5 Must-Hear Songs to Celebrate the Life of Studio Legend Steve Albini

If you don’t know Steve Albini’s name, you certainly know his work. He recorded Nirvana’s In Utero, Pixies’ influential Surfer Rosa, PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me, and countless groundbreaking albums.

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Albini, the iconic studio engineer and indie rock musician, died Tuesday at his home in Chicago. He was 61. Taylor Hales of Electrical Audio, the Chicago studio Albini founded, confirmed the cause was a heart attack.

Born in Pasadena, California, on July 22, 1962, Albini was an outspoken critic of the music business and the routine ways artists are exploited. With punk’s ethos and defiance, he preferred “engineer” over “producer” and believed the bands he recorded should sound like themselves.

He grew up in Missoula, Montana, moved to Evanston, Illinois, for college, and earned a degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Albini also fronted the bands Shellac and Big Black.

To celebrate the uncompromising life and work of Steve Albini, here’s a list of five must-hear recordings from a contrarian studio legend.  

“High Gear” from Acme by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (1998)

Albini recorded and mixed “High Gear” by New York blues and garage rock revivalists The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Spencer gained underground prominence with Pussy Galore, and his group’s bass-less punk blues predates both The White Stripes and The Black Keys. During his career, Albini became a magnet for underground bands who unwittingly shaped the mainstream.

“Then Comes Dudley” from Goat by The Jesus Lizard (1991)

The Jesus Lizard is an influential noise rock band that found an underground ally in Albini. The group’s early releases on Chicago’s Touch and Go Records influenced Nirvana, Henry Rollins, and Helmet. Many Nirvana songs from In Utero are direct descendants of The Jesus Lizard, and Albini’s spacious drum sounds and hands-off approach are essential to his legacy.

“Rid of Me” from Rid of Me by PJ Harvey (1993)

Polly Jean Harvey’s second album is another Albini-engineered classic. Following her debut Dry, she nervously signed to Island Records, fearing she might lose creative control. She didn’t. Harvey is a singular force, something she shared with Albini.

Harvey explained Albini’s recording methods: “The way that some people think of producing is to sort of help you to arrange or contributing or playing instruments; he does none of that. He just sets up his microphones in a completely different way from which I’ve ever seen anyone set up mics before, and that was astonishing.”

“Scentless Apprentice” from In Utero by Nirvana (1993)

If you are not testing the volume limits of your speakers, you are listening to this song incorrectly. When Nirvana gathered to record their masterpiece In Utero, they were reacting against the overwhelming commercial success and sonic slickness of Nevermind. However, before Albini committed to working with the planet’s biggest band, he wrote them a letter outlining his list of demands.

Here’s what he wrote: “I’m only interested in working on records that legitimately reflect the band’s own perception of their music and existence. If you will commit yourselves to that as a tenet of the recording methodology, then I will bust my a– for you.”

“Where Is My Mind?” from Surfer Rosa by Pixies (1988)

Without Pixies’ debut album, rock and roll would sound very different. Kurt Cobain wouldn’t have written “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Thom Yorke probably doesn’t write “Creep.” Rivers Cuomo may not have traded heavy metal guitar solos for the songs on Weezer’s Blue Album, and it’s doubtful Billy Corgan and Smashing Pumpkins emerge from Chicago with quiet verses and loud choruses. The “loudQUIETloud” songwriting of Black Francis and the DIY ideals of Steve Albini inspired kids to form bands. Some of those kids became legends, too.

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