Label Watch: Rough Trade
Our take on some of the best albums and artists to grace one of British music's most important indie labels.
When French punk group Métal Urbain walked into Geoff Travis’ Rough Trade record shop in West London in 1977, they probably didn't think they were about to change the landscape of the recording industry. They just wanted a hand promoting their music.
The day ended up with Travis agreeing to press copies of Métal Urbain’s single ‘Paris Maquis’. At a time when labels like Mute were also beginning to take matters into their own hands, Rough Trade’s model offered artists a way to exist outside of the major label grind. It really cannot be overstated how important their union with other indie imprints, known at the time as ‘The Cartel’, was in building and maintaining the health of Britain’s musical underground, and within a few years Rough Trade were one of the country’s most influential labels - indie or major.
Despite folding in the early 1990s, Rough Trade came roaring back in the 21st Century, dictating the terms of the 2000s rock boom while also providing space for singular creative voices to flourish. In this roundup we run the rule over some of Rough Trade’s essential artists and releases from both eras of their operation.
Best artists on Rough Trade
Belle and Sebastian
Let's start with an easy one. While early classics like ‘Tigermilk’ (1996) and ‘The Boy with the Arab Strap’ (1998) may not have emerged via Rough Trade, much of this Glaswegian group’s finest work since then has borne the label’s mark of approval. Indeed, from 2003’s ‘Dear Catastrophe Waitress’ up to 2013 compilation ‘The Third Eye Centre’ the twee tones of this Stuart Murdoch-led project were a fixture on the imprint. For those who are unfamiliar with the Belle And Sebastian sound, this charming band are the link between The Magnetic Fields and the acts who have emerged in their own slipstream - Camera Obscura, Jens Lekman and Broken Social Scene to name but three.
British Sea Power
For about a decade British Sea Power had a claim to being one of the UK's biggest cult bands. While their music has always been too quixotic to ever hit really big, British Sea Power’s combination of Belle & Sebastian's wry wit, the foppishness of fellow Cumbrians Wild Beasts and a gutsy rock sound equal-parts Pixies and Pulp has brought them many admirers down the years and a few top 20 albums to boot. The group’s association with Rough Trade began through 2003 debut LP ‘The Decline of British Sea Power’ and ended with 2013’s ‘From the Sea to the Land Beyond’, a soundtrack to a documentary of the same name about Britain’s coastlines - how fitting!
Cabaret Voltaire emerged from Sheffield around the same time as The Human League, but the trio of Stephen Mallinder, Richard H. Kirk and Chris Watson arguably had more in common with another seminal Yorkshire act of the time - Throbbing Gristle. The four LPs that Cabaret Voltaire delivered for Rough Trade between 1979 and 1982 made for electrifying listening. Bringing the Dadaist surrealism of their live shows into a caustic style of music that lay in the fault-lines between post-punk and industrial music, Cabaret Voltaire’s fervent experimentalism was always interesting and frequently brilliant.
Like Jonathan Richman and Patti Smith before him, Jeffrey Lewis is the sort of idiosyncratic wordsmith which the east coast of the U.S.A. has produced so many of down the years. However, his music also has a quirkiness and irreverence about it which positions him firmly within the antifolk movement. A contemporary of Regina Spektor and The Moldy Peaches, Lewis has spent almost a quarter of a century carving out space for himself as a writer of idiosyncratic ditties which frequently couch profound truths within their street-level whimsy. Many of his major works - both solo and with band - have emerged via Rough Trade.
Micachu & The Shapes
Now that Mica Levi regularly secures BAFTA/Oscar nominations for her film scoring work, it can be easy to forget that many were introduced to her through Micachu & The Shapes, the irreverent art-punk outfit Levi plays in alongside Raisa Khan and Marc Pell. While many others in the 2000s were still trying to wring fresh approaches from the Strokes/Libertines playbook, Micachu & The Shapes made for a refreshingly unusual proposition due to their idiosyncratic music and playful compositional style. The band’s off-kilter debut LP ‘Jewellery’ (2009) was in many ways quite ahead of its time and remains a firm favourite to this day, but ‘Jewellery’s success should not overshadow the quality of 2012’s ‘Never’ and 2015’s ‘Good Sad Happy Bad’. Their music gestures to other acts more in approach than sound - the penchant for using unconventional instruments has something of Sonic Youth to it, and there’s a bit of Dan Deacon in the band’s kaleidoscopic approach - but ultimately Micachu & The Shapes have always remained pleasingly difficult to pigeonhole.
