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Underground Icon: The legacy of an alt-rock pioneer

Examining the history of rock music, it’s easy to identify some of the folks who belong on the “Mount Rushmore” of the genre. Such a topic has been found amongst music fans from record stores to bonfires to everywhere in between. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent debating between friends who the best drummer of all time is (I’ve established a solid top three: Neil Peart, Dave Grohl, and Karen Carpenter, in no particular order, but that’s not why I’m writing this post). But during such discussions, many fail to bring up one of the most crucial cogs in the music machine: the engineers and producers. 

map drawing of a studioFor my two cents, I’d have to tip my cap to the late, great Steve Albini. Although known for his musical contributions, I actually first found out about Steve from his viral interaction with someone questioning his engagement numbers, but once I heard his songs, I could immediately point them out. The distinctive sounds of drums, the meticulous layouts to achieve some of the crispest sounds known to man. The sketch below is of the layout from the studio recordings of Songs: Ohia’s The Magnolia Electric Co. seems like that of a madman, but if you listen to that record, you’ll understand why such attention to detail was necessary. 

Unfortunately, it was announced that Steve Albini passed away Tuesday night from a heart attack at age 61. Spanning almost 40 years in his career, Albini established himself as one of the best early, and to honor that, I want to highlight some of my favorite albums that he worked on to share the love and passion that he crafted with these bands.

surfer rosa album cover 1. Surfer Rosa, Pixies (1988)

I mean, talk about iconic. Stepping onto the scene with your first album and immediately knocking it out of the park is rare, but doing it to a level that Pixies did off-rip is unheard of. It’s abrasive, it’s raw, it’s the perfect encapsulation of the sound on a Steve Albini record. Plus, it gave us one of the greatest needle drops in all of film history

In Utero2. In Utero, Nirvana (1993)

How do you follow up one of the most popular and defining sounds of not just a genre, but an entire decade? To find your answer, look no further than Nirvana’s In Utero. Over the span of two weeks in a Minnesota cabin, Nirvana and Albini truly locked in and accomplished such a feat. Although R.E.M.’s producer Scott Litt would engineer the singles ‘All Apologies’, ‘Heart-Shaped Box’, and ‘Pennyroyal Tea’, Albini’s abrasive and uncompromising sound can still be found on standout tracks like ‘Scentless Apprentice’ and ‘Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle.”

Rid Of Me3. Rid Of Me, PJ Harvey (1993)

In almost every English course I’ve ever taken, it has been instilled in me that every essay has to have a hook: Something enticing enough to convince the reader to keep reading. I’ve found that when sequencing albums, the intro track acts in a similar fashion. If I’m not entertained immediately by an album, the rest of my experience probably isn’t going to be as great. Now, with this in mind, go back and listen to the title and intro track to this album. I’m hard-pressed to find another song that has such a hard crash that it supposedly caused a car crash.

24 hour revenge therapy4. 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, Jawbreaker (1994)

I can’t sing enough praises about this album, which brought me some of my personal favorite tracks of all time (‘Do You Still Hate Me?’ and ‘Boxcar’, specifically). But when discussing Steve Albini’s contributions to this record, nothing else comes to mind other than when he said in an interview that he only agreed to record for this album thinking it was actually the other 90’s punk band with ‘Jaw’ in their name.

Magnolia electric5. The Magnolia Electric Co., Songs: Ohia (2003)

Jason Molina’s songwriting and Steve Albini’s engineering very well could be the greatest combo since Jordan and Pippen, peanut butter and jelly, etc. There’s nothing that fits better with raw, powerful lyrics than raw, cutting-edge sounds, even for an alt-country album. If you haven’t heard ‘Transmission Farewell’ or ‘Hold On Magnolia’, you’re only doing yourself a disservice.

For the sake of longevity, I kept this list to only five albums, but Steve’s impact stretched MUCH much further. A wonderful Spotify user composed this playlist full of songs from albums he worked on, and I highly recommend that you listen as soon as you can, with some good headphones or speakers. May Steve’s legacy live on through this music, and may he rest in peace.

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