Though it laid the groundwork for 2000s Americana, ‘Figure 8’ was the troubled songwriter’s curtain call, overshadowed by his death. As it turns 20, Mark Beaumont speaks to producer Rob Schnapf about Smith’s final masterwork and its destructive making

For Elliott Smith, wisp-voiced enigma of US alt-folk, Figure 8 became a downward spiral. Planned as his happier album after several tough years a devastating break-up, a reliance on alcohol and prescription drugs, a psychiatric intervention, an impetuous suicide attempt it was laced with rare slivers of hope and optimism. But it was also the last record that hed release in his lifetime.
Dark-eyed and craggy cheeked, Smith had built his underground legend as post-grunges premier troubled troubadour via the weightless melancholies and quiet cries for help on acclaimed albums Either/Or (1997) and XO (1998). 2000s Figure 8, with its string-laden honky-tonks, LA heat-haze and Beatledelic fug, was the record that consolidated and refined his sound and laid the bedrock for the coming decades of cult Americana.
I think thats when the wheels started to come off a little bit, says the records producer Rob Schnapf, reflecting on Smiths fifth and arguably most undervalued record, 20 years on from its 2000 release. I think thats when he started to dabble with [hard] drug use, because he only really drank up until then. It was beer and whiskey. That was it.
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But by the end of the Figure 8 tour, Smith had developed a heroin habit, and the following years saw a rapid and worrying descent into addiction and desperation: mixing cocktails of drugs, playing wasted and collapsing in toilet cubicles. Just as it seemed hed turned a corner in 2003, ditching drugs and embracing near total abstinence, he died on 21 October in whats widely accepted among those that knew him as the suicide hed been warning them for so long to expect.
Smiths death was a double tragedy. Not only had we lost one of the finest songwriters of the late 20th century but the nefarious details of his decline threatened to eclipse his music. Smiths songs were delicate craftsmans sketches of the cracked and fragile psyche, steeped in impressionistic depths and subtleties. The five solo albums he completed captured the angsts and frustrations of the grunge age in acoustic butterfly traps, and set a warm, intimate, amorphous tone for future indie folk that would grow to encompass The National, Sufjan Stevens, Bon Iver, Bright Eyes and Elbow. And basically write the script for Badly Drawn Boy.
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You believed him, Schnapf says. There was this quiet intensity and it sucked you right in. His musicianship is the magical kind because its all subtle. And some of his songwriting is literary to me those lyrics, if youre paying attention, they give it to you. It was real.
Real, perhaps, because it was so deeply rooted. Born Steven Smith into a family from the Community Of Christ church, a Mormon denomination, he was only six months old when his parents split. His mother married an insurance salesman named Charlie Welch, whom Smith would claim first beat him on their wedding day, aged three. His memories of his childhood had always been hazy, but at 14 he left his mothers home in Texas to live with his father in Portland. I didnt sleep at all for about the first six months I lived there, he told Under the Radar. I was very worried about my mother. In another interview, he elaborated: I couldnt stay in the same house as my stepfather.
Smith started writing his own songs on piano and guitar from a young age his father recalled a church talent show at which his son was beaten by someone tap-dancing to Yankee Doodle Dandy and sang in several high school bands, sometimes under the pseudonym Elliott Stillwater-Rotter. On graduation, he officially took the name Elliott. At college in Amherst, Smith started a noise-grunge band called Heatmiser, but he also took to playing solo acoustic shows when he returned to Portland. Alongside Heatmiser albums, Smith quietly snuck out his first solo collection of minimalist four-track acoustic demos recorded on a borrowed guitar in his basement (1994s Roman Candle), which, he said, immediately eclipsed my band, unfortunately.
Word spread of his bewitching performances, the antithesis of grunge but the inheritor of its spirit. One night, Schnapf and his partner Margaret Mittleman saw Smith play Needle in the Hay, from his self-titled 1995 second album, and soon became his producer and manager, respectively. In tandem with the third Heatmiser record (now signed to Virgin), they and co-producer Tom Rothrock helped Smith create a surreptitious masterpiece in 1997s Either/Or. Tender and tremulous, it channelled Nick Drake, Red House Painters and Big Star, while speaking to Smiths studio naivety and deepest insecurities.
