On Sunday, the legendary Chicago label Drag City released the large majority of its catalog on Spotify and Tidal for the first time, ending its run as one of the last great holdouts of the streaming era. (Apple Music users have been enjoying early access since August.) The label launched in 1990, giving home to artists who operate at the freaky fringes of indie music: darkly comic singer-songwriters, psych-folk solo guitarists, blistering noise-punk bands, atmospheric synth explorers. It’s a vast and daunting catalog. Below, the Spin staff has compiled a list of a few great Drag City releases to help newcomers navigate it. In honor of the label’s freewheeling spirit, we’ve given space to both its best known artists and some offbeat personal favorites, including a few of the one-off experiments and unlikely collaborations that make Drag City so consistently engaging.
At the bottom of the list, you’ll find two extra releases by Will Oldham and Jim O’Rourke, two key artists who opted out of the streaming deal. We’ve included them because no Drag City list would be complete without them, and as a reminder that it’s still possible to go to a record store and buy this stuff, which is probably what the label would prefer anyway. All the true cheapskates out there can also find them in their entirety on YouTube.
Smog, Knock Knock
One of the greatest gifts Drag City has given its fans by offering their catalog on streaming services is 25 years worth of Bill Callahan albums. You could reasonably recommend many (most, even) of Callahan’s releases as Smog and under his own name as his most perfect or evocative. Knock Knock, from 1999, is a good reminder of the more mischievous, musically experimental quality of his work as Smog, while still boasting plenty of his signature cascading fingerpicking and pithily devastating lyrics. There’s an immediacy to Knock Knock’s choruses and stylistic pivots, and his nods to classical minimalism, trip-hop, and grunge will likely to surprise listeners only familiar with Callahan’s later work. As with the best of his music, so much of the pathos and humor in the songs on Knock Knock surges up in the long spaces between the words. Whether you’re thinking fondly about moving to the country, thinking about leaving it, or pondering memories that “turn your bones to glass,” there’s a song for you here. —WINSTON COOK-WILSON
Royal Trux, Accelerator
By the time Royal Trux released their 1997 album Sweet Sixteen, complete with a cover photo of a toilet flooded with puke and shit, the brass at Virgin Records knew they weren’t going to recoup the duffle bags full of money they invested in Neil Michael Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema in one of the most outlandish major label signings of the great post-Nirvana alt-rock boom. Virgin’s loss was Drag City’s gain as the scuzzy duo swaggered back to their former indie home with Accelerator, a brilliant record that brashly deconstructed the tropes of ‘80s rock. We’re approaching Accelerator‘s 20th anniversary, and it has aged remarkably well for an album whose closing track paid tribute to action star and future Vladimir Putin admirer Steven Seagal. —MAGGIE SEROTA
Bitchin’ Bajas, Bajas Fresh
Recently, the members of Bitchin’ Bajas have occasionally functioned like a house band for Drag City artists looking for a little extra cosmic drone, showing up on records by Circuit Des Yeux and in collaboration with Will Oldham. Their own albums place percolating synths and instrumental loops at the center of the action, creating open vistas that recall the electronic music of minimalist pioneer Terry Riley as well as the kind of records you might find advertised as meditation aids in a natural healing store. Bajas Fresh, their most recent album, is also their most ambitious, with one track that stretches to 23 minutes and three seconds (called 2303, naturally) and another that refashions a ‘60s Sun Ra Arkestra composition as ambient music. “Jammu” patiently layers tones for nine minutes before closing with a thrilling rush of snare drum, a reminder that this sort of music needn’t always be about stasis—there’s plenty of room for ecstatic motion as well. —ANDY CUSH
The Fucking Am, Gold
Bay Area instrumental metal heroes The Fucking Champs require an almost archaeological examination of their jagged, sedimentary discography. The riffs go deep—so deep—that you gotta wheel in the backhoe to do the heavy lifting. A lot of their best work landed on Drag City, including the Champs’ collaborations with post-rock titans Trans Am. It was Gold, a Drag City LP from 2004, that realized the full power of these two powerhouse trios together as one behemoth, known forever onward as The Fucking Am. Whether on the Thin Lizzy-indebted “Taking Liberties” or the pummeling “Powerpoint,” the spirit of this record was so legendary and pure that an entire generation of math-core revivalists could never match it, despite all best intentions—the kind of rock ’n’ roll ether that suburban heshers daydream about huffing. With the LP long out of stock, and CD players all but nonexistent, this record streaming is a godsend from Valhalla. —DALE EISINGER
Cate Le Bon, Crab Day
Every sound on Welsh singer-songwriter Cate Le Bon’s finest album is hair-thin. The music is so brittle that it’s disorienting, like it’s been sped up or you’ve just inhaled some helium. Somehow, the effect that is hypnotic—even relaxing—instead of caustic. Assuaging any potential anxiety, Le Bon croons and murmurs soothingly, just under pitch, like a non-Teutonic Nico. Her songs are invested with word-scramble humor out of the Gertrude Stein playbook and her own curious punchlines. Often, they are grounded by Le Bon’s cryptic metaphors for herself, as seen in relationship to some shadowy partner: “I’m a dirty attic,” “I was a humid satellite,” “I’m a blind in your window,” and so on. “What’s Not Mine,” a bewildered meditation on identity with a destructive jam of a coda, is possibly her greatest song. —W.C.W.
