Above all else, the Wikipedia entry on post-rock exemplifies how difficult it can be to pin down movements in music: Did the genre begin in the ’90s? The ’80s? The term was coined a little over 20 years ago, in 1994, by Simon Reynolds in the pages of Mojo. Perhaps, however, its vocabulary of textures and rhythms dates back further, to, say, the Velvet Underground, because crap, they invented everything, right? Certainly jazz was involved, but then so was post-punk and early hardcore. Truth is, if you tried to connect all the dots you’d have something that looked like a hairball. That’s music for you.
Post-rock has always reveled in this ambiguity; that’s one of its defining characteristics. Show me a post-rock band that’s entirely instrumental and I’ll show you five that use vocals and/or vocal samples. Some borrow from chamber music, while others take cues from Led Zeppelin. For as cerebral as the music can be, it often has the urgency of punk rock: It wants you to feel something, intensely, right now.
I fell in love with post-rock before I knew the term existed, before I understood how traditions of music are passed from band to band, mutate in the process, and splinter into new ideas and shapes. For better or worse, post-rock is the genre that for the last 20 years has remained closer to my heart than any other. When you write about music for a living people tend to ask you what your favorite kind of music is, and I rarely say post-rock because a) the term really is that embarrassing; b) family, friends, and most bartenders aren’t familiar with it; and c) it’s the kind of music you feel obliged to grow out of liking, akin to saying your favorite food is pudding. Well, not me. Most post-rock is melancholy at best, maudlin at worst, but if that’s an emotional spectrum you identify with — which, boy do I — then this is your music.
It’s been kind of a trip, making this playlist. I actually had forgotten how many of these songs I remember hearing for the first time, where I was, who I was, etc. I’m not, like, super-old, but I’m kind of old, and I’ve heard a lot of music by now, as I’m sure you have, too. How many songs do you remember hearing for the first time?
Some obligatory notes about this list. I was less interested in crafting the definitive list of canonical post-rock songs than I was in creating a mix of my personal favorites, many of which also happen to be canonical. For example, if a list like this aspired to be canonical it would have included Bark Pyschosis’ Hex, as that’s the record Simon Reynolds was writing about when he sort of coined the term, but since this one doesn’t, it doesn’t. Likewise, I nixed Don Caballero because while they’re definitely post-rock I never fell head over heels for them. In general, this list is heavier on the contemplative/moody stuff than it is the speedy math stuff; likewise there are probably a few Bay Area curveballs because that’s where some of my favorite post-rock came out of, no offense to Louisville or Chicago or wherever. It’s my hope, actually, that if you’re into this music then you might discover some tunes you didn’t know existed, and maybe really dig ‘em. Isn’t that why we all do this?
Finally, this list is in chronological order according to the release date of the album the song was on. In some cases I’ve taken early work from bands that thrived later and vice versa, so keep that in mind before you get started. And now? Get started.
Slint – “Don, Aman” (from Spiderland) 1991
I generally chose to leave the proto-post-rock bands off this list because including them would mean we’d have to stretch it back another ten years and fifty tracks, but leaving Slint off would be like not inviting Dave Mustaine to the Metallica alumni party. Slint’s Spiderland came out in 1991, so three years before the term post-rock was ostensibly coined, yet the entire blueprint is there: interlocking guitars, epic builds, a lot of 90-degree angles. For years, seemingly every post-rock band’s guitars and drums were recorded the way Brian Paulson recorded the ones here, and the band’s stretched-out songs and quiet/loud dynamics were seminal, in the literal sense: Spiderland gave birth to things.
Tortoise – “Djed” (from Millions Now Living Will Never Die) 1996
It’s not an exaggeration to say that this song from Millions Now Living Will Never Die changed my life. To this day I struggle to articulate why. It’s 20 minutes longs; that was weird. The time signatures are all over the map. Instruments emerge almost imperceptibly then eventually pull the whole song in a different direction. It’s jaunty Krautrock in the beginning, then spacey sorta shoegaze with marimbas (marimbas!), then weird electronic music. Throughout it all, the bass rumbles like a Harley. I was listening to ska and Britpop before I heard Millions Now Living, which turned out to be one of those deprogramming/reprogramming albums that only come along a half-dozen times in your life. If it weren’t for Tortoise I might still be listening to Save Ferris right now.
Mogwai – “Helicon 1″ (from Ten Rapid) 1997
I’ve been listening to “Helicon 1″ at least once a month (and in bad months, many times more) for two decades. Mogwai were/are the punk-rock offspring of My Bloody Valentine and Slint (though frontman Stuart Braithwaite claims he’d yet to hear the latter when he made this record). “Helicon 1″ is just one huge build that explodes into white noise before quieting back down. In my lengthy experience with the song, I’ve found that it goes as well with devastating heartbreak as it does with total triumph.
