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Everyone Has A Steve Albini Album

Steve Albini performs with his band Shellac at the FYF Fest in Los Angeles in 2016.
Scott Dudelson/WireImage

At some point yesterday evening, after the news of Steve Albini's death late Tuesday at the age of 61, I started pulling records and CDs off their shelves in my home, looking for his fingerprints. I knew the big ones that Albini had recorded and engineered off the top of my head, and didn't need to check those; I know that he played guitar and sang in Shellac, so I left those alone, too. The work that made Albini as famous as an uncompromising, frequently abrasive Chicagoland audio engineer could be really is great, but also I am something much more than familiar with all that; in one way or another, I have been listening to the music that he shaped and sharpened for as long as I can remember choosing the music I've listened to.

But I wanted to check my suspicion that Albini had contributed in some way or other to even more than the stuff I knew about. This wasn't a scientific process, although some of my record collection is I guess still alphabetized, but it confirmed enough. He was, as I expected, absolutely everywhere. There was Albini getting special thanks on a 2001 record by The Shipping News, or receiving a "recorded with Steve Albini" credit on Silkworm's 2006 Chokes! EP; on that one, Albini's longtime partner, Heather Whinna, gets the Produced By credit that Albini himself generally disdained. He is the credited engineer on My Father My King, a 20-minute Mogwai EP from 2001 based on the Jewish prayer Avinu Malkeinu, and he engineered a self-titled Ty Segall record from 2016 that I had no inkling he had anything to do with. I would describe the credit in the 1995 Rachel's album Handwriting, that identifies some songs as having been recorded "at our friend Steve's house in Chicago," as inconclusive.

That Albini was everywhere in the music I loved most was not quite a surprise; the degree to which his presence was both unmistakable and underplayed was by design. "Steve identifies as an 'engineer,' but that’s as much a reflection of his modesty as anything," Bedhead's Matt Kadane told The Numero Group's website back in 2018. "The way that he designed his studio, the mics he chooses, the techniques he uses—all these things have contributed to the 'Steve Albini sound,' and we strove for that sound long before we recorded with him." (Albini isn't credited at all on Transaction De Novo, the album Bedhead recorded at his studio Electrical Audio. It just says "recorded in Chicago.")

Albini had his own prickly reasons to decline the title of producer, and "engineer" really was by all accounts more true to the way that he approached the work that he did for such an impossibly diverse collection of musicians. The strength and singularity of what Albini rejected—you can read this scathing 1993 essay in The Baffler to get a sense of the shape that took in his industry, and at that time—was central to his public persona. At the time, this rejection—of not just the usual market cynicisms and its attendant compromises but of every norm and nicety—was something like the outer boundary of oppositional self-definition in the culture; a lot of people in his generation never found any values they believed in more than a sort of blanket defiance in the face of every perceived authority, and it has taken them in some shameful directions.

Albini seemed sincerely contrite about some of his cruel and stupid provocations from this period, not because he had become any less defiant but because that defiance reoriented around some real and robust values—things he believed in more and more urgently than the continued performance of an increasingly abstracted defiance. That sort of principle, especially when it is as grounded in humanity and work as Albini's was, tends to keep a person in the opposition anyway. He didn't get any less punk for being less of an asshole, and anyway he never seemed to worry about it. He hated snobs and users and bullies and bosses, and so he lived in a way that made sure he never became one. This didn't mean that he was always or even often nice, but it did keep him and his work authentic. "You hated our band and made fun of us while we were recording at your studio," the band Fucked Up posted after Albini's death. "But you stood for something honest and fair in music and tried to make it a better place in everything you did."

That talent and that honesty drew artists to Albini, and made sure that he wound up everywhere and stayed there, through the music he made and engineered and in the music that other people made to sound like his, and also in a certain idea about the dignity and purpose of labor. "I’ve always tried to see everything as a process," he told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2021. "I want to do things in a certain way that I can be proud of, that is sustainable and is fair and equitable to everybody that I interact with. If I can do that, then that’s a success, and success means that I get to do it again tomorrow." Start there, and mean it, and the work you do will matter simply for those reasons. It might also go a very long way, in large part because of how unencumbered it is by other considerations.

