10 Essential Louisville Albums

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10 Essential Louisville Albums

Welcome back to the Treble World Tour, a series of Top 10s covering albums that best represent certain locations—cities, states, territories, even entire nations. We consider representative releases on three levels: they were made by artists from a place, they contain music about or inspired by the place, and/or they were made in that place. The next stop on our musical itinerary? Louisville, Kentucky. With one of the most influential bands of the last 25 years — Slint — back on tour and celebrating a massive box set reissue of their classic 1991 album, Spiderland, we saw fit to explore the music that’s been made in their backyard over the years. Briefly we considered the idea of making it an entire Kentucky list (it is the bluegrass state, after all). But Louisville has a unique character. For starters, as you’ll see below, it’s been instrumental in post-rock and post-hardcore, and an impressive number of guitar slinging innovators have come out of the southern city, right on the Indiana border.

hamp-and-getzLionel Hampton/Stan GetzHamp and Getz
(1956; Verve)
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Kentucky has given the jazz world a handful of key players, including Lexington-born Les McCann and Louisville’s Lionel Hampton, whose career spanned decades, from the swing era on into the 1970s. His back catalogue is sprawling, and you could probably put any number of his classic swing recordings in this plum spot, but there may be no finer half-hour to his name than Hamp and Getz, his collaboration with saxophonist Stan Getz. A vibraphonist who made his name in the swing era, Lionel Hampton eases comfortably into the upbeat rhythms of cool jazz with style and panache, providing a colorful counterpoint to Getz’s sax solos. It’s a vibrant and fun set — accessible for those new to jazz, but overflowing with sonic detail for those well immersed. – JT

squirrel bait skag heavenSquirrel BaitSkag Heaven
(1987; Homestead)
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Squirrel Bait is, for all intents and purposes, the point from which all Louisville indie rock flows outward. A post-hardcore band heavily rooted in the sound of SST punk (particularly Hüsker Dü’s New Day Rising), Squirrel Bait’s personnel included musicians that would later join Slint (Brian McMahan, Britt Walford) and Gastr Del Sol (David Grubbs), as well as frontman Peter Searcy, who launched a career of his own as a singer-songwriter later on. The band’s only full-length, Skag Heaven, is loud and raw, and by all accounts, pretty straightforward considering what would come next for pretty much every musician involved. But while it’s essentially a glimmer of greatness rather than the finished product, it’s hard to hear songs like “Kid Dynamite” or “Virgil’s Return” without being struck by the urge to fuck shit up. – JT

Slint - SpiderlandSlintSpiderland
(1991; Touch and Go)
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If any self-respecting music junkie only knows about Louisville, KY for one reason, it’s Slint. Setting aside the musical past (Squirrel Bait) and future (playing with Will Oldham, Tortoise, The Breeders and The For Carnation), the group’s second — and final — record, Spiderland, stands tall enough on its own to secure them a place in music history. From its brooding, dark, twisting take on traditional rock song structure, to its quiet-yet-defiant spoken-word verses, to its swelling, cinematic climaxes, Spiderland laid the foundation for many a post-rock act to come. Listening to songs like “Good Morning, Captain,” it’s hard to believe that the album was overlooked upon its release. It took a while for everyone to catch up, but it continues to garner respect and admiration, its legacy evident in albums as recent as Ought’s terrific debut, released just a couple weeks ago. – AK

Rodan RustyRodanRusty
(1994; Touch and Go)
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Based on two key records — Slint’s Spiderland and this one right here — Louisville’s was an instrumental scene in terms of shaping the increasingly rhythmically complex sound of post-hardcore, i.e. math rock. In many ways, Rodan and Slint were highly similar acts, blending raucous punk energy with patient builds, haunting atmosphere and time signatures that could turn on a dime. In fact, on Rusty — Rodan’s sole full-length album — their sound seemingly changes at such a breakneck pace as well, transitioning from the gentle instrumental shimmer of “Bible Silver Corner” into the harsh hardcore intensity of “Shiner.” In that sense, Rodan were almost two different bands: The patient, ambient post-rock group, and the seething hardcore beast. And in their best moments, like “Tooth Fairy Retribution Manifesto,” they were both at once. – JT

Palace Music viva last bluesPalace MusicViva Last Blues
(1995; Drag City)
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Before crafting distorted covers alongside Tortoise, and before churning out several dark alt-country masterpieces under his Bonnie “Prince” Billy moniker, Will Oldham had a short-but-successful run of albums under a variety of groups under the Palace name. While each of Oldham’s album’s stand out in their own right, Viva Last Blues contains the right balance of grit and heart to claim the title as the best of the batch. Produced by the legendary Steve Albini, Viva harnesses the dark, raw energy of great Albini-produced gems like Jesus Lizard’s Head or the original cut of Nirvana’s In Utero. But, instead of loud, noisy rock, Oldham captures that same energy at a singer-songwriter pace and volume; crafting his eerily whimsical croon on ten flawless songs that comprise some of the best of his career. And that, friends, is saying something. – AK

