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.
40. Storm & Stress, Storm & Stress (1997)
Like the cover art for this group’s debut album would suggest, when you listen to Storm & Stress, it feels like you need to hold on for dear life. Jagged and tuneful, this trio (featuring Don Caballero and Battles member Ian Williams and Mostly Other People Do The Killing drummer Kevin Shea) cultivates a more free jazz sound that feels like it’s barely being held together as it trundles forward, whining, rattling, and burbling every unnatural step of the way.
39. Main, Dry Stone Feed (1993)
Robert Hampson and Scott Dawson, both members of the shoegaze adjacent group Loop, formed this experimental outfit in the wake of that group’s demise. And rather than continue their guitar rock based endeavors, they reduced their sound to the barest of essentials, leaving behind a core of goopy, dub-inspired, ambient wonder, as heard on this brilliant collection.
38. The American Analog Set, The Fun of Watching Fireworks (1996)
Certainly one of the more pop-leaning bands to land on this list, this Texas-based group led off their circuitous career with this Krautrock-inspired album that swam joyously in the sounds of analog synthesizers and front man Andrew Kenny’s vocals, which sound like a little boy lost in space.
37. Emeralds, Does It Look Like I’m Here? (2010)
While this album brought together some new song with a bunch of previously released material, this short-lived but prolific trio had such a clear vision that it still managed to feel as cohesive as a bona fide record. The foundation of sequenced synth patterns and sci fi sound effect intrusions were kept level by an array of guitar antics and an early adoption of new age ideas.
36. Dirty Three, Ocean Songs (1998)
As the album’s title suggests, the songs on this Australian trio’s fifth studio effort evoke the slow, never ending flow of waves as viewed from the shore, a ship, or gently floating above the sea. Much of that is courtesy of the interplay between Warren Ellis’s violin and Mick Turner’s guitar, but pay close attention to the ever-inventive work of drummer, Jim White as he dances around the two playfully while still keeping each song steady and true.
35. June of 44, Tropics and Meridians (1996)
Like Don Caballero, this D.C.-area quartet had its ties with math rock courtesy of knotted up time signatures and the bear trap yowl of guitarists/vocalists Sean Meadows and Jeff Mueller. Their compositions, while pummeling, maintained a spiritual intensity by rolling over the same chord progressions and drum patterns again and again to trance-inducing ends.
34. Labradford, Mi Media Naranja (1997)
The fourth studio album by this Virginia-based trio is a minimalist masterpiece. Each note and small clatter of percussion is given plenty of space to breathe, with each one ringing out shuddering and shimmering so as to let the overtones unfurl and splay out as if basking in the warm glow of the group’s amplifiers.
33. Moonshake, The Sound Your Eyes Can Follow (1994)
This London group’s early records were rife with explosive post-punk, featuring front man David Callahan’s unhinged vocals skittering across rubbery bass lines and world music-inspired melodies. After a series of lineup changes and sonic adjustments, the dynamic shift with Callahan turning on a warbling croon and the horn-heavy music propelling forward almost maniacally.
32. Tristeza, Spine and Sensory (1999)
As many good post-rock albums did, Tristeza’s debut full-length never really sat in one place for too long. The NEU!-like drive of “Electrolytes” gave way to a short bit of dreamy shoegaze which in turn opened the door for a lengthy piano instrumental before closing up shop with another winsome ethereal weeper. And that’s just the final songs on the LP. The preceding bunch rolls around through the previous 25 years of psychedelia, art rock, and experimental pop.
31. This Will Destroy You, This Will Destroy You (2008)
This Will Destroy You set the tone for its now decade-long career early with 2008’s debut full-length. Its songs ebb and flow with a symphonic grace, building to multiple crashing crescendos or just letting a touch of shortwave radio-esque and washes of melody carry on for seven minutes without blinking. In the current post-rock landscape, these gents are second only to Explosions In The Sky in being able to stir up copious amounts of emotion with one ringing guitar line.
30. Stereolab, Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements (1993)
Future albums would find The Groop venturing into much poppier territory but in these early days, that element of the band was folded into more adventurous compositions that connected their interest in library music, Krautrock, lounge, and analog synth experiments in fascinating ways. This masterful album exhibited all that, and even managed to do it in one song: the 18-minute epic “Jenny Ondioline.”
29. Cult of Luna, Salvation (2004)
Cult of Luna is another metal band that dared to show a softer side. This Swedish quintet had punishing riffs to spare, but used them sparingly on its third album together. The preference instead was to stretch out, ride a slow groove, and let the guitars glisten and solidify like a quietly freezing body of water. The torrent remained underneath. It just takes a little cracking open to reach it.
