Top 30 4AD Albums

In 2010, indie institution 4AD Records celebrated its 30th year. Actually, it didn't celebrate it at all. Whilst their cousins at Matador threw themselves a rowdy 21st Birthday Bash in Las Vegas, 4AD took the dignified-elder-statesman approach, with no outward recognition of their three-decade anniversary. Across those 30 years, 4AD have been perhaps the definitive indie record label; uncorking countless classics and a singular design aesthetic in the '80s, then reinventing themselves as a genuine power broker in the '00s.

of 30

Bauhaus 'In the Flat Field' (1980)

Bauhaus 'In the Flat Field'
Bauhaus 'In the Flat Field'. 4AD

By the time they'd arrived at their debut LP, Bauhaus had already made their definitive statement. Their first-ever single, the menacing nine-minute ode "Bela Lugosi's Dead," was the song they became synonymous with; its legend both instant —it stayed in the UK's indie singles chart for two years— and enduring. Said song didn't, however, feature on their first album, In the Flat Field. Effectively putting 4AD on the map, the set proved a landmark in Gothic rock; the band pushing post-punk into quietly-ridiculous realms of theatrical shadow-play, with Peter Murphy dredging up Catholic kitsch sans irony. Closer "Stigmata Martyr" took this to its extreme: Murphy shaking off his schoolboy guilt via sacrilegious appropriation of 'holy' Latin incantations.

of 30

The Birthday Party 'Prayers on Fire' (1981)

The Birthday Party 'Prayers on Fire'
The Birthday Party 'Prayers on Fire'. 4AD

A crew of sordid, self-destructive Australian ex-pats camped out in London, the Birthday Party were a band for a looming apocalypse. Their particular brand of nihilism —both musical and otherwise— wasn't brainless, but it was directionless; their menacing, violent, dangerous take on post-punk was a weapon used on society, their audiences, and themselves. The second Birthday Party LP, Prayers on Fire, made that nasty sound —dread-inducing organ stabs, gut-punching bass, scrawls of nails-on-chalkboard guitar, smashed-trashcan percussion— into perverted cabaret; with a blaring brass section and Cave's ironic-showman persona adding good-time glitz to their filth and grime. Three decades and countless albums later, it still may be the peak of Cave's career.

of 30

Cocteau Twins 'Head Over Heels' (1983)

Cocteau Twins 'Head Over Heels'
Cocteau Twins 'Head Over Heels'. 4AD

No band defined the 4AD aesthetic quite like Cocteau Twins, who pushed gothic post-punk into ethereal, atmospheric realms by doing without drums; or, indeed, any kind of traditional rhythmic attack. Piling on sweeping, syrupy, dreamy layers of effects-blasted guitar, Guthrie constructed cathedrals of sound that shimmered, hazy, like oases in the desert. They were shrines for his partner Elizabeth Fraser, who employed her swooping, honeyed, heavenly voice in unexpected, unconventional ways; deploying odd phrasings, strange cadences, and mercurial melismas. It was on their second record, Head Over Heels, that the Cocteaus defined that sound; its ahead-of-the-curve arrival proving hugely influential on the shoegaze sound.

of 30

This Mortal Coil 'It'll End in Tears' (1984)

This Mortal Coil 'It'll End in Tears'
This Mortal Coil 'It'll End in Tears'. 4AD

Cocteau Twins may be 4AD's defining artist, but only one act can lay claim to being the label's veritable house band. Lead by 4AD found Ivo Watts-Russell and producer John Fryer, This Mortal Coil were a studio project of shape-shifting nature, soliciting ongoing input from a range of ever-changing collaborateurs. This, naturally, meant many 4AD musicians, including, most famously, Cocteau Twins themselves. It was the Cocteau-centric cover of Tim Buckley's "Song to the Siren" that demanded This Mortal Coil be an ongoing concern; Elizabeth Fraser's astonishing rendition striking such a chord with audiences that more work was demanded. It laid down the project's identity: obscure covers, ethereal atmospheres, a mood bordering on funereal.

