Indie Rock Song of the Day

Song of the Day (Movie Soundtracks): Grandaddy – A.M. 180

Day 5. This incredible slice of Fuzzy, synth-led Indie Pop wasn’t actually written for a movie soundtrack, but it did appear on Danny Boyle‘s brutal zombie thriller 28 Days Later. My love of Grandaddy is well documented so, as you can imagine, I was extremely excited to hear this song when I watched the movie for the first time.

You may remember, a short while ago, this same song was in fact Song of the Day for the Covers series. The excellent new version by PUP.

Don’t change your name
Keep it the same
For fear I may lose you again
I know you won’t
It’s just that I am unorganized
And I want to find you when
Something good happens

If you come down
We’ll go to town
I haven’t been there for years
But I’d be fine
Wasting our time
Not doing anything here
Just doing nothing

We’ll sit for days
And talk about things
Important to us like whatever
We’ll defuse bombs
Walk marathons
And take home whatever together

Whatever together
Whatever together
Whatever together
Whatever together
Whatever together

Looking for some great music? Why not check out the Song of the Day (Movie Soundtracks) Spotify playlist?

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Indie Rock Music

Grandaddy – The Sophtware Slump Celebrating the 20th Anniversary of a modern classic

I tend to get overexcited & hyperbolic when I’m writing about bands & albums that I love. I expect my readers to cotton on to this & adjust the way they think about my reviews accordingly. There are a few albums though, which I don’t think I could get hyperbolic enough about. Albums which are so important to me, my taste in music & my outlook on life, that I can barely even conjure the words I want to sya about them. The Sophtware Slump by Grandaddy, to me, is one such album. It’s definitely a top 5 album for me & maybe even a top 3.

It’s hard to believe that for 20 years now, that humanoid robot, Jed, has been a part of my life. The heartbreaking story of his alienation, depression, alcoholism & death, a mere subplot on the massively ambitious concept album The Sophtware Slump, has haunted my own creative output since then. Interestingly, Futurama’s alcoholic robot, Bender, debuted on our screens the same year that Grandaddy were locked in the studio, working away at their magnum opus. It’s impossible to not wonder if the early Fururama episodes were an influence on Jed. Obviously Bender & Jed are not, aside from the alcoholism, similar. Bender is brash & arrogant. He drinks because he has to to survive. In the canon of Fururama, robots must maintain a certain level of alcohol. When Bender is deprived of alcohol, he starts to act like a drunk human & grows a five-o-clock shadow made from rust. This is a stark contrast to the tragic tale of Jed. Jed was created by a loving group of scientists. His tale is told, in the mournful Jed The Humanoid, posthumously. The scientists tell us how proud they were of Jed. They looked on him like a child. Over the years though, they had begun to pay less attention to him & neglected him. They had new inventions. He turns to drink & the drink kills him. “Shocked & broken, shut down exploding”. I picture his electronic components fizzing & melting as the alcohol corrodes them. There is a strong sense of guilt that Jed “found our booze”.

Jed resurfaces on the wonderful Jed’s Other Poem (Beautiful Ground). The introduction explains how after his death, the scientists found some poems, written by Jed. “Perhaps I’ll show them, here’s one of Jed’s poems”, singer Jason Lytle sings before launching into the song proper. The song, in universe, was written by Jed & is one of my favourite Grandaddy songs. Pumping synths & lush, simple chord structures underpin Jed’s melancholic verse.

You said I’d wake up dead drunk
Alone in the park
I called you a liar
But how right you were

Air conditioned TV land, 20 grand
Walk to the bank
With shakes from the night before
Staring at the tiki floor

High school wedding ring
Keys are under the mats
Of all the houses here
But not the motels

I try to sing it funny like Beck
But it’s bringing me down
Lower than ground
Beautiful ground

I love that Jed was aware of Beck. Possibly a fan since he writes about imitating his vocal style. Another strange parallel with Futurama. In the season 3 episode, Bending In The Wind, Bender actually meets Beck & ends up performing in his band, playing washboard.

Beck & Bender, Futurama, Bending In The Wind

The song ends mournfully with a verse from the scientists again. This is something that you’d expect to find inscribed on Jed’s gravestone. If Robots were given burials.