28. Directions, Directions In Music (1996)
Led by Bundy K. Brown, one of the great musical journeymen in the Chicago underground scene, this short-lived project traveled similar warped funk territory as their buddies in Tortoise. But, Directions (thanks again to the work of drummer Doug Scharin) bares a deeper influence of Morricone soundtracks and grooves that feel much looser and more organic.
27. Stars of the Lid, The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid (2001)
The sixth album from this Texas-based duo is the soundtrack to a long night of the soul. And it’s a very long night at that, as its 19 tracks are spread across two CDs and take up the better part of two hours with minimalist drones and gorgeous sweeping string parts that steadily and calmly fill up your senses.
26. Grails, The Burden of Hope (2003)
One of many projects brought to life by multi-instrumentalist Emil Amos, this once-Portland-based group came to life in the early ‘00s to bridge a strange gap between the metal scene and the drowsy Americana camp. They did it by mimicking the movement of lava, with small dramatic bursts of flame jumping out of the slow moving tide that melts and singes everything in its path.
25. The Books, Lost and Safe (2005)
The more structured song forms that this electro-acoustic duo hinted at on previous albums finally came to fruition on their third LP and what emerged was their most complete sounding collection. The deconstructed glitchy compositions peppered with oddball samples remained, but now with guitarist Nick Zammuto speak-singing over them, either mimicking the timbre and rhythm of other voices or spitting out knotted up postmodern poetry.
24. Explosions in the Sky, The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place (2003)
Right before they became the go-to band for movies that need bold music for montage sequences, EITS became an indie darling with their dramatic compositions that swell and recede like a deep meditative breath before bursting forth with fist-pumping crescendos that feel like the final mile of a marathon, the finish line in sight. These are the songs that will kick you into the next gear and shave a few seconds off your time.
23. The Six Parts Seven, Silence Magnifies Sound (2000)
Like their post-rock brethren, this Ohio group favored a lot of dynamic shifts meant to bring your hard-won emotions to the fore. On their second album, the Six Parts Seven were abetted in these efforts by some lovely cello playing and a smart, tasteful use of guitar effects that the rest of the band pivoted off of through each gentle weave and curve.
22. Tarentel, From Bone To Satellite (1999)
Before their principal members Jefre Cantu-Ledesma and Danny Grody started down their paths toward noise and experimental sounds, the two came to the world’s attention as members of this fantastic post-rock ensemble. Glimpses into their musical future are evident in this album, like the scratchy drone that closes out the epic-length “For Carl Sagan.” But otherwise, the band hits on clamoring moments that settle into blissful spacious passages.
21. A Minor Forest, Inindependence (1998)
This San Francisco band’s puckish sense of humor came to the fore in their jokey song titles (i.e.: “Look at That Car, It’s Full of Balloons”), but the group’s music was deadly serious, dangerously complex, and devastatingly beautiful. Their second album is a swirl of progressive rock innovations, breezy saunters through a fall landscape, and blustery furnace blasts.
20. Bastro, Sing The Troubled Beast (1990)
Part of the rich late ‘80s/early ‘90s indie scene in Kentucky, Bastro formed after the split of guitarist David Grubbs’ hardcore band Squirrel Bait, and allowed the musician to explore more textured work with the help of wizard drummer John McEntire. The project came to its most impressive blossom on the group’s final album, a brutal and harrowing statement punctuated by some avant garde moments like the musique concrete experiment “The Sifter.”
19. The Album Leaf, In A Safe Place (2004)
It makes perfect sense to know that The Album Leaf leader Jimmy LaValle recorded much of his group’s 2004 album in the studio owned by Sigur Rós. There’s a shared sonic DNA between the two bands, a mutual desire to create something so beautiful it stops listeners in their tracks no matter where they are. This is where LaValle and company achieve that lovely goal most prominently, with some truly haunting compositions that make great use of his mastery of synthesizers and some fine guest appearances by Pall Jenkins of Black Heart Procession and Sigur Rós leader, Jónsi.
18. Mono, Under the Pipal Tree (2001)
Mono’s second album was the one that pushed them into the spotlight, but the table was well set beforehand with the release of the Japanese group’s debut on John Zorn’s Tzadik label. In both cases, the dark cloudy music by the trio promises some violent and stunning storms, and delivers in a big way with the crash and burn of their unrelenting deluge of guitar patterns and metallic leanings.