Dianogah – “What Is Your Landmass” (from As Seen From Above) 1997
Just four songs into this thing and we’ve already got another one produced by Steve Albini, from Chicago trio Dianogah’s debut As Seen From Above. It doesn’t get more quintessentially post-rock than two bass guitars and a drummer playing hard-charging instrumentals, which is Dianogah’s M.O. The band still plays shows to this day. Righteous.
Mice Parade – “Headphoneland: The Gangster Chapter” (from The True Meaning Of Boodleybaye) 1998
I was going through a backpacker hip-hop phase at the same time as my post-rock phase, and this song combines bits of both. Adam Pierce has been releasing records as Mice Parade since 1998’s The True Meaning Of Boodleybaye. The dude is a nut, playing most of the instruments, messing with meter and melody, layering in world-music influences. “Headphoneland” was just the beginning of a long, adventurous career.
Dirty Three – “Distant Shore” (from Ocean Songs) 1998
If you didn’t have a Dirty Three song on a mixtape someone had made you in 1999, then we probably couldn’t have been friends. Formed in Australia in 1991, the trio was ahead of its time in making melancholy chamber rock with guitar/bass/drums/violin, and became a fixture on the post-rock scene. Their moaning dirges exemplified just how expressive simplicity could be.
Ui – “Drive Until He Sleeps” (from Lifelike) 1998
Sasha Frere-Jones is best known as the pop-music critic for the New Yorker, where he once wrote a controversial essay about how predominantly white indie rock is, which believe it or not caused a stir when it came out (who would disagree?). I, however, will always remember Jones for his band Ui, which made three albums, the best being Lifestyle, from which this mechanical funk workout is taken.
A Minor Forest – “Look At That Car It’s Full Of Balloons” (from Inindependence) 1998
Formed in the Bay Area in 1992, A Minor Forest descend more from the Don Caballero school of spazzy, abrasive math-rock, but they had a distinctly melodic side as well, and their songs often took weird/awesome turns, as in the switch from distorto-bass pummeling into Iron Maiden-worthy galloping rock at about the 4:50 moment in this tune. They recently got back together and are playing the occasional show, so that’s rad.
Tarentel – “Steede Bonnet” (from From Bone To Satellite) 1999
Founded in 1995, San Francisco’s Tarentel got into electronics and droning as their career progressed, which I have no problem with, but when it comes to meat-and-potatoes, build-it-up-and-tear-it-down post-rock, it doesn’t get much better than “Steede Bonnet.” I first listened to this album on a Walkman (!) on a cloudless day on the roof of a building in Manhattan, laying on my back staring up at a water tower, so take that, Donnie Darko.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor – “Blaise Bailey Finnegan III” (from Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada) 1999
Back when I knew them only through their music and the rumors that would circulate at shows (this was pre-internet, for me at least), I understood Godspeed to be a many-membered anarchist collective that squatted in a warehouse in Canada where they produced this elaborate, cinematic music, combining field recordings, dozens of instruments, film snippets, and far-left political ideas. This legend really heightened the experience of listening to their music, especially since it turned out to be true. I still can’t get over how completely on their own wavelength this band was/is. They play this gorgeous, sweeping instrumental music with the intensity of a Norwegian black metal group.
Tristeza – “A Little Distance” (from Spine And Sensory) 1999
Lest we forget that post-rock largely attracted groups of sensitive boys and girls who pioneered such fashion trends as thick-rimmed glasses and garish cardigans (I’m guilty on both counts), Tristeza remind us with their totally wimpy but soooo pretty music. Their name is Spanish for “sadness,” which is a bit on the nose but leave it to a post-rock fan to eat something like that up.
Sigur Rós – “Svefn-g-englar” (from Ágætis byrjun) 1999
Man, speaking of being on your own wavelength: Iceland’s Sigur Rós had their own language! Singer/guitarist Jónsi Birgisson sings in a vernacular he dubbed “Hopelandish,” plus he plays his guitar with a bow. The band’s second record, Ágætis byrjun, is as alien-sounding today as it was back then.
American Football – “The Summer Ends” (from American Football) 1999
American Football are one of two bands on this list that were pretty squarely indie rock, but I’m including them because a song like “The Summer Ends” illustrates just how intense the conversation was between indie rock and post-rock around the turn of the millennium. That winsome horn melody over plucked guitars is a total post-rock move.
múm – “Smell Memory” (from Yesterday Was Dramatic Today Is OK) 2000
Because they hadn’t already done enough damage with terms like IDM and “conscious hip-hop,” critics coined another term in the late ’90s to encapsulate the overlap of post-rock and electronic music: “glitch.” Iceland’s múm was also tagged with the dreaded “folktronic,” which was even worse. While their music seethed with squirrely bursts of digital noise and borrowed as much from Aphex Twin as Tortoise, it was, to me, more an outgrowth of post-rock than the kind of stuff Warp Records was putting out, though at the end of the day the distinction hardly matters: múm were awesome and that’s that.
