The Top 20 Steve Albini-Recorded Albums
Infamously cantankerous studio rat/national treasure Steve Albini doesn’t like to be called a record producer. He prefers the term “recording engineer.” That’s a dry, clinical term for what Albini actually does, but it makes sense that he’d prefer to be seen that way. Over the past few decades, Albini has overseen the creation of countless numbers of recorded artifacts. And even though he’s been an outspoken opponent of the major-label system (and of other underground-rock heroes), he’s known to work with just about anyone who requests his services, whether it’s a major-label juggernaut like ’90s radio-grunge rulers Bush or the grimiest indie band you never heard of.
This week, Cloud Nothings released the visceral, scraping, full-blooded, Albini-recorded Attack On Memory, a truly great LP and a welcome reminder of the sort of visceral shit that was so common on the ’90s rock underground. That album recalled any number of past Albini-recorded efforts. And so does Ugly, the forthcoming Screaming Females album, which Albini also recorded and which also kicks all kinds of ass. Given that Albini is having a banner year so far, we thought it’d be fun to honor some of the other records that Albini recorded. Click through the gallery for our picks and rationale. And in the comments section, tell us that we were idiots for neglecting Silkworm or Urge Overkill or Pussy Galore.
20. Mogwai - "My Father, My King" (2001). Not actually an album, but this 20-minute song arguably does Mogwai's whole sweeping, mythic quiet-to-loud thing better than any other single object in the group's long, storied discography. Taking the melody from the Jewish prayer-song "Avinu Malkeinu," the group gives us what might happen if Lawrence Of Arabia had a sludge-metal score, and Albini makes sure every sudden flare-up hammers hard. These guys need to work together more often.
19. The Ex - 'Turn' (2004). This long-running Dutch postpunk institution was always fearlessly ambitious, but they really went for it with this one: A double-CD flush with African jazz rhythms and up-with-artists rhetoric. Albini kept their sound severe, but he also gave them a chance to loosen up a bit. And the band's version of the Eritrean revolutionary song "Huriyet" is as joyous as they ever got.
18. High On Fire - 'Blessed Black Wings' (2005). Matt Pike's thundering Oakland fuzz-metal trio was already a finely tuned machine by the time they got around to recording their third album, especially when they recruited Melvins veteran Joe Preston to play bass on the album. In Albini's hands, they sounded fiercer and more terrifying than ever before, and to my ears, 'Blessed Black Wings' still stands as their finest moment.
17. Don Caballero - 'American Don' (2000). Before their messy breakup, this Pittsburgh trio pretty much ran shit in the math-rock scene that dominated the turn-of-the-century underground. Their final real album was the one where they turned down the distortion and turned up the quease factor, pushing their grooves up against each other in all sorts of wrong-sounding ways. It's tense, uncomfortable music, and if anyone knows how to record tense, uncomfortable music, it's Steve Albini.
16. Godspeed You! Black Emperor - 'Yanqui U.X.O.' (2002). Albini is famous for recording direct, impactful, noisy rock music, and that description doesn't jibe with Godspeed You! Black Emperor's steez -- Elegiac, slow-moving 20-minute instrumental pieces that aim to somehow signify human resistance to corporate evil. And yet Godspeed sounded as lush and monolithic as ever inside the recording booths of Albini's Electrical Audio studio. The man, after all, is a professional, and he knows what he's doing.
15. Superchunk - 'No Pocky For Kitty' (1991). An uncredited Albini was on hand to record this hugely important North Carolina punk band's second album, and Mac McCaughan's yelps never sounded more harsh or urgent than they did with Albini behind the boards. These days, Superchunk are an indie institution, so it's a little jarring to go back and here how venomous and fired-up they were on songs like "Seed Toss."
14. Dirty Three - 'Ocean Songs' (1998). Before becoming Nick Cave's terrifyingly bearded shadow, Warren Ellis was best-known as the violinist for this Australian instrumental trio and the closest thing they had to a frontman. On the Albini-recorded 'Ocean Songs', the band stretched their sound as far as it could go, pushing their diffuse, rustic post-rock toward some sort of cinematic, elemental sound, one that evoked landscapes more than clubs. And Albini kept every fragile part of the whole sounding pristine.
13. Low - 'Secret Name' (1999). The hushed Minnesota slowcore trio first worked with Albini on this, their fourth LP, and his close-micing techniques only added to the stark sparkle of some already gorgeous songs. It's a rare example of an Albini-recorded album that aims for, and achieves, pure beauty, and it's where you'll find "Immune," the single greatest song Low ever recorded.
12. The Wedding Present - 'Seamonsters' (1991). David Gedge's band had always occupied the more misanthropic and self-loathing ends of Great Britain's C86 indie-pop scene. On their third album, they plunged even deeper into bad feelings than they'd done before, and their music turned stark and ugly to match the sentiments. Naturally, Albini was exactly the guy to record this sort of thing, and the result is a minor classic of unforgiving Brit-rock.
11. Shellac - 'At Action Park' (1994). Albini's longest-running musical project by far is this bent, jarring power-trio, who came out of the gate on their debut album with a slashing, singular assault and the kind of musical chemistry that doesn't come along too often. And when a band is this skilled and has audiophiles like Albini and Bob Weston in its ranks, it's a safe bet that its albums are going to come out sounding righteous. Of its albums, 'At Action Park' punches hardest and weirdest.