of 30

Throwing Muses 'Throwing Muses' (1986)

Throwing Muses 'Throwing Muses'
Throwing Muses 'Throwing Muses'. 4AD

The maiden American signing to 4AD was a masterstroke: Throwing Muses inked just in time to deliver one of the greatest albums of the '80s, and best debuts ever. The Muses arrived with an aesthetic fully formed: no mere product of shopworn influences, band brand new. Fashioning strains of psychedelia, new-wave, punk, country and college-rock into an artful tangle of snaking guitars and snarling vocals,

Throwing Muses

was an album unique, personal, and inspirational; sounding, in turn, proud and fierce, yet haunted and frightened. And the kicker was this: the LP's author, Kirstin Hersh, was 17, pregnant, semi-homeless, and freshly diagnosed as schizophrenic. Hersh would make many, many more records for 4AD, but none matched her first for impact.

of 30

The Pixies 'Doolittle' (1988)

The Pixies 'Doolittle'
The Pixies 'Doolittle'. 4AD

delivers Black Francis at the peak of his powers. His irrepressible pop-songs, here, peddle highwire dynamics, bizarre lyrics, and insistent, instantly-memorable melodies with plentiful panache. Taken together, they're the most influential collection of tunes in indie music history, and close to the best album of the '80s.

of 30

The Breeders 'Pod' (1990)

The Breeders 'Pod'
The Breeders 'Pod'. 4AD

With Black Francis exhibiting a growing control of The Pixies, bassist Kim Deal took out her frustrations in a set of songs borne by her very own band. Working on Pixies down-time, Deal roped in her friends Tanya Donelly (of Throwing Muses) and Josephine Wiggs, and wrung out a set of songs that took The Pixies' quiet/loud dynamics to more menacing places. Playing things slower and sparser, Deal and cohorts stalked through darker terrain. Steve Albini's studio work is all about getting out of a band's way, but here he contributes hugely to Pod's sound. It's 'atmospheric,' but in a different, non-4AD way; no banks of effects blanketing the guitars, but a central space carved out between the instruments. The result is a classic alt-rock album that sounds stark and eerie.

of 30

Lush 'Spooky' (1992)

Lush 'Spooky'
Lush 'Spooky'. 4AD

Many shoegazers favored atmosphere over pop-hooks, but Lush were a different kettle of fish. Though Spooky wears its Robin Guthrie production in a saturated sonic-maelstrom of unending layers, the guitar haze doesn't obscure the tunes underneath. Though it sounds suitably 1992-noise-guitar, Emma Anderson and Miki Berenyi were working with a more classic appreciation for melody, harmony, structure, and energy; their debut Lush LP no work of floaty, ethereal languor, but a relatively rockin' record. Guthrie's imposed production turned out to be a total blessing. On their two subsequent 4AD LPs, 1994's Split and 1996's Lovelife, Lush chased their natural melodic instincts unencumbered, and the result was, essentially, an obnoxious brand of Brit-pop.

of 30

Pale Saints 'In Ribbons' (1992)

Pale Saints 'In Ribbons'
Pale Saints 'In Ribbons'. 4AD

Pale Saints are generally considered one of the lesser-lights of shoegaze crew, but listening to their three 4AD LPs removed from their era, and they just sound suitably hazy, swooning, and beautiful. Their second record, In Ribbons, found Pale Saints coming into their own. Their first since adopting original Lush vocalist Meriel Barham into the fold, it finds them weaving tunes of gossamer quality; their washed-out sound sounding like soft light leaking through thin thread. Across the set's sweet songs, Barham and leader Ian Masters bashfully croon through kissing fogs of Graeme Naysmith's blanketing noise guitar. It's a prime example of Pale Saint's craft; the magnum opus of a generally underappreciated band.

of 30

Red House Painters 'Down Colorful Hill' (1992)

Red House Painters 'Down Colorful Hill'
Red House Painters 'Down Colorful Hill'. 4AD

