In the 1980s, the British Phonographic Industry launched a short-sighted, essentially silly campaign against the supposed 'piracy' of music enthusiasts taping LPs onto cassettes for friends. The catchy slogan was "Home Taping Is Killing Music." Nearly 30 years on, and it's clear that home-taping revolutionized music. Not simply in the sharing thereof, but in affording broke, unprofessional musicians the chance to record their songs. Not coincidentally, the '80s gave rise to the lo-fi movement
, which fetishized poor audio quality as a kind of badge of honor. Here, in its honor, are 10 of the home-recorded best.
Though it's probably better defined as 'outsider art' than merely being lo-fidelity, these home recordings of Texan songwriter-savant Daniel Johnston —whose life is so artfully chronicled in the documentary feature The Devil and Daniel Johnston— are a definitive entry into home-tape culture. Johnston's helium voice, battered chord-organ chords, and natural knack for sweet pop hooks made him a cult figure; one who embodied the individualist, iconoclast spirit of self-recording. Johnston influenced not just a whole generation of lo-fi musicians, but a glittering litany of talents ranging from Sufjan Stevens to the Flaming Lips, Yo La Tengo, Death Cab for Cutie, and, if you believe the wardrobe choices of the late Kurt Cobain, Nirvana.
Though decried by many as being tuneless and/or talentless, Beat Happening are a landmark band in American music. Armed with the ideologies of punk-rock but none of its anger, the trio fashioned rudimentary pop songs that traded in an unlikely sunniness; the anthesis to the burgeoning, increasingly-macho hardcore movement that had overtaken the American indie-circuit. Beat Happening's simple, sweet songs were oft punctuated by the moaning baritone of Calvin Johnson. Going hand-in-hand with the founding of Johnson's iconic indie imprint K Records, Beat Happening were the driving force that turned the unlikely outpost of Olympia, Washington into an internationally recognized cultural hub.
3. Tall Dwarfs 'Hello Cruel World' (1988)
New Zealand's bedroom-recording pop oddballs Tall Dwarfs were the first to pioneer lo-fi as a defining aesthetic. Formed in 1979 by Alec Bathgate and Chris Knox, the DIY Dunedinite duo issued a run of amazing EPs throughout the '80s. Recorded on Knox's four-track, the pair paraded charismatic songs knocked out on guitar, organ, and anything approximating a percussion instrument. Compiling their first four EPs —1981's Three Songs, 1982's Louis Likes His Daily Dip, 1983's Canned Music, and 1984's Slugbucket Hairybreath Monster— Hello Cruel World serves as the perfect primer to an act who went a long way to defining the incipient lo-fi spirit.
After being callously cut from Dinosaur Jr
in 1989, Lou Barlow set about authoring a tangled-up discography both by his own name, and under two confusing, seemingly-interchangeable handles: Sebadoh and Sentridoh. Laying out his varying social neuroses in often confessional songs, Barlow dubbed his man-on-his-lonesome aesthetic, with much self-mockingness, 'losercore.' Swiftly issuing a slew of cassettes filled with short, fragmentary, roughly-recorded songs, Barlow earned a reputation as lo-fi's bruised poet. By his third Sebadoh album, 1991's literally-titled III
, Barlow came of age: this schizophrenic set of sweet-and-sour songs, captured at home on a four-track, becoming one of the defining indie records of the early '90s.
took slackerdom to the masses with their generation-defining debut album, 1992's Slanted and Enchanted
, they recorded a series of singles in ultra-low-fidelity for the ever-perverse label Drag City. Openly evoking infamous UK noiseniks The Fall, the early Pavement sides sounded like a band teetering on the brink of collapse; the on-the-cheap analogue recordings being blithely battered by the snaky, snarky guitars of Stephen Malkmus and Spiral Stairs. Collated into one compact-disc after Pavement hit popularity, the songs on Westing (By Musket and Sextant)
show a band finding their feet, nailing down a particular brand of off-kilter strangeness that'd, quite strangely, eventually make them incredibly famous.
had found fortune with Pavement
, they had the latest latest lo-fi phenomenon —Dayton, Ohio's Guided by Voices— fall into their distributorial laps. Quickly cranking out an array of hand-made, home-recorded albums, beer-guzzling Elementary School teacher Bob Pollard attracted, at first, a tiny cult following, before GBV devotees soon grew into an army of breathless followers. Rewriting classic British Invasion riffs, Pollard and pals rocked out with an unchecked exuberance, their songs alive with the simple joys of being in a band. Bee Thousand
was his band's big breakthrough, and, in hindsight, it still sounds great: its 20-songs-in-36-minutes fast, fuzzy, and fun.
John Darnielle —the genial, verbose, sneeringly-voiced songsmith who's long recorded as the Mountain Goats— was so impossibly prolific throughout the '90s that he never really issued that one 'definitive' album, his constant output not allowing enough time for a consensus sentiment to rally around any single record. Picking a prized Mountain Goats album is a personal choice, then; and far-and-away my favorite is Full Force Galesburg
. Collaborating with two other lo-fi heroes, Kiwi icon Alastair Galbraith and Nothing Painted Blue songsmith Peter Hughes, and recording direct to a Panasonic RX-FT500 boom box, Darnielle presided over a set of raggedly beautiful songs, highlighted by the amazing “Maize Stalk Drinking Blood.”
Sub Pop Records
Raucous Portland racket The Thermals are a true lo-fi band. Alongside his longtime love Kathy Foster, songsmith Hutch Harris has long kept the old tape-hiss flame alive: previous projects Urban Legends and Hutch & Kathy owing obvious artistic debts to Guided by Voices and the Mountain Goats, respectively. Wanting to “go back to [their] punk-rock youth,” Harris and Foster formed The Thermals in 2002, and rolled tape on a set of exuberant, in-the-red, overdriven pop-songs played loud and fast. Snapped up by Sub Pop, these in-the-basement recordings were released, straight-up, as their debut album; More Parts Per Million a blistering set of 13 songs knocked out in 28 minutes.
Los Angelino tape-recording alchemist Ariel Pink sounds like super-8 film looks: scratchy, dusty, strangely otherworldly. His songs are so lost in a lo-fi eight-track fug that magnetic tape is the most important instrument. Making lurid recreations of anthemic '80s-rock by a slow, unskilled, layer-by-layer approach, Rosenberg creates cuts that bury pop hooks deep under a dark pall of tape-hiss, sounding like excavated, well-worn, home-recorded remnants from a quarter of a century prior. The release of his Haunted Graffiti series by Animal Collective's Paw Tracks label introduced Ariel Pink as a genuine outsider artist, but recent years have found a slew of impressive artists, from Here We Go Magic to Toro y Moi, claiming him as influence.
In the original lo-fi explosion of the '90s, the clear sign that the movement had gone overground was when Guided by Voices were signed by Matador Records. In a classic case of history repeating, something eerily similar went down when lo-fi was back in vogue circa the late-'00s, and scrappy, scuzzy noise-poppers Times New Viking were inked to Matador. After single-handedly bringing cult noise label Siltbreeze back from the dead on their first two records, TNV became one of 2008's big breakout bands with their third LP/Matador debut, Rip it Off. Rolling tape with levels pushed way into the red, their overdriven, ultra-distorted, washed-out recordings areso saturated the songs sound like they're buried under a snowstorm of radio static.