In celebration of the recent Wolfgang Tillmans’ compilation of seminal ‘80s band Colourbox we thought we’d put together a list of our favourite 4AD albums. No easy task, 4AD is home to some of the most maverick and influential bands of the past 37 years, and has shaped our musical landscape perhaps more than any other label. For this list we’ve decided to restrict ourselves to one release per artist, in no particular order. Each and every album on this list is essential.
Colourbox: Colourbox (1985)
A lost treasure, this, the only album from Colourbox, is ripe for rediscovery. The band’s complete disregard for genres – they mashed-up sampling, rock, soul, dub and dance with abandon, long before that was the norm – is epitomised in Just Give ‘em Whiskey. Epic tearjerker The Moon is Blue illustrates the sheer ambition of this short-lived band. They went on to collaborate with A. R. Kane as M/A/R/R/S and created the hugely influential one-hit wonder Pump Up The Volume.
Pixies: Doolittle (1989)
After the incredible noise of their explosive debut LP, the Albini-produced Surfer Rosa, Dolittle’s impeccably crafted 38 minutes of songwriting seems positively polished. Mixing noise, pop and arty weirdness with genius hooks meant, once heard, that tracks such as Debaser and Monkey Gone to Heaven never left you. Kim Deal’s and Black Francis’ urgent girl-boy vocals have never sounded better, and Dolittle rightfully made them underground stars.
Cocteau Twins: Treasure (1984)
Cocteau Twins were game-changers. Endlessly inventive, they are the band most intrinsically linked to 4AD. It’s almost impossible to pick one album, but third album, Treasure, is where they cemented their line-up and perfected their sound. From the opening track, Ivo, starting slow and ending with a breath-taking guitar solo, it’s clear how they meant to go on. Elizabeth Frazer’s ethereal, swooning and impenetrable vocals, described by Melody Maker at the time as “the voice of God”, are bathed in Robin Guthrie’s guitar to create a triumphant wash of sound that’s never been bettered.
Scott Walker: The Drift (2006)
Possibly the most desolate album on the roster – no mean feat – and definitely the scariest. The Drift is far from Walker’s teen-idol orchestral pop, his once youthful baritone now wracked and torn. Constructed with, as Walker describes it, ‘blocks of sound’ rather than written arrangements, it makes for demanding listening. Visceral textures and noise bump up against each other in elaborate complexity. Undeniably pretentious, it is also very much art. Listen loud, on headphones, in a dark room, if you dare.
This Mortal Coil: It’ll End in Tears (1984)
Masterminded by label head Ivo Watts-Russell, TMC is a grandiose, covers-orientated studio project featuring an array of 4AD-affiliated artists and resulting in two highly influential albums. Standout tracks on It’ll End in Tears include Kangaroo and Holocaust (the latter featuring Howard Devoto’s haunting vocals) both from Big Star’s third album – introducing a new generation to the cult band. David Lynch has acknowledged that the Cocteau Twins’ sublime version of Tim Buckley’s Song to the Siren was the direct inspiration for the first two Julee Cruise albums, and indeed licensed it for his Lost Highway soundtrack. Although the second side is patchier, this is an album of cinematic beauty and a great introduction to the 4AD aesthetic.
Breeders: Last Splash (1993)
After being unceremoniously kicked out of the Pixies, Kim Deal stuck two fingers up at her old band with her second Breeders album, which went on to outsell all the Pixies albums in the US. Relentless, exhilarating opener Cannonball is the biggest, though not the only, killer tune, the snarling Saints and giddy Divine Hammer combine to make this an album of memorably warped genius.
Bon Iver: For Emma Forever Ago (2008)
Bon Iver’s debut seemed to come out of nowhere and, like much of 4AD’s output, there’s an almost spiritual element to the recording. Written over four months in a remote, snowy Wisconsin cabin, heartache and isolation are woven through every line of Justin Vernon’s fragile, folky, falsetto and melancholic, acoustic guitar. You can almost smell the woodsmoke. Another great, atmospheric headphone album.
St Vincent: Strange Mercy (2011)
St Vincent’s other-worldly, smouldering tales sound like no-one else. Where previous albums felt like showcases for her polymathic abilities – she played 13 instruments on her debut – this one just bleeds confidence; her guitar-playing is pared-back but has lost none of its inventiveness. The recordings are still taut, but there’s also a sense that she’s slightly letting go, letting the listener in, which makes the album all the more powerful.
Red House Painters: Ocean Beach (1995)
Far less traumatic than the magnificent Rollercoaster, which preceded this album, Ocean Beach is no less heartbreaking, just more beautifully wrought, with a spacious, crystalline production underpinning Mark Kozelek’s deeply personal writing. Dropping the reverb that masked his vocals on earlier recordings, tracks like the magnificent 13-minute album-closer, Drop, had a new power and authority which continued into his solo career. A cult band whose output is often described as ‘magical’. And rightly so.
The Birthday Party: Junkyard (1982)
The last Birthday Party album before the band imploded features their ultimate tune, the huge, blasphemous and hilarious Big Jesus Trash Can – the demonic heart of a sprawling collection of feral tracks. Cave yowls, the band grinds and nothing is held back in this raucous, mess of noise, free jazz and madness, blazing fast, hard and bright.
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You can buy Wolfgang Tillmans’ Colourbox compilation from Society of Sound
Wolfgang Tillman’s retrospective at the Tate Modern is on until June 11 2017