Keep Some Steady Friends Around: 15 Albums On Drag City You Need To Hear

Name a warped singer-songwriter that the mainstream won’t take but who makes your life colorful and tolerable: chances are they’re on Drag City. Because the Chicago label’s commitment to the weird hasn’t wavered — despite being in the game for three decades.

“What we do, however much it may be rooted in passing youthful fancy, is what we’ve always done,” the label’s head of sales Rian Murphy insisted in a 2014 newsletter. “In the face of the rolling over of industries and the waves of new hearts and souls coursing into the picture, we are Drag City for life, motherfuckers.”

So many hearts, so many souls: Royal Trux, a pair of opioid-fried Muppets who made jarring sound collages and punky blues; Joanna Newsom, a poetic harp-plucker seemingly beamed from the 1800s; Will Oldham, a mustachioed Louisvillian who approaches his folk-rock like a art-house cinematographer. To say nothing of Bill Callahan, David Berman, Haley Fohr, Ty Segall, David Grubbs… the list goes on.

Drag City was founded in a cramped closet-sized room by Dan Koretzky and Dan Osborn — the former was their sole paid employee, the latter had a day job at a video editing house. Lacking much overhead and committed to self-containment, their label washed its hands of mainstream influence; they had to be dragged into the streaming era kicking and screaming. (Some of its artists, like Jim O’Rourke, are still absent from Spotify.)

The label calls their ideal signee “someone with a sense of humor”; while few of their artists are “ha-ha” funny, many of them developed lasting cults of personality. (The label has released a handful of comedy albums by acts like Fred Armisen and Neil Hamburger.) That said, there are hundreds of artists on their roster. So to help curious listeners separate the wheat from the chaff, here’s Discogs’ list of must-have albums on Drag City.

15 Albums On Drag City You Need To Hear

Seeking a creative outlet outside his main band Pussy Galore, Neil Hagerty moved from D.C. to New York City with his girlfriend Jennifer Herrema and released three deconstructionist albums as Royal Trux: 1988’s Royal Trux, 1990’s Twin Infinitives and 1992’s Untitled.

They matured on 1993’s Cats and Dogs, their noisy-yet-melodic leap forward that sounds like an update on the classic Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968 boxed set. Cuts like “The Flag,” “The Spectre” and “Up the Sleeve” are about as good as this misunderstood band gets.

That said, Cats and Dogs isn’t Trux’s masterpiece — that distinction goes to its 1995 follow-up Thank You. But it is the most logical gateway to get into the band. From here in their discography, go backward into disembodied shrieks or forward into world-class rock; Cats and Dogs is the nexus point between the dark and the light.

Bill Callahan can write a twelve-word song that’s as detailed as a novel. In fact, he does just that on “Your Wedding” from Julius Caesar, his third album as Smog: “I remember entering you / I’m gonna be so drunk at your wedding.” Then on the next song, he does it in seven: “37 push-ups in a winter-rate seaside motel.”

Musically, Julius Caesar isn’t easy on the ears like later beauties like 2013’s Dream River: 27 years later, he certainly doesn’t mutter about Star Wars over a sample from “Honky Tonk Women.” But his defunct Smog project is full of dry-humored, low-budget pleasures nonetheless, and this album contains a wealth of them.

David Grubbs has worn a lot of hats in the Drag City world, from founding Bastro and Squirrel Bait to jamming with 1960s psychedelic survivors the Red Krayola. Gastr Del Sol, his Chicago-based band that also featured Jim O’Rourke, is the best starting point for this prodigious guitarist’s body of work.

Their 1993 debut album The Serpentine Similar is a post-rock death crawl not dissimilar to Slint. On its largely acoustic follow-up Crookt, Crackt or Fly, Grubbs stripped down the sound to mostly himself, O’Rourke, and eerie percussion by John McEntire and Steve Butters. While the results threaten to become inaccessible, the two guitarists’ tortured melodies gradually become bewitching.