He was super curious and excited about the whole recording process on that scale, going from a basement to the studio we had up in Humboldt County, Schnapf says. He was writing with purpose and communicating. Thats why it connects, thats what makes it timeless. We could have done more but he wasnt ready to do it yet and I think there was turmoil in him.
I remember that record most fondly even though I nearly had a nervous breakdown, Smith told Under The Radar. I recorded so many songs for it, and one or two of them sucked. Then three or four of them sucked. Then they all sucked and everything I did was terrible. I was never good enough.
The critical acclaim for Either/Or spelt the end for Heatmiser, however, and out on the road Smith was winning over audiences and tastemakers far and wide. Theres a key show at Brownies in New York and it was full of all the people, Schnapf says. Theyre in a room. If there was talking he would play quieter and he hushed the room, you could hear a pin drop. And he killed it. From that point forward, it was on Before Either/Or it was like, Singer songwriter? Thats cheesy. And then after Either/Or it became a cool thing again.
Yet Smiths confidence was so shot he was mixing his alcohol with antidepressants to such a degree that, in a hotel room in Chicago, his friends staged an intervention. Before he knew it, Smith found himself in an Arizona psychiatric hospital. Lets just say I didnt want to go there, he told NME in 2000. It made things worse. A lot of [it] seemed to be based on fear: maybe if we scare these people enough theyll act like they dont feel like they do.
The cover art to ‘Figure 8′, Smith’s last album before his tragic death
Walking out after a few days, Smith would use his simmering anger over the experience in new songs, which he told Spin were about how quickly people will invade your space just because you dont deal with things like they do. They think that you drink too much I just dont think being scared is a good enough reason to take over somebodys life. He reiterated the point to NME: More of the songs have a vibe of Get the f*** off me, and quit telling me what I should be doing.
Smith soon left Portland for Brooklyn, characteristically low. His New York roommate Dorien Garry told Spin: He always talked about suicide He made me promise that I wouldnt be mad at him. He just talked about it as if it were going to happen.
It was a story many of his old Portland friends would have found familiar. In Portland we got the brunt of Elliotts initial depression, musician and friend Pete Krebs told one paper. Lots of people have stories of staying up with Elliott till five in the morning, holding his hand, telling him not to kill himself. One was Cavity Search Records chief Christopher Cooper, who told Spin, He would tell me that if I didnt see him again, to tell everyone in our community, that its not their fault, not to take it personally. I would tell him, People love you, and, They love your music.
It would soon become apparent that public adoration was no solution. In 1997, filmmaker and fan Gus Van Sant used Smiths song Miss Misery in Good Will Hunting and the spotlight turned on this glare-shy genius. When he was nominated for an Oscar afterwards, Smith was cajoled into performing at the 1998 ceremony with threats that the organisers would get Richard Marx to sing the song if he refused. It was surreal enough that it didnt seem like it happened to me, he said in 2003. I walked out and Jack Nicholson was sitting about six feet away At a certain point, I threw myself into it because all of my friends were like, One of us is on the moon!
In the wake of the Oscars, Smith signed with DreamWorks Records, but Schnapf feels the press and radio game that ensued played further on Smiths insecurities. Its a double-edged sword of wanting to do whats being asked of you and really hating whats being asked of you and not being good at it, in that hes real, hes not a bulls*** artist.
The nadir came in North Carolina that year, where a severely intoxicated Smith was impaled on a tree during an impulsive attempt on his own life. I jumped off a cliff, he told Spin. But it didnt work It wasnt like I made up my mind to throw myself off a cliff. I got freaked out and started running, it was totally dark, and I ran off the edge of a cliff. I saw it coming up, and it wasnt like, Im gonna throw myself off this cliff and die. It was just, Grounds coming up. Who cares, whatever.
Despite such downturns, and the exhausting grind of Smith naturally playing almost every instrument, Schnapf remembers recording 1998s plusher, richer fourth album XO as an optimistic experience. I feel like XO was hope. He was really excited and pumped. He wanted to experiment and we had the budget and the time He said lets try things. We would try tape machine games, recording real strings, playing with form. We could try this idea of, What if we got, bass, saxophone and flute? OK, lets get those guys in. Boom, thats A Question Mark. Lets try accordion in Waltz #2 Oh thats terrible, OK, well we tried it. We were able to, as we would say quite often, send out the probe.