10. Neurosis - 'Times Of Grace' (1999). Albini has worked with these Bay Area sludge-metal titans on a number of albums now, and it's hard to pick just one, since their body of work tends to blur into one ominously immersive drawn-out crunch. But 'Times Of Grace' is Neurosis's first collaboration with Albini, and the chemistry is there from jump. When Neurosis rocks out, Albini's close-micing techniques are easiest to hear; this stuff punches hard. But when they're in mystical space-out mode, as they often are, it's a welcome reminder that Albini knows how to record stuff that doesn't necessarily punch us in the gut all the time.
09. Palace Music - 'Viva Last Blues' (1995). An early indication that Albini could handle fragile Americana beauty just as easily as he could skronky noise-rock, and that Will Oldham's deconstructed hillbilly music had some kick to it. 'Viva Last Blues' belong very much to Oldham and his elliptical tales about fucking mountains, but his voice, and the pedal steels and soft harmonies behind him, come through with biting clarity and with none of the sonic murk that would partly define later records like 'I See A Darkness.'
08. The Breeders - 'Pod' (1990). The Pixies never worked with Albini again after Surfer Rosa. But when Kim Deal got together with Throwing Muses member and future Belly leader Tanya Donnelly to form this side project, she once again linked up with Albini. And he helped give the new band the punch that its sharp, elliptical indie-pop songs demanded. Albini didn't work with the Breeders on 'Last Splash,' their 1993 breakout. But when Deal rounded up sister/'Last Spash' bandmate Kelley and an all-new backing band on the underrated 2002 comeback 'Title TK', she went back to work with Albini.
07. Jawbreaker - '24 Hour Revenge Therapy' (1994). Jawbreaker's third album is something of a '90s punk sacred text -- a bruising heart-on-sleeve tour de force that never let its complicated emotions get in the way of its gigantic hooks or its overall toughness. And songs like "Boxcar" might not have punched as hard as they did if they'd had the thin, tinny sound common on so many punk albums of the era. Instead, Albini made them sound sharp and bottom-heavy, with all instruments fighting each other for supremacy.
06. Joanna Newsom - 'Ys' (2006). In putting together her insanely ambitious sophomore album, Joanna Newsom recruited something of an out-music all-star team: String arrangements from Van Dyke Parks, a mixing job from Jim O'Rourke, backing vocals from Bill Callahan. And even though Tim Boyle recorded Newsom's orchestral backing, Newsom chose Albini to record her own voice and harp. And Albini responded by giving her presence the same raw clarity as he would've given, say, Duane Denison's pick-scrapes.
05. The Jesus Lizard - 'Goat' (1991). Albini worked with these Chicago-via-Texas angular-stomp masters throughout their surprisingly long career. But their sophomore album is where the team's drooling, violent attack found its truest expression. Albini knew that the Jesus Lizard's power lay in the tension between David Yow's unhinged neanderthal act and the crushing precision of the rhythm section, and he makes sure we feel each garbled screech and bass-thud in the pit of our souls.
04. Big Black - 'Atomizer' (1986). The debut album from Albini's first noteworthy band, 'Atomizer' sounds like what might happen if the Fall and Motorhead got into a meat-locker rumble. Albini is infamous for making every snare-crack reverberate in your ribs, but Big Black stuck with drum machines, and that somehow made 'Atomizer' sound even more brutal. The album's scraping intensity and Albini's grim deadpan helped create a blueprint for the next few decades of underground-rock misanthropy.
03. PJ Harvey - 'Rid Of Me' (1993). Some critics are always after Polly Jean Harvey to pick up a guitar and start wailing ruthlessly again, but she only ever really sounded like a punk rock banshee when Steve Albini was recording her. Harvey's toughest and most feral LP is her second one, and Albini's work on the album gives the music a harsh, chaotic edge that mirrors Harvey's songs and sentiments. And so it would be pretty easy to make the argument that Albini had a hand in 1993's two finest rock albums.
02. Pixies - 'Surfer Rosa' (1988). As the recording engineer for the legendary whisper-to-scream band's debut full-length, Albini made the Pixies sound louder and screechier than they ever would again. He recorded Kim Deal's "Gigantic" vocals in a studio bathroom, kept studio banter in on certain songs, and generally made the band sound like the biggest, nastiest thing on earth. Albini's production work on this album was what later convinced people like Kurt Cobain and PJ Harvey to seek him out. And a couple of years later, he called the album "a patchwork pinch loaf from a band who at their top dollar best are blandly entertaining college rock." He later apologized for the insult, but still!
01. Nirvana - 'In Utero' (1993). Nirvana's decision to work with Albini on the all-important 'Nevermind' follow-up could be seen as a statement of intent: The newly minted Most Important Band On Earth signing on with one of the major-label system's most important critics for a destined-to-be-huge record that would smack Nirvana's huge audience around with their underground aesthetics. And there were rumblings that DGC didn't consider In Utero fit for release; they eventually brought R.E.M. producer Scott Litt in to sweeten the mix on "Heart-Shaped Box" and "All Apologies." But Albini turned out to be a great musical match for the band. It's hard to imagine anyone else capturing the visceral urgency of a tracks like "Serve The Servants" and "Very Ape" quite like Albini did, but he also let the beauty shine through on more tender songs like "Dumb" and "Pennyroyal Tea." It might not have been exactly what DGC wanted, but 'In Utero' was still a thorny, wriggling masterpiece, and one that gave Cobain a chance to show the world exactly what he thought Nirvana was before he took his own life.