When it comes to listening to a slice of classic rock, a solid and dependable disc of vinyl is always pretty special – and when you spin the wax on some of the world's best turntables, it can be sonic bliss.
Let's face it, there’s nothing quite like setting the needle down, rocking out and then exploring the album packaging for liner notes, pictures of the band and scouring the cover art to glean ever little detail. Try doing THAT on a digital download!
It doesn't seem that long ago that vinyl was being dumped unceremoniously on the scrap heap while the new kid of the block, the CD, was being touted as the future. Yeah, we still like our CD collections, but vinyl is just a bit more special.
And that's been reflected in sales in recent years, which have seen vinyl rise once again in popularity – a remarkable achievement given the dominance of the online streaming services.
In fact, in 2019, the British Phonographic Industry checked in to report that a whopping 4.3 million vinyl LPs had been sold across the country, making it the 12th year in a row that vinyl has seen an increase in sales.
Speaking with Classic Rock, author Jennifer Otter Bickerdike explained: “It took a journey to the brink of extinction for us to realise how important the physical record is in defining self, community and culture.”
But with an abundance of vinyl back in stores and online, just where do you start if you're a rock fan who wants to begin building your collection? To help, we’ve hand-picked 15 of what we consider to be the best rock albums ever recorded.
- Our pick of the best budget turntables
- Cool vinyl record storage ideas
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- Best headphones for vinyl: get the most from your records
- How to clean vinyl records, deal with scratches and more
AC/DC - Back In Black (1980, Albert/Atlantic)
AC/DC looked to be on their way up in 1980. They had released a series of successful records, finally broke the US with their album Highway To Hell, and were set to record the album that would eventually become Back In Black. However, in February of that year, frontman Bon Scott was found dead in London. After his funeral – and with some encouragement from his parents – the remaining members of AC/DC began looking for a new vocalist – and within the space of a couple of months, Brian Johnson was announced as the new singer.
The band paid tribute to Scott with the album’s black cover: it was meant to be entirely black with embossed lettering, however, the record label insisted on including grey for the band’s logo. Back In Black also starts with bells ringing for Bon. Apart from that brief opening, there are no reflective, mourning or sad songs. In general, the band stuck with what they knew: hard-hitting and good old-fashioned rock'n'roll.
Back In Black is full of meaty riffs that every novice guitar player will attempt to learn at least once, and it also boasts solos that experienced players wish they could emulate. Tracks like You Shook Me All Night Long have infection choruses that suit the massive arenas they would eventually fill, while Shoot To Thrill is an adrenaline-filled rock anthem that would be used on film soundtracks years after its release.
Back In Black’s catchy riffs and quotable lyrics are so synonymous with rock music that they're known by even the most casual of listeners, while the songs have remained staples in AC/DC’s live performances down through the years.
Black Sabbath - Paranoid (1970, Vertigo/Warner Bros)
As anyone who likes unsociably loud music will tell you, heavy metal is popularly thought to have been born in 1970 when Brummie headbangers Black Sabbath released their self-titled debut album. Let’s go one further and suggest that heavy metal really hit its stride for the first time with Sabbath’s second album, Paranoid, a heavier, more threatening and more nuanced collection of songs.
The one-two opening shot of War Pigs and Paranoid itself simply cannot be bettered in the metal world. The former, a critique of warfare and in particular of the American government’s policies regarding Vietnam, sees lyricist and bassist Geezer Butler on peak form – even if he can’t find a better way to rhyme ‘masses’ than with itself in the couplet 'Generals gathered in their masses/Just like witches at black masses'.
The latter, a zippy paean to mental instability, is probably Sabbath’s best-known song, executed at a rare, non-doomy tempo. The album then moves on to the sensuous instrumental Planet Caravan, a beautiful, landscaped song, before the pulverising hammer blow of Iron Man.
It’s not sheer power that makes Paranoid a unique album, although it has that to spare: it’s the keen awareness of songwriting dynamics displayed by Butler plus singer Ozzy Osbourne, guitarist Tony Iommi and drummer Bill Ward, all still in their very early 20s at the time of recording. That a record such as this was written and delivered by such young musicians is nothing short of miraculous, albeit in the infernal rather than heavenly sense.
Thin Lizzy - Live And Dangerous (1978, Vertigo)
Thin Lizzy, the hard rock titans fronted by the iconic Irish singer Phil Lynott, had already released seven albums in six years by the time they got around to releasing a live collection – but when it came, it was a monster. A double album of live tunes recorded in various locations, Live And Dangerous was one of the earliest in-concert collections to match, or even surpass, the studio skills of the band which created it.