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1/35 35) Arctic Monkeys Whatever People Say I Am, Thats What Im Not (2006)
A new wave of British guitar bands was already being pioneered by the likes of The Libertines, Bloc Party and Franz Ferdinand when the Sheffield-formed Arctic Monkeys arrived on the scene. But their 2006 debut the defiantly titled Whatever People Say I Am, Thats What Im Not is arguably the most generation-defining, by a band experiencing the kind of hype that hadnt been seen since Oasis with Definitely Maybe. Alex Turners sardonic and keenly observational lyrics on songs like Fake Tales of San Francisco and When the Sun Goes Down had fans clamouring to get into their early shows. It was an early example of the power the internet would hold over the music industry propelling them from an unknown indie band on MySpace to the top of the charts in the space of six months.
2/35 34) Please Please Me The Beatles (1963)
Please Please Me has a rhythm to it like little else released by The Beatles. Songs like Twist and Shout and I Saw Her Standing There have an energy that reflects the youthful vim of the band themselves, who were raring to go following the number one single from which the album takes its name. Their harmonies are thrilling to hear, and this is arguably the best album for capturing the bands raw power.
3/35 33) Yeah Yeah Yeahs Fever to Tell (2003)
In 2003, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs stuck a middle finger up to the naysayers who scoffed that they were little more than a bunch of posers. Their debut album Fever to Tell is a bristling record loaded with New York snark supplied by Karen Os impressive vocal turns. Nick Zinner keeps the urgency going with roaring guitar licks while Brian Chase offers earth-shaking percussion on the likes of Date With the Night and Y Control. More than trendsetters the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were the brains behind the smartest album of that year.
4/35 32) Franz Ferdinand Franz Ferdinand (2004)
Kanye West called it white crunk music. The band themselves called it music for girls to dance to. And songs such as This Fire certainly livened things up their irresistible hooks and disco energy, as frontman Alex Kapranos turned the male gaze on its head with lyrics like I can feel your lips undress my eyes. Fifteeen years later and Take Me Out still makes you swing your hips.
5/35 31) Oasis Definitely Maybe (1994)
Blur versus Oasis is a battle music fans will be waging for decades to come, but when it comes to debut albums, Oasis emerge as top dogs. Definitely Maybe was exciting, aggressive and loaded with attitude: a 22-year-old Liam Gallagher spits and snarls over the reverb-soaked guitars of Cigarettes & Alcohol, and soars on that falsetto for Live Forever. Among the too cool for school alt-rockers who spurned the glitz and glamour of fame, Oasis asserted themselves as the definitive rock and roll stars.
6/35 30) Lady Gaga The Fame (2008)
Stefani Germanottas debut album The Fame brought maximalist pop back to the forefront of the late-Noughties music scene, in an industry that was desperately lacking in pop divas. Lady Gaga already sounded famous and she acted famous but that doesnt mean her music couldnt stand on its own. Songs like Beautiful, Dirty, Rich and Just Dance seemed to convey Gagas love of fame and hedonism while remaining supremely self-aware of its superficiality. To top it off, it was masterfully produced and resplendent with slick, catchy dancepop and Eurodisco influences.
7/35 29) Kendrick Lamar good kid, m.A.A.d City (2012)
Kendrick Lamar subtitled his debut record A Short Film by Kendrick Lamar, and indeed it feels as though youre watching the movie of his early life such is the autobiographical nature of this record. He raps in low, furtive tones, interrupted by voicemails from his family (his mother asks him pleadingly to return her car) that reinforce the familial themes. It is family, and faith, that keep Lamar on the outskirts of a world of violence and sin. Even this early on his career you hear the virtuosity and acute understanding of rhythm Good kid, m.A.A.d City now stands as a classic album from a rapper who chooses the power of storytelling over a cheap punchline.