The Album Leaf – “The Audio Pool” (from One Day I’ll Be On Time) 2001
A refugee from Tristeza, James Lavelle exemplified a growing trend in music at the turn of the millennium: the bedroom musician. Sophisticated electronic gear had existed for years before, and certainly plenty of musicians used it in bedrooms, but it was around this time that the same kids who might have used four-tracks a few years prior had replaced them with computers and/or sequencers. I specifically remember downloading “The Audio Pool” from these newfangled things called MP3 blogs, so there’s that, too.
The American Analog Set – “Aaron & Maria” (from Know By Heart) 2001
See: American Football re: the rationale for including this band. See: my undying love for this track in particular for why I chose it. It’s actually probably the least post-rock-y song in AmAnSet’s catalog, and therefore the least post-rock-y on this entire list, so if you get to it and wanna cry “Foul,” that’s fine with me. But don’t try to tell me it’s a bad song.
Dilute – “Alphabet” (from Grape Blueprints Pour Spinach Olive Grape) 2002
If this Bay Area band’s main creative force, Marty Anderson, hadn’t been battling severe illness during Dilute’s active period of around 2001-2003, it’s possible the band would have toured widely and earned sizable acclaim. They really were one of the most interesting and talented post-rock/experimental avant-hell-yeah bands of their day, writing a pair of ecstatic, serpentine albums that unfolded like a fireworks display: endlessly explosive bursts of color.
The Six Parts Seven – “Where Are The Timpani Heartbeats” (from Things Shaped In Passing) 2002
The Six Parts Seven were another excessively maudlin instrumental troupe, but as with Tristeza I can’t deny totally loving their catalog. With its melancholy guitars and grandiose sorta-chorus, this song is like an entire episode of My So-Called Life crammed into five and a half minutes. Note that the Six Parts Seven were bros with their Ohio brethren the Black Keys, and the two bands put out an EP together, which is kind of a trip.
Hella – “Been A Long Time Cousin” (from Hold Your Horse Is) 2002
Before Zach Hill became famous as the punishing drummer of spazz-core wiseguys Death Grips, he was the punishing drummer of math-core wiseguys Hella. Now, being a guitar/drums duo was a pretty cool thing to do around this time, but no one did it the way Hella did. Rounded out by guitarist Spencer Seim, Hella’s jams were so intricate and all over the place they almost felt like stunts: How many notes can I squeeze into this measure? How many drum fills can we cram into a song? A lot of it was pure frenetic bliss, but dig what the band does at the 2:30 mark here, transforming what seconds before felt like a force of nature into an ’80s Bob Seger butt-rock riff.
The Books – “Enjoy Your Worries You May Never Have Them Again” (from Thought For Food) 2002
Since there’s not going to be a list specifically devoted to whatever the fuck the duo that called itself Books do/did — chop up found sounds and field recordings, add cello/guitar/bass, stitch spindly percussive rhythms out of various pops and burbles — I’m putting them on this one. The notion of using field recordings as a stand-in for both lyrics and instruments certainly nods to Godspeed’s use of same, and a number of the Books’ melodies (which you occasionally have to strain to hear but that’s part of the fun) do feel descended from various post-rock bands, so it’s not really much of a stretch. Still, the Books are so idiosyncratic they really do belong in a category all their own. This is the first track off their debut, Thought for Food, which sounds like something astronauts might discover under a rock on Mars a hundred years from now.
Grails – “Broken Ballad” (from The Burden Of Hope) 2003
Grails played their first show on a dare, and never intended to be a real band. But when Neurot offered to put out their debut, they figured they might as well tour in support of it. It’s been more than a decade since the release of The Burden Of Hope and the band has evolved plenty, adding electronics to their sound and taking some deep and fruitful sonic excursions, so “Broken Ballad” isn’t especially representative of the band’s oeuvre, but it’s a jam nonetheless: lumbering and melancholy, with a violin that floats in like a dense fog.
M83 – “Gone” (from Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts) 2003
Today, M83 are most widely known for Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, a majestic synth-pop album that sounds like what John Hughes (RIP) would reach for if he were looking for inspiration in 2014. Nothing against that record, but it’s the band’s sophomore record, Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts, recorded back when they were still a duo, that’s the real mind-blower. It sounds like My Bloody Valentine covering Vangelis, or like church music if Johnny Greenwood was the choir director. It’s not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of post-rock, but it’s hard to imagine it existing without bands like múm, Sigur Rós, Mogwai, and Godspeed.
