Label Watch: Matador
We run the rule over some of the best artists and albums to emerge on this most beloved of indie labels.
It’s a classic story - a person decides to run a record label from their bedroom, the early releases catch the Zeitgeist, and before you know it what started out as a passion-project has become one of the definitive imprints of its age.
So it was for Matador, a label that was landing releases in the upper-echelons of the end-of-year lists pretty soon after Chris Lombardi started it up in 1989. However, in the years since Matador has held its position at the top of the alt-rock pyramid, moving with the times while still maintaining an instantly identifiable core style. That sound - grungy yet harmonious, finely-poised between taut and slack - has run through many of their finest releases, though it’s by no means all that the label has to offer. In this here list we chronicle ten of the artists and albums which have come to define Matador down the years.
Best artists on Matador
Though at the time of writing her last album (2018’s ‘Wanderer’) came out via Domino, Cat Power was a mainstay on Matador for well over a decade. In that period Charlyn Marie "Chan" Marshall grew from an idiosyncratic singer-songwriter into a big figure in the alternative pop landscape.
It was a smart move for Marshall to have Cat Power’s first LP for Matador, 1996’s ‘What Would The Community Think’, produced by Steve Shelley - there was certainly plenty of overlap between Marshall’s grunge-inflected tunes and the stuff Shelley was cooking up as part of Sonic Youth. Marshall’s music would maintain this noisy rock edge for many years, though with each new Cat Power record she also worked a little more Americana and acoustic balladry into the mix to boot. It’s a blend which eventually saw her achieve mainstream success - after ‘You Are Free’ (2003) charted on the Billboard 100, her breakout album ‘The Greatest’ (2006) landed in the top-forty in several countries. The somewhat rootsier sound of ‘Jukebox’ (2008) then laid the groundwork for ‘Sun’ (2012), an album which went top-ten in the U.S.A. by both reaching back to Cat Power’s alt-rock roots and also incorporating more synth-pop timbres into her sound.
Guided By Voices
Guided By Voices have put out so much music on so many different labels that it really feels strange to pin the band down to one imprint in particular. However, in the 1990s and early 2000s this insatiable outfit released a decent wedge of music on Matador, including arguably their most seminal work (1995’s ‘Alien Lanes’) and certainly their highest-charting (2002’s ‘Universal Truths and Cycles’). The label can also take a degree of credit for leading Guided By Voices away from the rough ‘n’ ready lo-fi rock sound of their early releases into an era of more polished studio recordings.
Nowadays Guided By Voices is basically Robert Pollard’s pet project, and he was also a key figure in the band’s Matador era. However, Pollard was by no means the only talent around in the Guided By Voices lineup at that point - Doug Gillard (Nada Surf), Tobin Sprout and Kevin March (Those Bastard Souls) were some of the other musicians in the mix.
Interpol’s shtick can be neatly summarised in one sentence - what if The Strokes had spent more time listening to Joy Division than The Velvet Underground? With a visual aesthetic which stayed just the right side of ‘American Psycho’, Interpol were a leading light of the 2000s post-punk revival but also distinguished themselves from the pack through their slightly Gothic sense of nihilism.
Bar a brief stint on a major label for 2007’s ‘Our Love To Admire’, New York City’s pre-eminent doomsayers have released all of their LPs on Matador. This means that they’ve given the imprint one classic album (2002 debut ‘Turn On The Bright Lights’), one pretty-great follow-up (2004’s ‘Antics’) and a bunch of records which have solidified their status as a mid-tier indie-rock group of consistent excellence (everything they did in the 2010s). It’s worth noting that frontman Paul Banks has released a couple of solo LPs via the label as well - though unfortunately not his 2013 mixtape ‘Everybody On My Dick Like They Supposed To Be’, an album which blew the notion that Interpol were a bunch of humourless goons out of the water on the strength of its title alone.
Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
They may have blues in their name, but the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s circuit-fried garage-rock sound makes them more of a forerunner for acts like The White Stripes, The Black Keys and The Black Lips than it does, say, Seasick Steve. After turning heads in the groups Pussy Galore and Boss Hog, Jon Spencer has led various iterations of this outfit for almost three decades at the time of writing. In those years he has become something close to royalty in the more leftfield end of the rocksphere, much-admired by those in the know and a collaborator with the likes of Beck and Martina Topley-Bird.
