sounds fresher than many of those it inspired.
Led Zeppelin II by Led Zeppelin (1975)
Whether or not Led Zeppelin II is the greatest hard rock album of all time is not for us to say, but it definitely is. It opens with Whole Lotta Love, for starters, and continues to hammer home some of the meatiest riffs ever written. Robert Plant has not always been complimentary of the way this album was recorded and mixed in various locations, but it is masked well by the versatility of the songwriting on what is the band’s most complete collection.
London Calling by The Clash
Alongside The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind The Bollocks…, this represents one of Britain’s most iconic punk albums, but in reality it is far more diverse than that. With a double album and 18 tracks to play with, Joe Strummer and Mick Jones also flirt with roots, ska, R&B and hard rock, taking The Clash’s sound on new adventures and lacing each one with their own indomitable character.
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