8/35 28) Led Zeppelin Led Zeppelin (1969)
Not every great debut album is defined by whether the artist has landed on their sound by the first track. Led Zeppelin were still figuring things out when they released their self-titled debut, yet it is essential because it laid the groundwork for what they would go onto achieve the following decade. We were learning what got us off most and what got people off most, Robert Plant said. You had the blues and folk notes on Babe Im Gonna Leave You, and the chugging rock of Communication Breakdown; Plants yowling vocals and Jimmy Pages guitar. It did the trick.
9/35 27) The Jesus and Mary Chain Psychocandy (1985)
It was the crap coming out of the radio that made us want to be in a band more than anything else, Jim Reid told Rolling Stone for the 30th anniversary of the Scottish alt-rockers debut album Psychocandy. Because it was like, Why is everything we hear so f***ing awful? That was the main driving force: how bad things were. Psychocandy was certainly like nothing anyone else released at that time. Inspired by the Velvet Underground and The Stooges, the Reid brothers loaded their debut with buzzy guitars and hair-raising levels of feedback on singles like You Trip Me Up and Never Understand. It paved the way for countless shoegaze and alt-rock bands in the decades that followed.
10/35 26) Jeff Buckley Grace (1994)
Grace is a masterpiece, and the only album the perfectionist Jeff Buckley was satisfied with before he drowned, aged 30, in a freak accident in Memphis in 1997. Yet had Grace been the only material ever released under his name (live recordings, covers and demos were released posthumously), it would have been enough to prove he was a rare and exceptional talent. His exquisite rendering of Leonard Cohens Hallelujah, his melismatic singing on Grace and the church-like hush of Lover, You Should Come Over all of this and more carved out a rich legacy that ensures Buckleys music will never fade.
11/35 25) Eminem The Slim Shady LP (1999)
The whipsmart, cynical, outrageous young man on Eminems major label debut was a breath of fresh air or perhaps more of a slap in the face after a spate of soulful, conscious hip hop records. Of course, the rampant misogyny and homophobia his so-called character Slim Shady spat out caused uproar, regardless of how surreal the scenarios to which they were applied were. Arguably what stands out the most on The Slim Shady LP is the sheer technical skill and lyrical ability that few have been able to match since.
12/35 24) The Who My Generation (1965)
Not only did it lay the groundwork for so many punk, rock and heavy metal bands that came after them but the manic rhythms and raw intensity of their power-chord ballads featured on The Who’s my Generation propelled rock and roll to new heights in 1965.
13/35 23) The Strokes Is This It (2001)
Saviours of rock and roll! The greatest rock band since the Rolling Stones! You have to pity The Strokes, who released their debut album under the biggest wave of hype imaginable. Yet its hard to deny the impact Is This It had on rock music critics have argued that the Arctic Monkeys and Franz Ferdinand wouldnt have existed if not for this band. They eschewed pre-programmed beats and autotuned vocals in favour of a gritty post-punk approach, and the result was an album that reinvigorated a floundering music industry, and inspired an entire generation of bands.
14/35 22) Run-DMC Run-DMC (1984)
The idea of a rap album was virtually inconceivable until Run-DMC released their full-length, self-titled debut in 1984. When he inducted them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Eminem called them the first movie stars of rap they are The Beatles. Busta Rhymes proclaimed: Run-DMC didnt change music, they changed everything. The trios aggressive yet stark tracks like Sucker MCS and Hard Times were a dramatic contrast against the R&B-driven rap of the time, an approach emulated by the rappers themselves, who spurned outlandish costumes in favour of tracksuits and sneakers. As an anniversary piece in Billboard noted, they were authentic before authenticity in hip hop was even a thing.
15/35 21) Roxy Music Roxy Music (1972)
Brian Enos experimental synths met Bryan Ferrys romantic, old-school charm on the debut album from Roxy Music’s bizarre art-glam-rock outfit. There were odes to Humphrey Bogart (2HB) and cyber-rock jams (Ladytron), and songs decorated with spooky-sounding hooks that wouldnt sound out of place in The Rocky Horror Show (the character Riff Raff even seemed to take his cues from a balding Brian Eno).
16/35 20) Jay-Z Reasonable Doubt (1996)
Still regarded by many as his greatest album to date, Reasonable Doubt asserted Jay-Z as a master freestyle perhaps the best of his generation recorded in a studio he compared to a psychiatrists couch. At the heart of the record is a blistering duet with the Notorious BIG, Brooklyns Finest, which practically heralded the shift of focus back from West Coast hip hop to the East.