Test tones and

Failed clones and

Odd parts made you

I seem to have spent way more time on the Jed subplot than I originally intended. Even beginning with it was an unusual & inexplicable step to take. Why did I do that?

The main plot of The Sophtware Slump is a kind of technological apocalypse story, equal parts influenced by the Y2K Millennium Bug, which dominated late ’90’s news broadcasts, & Radiohead’s ’97 ode to pre-millennial alienation through technology, OK Computer. Grandaddy frontman Jason Lytle has said in interviews that there would have been no The Sophtware Slump without OK Computer. There’s a palpable unease about the systems which were, even in ’99, starting to take over our lives. This sense of unease, in both albums, was artfully rendered by imbuing their Indie Rock sounds with elements from forward looking & futuristic electronic music & Hip Hop. Radiohead filled OK Computer with digital soundscapes, analogue effects (funny how vintage analogue equipment still helps to give music a futuristic feel) & even vocal synthesis. Grandaddy, by contrast, play melancholic, country-tinged Indie Rock but with a strong emphasis on synthesisers (or synthesizers, as they’re an American Band). I read a comment on a Facebook post once which described them as how the commenter wished Neil Young sounded in the ’80’s. When participating in a game where you had to describe your favourite band, but badly, I described Grandaddy as “Sad & bleepy. Not Radiohead”. Nobody got it.

Opening track, He’s Simple, He’s Dumb, He’s The Pilot, is a soaring ballad of softly strummed acoustic guitars which morphs over 8 minutes into bleeping & fizzing Space Rock. It’s lyrics convey a sense of having no control over your life. & the horror of realising that the people who are supposed to be in charge, supposed to be responsible for us, are too completely out of control. In my opinion, it satirises the attitudes of authorities to the Y2K Millennium m Bug. The panic of Y2K spread throughout society & we watched on in despair as even our leaders didn’t know how to deal with it. Or if it would even be a problem. There are two schools of thought about this in the present. Obviously Y2K wasn’t a problem in the end. Many authority figures put this down to the huge amounts of money that were poured into combatting it.

After the melancholic fade out of the opening track, we end up in more Pop orientated territory with Hewlett’s Daughter. This is scene setting for the post-collapse society we live in. I’ve always assumed the name Hewlett was a reference to the technology firm, Hewlett Packard, but I may be wrong. The song unfolds a story about Hewlett’s “stolen guns” & describes the wreckage of the world. “High above the wrecks on ice shelfs and glaciers” & “where sofas float on roads”.

After Jed The Humanoid (see above) we stay in the upbeat Pop territory with the sublime The Crystal Lake. The Crystal Lake is one of my favourite singles of all time & has a wonderful video too. The juxtaposition between the fairly straightforward Indie Pop & the arpeggiated, bleeping synth patterns creates is atmospheric indeed. Lyrically, The Crystal Lake, feels to me to be the regrets of one who has gone too far from where they want to be. Almost like floating downstream & getting further & further from safety. There’s a luddite sensibility to The Crystal Lake which also seems to address the encroachment on nature of the modern world. The video shows this conflict in reverse, with country, outdoors types wandering in awe & terror around a modern city.

Chartsengrafs follows this conflict with the closest Grandaddy ever get to Alternative Rock (except for the glorious Levitz). Simple synth leads clash against power chords & the lyrics deal with the despair of leaving behind fun for more mathematic or science-based pursuits. I’m uncertain whether Lytle personally feels that way. He’s always come across as a proud exponent of “Geek Culture” to me.