It will, at the very least, wind up in a lot of people's lives, and record collections. In talking about Albini at work yesterday, I was struck by the fact that seemingly everyone I worked with had one or more Albini records that meant something to them, and that those records were so different. His work found different people at different times, and hit them in different places, but it stuck. Here are some Defector staffers on their favorite Albini albums:

Nirvana — In Utero

In 1993, Nirvana was the biggest band in America and gearing up to release a highly anticipated third album, which would become In Utero. To record this album, Kurt Cobain wanted to work with Steve Albini, who had become an indie favorite producer after his work on The Pixies' Surfer Rosa, The Breeders' POD, and PJ Harvey's Rid Of Me. The thought process behind the decision, many speculated, was that Cobain was so embarrassed by the shiny studio production of Nevermind that he went the opposite way for In Utero, getting a guy who was known for recording a rawer, more DIY sound. How true this is was disputed by the band and Albini himself. Albini has said that Cobain wanted the album to sound a particular way: a lot of first takes, a lot of one-time play-throughs, a lot of purposeful harshness and distortion with the guitars. A feeling of an album being played live in an empty room. Efficient and sparse and “real.” The sound a band hears in their head. All things that Albini excelled at bringing out in a mix.

Having Albini as the engineer was also a capital-S statement by the aforementioned biggest band in the world, even if he wasn’t exactly a household name. It was a signal that the band wasn’t about to wholly embrace superstardom or attempt to make “Smells Like Teen Spirit 2.” And in retrospect that decision feels like the closest we ever got to an impenetrable band and a forever unknowable lead singer. I especially like that roomy effect on “Scentless Apprentice,” where it feels like Cobain is right next to you, screaming on a store mic. Back when things like "not selling out" and "punk vs. mainstream" were actual ideas people were invested in, this felt like a bit of virtue signaling—a message that this band wanted to remain punk, or at least wanted to be viewed that way. Much to the chagrin of their label and management, even. That’s the thing I think speaks for Albini the most, that through his work and his ethos he had found a way to embody the punk sound so fully that it became the Albini Sound. Of course, he would’ve hated that anyone would call it that. — Israel Daramola

Guided By Voices — A Green Cassette Of Outtakes From The Recording Of Under The Bushes Under The Stars

In the mid-1990s, I got obsessed with Guided by Voices, an indie band that came out of nowhere (Dayton, Ohio) and became kings of the so-called lo-fi movement. I’d never heard anything like this before. Me and my buddies made everybody around us listen to GbV and listen to us talk about GbV. We made pilgrimages to nowhere (Dayton, Ohio) just to be near them. We bullied our way into GbV’s inner circle, and pretty soon we were so inside that we were getting lots and lots of unreleased recordings made in frontman Robert Pollard’s basement. We’d been to his basement. This was cool.

The bootleg acquisition era peaked in late 1995 when I got a green cassette with no writing on it that had several tracks allegedly from GbV’s sessions with Steve Albini. He, too, was cool. When his band Big Black's Songs About Fucking came out years earlier, I was pretty new to working at Washington City Paper, the only newspaper in town that would print the album’s title. That was cool. Me and my buddies wondered how Pollard coming out of the basement to work with the Nirvana guy would impact our insider status. But that tape was magic.

Alas, their partnership didn’t last beyond the cassette. Pollard didn’t love the session’s results and took the recordings back to the basement and replaced Albini’s noise with his noise. But like all good GbV, the hooks were strong enough to survive any production. When I heard of Albini’s death, I went and looked up his GbV tracks online. Man, they took me back about 30 years to that green unmarked cassette. My favorite cut was a tune that I learned years after I first heard it was titled “He’s the Uncle.” The song was never included on a standard album, far as I know. But it’s perfect GbV: short as hell, noisy as hell, melodic as hell. The song hits me where I live, what with Pollard ending yet another golden chorus by crooning, “I am getting old, aren’t I?” — Dave McKenna

Cloud Nothings — Attack On Memory

Many things, from driving through the Rocky Mountains to reading Barry blogs, remind me that I’m a rounding error. I’m mostly grateful for this—the sense that nothing I do really matters can be liberating in the course of day-to-day life, provided I don’t think about it too hard.

In stark contrast, Steve Albini’s life and work make me feel that the world is small and mutable. He improbably unites a handful of disparate threads about which I care deeply: He recorded albums by Slint and Low; he wrote goofy lyrics I recite while birding; he recorded a theme song for a FanGraphs podcast; he reposted Defector blogs. He also modeled how one might humbly take accountability for and improve upon their boneheaded past.

Albini does not strike me as someone who kept an updated CV. If he did, I doubt that his work on Cloud Nothings’ 2012 record Attack on Memory would’ve cracked that document’s first couple of pages. However, I’m pretty sure that Albini’s production credit on the album is the first time I became aware of him, and I’m dead certain that Attack on Memory changed my life.