17/35 19) Black Sabbath Black Sabbath (1970)
Rolling Stone’s Lester Bangs described the Black Sabbath as just like Cream! But worse, and their debut album as a shuck despite the murky song titles and some inane lyrics that sound like Vanilla Fudge paying doggerel tribute to Aleister Crowley, the album has nothing to do with spiritualism, the occult, or anything much except stiff recitations of Cream clichés. The Village Voice werent keen either, with critic Robert Christgau condemning it as bulls**t necromancy. Yet this is the album that invented heavy metal. Black Sabbath arrived ready to lure fans over to the dark side with Ozzy Osbournes piercing, operatic cry: My name is Lucifer, please take my hand. Critics be damned.
18/35 18) Sex Pistols Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977)
The album will last. The sleeve may not, said the adverts for the Sex Pistols first and only studio album in 1977. The Sex Pistols were already controversial before the release of Never Mind the Bollocks, having caused nationwide uproar for swearing on live TV, been fired from two record labels, and been banned from a number of live venues in England. Yet despite many major retailers refusing to sell it, the album debuted at number one on the UK album charts and is today regarded as one of the most important punk albums in music history.
19/35 17) The Clash The Clash (1977)
Joe Strummer was a ball of rage and ambition when he and the rest of The Clash laid down the tracks for their debut album. Most of the guitar on this record was provided by Mick Jones, because Strummer didnt think technical ability was punk enough. Yet their vision burns through on the buzz-saw attack of Career Opportunities and White Riot, raising a fist against unemployment, racism and the fat cats of industry.
20/35 16) Guns N Roses Appetite for Destruction (1987)
Guns N Roses’ Appetite for Destruction was the biggest thing to happen to hard rock since Led Zeppelin IV. Slashs guitar and Axl Roses wild, animal howls contribute to the raw energy on songs like Paradise City and marked a dramatic shift away from the commercialised heavy rock that was being played on MTV at the time proudly championing a gritty form of hedonism instead. A lot of rock bands are too f***ing wimpy to have any sentiment or emotion, Rose said. Not this band.
21/35 15) Daft Punk Homework (1996)
Daft Punk’s Homework was originally intended as just a load of singles, until Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo realised they had enough quality tracks for a full-length release. Each one opens with a kind of motif upon which multiple textures build and sprawl outwards sleazy guitar hooks, G-funk whines and glittering synths. Its the album that alerted the rest of the world to the French house music scene.
22/35 14) The Doors The Doors (1967)
Sex and poetry go hand in hand, especially if youre a Jim Morrison fan. While few bands manage to divide critical opinion as much as The Doors, their debut albums organ-driven rock was as tight as their frontmans famous leather trousers. They brought theatricality to the Sixties music scene and went onto inspire as broad a range of artists as The Stranglers to Skrillex. The baroque pop stylings and lustful lyrics on Light My Fire proved to be a breakthrough, and helped propel them to number two on the US Billboard 200.
23/35 13) Kanye West The College Dropout (2004)
After making a name for himself on Jay-Zs The Blueprint as well as by producing hits for Janet Jackson and Ludacris, Kanye West spent four years recording The College Dropout. His background as a producer was obviously beneficial to his own debut, at a time where hip hop sampling was being accused of being too safe. And he subverted many other hip hop clichés, skirting round the dominant gangsta persona and instead finding solace in family and the church.
24/35 12) Pink Floyd The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)
Pink Floyds debut The Piper at the Gates of Dawn stands as a classic of psychedelic rock. Helmed by an unravelling Syd Barrett ousted a year after the albums release it shows the band at their most playful, with several tracks going onto become staples of their live shows. Songs such as Bike, meanwhile, proved the band were not averse to a good pop hook along with the acid guitars and hazy production.