Though the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion have hopped between labels a fair bit since dropping debut album ‘A Reverse Willie Horton’ back in 1991 they have frequently returned to Matador. Indeed, the imprint can lay claim to several of the records which Jon Spencer aficionados rank among his finest work, and all of the major studio LPs released by the band up to 2004 featured on Matador in one territory or another - 1993’s ‘Extra Width’, 1994’s ‘Orange’ and 1998’s ‘Acme’ to name but three.
While Liz Phair kept making albums well into the new Millennium, it's fair to say that the Chicago singer-songwriter is best remembered for the trio of LPs she released via Matador in the 1990s. Indeed, Phair’s first two, 1993’s ‘Exile In Guyville’ and the following year’s ‘Whip-Smart’, are still held up as some of the definitive tomes to emerge from alternative rock’s imperial phase.
‘Exile In Guyville’ remains the yardstick for many offbeat singer-songwriter LPs which have emerged since. The air of detachment with which Phair delivered her funny, forthright lyrics nicely offset the album’s instrumental mish-mash, one which took in everything from early R.E.M. and Pixies to the nascent grunge and shoegaze scenes but still basically did its own thing. Artists like Courtney Barnett and the aforementioned Malkmus owe a decent whack to ‘Exile In Guyville’. ‘Whip-Smart’ leaned a little more into slacker sounds without sacrificing any of Phair’s idiosyncratic charm, while 1998’s ‘Whitechocolatespaceegg’ was a warm album which dealt with Phair’s new motherhood.
When you think about it, it's pretty amazing what Mogwai have achieved in their career. The band make loud, uncompromising post-rock which pretty much never features lyrics and certainly has no time for singalongs, yet with this sound they have achieved worldwide fame and scored big on the UK album charts several times.
Mogwai formed in Glasgow at around the same point as the likes of Belle And Sebastian and Camera Obscura, but records such as Matador debut ‘Come On Die Young’ (1999) stood in stark contrast to the twee-pop trailblazing of those other acts. Dynamic and bold, Mogwai took the loud-quiet-loud aesthetic of Pixies to a hitherto-unheard extreme, balancing searing instrumental rock with passages of etherised beauty.
There has always been great deftness to Mogwai’s compositional approach. Bar perhaps Radiohead, few other bands have combined a disparate array of influences with such consistent success - ambient, contemporary classical and electronica tones can be parsed on works like ‘Mr Beast’ (2006). Given the cinematic scope of their sound it’s no surprise that Mogwai have become increasingly courted by film and television directors, with Darren Aronofsky and Douglas Gordon among those who have commissioned compositions from the band.
The motherload. To me and many, many others, Pavement are the group against which all other U.S. indie-rock outfits are judged. Big but not too big, clever but not too clever, Pavement’s music hits that sweet-spot between janky invention and melody-rich songcraft over and over. They’re one of those bands that you’re always in the mood to listen to. Timeless stuff.
All five of the studio albums which Pavement released throughout the 1990s are hugely important, and Matador had something to do with every one of them. People were wowed by the playfulness of Pavement’s debut LP ‘Slanted And Enchanted’ (1992) and follow-up ‘Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain’ (1994) - the band’s sonic palette shaded on grunge, but their unconventional song structures and the laconic drawl of vocalist Stephen Malkmus drew from The Fall, Sonic Youth and Television. 1996’s ‘Wowee Zowee’ may have divided fans, but the record’s eclectic nature and the scale of its ambition would influence many. ‘Brighten The Corners’ (1997 - this Norman Records™ chum-muncher’s favourite Pavement album, dontcha know) and ‘Terror Twilight’ (1999) split the difference between ‘Wowee Zowee’ and its more focussed predecessors.
Since Pavement canned it Malkmus has gone on to distinguish himself in his own right. His many albums leading Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks have gently built on the Pavement sound without upsetting the apple cart too much, and he has also released a handful of charmingly offbeat solo records. The rest of the band are no slouches either - Scott Kannberg’s Preston School Of Industry/Spiral Stairs, Steve West’s Marble Valley and Bob Nastanovich’s time alongside Malkmus in Silver Jews (RIP David Berman) being just a few examples of their extracurricular activities.
You know when you hear a Perfume Genius song. Even though Mike Hadreas’ project pulls from many other artists - John Grant, Cocteau Twins, Atlas Sound, Xiu Xiu - there’s something in the fragile beauty of his music that is totally unmistakeable.
