What is post-rock? Most people answer with an illusory, “Yeah, it’s like… Sigur Ros right?”. The truth is, the genre was coined in 1994 by Simon Reynolds in the pages of Mojo – attempting to describe the debut album from Bark Psychosis – as a way of describing something no one yet understood – and in many ways still don’t.
The term doesn’t just mean ‘after rock’ but also against rock. A flat out rejection of the ofttimes constrictive, contrite, and flamboyant traits that rock had come to embody, or as Reynolds puts it, “using rock instruments in non-rock purposes.”
As a result, post-rock has innumerable facets as many of the albums on this list wildly differ in soundscape and scope. Yet post-rock has always revelled in its ambiguity and that’s one of its most redeemable traits. The ephemeral emotion of a live performance, which for many years was the beating heart of rock, was exchanged for studio experimentation. Now, with the everpresent ‘death of rock’ on everyone’s lips, post-rock feels more vital than ever as a means of forging a new path in the landscape of rock n’ roll.
Whether you accept the term or not, here are 10 of the most groundbreaking post-rock albums all time.
From landmark masterpieces to unsung obscurities these are 10 of the greatest post-rock records to ever exist from 1990-2020.
10. Rodan – Rusty (1994)
Sharing many of the same accolades awarded to Slint, the exhilarating yet brooding math-rock of Rodan is a timeless staple of the post-rock portrait. It was produced and engineered by Bob ‘Rusty’ Weston who also inspired the album’s name.
Both Jason Noble and Tara Jane O’Neil went on to make some of the most interesting and important alternative music of the last 30 years. Yet their landmark debut album, with its complex, taunting guitar lines and planned chaos, laid the groundwork for the future of the style.
Best track: The Everyday World Of Bodies
9. Disco Inferno – D.I. Go Pop (1994)
Essex’s Disco Inferno were pop deconstructionists, dismantling the basic configurations of rock music to shape them into something that resembled pop, though outside-pop at best.
Heavily incorporating samples amid dense and dreamlike melodies, D.I. Go Pop, is the artful bending and breaking of pop music at it’s finest. Sublimely produced splashes and droplets open the album on In Sharky Water, and it’s one non-stop sensory overload from there. An elegantly glasslike album, both in its surface smoothness and jagged edges.
Best track: Footprints In Snow
8. Rachel’s –The Sea and the Bells (1996)
While strings and classical instrumentation is often an important feature for post-rock acts, it is usually a backdrop for guitars to brood over. Rachel’s, however, was different. Formed in 1991 as a side interest from Rodan, Jason Noble’s group quickly gathered a cast of collaborators including violist Christian Frederickson and pianist Rachel Grimes, who became the crux of the band’s emotive sound.
Recorded in 1995, the bare human passion and fervour of this record is heart-wrenching, made all the more poignant by the early death of Noble in 2012 from cancer. An exquisitely intimate sensory experience, Rachel’s are one-of-a-kind.
Best track: Tea Merchants
7. Mogwai – Young Team (1997)
The world was hungry for a group capable of massive, explosive eruptions and smooth dynamic shifts when Mogwai rolled around in the late ’90s. The Scottish lads made an immediate dent on the indie charts on both sides of the Atlantic, creating a fresh blueprint for post-rock.
The dramatic and heroic element of their instrumental universe is sometimes referred to as ‘crescendocore’. While it can have somewhat derogatory connotations, Mogwai occupies a nuanced middle ground between build and crash in their mysterious sonic fortress.
Best track: Mogwai fear Satan
6. Talk Talk – Laughing Stock (1991)
Talk Talk spent the latter portion of the ’80s spending EMI’s money on the dismantling of their glossy avant-pop formula, which has garnered them huge commercial success but little artistic gratification. Frontman and artistic dictator Mark Hollis pushed his vision, and bandmates, to the absolute limit for Laughing Stock, which proved to be their magnum opus.
Recorded over a year in an atmosphere with clocks removed, oil projections on the walls and no other light apart from a strobe. Most of the work was stripped from Mark Hollis’ hours of jamming, attempting to capture the essence of his jazz idols. Laughing Stock is likely the most unique album on this list and a singular portrait of what post-rock can be.
Best track: After The Flood
5. Bark Psychosis – Hex (1994)
As legend has it, Hex was the first album to ever be described as ‘post-rock’, in a review by journalist Simon Reynolds. Writing for Mojo in 1994, he described Bark Psychosis as, “futurists” who were operating on the fringes of music in a unique and unusual way.
Another post-rock band to have one iconic full-length album in their repertoire, Bark Psychosis, was predominantly a study of Graham Stutton attempts to spot weld his many varied influences together. In fact, Sutton was so intensely single-minded during the year of recording that it led to both John Ling and keyboardist Daniel Gish burning out and quitting.
Nevertheless, the final result is a phenomenal and pivotal moment for the genre as a whole.
Best track: Absent Friend
4. Slint – Spiderland
When Slint released the now-iconic Spiderland in 1991, there were still a bunch of nobodies. Ingenious nobodies at that, and well ahead of their time. People couldn’t find out anything about them and by the time the album dropped the band had split, meaning no interviews. Though if post-rock ever had an iconic figure at its helm, guitarist David Pajo is it.
More ‘rock’ than ‘post’, their songs were far more than the run of the mill indie-rock around then. Instead of transcending into major choruses, Slint jerked and divulged into darker and fuzzier areas, evolving what was thought possible of rock songs.
Best track: Nosferatu Man
3. Sigur Ros – Ágætis byrjun
Now 20 years old, it still sounds like you’re hearing an album made twenty years in the future. The arrangement, engineering, and intention are all clearly stated, separating the record from its post-rock counterparts as well as the art-rock and pop music of the time.
It was safely and wholly unique. I still find it hard to stifle the sense of wonderment as piano kicks in on Starálfur or the tectonic plates of the world groaning ceaselessly against time in Svefn-g-englar.
Sigur Rós transcended in Ágætis byrjun, and that’s really all there is to be said.
Best track: Svefn-g-englar
2. Tortoise – Millions Now Living Will Never Die (1996)
A score of Chicago maestros who’d been involved in a slew of hardcore bands, Tortoise used their fledgling project to explore brooding compositions predicated upon bass, percussion, sample looping, and experimental electronics.
Nothing captures their aquatic vision with more grandeur than album opener Djed, 21 minutes of building melodies and audio exploration. With its washes of guitar – courtesy of Dave Pajo, one-time Slint member and future Aerial M mastermind – flashes of vibraphone, the oceanic splendour of Millions Now Living Will Never Die put post-rock on the map, kick-started Thrill Jockey into a powerhouse label, and set the scene for Tortoise to explore two decades of jamming.
Best track: Djed
1. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – F#A#¥ (1997)
With an unruly band name and even stranger albums, Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s debut is a long-play of holy post-rock-space-rock-mosaic-rock. Inspirationally turbulent, reckoning, triumphant and mind-shatteringly hard to define, GYBE powerfully inhabit the world of their own creations.
While it’s less politically charged than subsequent offerings, it’s nonetheless their most disarmingly breathtaking offering. The eerie ebb and flow, the ambient rock fanfare, the feedback blasts that sound like an orca on crack, this is an album like no other.
Best track: East Hastings