25/35 11) Lauryn Hill The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998)
Lauryn Hill raised the game for an entire genre with the immense and groundbreaking record, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Flipping between two tones sharp and cold, and sensual and smoky the former Fugees member stepped out from raps misogynist status quo and drew an audience outside of hip hop thanks to her melding of soul, reggae and R&B, and the recruitment of the likes of Mary J Blige and DAngelo. Its sonic appeal has a lot to do with the lo-fi production and warm instrumentation, often comprised of a low thrumming bass, tight snares and doo-wop harmonies. But Hills reggae influences are what drive the albums spirit: preaching love and peace but also speaking out against unrighteous oppression. Even today, its one of the most uplifting and inspiring records around.
26/35 10) Dizzee Rascal Boy in Da Corner (2003)
Its staggering to listen back to Boy in Da Corner and remember Dizzee Rascal was just 18-years-old when he released it. Rising through the UK garage scene as a member of east Londons Roll Deep crew, the MC born Dylan Mills allegedly honed his skills in production after being excluded from every one of his classes, apart from music. If you want any sense of how ahead of the game Dizzee was, just listen to the opening track Sittin Here. While 2018 has suffered a spate of half-hearted singles playing on the listeners sense of nostalgia for simpler times, 15 years ago Dizzee longed for the innocence of childhood because of what he was seeing in the present day: teenage pregnancies, police brutality, his friends murdered on the streets or lost to a lifestyle of crime and cash. Boy in da Corner goes heavy on cold, uncomfortably disjointed beats, synths that emulate arcade games and police sirens, and Dizzee himself delivering bars in his trademark, high-pitched squawk.
27/35 9) Beastie Boys Licensed to Ill (1986)
Hip hops first number one album was an incendiary, all-guns-blazing record that would send shockwaves around the music industry for years to come. Few artists release something so assertive as this a statement of intent to middle America that demanded they fight for their right to party. Beastie Boys’ Mike D, Ad-Rock and MCA would move on from the frat boy humour and good time attitude of Licensed to Ill, but it is that record that delivered rap against a backdrop of Led Zeppelin and James Brown-inspired guitar licks.
28/35 8) The Notorious BIG Ready to Die (1994)
The rapper Notorious BIG, born Christopher Wallace, had been taking part in rap battles around Fulton Street, Brooklyn since he was 13 years old, but it was only at the urging of his friends that he quit a lucrative drugs operation and devoted himself to music. Living on a knifes edge was all Biggie Smalls knew as a kid, when he was waking up every morning, hustling, cutting school, looking out for my moms, the police, stickup kids; just risking my life every day on the street selling drugs, as he told Rolling Stone back in 1995. The things he witnessed and experienced were poured into Ready to Die one of the best debut albums in hip hop delivered in his signature throaty vocals with wit and humour.
29/35 7) Ramones Ramones (1976)
At less than 30 minutes, Ramones debut injects their rage, their disillusionment and their frustration directly into the listeners veins. Its a record that spurned the posturing of Seventies rock and stripped all of the artifice away to the bare bones beneath, with songs such as Beat on the Brat and Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue proving to be as surly as the band themselves. Our early songs came out of our real feelings of alienation, isolation, frustration the feelings everybody feels between seventeen and seventy-five, singer Joey Ramone said. The whole record cost just $6,000 to make.
30/35 6) NWA Straight Outta Compton
NWA unveiled their cold, menacing sound on debut record Straight Outta Compton that heralded the beginning of gangsta rap and also launched the careers of Dr Dre, Eazy-E and Ice Cube. The latter made it clear they werent positioning themselves as people to look up to: Do I look like a mother***ing role mode? he demands on Gangsta Gangsta. Their track F*** tha Police a protest track against racism and police brutality led to them receiving a threatening letter from the FBI, which only contributed to their growing fame.
31/35 5) The Velvet Underground The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)
Dubbed the Banana Album for its famous Andy Warhol cover art, The Velvet Underground & Nico is proof of what a band can do when they are completely fearless. With Nico the beautiful German vocalist added to the band at Warhols request you have this exquisite balance of cool femininity and fiery machismo. Sex and hedonism are everywhere on this record, from Venus in Furs to Run Run Run, but its not so much glamour as glam rock gritty tales of drug addiction and raw desire. Speaking of its initially low sales figures, Brian Eno observed that, nonetheless, everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band. David Bowie called it the future of music, and 52 years later, it still feels like it.
