4AD Records – 10 Essential Albums

The aim was to learn and improve whilst putting out records that I would want to buy myself.” -Ivo Watts-Russell

4AD records was founded in 1980 and went on to become the most influential independent record label of the next two decades. Under the stewardship of the enigmatic Ivo Watts-Russell, 4AD quickly established themselves as something more that a traditional record label – Ivo had a singular artistic vision and the purity of that vision ensured that anything that was released on 4AD had the mark of quality.

In partnership with graphic designer Vaughan Oliver, Ivo was guided by the principle of art before profit, creating beautifully rendered and packaged ‘artefacts’; for Ivo, how the music was presented to the world mattered more than cutting corners to maximise revenue.

Ivo and 4AD were also universally recognised by virtually all the acts signed to the label for providing a nurturing and supportive environment in which they could make the music they wanted, without the constant fear of being dropped if they didn’t produce hits. When Ivo sold his share of the company in 1999, the label went through a period of transition, and lost their way for a time, but a revival of their fortunes in recent years has seen them take their place once again at the forefront of independent music.

New acts like the National, Bon Iver, St Vincent and Future Islands have helped the label regain their title as harbingers of good taste, even if Ivo’s original vision of the label has changed to reflect the differences in the marketplace. For a comprehensive history of the label and the artists that contributed to that rich history, I strongly recommend Martin Aston’s thoroughly researched and fascinating ‘Facing the Other Way: The Story of 4AD’.  From its vast and varied back catalogue, here are 10 landmark albums (in no particular order) that act as a perfect introduction to the music that made 4AD the record label that it is today.


1. Blue Bell Knoll – The Cocteau TwinsBlue Bell Knoll - Cocteau Twins

The Cocteau Twins were the quintessential 4AD band and one of Ivo’s most successful early signings. The combination of Liz Fraser’s incredible voice and Robin Guthrie’s influential guitar sound and flair in the studio were at the core of a very productive spell on 4AD. Simon Raymonde’s distinctive bass playing added the final piece to the jigsaw – nine albums and a smattering of EPs are the bands enduring legacy – Blue Bell Knoll was arguably the sound of the band at the very peak of their powers.



2. Surfer Rosa – Pixies

Surfer Rosa -PixiesBoston’s Pixies were a break away from the archetypal 4AD band when they signed in 1987. They were first and foremost a garage rock band, but Ivo would never have signed them if he hadn’t seen something different in the way they twisted the conventions of rock music into something a little more malevolent, gleeful, even scary. Doolittle was their breakthrough album but the Steve Albini produced Surfer Rosa, released in 1988, sounded like nothing else on the music scene at the time, despite the standard guitar, bass and drums line-up. Still sounds s fresh and vital to this day.



3. It’ll End in Tears – This Mortal Coil

If the Cocteau Twins were the flagship band for the label, This Mortal Coil were the very embodiment of the 4AD ethos. Very much Ivo’s baby, This It'll End In Tears - This Mortal CoilMortal Coil was a rotating cast of many of the artists associated with the label re-interpreting a selection of songs chosen by Ivo himself. Invariably, the songs were radically reworked and were melancholy in nature, and the whole thing reeked of art with a capital A.  Three sublime albums projected an image of 4AD that was sombre, precious but undeniably beautiful with LIz Fraser’s rendition of ‘Song to the Siren’ becoming the 4AD anthem of choice.



4. The Serpent’s Egg – Dead Can Dance

The Serpents Egg - Dead Can DanceDead Can Dance were the combined talents of Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry and along with the Cocteau Twins, they were one of the acts that helped establish 4AD’s niche on the independent music scene. They started life as an act with strong Goth leanings – Gerrard’s spine tingling wail set against a dark, brooding musical canvas, but over time, they moved further and further away from that sound, introducing elements of World Music into the mix. One of the longest standing acts on the 4AD roster, they were always a duo close to Ivo’s heart before he chose to step down from the label in 1999.



5. Throwing Muses – Throwing Muses

Signed along with fellow Bostonians Pixies, Throwing Muses were another band that defied what we had come to expect from a 4AD band. They were Throwing Muses (self titled)dark, but not in the dramatic, stylised manner of bands like Dead Can Dance – this debut album was the sound of raw, cathartic rage, as singer Kristen Hersh not so much channelled as spewed out her demons over the course of ten chilling songs. They may have gone on to make better albums but none sounded so shockingly visceral as this striking first offering.




6. Pod – The Breeders

Pod -The BreedersPixie’s hugely popular bassist and vocalist Kim Deal formed The Breeders after becoming increasingly marginalised within the Pixies. There were rumours that frontman Black Francis was growing jealous of the attention that Deal was getting in the media and from the bands swelling fanbase. Whether there was any truth in that rumour, there is no denying that Deal found a greater outlet for her creativity as part of the Breeders with debut album Pod garnering the kind of acclaim that she had become used to as part of Pixies. Second album Last Splash was a platinum selling monster hit in the States, far outstripping the record sales of her original band. Vindication for Deal, and one of 4ADs biggest selling albums up to that point.


7.  For Emma, Forever Ago – Bon Iver

Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver) is one of those curious success stories the music business throws up occasionally. Released with little or no expectation of For Emma, Forever Ago - Bon Iversuccess in 2008, For Emma, Forever Ago was the very productive result of three months spent song-writing while holed up alone in a cabin in Wisconsin. It’s an album of shivery beauty, that saw Vernon catapulted into the spotlight as his album of simple acoustic break-up songs became the most talked about record of the year. A worthy addition to the 4AD canon and one of the best albums of the last 10 years.




8. High Violet – The National

High Violet - The National4AD have always had an uncanny knack for identifying unique talent, and the National certainly fall into that category. Their gloomy yet sophisticated take on Post Punk took a while to develop into what it has become today – the National are now one of the most acclaimed rock bands on the planet with a growing commercial appeal. High Violet represented a high watermark for the band; it’s the sound of an act ready to make the tricky leap into the big leagues without losing what made them great in the first place.



9.  Rollercoaster – Red House Painters

Mark Kozelek and Red House Painters were always a perfect fit for 4AD Records. Ivo fell in love with a demo tape of their songs which became their Rollercoaster - Red House Paintersdebut album Down Colourful Hill, released in 1993 – in a move typical of Ivo’s purist approach to the music he cared about, the demos were released as they were. Their next album, the first of two self-titled efforts is often referred to as the Rollercoaster album, reflecting the cover artwork. It’s a record containing some of Kozelek’s most beautiful and melancholy songs, the precursor for future work as Sun Kil Moon and as a solo artist.




10. If You Leave – Daughter

If You Leave - Daughter

Daughter are very much the contemporary face of 4AD, while still maintaining a link with the kind of music that the label built their reputation on.  The London trio burst onto the scene, and quickly created a buzz online as a band to watch. Their debut album If You Leave lived up to all expectations, and in many respects exceeded them – Ellen Tonra’s confessional, gut wrenching lyrics and the band’s sparse, ambient soundscapes have made them one of 4ADs most successful acts in recent years.