Developing your sound is one of the most important things you can do as an artist. You may be talented, but your sound and style are really what will be the deciding factor on making your music stand out. This time around, (and in no particular order) I’ll be talking about some of the albums that really stand out to me in terms of uniqueness and mix quality.
1. Aja by Steely Dan (1977)
Steely Dan had always been known for their perfectionism and devotion to high-quality audio, but Aja is widely considered to be the pinnacle of their jazz-rock sound. There isn’t a note out of place on this album. Every song has been rehearsed to the point of near perfection, and the mix quality is immaculate thanks to legendary recording engineer Roger “The Immortal” Nichols. (More on him some other time). There are so many great moments on this record, but my favorite has to be the track “Peg”. Peg is a funky tune complete with a bouncy bassline and a killer guitar solo provided by Steely Dan collaborator Jay Graydon. However, Peg is just a small taste of what this album has to offer. If you consider yourself an audiophile, this is a record you can’t miss.
2. The Soft Bulletin by The Flaming Lips (1999)
The Soft Bulletin is sort of the antithesis of Aja in terms of production. While Aja’s mix is painstakingly curated to make sure everything sounds normal, The Flaming Lips took a chance and made some very bold decisions with the mixing of The Soft Bulletin. One of the most easily noticeable features of The Soft Bulletin is how raw the drums sound. This is all due to the fact that the Lips decided to record the drums for this album with only a couple of microphones, leading to a huge sound. Another stylistic choice that really makes this album stand out is the fact that a MIDI orchestra was used. This, coupled with the huge drum sounds, makes for an incredibly interesting record. These decisions allowed the tracks on the Soft Bulletin to be much more raw and emotional, with tracks such as “Race For The Prize” and “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate” being some of the high points of vulnerability and feeling. This album took some serious chances, and they really paid off. Do yourself a favor and check this gem out. You can find a documentary about it here.
3. You’re Dead by Flying Lotus (2014)
Flying Lotus is an alternative hip hop producer with a penchant for being experimental, and You’re Dead really marks a special moment in time for him. Flying Lotus has always dabbled in jazz, but this album finds him jumping head first into some jazz-rock alongside his usual hip hop production. From the outset, this album establishes a dense, rich production style. Guitar arpeggios and atmospheric chimes are all over the background instrumentals on this project. Tracks like “Tesla” and “Turkey Dog Coma” are some highlights for me, due to their free-jazzy style. This album also features some of the best musicianship I have heard in a long time, with bass-god Thundercat appearing alongside modern jazz greats like Kamasi Washington and the legendary Herbie Hancock. Overall, this album is a mandatory listen for anyone who likes jazz, hip hop, and great production.
4. Choose Your Weapon by Hiatus Kaiyote (2015)
This album has been growing on me very quickly, and for good reason. Hiatus Kaiyote is an experimental soul/jazz band that loves to play with their time signatures and instrumentals. First things first, this record has crystal clear production. This album has some complex layers of synthesizers and guitars, and the mixing really allows them to take full effect. What we’re left with is an incredibly trippy jazz experience that swirls and shines with each listen. One of my favorite tracks is the flowing “Breathing Underwater”, a track that jumps from meter to meter with ease. With its stellar instrumentals and brilliantly inventive vocals, this is an album you don’t wanna be caught without.