Post-rock is one of the most difficult genre descriptors to boil down to its essentials for a list like this. There’s no truly defining sound, just a mindset towards taking the raw materials that have been part of the musical landscape and attempt to craft something entirely new out of them. Or as writer Simon Reynolds explained it in an article in The Wire magazine in 1994, it’s the idea of “using rock instrumentation for non-rock purposes.”
The genre has ballooned out to include a lot of traditionally rock-sounding material, as well as similarly vast, big umbrella sounds like metal, indie, electronica, ambient, and pop. It’s easy enough to say simply that you know it when you hear it. The slipperiness of the genre is why another writer or outlet could easily come up with a list made up of 50 completely different records. And they’d be totally right, too.
Beyond the members that some of these artists below share, the raw commonality among these 50 records is an effort to move the needle forward in some small or massive way. The force of their work may not be immediately felt but the impression they leave behind will be deep, unmistakable, and often unavoidable. Here are Paste’s 50 best post-rock albums.
50. Cul De Sac, China Gate (1996)
The third album by this Boston-based collective set the bar for the group’s expansive experimentalism, allowing them to work Can-like rhythms, Eastern-influenced melodies, flickering electronics, and plenty of noise into their deconstructions of the rock idiom. And it left plenty of room for masterful guitarist Glenn Jones to pick, scratch, and squeal through the album’s more than 60 glorious minutes.
49. Jesu, Jesu (2004)
When he wasn’t churning out industrial metal in his band Godflesh or dabbling in overdriven electronic and hip-hop as Techno Animal, Justin Broadrick turned his attention to more open-ended ideas with his project Jesu. The 2004 self-titled debut by this group set the tone early with some gut-grinding drones and brief moments of beauty amid the muck and slog of the album’s monstrous drive.
48. Isis, Panopticon (2004)
In the land of post-metal, Isis is king. Or at least they were until the group split up in 2010. But during their 13 years together, they managed to release a bevy of incredible albums that fused the oomph of heavy rock with the beauty of shoegaze. The best of the bunch was their third album Panopticon, which marked a huge creative leap forward for the group with its paranoid themes and gushing walls of guitars.
47. Long Fin Killie, Houdini (1995)
The thrill of the debut album by Scottish ensemble Long Fin Killie is in their ability to maintain an air of suspense through nearly every song. Using clattering percussion and simple repetition, they threaten to explode or at least burst into a splintering chorus at any second. But they never give into that temptation, preferring to ride a mood and a groove out until they’ve reached their logical conclusion. And in those rare moments that they do cause a small conflagration, it feels dangerous and intoxicating.
46. Don Caballero, What Burns Never Returns (1998)
Though most associated with the stutter-stop aggression of the math rock movement, this Pennsylvania-based band often steered its ship into post-rock territory, thanks in part to the contributions of guitarist Ian Williams. His use of electronics and effects pedals throughout his tenure with the group added a cooling element to their otherwise fiery instrumental compositions. Williams provided the atmosphere; his bandmates (particularly drummer Damon Che) splattered the room with color and fury.
45. John Oswald/The Grateful Dead, Grayfolded (1994)
Having been offered access to the The Grateful Dead’s vast archives of live recordings, avant-garde composer John Oswald plucked out 100 different live versions of the hyper-psychedelic instrumental “Dark Star.” With his mastery of mixing and the Dead’s already wild experimentalism, Oswald came up with two hour long suites that are beautiful, stultifying, and true to both artists’ playful spirits.
44. Hood, Cold House (2001)
A further step away from the pop elements that drove some of their best early work, this British band took the title of its fifth album very much to heart. And what came out was an icy downer of an LP with moments of breathtaking beauty and a deeper embrace of elements from the world of electronic dance music. The contributions from Clouddead members Doseone and Why? only added to the melancholic, wintry feel.
43. Out In Worship, Sterilized (1998)
Drummer/percussionist Doug Scharin has been a vital player in the slow-core and post-rock scenes thanks to his work in Rex, Codeine, and June of 44. On this project, formed with multi-instrumentalist Joe Golding, he takes a more primary role, letting his interest in Indian and Middle Eastern music, and fusing them with experiments in dub, ambient, and deep roiling funk.
42. Fly Pan Am, Fly Pan Am (1999)
Emerging from the same Montreal scene that birthed Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Fly Pan Am shared not only a guitarist with their sister band (Roger Tellier-Craig) but a mind toward mirroring the breadth and wonder of an open plain through simmering guitar-based instrumentals that left plenty of space for electronic crackles and feverish drones.
41. Pelican, The Fire In Our Throats Will Beckon The Thaw (2005)
Like a lot of the acts on this list, pinning Pelican to the post-rock genre feels reductive considering how deeply this quartet aligns with the metal community and how molten hot their riffs get as a result. There’s no denying the sheer beauty of many of the compositions on this 2005 album, revealing a band whose work is as contemplative as it is agitated.