Evergreen s/tEvergreenEvergreen
(1996; Hi-Ball)
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With a handful of exceptions, you’re probably reading this list and noticing how much of it is populated by punk or hardcore bands. And you’d be right to reach that conclusion; Louisville’s punk roots go deep, and to this day continue to boast some truly kickass bands. One that didn’t last particularly long, however, was Evergreen, a group that featured Slint’s Britt Walford on drums and played an abrasive, Wire-inspired brand of punk rock that was as tuneful as it was abrasive. But damn did it rock hard. In terms of contemporaries, they were probably closer to bands like Washington D.C.’s The Monorchid than some of the beefier hardcore bands to come out of Louisville in the late ’90s and early ’00s, and there was an off-kilter scrape to standout tracks like tense opener “Fairlane” and the scratchy, slow moving “Solar Song.” Oh, and get this — it was produced by LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, who called Evergreen the most “for-real rock band [he] ever recorded.” – JT

Gastr del Sol CamofleurGastrl del SolCamofleur
(1998; Drag City)
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You could make a very convincing argument that Gastr del Sol’s last album, Camofleur, is in fact a Chicago album, simply because the band recorded the album in Chicago, and featured an array of Chicago musicians. Not to mention the fact that the band was most active in Chicago during their run together. But it gets a little trickier than that; Gastr del Sol was more a collective than a band, featuring contributions from a variety of post-rock heavyweights (such as Tortoise’s John McEntire) led by singer and songwriter David Grubbs — a Louisville native. The group essentially formed in Louisville after Grubbs’ previous band, Washington, D.C. based post-hardcore outfit Bastro, broke up. But enough with the whos, the whys and the hows; let’s get to the whats — the thing that makes Camofleur essential is how effortlessly beautiful it is. It’s not a rock album (it’s a post-rock album, natch), but features elements of rock, folk, jazz and ambient, as well as polyrhythmic elements of Latin and African music to form something unlike anything else. It’s beautiful music; Louisville can and should claim it. – JT

My Morning Jacket It Still MovesMy Morning JacketIt Still Moves
(2003; ATO)
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Listening to some of the albums on this list, it’s easy to forget Louisville’s geographic location — nestled neatly at the Kentucky-Indiana border, at the heart of America. But, despite the fact that their discography spans the range of modern rock, My Morning Jacket has never allowed their sonic approach to wander too far from their roots. Take It Still Moves, for example — the beastly album combines an alt-rock aesthetic with Jim James’ decidedly “Kentucky” croon and a strong favor toward bluegrass-inspired harmonies. From the building grooves of “Mahgeeta” to the solemn blues of “One In The Same,” James et al churn out moving alt country in a way that’s only possible with a little soul running through your veins. But My Morning Jacket don’t just sound like a band from Kentucky — they do their Bluegrass State damn proud. – AK

Young Widows Old WoundsYoung WidowsOld Wounds
(2008; Temporary Residence)
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Young Widows has the ability to make listeners sway their bodies and bang their heads at the same time, and Old Wounds is where this mixture is most potent. Young Widows’ second album is ferocious and loud, but also incredibly calculated for hardcore punk intensity. The recording process of Old Wounds is interesting in itself; the band hired Kurt Ballou (guitarist of hardcore heroes Converge), who wanted to record Young Widows in multiple environments — on tour during live shows, in the band’s rehearsal space in Louisville, and a session at Ballou’s Godcity Studios in Boston. All these hours of recordings were edited and mixed together, and at certain points you can actually hear the crowd or guitarist/vocalist Evan Patterson talking — he says, “You’re getting no money back” to the audience before the start of “Feelers” — randomly scattered throughout Old Wounds. If you haven’t had the chance to see Young Widows live, then Old Wounds is a pretty close approximation; you can feel the warm ecstasy of their live show. The album is heavy and distorted, but when Patterson is sitting alone, strumming his guitar on “The Guitar,” or sending Old Wounds off with a blistering lick on “Swamped and Agitated,” it may instantly put hair on your chest. – JJM

Coliseum - Sister FaithColiseumSister Faith
(2013; Temporary Residence)
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Post-hardcore power trio Coliseum rose from the ashes of other Louisville punk bands like Black Cross and Blue Collar Revenge Theory, though the hook-heavy, melodic approach that Coliseum employs sets them on an entirely separate path. It wasn’t always that way; their self-titled debut and follow-up No Salvation were much closer to the metal-edged destruction of crust-punk. But by the release of Sister Faith, the band had achieved peak accessibility, offering up super catchy highlights like “Doing Time,” the sinister “Under the Blood of the Moon,” or the U2-like delay treatments of “Love Under Will.” And then there’s “Fuzzbang,” which is a vibrant and celebratory punk rock anthem for the ages. Sister Faith is an album that satisfies on first listen, but grows stronger with age. – JT

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View Comment (1)
  • I feel there were some major omissions that should’ve made this list such as Kinghorse- Kinghorse, Endpoint’s In A Time Of Hate, and Crain’s Speed albums. These were legendary Louisville releases that, in my opinion, should’ve been near the top of this list.

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