The Five Best Post-Rock Albums
As a “music nerd guy,” one of my hobbies is collecting subgenres. I like to find the offshoot movements and sub-cultures that spawn from other, bigger styles of music. Some styles of music are notorious for the sheer number of sub-genres they spawn. Hardcore music has a million of these, like “skacore,” “nerdcore,” etc. Many types of electronic music have a few weird offshoots. One of my favorites is “happy hardcore.” Just listen to it. As fun as it is to talk about these and invent new ones (electro folkcore?), the problem is that they rarely become anything more than punchlines and occasional fun tracks.
The only subgenre that I’ve really loved is post-rock, and I think there are a surprising number of masterpieces within the genre. When you consider the relatively small number of post-rock albums ever made, and the fact that it’s all but dead now, it’s surprising that I even have five to write about here. I first got into when my cousin gave me a copy of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s album Yanqui U.X.O. for my 15th birthday. The CD was bizarre, full of weird little images and cryptic messages that I couldn’t really figure out. I still can’t, but I love the music.
It’s a hard genre to describe accurately, but it’s generally defined by long songs that don’t have much in the way of lyrics or typical rock song structure. I’d even describe it as orchestral rock music. Here are the five best post-rock albums I’ve listened to.
5. Tortoise – TNT
I learned about Tortoise through Slint, another band that will pop up on this list. The supremely talented David Pajo played guitar for Slint, and after their breakup, joined Tortoise. Oddly enough, he wasn’t around for this album, but I still consider it their finest. TNT is Tortoise’s third album, and probably the least “post-rock” of all of these albums. It delves into many different genres through the course of the album, including jazz and electronic music. Some post-rock albums are formulaic in their approach: 12 minute songs with droning guitars and wacky vocal samples. Tortoise never sounds that way on TNT, and it’s an important part of the genre.
4. A Silver Mt. Zion – Born Into Trouble As The Sparks Fly Upwards
Every time I have a discussion with someone about post-rock (and this has happened exactly three times), they tell me they hate it for one reason: it’s pretentious. My rebuttal is always the same: “Well, yes it is. And you’re an asshole.” When you decide to call your album Born Into Trouble As The Sparks Fly Upwards, there’s gonna be some pretentiousness. It’s part of what makes post-rock so fun. I learned about A Silver Mt. Zion because Efrim Menuck (with a name like Efrim, what other kind of music could you play?) of Godspeed You! Black Emperor also plays in Mt. Zion. Born Into Trouble… is pretty standard post-rock fare, but it’s perfectly executed. I’ve always thought of it as the post-rock album I’d play for someone when they ask me what post-rock is (and this has happened exactly zero times).
3. Mogwai – Come On Die Young
Come On Die Young, or CODY, is the second album by Scottish band Mogwai. These guys are very good, but this is the only album I’ve ever had much time for. It’s a bit formulaic, and sometimes, they get a little too weird. But the bright spots on this album are among the best that post-rock has to offer. Take, for instance, one of my favorite tracks, “Helps Both Ways.” It’s little more than an instrumental over someone’s TV playing an old CFL game (at least I think it’s a CFL, they mention Kevin Clive several times). But it’s absolutely brilliant. People talk about Explosions In The Sky and the Friday Night Lights soundtrack, and I gently remind them that they ripped off Mogwai pretty badly. Mogwai’s later material would stray away from post-rock, and they really hated the label, but this is one of the defining albums.
2. Slint – Spiderland
Spiderland is my absolute favorite album of all-time, and yes, I know that’s a lame hipster claim. But it’s true. It’s the best album I’ve ever listened to. So why isn’t it number one on this list? It’s not really post-rock. Most people say it’s the album that invented the entire genre, and there’s some truth to that. Slint didn’t invent long songs with bizarre time signatures and creepy atmospherics, but damn, they did it the best. I don’t think they invented post-rock, but they certainly had a huge influence on it. So I’m including Spiderland out of respect. If you’ve never heard it, you’re missing out. Even if you don’t like weird music, and I know most people don’t, Spiderland is an album that must be heard.
1. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – F# A# ∞
With a name like that, it’s gotta be a post-rock album. Pronounced “F sharp A sharp infinity,” it’s named for the notes that start both sides of the vinyl, and the last thing heard on the B side, a lock groove that plays infinitely. This album is post-rock, and I cannot say it more simply than that. It’s only got three songs, and the shortest is 16 minutes long. Each is divided into several movements that play out like some sort of movie. GY!BE would never make an album better than this, their first, and neither would any other traditional post-rock group. Everything that’s defined post-rock, for better or worse, is present on this album: weird field recordings, ambient noise, and of course, multi-instrument musical suites. If you want to hear the genre, listen to this one.