(It’s worth noting that, in 2020, the band ditched the Micachu & The Shapes moniker, shuffled their line-up and assumed the name of Good Sad Happy Bad).
Parquet Courts didn’t start out on Rough Trade - the NYC quartet’s 2012 LP ‘Light Up Gold’, which was initially released via vocalist/guitarist Andrew Savage’s Dull Tools imprint, is the one that broke this Modern Lovers-esque group. However, they’ve certainly levelled up in the years since they debuted on the label with ‘Sunbathing Animal’ (2014). While at its core the Parquet Courts style is a spry, poetic take on punk-rock, the band have also diversified their sound down the years, reaching for Mardi Gras percussion, country, punk-funk and more on ‘Human Performance’ (2016) and ‘Wide Awake!’ (2018). Blessed with not one but two outstanding lyricists and a metronome-precise rhythm section, Parquet Courts pull off the trick of making music that is at once deeply thought-provoking and also thrillingly immediate.
The Fiery Furnaces
A sibling duo of Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger, both of whom are solo artists in their own right, The Fiery Furnaces are another act who owe a fair bit to The Magnetic Fields. However, to characterise their music as indie-pop is to majorly undersell the Fiery Furnaces’ aesthetic. While the group’s sonic palette certainly shares something with the Belle And Sebastians of this world, Fiery Furnaces records are characterized by unusual structural choices, playful production and quixotic lyricism. It is a style which divided opinion during their 2000s heyday, but also one which secured them a dedicated and loyal following - a following which will have been thrilled, no doubt, when the band broke a nine-year hiatus in 2020 with the single ‘Down At The So And So On Somewhere’.
They burned bright and flamed out (then came back, but no-one’s really bothered about that bit). Yes, Pete and Carl and the other two may have only made a couple of LPs and a handful of singles in The Libertines’ main phase, but that material was good enough to cast a long shadow over British indie-rock, one which lingers to this day. Sure, a lot of pretty terrible bands have emerged in their wake, but don’t let those posers detract from the quality of ‘Up The Bracket’ (2002) and ‘The Libertines’ (2004). Romantic, passionate and full of ramshackle charm, The Libertines’ early output remains a high watermark for loquacious British rock.
Unquestionably the definitive group of Rough Trade’s first era - indeed, they were unquestionably the definitive British indie-rock group of the mid-1980s - The Smiths remain a yardstick for sensitive, wry rock music. Though it has been somewhat compromised by the unpleasantness of one particular member since the band split in 1987, The Smiths’ music itself is bookish, political, brilliant pop, with Johnny Marr’s perpetual-motion guitar lines a source of constant wonder throughout. The Smiths' catalogue is famously sprawling, but all of their essential releases - the four studio LPs, ‘Hatful Of Hollow’, ‘The World Won’t Listen’, ‘Louder Than Bombs’ - bear the Rough Trade logo.
The Strokes have a strong claim to being the most important U.S. rock band of the early 21st Century, but Rough Trade were onto the group when they were just a gang of dishevelled New York twentysomethings trying to get their music out there. Indeed, some diehards say that debut EP ‘The Modern Age’, which came out via Rough Trade in 2001, still stands as the band’s finest set of recordings, which is quite a claim when their era-defining LP ‘Is This It’ emerged later that year. Rough Trade stayed with The Strokes all the way through to 2013’s ‘Comedown Machine’, taking in records like ‘Room On Fire’ - ‘Is This It’s 2003 follow-up and a similarly taut, Velvet Underground-esque collection - and the more stylistically varied ‘First Impressions Of Earth’ (2005) and ‘Angles’ (2011).
