Top Ten Postrock Albums
f postmodernism is useful, then it’s not as a theory in itself, but as an approach to other theories, perhaps typified by a degree of quasi-existential self-realization, a certain incredulity to meta-narratives (be they social, religious, cultural, philosophical, or economical), and a desire and ability to draw holistic links between seemingly disparate elements. Anything goes, as long as one is sensible. Of course postmodernism is rarely seen in this manner these days, and is more often a misunderstood, abused, and unfairly maligned mismatch of separatist ironies, highbrow conceits, and obfuscatory linguistic tricks designed to scare away the unwary outsider.
Likewise postrock, a funny little genre even in a world containing dubstep and bloghouse. Coined as a term describing what comes after rock, an approach to genre rather than a genre in itself, it has slowly devolved to a point where it signifies serious men in tatty black clothes playing drawn-out guitar-led instrumentals with epic crescendos. Some purveyors may add electronics, vocals in made-up languages, brass, strings, apocalyptic visuals in a live context, and other such accouterments, but the basic DNA of postrock remains frustratingly the same on both sides of the Atlantic.
It is my belief that this homogeneity of postrock—this transmutation into a cohesive, aesthetically unified genre—is a travesty, that it strips away the potential of the term and the philosophy that is buried beneath what the term has come to mean. That potential being, in much the same way as punk, which said “anyone can make music,” an emancipatory proclamation; the end of genre, the end of divisions, the end of narrow-mindedness, and an opening-up of possibilities.
And so what I’m going to do here is offer a manifesto for postrock in 2007, in the form of a list of the albums that I believe embody the spirit of postrock but not, necessarily, the delineated and restrictive genre conventions. Consider it, perhaps, an alternative postrock canon, where Tortoise, Mogwai, Explosions in the Sky, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and Sigur Ros are less important than Cornelius, Sonic Youth, Caribou, Electrelane, Broken Social Scene, TV on the Radio, Stars of the Lid, Fennesz, My Bloody Valentine, US Maple, Orbital, Slint, Menomena, Grizzly Bear, Acoustic Ladyland, Scott Walker, 65daysofstatic, Yo La Tengo, !!!, Boards of Canada, Björk, Lift to Experience, Primal Scream, Tom Waits, Aphex Twin...
10. Battles - Mirrored
The prissy and pedantic may well get hot under the collar at the thought of calling Battles postrock rather than mathrock (COS THAT’S AN EXCITING GENRE NAME, KIDS) or electronicarockfusion or avantjazzglam or androidpixieindiemetal or whatever, but if the stupidly gifted NYC quartet signify anything to me then it is a future, what comes after rock is done with. Clearly the work of people playing in a room, but mechanized, programmed, run by algorithms rather than human hands and consequently intriguing and compelling in a way that few other bands can be. Plus when they drop a pop tune (“Atlas”) they do it incredibly catchily for something that's essentially too-gifted-heavy-metal-jazz with wailing pixie vocals.
09. Gastr Del Sol - Camofleur
It’d be rude not to mention the Chicago contingent at all, but to be honest I find Tortoise a little boring bar Standards, and The Sea & Cake are far too easy-listening. I’d be tempted to pick a Jim O’Rourke solo album, but this fits the spirit of my notion of postrock better, I guess; the dynamic of group interaction is usually key. From the opening guitar notes, woozy horns, and bizarre conversation with some French people that make up “The Seasons Reverse,” Camofleur explores a varied, good-humored palette (“Black Horse” is positively cheerful) which now stands in stark relief next to the dystopian ethos of the likes of Godspeed. Another plus point for Camofleur is its relative brevity; a much-ignored quality in most postrock.
08. The Beta Band – The Three EPs
Nearly ten years since this compilation collected the diverse quartet’s early work and still nobody quite knows what it was or what it meant; least of all the people who made it. Had the likes of Tortoise produced the rolling bass and piano geography of “Push It Out” people would have labeled it postrock without a second thought; where the Beta Band are problematic is the helium-aided deconstructionist folkpop of “She’s the One” and the post-Screamadelica leftfield Britpop of “Dry the Rain,” which led to the band being dismissed as shambling, drug-inspired indie-savants rather than the committed experimentalists they actually were. Ever heard anything else quite like “Inner Meet Me”? I certainly haven’t, never mind the hallucinogenic barbershop-meets-Aphex-Twin melancholy of “Dr. Baker.”
07. Boredoms - Vision Creation Newsun
One could argue that Boredoms embody the notion of postrock more than almost any other band simply because of the nature of their journey from spastic punks to blissed-out percussion and chant warriors. For twenty years nothing has been off-limits to Eye and his rotating gang of cohorts, and the results of this rampant open-mindedness and thirst for progression and change have often been spectacular. The diversionary experiments of the Super Roots series arguably peaked with Super Roots 7, 30 minutes of extraordinarily deep and grooving spacerock, but that triumph was really only the bedrock for this awesome, swooningly rhythmic and immersive manifesto that exists in the ecstatic netherworld between Loveless and the Royal Drummers of Burundi. Vision Creation Newsun is dance music, psychedelic music, rock music, experimental music, and a whole host of other musics all at the same time.
