It always felt fitting, in a way, that Drag City abstained from participating in the tech-dollar feeding frenzy that is the music streaming ecosystem. It suited the music the Chicago-based independent label has issued over the years: freaked-out, wide-eyed, with an ear bent ever so obliquely toward the traditionally unit-moving sounds of rock and pop. Even if the sounds their artists issued were disparate, they tended to be united in this sort of observant outsiderdom. They were shaggy-haired zoners, hippie-ish skeptics of capital. That they were conscientious objectors of the streaming wars was right, in a cosmic sense.
But the world changes, and even as some of the labels most notable acts were still lobbing cherry bombs at streaming giants, they decided to port a majority of their catalog to Apple Music and Bandcamp last year (though the latter the use mostly as a webstore: only one track from each of the releases is streaming there). They didn’t make any public statements about the decision, as far as I can tell, but the seal was broken. This past weekend, when a significant portion of the catalog came to other streaming services like Tidal and Spotify, it was more or less the fulfillment of an inevitability—a final acknowledgement that ( sigh) this is the way we’re going to be listening to music now I guess.
But the loss of one of the streaming service’s last great holdouts is ultimately a gain for you, the theoretical Spotify subscriber who does not own physical editions of Drag City records (obviously, go buy those too). If you’re not a music critic on Twitter or a big old nerd like me, there is a decent-to-good chance that you have stumbled upon this link with only a passing familiarity with the label outside of a handful of excellent albums by Joanna Newsom. I have bad news for you: those have yet to make it to Spotify, on account of the service being, in her estimation, “a villainous cabal.” Who am I to argue?
The good news though, there’s now hundreds of hours of other music with a similar spirit—a long history of hyperliterate deconstructionists busting up the established history of this thing we call rock music and reassembling it in their own image. Some of the label’s most notable acts are still holding out from Spotify, et al., but below is an education of sorts on the sorts of freaks who’ve inhabited the label across the decades. You may know some of these—and if you work at a left-of-center-leaning record store in the Midwest you will certainly have gripes with my skewed collection of records below—but if there’s any you’ve never heard, you’re going to want to spend some time living in their strange worlds.
(Update: Since the original publication of this article a number of Royal Trux's records have made their way to streaming services. Consider those equally essential.)
Various Artists, Hey Drag City (1994)
Muffled garage-band abstractions, otherworldly art-punk mutations, and scuzz folk psychobabble all share space on this early comp—a survey of the years where every Drag City band consisted virtuosos who insisted on sounding like shit or audiophiles who refused to learn how to play their instruments. Royal Trux, Pavement, Smog, Will Oldham, and Silver Jews all trade in gloriously fucked scum-pop, and those are just the ones you’ve already heard of.
Gastr Del Sol, Crookt, Crackt, or Fly (1994)
The second Gastr Del Sol full-length, and the first to fold in inveterate Chicago experimenter Jim O’Rourke is an impossible collage of acoustic guitar lines all overlapping and intertwining in these harsh, sharp sculptural ways that make you want to invent new hyphenated genres to try and pin in down. People try to call this post-rock, but it’s more like the world’s most tender car crash, strands of steel buzzing and clanging and intertwining with each other in ways both surreal and supple.
Flying Saucer Attack, Further (1995)
As their name suggests, the English duo of David Pearce and Rachel Brook channel the hallucinatory, interstellar energy of kosmische on their second album as Flying Saucer Attack—a co-release with Domino—unfurling unearthly guitar drones, dizzy fingerpicking, and whispered vocals that stretch out gaseously to fill all the space in the room. It’s prime example of a certain strain of Drag City release that seems tailor-made for lying alone in the dark.
Silver Jews, American Water (1998)
Sometimes the consensus is the consensus for a reason. Everyone’s favorite moment in the career of David Berman, America's greatest poet in plaid, is one of the finest documents of 90s rock writ large. Wittily paced, psychedelically detailed, and arranged as if the whole rhythm section is held together with duct tape and elastic from old socks, American Water is a pithy portrait of the United States' landscape, an untangling of academic masculinity in the era of the dawning web, and a full-throated exegesis of the living spirit of indie rock as smart guys with arched brows and questionable vocal talents (c.f. “All my favorite singers couldn’t sing”) asymptotically approaching perfection.