Mark Kozelek was depressed. His band, Red House Painters, were going nowhere: ignored by Bay Area audiences in an era of grunge, and he had no career plans otherwise. His music sounded depressed, too; Kozelek taking his impossibly-uncool influences —Simon & Garfunkel, John Denver, Cat Stevens— and slowing them down to a maudlin crawl. Yet, when his demo found its way to 4AD founder Ivo Watts-Russell, his fortunes changed overnight. Released as

Down Colorful Hill

, the Red House Painters' debut became the toast of the English music-press, earning Kozelek comparisons to Nick Drake and Van Morrison. Across its six long songs, the songwriter pens a self-portrait of sadness, pills, long-distance love, and time slipping away; lamenting the death of his youth, and all the lost innocence that entails.

of 30

Unrest 'Perfect Teeth' (1993)

Unrest 'Perfect Teeth'
Unrest 'Perfect Teeth'. 4AD

Unrest started out as a high-school joke-band, and took six albums to outgrow their juvenile fondness for pastiche and provocation. 1992's Imperial F.F.R.R. marked a defiant reinvention; Mark Robinson plumping for self-examining sincerity as his road-tested three-piece (featuring beloved bassist Bridget Cross) knocked out bare, jangly indie-pop. The record was picked up by 4AD sister imprint Guernica, and a year later Unrest graduated to the main label for Perfect Teeth. That record stuck to Unrest's new blueprint: nary a distortion pedal in sight as the crew jangle their way through tunes just a shade too tough to be twee. Unrest broke up soon after, but Robinson and Cross fired one more salvo for 4AD: Air Miami's snotty '95 LP Me Me Me.

of 30

Lisa Germano 'Geek the Girl' (1994)

Lisa Germano 'Geek the Girl'
Lisa Germano 'Geek the Girl'. 4AD

Lisa Germano was in her 30s, a full career as violinist in John Cougar Mellencamp's band beneath her belt, when she decided to start recording her own songs. For someone best known as the barefoot fiddler in the "Cherry Bomb" video, Germano's solo music was utterly unexpected: plunging into a barely-there atmosphere of half-played instruments, terrifying samples, and mournful, mumbled vocals. Her songs were works of pervasive insularity; steeped in depression, alienation, and self-critique, they stalked forlornly down their own hellish rabbit-holes. Geek the Girl explores the historically/socially recurring role of woman-as-victim, with a persistent motif of powerlessness; "Cry Wolf" a five-minute hymn to rape that floats in odd eeriness.

of 30

Kristin Hersh 'Hips and Makers' (1994)

Kristin Hersh 'Hips and Makers'
Kristin Hersh 'Hips and Makers'. 4AD

Kirstin Hersh had long been haunted by auditory hallucinations, her songs coming to her whole and fully-formed, broadcasting in her ear as if she were an antenna. This gave Throwing Muses records a haunted quality oft at odds with their chaotic alt-rock; Hips and Makers, her first solo LP, seemed like an attempt to make the music as haunting as her lyrics. It started with "Your Ghost," a near-crossover single that found Hersh and REM celebrity Michael Stipe duetting on a stark song of scraping strings and unending beauty; its narrator dialing the old phone-number of a dead lover/friend/other as way of waking the dead. As both single and album opener, "Your Ghost" sets the tenor for the whole affair: Hips and Makers a record whose songs sound like séances.

of 30

Frank Black 'Teenager of the Year' (1994)

Frank Black 'Teenager of the Year'
Frank Black 'Teenager of the Year'. 4AD

Whilst anybody with ears can appreciate the greatness of The Pixies' magnum opus,

Teenager of the Year
Teenager of the Year

. Perhaps the celebration of self, even if that's more to do with its author rather than his typically cryptic, inscrutable tunes. Instead, you take it for what it's worth: a ridiculously creative songsmith vomiting out mercurial material for 63 minutes.

of 30

The Amps 'Pacer' (1995)

The Amps 'Pacer'
The Amps 'Pacer'. 4AD

The Amps are essentially remembered as Minor Deal; but since when was Kim Deal in 1995 anything resembling 'minor'? When her sister, Kelley, got busted down on a heroin charge, Kim put The Breeders on hiatus —a ballsy move given the platinum-selling success of their '93 set

