10 Genre-Defining Albums
Critics and music geeks alike love tagging everything they listen to with some kind of genre label. It's a handy way of classifying and describing music, and even if the terms are kind of silly -- this-wave, post-that, nu-the-other -- they serve their purpose. Artists, on the other hand, tend to hate such distinctions. How many times have you read an interview where an annoyed musician tells the journalist he or she isn't part of a specific scene or musical movement? Nevertheless, some artists succeed in creating styles completely their own, and the following list of 10 Genre-Defining Albums focuses on folks who ought to be proud of their accomplishments. They set the trends others follow, and for that, we salute their originality.
Characterized by healthy helpings of sugary vocal melodies, Beatles-esque guitars and to-die-for choruses, power-pop is pure ear porn. While likeminded British rockers Badfinger had already released three albums by the time the Raspberries’ 1972 eponymous debut long player hit stores, it's the latter's ‘Go All the Way’ – the archetypal power-pop song – that lands it on our 10 Genre-Defining Albums list.
“Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting,” said Brian Eno in the liner notes to his seminal 1978 album ‘Ambient 1: Music for Airports.' No one has described the genre’s minimalistic compositional approach better than that, and no other album encapsulates its sound as finely.
Expanding on the cold yet melodically pleasing synth-driven sound pioneered by Kraftwerk, Gary Numan’s ‘The Pleasure Principal’ became an unlikely chart success at the dawn of the ‘80s on the back of ‘Cars,’ the album’s lead single. Not too long after the album’s release, Depeche Mode and Duran Duran would take Numan’s formula and add an extra dollop of pop sheen, making themselves arena stars in the process.
While there are certainly some groove-heavy moments on ’20 Jazz Funk Greats,’ it’s ultimately a misleading album title. Instead, the second full-length from industrial music pioneers Throbbing Gristle is better known for its oddball lyrical content, mechanical percussion and droning electronics. The album shifts moods from track to track, and while ‘Beachy Head’ is a claustrophobic soundscape, the album’s most accessible track, ‘Hot on the Heels of Love,’ thrusts with Euro-disco flair, a sound further explored by Al Jourgensen a few years later on ‘With Sympathy,’ Ministry’s debut album.
Although hardcore would become more closely associated with New York City and Boston later on in the ‘80s, L.A.’s Black Flag set the bar for the scene with ‘Damaged,’ their 1981 debut full-length. Lead by Greg Ginn’s thrashing guitar riffs, singer Henry Rollins tears through the record with a kind of ferocity that matched the unhinged intensity of the music and lyrics. All the more impressive: Rollins gives this assured performance having joined Black Flag only a few weeks before the ‘Damaged’ recording sessions.
Knocked by major music outlets like Rolling Stone and the Village Voice upon its 1982 release, ‘Pornography,’ the Cure’s third studio album, is now widely considered an apex moment in goth-rock history. The record’s stark production only enhances the material’s already funereal tone with songs like ‘The Figurehead’ and the appropriately titled ‘Cold’ plodding along like death marches. Later Cure albums would welcome in a sunnier melodic disposition, but when it comes to the dark stuff, ‘Pornography’ is their peak.
With an aural attack that featured layers of over distorted guitars, waves of feedback and cooing vocals that were often buried in the mix, 1988’s ‘Isn’t Anything’ was a revelation. My Bloody Valentine transformed noise into an ethereal thing of beauty, and within months of the record's release, a new wave of groups sprouted throughout the U.K. using MBV’s sonic blueprint. Quite simply, without ‘Isn’t Anything,’ there would have never been Ride, Slowdive and any of the other shoegaze bands we fell in love with in the early ‘90s.
Who would have predicted that an album recorded on a budget of $3,500 would go on to help define an entire musical movement? But that’s exactly what ‘No Depression,’ Uncle Tupelo’s 1990 debut album, went on to do. The 12-song collection took boozy Replacements-like rock ‘n’ roll and delivered it with country twang. Chicago Sun-Times critic Michael Corcoran said it best when he related Uncle Tupelo’s sound to "Bob Mould fronting Soul Asylum on a speeded-up version of a Gram Parsons song."
Formed in 1988 by musicians Robert "3D" Del Naja and Grant "Daddy G" Marshall, Massive Attack’s origins go back to the Wild Bunch, a crew of DJs based out of the port city of Bristol, England, in the ‘80s. ‘Blue Lines,’ Massive Attack’s debut album, reflected the duo’s prior DJ sets with the Wild Bunch, incorporating elements of hip-hop, dub, reggae, soul and jazz. Upon its 1991 release, ‘Blue Lines’ was met with rapturous acclaim in the music press, and critics immediately dubbed Massive Attack’s sound “trip-hop.”
You’ll see the word “angular” show up in many reviews of ‘Spiderland,’ Slint’s second and final album. But with the record’s dissonant guitar melodies, sparse arrangements and icy vocals -- sometimes yelled, sometimes spoken -- the adjective still sticks. As chilling and as it is hypnotic, ‘Spiderland’ is the spiritual godfather of later groups such as Mogwai, Godspeed You Black Emperor! and Explosions in the Sky. It's also a great way to cap off our 10 Genre-Defining Albums list.