Celebrating 4AD: The label’s essential albums (SLIDE SHOW)

All hail 4AD! We run down the timeless record label’s top 20 records from 30 years of music by game-changing bands. Listen to our Spotify playlist as you browse

1/20
Photograph courtesy 4AD

Signed to 4AD at the very start, when the imprint was conceived as a testing ground for acts meant to graduate to parent label Beggars Banquet, seminal goth-rock band Bauhaus was universally slagged by critics when its debut album first appeared. But ghoulish singer Peter Murphy and his mates had the last laugh, making the leap to stardom together and individually, while establishing the wild promise of the fledgling label.—Steve Smith

2/20
Photograph courtesy 4AD

Strongly influenced by Joy Division when it signed to 4AD in 1980, Colchester combo Modern English waxed a low-key debut, Mesh & Lace, the next year. If that phrase sounds familiar, though, it's because the band recycled it as a lyric in "I Melt with You," the jangly lead-off single from sophomore LP, After the Snow. After a slow start, the track became a global hit, and remains an instantly familiar period classic.—Steve Smith

3/20
Photograph: Courtesy 4AD

Initially a doomy goth combo from Scotland, Cocteau Twins linked up with 4AD via a connection to label founder Ivo Watts-Russell's dream-pop supergroup, This Mortal Coil (about which, more to come). Fashioning a shimmering, ethereal sound around the lucious and frequently undecipherable singing of Elizabeth Fraser, the group helped to establish a signature style for the upstart label; Treasure, the band's third full-length LP, captures an early peak of perfect balance and beguilement.—Steve Smith

4/20
Photograph: Courtesy 4AD

Masterminded by label co-founder Ivo Watts-Russell, This Mortal Coil offered a penetrating overview of what 4AD was about in its salad years: dreamy textures, melancholy themes, grandiose ethnic-music borrowings and impeccable design. Members of Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance turned up on this, the project's debut LP, but the crowning twist for Watts-Russell was enlisting punk icon Howard Devoto (of Buzzcocks and Magazine renown) for a wrenching cover of "Holocaust" by American cult band Big Star.—Steve Smith

5/20
Photograph courtesy Eye for Talent

Talk about a left-field sensation: This album of Thracian lullabies and laments, recorded by the Bulgarian State Radio & Television Female Vocal Choir and issued in 1975 by Swiss musicologist Marcel Cellier, took the art-pop world by storm when 4AD licensed it on a tip from Bauhaus frontman Peter Murphy. Echoes of the choir's plaintive voices and haunting harmonies resonate through numerous 4AD pop projects of the time; the disc also became sample-bait for producers like Bill Laswell, and led to a string of sequels on the American label Nonesuch.—Steve Smith

6/20
Photograph: Courtesy 4AD

A collaboration between two inventive indie-pop acts, A.R. Kane and Colourbox, M.A.R.R.S. made history with this 1987 single—purportedly the first U.K. number-one hit ever to include samples from other songs. Volatile interpersonal chemistry made this track (and its flip-side, "Anitina") a one-shot deal, but the song remains ubiquitous, its title a slogan for groove-oriented dance bliss.—Steve Smith

7/20
Photograph: Courtesy 4AD

By the time they recorded The Serpent's Egg, their fourth full-length album as Dead Can Dance, Australian transplants Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry were on the verge of ending their romantic partnership and moving to separate continents. The album, regal and pensive by turns, solidified the group's distinctive mix of medieval European sounds with world-music strains, topped by Gerrard's soaring voice; moody opener "The Host of Seraphim" was snatched up for multiple movie soundtracks.—Steve Smith

8/20
Photograph courtesy 4AD

The first full-length disc by Boston indie-rock band Pixies wasn't a hit, particularly, but it was the kind of album that generated significant, durable buzz. Aggressive themes, abrasive sounds, Steve Albini's bone-dry production and the boy-girl tension between singers Black Francis and Mrs. John Murphy—a.k.a. Frank Black and Kim Deal (who went on to sign her Breeders and the Amps to 4AD)—made this LP a near-universal critics' pick, and earned it glowing approval from Kurt Cobain, Billy Corgan and PJ Harvey.—Steve Smith