“Every Five Miles” sounds like a Bakersfield chicken-picker being boiled alive before developing portals within portals, “Thos. Dudley Ah! Old Must Dye” sounds exhumed from ancient Babylonian ruins, and “The Wrong Soundings” creaks around like a Tom Waits interlude before detonating into a post-hardcore hitter.

After releasing two solo albums as Palace Brothers, 1993’s amateurish There is No-One What Will Take Care of You and 1994’s emotionally rending Days in the Wake, Will Oldham recorded Viva Last Blues, a careening rock ‘n roll album recorded by Steve Albini.

Without tape hiss to obfuscate the flaws, Oldham’s reassembled backing band is deliciously topsy-turvy; in particular, drummer Jason Loewenstein swings so deeply that the band almost falls off its hinges.

Each song is icy and forbidding, feeling strangely out of time; “The Brute Choir,” “The Mountain Low,” and “We All, Us Three, Will Ride,” seem to be populated by irascible strangers from Red Dead Redemption II.

Even “New Partner,” which would go on to be Oldham’s signature song and be re-recorded for albums like 2004’s Sings Greatest Palace Music and 2018’s Songs of Love and Horror, feels haunted and heavy, a love song with a drop of guilt and iniquity.

A lot of Drag City’s ‘90s output shows the point where primitivist guitar connects to post-rock. On Jim O’Rourke’s Bad Timing, his first of three albums (with 1999’s Eureka and 2001’s Insignificance) to be named after Nicolas Roeg films, that shift happens about four minutes into the opening track “There’s Hell in Hello but More in Goodbye.”

Until then, the song had been meditative acoustic plucking a la John Fahey. Then O’Rourke locks into a loop, repeatedly thumbing the top string without an escape route, and the track begins to pool with smeary piano and ambient synths until it spins into the ether.

The rest of the album traces that pattern again and again until “Happy Trails,” where the dreamy ruminations are crushed with metal guitar then run over by a goofy marching band. All of O’Rourke’s Drag City albums are worth hearing, and Bad Timing, an album full of surprises, sets the pace for each of them.

Whether as a cartoonist, as a poet, or as the leader of his bands Silver Jews and Purple Mountains, David Berman carried himself as a tortured, black-humored indie-rock poet, an image that was tragically cemented in 2019 when he died of suicide days before a tour kickoff.

But while making Silver Jews’ most celebrated record, American Water, “I wanted to make a record that wasn’t some terrible, big, painful experience,” he told The Washington Post in 2008, despite admitting to heavy drug use during the sessions. “I wanted to make records like other people make records, where you’re having fun when you’re doing it.”

Indeed, American Water is mostly a chooglin’ indie rock record peppered with evocative one-liners: “Suburban kids with Biblical names,” “The drums march along at the clip of an IV drip,” “In 1984, I was hospitalized for approaching perfection.” And by the end of its heartfelt, elegiac closing ballad “The Wild Kindness,” American Water feels close to perfection, too.

After the influential post-rock band Slint broke up in 1991 after releasing their acclaimed album Spiderland, their guitarist David Pajo began releasing a flurry of records as Aerial M, M and Papa M. His largely acoustic, Tom Waits-esque Whatever, Mortal offers a grab-bag of his approaches without boiling over into pure noise.

Several tracks are covers or variants on standards; “Over Jordan” adds new lyrics to the spiritual “Wayfaring Stranger,” “The Lass of Roch Royal” is an old Scottish ballad, and “Many Splendored Thing” partly shares its title with the pop song that was covered by Frank Sinatra, Neil Sedaka, and Nat King Cole.

Pajo’s vocal range may be limited, but it suits this material; on Whatever, Mortal, he hauntingly adds another brick to the folk tradition while old cohorts Oldham and drummer Britt Walford add sympathetic backing.

If this Chicago experimental quartet seemed to deconstruct music into oblivion, they chose to see it as “constructing things differently.” “We’re writing songs, we’re not just up there improvising,” vocalist Al Johnson told Pulse of the Twin Cities in 2003. “That’s not schtick up there. It’s four people communicating.”