Underneath The Weeping Willow is a gentle ballad of piano chords & arpeggiated synth notes. It feels like a refuge from modernity in nature & I suspect that it is supposed to represent the calm before the storm. The following track, Broken Household Appliance National Forest is the most on-the-nose track in the main storyline. It has downtempo, atmospheric synth verses which build up into the heavy riffing of the chorus (another rare example of them approaching Alternative Rock. Twice on one album). The lyrics detail nature adapting to the waste of mankind & the discarded technology which was wiped out by the Y2K. I was going to select a couple of lines as examples but they’re all so good, & so essential to the storyline, that I’m just going to reprint the lyrics whole:

Sit on the toaster like a rock
No need to worry about a shock
All of the microwaves are dead
Just like the salamander said
The refrigerators house the frogs
The conduit is the hollow log

Broken household appliance national forest
Air conditioners in the woods
Broken household appliance national forest
Mud and metal mixing good

Meadows resemble showroom floors
Owls fly out of oven doors
Stream banks are lined with vacuum bags
Flowers reside with filthy rags
A family of deer were happy that
The clearing looked like a laundry mat

Broken household appliance national forest
Air conditioners in the woods
Broken household appliance national forest
Mud and metal mixing good

From Broken Household Appliance National Forest we come back to the conclusion of the Jed subplot with Jed’s Other Poem (Beautiful Ground) which I discuss above. This is followed by a short instrumental track, E. Knievel Interlude (The Perils Of Keeping It Real), which serves as a sinisterly atmospheric palate cleanser. It alos has an air of waiting room or elevator music to it, which I think is appropriate to the following track, Miner At The Dial-A-View.

Miner At The Dial-A-View is an older, unused track which Jason Lytle adapted for The Sophtware Slump. He says it’s about a miner on another planet who is able to use the Dial-A-View service to view the places he misses back on Earth. Despite the sci-fi concept, Miner At The Dial-A-View essentially predicts Google Earth or Streetview long before they became a reality. The lyrics convey a sense of alienation, isolation & longing for his old life. Lyrically, it contains some of the most vivid imagery that Jason Lytle has ever created, in my opinion. “Tire tracks on federal roads look like crash-landed crows from the Dial-A-View” is one of those lines that I wish I had written. It’s probably my favourite song on The Sophtware Slump. I love the melancholic vibes & the thin electronic sheen. It ends with a single word, “dream”, echoing off & segueing gloriously into the albums closing track, So You’ll Aim Towards The Sky. A soaring, elegiac pop song which builds & builds into an epic soundscape of twinkling piano notes, synthetic strings & repeated falsetto vocals.

So today, on The Sophtware Slump’s 20th anniversary, give it a listen & just try & bend your head around the fact that this contemporary masterpiece is now two decades old.

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Lists Music

Sophomore Slump? What Sophomore Slump?: 5 albums which defied the “difficult second album syndrome”

Everyone has heard about the “sophomore slump” or “difficult second album syndrome.” Riding high on the success of their debuts (which may have been written over many years) bands go into the studio to record their second albums. They’ve got no songs. “Fuck it”, they think, “we’ll write it in the studio.” This has led to some truly questionable albums over the years. For this post however, I’ll be considering five albums which shattered the convention and were either better received or more commercially successful than their predecessor. To qualify, the album had to be at least equal in quality (in my opinion) to band’s debut. I may prefer the debut, but if I judge the sophomore to be of equal worth then it is up for inclusion.

Nirvana – Nevermind

Let’s get the most obvious example out of the way first. While, I prefer Nirvana’s debut album Bleach, Nevermind is an extremely well written & produced album. In the fickle world of hipsterdom, Nevermind is shunned like a pariah. It is dismissed as “pop music” or “overplayed”. I personally don’t believe these people. I’m sure they actually love it. I mean, who doesn’t enjoy throwing themselves around their kitchen to the chorus of Smells Like Teen Spirit or Lithium. Nevertheless, at the time of release, Nevermind was universally loved by those selfsame hipster-types who shun it now. It was a blast of fresh air in a stale and stagnant mainstream & it’s enormous success (it knocked Michael Jackson’s Thriller off the top of the Billboard Chart!) opened the door to alternative rock music for countless young people. This is where the problems arise, I suspect. Gatekeeping alternative rock fans didn’t want to admit their younger siblings or people who were previously Pop music fans into their exclusive club.

There is also a feeling that the success of Nevermind was based on more on luck than quality. Everyone thought that their favourite alternative Rock band was the one which should have experienced the success. There is a story which Lou Barlow (Dinosaur Jr) tells about how he bumped into his bandmate J Mascis shortly after they had split up & Nevermind had charted. It was not a happy encounter. “I was like totally high and drunk,” says Barlow, “and I was like, ‘They fucking beat you to it! You could have done it, you asshole, we could have fucking done it!’”