17. Gastr del Sol, Crookt, Crackt, or Fly (1994)
Who knew that the world needed a Dadaist pop group to help scrub clean the grubby grit of the ‘90s indie rock scene? David Grubbs and his partner in crime Jim O’Rourke certainly knew it. They approached the songwriting and recording using their studies in avant-garde composition as their guide, and what feels like a deep appreciation of Eno’s Oblique Strategies. Hence, nothing comes across as expected and every detail of this album is clean, crisp, and memorable.
16. Bardo Pond, Lapsed (1997)
A rich vein of psychedelic rock underpinned a number of post-rock bands. And no one knew how to tap into that better than Pittsburgh’s Bardo Pond. Known for it dusted jams and appropriately spaced-out odes to mind-altering substances, this quintet has been hot-boxing the underground for more than two decades now, including a stint on indie giant Matador that produced gems like this resin-soaked masterpiece that gives every shoegaze band a run for their Creation Records advance checks.
15. Papa M, Live From A Shark Cage (1999)
David Pajo has logged time in a dizzying number of groups including Slint, Tortoise, Billy Corgan’s Zwan, and King Kong. On his own though, using the moniker Aerial M or Papa M, his true musical spirit comes wafting out in the form of haunted and ragged instrumentals built from devilishly simple guitar lines and a wellspring of inspiration from the Americana, Krautrock, and the fallout of the Kentucky hardcore scene that fostered his unique talents.
14. Rachel’s, The Sea and the Bells (1996)
You can’t get too much further beyond the confines of rock music than this modern chamber ensemble led by composer and pianist Rachel Grimes and the late Jason Noble. The mood of the music is appropriately stately, led by a string section and the sturdy backbone provided by Grimes’ playing. Through Noble, several other indie luminaries pop up throughout including Shellac bassist Bob Weston and John Upchurch of The Coctails. All fall in line with the spirit of this project, playing with marked restraint and supporting the modern classical vibe presented here.
13. Sigur Rós, Ágætis byrjun (1999)
This is the album that launched the career of this still-innovative Icelandic band. And it’s the one that still sounds otherworldly nearly 20 years later. The delicacy of the band’s playing, the rich orchestration, and the alien tones that frontman/vocalist Jónsi is able to wrench from his soul throughout Sigur Rós’ second LP still draw listeners closer to the source, no matter how much it makes them shiver. Even if the group had never performed another note after this, their place in the post-rock firmament was secured with the startling “Svefn-g-englar.”
12. Fuxa, Very Well Organized (1996)
Twenty years after the release of this project’s debut album, Fuxa remains a part of the musical world, with a new album out just last year. As great as those recent efforts have been, we look to the debut album, which drank from the same potion concocted by groups like Suicide and Spacemen 3 while adding a somehow even more sinister edge to the mix. That had something to do with the rather lost in space vibe the music gave off, as if HAL 9000 and the MU/TH/UR 6000 decided to gang up and create a symphony to express their loneliness in the far reaches of the galaxy as they watch over all their human buddies in hypersleep.
11. Múm, Finally We Are No One (2002)
Haunting as this Icelandic band’s album can get, there’s an element of whimsy to it that is impossible to ignore. That may have to do with the child-like vocals and the rather playful tone that their programmed beats and synthesizer melodies take on. There’s just something in it that makes it feel like the soundtrack to the best animated kids’ TV series you’ve never seen. The whole album feels like a world you want to live in and spend all your time dancing and doing arts and crafts with an array of magical creatures.
10. Talk Talk, Laughing Stock (1991)
The godfathers of post-rock ended their brief, yet memorable tenure in the music world with this fifth and final album. It continued the work they did on 1988’s Spirit of Eden in further stripping away every last connection the group had to their pop past, and replacing it with an ambient-jazz hybrid built from exhausting recording sessions, continuous overdubs, and a heated, dense atmosphere akin to walking through a sticky rainforest. Many an artist has been chasing the same unsettled yet lush vibe that Laughing Stock gives off in the 25 years since its release. No one has come anywhere close.
9. Jessamine, The Long Arm of Coincidence (1996)
Besotted with the sounds of the groups like Cluster and The United States of America, this Portland ensemble set its dials to a nice steady temperature, enough so you can feel the heat coming from their performances, but not high enough to boil over. They sustained that vibe with remarkable acuity on their second studio album, kept well in check by the dead-eyed vocals of Dawn Smithson, and a rhythm section that felt uncommonly Spartan.
