Beautifully Produced Albums - What haven't I heard?
April 18, 2014 8:33 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for examples of very well produced and engineered rock/pop/folk albums. Perfect acoustic guitar tones, great sounding drums, clear vocals all mixed and balanced well. If you had access to a super- duper audiophile sound system for an hour, what album or songs in your collection would you immediately NEED to hear through it? Some examples inside:

I've been writing and recording my miserable songs for a while now, and a huge element i need to improve is the art of mixing. EQ. Reverb. Compression. Subtle delays. Warm snare sounds. Vocal harmonies balanced in the mix. Subtle panning. etc etc.

I've read countless books, watched hundreds of tutorials, I know what I have to do and enjoying the process of learning how to do it over the years, but I've exhausted my iTunes library for reference tracks.

Some examples of some wonderful recordings:

Beck's "Morning Phase" - so incredibly balanced acoustic and electronic elements, really warm but not over-processed guitars
Daft Punk "Random Access Memories" - just so perfectly mixed and mastered, not brick walled.
John Mayer "Continuum" - the whole album feels like a warm hug
Rufus Wainwright "Want One" - so many instruments in the mix, but everything is balanced
Police - pretty much anything from their early days, even at low volumes you can FEEL each instrument, it's mixed and recorded so freakingly well
Mute Math "Odd Soul" - the production alone in this album is superb, but sonically the tone of each instrument from track to track is phenomenal. And it has some of the best drum sounds I have ever heard.

I'm not really looking for 'you have to listen to it on vinyl, man', we're talking shitty 320kbps MP3's that still bring out incredible mixes and individual instrument tones.

Is there a guitar sound you love? A drum kick that makes your hair stand on end? Some awesome use of reverb to make is sound like it was recorded in your basement? What have I heard but not REALLY heard that I need to hear. All genres welcome, but as I mostly record shitty acoustic rock, I'd like to keep my reference tracks close to home.

Thanks in advance!
posted by BlerpityBloop to Media & Arts (58 answers total) 72 users marked this as a favorite
Alan Parsons is legendary for the quality of his mixes, both on his own albums and as recording engineer for others.

For instance, he was the recording engineer for "Dark Side of the Moon", which should probably be on your list.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:43 AM on April 18, 2014 [4 favorites]

Isn't Todd Rundgren well-regarded for being a master of this? If I had your hypothetical perfect sound system for an hour, I'd want to hear "Singring and the Glass Guitar."
posted by jbickers at 8:43 AM on April 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Steely Dan's album Aja is amazing. I miss the warmer, separated sound from that era. I'm no audiophile, but it's a wonderful sound.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 8:43 AM on April 18, 2014 [7 favorites]

Elbow. "Mirrorball", "Grounds for Divorce", "Station Approach", or anything on their "Seldom Seen Kid" or "Build A Rocket Boys" albums. Craig Potter is my hero.
posted by jeffjon at 8:44 AM on April 18, 2014 [6 favorites]

Tori Amos's Scarlet's Walk.
Seal's first album.
Songs in the Key of Life.
Thriller. (No, really.)
posted by mykescipark at 8:45 AM on April 18, 2014 [5 favorites]

Your comment of "the whole album feels like a warm hug" could also be said of Carole King's "Tapestry" record.
posted by jbickers at 8:48 AM on April 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Tool's Undertow. Fantastically well mixed, and every one of Danny Carey's drums come out viscerally. Also one of the weirdest guitar sounds put to tape. And the bass has these crazy metallic overtones that just ring out. I love the recording on that album.
posted by Existential Dread at 8:50 AM on April 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

There's a reason Rage Against the Machine's self-titled debut is often used to showcase sound equipment. It is perfectly mixed.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 8:51 AM on April 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

Supertramp's first album 'Crime of the Century' is beautifully recorded, quiet yet very punchy, with some great atmosperic sound effects. And it's nowhere near as cloying as Supertramp became after a few albums.
posted by kellyblah at 8:54 AM on April 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

You might look into Feist – the sounds on her records are lovely and fit so well together.
posted by suprenant at 9:05 AM on April 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

I use Swamp Ophelia by the Indigo Girls as a test when I'm purchasing any audio components specifically because of the quality of the mixing and mastering.
posted by blurker at 9:10 AM on April 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding Scarlet's Walk and Dark Side of the Moon.

Also by Pink Floyd: Wish You Were Here. Great use of sound effects. A definite "headphones" album.