Slint – Spiderland

While Slint’s debut long-player, Tweez, is a decent debut, it wasn’t until their second album, the genre-defining Spiderland, that they hit upon an exciting new formula. Where Tweez is heavy, industrialised Post-Punk, reminiscent of a great deal of other bands around the time (Helmet etc.), Spiderland takes slow grooves & hypnotic guitar riffs & molds them into an atmospheric new artform. Many hold Spiderland to be the Year-Zero of the genre which is now referred to as Post-Rock. It’s easy to see too. Without Spiderland’s mesmeric exploration of guitar chords & composition, it’s difficult to imagine a world where bands like Mogwai & Godspeed You! Black Emperor could even exist.

Despite being a relative flop at the time, Spiderland (and to a lesser extent, Tweez) has gone on to achieve a cult status among fans of atmospheric music like Post-Rock & Shoegaze. It’s ponderous rhythms & heavy riffing can even be heard in Nu Metal artists like Deftones & Korn & the slower sections of Post-Hardcore artists like At The Drive-In. Truly significant developments in music which bring us neatly to the next entry.

Mogwai – Come On Die Young

Mogwai, heavily inspired by the instrumental rock music like Spiderland; as well as classical & cinematic music, started in 1995 & are favourably looked upon as a founding band of Post-Rock. Their debut album Young Team was incredibly well loved & received by the Indie music press at the time of release. Itis also incredibly well loved in the Post-Rock community (& even close/adjacent genres like Shoegaze & Alternative Rock). Their sophomore effort, Come On Die Young (often abbreviated to C.O.D.Y.), luckily delivered on all of the promise of Young Team. Mogwai had further refined their sound from their debut. While the quieter sections of the songs were a lot quitter & gentler, the louder more aggressive sections were so much louder & more aggressive. C.O.D.Y. features more sophisticated & imaginative use of samples, like in the opening song Punk Rock: (yes, with a colon), which features a long sample of Iggy Pop being interviewed by CBC host Peter Gzowski in 1977.

Grandaddy – The Sophtware Slump

Jason Lytle & co. followed up their 1997 debut, Under The Western Freeway with one of the most loved Indie Rock albums of the 2000’s. The Sophtware Slump had to appear in this list, it is partially named after the phenomenon of the sophomore slump. I have already written about the Sophtware Slump in this blogpost & I’m currently writing a retrospective for The Sophtware Slump’s 20th anniversary on 29th May (which I intend to publish on that day), so I won’t dwell on it here. Nevertheless, it does deserve to be in this list.

Neutral Milk Hotel – In The Aeroplane Over The Sea

A lo-fi Indie-folk concept album which imagines a world where the singer (Jeff Mangum) imagines himself going back in time & saving Anne Frank from the Nazi’s & bringing her to the present (1998) sounds like the kind of concept that someone might come up with at 3am while suffering from their 3rd or 4th night of insomnia. It seems like an amazing idea in the moment but in the cold light of day, looking at the lyrics you wrote in the dark watches of the night, you wonder what you were even thinking.

This unlikely album, despite barely making a splash when released in 1998, is a cult classic in 2020. Everyone online has an opinion on In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. There are whole communities on social media networks dedicated to it. People satirise it’s distnictive cover art to create all manner of memes. It’s almost become a meme. In fact some of it’s more abstract lyrics are used in/as memes (“semen stains the mountaintops”). You can’t say the same for their debut, 1996’s On Avery Album. Despite being a very good lo-fi Indie Rock album, it just doesn’t seem to have the same broad appeal as its successor.

As you can imagine from its lofty concept, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is a hugely ambitious album, both musically & lyrically & most modern Indie Rock owes it a huge debt on both of these fronts.

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Facebook Challenges Music

10 days/10 albums Facebook challenge

Over on Facebook, a lot of people have been doing a thing where every day for 10 days you post the cover of an album which ‘greatly influenced’ your taste in music. On the Facebook posts, you’re only supposed to post the cover with no explanations or reviews etc. I decided to compile my ten into this blogpost with a little explanation/review of each one.