Last Splash

knocking out 12 fuzzy rock-songs in 33 minutes. Issued by Warner when they owned a stake in 4AD, the album was roundly considered a 'bust'; lacking, as it did, crossover singles and unit-shifting ways. But, removed from the sales-centric measures of the day, it sounds great; by far the 'funnest' work in the Deal canon.

of 30

Tarnation 'Gentle Creatures' (1995)

Tarnation 'Gentle Creatures'
Tarnation 'Gentle Creatures'. 4AD

4AD had worked with iconic vocalists before —Nick Cave, Elizabeth Fraser, Kristin Hersh— but never anyone quite like Paula Frazer. The leader of San Franciscan band Tarnation came on board blessed with a voice of classic beauty and snow-driven purity, her other-worldly pipes kindling sepia memories of Patsy Cline, Skeeter Davis, and Connie Francis. With Warn Defever of His Name is Alive reworking songs from the band's barely-heard first LP, Tarnation effectively debuted unto the world with this pitch-prfect collection: framing Frazer's voice, at different moments, with both crackling lo-fi tape-hiss and generous golden-toned dollops of banjo and lap steel. Completing the 4AD package: some of the label's greatest-ever graphic design.

of 30

His Name is Alive 'Stars on ESP' (1996)

His Name is Alive 'Stars on ESP'
His Name is Alive 'Stars on ESP'. 4AD

By 1996, the 'classic' 4AD era was over, and many saw its death symbolized by

Stars on ESP
Stars on ESP

. The album was a willing pastiche of Gospel music, dub production, Beach Boys sunshine, and ESP-Disk eclecticism, built around recurring reinterpretations of a single Gospel standard, "This World is Not My Home." Though it annoyed fervent 4AD followers on release, in hindsight it's clearly Defever's best album (and he's made a ton), singularly to devoted to its kooky concept.

of 30

Piano Magic 'Writers Without Homes' (2002)

Piano Magic 'Writers Without Homes'
Piano Magic 'Writers Without Homes'. 4AD

By the late-'00s, 4AD was almost a nostalgia label, dutifully putting out new discs by their core acts whilst proudly tending to the back-catalog. New signings didn't dissuade that idea; especially when a run of bland beatmakers —Magnétophone, Minotaur Shock, Sybarite— found 4AD floundering in a folktronic pasture. Piano Magic's

Writers Without Homes

was a bright spot in that era. Seen as pseudo successor to This Mortal Coil —especially due to ex-Cocteau Twin Simon Raymonde's presence— Glen Johnson's recording project changed members constantly. Here, he works with German electro nerds, Spanish filmmakers, and Scottish art-rockers, but the crowning appearance comes from Vashti Bunyan, lured out of a three-decade retirement on "Crown of the Lost." That alone makes the LP meaningful.

of 30

The Mountain Goats 'We Shall All Be Healed' (2004)

The Mountain Goats 'We Shall All Be Healed'
The Mountain Goats 'We Shall All Be Healed'. 4AD
We Shall All Be Healed
at home
We Shall All Be Healed

, confidently marshaling a full-band. His former fictional mandate had lessened, too; the album filled with painful songs from Darnielle's troubled youth, and dedicated to his abusive step-father.

of 30

Scott Walker 'The Drift' (2006)

Scott Walker 'The Drift'
Scott Walker 'The Drift'. 4AD

In 30 Century Man, a documentary on his life and work, Scott Walker casually notes: "I've had very bad dreams all my life." The Drift sets such nightmares to music: all squalling, screaming, atonal strings and tortured, half-sobbing croons. Walker calls his dreams "out of proportion," too, and The Drift matches that; its orchestral grandeur, theatrical emotions, and immense sense of darkness sounding towering, colossal, cavernous. Four decades removed from his magnum opus Scott 4, the 63-year-old is doing anything but resting on his laurels; wandering fearlessly through harrowing, terrifying landscapes that'd scare off men half his age. Conversant in genocide, terrorism, and barbarism, Walker's haunted dreamscape is an unflattering portrait of humanity at its ugliest.

