Thrill Jockey: 20 Years, 20 Albums

Treble staff
Thrill Jockey Records

Thrill Jockey records, since its launch in 1992, has been synonymous with experimentation, innovation and bold musicians unafraid to take on new frontiers in music. Sometimes that means refining the familiar sounds of indie rock, and sometimes that means breaking through into completely unheard of genres altogether. Throughout the label’s history, numerous artists have offered up albums that have either been groundbreaking, thought-provoking, or just simply great, and on the label’s 20th birthday, we assembled our own selection of 20 favorites from throughout its lengthy catalog.

FreakwaterOld Paint (1995)

Back in the ’90s, seeing a John McEntire production credit on a Thrill Jockey release was pretty much standard practice, though Chicago alt-country group Freakwater sounds very little like McEntire’s post-rock band Tortoise. For that matter, Freakwater sounded very little like the alt-country acts of the mid-`90s, instead opting for a simpler, rustic country-folk sound rooted in the tradition of the Carter Family. Their fourth album Old Paint is gorgeous and straightforward, heartbreaking in the tradition of all the best country. It’s all about death, drinking and heartbreak, and affecting as they come. – JT


MicrostoriaInit Ding (1995)

A side project of Oval’s Markus Popp and Mouse on Mars’ Jan St. Werner, Microstoria is a central meeting place between both artists’ primary projects. While a good portion of the former’s choppy, glitchy technical sabotage informs the sound, much of their work contains the surreal, bloopy sonic variation of the latter. Their debut, Init Ding, maintains a serene facade, but there’s always something odd going on. It’s gentle music by restless personalities, and a near lack of BPMs doesn’t hide the magnetic chaos they create. – JT


Oval94diskont (1996)

German electronic outfit Oval, helmed by prolific producer Markus Popp, initially earned media attention for the unorthodox methods through which their music was made. Largely sample based, much like their peers, Oval didn’t just cut and paste bits of other music, but actually physically damaged it. On the group’s amazing 94diskont, the source material is primarily drawn from CDs that have been scratched, warped, painted and rendered essentially unrecognizable from their original form. The result is a glitchy, twitchy limbo of accidental epiphanies that become increasingly more serene and beautiful as they’re reconstructed. Through their destructive methods, Oval made something elegant out of self-made wreckage. – JT


Eleventh Dream DayEighth (1997)

One of a handful of bands to stick with Thrill Jockey for most of its existence (and most of which hail from the label’s home city of Chicago), Eleventh Dream Day has a history that dates well back to the early ’80s. So, by the time they released Eighth, they had a fair amount of mileage under their belts. It feels like the work of a band whose members are simultaneously comfortable and at ease with the material yet intent on never letting it grow stale. A mixture of dreamy post-rock, abrasive post-punk and Crazy Horse-style folk rock, Eighth contains some of the band’s most layered and gorgeous work (“Writes a Letter Home”), as well as a fair amount of distorted, harder rocking tunes (“Two Smart Cookies”). Never overly complex nor undercooked, here, Eleventh Dream Day display a proper model for indie rock progression. – JT


Isotope 217The Unstable Molecule (1997)

The influence of jazz has always loomed large in Chicago post-rock circles, but never has it been so explicit as on the debut of Isotope 217, a collaborative effort between cornetist Rob Mazurek and members of Tortoise. The Unstable Molecule finds the blurry horizon where Tortoise merges into Miles Davis’ electric period, which proves to be the best kind of ambiguity. “Kryptonite Smokes The Red Line” comes off a bit like Bitches Brew if it leaned heavier on hard bop, “Beneath the Undertow” welcomes in some funkier beats and basslines, and “La Jetee” makes for the best kind of chill out session. – JT


The Sea and CakeThe Fawn (1997)

Formed by members of Tortoise, The Coctails and Shrimp Boat, The Sea and Cake have released nine albums on Thrill Jockey since their 1994 self-titled debut. On their 4th studio album, The Fawn, Sam Prekop’s vocals continue to play the polite, understated role that perfectly compliments the band’s art-pop and jazz influenced sound. His voice floats amidst the cool breeze guitar riffs, bright synthesizers, and supporting percussion; at times his lyrics are so well blended that the tracks possess an enchanting instrumental-like quality, immediately reminiscent of You Forgot It In People-era Broken Social Scene. While some lyrics are bound to pass you by, Prekop piqued my attention with the last song’s chorus, “Do now fairly well.” The phrase may appear banal and even apathetic at first, but it actually encompasses the feelings of content and Zen-like relaxation that characterize the Chicago four-piece. – DG


Mouse on MarsAutoditacker (1997)

