The late musician, record producer and audio engineer crystallised his critical view of the music industry through cuttingly funny columns, interviews and reviews. Remembering his legacy as an opinionated champion of independent music, we look back on 6 pieces from the archive.

Revered rock producer Steve Albini, who’s death was announced yesterday (7 May) at 61, is leaving a legacy as a vocal and uncompromising advocate for underground musicians. Criticising the industry for taking advantage of artists and homogenising popular music for commercial gain, Albini called out money-grabbing labels, championed independent scenes and rejected much of how modern music was recorded. 

Staunch in his beliefs, Albini made his outlook (and enemies) clear throughout his career, both in how he moved through the industry (Albini took no royalties from artists he worked with) and in direct, sometimes stinging interviews.

Also writing for various music zines and art criticism publications in his years as part of 80s punk rock band Big Black and beyond, the early formation of this ideology can be traced back to his time studying Journalism at Northwestern University. In columns, interviews and reviews, his tone was fervent, flamboyant, cuttingly funny and often pissed off. Look back on 6 of his most memorable pieces.


'The Problem With Music'

Article for The Baffler, December 1993

Albini’s ideas were laid out most clearly in his seminal essay ‘The Problem with Music’, published in art criticism journal The Baffler in 1993. 

He made a case against music trends of the moment, specifically the use of equalisers, compression and “trendy electronics and other flashy shit that nobody really needs”. Arguing that they traded in quality for commercialisation, he wrote: “It doesn’t matter how awful the recording is, as long as it goes through a tube limiter, somebody will claim it sounds “warm,” or maybe even “punchy.” They might even compare it to the Beatles. I want to find the guy that invented compression and tear his liver out. I hate it. It makes everything sound like a beer commercial.”

Elsewhere in the article, he criticised unqualified producers taking on the work of engineers, with words like “punchy” and “warm” return offenders: “[They] use meaningless words to make their clients think they know what’s going on. Words like “Punchy,” “Warm,” “Groove,” “Vibe,” “Feel.” Especially “Punchy” and “Warm.” Every time I hear those words, I want to throttle somebody.”

Going on to villiainise record deals and speculate on the skewed balance of profits for artists and labels, he concludes: “Some of your friends are probably already this fucked.”


'Three Pandering Sluts and their Music Press Stooge'

A letter to music critic Bill Wyman, published in Chicago Reader, 1994

Identifying Chicago alt-rock artists Liz Phair, The Smashing Pumpkins and Urge Overkill as what he perceived as “frauds”, in 1994 Albini famously published an open letter to music critic Bill Wyman criticising his endorsement of them. “These are not “alternative” artists any more than their historical precursors. They are by, of and for the mainstream,” he wrote.

“Artists who survive on hype are often critic’s pets. They don’t, however, make timeless, classic music that survives trends and inspires generations of fans and other artists. There are artists in Chicago doing just that, but you don’t write about them. You save your zeal instead for this year’s promo fixtures. Shame on your lazy head. Clip your year-end column and put it away for ten years. See if you don’t feel like an idiot when you reread it.”

In 2016, Wyman recounted the full story here, reflecting on the takedown and painting an evocative picture of “a crazy time in music”.


'Eyewitness Record Reviews'

Forced Exposure #17, 1991

Writing for Boston-based independent music zine Forced Exposure, which focused on obscure punk and was known for its opinionated stance and sardonic tone, Albini’s voice was fitting. In a piece in 1991, he undermined the hype around the Pixies and their ‘Surfer Rosa’ album – a record he’s commonly remembered for working on himself.

“The Pixies “Surfer Rosa” LP: A patchwork pinch loaf from a band who at their top dollar best are blandly entertaining college rock. Their willingness to be “guided” by their manager, their record company and their producers is unparalleled. Never have I seen four cows more anxious to be led around by their nose rings.”

“Except that I got to rewrite their songs with a razorblade, thought the drums sounded nice, and managed to get Nate the Impaler on the LP as a cameo, I remember nothing about this album, although I thought it was pretty good at the time.”

Albini did later soften his views, apologising for his remarks in 2005 – “I don’t think that I regarded the band as significantly as I should have” – and further explained his original point of view in an interview with Life of the Record.


'Tired of Ugly Fat?'

A column for monthly 80s Chicago music magazine Matter

As a frequent contributor to 80s music zine Matter (even providing his personal phone number in its 10th issue for any readers who might have any questions), Albini held a monthly column called ‘Tired of Ugly Fat?‘.

In Matter #11, he expressed concern for the stale state of the music industry and called for a fresh wave of artists to break through: “If I were to make any sort of generalization (and it looks like I’m going to, doesn’t it?), it would have to be that we are plum ready for some new blood and some new noise.” Equally as zealous and hyperbolic about good music as his disillusionment with those who capitalise on it, he puts forward some recomendations of his own.

“There’s this Saints album called Casablanca that was recorded during one of their reconciliatory phases and has more heartfelt emotion and unpretentious, raucous music than anything I’ve heard in a long time. I’ve heard rumors that it’s been issued in England under a different title, but the one I’ve got is from Australia, and it has no additional information. If you can find it, pay whatever they ask for it.”

“Last year, Mich Kreight Ihr Nicht, an unheralded 12-incher by Tommi Stumpff, showed up in Vintage Vinyl, and turned me into a slathering imbecile. It’s nothing but frantic electronic rhythms, German screams and synthesizer noise blasts, but somehow it’s one of the most compelling, frightening and amazing records ever to widen my cochleas. Like old DAF taken to a psychotic extreme. This proves unequivocably that you don’t need big hair, an image, or even use of both your legs to make brilliant music.”

“Live Skull. From the same general frame of mind as the Swans, Sonic Youth, and Circle-X, these guys seem to have distilled their music to a higher degree, saying what those other bands only implied, running where they only plodded. They have one self-titled 12-inch EP out that almost justifies New York’s existence.”


'Hüsker Dü? Only Their Hairdresser Knows For Sure'

Matter, September 1983

Conducting Matter zine’s first interview with punk rock group Hüsker Dü, Albini captures a band on the rise sharing his own commitment to independence – and although he maintains a brusque distance, his stamp of approval feels implicit.

“Husker Du run their record label out of Mould’s spare room, but manage to secure national and international distribution for all their releases nonetheless. It’s sort of a cottage industry with them,” he wrote. “We’ve got a checkbook, a telephone, a desk and a typewriter. I have a file cabinet and Greg does all the artwork,” founder and guitarist Bob Mould tells him. “That’s it. We all work, but I usually do sound for other bands, odd jobs and things like that.”


'Reckless Records: Tomatillos, “pop”, & Neil Young'

Published in Chicago Reader, 2009

Having been asked by Reckless Records to write something about record stores for record store day, Chicago Reader ran his runaway response, in which he compares record stores to farmers markets, as an ad. 


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