of 30

Beirut 'Gulag Orkestar' (2006)

Beirut 'Gulag Orkestar'
Beirut 'Gulag Orkestar'. 4AD

Beirut's debut was picked up by 4AD after stirring up scores of blog-hype on —and in advance of— its US release. The excitement was due to the music, which transplanted the Magnetic Fields' droll indie-pop to the Balkans; dressing crooned, synthy tunes in Gypsy threads and brassy bombast. But the narrative itself was exciting: Beirut the work of a teenage high-school-dropout from New Mexico, who wandered dirt poor through Europe, from Paris due East, soaking up music and culture as he went. That back-story plays out on record, too;

Gulag Orkestar

sounding like Zach Condon's travel-diary set to song. Though recorded at his parents' house in Albuquerque, Condon's romantic music summons sentimental, romantic images of Olde Europe.

of 30

TV on the Radio 'Return to Cookie Mountain' (2006)

TV on the Radio 'Return to Cookie Mountain'
TV on the Radio 'Return to Cookie Mountain'. 4AD

When they arose from Brooklyn in a burst of Pixies covers and Talking Heads licks, TV on the Radio were hailed by many as one of the most important new bands of the 2000s. That importance was up for debate, but TVOTR were definitely a band of their day. Their over-produced, sound-saturated, impossibly-busy sound was a wok of new-millennial maximalism: every instant on every song stuffed with a thousand blaring parts. Such cacophony seemed perfectly pitched to hyper-modern ears; the natural result of an era of digital recording, constant stimulation, social networking, and omnipresent advertising. True to such, TVOTR arrived as a prime piece of branding: selling themselves as sages of the imminent apocalypse even when their music sounded like INXS.

of 30

Celebration 'The Modern Tribe' (2007)

Celebration 'The Modern Tribe'
Celebration 'The Modern Tribe'. 4AD

Championed/produced by TV on the Radio's Dave Sitek and bearing stylistic similarities to the Birthday Party, Celebration were a natural fit to 4AD. The Baltimore-based band were a sequel to the mighty Love Life; a crew that specialized in long-form sonic séances built on scrawled guitar, drawling organs, and Katrina Ford's guttural, soulful, masculinized howl. Celebration kept the same elements, but turned them into a hyper-percussive dance party; David Bergander's nimble-limbed drumming all convulsive rhythmics and unexpected shudders. Their second set, The Modern Tribe, found Celebration utterly on fire; every ecstatic jam bursting with excitement. It was one of the best albums of the '00s, and one of the best 4AD LPs since the '90s. The world, however, somehow yawned in response.

of 30

Bon Iver 'For Emma, Forever Ago' (2008)

Bon Iver 'For Emma, Forever Ago'
Bon Iver 'For Emma, Forever Ago'. 4AD

The Bon Iver back-story was the stuff of modern myth: Justin Vernon returnin' to backwoods Wisconsin after breaking up with his band and his girl, nursing both a broken heart and a bout with mononucleosis. Bunkering down for a winter of drunken beer and deer-hunting, he rolls tape the whole while; authoring a set of sad, sad songs about lost loves, old hurts, and haunted memories. Sung in a faltering falsetto and perfectly produced —sounding dude-in-a-room lo-fi whilst sparkling with pop-music flourish— Vernon's songs become his own audio Walden, his first Bon Iver album resonating with back-to-the-land romanticism. For Emma, Forever Ago is met by ecstatic press, adoring fans, and instant-classic status. Two years later, he's rolling with Kanye West, and stardom beckons.

of 30

Department of Eagles 'In Ear Park' (2008)

Department of Eagles 'In Ear Park'
Department of Eagles 'In Ear Park'. 4AD

The side-project for Daniel Rossen of Grizzly Bear, Department of Eagles actually suggested the greatness of

In Ear Park
In Ear Park
Yellow House

; jams like "No One Does It" and "Teenagers" every bit the equal of DOE's bigger, grizzlier sibling.

