Post-rock progressed in a manner reminiscent of many genres: an adventurous spirit shared by a handful of disparate acts eventually growing into a specific sound rife with rules. Amongst all the rec-room crews of quiet-to-loud dudes too scared to sing, there were, however, lots of genuine renegades reworking rock'n'roll's familiar forms; lots of refined aesthetes creating albums artful in their artiness. And they produced plenty of records that, long after the post-rock movement fizzled out, still possess the capacity to inspire. Here, then, are the defining works of the genre: post-rock's ten premier platters.
It'd be a misuse of language to call Spiderland the LP that 'kick-started' the post-rock movement. Sure, it went on to become post-rock's bedrock, but its influence was hardly immediate; in fact, back in '91, it was barely even noticed. Instead, the legacy of Slint's second album was like the music on it: slow, steady, barely perceptible, ultimately legendary. The quartet from Louisville took the quiet-to-loud shifts The Pixies had popularized and polarized them; pushing them to cavernous extremes in which mumbling, barely-there silence exploded into torrents of sheer discordance. Only adding to its myth: by the time Spiderland was released, Slint had already broken up; leaving the music on it to speak on their behalf, for decades to come.
After beginning life as a B-grade Duran Duran, all Roxy Music synths and blow-waved hair, English outfit Talk Talk undertook a peculiar evolution over their decade together; a journey comparable, even, to the strange life of that icon of the strange, Scott Walker. Laughing Stock, Talk Talk's fifth and final album, drew from art-rock and prog-rock in its long-form ways; all nine-minute songs exploring 'soulful' sound and intellectualist ideas at length. But, in its most spartan moments, the LP headed into new terrorities of sound; assembling atmospheric compositions in which deftly-played parts seemed more like suggestions-of-songs than songs themselves, before exploding into bursts of smashed drums and distorted guitars. Sound familiar?
A crew of Chicago scenesters who'd done time in scores of hardcore bands, Tortoise used their budding project as a place to push the parameters of sound, building compositions out of bass, percussion, studio cut-ups, and experimental electronics. With its washes of guitar (courtesy of Dave Pajo, one-time Slint member, future Aerial M/Papa M mastermind), glinting flashes of vibraphone, and aquatic bass pulse, the second Tortoise LP charted a set of seatide grooves that openly summoned grandeur: opener "Djed" 21 minutes of deep audio exploration. In such oceanic splendor, Millions Now Living Will Never Die put post-rock on the map, kick-started Thrill Jockey into a powerhouse label, and set Tortoise on the path to two decades of jamming.
One of the more disappointing developments in post-rock was the proliferation of socially-awkward dudes endlessly, friendlessly noodling away on solo guitar and loop-pedal. Their hero was Dave Pajo, post-rock royalty —he was a member of Slint, and did a stint in Tortoise that coincided with Millions Now Living Will Never Die— who started recording solo as M, then Aerial M, then Papa M. His first on-his-own LP, Aerial M minted a sound that would be echoed by so many: constructing compositions of repetitious guitar patterns and dappled harmonics that sustained single, tonal moods. Pajo would take Papa M into bigger, bolder, more varied realms —hell, he'd even start singing— but no future PM LPs were quite as influential as his debut.
If post-rock could be boiled down to a single idea —first you play really quiet, then you play really loud— then Mogwai were, at least on their debut LP, the movement's ultimate essentialists. The young Scottish quintet milked that sense of tension/release again and again on Mogwai Young Team; the 12-minute "King Herod" lurching from tastefully tuneful to headbangingly brutal and back, again and again. A couple of key collaborations with Arab Strap wordsmith/drunk Aidan Moffat —on the eerie "Tracy" and the piano balladic "R U Still In 2 It"— suggested the more complex, evocative beast Mogwai would grow into on 1999's Come On Die Young, but for the most part Mogwai Young Team is staggering in its blockheaded simplicity.
If many early post-rockers were categorized by their humility, Icelandic soundtrackists Sigur Rós were the band who dragged the genre into outright theatricality. Taking the sound's grandeur and amplifying it to stadium-sized excess, the combo created a syrupy, kitschy, cartoonish orchestral-rock concoction that seemed a lot like post-rock-goes-pop; a notion all but confirmed by their staggering sales figures. Sigur Rós' tinkling-fairy-lights-in-the-elfin-forest shtick was defined by the near-castrato range of their helium-voiced frontman, Jónsi Birgisson, which sounded out distended vowels in his own made-up language, Hopelandic. Powered by such, Ágætis Byrjun became a kind of musical Tolkeinism: offering fantasy-escape for millions.
Québécois co-op Godspeed You! Black Emperor grew to become, in many ways, the defining post-rock act. After kicking out some righteous jams on 1999's noisy Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada, the outfit stretched out on this 87-minute double-album; exploring their musical take on architectural psychology —an exploration of the way sound moves through space— with a sense of reserve that makes the album immersive. Where other Godspeed! records leapt from crescendo to crescendo, fueled by white-hot, politicized rage, here there's a sense aching sadness, each frayed guitar, ghostly field recording, and weeping wail of violin evoking the spectral sadness of disused urban spaces. It all amounts to one of the best albums of the 2000s.
When they were cutting their teeth in the early-'00s, Texan quartet Explosions in the Sky were a band of obvious post-rock fans; one would bet, for certain, that they had all of the above albums on this list. It was initially embarrassing —they were hopelessly derivative of Mogwai, and their approach to song and album titling shamelessly aped Godspeed!— but, as time progressed, and post-rock fell out of favor, there came to be something charming in their devotion to a dying sound. Growing more confident with their increasing prominence (courtesy of their soundtrack to the football film Friday Night Lights), by All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone EITS were their own beast; finally delivering a dynamic, cathartic, compelling album all their own.