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Top 30 4AD Albums

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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 powerbroker in the '00s. If they won't celebrate their birthday, we will: here's the 30 best albums from 4AD's first 30 years.

1. Bauhaus 'In the Flat Field' (1980)

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.
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2. The Birthday Party 'Prayers on Fire' (1981)

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.

3. Cocteau Twins 'Head Over Heels' (1983)

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.

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

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.

5. Throwing Muses 'Throwing Muses' (1986)

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.

6. The Pixies 'Doolittle' (1988)

The Pixies 'Doolittle'
4AD
Doolittle plays less like an LP, more like its own classic-rock radio-station, delivering hit after hit after hit. "Debaser," "Here Comes Your Man," "Silver," "Mr. Grieves," "I Bleed," "Wave of Mutilation," "Monkey Gone to Heaven." It's a veritable playlist of alternative anthems, all housed on the one album. An unstoppable parade of manic energy, amped-up attitude, magical hooks and breathless rush, Doolittle 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.

7. The Breeders 'Pod' (1990)

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.

8. Lush 'Spooky' (1992)

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.

9. Pale Saints 'In Ribbons' (1992)

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.

10. Red House Painters 'Down Colorful Hill' (1992)

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.
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