The Danger Mouse / James Mercer project Broken Bells' self-titled debut, and recent release After the Disco is a nice mixture of electronic and acoustic with great vocals and interesting subtle quirks. (Broken Bells songs almost always make me smile involuntarily when I hear them.)
posted by The Deej at 9:18 AM on April 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Blue Rodeo's Five Days in July
Chris Whitley's Living With the Law
posted by theBigRedKittyPurrs at 9:21 AM on April 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

U2's "The Unforgettable Fire" is wonderfully produced and mixed.
posted by DWRoelands at 9:22 AM on April 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

I know Aja has been mentioned, but anything by Steely Dan fits this bill. Also try Joe Jackson. He's a perfectionist, I think, and Night and Day is a great-sounding album. (I saw him in concert back in the late 1980s or early 1990s, and it was just about the best concert sound I had ever heard and yet Jackson was up on stage apologizing for the relatively poor sound quality on that night. It was insane.)

Maybe a little out of the ballpark for this question, but I've always thought Speakerboxxx/The Love Below by Outkast has sounded equally phenomenal over car stereo speakers and on a really nice sound system. So much going on in the mix and yet so clean.

Not sure they're absolutely top-drawer soundwise, but if you want to hear very nice guitar tone, acoustic and otherwise, check out the Richard Thompson catalog.
posted by Mothlight at 9:23 AM on April 18, 2014 [5 favorites]

Thomas Dolby's albums The Flat Earth and Astronauts & Heretics
posted by fuse theorem at 9:28 AM on April 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Tubular Bells
posted by HandfulOfDust at 9:33 AM on April 18, 2014 [4 favorites]

I like Fleetwood Mac's album "Mystery to Me"--specifically, the song "Hypnotized."
posted by whistle pig at 9:39 AM on April 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Previously: End-to-end (music) production excellence you can hear. Question from last year about beautifully produced music. And this suggestion to check out the list of Grammy Awards for Best Engineered Album (non-classical).
posted by belau at 9:40 AM on April 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

Not the album, but the Billy Thorpe song Children of The Sun, on repeat forever.
posted by edgeways at 9:41 AM on April 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm following the thread for the suggestions and have none of my own but since the OP mentions brickwalled mastering as a concern and taking into account the possible variability between different releases of the same recording, it might be a good idea for posters to add more information about the specific edition of the albums mentioned whenever possible.
posted by Bangaioh at 9:41 AM on April 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Lemon of Pink by The Books has some wonderfully mixed songs. Lots of disparate sounds that have no reason being on the same record, but seem to slot together just right. Tokyo, for my money, is one of the more interesting tracks ever produced including at bit around 1:25 that I've never been able to wrap my head around.
posted by beep-bop-robot at 9:57 AM on April 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

alt-j is my go-to for this
posted by rebent at 10:14 AM on April 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

Can't believe no one has told you to listen to Pet Sounds yet. It's a really great study in mixing, especially because it was originally produced in mono due to Brian Wilson's partial deafness. Listening to the mono and stereo versions back to back will blow your mind, it's impressive what could be accomplished in mono with good mixing back then.
posted by juniperesque at 10:22 AM on April 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

You guys are amazing, these suggestions are superb. FWIW I'm a huge Lanois and Eno fan, but tend to lean towards warm albums with great natural sounds rather than precision. And for those claiming to be non-audiophiles who like Steely Dan, Aja is more or less the gold standard of 70's engineering. Your casual ears picked up on one of the most beautifully recorded albums of all time.

[Beep-Bop-Robot, the sound you are hearing at 1:25 is just the existing violin track chopped up in the DAW (pro tools or what have you). It's as simple as dragging your cursor over the part you want to disappear and hitting backspace (or automating the mute button on the channel strip). If you listen closely there are slight pops at the start and stop of each sound, which should have easily been corrected by a quick fade. Neat track though]
posted by BlerpityBloop at 10:24 AM on April 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

The first English Beat album is a wonder. Tremendous sense of space, each instrument given its own, without bumping up on the others.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 10:37 AM on April 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

Also big big fan of the production and mastering on Opeth's album Heritage. Throwback 70s prog with shimmery guitars, swirly organs, growly bass, and jazzy drums. A lot of great sounds produced with great clarity.
posted by Existential Dread at 11:15 AM on April 18, 2014

I'm a little surprised at how many of the albums mentioned above I have owned. Pink Floyd - check, Aja - check, English Beat - check, Alan Parsons, Todd Rundgren. Is it possible I've been a snooty audiophile all this time and didn't know it?