32/35 4) Jimi Hendrix Experience Are You Experienced
A virtual unknown to rock fans just a year before Jimi Hendrix used Are You Experienced to assert himself as a guitar genius who could combine pop, blues, rock, R&B, funk and psychedelia in a way no other artist had before. Thats even without the essential contributions of drummer Mitch Mitchell and bassist Noel Redding, who handed Are You Experienced the rhythmic bridge between jazz and rock. Few album openers are as exquisite as Purple Haze. Few tracks are as gratifying, as sexy, as the strut on Foxy Lady. And few songs come close to the existential bliss caused by The Wind Cries Mary. Hendrixs attack on the guitar contrasted against the more polished virtuosos in rock at the time yet it is his raw ferocity that we find ourselves coming back to. Few debuts have changed the course of rock music as Hendrix did with his.
33/35 3) Patti Smith Horses (1975)
Jesus died for somebodys sins, but not mine, go the immortal opening words of Patti Smiths debut album Horses. Theres a heady anticipation as she speaks the lyric in a low, seductive murmur, before switching to a cocky swagger as the electric guitar line kicks in. It was a bold move, to open her debut album with a reinvention of someone elses song (in this case Van Morrisons Gloria), but Smith was unlike anything the music world had ever seen. She was a poet, who wanted to capture the literary genius of her idol Arthur Rimbaud and channel it via the raw passion of an artist like Jimi Hendrix. She was like a wildcat, walking out with this jacket slung over her shoulder, Sonic Youths Thurston Moore once recalled of seeing her perform the album live in 1976. It was life-changing.
34/35 2) Illmatic Nas (1994)
How good can rap get? This good. There are albums where the myth can transcend the music; not on Illmatic, where Nas vaulted himself into the ranks of the greatest MCs in 1994, with an album that countless artists since have tried and failed to emulate. Enlisting the hottest producers around Pete Rock, DJ Premier, Q-Tip, L.E.S and Large Professor was a move that Complex blamed for ruining hip hop, while still praising Nass record, because it had a lasting impact on the use of multiple producers on rap albums. Nas used the sounds of the densley-populated New York streets he grew up on. You hear the rattle of the steel train that opens the record, along with the cassette tape hissing the verse from a teenage Nasty Nas on Main Sources 1991 track Live at the BBQ: When I was 12, I went to Hell for snuffing Jesus.
35/35 1) Joy Division Unknown Pleasures (1979)
Unknown Pleasures is unlike any album that had been created before it or indeed any album since. Its mysteriousness makes it as compelling as many great works of literature; indeed, our critic Chris Harvey said the spiritual force emanating from the Joy Division’s record’s grooves make it feel almost Dostoevskyan. Peter Hooks basslines veer and thrum wildly beneath Ian Curtiss dark mutterings that are at once urgent, detached, and strangely sexless. On Shes Lost Control it as though youre hearing the band play from the end of a dark tunnel the echoes of Curtis’s voice and the ominous rumblings of that bass build and build. By the time you reach those final, shivery notes on I Remember Nothing, it doesnt feel like an overstatement to call this a life-changing record.
1/35 35) Arctic Monkeys Whatever People Say I Am, Thats What Im Not (2006)
A new wave of British guitar bands was already being pioneered by the likes of The Libertines, Bloc Party and Franz Ferdinand when the Sheffield-formed Arctic Monkeys arrived on the scene. But their 2006 debut the defiantly titled Whatever People Say I Am, Thats What Im Not is arguably the most generation-defining, by a band experiencing the kind of hype that hadnt been seen since Oasis with Definitely Maybe. Alex Turners sardonic and keenly observational lyrics on songs like Fake Tales of San Francisco and When the Sun Goes Down had fans clamouring to get into their early shows. It was an early example of the power the internet would hold over the music industry propelling them from an unknown indie band on MySpace to the top of the charts in the space of six months.
2/35 34) Please Please Me The Beatles (1963)
Please Please Me has a rhythm to it like little else released by The Beatles. Songs like Twist and Shout and I Saw Her Standing There have an energy that reflects the youthful vim of the band themselves, who were raring to go following the number one single from which the album takes its name. Their harmonies are thrilling to hear, and this is arguably the best album for capturing the bands raw power.