9/20
Photograph: Andrew Catlin

So closely was Newport, RI indie-rock band Throwing Muses associated with its American label home, Sire, during the ’90s that it can be difficult to remember the group got its start as the first American act signed to 4AD. House Tornado, the second Throwing Muses album, brilliantly showcases the group's gangly tunes and wiry rhythms, as well as the key to its early chemistry: the collision of Kristin Hersh's lemonade-tart declamatory singing and Tanya Donnelly's babydoll coo.—Steve Smith

10/20

Considered by many longtime fans to be among the final statement from 4AD's so-called "classic" era, the fourth album by Red House Painters showed a group in transition, from the lengthy narcotic drones of its early, eponymous LPs toward a gentler, more contemplative folk-rock style. It was also founding guitarist Gorden Mack's swansong, leaving gifted singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek in charge for the remainder of the band's life.—Steve Smith

11/20
Photograph: Courtesy ESL

4AD signed Thievery Corporation in 1998, and released this lounge mainstay of a record two years later, on which the group sampled genres and world traditions alike to create a darkly beautiful mosaic. Though the combo has since issued its output on its own ESL Music imprint, 4AD was a key force in propelling the Washington, D.C. duo to global fame.—Marley Lynch

12/20
Photograph: Pier Nicola D'Amico

This atmospheric art-rock album sounds like it could have been issued among 4AD’s ’80s-period crop, incorporating woozy textures and luxurious strings that bring a taste of, say, Cocteau Twins into the present. Yet on this LP, its first for the label and fifth overall, Blonde Redhead continues to stand out as uniquely itself, seamlessly combining noise-rock influences with melancholy shoegaze pop.—Marley Lynch

13/20
Photograph: Kristianna Smith

The mythology of Beirut, the product of a then 19-year-old high-school dropout and world traveler named Zach Condon, is matched only by the romanticism and exoticism heard on its Gypsy-rock debut, fashioned with Balkan brass, loads of synths and some good old pop sensibilities. The blogs were going bonkers for Condon when 4AD snatched him up—by now, he’s proved his ability to outlive the cyber-buzz.—Marley Lynch

14/20
Photograph: Victoria Will

TV on the Radio is an example of the fine talent 4AD has smartly plucked from North America for distribution in the U.K. This record, a busy and superb grab-bag of indie-rock, dance and hip-hop influences, put Brooklyn on the musical map in indelible ink, not only for the rest of the U.S., but on an international level as well. (Guess we have 4AD to thank for skyrocketing rents in Kings County, then.)—Marley Lynch

15/20
Photograph: D.L. Anderson

Melancholic guitar strums, a wavering falsetto, haunting memories and woodsy idealism—Bon Iver’s live sets have been compared to spiritual experiences, and on this album you can hear why. Incidentally, this record (issued by 4AD’s U.K. division) became a classic upon release, launching Bon Iver's Justin Vernon from isolated-log-cabin sadsack to indie rock superstar, Radio City Music Hall headliner and Kanye’s BFF.—Marley Lynch

16/20
Photograph: Tina Tyrell

St. Vincent’s Annie Clark got her start singing in Polyphonic Spree and with Sufjan Stevens, then broke out on her own, expressing troubles and anxiety with a crystal-clear voice over ominous arrangements (she’s also a guitar goddess). Since this outstanding disc, she released two more on 4AD: Strange Mercy and Love This Giant, the latter a collaboration with David Byrne.—Marley Lynch

17/20
Photograph: Piper Ferguson

The warped world of Ariel Pink existed well before 4AD signed the L.A.-based artist. Pink was known as an eccentric recluse with a mania for home-recording, having amassed hundreds of unreleased tracks. Surely that’s why eyebrows were raised when 4AD signed him, bringing his lo-fi compositions to a greater audience. Pink, in turn, became known as more than a cassette-obsessed weirdo, earning widespread praise as a veritable pop mastermind.—Marley Lynch