Day 1: Radiohead – Ok Computer

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Widely cited as one of the greatest albums of the 1990’s, if not all time, OK Computer catapulted Radiohead into The Big Leagues and topped most year-end lists in 1997. Since then it has also topped countless ‘greatest albums’ lists. Before OK Computer was released, I was happily listening to Oasis and Ocean Colour Scene. These were my favourite bands. When I first heard Paranoid Android, lead single from OK Computer, I was blown away. Music could be weird. Music could be creative. Music didn’t have to be boring four-chord, verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus dadrock like Oasis. Guitars, while key to the sound, didn’t have to be the only instrument. Effects were used creatively and experimentally, like the Roland Space Echo on Subterranean Homesick Alien. Live drumming was cut up and rearranged in the studio – inspired by DJ Shadow’s seminal Endtroducing – like on opening space dub rocker Airbag. This opened up worlds of possibility for me. I began seeking out weird and experimental music as a habit. A habit which I retain to this day. And I’ve not really listened to Oasis since.

Day 2: Pavement – Brighten the Corners

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Pavement’s 1997 album Brighten the Corners is not generally considered to be one of their best records. But to me it was the first time I heard what would go on to be one of my favourite bands. I heard Shady Lane a lot on Steve Lamacq’s Evening Session on Radio 1 and John Peel. What attracted me to Pavement was the laid back, stoned vibes of the songs, the gentle effortlessness of the playing (which isn’t nearly as effortless as it first sounds) and the unusual, quirky lyrics – which 14-year-old me didn’t really understand but loved anyway. It’s definitely not my favourite Pavement album, but as the first I heard, it will always hold a special place in my musical tastes.

Day 3: Autechre – Tri Repetae

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The first electronic music album in my list and the first one that truly excited me about the possibilities of electronic music and made me want to produce it myself. The cold, sparse arrangements and the intricate glitches were what initially drew me in, but the warm bass and the solid drum programming and production are what made me stay. Closing track Rsdio is one of my favourite tracks of all time. A 9-minute slow build-up of various repetitive elements which form together into a glorious glitchy groove embedded in an echoey, desolate soundscape. My first copy of Tri Repetae was actually a CD-R which a friend burned for me. After the album ended, he’d added the generative glitchy mess that is Gantz Graf. This noisy electronic classic led me towards weirder, glitchier and more abrasive electronic music.

Day 4: Grandaddy – The Sophtware Slump

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I could, and indeed will, write a lot more about this album than I have space for here. It’s a legitimate masterpiece, in my opinion. Jason Lytle is a ridiculously talented songwriter and the way he blends traditional rock instruments with bleeping atmospheric synths and drum machines is just so unique. And then to use this technique to tell a story about civilisation collapsing due to the Y2K millennium bug (a hot topic at the time) with a sad and beautiful subplot about an artificially intelligent humanoid robot named Jed who writes depressing poetry then drinks himself to death. I cannot recommend this album enough.

Day 5: Belle and Sebastian – The Boy with the Arab Strap

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This is another one that caught me by surprise. I’d read reviews of their music in NME and Melody Maker but thought that they didn’t sound like something I’d enjoy. I saw this album on a listening post (remember them?) in my local Virgin Megastore (remember them?) and gave it a go. The opening of the first track It Could have been a Brilliant Career absolutely hooked me. The melancholic vocal with the lush melody and the cleverly funny lyrics was so good: “He had a stroke at the age of 24, it could have been a brilliant career”. And the songs just kept getting better. This was the birth of my love for what is often described as twee pop, or just twee.

Day 6: At The Drive-In – Relationship of Command

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A definite change of pace here. After the melodic pop sensibilities of Grandaddy and Belle and Sebastian, I had to pick something a bit noisier. Aggro. Relationship of Command is a Post-Hardcore touchstone. The only album more important in the genre is probably Fugazi’s politically and ethically charged Repeater and that is high praise indeed. Relationship of Command is a savage burst of metallic punk noise and swooning melancholic melodies. It even features a cheeky cameo from the godfather of punk himself, Iggy Pop, on Rolodex Propaganda. Lead single One Armed Scissor blew everyone away and for me at least, killed off Nu Metal. Dead.

