In January of 1980, Ivo Watts-Russell and Peter Kent teamed up to release a Bauhaus 7-inch called Dark Entries, and 4AD was introduced to the world. Thirty-five years later, 4AD can comfortably be called one of the most influential indie labels ever.
Under Watts-Russell’s direction, the London-based label was responsible for so many foundational goth rock, post-punk, and dream pop albums throughout the ‘80s that 4AD’s image is still closely linked to the sound of these moody, murky releases. But having had The Breeders, Pixies and several early shoegaze bands within their ranks, the label arguably played just as instrumental a role in the development of ‘90s alt-rock. Though Watts-Russell left in 1999 (Kent had departed much earlier), 4AD has continued to put out zeitgeist-capturing records right up to the present.
Taking into account the staggering number of excellent 4AD albums that have surfaced over the last three and a half decades, it only made sense to enforce a rule of one selection per artist in this list of the label’s finest, most representative releases (sorry, Surfer Rosa).
10. Pale Saints – The Comforts of Madness (1990)
Pale Saints have long been 4AD’s best-kept secret. The Comforts of Madness, the band’s first and best album, has as much in common with the dream pop that haunted the label’s ‘80s output as it does the loud-quiet dynamics that would define 4AD’s future releases. The record functions as a singular snapshot of indie rock circa 1990, predicting the shoegaze to come while utilizing lessons learned from Cocteau Twins’ gauzy discography. Songs such as “Sea of Sound” hover and soar like Ride at their best, even while the bleary production swirls and dissipates in a manner reminiscent of Disintegration-era Cure. Yet the strangest moments (“Little Hammer”, “Time Thief”) evade comparison altogether.
9. Bauhaus – In the Flat Field (1980)
In the Flat Field remains a triumph of style over substance. This utterly decadent debut album from ghoulish pioneers Bauhaus found the band building on the early work of Joy Division and The Cure while cribbing moves from Bowie, Bolan, and The Stooges. Frontman Peter Murphy and company painted glam black and proved that post-punk could be as spectacularly indulgent as the kind of classic rock that was seriously out of vogue in 1980. Ian Curtis and Robert Smith may have been the era’s true poets of gloom, but Bauhaus made goth rock sound like a Halloween-themed orgy that could go on forever.
8. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Before Today (2010)
Before Today is the album that transformed Ariel Pink — formerly known as “that beat-boxing guy” — into an underground pop hero. The album also lent 4AD something it had always been missing: a sense of humor. This is an encapsulation of Pink’s obsessions, with retro-glow production holding it all together. Amidst the awful sex puns and cheeky gender studies, we get dizzyingly pretty psych-pop and melody after melody that rivals (rather than merely mimics) the highs of mainstream ‘80s pop. Best of all is “Round and Round”, a single with a star-making chorus so enormous that it alone is practically enough to warrant the album’s inclusion on this list. While Before Today is one of the funniest satirical albums released in recent years, Pink has never sounded more sincere than he does on “Round and Round”, promising to “dazzle them all.” He’s also never been more right.