8. Seefeel, Quique (1993)
The aim of Seefeel’s first album, it would seem, would be to make every instrument sound as synthetic as possible. The drums feel piped in from a cheap rhythm machine, and bass lines sound a little too rubbery than normal. And the guitars are sent through so many effects pedals that they are almost entirely unrecognizable. Heck, even Sarah Peacock’s vocals sound like they were created in a computer lab by some mad anime-loving genius. It works perfectly in setting this atmosphere of coming down off a nice ecstasy high and trying to find your bearings (and maybe what’s left of your sanity) in the nearest chill-out room.
7. Califone, Roomsound (2001)
Born from the ashes of Red Red Meat, this Chicago-based group brought along a similar interest in blues and folk music but forwent any interest in trying to apply that to Stonesian rock. They instead cut their own path that incorporated jazz, funk, and gospel as filtered through the engine of a barely running rattletrap jalopy. The group has since clarified these same ideas on future records, but on their second LP, the seams and still-drying glue were still very much in the mix, giving everyone some nasty splinters and getting them high off the fumes.
6. Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven (2000)
Four long tracks are stretched out like vast canvases by this Montreal-based group, upon which they paint a rather sorrowful yet hopeful picture for the fate of mankind. Their commitment to the spiritual uplift of their brothers and sisters around the world and the smashing of the military-industrial complex hums at the core of bombastic songs that demand complete immersion in their layers of guitar racket and angelic violin and cello. Theirs is an attempt to knock down the walls of Jericho and build something beautiful out of the rubble.
5. Bark Psychosis, Hex (1994)
The sole full-length that this British group released outside of a flurry of singles and EPs before their reunion in the early ‘00s has had a ripple effect that is still being felt nearly 25 years later. As with so many of the other albums on this list, it’s a study in how one man, Graham Sutton, attempts to spot weld together his many influences. Sometimes the combination can be ever so slightly off as to seem discordant as on the jazz-dub hybrid “Big Shot.” Other times it’s just a matter of letting one bleed into the other, like the noir rock that gives way to rainy ambient during “A Street Scene.”
4. Mogwai, Young Team (1997)
The world was obviously hungry for a group capable of such massive yet smooth dynamic shifts when Mogwai came around in the late ‘90s as the Scottish gents made an immediate dent in the indie charts on both sides of the Atlantic. Their first album remains one of the more blistering debuts of the past 30 years, capable of decimating large superstructures one minute and then soothing anyone within the blast radius the next. That this music came from the minds and bodies of such a young batch of men (most were in their early 20s) only added to its majesty and mystery.
3. Battles, Mirrored (2007)
No one ever floated the idea of calling Battles a supergroup even though its members have an amazing collective legacy: Tyondai Braxton was the son of jazz legend Anthony Braxton, Ian Williams logged time in Don Caballero and Storm & Stress, John Stanier was the drummer for Helmet and Tomahawk, and Dave Konopka was in math rock group Lynx. The reason is that the four made strides to move far away from the past, concocting a sound that was all their own. And what they came up with angular, funky, noisy, and squirrely. Their debut LP set a new course for post-rock and all who dared to draft off of their progress.
2. Slint, Spiderland (1991)
Yet another template setting piece of art that hundreds, if not thousands, of skinny young men have been trying to reckon with since its release in 1991. What they’ve never been able to replicate is the spaciousness in these six songs and a certain ineffable quality that producer Brian Paulson was able to capture. Maybe it was lightning in a bottle or just the right placement of microphones, but there is something so singular about how David Pajo and Brian McMahan’s guitars cut so deeply and Britt Walford plays a rhythm that makes no sense on paper yet fits so well in the swirl of these hypnotic songs. Here’s hoping these guys never try to repeat or better this feat.
1. Tortoise, Millions Now Living Will Never Die (1996)
Much like Battles, the various members of Tortoise were no strangers to the indie rock community. But when they joined forces, nothing came as expected. Especially when it came to the group’s second full-length, as no one was prepared for the epic-length A-side. “Djed” is a multi-movement wonder that steadies itself on a NEU!-esque groove that is left for dead by minimalist electronics, a quick nod to Philip Glass, and a lengthy, melty denouement. The second side goes in similar wave with the propulsion of “Glass Museum” heading to the creepy “A Survey,” and the flickering “Dear Grandma and Grandpa” opening the door for a closer that sounds like a Morricone classic given a dub remix. The sheer density of this LP guarantees that it will be pored over for decades to come, as new artists and critics do their best to pull it apart and inspect each individual part closely for inspiration and insight. While there’s little wrong with that, they may be better served just leaving it be and allowing it to wash over them in total. All the better to absorb it deep in your skin and soul.