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How Albini changed rock, in 12 essential songs

By Mikael Wood, Los Angeles Times
Published: May 23, 2024, 6:26am

Steve Albini stood for a sound. But he also stood for an ethos.

Famous among rock fans for his work in the recording studio with the likes of Nirvana and the Pixies — and for his own bands Shellac and Big Black — Albini was known for harsh guitars and booming drums presented with none of the sweetening that can make a rock record sound like a candyland. As a producer (though he preferred to be called an engineer), he took a “documentary approach to recording music,” he told The Times in 1993, not long after he oversaw the making of Nirvana’s final studio album, “In Utero.”

Yet Albini, who died Tuesday at age 61, was almost equally revered for his straightforward criticisms of the record industry and its propensity to corrupt the purity of creative expression. To him, stardom was a trap, which is one reason he was known for years to record virtually any band that asked him to at his studio in Chicago. What he offered musicians was wisdom, honesty and technical know-how; what he got out of his clients more often than not was some of their best work. Here, in the order they were released, are 12 of Albini’s essential recordings.

1. Big Black, “Kerosene” (1986): A would-be arsonist explains himself — his motive: boredom — as slashing guitars scrape against the mechanized thump of a Roland drum machine. No Big Black, no Nine Inch Nails.

2. Pixies, “Where Is My Mind?” (1988): “Never have I seen four cows more anxious to be led around by their nose rings,” Albini famously wrote after recording the debut album by this seminal alt-rock quartet. Yet even now nothing sounds quite like the Pixies’ most enduring tune: a haunted psychedelic-soul jam in which the ultra-reverbed backing vocals conjure the terrifying underwater expanse that singer Black Francis describes in his lyric. Thanks in part to a prominent placement in 1999’s “Fight Club,” “Where Is My Mind?” has been streamed more than 850 million times on Spotify.

3. The Breeders, “Iris” (1990): Clearly unbothered by the nose-ring comment, the Pixies’ Kim Deal drafted Albini to oversee the first record by her other band, and it’s not hard to see why: No one ever showcased the feral beauty of Deal’s singing like he did.

4. Helmet, “In the Meantime” (1992): Albini recorded only one tune for the major-label debut by this New York noise-rock outfit, but it’s a scorcher. “Earth tone suits you, so give it a smile,” Page Hamilton barks over a groove so rigid it’s almost funky.

5. PJ Harvey, “Rid of Me” (1993): “Lick my legs, I’m on fire/ Lick my legs of desire,” Harvey shrieks without accompaniment to end this pile-driving blues-punk come-on — perhaps her most unflinching vocal performance in a career overflowing with them.

6. Nirvana, “Serve the Servants” (1993): Nirvana’s follow-up to its epochal “Nevermind” opens like a grunge version of “A Hard Day’s Night,” with a blast of unruly guitar noise that quickly gives way to a catchy complaint about having worked like a dog only to end up — surprise! — bored and old. Dave Grohl’s drums have never hit harder.

7. Jawbreaker, “Do You Still Hate Me?” (1994): Working under the name of his cat, Fluss, Albini helped give this Bay Area punk trio a muscular bottom end that perfectly balanced singer Blake Schwarzenbach’s desperate rasp.

8. Shellac, “Pull the Cup” (1994): After years of putting riffs together, Albini tried taking one apart.

9. Bush, “Swallowed” (1996): For all his disgust with the mainstream record biz, Albini was more than willing to take a major label check, as when Gavin Rossdale’s band came to him in what seemed like an obvious attempt to fill the vacuum left behind when Kurt Cobain died. But Albini never took easy money as an opportunity to coast: Listen to how carefully he gets the sound of fingers on guitar strings into this beefcake power ballad.

10. Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, “Please Read the Letter” (1998): A decade before Plant and Alison Krauss won a Grammy for record of the year with it, Albini captured the former Led Zeppelin bandmates’ original take on this plaintive folk-rock tune. It stomps, it crunches, it jangles.

11. Songs: Ohia, “Farewell Transmission” (2003): Cut, as the story goes, in a single take with no rehearsal, this seven-minute epic by the group led by songwriter Jason Molina (who died in 2013) sounds like Neil Young fronting the Allman Brothers Band. A testament to Albini’s knack for recognizing a moment when it arrived.

12. Joanna Newsom, “Monkey & Bear” (2006): Not a serrated guitar in sight — just Newsom’s voice, her harp and Van Dyke Parks’ pinprick orchestral arrangements, each recorded with such precision and intimacy that listening feels like being let in on a secret.