06. Mouse On Mars - Autoditacker
If you head to allmusic and look up Mouse On Mars you’ll see the egregious term ‘post-techno’ being thrown around. If we’re splitting hairs, MoM began as quasi-ambient techno with serious dub leanings; a defiantly non-rock lineage. Nevertheless, Autoditacker saw a few people inexplicably start to bandy the term postrock around in relation to the German duo, and indeed the album fits my own remit on a couple of fronts. Firstly, techno itself is something which comes “after rock,” but that observance in itself is rather trite and banal. Much more importantly, Autoditacker succeeds in blurring the lines between techno, rock, dub, ambient, and a whole host of other things besides by feeding “real” instruments, krautrock rhythm templates, and a distinct tone of sonic and spiritual irreverence into the “post-techno” soup, making it almost unclassifiable in terms of genre.
05. Long Fin Killie - Houdini
Scottish postrock didn’t begin with Young Team; Houdini, released in June 1995, preceded it by over two years. Fronted by the ludicrously gifted Luke Sutherland (who would later add violin to Mogwai’s records), Long Fin Killie’s strung-out debut album may prominently feature vocals, song-structures and hooks, but the lavish instrumentation, obliquely complex lyrical content, and overall atmosphere of furious experimentation and progression places this squarely in a realm far away from the Britpop that dominated the mid-90s UK guitar landscape. Plus Sutherland’s keening vocals add something otherwise almost entirely missing from what we now know as postrock; genuine (homo)sexiness. Long Fin Killie’s following two albums refined and compacted the formula, songs getting shorter, tighter and faster, but it’s the elongated workouts of Houdini that I most often return to. Sutherland’s post-LFK work as Bows, where he mines the area between dreampop and triphop, is equally wonderful.
04. Califone – Quicksand/Cradlesnakes
Quicksand/Cradlesnakes is essentially an arbitrary choice; with many of the artists on this list I could easily have picked one of two or maybe three records, but any of Califone’s full studio albums would do the trick. Most observers would posit the band, formed from the ashes of Red Red Meat, as some kind of fucked-up alt.country group, and while that’s true to an extent their delicious, layered, highly textural music is much more about soundscapes, about exploding the limitations of genre through modern recording techniques, then it is about making country music palatable for urban hipsters. Just get a load of the deconstructionist feedback that consumes “horoscopic.amputation.honey”; add in Califone’s baffling and enormous array of instruments and timbres; their use of samples, loops, and found sounds; their penchant for brief, mood-sustaining textural interludes; and the extended song structures that reveal the innards of the songwriting process, and you get something truly awesome.
03. Disco Inferno - Technicolour
DI Go Pop may get the most common critical plaudits, but part of the point of what DI did was their deconstruction of the building blocks of rock and pop, and DI Go Pop simply doesn’t contain enough “pop” to deconstruct. Technicolour, on the other hand, despite being re-recorded quickly after the band had all their equipment nicked, actually is “pop”; as well as choruses, hooks abound, and those hooks are all the more remarkable due to being built from broken bits and pieces of fireworks, shattering glass, cars changing gear, and a million other urban environmental sounds, sampled and run via guitar strings and midi-interfaces back into the shape of a song. More then ten years on, this record, and in fact this band’s entire oeuvre almost, still sounds like the future. Seemingly no one has dared to try and match them.
02. Bark Psychosis - //Codename:Dustsucker
The weight of time may have made Hex and Independency more legendary at the moment than their decade-younger sibling, but //Codename:Dustsucker’s arrival in 2004 was more than just a return to the fold for Graham Sutton; it was a complete re-calibration of what postrock meant. By eschewing simple replication of his own history, Sutton demonstrated that the linear, homogeneous path postrock had set itself to during his absence was an arbitrary route, and that by shedding associations and returning to the original spirit that drove his group and their contemporaries’ early work he not only made a great record but also tuned people who’d lost patience with postrock back into its potential. One can only hope that it won’t take him another decade to furnish us with more of his own music.
01. Talk Talk - Laughing Stock
In a Mojo article on Talk Talk’s late-period work a couple of years ago there was a quote either from Phill Brown (engineer) or Tim Friese-Green (producer) who said of the 90-second one-note solo that rends one of Laughing Stock’s compositions in half, “what do you play after one note? No notes.” If postrock is what comes after rock, then this is surely the ultimate; end music, the end of music. Nothing can follow it. Spirit of Eden demonstrated a route in, and is probably more listened to for pleasure due to its greater linearity, but this record… I don’t find much profound in music, but this moves me in ways I cannot understand, it is the only record that has ever struck me as genuinely profound—it makes everything else seem very, very trite, whether that be Godspeed You! Black Emperor or the Beatles or Orbital or Fugazi or whatever. On the couple of seriously regrettable occasions when my relationship has crumbled to the verge of total disintegration before being built back up again, when I've been at my absolute emotional lowest, Laughing Stock has been the only thing I could stand to listen to. I’m not religious but when Mark Hollis sings “versed in Christ should strength desert me” I want to be; when “New Grass” opens, sunshine breaking clouds, those skittish drums, those light chords… I could die and not protest.