For their fourth and best album Acre Thrills, the band used their own methodology, mapping out vocal tones with a series of visual aids. On highlights like “Obey Your Concert,” “Total Fruit Warning” and “Make Your Bedroom Great,” Johnson alternates between eerie singing and strangulated hissing while the music writhes around like a misassembled automaton.

The former Sun City Girls guitarist released far-out solo records (like 2007’s While My Guitar Violently Bleeds) that built up to his masterwork on Drag City, Polytheistic Fragments. Featuring representations of Krishna, Vishnu and the Lion of Babylon on its album art, its music is similarly omnivorous, displaying influences from Indian raga to Spanish flamenco.

While Bishop’s freak-folk contemporaries like Six Organs of Admittance and Voice of the Seven Thunders often mix their acoustic sojourns with heavier elements, the guitarist’s appeal is mostly in his database of exotic scales and modes. On compositions like “Cross My Palm With Silver,” “Rub’ al Khali,” and “Tennessee Porch Swing,” Bishop identifies the common DNA between disparate musical forms.

English singer-songwriter Niblett bounced from Secretly Canadian to Too Pure Records on her first few albums (including 2007’s great This Fool Can Die Now, a collaboration with Will Oldham) before joining up with Drag City for The Calcination of Scout Niblett. She had worked with Steve Albini three other times; here he fully kicks open a trapdoor to her mind.

The heavy-hearted Calcination is a solo record in its truest form; Niblett accompanies herself on electric guitar and drums sans backing musicians. It’s a long talk with herself; she alternately considers her inner child (“Bargin”) paces her cage (“Cherry Cheek Bomb”) and grasps for the bottle (“Duke of Anxiety”).

“Something’s leaking from my future / Back into the here and now,” Niblett agonizes on “I.B.D.,” but Calcination sounds like she’s prepared to wrestle that angel with the rest.

After two years of touring on her grandiloquent 2006 album Ys, Newsom’s voice was shot. Swigging whiskey in a poorly ventilated rehearsal room didn’t help.

“I ended up injuring myself and had to go on voice-rest for a few months,” she told The Independent in 2010. After months of silence and visits with speech therapists and a vocal coach, “I’m not totally sure what happened but it definitely feels a lot different now.”

With a sweeter, less abrasive voice than she was previously known for, Newsom opted for a more straightforward approach on Have One On Me, her first (and to date, only) triple album. Despite its length and that 13 of its songs surpass six minutes, the album is paradoxically breezier than any of hers before or since.

Because its highlights are evenly distributed throughout, Have One On Me is best consumed in thirds rather than as a triple shot. The riotous “Good Intentions Paving Co.” bobs and ricochets like a runaway jalopy, “Jackrabbits” is a pin-drop devotional, and “Does Not Suffice” is a packing-and-leaving ballad that recalls Joni Mitchell’s Blue.

Callahan ditched the Smog moniker after 2005’s A River Ain’t Too Much to Love, adopted his own name, and proceeded to make a few of his greatest records. Out of this era (which, among others, contains 2009’s Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle, 2013’s Dream River and 2019’s Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest, Apocalypse is the leanest and sharpest of all.

Even when its sound boils down to a thwacked classical guitar (“Baby’s Breath”) or rude distorted blurts (“America!”), his tree-bark vocal tone and offhanded diction more than colors in the rest of the frame. (“I like to pare away words because I don’t want to waste anybody’s time,” he explained to Pitchfork in 2013.)

“Riding for the Feeling,” one of his best-ever songs, is a slow waltz that bittersweetly examines every facet of departure. “Leaving is easy when you’ve got some place you need to be / I’m giving up this gig for another season,” he sings with a tint of resignation. Don’t go, don’t go, don’t go.

The ultra-prolific Segall deserves a Discogs list as long as this one; whether by himself or with Fuzz, White Fence, the Muggers, or the Freedom Band, the mop-haired, exploratory guitarist has been at the forefront of the psychedelic garage-rock scene since his 2008 debut.