Masterminded by producer Tony Visconti, whose track record with David Bowie, T-Rex and other artists had made him something of a king among his profession, the album pulls off the trick of sounding both live and polished.
Rosalie was the single released from the LP, but frankly any number of songs represent its sheer energy equally well – not least the opening cut, Jailbreak, and a furious take on what is arguably Lizzy’s most famous song, The Boys Are Back In Town. The textures of their live material were improved no end by a sax player, John Earle, and none other than Huey Lewis – yes, that infamous Huey Lewis, himself still five years away from global success.
Like Motorhead’s No Sleep ’Til Hammersmith, released three years later, Live And Dangerous remains one of the quintessential live albums of the golden age of hard rock.
The Rolling Stones - Sticky Fingers (1971, Rolling Stones)
No record collector wants sticky fingers on vinyl. Sticky Fingers on vinyl, however, is a different story. Recorded over two years in three locations (Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama, frontman Mick Jagger’s own country home and Olympic Studios in London), Sticky Fingers was the first LP by The Rolling Stones to be released on their own Rolling Stones Records. The album is also the first to feature Mick Taylor, who replaced guitarist Brian Jones in 1969. Amongst the handful of guest musicians to appear on the record, The Who’s Pete Townshend is perhaps the most notable, believed to have contributed backing vocals to Sway.
As well as being revered as one of The Rolling Stones’ best, Sticky Fingers boasts one of the most classic album covers in rock. The artwork – concepted by renowned artist Andy Warhol – was photographed by Billy Name and features a fully-working zip on most original pressings.
Due to the LP’s unique construction, hidden underneath the cover art is a second print of presumably the same model stripped down underpants embellished with Warhol’s name and the curious line: “This photograph may not be – etc.” The model was widely believed to be Jagger himself upon the record’s release, though is now known not to be the case.
In fact the identity of the crotch’s owner remains a mystery. And though only small on the reverse of the record, Sticky Fingers was the first time The Rolling Stones’ now iconic tongue and lips logo had been used.
The Beatles - Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1966, Parlophone/Capitol)
Before Sgt Pepper was released in 1967, things were looking bleak for The Beatles. The band announced in 1966 that they would be retiring from live performances and there were rumours of the their breakup. The fact that all four members took a three-month hiatus didn’t help calm the rumours.
But The Fab Four would then embark on their most ambitious project – and one that would go on to break sales records, despite not having any singles released to promote it. Upon release, the BBC was quick to ban the song A Day In The Life due to the lyrics being interpreted as encouraging drug use, with the lyric, '4,000 holes in Blackburn' thought to reference holes in the arm of a drug user. While these innuendos were never confirmed or denied by the group, Paul McCartney’s response was blunt when he said, “We don’t care if they ban our songs. It might help the LP.”
The Beatles included a couple of things with the vinyl release to make the fan’s listening experience at home more interactive. Sgt Pepper was the first rock LP to have the lyrics to their songs printed on the cover, before then, magazines would usually print them. Original pressings of the vinyl also came with a piece of card with numerous cut-outs including a drooping moustache, sergeant stripes and a stand of the four Beatles.
There have been a number of coloured vinyl pressings released over the years, including in red, yellow, orange, a Canada-only pink and grey marbled edition as well as a picture disc featuring the iconic album artwork.
Def Leppard - Hysteria (1987, Mercury/Phonogram)
If 1983’s Pyromania had Def Leppard dipping their toe into pop’s waters, Hysteria was a cannonball at the deep end. From the beginning, the album’s concept had remained the same – to be a hard rock version of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, on which every track could be a hit single – and indeed seven of the 12 tracks were, one more single than Thriller. At just over 25 million copies sold worldwide, Hysteria remains the band’s best-selling record.
Def Leppard’s turbocharged fourth record infamously took almost four years to produce and at a cost just shy of $5 million. At a run time of around 63 minutes, Hysteria really stretched the limits of how long a standard album at the time could be – unfortunately for audiophiles, to the detriment of the vinyl pressings.
Over an hour’s worth of music is way too much to squeeze on to a single platter and retain a high standard of audio quality. More recent vinyl releases of the album remedy this by running over two LPs, most notably the 30th anniversary gatefold vinyl re-issue, featuring fully remastered tracks on a strikingly translucent orange 180g wax.