Best albums on Rough Trade
Over time, the genre of dream-pop has come to be associated heavily with the ethereal songcraft of the Cocteau Twins. We’re not saying that the Cocteaus aren’t dream-pop - they very much are - but the term was initially coined to describe the somewhat more quixotic stylings of A.R. Kane. The duo’s 1988 LP ‘69’ has a fair bit of shoegazing about it - and the fact that it beat My Bloody Valentine's 'Isn't Anything' to the punch by nearly six months deserves more attention - but the record also wanders off to explore adjacent terrains more frequently than the Cocteaus do. Indeed, the way that the record stumbles onto abstracted takes on dub, Spacemen 3-esque heavy-psych, proto-post-rock and industrial music places ‘69’ in the orbit of the likes of Talk Talk and This Heat.
Given that Arcade Fire have morphed into a sleek stadium-rock outfit down the years, it's worth remembering just how unusual a proposition the Canadian band were when they emerged in the mid-2000s. On debut LP ‘Funeral’ (2004) the group’s lineup sometimes ran into double figures, and every single one of them went hell for leather throughout the album’s ten tracks. Their combination of junk-shop instrumentation, heart-on-sleeve indie songcraft in the Neutral Milk Hotel mould and a visual aesthetic that can only be described as “daguerreotype-core” could have gone south very easily, but such was the quality of these stirring songs that ‘Funeral’ instead cemented itself as a classic, game-changing piece of contemporary rock.
While it may contain some of his most comparatively accessible material, Dean Blunt’s ‘Black Metal’ (2014) isn't for everyone. This is an artist who divides opinion like few others - you either get what Blunt does or it will leave you cold. However, it is precisely its polarising qualities which make ‘Black Metal’ a must-listen. If you crack the code of Blunt’s music then you enter a fascinating world, one where each record in his prolific discography both brings you further in and increases the mystery of his aesthetic. ‘Black Metal’ itself constantly upends expectations - balladic guitar tracks back up lyrics that could pass for gangster rap, samples overheat and take on psychedelic qualities, and songs dissolve into long wandering passages that hover on the edge of free music. Maybe you’ll hate it; maybe it’ll be your new favourite album. Only one way to find out ...
Like the Velvet Underground or The Fall (more on them in a moment), Galaxie 500 are one of those bands whose influence far outstrips their album sales. Active in the second half of the 1980s and early 1990s, the group helped define the slowcore sound with their dreamy, reverb-drenched brand of guitar music. Galaxie 500’s second LP, 1989’s ‘On Fire’, was beloved at the time and has since found a new legion of fans through a 2009 reissue. The album title is something of a misnomer - it may promise fire, but this woozy record is in fact beautifully cool.
Princess Nokia’s 2017 debut LP ‘1992 Deluxe’ shares the same subversive energy as many of the guitar-based records above but channels it into a set of boundary-pushing hip-hop joints. Nokia had been bubbling under for a few years prior to the album’s release, featuring on records by fellow New York artists Ratking and Mykki Blanco, and they balance this experience with upstart energy throughout ‘1992 Deluxe’, a release which expanded the ‘1992’ EP they had released the previous year to a full-length record. The singles were largely rambunctious and noisy affairs equally primed for the party or the pit, but sections of ‘1992 Deluxe’ also ran with the boom-bap legacy of Nokia’s home city. The result is an album which established Nokia alongside Blanco and Ratking at the forefront of the city’s thrillingly non-conformist new wave.
Released in 1979, Rough Trade’s first ever full-length album release remains one of its most crucial. Stiff Little Fingers emerged at the same time as fellow Northern Irish punk group The Undertones, but whereas Feargal Sharkey’s band escaped into teenage dreams, Stiff Little Fingers dealt with life on the ground during the Troubles. Debut LP ‘Inflammable Material’ was a righteous missive which drew up blueprints for legions of subsequent oppositional rock groups to follow. "Grab it and change it, it's yours" runs the snotty chorus to ‘Alternative Ulster’ - now there’s a mantra to live your life by, wherever you’re from.
Sufjan Stevens had already been around for a few years prior to the release of ‘Illinois’ (or ‘Sufjan Stevens Invites You To: Come On Feel the ILLINOISE’, as the cover artwork proclaims). Indeed, his fifth LP wasn't even his first high-concept full-length - Illinois followed 2003’s ‘Greetings From Michigan’ in Stevens’ professed attempt to write albums inspired by all fifty US states. He's still yet to deliver number three, but if ‘Illinois’ remains his final work in the series then it's a hell of a way to go out. A record of singular vision, ‘Illinois’ delivers high-end chamber pop, Steve Reich-esque minimalist composition, emo-tinged balladry and a whole cornucopia of instrumentation. Stevens brings it all together with a tenderness that makes a record which could so easily have been overbearing feel incredibly intimate.