From Monument To Masses – “Sharpshooter” (from The Impossible Leap In 100 Simple Steps) 2003
Here’s another Bay Area post-rock band that deserved more national attention than they received. From Monument To Masses were a politically charged three-piece that made excellent use of looping pedals, layering intricate riffs atop one another and intercutting those with dialogue samples. “Sharpshooter” is one of the most impassioned musical responses to 9/11 I know of. Those are clips from news reports from that fateful morning that you hear at the beginning, and a little history lesson from Noam Chomsky that you hear at the end.
Rachel’s – “Water From The Same Source” (from Systems / Layers) 2003
As I’ve already belabored, this list is full of some of my all-time favorite tracks, but if I could choose one somewhat obscure band on here to turn folks onto it’d be Louisville trio Rachel’s, who played a gorgeous kind of chamber music/post-rock hybrid. My favorite album of theirs is Music For Egon Schiele, which is actually a score for a play about the famed painter, but “Water From The Same Source,” off 2003’s Systems / Layers, is their most readily accessible tune. I could write a book about Rachel’s, but it’s hard to sum up their music in just a few words. Please just listen.
Explosions In The Sky – “First Breath After Coma” (from The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place) 2003
Friday Night Lights is one of those movies I’ll get sucked into whenever it’s on, and it’s primarily because of Explosions In The Sky’s soundtrack, which simultaneously expresses desolation, desperation, and hope. “First Breath After Coma” was a centerpiece of that soundtrack, and has been widely licensed elsewhere since. These guys are one of the most successful post-rock bands of all time, and they absolutely deserve it.
Pelican – “Last Day Of Winter” (from The Fire In Our Throats Will Beckon The Thaw) 2005
Post-rock and underground metal (doom, stoner, drone, etc.) have always been kissing cousins, having descended from shared ancestors like Fugazi, Mission Of Burma, and even the Velvet Underground (see?). No one can agree on whether Pelican is a metal band with a post-rock bent or vice versa, but they certainly belong on this list as one of the best heavy-instrumental groups of their day.
Battles – “Atlas” (from Mirrored) 2007
Originally composed of the drummer from Helmet, the bassist from Don Caballero, the guitarist from Lynx, and the experimental multi-instrumentalist son of avant-jazz icon Anthony Braxton, Battles are the post-rock supergroup that would have had to be invented if they didn’t exist. “Atlas” arrived in 2007 like a runaway truck hurtling down a steep hill. It makes you wonder what a band like Tortoise might have sounded like if they’d had access to insta-looping pedals and other whacko effects employed by Battles.
This Will Destroy You – “They Move On Tracks Of Never-Ending Light” (from This Will Destroy You) 2008
I like to imagine This Will Destroy You named themselves after the thing you’d say to your friend right before you put on a song like “The Mighty Rio Grande,” as in, “Make sure your pacemaker’s turned on because this will destroy you.” This song is used in the climactic scene of Moneyball, which is why as a diehard post-rock and Oakland A’s fan, I lose my shit every time I watch it.
Fuck Buttons – “Bright Tomorrow” (from Street Horrrsing) 2008
As we reach the end of this list and I include a track by experimental noise electronic artists Fuck Buttons, you’d probably be right to point out that of all these groups, Fuck Buttons are the most on-the-bubble, post-rock wise, to which I would respond that it seemed important to include a song that demonstrated the extent to which post-rock has evolved in its twenty-year existence, to which you might say, well then how about Ratatat or Washed Out or any number of kooky instrumental bands, to which I would say, because I just like this song, dammit, and so on. Note: These are the kinds of arguments you get into with yourself twenty-nine tracks into a playlist like this.
Mark McGuire – “In Search Of The Miraculous” (from Along The Way) 2014
Does post-rock still exist? Who knows. A lot of the bands on this list are still putting out new music. No one seems to cotton to the term today any more than they did when it was coined twenty years ago. Genre names are funny that way. As fans of AOR will attest, they tend to say more about the period they were invented in than the music they were designed to describe. All I know is that the things that appealed to me about the first post-rock bands — their sense of adventure, their ability to surprise you with hidden melodies and sonic textures, to invest songs with meaning absent the use of lyrics — are still alive and well today. Just one example among countless that I could have chosen is Mark McGuire, whose Along The Way from 2014 is a bananas concoction of ’80s guitar pyrotechnics and post-rock style riff-looping, with songs that stride headlong toward a cliff then leap off it in search of an updraft. I’m not sure it’s really post-anything, but it sure does rock.
Listen to a Spotify playlist of most of these songs here.