Day 7: Boards of Canada – Music has the Right to Children

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Music has the Right to Children is a particularly special album. It’s universally recognised as a classic album in pretty much every single music-based Facebook group I’m a member of. It’s loved by hipsters, indie kids, hip hop fans, shoegazers, IDM fans and many more. Your grandparents have probably heard Board of Canada. As well as it’s lush arrangements and top-drawer production, it also introduced me to another concept which I have developed a slight obsession with, Hauntology. I will write a primer to hauntology at some point in the near future, so if you’re not familiar with what it is, don’t worry. Boards of Canada introduced, alongside Mogwai, introduced me to the idea of soundscapes. A common feature in many of my favourite bands.

Day 8: Beastie Boys – Hello Nasty

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My introduction to the Beastie Boys was probably hearing Sabotage and/or Fight for your Right to Party on commercial radio or MTV. I liked them but I didn’t know any of their other music. This was also in the mid ‘90’s before you could investigate a band on Spotify or YouTube if you liked them and my primary source of income was a paper round. When you get paid £12 a week, you need to be damn sure you like the album you’re buying before you buy it. By the time the video for Hello Nasty’s lead single Intergalactic was released, I was already reading NME & Melody Maker regularly as well as watching MTV2 (MTV’s “alternative” offshoot channel) and listening to Radio One’s Evening Session (Steve Lamacq), John Peel’s show and Mary Anne Hobbes’ Breezeblock show. All of these outlets played Intergalactic constantly and I was even able to afford to buy the occasional single. I remember purchasing it on cassette and the B-Side was the wonderful Hail Sagan. As an album I believe it’s the Beastie Boys best kept secret. It’s probably my favourite of their albums (except for maybe Ill Communication) and contains some of their strongest singles. Intergalactic (obviously), Remote Control, Body Movin’, and the sublime Three MC’s And One DJ. A true late ‘90’s heavyweight.

Day 9: Beck – Odelay

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If you boiled the entire ‘90’s in a still then the end result, the distillate, would be Odelay. Beck’s magnum opus is a sprawling sound collage of pop, folk, country, hip-hop, alternative rock, grunge, breakbeat and almost any other genre which you care to think of. Produced by the Dust Brothers, its heavy use of sampling is revolutionary. Especially in the context of an “indie/alternative artist” like Beck. As well as its status as a solid album, Odelay spawned some of the most memorable singles of the ‘90’s; the laidback, line dancing hip-hop funk of Where It’s At; the crunchy post-grunge of Devils Haircut; the mutant lounge pop of The New Pollution and the melancholic psychedelia of Jackass. For a young person today, approaching indie and alternative music for the first time, Odelay is a fantastic primer and could theoretically send you out in any number of directions for further musical explorations.

Day 10: Sonic Youth – Screaming Fields of Sonic Love

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When I first discovered that the central library in my city had a CD and Tape section I felt like a child at Christmas. I took out so many CD’s and copied them to cassette that it would be very hard to argue I didn’t massively abuse the system. The album I remember lending from the library and copying to tape the most is this fantastic Sonic Youth “best of” compilation, Screaming Fields of Sonic Love. This is a collection of tracks from Sonic Youth’s ‘80’s output – up to their masterpiece, Daydream Nation – but it’s sequenced in reverse chronological order. This has the amusing effect of the songs becoming more lo-fi as the album progresses. The album begins with perhaps their most melodic song, Teen Age Riot, and towards the end you find their noisier, no-wave inspired material like Inhuman, Making The Nature Scene and Brother James. I don’t know why it works so well, but it does. And I’ve been hooked on Sonic Youth ever since. This is probably the biggest influence on me in this list except for OK Computer. Sonic Youth gently nudged my attention away from British artists like Radiohead and towards American artists like Nirvana, Pavement, Pixies and Silver Jews. Even the British bands I got into after this were heavily indebted to Sonic Youth for their sound, bands like Idlewild and Urusei Yatsura.

All record cover images in this blogpost courtesy of Discogs

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