Loren Mazzacane-Connors and Alan Licht, Hoffman Estates (1998)
Helmed, as many of freest-spirited works of the era were, by Jim O’Rourke, this collaboration-turned-experimental-ensemble-clusterfuck is a perfect representation of just how far out there the minds at Drag City dared to tread. In addition to finding Connors’ furious guitar scribbles at their most legible, and Licht’s distortion burst at their most muted, this record also included a cast of players including drone monolith Kevin Drumm, avant bassist Joshua Abrams and a smattering of well regarded brass and woodwinds players (how many records on your favorite label have a credited cornet player?). The center of gravity here is low and slow, but the pieces bloom outward, like columns of smoke from an old factory.
Edith Frost, Telescopic (1998)
A Texas songwriter of great impressionist detail treads at the distorted borders between folk and frayed avant impulses. Standing clear-headed at the center of the fogged instrumentation, she sings of memory, loss, and love in a way that almost feels synesthetic—tangling up the sensorial details in narratives as lovingly fuzzed-out as her guitar lines. Telescopic’s an obvious, if undercited, antecedent to reams of Bandcamp-borne indie rock records. It’s easy enough to imagine a world where this is as beloved as an early Alex G record, or the Lucy Dacus debut, or something similarly rough-hewn and maturely realized.
U.S. Maple, Acre Thrills (2001)
Chicago noise rock band U.S. Maple more or less followed the accepted experimentalists’ trajectory from early abstractions into more figurative forms. But this 2001 record catches them somewhere in the middle of that Animorphs transformation, which everyone knows is the most unsettling state. The fluttering guitar lines play melodies, undoubtedly, but they’re often playing three or four different ones at once, making for music that’s heavy, complex, and hard to follow. You can almost hear them straining to evolve toward more traditional shapes, but the best parts here are in the failures to coalesce, when they just lean on off-kilter loops for minutes at a time.
Sir Richard Bishop, Polytheistic Fragments (2007)
One of a great many stops on the prolific post-Sun City Girls career of the younger Bishop brother, Polytheistic Fragments demonstrates the improvisatory alacrity he brought to solo guitar work when he was really locked in. Drawing on campy jazz, drippy drones, and raga-ish guitar soli, its both playful and trance-inducing—the rare record fit for both marathon dishwashing and meditative inner travels.
Scout Niblett, The Calcination of Scout Niblett (2010)
The fifth studio album—and Drag City debut—by the English songwriter Scout Niblett, opens with a distortion that sounds broken. It’s a feral, involuntary squelch, wrung painfully from steel strings as if it were desperately trying to remain contained. That’s sorta the spirit of Niblett’s songs too, sparse assemblages of electric guitar and voice that she occasionally explodes into knives-out chaos. On “I.B.M” she sings that she “throws thunderbolts with the best of them,” and she’s right, these are pieces of mythic proportion.
Bill Callahan, Apocalypse (2011)
Smog’s mastermind does some good old fashioned American doomsaying about five years before that became the default mode of indie rock songwriting. Sarcastic odes to the country’s id collide with Astral Weeks projections and castaway visions that end with shooting a flare gun at God. Few songwriters write make existential despair so exhausting and so endearing at the same time. Also, consider this a blanket recommendation for everything he’s done, but start here and work backwards.
Ty Segall and White Fence, Hair (2012)
Two of Drag City’s younger heads teamed up in 2012 for a record that pushed each to extremes—Segall to his most hallucinatory frayed edges, White Fence’s Tim Presley to more songy territory—which made this one a blissful trip through the psychedelic hinterlands around punk/garage/scuzz/whatever the fuck it is these guys do exactly. Lysergic love songs, moving meditations on the nature of time, and violent Buñuelian surrealism all get boiled by the fuzz into some disgusting cosmic sludge. So, uh, drink up.
Bitchin Bajas, Bajas Fresh
Proof that Drag City’s dedication to the true freaks never subside, last year they put out this masterful double-album by the Chicagoan drone heads and tape manipulators in Bitchin Bajas. Marathon passages of synthetic polychrome and guitar (?) scribbling would make Manuel Gottsching proud. But in keeping with the spirit of their labelmates and forbears the duo keep it light, stitching together their improvisations in haphazard and handmade ways, and tying it all together with a reference to a middling fast-casual Tex-Mex chain. Can’t ever risk getting too serious.