Buddy of mine in college used to crank up ELO's Fire on High whenever he wanted to show off his system.
posted by rekrap at 11:22 AM on April 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Aim and Ignite by fun. is a wonderfully mixed, rich, warm, quirky pop album.
posted by mekily at 12:18 PM on April 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Gentle Giant, Free Hand.

My favorite track is On Reflection. Really pretty, layered, complex. Acapella at the opening.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:48 PM on April 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Pet Sounds, Beach Boys.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:50 PM on April 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

For treatment of deep male vocals, Swans: The Burning World, in particular the last three tracks: Jane Mary, Cry One Tear; See No More; and God Damn the Sun.
posted by bigbigdog at 1:05 PM on April 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

An album I picked up recently - Tortoise: Standards. The sound-stage is extremely interesting.
posted by davebush at 1:18 PM on April 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Jean-Pierre Ferland, Jaune
Harmonium, L'Heptade
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 1:57 PM on April 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

BlerpityBloop - It's interesting that you said you're a Lanois fan, because the first thing I thought of was Emmylou Harris's album Wrecking Ball, which Lanois produced.

ALLMUSIC: "Wrecking Ball is a leftfield masterpiece, the most wide-ranging, innovative, and daring record in a career built on such notions. Rich in atmosphere and haunting in its dark complexity..."

LA TIMES: "The pace is deliberate, unhurried, meditative, the atmosphere rich, dark, and ghostly."

I also note via Amazon that Wrecking Ball has been reissued as a remastered 2-disc (+one DVD) set.
posted by Alaska Jack at 1:59 PM on April 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

  • Discipline, King Crimson
  • Blues For Allah (remastered), Grateful Dead. Listen for Jerry's clean & super-dry Strat on Franklin's and the percussion mix on King Solomon's
  • Permanent Waves, Rush
  • Heroes Symphony, Phillip Glass
  • Dire Straits, Making Movies, Communique, Dire Straits
  • I'm In You, Peter Frampton has one of 'livest' sounding drum mixes ever.
  • Ruby Vroom, Soul Coughing - nice treatment of a minimalist rock group. Terrific production all around.
  • P.M. Dawn, Of the Heart, of the Soul and of the Cross: The Utopian Experience. Fairly uncategorizable, meets the 'lush' criteria damn well.
+1 on Undertow, Tool; Aja, Steely Dan
definitely showing my age, but wth
posted by j_curiouser at 3:34 PM on April 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Bruce Cockburn's earlier albums were beautifully produced. Lovely instrument sounds and very coherent mixes. I had a high end system back then and his stuff sounded better than almost everything else I was listening to other than Aja. I was also very impressed by Ry Cooder's Bop Til You Drop and Purple Rain was an audiophile favourite in the 70s and 80s. Rickie Lee Jones' Pirates album was also delightfully well recorded.
posted by mewsic at 5:43 PM on April 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Little Scream's The Golden Album - produced by Richard Parry (from Arcade Fire), this singer's voice is incredible and the album is amazing. super simple-ness combined with HUGE-NESS all at the same time. and interesting lyrics, inspiring for a songwriter.

Leif Vollebekk - North Americana - this is folk music done SO well.
posted by andreapandrea at 5:58 PM on April 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Fleetwood Mac's Rumours
Miles Davis Kind of Blue
REM Lifes Rich Pageant
Led Zeppelin
First two Jamiroquai albums
Red Hot Chilli Peppers Blood Sugar Sex Magic
Phish Junta
posted by furtive at 6:47 PM on April 18, 2014

Anything produced by Nigel Godrich. Radiohead is the obvious one, particularly OK Computer, Kid A, and In Rainbows, but he also did Beck's Sea Change, Pavement's Terror Twilight, and Paul McCartney's Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, all highly regarded and immaculately produced.
posted by Rhaomi at 8:07 PM on April 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

As close as you'll ever get to hearing silk: What's New, Linda Ronstadt & The Nelson Riddle Orchestra.
posted by bigbigdog at 8:52 PM on April 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Joanna Newsom's second album, Ys, is one of the best-recorded albums I've ever heard in my life. It has these lush, perfect string arrangements by Van Dyke Parks, and everything sounds exactly where it should be.
posted by Nibbly Fang at 9:03 PM on April 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Two very different albums:
Tool - 10,000 Days
Massive Attack - Mezannine
posted by chrispy108 at 6:44 AM on April 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Roxy Music always struck me as having a gorgeously produced sound, both pre- and post-Eno. And In Your Mind, one of Ferry's solo albums, is an amazingly dense piece of pop -- layer upon layer of sounds, but each element is clear and distinct.
posted by Bron at 8:24 AM on April 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Björk - Vespertine. A little different than what you originally wanted, but excellent instrumentation.
posted by Seeking Direction at 9:31 AM on April 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is kind of a sideways answer, but I was struck by this comparison the other day and it seems relevant. I wouldn't hold either of these up as examples of perfection, but Vomit Launch's first two albums used the same engineer etc. But the difference in listenability is remarkable and can be attributed solely to the mix.