In just shy of a decade on Matador, Hadreas has released five Perfume Genius LPs. The first one, 2010’s ‘Learning’, was a homely album of bittersweet ballads that had one thinking of Daniel Johnston. While Hadreas has opened his sound up a little more with each new Perfume Genius album, the mournful, watercolour queer-pop stylings that he established on ‘Learning’ have persevered. By 2020’s ‘Set My Heart On Fire Immediately’ Hadreas may have reached a point where he was tackling power-pop and art-rock, but the slightly more driving rhythms are still offset by vocals that plead for peace and absolution. It’s a style which never fails to move the listener, and one which has garnered Hadreas many admirers.
Sleater-Kinney probably come to mind more as a Kill Rock Stars/Sub Pop act depending on when you discovered them, but Matador actually handled the UK releases of some of the band’s definitive work. 1997’s ‘Dig Me Out’, 1999’s ‘The Hot Rock’ and 2000’s ‘All Hands On The Bad One’ all bore the Matador logo, and the label also reissued Sleater-Kinney’s first two albums ‘Sleater-Kinney’ (1995) and ‘Call The Doctor’ (1996) around the same time.
These records represent some of the most important advances made by any U.S. indie band post-’Slanted And Enchanted’. Sleater-Kinney sound is unmistakable to this day, running with the energy of riot grrrl yet also incorporating more sophisticated songcraft into the mix. As well as being full of first-rate tunes, the sense of camaraderie that these LPs forged with the listener means that they remain beloved all these years on. Big Thief, Modest Mouse and many others all operate in Sleater-Kinney’s shadow.
Yo La Tengo
Though they wouldn’t have known it at the time seeing as they formed in the mid-1980s, Yo La Tengo really missed a trick by not calling themselves Yolo Tengo. Imagine the money, or at least the cred, they’d have bagged when Drake came along. However, maybe Yo La Tengo actually dodged a bullet on that count - after all, if they’d become really big they wouldn’t have been able to solidify their status as one of the most fawned-over cult rock bands of their times.
Yo La Tengo are a very notable group in the annals of U.S. indie-rock - indeed, quite a few of the bands listed here probably wouldn’t exist in the same way without this New Jersey group (looking at you, Pavement). Given their influence and the fact that, bar a couple of albums in the early 90s, every single one of Yo La Tengo’s studio LPs has come out on Matador, there’s a strong case to be made that they are the label’s definitive band - top-tier releases like ‘Painful’ (1993), ‘I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One’ (1997), ‘And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out’ (2000) and ‘There’s A Riot Going On’ (2018) certainly have the right balance of distorted crunch, dreamy atmospherics and wiry guitar work to place Yo La Tengo high on the list.
Best albums on Matador
Car Seat Headrest is one of the more recent Matador signings flying the flag of their label forebears - Pavement, Superchunk et al. 2016’s ‘Teens Of Denial’ spins that sound in a variety of pleasing directions. When ‘Teens Of Denial’ really gets going there is some Cloud Nothings to Car Seat Headrest’s combo of driving guitars and sing-song melodies, but the moments where it eases up sees project mastermind Will Toledo shading in a folksiness derived from Neutral Milk Hotel.
Fucked Up rule. I mean, how many other hardcore punk bands can you think of who’d even attempt to write something like ‘David Comes To Life’, a four-part rock opera about a guy who works in a lightbulb factory? Not many, that’s how many. This record runs to almost eighty minutes and it slays for every single one of them. No-one can do righteous affirmation like Damian Abraham and his crew, their distorted frenzies climbing ever higher with each new track. The fact that Fucked Up released this thing, unquestionably their highest-concept work, directly after they’d hit big by winning the Polaris Music Prize for ‘The Chemistry Of Common Life’ just makes ‘David Comes To Life’ kick even harder.
One of the more furious bands to emerge in recent times, Danish group Iceage really hit their stride on their second studio LP, 2013’s ‘You’re Nothing’. While the gothic noise-punk sound that they had cultivated on their early releases remained, this album found Iceage adding a little compositional discipline into the mix for good measure. The result was a record which doesn’t so much emerge from the speakers as tear them apart like bars on a cage. Think early-days Nick Cave if he had METZ as his backing band.