18/20
Photograph: Chloe Aftel

When 4AD signed the little-known Merrill Garbus as Tune-Yards and released her 2009 debut, Bird Brains, it seemed the label heard something no one else did among her pots-and-pans percussion, oddball field recordings and ultra-lo-fi production. Two years later, the ukulele-slinging songstress returned with this brilliant disc, yowling feminist and political invocations over swelling Afro-pop collages—and so an inspired, idiosyncratic star was born.—Marley Lynch

19/20
Photograph: John Londono

The rise of Grimes—that’s Claire Boucher to her friends—has been nothing if not meteoric, but the Canadian singer, producer, visual artist infuriates a listener for each one she intrigues. Take away her “post-Internet” idiom, neon-gypsy attire and robot-populated music videos, though, and you’ll hear this album contains tracks that are blissful, streamlined and infectious—the makings of a truly great pop song.—Marley Lynch

20/20
Photograph: Tim Saccenti

The magnetic SpaceGhostPurrp is the only voice and beatmaker on his studio debut, which explains the universally parsimonious, brooding and uncanny vibe he projects—a sensation that everyone from Cee-Lo and A$AP Rocky to the Odd Future boys have embraced. The signing of this underground Florida MC marks 4AD’s first foray into the world of hip-hop, confirming the label’s ever-expanding vision.—Marley Lynch

Ah, 4AD: legendary upstart, vital indie label, forward-thinking visionary, advocate for impudent artists, major music-scene influencer and snubber of the single-genre limiter. Since its inception in the U.K. in 1980, the record label has shaped the musical landscape while refusing to conform to specific contours. Numerous acts performing in New York this fall demonstrate the label's breadth and caliber: symphonic art-rockers Efterklang, eerie electro-poppers Purity Ring, arty collabo David Byrne and St. Vincent, Prince-inspired tunesmith Twin Shadow and weirdo-pop artiste Grimes.

Like these groups, the rest of 4AD's roster—from the Cocteau Twins and Pixies to Bon Iver and Ariel Pink—is rich in surprises and wild talent. Says label boss Simon Halliday: "Most quality organizations should evolve and reinvent themselves. 4AD currently tries to follow the best music and personalities out there (in our opinion), and hopefully that keeps allowing us to naturally evolve without thinking about it too much."

Here, we traced that evolution, rounding up the label's must-know releases over the years, in chronological order. Did we leave out your favorite 4AD recording? Join the conversation in the comments. And be sure to listen while you browse: Our Spotify playlist features a track from each essential album.

You might also like
Efterklang and Purity Ring play New York shows
Ariel Pink at Webster Hall: Live photos
Interview: Tune-yards
TV on the Radio Q&A
Shopping with Twin Shadow
See more in Music

Comments

3 comments
eduardo
eduardo

steve, I take the comment about being new to the label back. still, I think those early bands have had a bigger impact than, say, thievery corporation (who did release two very nice records) and MARRS (yes, seminal dance tune) in forming the 4AD legendary status. regardless of personal opinions, great job in saluting the label. I know hardcore fans always have such opinionated stances regarding the label's legacy.

Steve Smith
Steve Smith

You cite some excellent artists, Eduardo, but you're wrong in at least half of your assumption—I grew up with 4AD, and bought all of the records in the first half of this survey when they were brand-new…an obsession that started, incidentally, when I walked into a San Antonio record store where 'Treasure' was on the turntable, and made them take it off so that I could buy it on the spot. And that MARRS tune is still killer.—Steve Smith, music editor

eduardo
eduardo

really MARRS? really tune-yards? no dif juz? no wolfgang press? no heidi berry, michael brook, his name is alive? this list was obviously written by someone relatively new to the label as it focuses on late-period signings. the essays are superficial, at best. new signings are very important to mention, but so many important early ones were left out. those early ones were essential in the label's growth. as far as new ones go, where's zomby?