IDM, as I’ve always understood it, stood for “intelligent dance music,” though when Mouse on Mars came along, that I could have just as easily been “impish,” “idiosyncratic” or “irrational.” The duo, whose electronic pulses, squinks, glurks and pings owe as much to krautrock as they do Aphex Twin, play a kind of whimsical game with their electro compositions, finding the place where rhythm meets mischief. Yet when their 1997 album Autoditacker really gets going, it has a momentum and an immediacy that marks it as a unique gem among other big names in IDM. There’s enough of a danceable compulsion in first two tracks “Sui Shop” and Juju” to keep a party in motion, while “Twift Shoeblade” even sorta rocks in a weird way. This kind of electro doesn’t really make sense in a club, but it carries a unique momentum all its own. – JT


TortoiseTNT (1998)

Tortoise’s contribution to post-rock can’t be understated, even if in hindsight, they definite come across as one of the genre’s most underrated acts. The group’s classic 1998 album, TNT, is a landmark album and is generally the band’s most well known in the realm of post-rock (aside from Millions Now Living Will Never Die). Picking up where Millions Now Living left off, TNT blended the elements of strings, woodwinds and brass along with early forms of electronica. Simply put, TNT is one of those albums that never loses its sense of wonder or intrigue. In its diverse array of sounds and exploratory sounds, it features a little something for everybody — jazz, post-rock, bits of early electronica. TNT is inviting to all. – GM


Giant SandChore of Enchantment (2000)

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the formation of Tucson’s foremost noir Americana band, Giant Sand, which means that they were already closing in on a second decade when they landed on Thrill Jockey on 2000. It’s little wonder, then, that the band’s first release on the Chicago label, Chore of Enchantment, ranks as one of the most impressive pieces of the group’s lengthy discography. A sprawling and diverse hour-long collection, Chore tends to shift back and forth between the band’s desert chamber pop and curious genre exercises like the abrasive punk of “1972” or the laid back funk of “Temptation of Egg.” Yet the group is at their best when the songwriting tends to match their dry, dusty backdrop, as on the haunting “(Well) Dusted (For the Millennium)” and the noisy epic, “Satellite.” – JT


Sue Garner and Rick BrownStill (2000)

Having previously been part of art rockers Run On in the ’90s, Sue Garner and Rick Brown continued their work together on 2000’s Still, an album of intimate compositions built upon rhythmic loops and later filled out with the aid of musicians like producer Chris Stamey, guitarist Tara Key and bassist Doug McCombs. While it received little fanfare upon its release, its subtly gorgeous and sonically engaging tunes reveal various wonders on repeat listens, be they the ominously surreal effects of “Let Us Out” or the rhythmic pulse of “Asphalt Road.” It’s one of Thrill Jockey’s most underrated gems, but more than that, it’s also one of the label’s best. – JT


Trans AmRed Line (2000)

One of the longest running bands on the TJ roster, along with Tortoise, Trans Am is something like the evil flipside of that heralded and loose-flowing post-rock band. The trio’s discography has taken various twists and turns, from guitar-based instrumental rock to icy electronica, politically charged statements and carefree hook-laden new wave. Their peak arguably arrived in the late ’90s/early ’00s, however, when the sounds of krautrock and industrial played the biggest role in their music. The group’s 2000 album Red Line is the place where this comes together the strongest, lining up a Gary Numan-style synthpunk grind alongside hypnotic Neu!-like drones. Taking their music to a darker place than before, Trans Am found a haunting source of inspiration. – JT


CalifoneQuicksand/Cradlesnakes (2003)

No alt-country band in the world is as utterly bizarre or as dazzlingly eclectic as Chicago’s Califone. Their high-octane rockers sound as if they were unearthed from a deep, dank swamp. Their folk ballads seem to have crashed upon the earth from another planet. And their psychedelic dirges are positively supernatural. There’s a deep, palpable groove to everything they do, but with the sole exception of Tom Waits, the band has few direct ancestors. Quicksand/Cradlesnakes, their final hour-plus, is the strongest example of every brilliantly strange thing of which Califone is capable. “Your Golden Ass” grunts and throbs, “Mean Little Seed” buzzes and clangs, and “Vampiring Again” is the perfect pop song that they also happen to excel at, when they feel like it. Think of Quicksand/Cradlesnakes as the seedier, more intoxicated counterpart to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and you’re just about there. – JT


OOIOOTaiga (2006)

Before launching OOIOO, Yoshimi P-We made a name for herself as an essential member of Japanese noise/art rockers the Boredoms, lending vocals and hyper-intense drum beats as well as helping to shape an unparalleled legacy of boundary pushing. With OOIOO, she never stopped pursuing the path of discovery and innovation, and reached a climactic point on 2006’s Taiga. It’s an overwhelming listen at first, taking on so many different ideas with a manic energy that’s hard to keep up with at times. But it’s worth it. Yoshimi & Co. take on a variety of directions, which sometimes incorporate trippy, droning psych rock, sometimes drift into meditative vocal exercises, and at other points incorporate elements of Afrobeat, gamelan and calypso. This all happens in the course of an hour, though after one spin, it might feel as if you’ve gone around the entire world and back. – JT