of 30

Camera Obscura 'My Maudlin Career' (2009)

Camera Obscura 'My Maudlin Career'
Camera Obscura 'My Maudlin Career'. 4AD

Before being inked by 4AD, Scottish twee-pop troupe Camera Obscura had already issued a string of fine records; from their bashful biggest Bluest Hi-Fi debut to their resplendent 2006 set Let's Get Out of This Country. But Traceyanne Campbell and co sounded as good as —if not better than— ever on their fourth album, My Maudlin Career. The punningly-titled record (try saying 'my modeling career' in a Scots brogue) delivers a host of sparkling songs dressed in sumptuous strings, and played with aplomb. Adding cuts like "Honey in the Sun," "The Sweetest Thing," and "French Navy" to her impressive song-book, Campbell seemed to suggest that her career, if not destined for greatness, would at least be in service to institution of the pop-song.

of 30

Tune-Yards 'Bird-Brains' (2009)

Tune-Yards 'Bird-Brains'
Tune-Yards 'Bird-Brains'. 4AD

One of 4AD's more inspired signings in a particularly-inspiring era, the label plucked Merrill Garbus out of semi-obscurity, when she wasn't just recording her own songs, but selling her own records and booking her own tours. Stitching together her life experiences —as exchange student in Kenya; as nanny for two-year-old; as apprentice puppeteer— in genre-transcending sounds of sampled drums, thrummed ukulele, and boisterous singing, Garbus's Tune-Yards tunes introduced her as inspired, idiosyncratic, self-made woman. By


, Tune-Yards had truly arrived; not losing her quirks in the process.

of 30

Atlas Sound 'Logos' (2009)

Atlas Sound 'Logos'
Atlas Sound 'Logos'. 4AD

After his band Deerhunter broke out on their second album, Cryptograms, Bradford Cox found something verging on indie infamy; earning a rep for blog rants, dumping demos online, online feuds, and colorful interviews. His second LP as Atlas Sound, Logos, was the first true sign that Cox was ready to rise above the gossip and allow the music to be transcendent. After an early version leaked online, Cox considered abandoning the project; but, instead, he steeled himself to obliterate the first incarnation with a bigger, better album. Boasting guest spots from Laetitia Sadier of Stereolab and Panda Bear of Animal Collective, the set fused Cox's various musical modes —drone pieces, krautrock-inspired workouts, bruised ballads, sentimental pop— into a brilliant single disc.

of 30

Deerhunter 'Halcyon Digest' (2010)

Deerhunter 'Halcyon Digest'
Deerhunter 'Halcyon Digest'. 4AD

Many bands debut with a bang, then fade; few are those who keep getting better.

Halcyon Digest

proved Deerhunter as the latter, the one-time noise-rockers growing into grown-up guitar-rock of most golden tone. Befitting its title, the band's fourth record is a rumination on growing older; Bradford Cox singing things like "that October/he came over every day/the smell of loose leaf, joints on jeans/and we would play," as he trips back to his rock'n'roll days in the teenage wasteland. The whole LP touches on that seem feeling specific to remembering —warmth entwined with sadness— and when Cox borrows the melody from The Everly Brothers "All I Have to Do is Dream" he furthers the point, connecting his personal nostalgia to cultural.

of 30

Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti 'Before Today' (2010)

Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti 'Before Today'
Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti 'Before Today'. 4AD

Eyebrows were raised when 4AD signed Ariel Pink in 2009. The lil' lo-fi sage was a legend in underground circles; pioneering a degraded-audio-tape sound that proved infinitely influential on the bubbling-up, blog-based chillwave movement. But his music also seemed like it'd never go beyond niche concern: his persona too strange, his aesthetic too garish, his songs too buried in impenetrable murk. Merely a year later, the label seemed like visionaries: Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti's first-ever 'proper' studio record, Before Today, was one of the albums of year, the band was one of the breakout acts of 2010, and Pitchfork, those veritable overseers of internet fanboyism, crowned his "Round and Round" as the song of the year; Pink becoming bona fide rockstar along the way.