Neil Young - Harvest (1972, Reprise)
When Neil Young released Harvest in 1972, he was elevated to the status of household name, largely because of the hugely-acclaimed songs Heart Of Gold and The Needle And The Damage Done. The former is more easily digestible and catchier; the latter is darker, more gloomy in tone and production because it was recorded live, and also better. The Needle And The Damage Done, recorded in concert at UCLA the previous year, was a paean to those of Young’s friends who had succumbed to heroin overdoses, in particular his previous bassist Danny Whitten. It ends suddenly, halfway through a chord sequence, lending this otherwise slick album a threatening edge.
Critics didn’t give Harvest particularly good reviews at the time of its release: some felt that he was repeating the After The Gold Rush formula a little too readily. However, in years to come the album was recognised as an all-time classic – even by the members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, whose song Sweet Home Alabama was written in response to some anti-Southern sentiments expressed by Young in the song Alabama.
Eagles - Hotel California (1976, Asylum)
"Welcome to the Hotel California.” On the Eagles’ fifth studio album, they conjured up the allegorical hotel as a means to convey their disillusionment with the supposed ‘American dream’ – just the beginning of a wider commentary on the self-destructive nature of the rock music industry at the time, the United States and the wider world.
Indisputably one of the most iconic rock albums of all time, Hotel California won the band a Grammy Award (Record Of The Year for the album’s title track) and has sold more than 30 million copies (the Eagles’ second highest selling album of all, after the success of Their Greatest Hits (1971–1975).
Hotel California marked guitarist Joe Walsh’s band debut, whilst also the final LP with bassist Randy Meisner. The album was recorded at Criteria Studios, Florida and Record Plant Studios, California with producer Bill Szymczyk who had also worked on the Eagles’ previous record, One Of These Nights. Recording sessions at Criteria Studios were often disrupted by the noise from Black Sabbath working on Technical Ecstasy in the studio next door.
Led Zeppelin - III (1970, Atlantic)
In reality, Led Zeppelin were guided by Jimmy Page and no-one else – which explains the direction Led Zeppelin III took. While Zep’s debut album and the follow-up, both released in 1969, had essentially been LPs of hard rock songs with a few acoustic parts here and there, III was mostly unplugged. A calmer, sweeter, more relaxed vibe permeated the record as a result, itself aided by the fact that Page and Robert Plant composed the songs in a remote Welsh cottage called Bron-Yr-Aur. With no running water or electricity, the twosome pulled out acoustic guitars, began writing – and in doing so established the great rock tradition of ‘getting it together in the country’.
Sit back in your beanbag, slap some headphones on and immerse yourself in the opening cut, Immigrant Song – the heaviest song on the album. Page’s classic octave-based guitar riff chimes in, while Plant delivers the wail for which he had already become famous. Friends is a deeper song, despite being largely acoustic: where it excels is with its unusual orchestration of Indian-sounding strings.
We all agree that Led Zeppelin III is a splendid album nowadays, but critics just didn’t get it at the time. Neither heavy enough for headbangers nor progressive enough for Jethro Tull fans, it fell between two stools, it was thought. How wrong they were, and how wonderful hindsight is.
Fleetwood Mac - Rumours (1977, Warner Bros)
On their 11th record, Fleetwood Mac crafted a bittersweet masterpiece fuelled by perhaps one of rock’s most infamous melodramas. Released in 1977, the intensely personal Rumours has become the seventh highest-selling studio album of all time with more than 45 million copies sold worldwide. Also winning the five-piece a Grammy award for Album Of The Year in 1978, the iconic record not only features Fleetwood Mac’s best work but some of the best songwriting of all time.
The seminal LP featured the fifth incarnation of the band - the duo of guitarist Lindsey Buckingham and vocalist Stevie Nicks joining Mick Fleetwood, Christine McVie and John McVie two years previous following the departure of Bob Welch. A transition triggered on 1975’s eponymous release, Rumours completes Fleetwood Mac’s progression from a band of blues cliches to one of bright pop singles and immaculate songwriting.
Among the plethora of official and unofficial rereleases over the past 40 years, audiophiles will revel in the 2011 version that was released for US Record Store Day, which was cut at 45rpm on heavyweight 180g vinyl and remastered from the original analogue tapes to achieve maximum audio quality.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience - Are You Experienced (1967, Track)
Often considered one of the greatest albums of all time, and cementing Jimi Hendrix’s status as the original guitar hero, Are You Experienced remains a significant milestone in the history of rock music over 50 years since its release.
Recording for the album was done in between a busy schedule of live performances, though the trio notoriously laid down entire tracks with minimal fuss. Most notably, The Wind Cries Mary was reportedly recorded in a single take having only been written the night before by Hendrix. It's estimated that the album cost no more than £1500 to produce.