Rangda, False Flag
Rangda is the rare supergroup that offers everything, all at once, ceaselessly, with the fortitude of each member. A true power trio in an unorthodox sense, the band consists of guitarists Ben Chasny (whose solo project Six Organs of Admittance is one of Drag City’s tentpoles) and Sir Richard Bishop (of Sun City Girls) along with legendary drummer Chris Corsano (who played drums on Bjork’s Volta, among many other experimental-leaning albums). They drain every ounce of blood from their pure-noise freakouts, spaghetti western dioramas, and punishing psych-rock powerviolence. False Flag marks their first recorded statement, a Drag City classic in the tradition of, “why the hell not?” There’s a sense of partnership felt in these tracks, as each member gets a stab at wrestling some catharsis from their instruments, laying demons to rest at the feet of the listener as some kind of weird proof that they’re able to do so. —D.E.
Silver Jews, American Water
Sure, David Berman is a brilliant poet and musician, but he’s also one funny motherfucker. The acerbic Silver Jews leader has one-liners for days, which he shows off on “People,” one of several collaborations with his old friend Stephen Malkmus on Berman’s third album American Water. There’s something in the sleepy timbre of Malkmus’s vocals that really sells lyrical gems like “the drums march along at the clip of an I.V. drip, like sparks from a muffler dragged down the strip.” Berman’s ability to weave this sort of wry humor throughout the lyrics is perhaps his most endearing aspect, and it’s what made American Water an instant classic upon its 1998 release. –M.S.
Dope Body, Natural History
Dope Body were products of Baltimore’s fertile scene for noise rock and arty punk from around the turn of the most recent decade, thrashing for eight years before breaking up in 2016. Unlike Double Dagger, the righteously angry local post-hardcore heroes with whom they frequently shared the stage, Dope Body never seemed like they had an urgent message to deliver. They were more interested in having fun, delivering grungy half-time grooves that frequently verged on rap metal, with the goofy swagger of shirtless kids smoking weed in the corner of your local skatepark. Like the rest of their discography, their second album Natural History imagines an alternate history in which bands like Shellac and Fugazi were shamelessly radio-friendly party rockers instead of ascetics. “I’m just talkin’ shit!” frontman Andrew Laumann howls at one point during the riffy highlight “Road Dog.” That sounds about right. —A.C.
Joanna Newsom, Ys
The eccentric, incorporeal pop songs on Joanna Newsom’s stunning 2005 debut The Milk-Eyed Mender prepared no one for the sprawling, programmatic epics that made up Ys, which surfaced just a year later. The singer-songwriter’s sophomore effort polarized fans, perplexing those looking for ululatory hooks along the lines of “Peach, Plum, Pear” and “The Book of Right-On.” But it made it clear that Newsom was a serious and unprecedented talent, more than a “freak folk” anomaly destined to be remembered most fondly decades on by former Arthur subscribers. Ys came across like one stream of speech-like melody, organized around the emotional peaks and valleys in Newsom’s libretto instead of musical reiterations. The swooping orchestral gestures came courtesy of Van Dyke Parks, another iconoclast who released a similarly ambitious and uncharacterizable avant-pop classic almost 40 years prior. Ys was lucky enough to come out during a time when the indie music blog set was actively championing unwieldy, baroque songwriting. Today, it towers above the rest of the strangest indie pop of that period (sorry, Blueberry Boat), and should rank among the greatest singer-songwriter albums of this century so far. —W.C.W.
Om, God is Good
The spiritual focus of Om, the offshoot stoner-drone-doom project that formed out of the even more renowned stoner-drone-doom project Sleep, was no secret from the beginning. Just look at the name! Their rhythms are mandalas, tracing a serenity prayer through heavy metal minimalism. Vocals come down like busted spiritual directives, the sound of the seraphim on skid row. God is Good, their first release for Drag City, saw Om swapping original drummer Chris Hakiu for Emil Amos of psych-rock goliaths Grails, and adding the endlessly skilled experimentalist Robert A. Lowe to their ranks. The album opens with one the longest Om tracks to date, the 19-minute “Thebes,” which seems to expand at the same rate as the universe itself. —D.E.
Palace Music, Viva Last Blues
The shapeshifting singer-songwriter Will Oldham is among Drag City’s most important artists, and Viva Last Blues is among his greatest albums. Released in 1995, before Oldham settled on Bonnie “Prince” Billy as his long-term stage name, it featured the appealingly ambiguous moniker Palace Music on the sleeve. The music inside is equally beguiling, proceeding with an elegance that almost seems accidental. Oldham delivers epiphanies as if they were offhanded jokes, and vice versa, accompanied on his rambles by a shaggy ensemble of acoustic instruments. There’s tremendous range despite the relatively limited palette: enough for one of the most painfully bittersweet love songs ever written, and another one about fucking a mountain. —A.C.
Jim O’Rourke, Eureka
Jim O’Rourke first made his name in the ’90s as an adventurous and frequently collaborative fixture of Chicago’s experimental improv scene, but when he signed to the city’s flagship indie label, it was to pursue an entirely different project. Eureka is his second and perhaps finest Drag City release, in a series of albums that focused on immaculate chamber pop instead of squalling noise. It includes an exuberantly reworked version of the Burt Bacharach composition “Something Big,” which should give you a pretty clear of the territory O’Rourke was working at the time. (He would later record an entire tribute album to the great pop songwriter.) O’Rourke’s reedy voice can’t match those of Bacharach collaborators like Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield, but that’s OK, because the album’s real magic is in its endlessly dynamic arrangements. The instrumental “Through the Night Softly” is a Side One closer for the ages, with twin climaxes that arrive via an unexpectedly delightful procession of steel drums, pizzicato strings, and triumphant rock’n’roll tenor sax. —A.C.