TunngGood Arrows (2007)

It’s beyond cliche to use the word “folktronica” these days, but that isn’t to say the mixture of electronic and acoustic sounds doesn’t still produce something outstanding. British psych-folk outfit Tunng is one such band made exemplary pop through a fluid combination of glitchy electronics and Fairport Convention/Pentangle-style British folk. Good Arrows is a career highlight, a gentle and autumnal work interrupted by various bits and pieces of sonic debris. While, ultimately, this could have been massively distracting, the sum of its parts is something altogether hypnotic and beautiful, driven by climactic Beatlesque pop songs like “Bullets,” or in its more experimental moments, minimal head trips like “King.” – JT


High PlacesHigh Places (2008)

Brooklyn duo High Places occupy a strange little world in pop music where dream-pop, exotica, dance music and ambient coexist in surreal harmony. The group’s self-titled debut almost always feels lighter than air, but carries a gentle groove that makes their music continually fun and vibrant, whether it’s through beat-driven tribal jams or heavenly ambient pop sequences. The atmospheric nature of the band’s music, like closing highlight “From Stardust to Sentience,” only shows how closely High Places live up to their name. – JT


MountainsChoral (2009)

Another Brooklyn duo, but one whose progressive ambient exercises pull more from krautrock’s electronic pioneers rather than psych-rock, Mountains make gorgeous, meditative music that slowly lifts the listener into another galaxy. Brendon Anderegg and Koen Holtkamp do this through a variety of methods — gentle acoustic guitar plucks on “Map Table,” dense combinations of synth, melodica and guitar on “Telescope,” hypnotic sonic waves on “Choral,” the chiming bell sounds on “Melodica” — but whatever tack they choose, it inevitably comes out heady and transcendent. Choral is a work that requires patience and calm, and rewards it with sheer gorgeousness. – JT


Mi AmiSteal Your Face (2010)

Daniel Martin-McCormick spent some time turning out some noisy funk in Black Eyes before starting up Mi Ami, a like-minded meeting place between post-hardcore abrasion and dance-heavy grooves. By this point dance punk had already gone the way of most forgotten early ’00s trends, but by sticking to a more loosely flowing mutant strain, Martin-McCormick & Co. reinvigorated the idea of funking up punk sounds and reached a fantastic peak with 2010’s Steal Your Face. With a nod to the Dead in the title, a chopped Bob Marley on the cover and elements of Tom Tom Club and Bruce Springsteen in the lyrics, Steal Your Face is a hodgepodge of oddly placed pop culture references that not only never seem obvious, but are really only noticeable to those who aren’t immediately lost in the deliciously warped rhythms. Whether in the frantic post-punk of “Harmonics” or the dub chill of “Secrets,” Mi Ami stirs up a singularly messy sonic bliss. – JT


Future IslandsOn the Water (2011)

One need not look very far to find synth-pop charged with copious doses of emotion, but Future Islands takes it to the next level. Without discrediting the rest of the band too much (instrumentally speaking, they are a stunning bunch), without frontman Samuel Herring, they wouldn’t be nearly as affecting or as simply distinctive as they are. Herring lends the group’s new wave anthems a level of gravitas that neither Dave Gahan nor Bernard Sumner ever attempted; he’s more of a crooner than a rock singer when you look at it. As such, On the Water is a dance album for those with nothing left to lose. Herring is a voice for the wounded and weary, digging deep to pull up those unpleasant and unwelcome feelings on “Give Us the Wind” and “Balance.” It’s a very different kind of catharsis, but it still ends up feeling great. – JT


LiturgyAesthethica (2011)

By the time Thrill Jockey signed its first metal band, indie rockers and metalheads were already beginning to get used to each other’s presence. That didn’t, however, stop the pointless whimper of a few holdouts who took offense that Liturgy frontman Hunter Hunt-Hendrix sought spiritual transcendence through blast beats and manic howls than through goat sacrifices at the altar of Satan (where’s your Dark Lord now???). But let’s get real: the music on Aesthethica, a blend of noise rock, avant garde composition and old school black metal intensity, speaks for itself. Whether through the mathematical grind of “Generation,” or the surprisingly catchy “Returner,” Liturgy brought an entirely new approach to black metal, one whose critics ironically only seem to pinpoint how innovative it truly is. – JT


Wooden ShjipsWest (2011)

San Francisco’s Wooden Shjips have released a lot of music on a lot of labels, though the psych rock noisemakers arguably hit their peak with 2011’s West. Fuzzed out, heady and thick as singer Ripley Johnson’s gnarly beard, West is the kind of classic rock album that’s far out enough to still sound novel and modern, but reverent enough to win over some old heads. It grooves (“Lazy Bones”), it drones (“Crossing”) and it slithers with sinister defiance (“Flight“). Psychedelia need not feel directly tied to the ’60s to be effective, and what little connection Wooden Shjips has to the acid generation is enough to launch their heady journey. – JT

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