Albums You Need
In Your Vinyl Collection
With the advent of streaming, vinyl was presumed dead. Physical media’s time had come and was then passing with the wave of limitless listening. But something interesting has transpired. Instead of vinyl becoming relegated to bargain-bins and the unkempt stacks of hipsters, it has rode a resurgence back into the mainstream. I believe this revitalization is due to the one thing that was supposed to have been the plunging dagger through the vinyl heart: streaming services’ unlimited supply of music.
You see, with all that choice, music tends to take on a transient quality. With so many albums coming out, and millions upon millions of past releases to listen to, truly special records tend to get lumped in with the mass of other songs that we cycle through. With so much choice, it’s easier to forget the phenomena of permanence that a truly special record can impart upon us. But when we put on a record, we are committing ourselves to an intentional listening experience -- one that is divorced from the next playlist or artist. It can be experienced in a vacuum, leaving space for personal exploration of the art.
Listening to records of personal importance on vinyl is a gratifying experience, and people are catching on again, in a big way. So, here are four older(ish) albums -- and one from 2018 -- that are best experienced on vinyl.
1. Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
To repurpose a crass euphemism, Wilco’s 2002 masterpiece is a grower, not a shower. After a few seconds of silence, the record begins with a swelling din, a slowly growing cacophony of ringing bells and other atonal noises. I couldn’t think of a more apt way to start this record’s exploration of experimental Americana.
Dubbed “The American Radiohead” by Chuck Klosterman, Wilco is a band that has become a mainstay of alternative American folk rock through their embracing of artistic evolution. Their previous albums had them exploring genres at the fringe of their core sound, from the power-pop of Summerteeth, to the alt-country roots-rock of Being There. But YHF found the band developing a sound that is totally their own.
Opener “I Am Trying to Break your Heart” moves from aimless noise to sparse, dramatic musing, and finally back to a mixture of the two. Packed full of songwriter Jeff Tweedy’s signature lyrical mixture of the cooly cryptic and the granularly personal. The second song, Kamera, immediately picks up the pace with a Krautrock-esque rhythm, a hint of the vast tapestry of dynamism and varied sounds to come.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is an album best experienced on vinyl due to its vast array of subtleties, production tricks that liven the sound to something never heard before. Tracks like “Pot Kettle Black” and “Heavy Metal Drummer” breeze along at an energetic clip, but contain a wealth of meaning, whether their subjects be nostalgia or mid-twenties narcissism, while other tracks like fan favorite “Jesus Etc.” have the power to truly break your heart, just as Tweedy promised on the first track. YHF has a lot to say, and a lot for you to hear.
2. Hop Along - Bark Your Head off, Dog
The third record from the literary indie rock group Hop Along is by far their most confident and mature work yet. While previous albums found frontwoman Frances Quinlan’s elegiac poetry married with a coarse, feedback-drenched indie rock, this new record embraces the art of stepping back, of pulling punches in order to deliver maximum emotional impact. It’s the sign of a band that still has a lot of surprises in store.
The record kicks off with a more comfortable sound, “How simple my heart, can be”, Quinlan croons, but it’s clear that the emotions on this album will be anything but simple. A breakup anthem that ends with a mutual reassurement of “Don’t worry, we will both find out, just not together”, the music itself is uplifting and sing-songy, featuring rare female backup vocals to round out its anthemic sound.
The main star of Hop Along is Frances Quinlan herself. With a voice that can truly be called “one of a kind”, and a mind to match, this record finds the band developing new ways to compliment and build on her powerful vocal runs and idiosyncratic melodies. Songs like “Fox in Motion” display a new confidence in what could have been an uneasy marriage between raucous indie rock and more lush, orchestral pop music. Sparse, delayed drum beats echo around staccato guitar notes as Quinlan’s vocal melodies dance all around them, before the band explodes into a pounding, shaking rhythm for the chorus, then doesn’t let up from there. The song culminates in what may be the best vocal melody of the year, with Quinlan pushing her voice to sudden highs and angular runs to produce a truly unforgettable hook.
Hop Along’s strengths lie in their ability to play off of one another. The mathy guitar work weaves around rolling beats in a hypnotic way. This is another album of details, with unique structures and emotions to match.
3. Built to Spill - Keep it like a Secret
1999’s magnum opus by guitar gods Built to Spill is one of the great guitar rock records in modern history. For a band that had a huge hand in creating the “Pacific Northwest Indie Rock” sound, Keep it Like a Secret was a reaffirmation of what made Built to Spill so urgent and vibrant. From opener “Plans”, to closer “Broken Chairs”, this album starts out at breakneck speed and rarely lets up. It is an album packed to the brim with memorable, exhilarating riffs, and excellent indie rock shout-along anthems.
What makes this album such a classic can be summed up with one song: the third track, “Carry the Zero”. From its iconic interwoven riffs featuring three different guitarists, to its mid-song extended guitar solo, to the cathartic explosion of emotions at the end, with Doug Marsch imploring the subject to “Count your blemishes, you can’t, they’re all gone”, a perfectly sweet sentiment, except its followed by “I can see your response putting them back on.” Marsch’s lyrics explore big cinematic subjects in the terms of how humans actually deal with them. His refusal to sugar-coat leads to moments of huge scope that are nonetheless imminently relatable.
With some of the best guitar riffs ever put to vinyl, and some of the most complex and real emotions to match them, Keep it like a Secret is one of the all-time great rock records, and it’s best listened to on vinyl and at very loud volumes.
4. The Beach Boys - Pet Sounds
Okay, yes, I know it’s a cliche to say that every vinyl collection needs to have Pet Sounds in it, but I’ll be damned if it’s not true. Brian Wilson’s sonic explorations elevated what could have been trite, pop-song sentimentality to dizzying creative heights on this 1966 album.
At a breezy (and all the more impressive) thirty-five minutes, this collection of boy-loves-girl, girl-meets-other-boy, boy-feels-sad, boy-moves-away songs have an innocent face to mask the true depth of mastery on display. From its experimental use of world instruments, to the unexpected key changes and structures, Pet Sounds has no right to be as damn catchy as it is. Hooks upon hooks upon hooks upon hooks are belted out in their traditional four-part harmonies, but the shape of the songs behind them is ever-changing, twisting into new sonic territories in a blink of an eye, allowing you to rest in this new place for a moment, before whisking you off to another coda.
These songs are a thrill to learn and love, and listening to it on a record player grants you the opportunity to sit and study and let the soundscapes envelop you. Wilson’s timeless melodies and groundbreaking experimentation are as lush and inviting today as they were fifty years ago. Listen to it, study it, and you’ll find yourself singing these melodies absentmindedly for the rest of your life.