The original UK release of the LP in May 1967 featured a mono mix, but a stereo mix was also produced when the record made its way to the US in August of the same year. There are several differences between the two mixes, including a drumroll on May This Be Love and the sound of Hendrix turning pages of lyrics which are not audible on the mono mix.
Guns N' Roses - Appetite For Destruction (1987, Geffen)
To this day, Appetite For Destruction is the best-selling debut album, and one of the best selling albums, of all time. Guns N’ Roses brought an edge to rock music inside and outside the studio that hadn’t been seen since the Rolling Stones days.
Appetite For Destruction features the singles Welcome To The Jungle, Sweet Child O’ Mine and Paradise City, which all made it to the top 10 in the US charts. The opening of Welcome To The Jungle perfectly captures you by teasing with light echoing guitar before building and then exploding into the blues-grooving main riff. Rather then having a Side A and Side B, Appetite For Destruction has a G and R Side, with the Guns side featuring the songs on drugs and life in Hollywood and the Roses side comprised of songs on love and sex.
The original vinyl release had a different cover to the iconic Celtic cross with the skull of each band member. The first release of the record featured artwork by Robert Williams of a woman being sexually assaulted by a robot and a monster about to attack the robot. Stores refused to stock the album and the record label replaced the artwork with the one we all know.
The version with the banned artwork isn’t hard to find if you look through online auction sites, but you should expect to pay at least double what you would for the same album with the reissued artwork.
Pink Floyd - The Dark Side Of The Moon (1973, Harvest)
Pink Floyd had always been experimental in its approach to music, but the group really wanted to push the envelope further with its new project and suitably enhance the psychedelic-driven sounds that had featured so heavily on earlier albums. Alongside this, the group tackled mental illness, greed, the passage of time and conflict, all of which feature heavily in songs such as Money, Us And Them and Brain Damage (which was originally known as Lunatic during the album’s recording sessions and live performances).
It’s arguably one of the most accessible pieces of work that the band has made, and has become the perfect starting point for anyone new to the group. It has influenced a huge number of bands as diverse as Radiohead, My Morning Jacket and The Flaming Lips, who re-imagined the album in 2009.
So when it comes to The Dark Side Of The Moon, the main decision is which version should you go for? An original Harvest pressing from 1973 can sell for as much as £250, while the US version will see change from £20. A remaster released in 2009 by Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab is similarly priced to the US original, while the version released to celebrate the album’s 30th anniversary in 2003 is a little pricier, selling for as much as £100.
Alternatively, you can just pop down your local record emporium and pick up the 2016 reissue, which is highly recommended.
The Who - Quadrophenia (Track/MCA, 1973)
Entirely written by Pete Townshend, Quadrophenia follows teenager Jimmy: a misfit kid struggling to work out his place in the world – until, that is, he discovers the mod movement and The Who. Fed up of his life at home, his dead-end job and relationships with friends and family, he moves from London to Brighton. Jimmy suffers from schizophrenia and has four personalities, which explains the album title. Each of the personalities reflects a member of the band, and explores a theme which reoccurs in the album. Quadrophenia spoke to teens of the time who could relate to its teenage angst.
On the vinyl release, inside the gatefold is a summary of the plot of Quadrophenia as well as a booklet of photographs showing Brighton and London during the mod scene, when then album was set.
Queen - A Night At The Opera (EMI/Elektra, 1975)
A Night At The Opera cemented Queen as a household name and – pardon the pun – music royalty. The album features Queen’s normal variety of genres, as well as experimentation of sounds and recording techniques. There are tracks that are all-out rock but the band doesn’t seem to take themselves too seriously in their music. Take for example Seaside Rendezvous, where Freddie Mercury imitates woodwind instruments using just his voice.
However, they have the occasional serious moment such as in the opening track Death On Two Legs, which is said to be a hate song directed towards Queen’s original manager. Love Of My Life was written by Mercury about his then-girlfriend Mary Austin, but Brian May would later rearrange the song and after Mercury’s death, dedicate it to him when playing it live.
You can’t mention a Night At The Opera without bringing up Bohemian Rhapsody, the best-selling commercial single of all time in the UK and one of the band’s most well-known songs. It was also the most expensive single to produce at the time of its release, being recording in multiple studios and taking over three weeks to make. It was twice the length of most singles and received only mixed reviews at the time, if you can believe it.
Now it is one of the most well-known rock songs of all time; it has topped charts around the world and remains to be a popular choice with drunk karaoke singers everywhere.