That album taught this teenage chillwave-liker and MP3 blog-reader how to listen to bilious, dissonant roughage. It built a bridge back to sacred texts (Wipers, Husker Du, Archers of Loaf, and Max Roach) and offered a foothold for deciphering new ones (Iceage, Protomartyr, Cloakroom, and drone). I started running basically right when the album came out; “Stay Useless” sounds like the shadeless, half-mile pond loop near my parents’ house, and the depths of “Wasted Days” taste like the metallic air of Marietta, Ohio.

I have no idea how different the album might have sounded under the stewardship of, say, Bob Weston. On one hand, the Cloud Nothings releases which sandwich Attack on Memory weren’t produced by Albini and sound substantially different—ramshackle and lo-fi before, polished to a claustrophobic jet-black after. On the other hand, quotes from Dylan Baldi about the recording session (“Albini played Scrabble on Facebook almost the entire time”) and the robustness of the songs being ripped through live at +15 BPM suggest that it would have been just fine.

I’m content to never find out, because the album’s sound has grown into my gold standard for guitar music. The mix is neutral, muscular, and democratic. The bass is loud and percussive, alternately fuzzy and nasty, but never bottoms out. I hear the flexion and snap in the snare fills played by Jayson Gerycz and his combo guard’s wingspan. Other albums have more sumptuous and totalizing guitar tones, but Attack’s feel honest and plainspoken. As you’d expect from Albini, production flourishes are scant; this makes the echoing Greg Sage “Woo!” at 1:17 in the album’s homage to “Youth of America” hit insanely hard. It’s all perfect; I wouldn’t change a thing. — Sean Kuhn

Bush — Razorblade Suitcase

Steve Albini didn’t work regularly with a lot of bands I like, and a lot of bands I like worked with Steve Albini only on their worst albums. And Bush’s Razorblade Suitcase is not a very good album—in point of fact it is the last grunge record, at least until Generation Gamma brings it back as a nostalgia act in 2048—but goddamn did Steve Albini know what a guitar should sound like.

Albini was the master of making a record sound massive. I don’t really have the musical vocabulary or knowledge to explain it but his drums pummel, his bass booms, and his guitars, oh those guitars, they are sloppy and angular and pure and penetrating and you feel them in your guts, not just your ears. Albini said he worked harder on Razorblade Suitcase than on any previous album, and that was spun by Spin as a good thing, but knowing what we know about what an all-time crank he was, I’m certain he meant that as a putdown: This album sucks but at least I’m gonna make it sound good. — Barry Petchesky

PJ Harvey — Rid Of Me

What can I say that hasn't already been said about PJ Harvey's Rid of Me? It rests easily and by broad consensus among the albums that defined the 1990s. It personified grunge and punk and anti-establishment ennui. It's a regular on all sorts of best-of lists and honors. It snarled. It's strange, saucy, and fun in the way a lot of albums were before autotune did for music what AI will do for writing. 

Harvey threw down the singer-songwriter genius gauntlet as strongly as any artist could—titling one song "Highway '61 Revisited," or move over Dylan—and nobody questioned it. A song earlier, Harvey took the Phil Spector Wall of Sound and perverted its grandiosity, dragging those strings back down to earth as they bemoaned "coming up man-sized." Harvey ingested the entire rock and pop canon and sneered right back out, unimpressed by their elders' efforts. 

What credit does Albini deserve for this? I'll answer in his own words, from an oral history of Rid of Me: "I reject the notion that I have very much responsibility for the ultimate success or failure of a record. I’ve worked on a lot of great records and I’ve worked on a lot of shitty records, and from my perspective, the work is equally demanding and equally satisfying on a terrible record as it is on a great record. The difference is the people making the music had a great record in them when they were doing the great record. And PJ Harvey had a great record in them when they did Rid of Me. I haven’t done any sort of Pepsi Challenge with other records of the era, but it’s hard for me to think of a better record that came out during that period." — Diana Moskovitz

Shellac — Dude Incredible

I don't have the power to fully contextualize Dude Incredible within the Albiniverse, though I do know what it sounds like when a guitar sounds perfect, which is pretty much all you need to like this record. It's kind of shocking how great three musicians can be when they are all pulling in exactly the same direction, not channelling the same influences or going for the same broad outline, but totally synced up with each other, dedicated to weaving these little textural moments where drum, bass, and mostly guitar are all in line. The genius of this album, too, is that it doesn't sound rigid or formal—how could you characterize any record with "You Came In Me" as formal?—and it's tinged with menace and playfulness without ever fully becoming menacing or playful.