Norman Records’ album of the year alert! Yes, the first solo LP from Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon took the crown in 2019, fending off competition from full-lengths like Big Thief’s ‘U.F.O.F.’, fka twigs’ ‘Magdalene’ and black midi’s ‘Schlagenheim’. It really is a quite stunning record this - across ‘No Home Record’s nine tracks Gordon moves between harsh noise-rock, industrial electronics, droning almost-metal and even a little blown-out trap. ‘No Home Record’ could so easily fall apart, but so great is Gordon’s command here that the whole thing comes off as wickedly brilliant.
Kurt Vile got the balance just right on 2013’s ‘Wakin On A Pretty Daze’, softening up the furrowed-brow Americana musings of his excellent previous outing ‘Smoke Ring For My Halo’ while also journeying into the Pope Of Chilltown mode he’s occupied since. Beginning with its wonderful almost-title-track, a ten-minute-long number that floats past like summertime clouds, ‘Wakin On A Pretty Daze’ is an album which wears its influences on its sleeve - Neil Young, Lynyrd Skynyrd - yet also stands as the record where Vile’s unique songwriting charms and knack for enigmatic lyricism shine most brightly.
2013’s ‘...Like Clockwork’ is a good point of entry into the Queens Of The Stone Age discography for those who find ‘Rated R’ or ‘Songs For The Deaf’ a little too imposing. It’s got all of the band’s usual flicks and tricks - Wiccan blues scales, passages of macho rock crunch offset by beguiling balladry, Josh Homme’s strangely seductive voice - but has a slightly more welcoming vibe than a lot of their other records. Come to think of it, that’s probably the reason why ‘...Like Clockwork’ became the first QOTSA LP to hit number one on the Billboard 200.
Savages’ second LP, 2016’s ‘Adore Life’, does something similar to the aforementioned Iceage album. This is a set of brooding, widescreen post-punk which frequently jolts the listener with bursts of caustic noise - the Joy Division comparisons are there for the taking, particularly when you consider how groovy some of these songs are. However, ‘Adore Life’ is set apart by the vocals of Jehnny Beth, whose intense combination of singing and Sprechgesang gives the record great emotional range.
Snail Mail’s debut LP ‘Lush’ came out about a week before the singer known to her mates as Lindsey Jordan turned 19. That’s quite an achievement in and of itself - even more so when you consider that her first EP, 2015’s ‘Sticki’, had emerged three years previously - but the fact that ‘Lush’ is such an accomplished collection of indie-rock was even more impressive. ‘Lush’ finds a nice pocket between the bedroom-pop introspection of Frankie Cosmos and Phoebe Bridgers’ more emo-influenced style, with just a dash of Pavement-esque whimsy thrown in for good measure.
Given that so many Matador groups down the years would list Sonic Youth as a primary influence, it was perhaps only a matter of time before the band landed on the label. Maybe people were surprised that it took them until 2009 to do so, but when Sonic Youth finally showed up they came through with one of the best records of their later years. ‘The Eternal’ is Sonic Youth’s final studio LP, and one which falls towards the more “conventional” end of the band’s output (i.e. it doesn’t sound as if they tried to make music from stuff you’d find in a building supplies warehouse here). Like ‘Rather Ripped’ and ‘Washing Machine’, ‘The Eternal’ gets the balance of rawky riffage and textural freakouts spot-on.
Superchunk’s eponymous 1990 debut LP was one of Matador’s first releases. All these years on, ‘Superchunk’ remains both one of the label’s best and one of its most important. The way in which this North Carolina band brought a playful, slightly whimsical edge to alt-rock and grunge helped cement Matador’s style early on, paving the way for what artists like Pavement and Liz Phair would do a few years down the line. Single ‘Slack Motherfucker’ remains a yardstick against which every slacker-rock tune since has been judged.
Other albums on Matador to check out
- There Is No Year by Algiers
- The Red Thread by Arab Strap
- Feathers by Dead Meadow
- Watch Me Fall by Jay Reatard
- Sprained Ankle by Julien Baker
- Historian by Lucy Dacus
- A Chance To Cut Is A Chance To Cure by Matmos
- 1 2 3 by Pole
- Hot Thoughts by Spoon
- Demolished Thoughts by Thurston Moore
- The Brotherhood Of The Bomb by Techno Animal
- Leaves Turn Inside You by Unwound