The albums are Not Even Pretty and Exiled Sandwich. They may have been remixed and/or remastered at some point; the mixes referred to here are the original vinyl releases from 1986 and 1988.

There are probably a lot of other analogous situations, find the earliest big label release from a band and compare it to whatever they put out just before they got money and talent added to the mix.
posted by bigbigdog at 10:53 AM on April 19, 2014

I've been nearly obsessed with States by The Paper Kites for the last several months. Beautiful is the operative word, both for the music and the production. Not to be missed.
posted by The Deej at 10:58 AM on April 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Aerial by Kate Bush! I can't find the right words for how well it is recorded & mixed. See the "Personnel" section on the Wikipedia page, folk involved with Pink Floyd in the day worked on it.
posted by yoHighness at 12:31 PM on April 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Steely Dan's albums as mentioned, but specifically Donald Fagan's The Nightfly album is noted for what you describe.

You may also want to evaluate Greatful Dead's Terrapin Station album.
posted by Ralph at 12:42 PM on April 19, 2014

I just happened to be listening to a few songs off of Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours" yesterday, and remarked at how phenomenal the production was.

The dynamic range, drums, vocal mixing and the presence of the guitars are all phenomenal on each track, exemplified by Gold Dust Woman.
posted by jeremias at 1:55 PM on April 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm surprised it hasn't been mentioned yet, but maybe "In The Aeroplane Over The Sea" by Neutral Milk Hotel? Try listening to the first track, King of Carrot Flowers Part 1, and see if it fits the bill.
posted by A dead Quaker at 6:13 PM on April 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Check out Tom Dowd.
posted by yqxnflld at 8:56 PM on April 19, 2014

Tears For Fears, Sowing the Seeds of Love.
Los Lobos - Kiko, The Neighborhood, Good Morning Aztlan.

Three Bill Bottrell- produced recommendations:
Toy Matinee
David Baerwald, Triage
Thomas Dolby, Aliens Ate My Buick.

Midnight Oil, Earth and Sun and Moon
Kevin Gilbert, Thud!
Porcupine Tree, Stupid Dream and Fear of a Blank Planet
XTC, English Settlement, Skylarking, Apple Venus Vol. 1
Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
Shawn Colvin, A Few Small Repairs
Joan Osborne, Relish

I'll think of more, I'm sure.
posted by Devils Rancher at 2:20 AM on April 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Augh, how could I forget 2 of the best recordings in history:
Jellyfish, Bellybutton & Spilt Milk!



The Divine Comedy, Fin de Siècle
To me the best sounding Steely Dan is the re-master of The Royal Scam
Jeff Buckley, Grace
Steven Wilson, Insurjentes
Paul Simon, The Rhythm of the Saints
The Wallflowers, Bringing Down the Horse
Elvis Costello, This Year's Model (Rykodisc re-issue)
The Black Crowes, Before The Frost
Yes, Close to the Edge (Steven Wilson Re-mix <> Neko Case, Middle Cyclone
Richard Thompson, Mirror Blue
The Neville Brothers, Yellow Moon
John Hiatt, Bring The Family & Slow Turning
Steve Earle, Jerusalem

I could go on...
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:56 AM on April 20, 2014

Some sort of a formatting issue there -- I used an open bracket by mistake.

Should have read:
Yes, Close to the Edge (Steven Wilson Re-mix -- this is important)
Neko Case, Middle Cyclone
posted by Devils Rancher at 10:05 AM on April 20, 2014

I know I'm a bit late to this party, but I have not seen Dave Matthews Band's Under the Table and Dreaming album listed above. Very well-engineered, across the board, pretty much from start to finish.
posted by hootenatty at 3:25 PM on April 21, 2014

Also, I was going to say anything by ISIS is generally well produced, but they just remastered Panopticon, and it sounds AMAZING!
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 9:13 AM on April 23, 2014

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