If I am remembering correctly, 2014 was a rough year for music. The best FKA Twigs album, the first great Perfume Genius record, the last great Caribou project, and the best Parquet Courts album all dropped, though looking back at the 2014 Pitchfork best-of is somewhat shocking. I am definitely remembering correctly that 2014, for me personally, also "sucked big-time," and I remember listening to Dude Incredible through a bunch of the hardest months of my life. It's absolutely not reassuring and only sort of makes sense in the context that I wanted to be bowled over by something, and it did that. I can look back now and think There go the surveyors. — Patrick Redford

Songs: Ohia — Magnolia Electric Co.

The first album I listened to after hearing that Steve Albini died was Magnolia Electric Co. Recorded at Albini's studio in Chicago, it's an album that admirably carries the weight of its mythology. Jason Molina, who drank himself to death at the age of 39, brought a small army of musicians to Albini's studio, and over the course of a few days they created a gorgeous record that is just as haunting as you'd expect one made by a genius who was actively drinking himself to death to be. Molina would later say in an interview that the first and most famous track on the album, "Farewell Transmission," was recorded in one take and largely improvised. The 12 musicians in the room were apparently told the chord progression and nothing else before the recording light went on, and Albini was said to have been opening and closing a door in the studio as they were playing, in order to get the volume just right. (For what it's worth, Albini would later say that Molina was a bit of a bullshitter.)

I don't know enough about the intricacies of music recording and sound engineering to explain how Albini and Molina got this record to sound like it does (feel free to closely inspect this image and nod sagely if you do), but I know how it makes me feel. Records that have Albini's fingerprints on them tend to have a timeless, transporting quality. I get a few seconds into Surfer Rosa, and I can feel it reaching out to tear a hole in the universe, beckoning me to follow it to a place I've never been before. Magnolia Electric Co. has something like an opposite, but no less powerful, effect.

When I listen to this record it feels like Molina and his players have crawled into my head. Listening to the album yesterday, a digitally compressed version blaring meekly through my shitty airpods, I was stopped in my tracks. The full texture and vibration of Molina's vocals, nurtured to absolute strength by every pluck of the guitar and kick of the drum, filled my head until there was nothing else in it. By the time the slow, groaning strings of "The Big Game Is Every Night" were dragging across my brain, I couldn't do anything but sit at my desk and put my forehead in my hand. It's hard to imagine music being made any better than this. — Tom Ley

Pixies — Surfer Rosa

I've mentioned before that in high school my north star for musical taste was Kurt Cobain, and like any self-respecting teenager I believed with absolute conviction that my music collection was definitive and unassailable. Naturally, my personality included both a love for the Pixies' Surfer Rosa and a deference to Steve Albini as a beacon of integrity. So it was a very stressful day when a friend informed me that Albini didn't like the Pixies—in fact, had called them "an average college rock band." (The actual quote is worse: "a band who at their top dollar best are blandly entertaining college rock ... never have I seen four cows more anxious to be led around by their nose rings.")

How could this be? The Pixies were undeniable music royalty. And yet Steve Albini could never be wrong. I grappled with this contradiction and eventually had to settle it in a corner of my mind as one of the mysteries that motivate all great faiths. Later, I'd learn that taste in art is mysterious and subjective, agreement isn't a virtue, and it's fine to want to argue with a sage. After a long time, I eventually realized the big one: Nobody's ever finished.

Today, I can say I enjoy a lot of stuff that Albini despised. I only truly appreciated a fraction of what he helped create. But like anyone with a brain, Albini's ethics, honesty, and talent both as a musician and a writer commanded my attention and my serious consideration. Nobody is correct 100 percent of the time. But if you've got good principles and you stick to them, you can always be right. — Lauren Theisen

Joanna Newsom — Ys.

When recording her gossamer masterwork, Ys., Joanna Newsom sang and played harp in a tiny candle-lit room next to a man best loved for his way with gut-wrenching guitar noise. She has discussed the difficulty of getting her recordings to feel like they’re coming from the same emotional place where the songs were first written; Steve Albini’s methods did the trick.

“There's something about the way Steve recorded me and the environment in which it was done, there was a sense of closeness and spontaneity, and I felt extremely emotionally on edge,” she said. Albini had never before worked with harp as a primary instrument, and he seemed to relish the challenge of recording an artist who played the harp not like a harp but rather in a “piano idiom.” I can hear the tinkerer’s delight in his voice as he describes his experiments: lining up mics right next to the strings to catch the plucking sounds, blending those with a mic set at a more traditional distance from the instrument, plus an ambient mic, too. As much as Albini’s grimmer visions have bent the arc of my tastes towards noise and post-hardcore, it’s the quiet on this record that I savor above all. We’re invited into the intimacy of those five songs, the clearing in a meadow where Newsom could build her worlds, where stones could be piled and creepers could climb. Or, to put it as only Albini would: “I gotta say, she tore ass on that one.” — Giri Nathan

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