If you’re the sort of person who reads Norman Records listicles then neither The Fall nor Mark E. Smith need any introduction here, but for the cheap seats - he was a singular artist who led a singular band to make singular music. They may be more closely associated with labels like Beggars Banquet and Smith’s own Cog Sinister, but The Fall actually did some of their most essential work in their short tenure for Rough Trade (‘Totally Wired’, anyone?). Superior Viaduct’s ‘The Rough Trade Singles’ brings together the eight jackknife pieces of post-punk invective which Smith & band set to 7”, backing these up with a couple of live takes to boot. There’s also a lovely ‘Medicine For The Masses’ edition which reproduces the four original singles in a bespoke boxset. So whilst we don't normally include compilations in these listicles of ours...this time we are doing, and there's nowt you can do.
The Long Blondes may have been the most worthy heirs to Pulp’s throne to have emerged since the Sheffield legends first split in 2002. Another Steel City outfit, The Long Blondes’ angular and defiantly counter-cultural brand of post-punk won over a generation of disenfranchised teenagers when they began to build buzz in the mid-2000s. 2006 debut LP ‘Someone To Drive You Home’ made good on the promise of the band’s early singles, delivering a plethora of indie disco hits while establishing vocalist Kate Jackson as a feminist hero for the post-Strokes age. The Long Blondes may have called it quits after just one more LP - sadly due in large part to guitarist Dorian Cox's health issues - but ‘Someone To Drive You Home’ remains as fine an album as any to emerge from the indie boom years.
It’s a slightly irksome thing that describing a band as post-punk has become shorthand for “they sound a bit like Joy Division”. No shade to Joy Division (obviously!), but one of the core theories of post-punk is that genre barriers should be broken down rather than built up. Few groups have epitomised this approach better than This Heat, the Camberwell outfit who made moves so bold that people are still playing catch-up with them several decades on. 1981’s ‘Deceit’ is an LP which delights in the sheer capacity of its own invention, with each track stumbling onto new sonic terrain. The fact that everyone from :zoviet*france: to Nurse With Wound to African Head Charge to Fat White Family owe a debt to ‘Deceit’ tells you something about the sheer boldness of this affair.
Warpaint took a long while to get going - six years elapsed between the band forming in Los Angeles and them releasing their debut LP, 2010’s ‘The Fool’. However, the album proved to be well worth the wait, giving the band the platform from which to grow into one of the definitive U.S. indie-rock bands of the subsequent decade. ‘The Fool’ positioned Warpaint alongside Wild Beasts and The xx at the front of the new wave of soft, contemplative rockers who would come to dominate indie in the 2010s. Hits like ‘Undertow’ established Warpaint in the minds of many as prime purveyors of poppy shoegaze, but the band also pulled psych- and art-rock influences into an enigmatic core style. The late Andrew Weatherall handled the mixing on a couple of the tracks and all.
As you may have gathered from the above selections, Rough Trade are second to none when it comes to breaking cult bands. Welsh trio Young Marble Giants only released one album in their time, but it's a record which has gone on to inspire legions down the years. 1980’s ‘Colossal Youth’ is a truly wonderful example of outsider rock and DIY music in general. The record shares a homely, down-at-heel vibe with the likes of The Shaggs, Daniel Johnston and R. Stevie Moore, its drum machines pitter-pattering away beneath some quietly dexterous guitar work and the quixotic vocals of Alison Statton. Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love are both known fans of ‘Colossal Youth’, you know.
Other albums on Rough Trade to check out
- Black Noise by Pantha du Prince
- The Moldy Peaches by The Moldy Peaches
- Stay Positive by The Hold Steady
- Holding Hands With Jamie by Girl Band
- Serotonin by Mystery Jets
- Beyond The Pale by JARV IS
- Candylion by Gruff Rhys
- Heartbeat by Chris & Cosey
- Sound & Color by Alabama Shakes
- Schlagenheim by black midi
- All That Glue by Sleaford Mods