"Despite recording some truly iconic albums that became a huge part of pop culture history, he always felt like one of us": Five seminal records Steve Albini worked on

The members of the Japanese experimental rock band Mono perform on stage at the Trabendo in Paris on December 11, 2014
Japan's MONO (Image credit: MATTHIEU ALEXANDRE/AFP via Getty Images)

As both a sound engineer and a musician, it is hard to quantify just how influential Steve Albini has been to me on a creative, technical and philosophical level when it comes to music. Despite recording some truly iconic albums that became a huge part of pop culture history, he always felt like one of us. He had a fiercely independent and DIY spirit that absolutely never broke or wavered in his many decades of working with bands. 

He booked his own tours for his band Shellac, who regularly played small venues and interacted with their audience in humorous ways. He hated perceived music industry bullshit with a fierce passion (he considered his wife Heather Whinna an expert detector of it), and only cared about serving the art of those he worked with. Famously refusing to take royalties on music he recorded and only ever asking for a flat rate – something which applied whether he was working for Nirvana or Raketkanon. He was always accessible to answer questions via e-mail or Twitter, replying to inquiries about his recording techniques in a thorough, matter-of-fact and efficient way. In our small scene, we all know someone who has made a record with him. We are not likely to see someone like him ever again.

With all this in mind, I've picked five of my favourite albums to be engineered by Albini. No mean feat given that he has probably touched more than a thousand records during the course of his life. I've picked my favourite works rather than going right for the best-known ones, and refer to him as an engineer rather than a producer here because that's what he considered himself – a tradesman who specialised in using analogue gear to record a band in a way that captured what they were about.

MONO - Hymn to the Immortal Wind (2009)

Japanese post-rock quartet MONO began their working relationship with Albini on their third album, Walking Cloud and Deep Red Sky, Flag Fluttered and the Sun Shined, but 2009's Hymn to the Immortal Wind is where their partnership really started to flourish. 

Albini's organic approach to recording bands helped portray MONO exactly as they are – a hard-touring group at their best when they are playing live. To this day when you hear MONO performing Ashes In The Snow at one of their live shows, you feel the presence of that recording. Because it captured the essence of the band so perfectly. All of the elements are there with a sense of togetherness – nothing stands out as being overdubbed.

Early in the song, you hear a disembodied voice cueing in the guitar – a voice I have always assumed was Albini himself. And it was just kept there to preserve the integrity of what was committed to tape. A small detail I have always loved. 

MONO have recorded the majority of their output with him ever since, and their upcoming album Oath may sadly be one of the last things to feature an Albini credit. The footage above shows the band playing a song from Oath at Albini's Electrical Audio studios during the recording of that album.

Jawbreaker - 24 Hour Revenge Therapy (1994)

Taken on during a very hectic period in his life when he was engineering up to 100 records a year, Jawbreaker's third full-length album is the exact kind of thing that Steve Albini excelled at capturing: a no-nonsense, straight-to-the-point power trio writing simple, heartfelt songs. 

The recording schedule was notoriously tight, with Jawbreaker taking up residence in the Albini home for a week until tracking was complete. While the band did end up re-recording a couple of songs in California, Albini's touch can be found on the majority of the record, including Do You Still Hate Me? and West Bay Invitational.

As recounted in the 2017 documentary Don't Break Down, Albini originally thought he was being booking by the band Jawbox and was largely unfamiliar with Jawbreaker. There is a very matter-of-fact, hands-off feeling to this record – possibly more noticeably than anything else Albini recorded - but once again, the spirit of the band is fully intact. 

In an Interview with Pitchfork in 2017, Albini said about working with Jawbreaker; "The band is doing all the work, I’m sort of part of the equipment." This philosophy is something he has been vocal about over the years, with the engineer essentially saying he wants to be paid like a plumber; do the work, take the fee and move on to something else. He even went uncredited on the original release. The way he preferred it.

Raketkanon - Rktkn#2

Raketkanon only made one of their three albums with Albini; their 2015 sophomore release Rktkn#2. But in my opinion, it is their best one. The music became weirder, goofier and contained more space. Songs like Florent, which goes from dense and impactful before leaning into spacious abstract noise, lend themselves perfectly to Albini's style of recording. 

The second track, Nico Van Der Eeken, has a particular impact by just starting with drums alone. Whenever an Albini-engineered record begins with just drums, it is immediately identifiable. There's just a character there that is often mimicked but never matched, due to Albini's incredible live room in Electrical Audio – an instrument in itself and something of a recurring character among his recorded work.

Albini frequently talked in interviews about his drum recording technique, and how applying a 20ms delay to room mics would bring out the life in the drums. You can hear that all over this record. 

Nirvana – In Utero (1993)

I've tried to be a little less obvious with my choices so far, but there's absolutely no way you can't mention this one. Nirvana became the biggest band on the planet after the release of Nevermind in 1991, and a lot of attention was on them. That also meant a lot of pressure to follow it up with something even bigger. 

Perhaps seeking a way through all this that they were comfortable with, the band looked to Albini to record their third album. Being the legend he was, he took the biggest band in the world and turned them into a noise-rock band. 

The guitar sound is noisy and trashy (YouTuber Aaron Rash has done great work investigating Albini and Kurt Cobain's approach here). The core of the band recorded live to retain the maximum impact, and there is a stripped-back, song-first approach with no unnecessary overdubbing or double tracking. Even the lead single, Heart-Shaped Box, has a raw, uncompromising feel to it as a result of Albini's nuts and bolts workflow – and a rather divisive guitar solo amongst the band members.

A song like Scentless Apprentice – which begins with just the drums – really highlights just how incredibly natural yet punchy Albini was able to make a drum kit sound. The recording makes Dave Grohl's hammering drum pattern during that song sound like the singular instrument it is, as opposed to every individual drum sounding like it was recorded in a different stratosphere. 

There's a drummer's perspective to the panning of the kit, and the use of room and ambient mics were a core part of obtaining this sound, as was the space in which they were recorded. Albini has always used distance to create depth for drum sounds and there is no finer example than this.

Helmet - Meantime (1992)

It's hard to think of a band more primed to work with Albini than Page Hamilton's band – an outfit that encapsulates everything he was known for recording so expertly. Noisy guitars with janky rhythmic patterns, aggressive drums with bullet-like snare hits and a natural, room-driven sound.

Albini proved once again to be the bane of the commercial industry with this album – a large bidding war had taken place over Helmet, with major labels desperate to get the 'next Nirvana'. Steve didn't care, however, and was just interested in capturing the raw power that the band had and committing it to tape. 

The album's lead single, Unsung, has a catchy chorus but descends into a noisy open noted outro with that classic room sound being heavily incorporated. The sharp contrast between the rawness of Albini's original recordings and the mixing of Andy Wallace (who incorporated snare replacement samples) may have irked Albini, but the strange hybrid of sounds actually led to the album sounding more unique and unusual.

This was a very tough list to collate, and there were dozens of records that could have made the cut - Including but not limited to albums by Neurosis, Sunn 0))), Jesus Lizard and Low. Which shows just how much of an important part of the underground Steve Albini was, and what a legacy he will leave behind. Rest in power, Steve.

Sam Drower

Sam Drower is a sound engineer, musician and all-around music junkie based in Bristol, UK. He began contributing to MusicRadar in 2020, when the global pandemic brought live music to a screeching halt. When not behind the mixing desk for various bands, he is playing bass for blackened mathcore group Host Body.