While there are many possible portals to his work — 2012’s Twins, 2014’s Manipulator, 2017’s Ty Segall — the stripped-down Sleeper may go down the easiest of all of them.

“I was not in a good spot,” Segall admitted to Consequence of Sound in 2013. “My dad passed away and I was going through some relationship issues, too. Plus, I was having all of these awful dreams. Ones about sleep and death, and it’s from there that I’d write stuff from.”

A lush, consistent work resembling the acoustic works of Tyrannosaurus Rex, Syd Barrett and David Bowie, Sleeper’s rakish Anglophile quality wrests it out of its prevalent doldrums.

If U.S. Maple’s skronky approach is your poison, this is your next step in that direction. Led by that band’s multi-instrumentalist Todd Rittmann, Dead Rider takes their clamor in a more menacing direction with gnarlier grooves and glitchier production.

Despite the violence of tracks like “Blank Screen,” “Weird Summer” and “The Unnatural Act,” a welcome sense of humor shines through. The short-circuiting synths suggest an Atari game being fried in the microwave, and the rap-damaged “Sex Grip Enemy” contains a memorable cry: “Peanut butter!”

On the night of January 22, 2016, Circuit Des Yeux’s Haley Fohr suffered a mental breakdown… kind of. “Something really dark came down upon me,” she told Loud and Quiet in 2017. “I was going through something spiritual. I was convulsing and vomiting and crying.”

Processing the attack as a spiritual epiphany, Fohr moved out of her house, describing a heightened sense of color and awareness during this time. She eventually wrote Reaching for Indigo about the experience. “This album is my magnum opus,” she said in the same interview, adding she was “pretty proud.”

Fohr should be. Reaching for Indigo is the most fully-realized work she has made under either her Circuit Des Yeux or Jackie Lynn projects. Possessing a commanding, oddly genderless voice (that can be startling to witness live), she imbues “Black Fly,” “Paper Bag,” and “A Story of This World Pt. II” with a doomed sense of beauty and atmosphere.

Purple Mountains – Purple Mountains
(2019)

After the final Silver Jews album, 2008’s Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, David Berman took a decade off from music to read books, publish poetry and essays, and attempt to undo the damage he felt his lobbyist father, Richard Berman, had inflicted on society.

“I saw no one and did nothing,” Berman told The Washington Post in 2019 of this time off. “[My wife] Cassie continued to make friends, to play music, to go on vacations and be with family and I Bartlebied my way out of all of it.”

Eventually, he and Cassie separated, and Berman returned to music with Purple Mountains, a collection of country-leaning songs that practically revel in miserability. It’s all there in the titles — “All My Happiness is Gone,” “She’s Making Friends, I’m Turning Stranger,” “Nights That Won’t Happen” — although Berman being Berman, almost every line therein is quotable.

Purple Mountains was immediately acclaimed upon release, but tragically, Berman’s comeback was cold comfort to him. On August 7, 2019, Berman hanged himself in a Park Slope, Brooklyn, apartment, days before beginning the first Purple Mountains tour. He was 52.

His death brought an American original’s new morning to a thudding halt and sadly capped off a life of struggle. But if Drag City hadn’t recognized and fostered his gifts in the first place, the world might have never met Berman — as well as so many other unforgettable characters.

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4 Comments
  • May 25,2020 at 03:14

    @soul71: Yeah, maybe so. I just thought his softest release would be the easiest gateway for such a multidimensional/prolific artist.

    @scooobd: This is meant to be an introduction to the label. Couldn’t tell you how many “blatant omissions” there are in the long run.

    @zoothorn: Good call!

  • May 22,2020 at 22:10

    Very nice article.
    I would have seen Ty Segall ‘Twins’ instead of ‘Sleeper’.

  • May 21,2020 at 06:44

    Westing (By Musket And Sextant) by Pavement seems like the blatant omission here. It’s a collection, the anthology of their early singles, but it hangs together like a real album. And, um, it’s Pavement!

  • May 8,2020 at 18:46

    Great piece – thanks. I would definitely have included Gary Higgins’ “Red Hash” and the These Trails album.

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