3/35 33) Yeah Yeah Yeahs Fever to Tell (2003)
In 2003, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs stuck a middle finger up to the naysayers who scoffed that they were little more than a bunch of posers. Their debut album Fever to Tell is a bristling record loaded with New York snark supplied by Karen Os impressive vocal turns. Nick Zinner keeps the urgency going with roaring guitar licks while Brian Chase offers earth-shaking percussion on the likes of Date With the Night and Y Control. More than trendsetters the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were the brains behind the smartest album of that year.
4/35 32) Franz Ferdinand Franz Ferdinand (2004)
Kanye West called it white crunk music. The band themselves called it music for girls to dance to. And songs such as This Fire certainly livened things up their irresistible hooks and disco energy, as frontman Alex Kapranos turned the male gaze on its head with lyrics like I can feel your lips undress my eyes. Fifteeen years later and Take Me Out still makes you swing your hips.
5/35 31) Oasis Definitely Maybe (1994)
Blur versus Oasis is a battle music fans will be waging for decades to come, but when it comes to debut albums, Oasis emerge as top dogs. Definitely Maybe was exciting, aggressive and loaded with attitude: a 22-year-old Liam Gallagher spits and snarls over the reverb-soaked guitars of Cigarettes & Alcohol, and soars on that falsetto for Live Forever. Among the too cool for school alt-rockers who spurned the glitz and glamour of fame, Oasis asserted themselves as the definitive rock and roll stars.
6/35 30) Lady Gaga The Fame (2008)
Stefani Germanottas debut album The Fame brought maximalist pop back to the forefront of the late-Noughties music scene, in an industry that was desperately lacking in pop divas. Lady Gaga already sounded famous and she acted famous but that doesnt mean her music couldnt stand on its own. Songs like Beautiful, Dirty, Rich and Just Dance seemed to convey Gagas love of fame and hedonism while remaining supremely self-aware of its superficiality. To top it off, it was masterfully produced and resplendent with slick, catchy dancepop and Eurodisco influences.
7/35 29) Kendrick Lamar good kid, m.A.A.d City (2012)
Kendrick Lamar subtitled his debut record A Short Film by Kendrick Lamar, and indeed it feels as though youre watching the movie of his early life such is the autobiographical nature of this record. He raps in low, furtive tones, interrupted by voicemails from his family (his mother asks him pleadingly to return her car) that reinforce the familial themes. It is family, and faith, that keep Lamar on the outskirts of a world of violence and sin. Even this early on his career you hear the virtuosity and acute understanding of rhythm Good kid, m.A.A.d City now stands as a classic album from a rapper who chooses the power of storytelling over a cheap punchline.
8/35 28) Led Zeppelin Led Zeppelin (1969)
Not every great debut album is defined by whether the artist has landed on their sound by the first track. Led Zeppelin were still figuring things out when they released their self-titled debut, yet it is essential because it laid the groundwork for what they would go onto achieve the following decade. We were learning what got us off most and what got people off most, Robert Plant said. You had the blues and folk notes on Babe Im Gonna Leave You, and the chugging rock of Communication Breakdown; Plants yowling vocals and Jimmy Pages guitar. It did the trick.
9/35 27) The Jesus and Mary Chain Psychocandy (1985)
It was the crap coming out of the radio that made us want to be in a band more than anything else, Jim Reid told Rolling Stone for the 30th anniversary of the Scottish alt-rockers debut album Psychocandy. Because it was like, Why is everything we hear so f***ing awful? That was the main driving force: how bad things were. Psychocandy was certainly like nothing anyone else released at that time. Inspired by the Velvet Underground and The Stooges, the Reid brothers loaded their debut with buzzy guitars and hair-raising levels of feedback on singles like You Trip Me Up and Never Understand. It paved the way for countless shoegaze and alt-rock bands in the decades that followed.
10/35 26) Jeff Buckley Grace (1994)
Grace is a masterpiece, and the only album the perfectionist Jeff Buckley was satisfied with before he drowned, aged 30, in a freak accident in Memphis in 1997. Yet had Grace been the only material ever released under his name (live recordings, covers and demos were released posthumously), it would have been enough to prove he was a rare and exceptional talent. His exquisite rendering of Leonard Cohens Hallelujah, his melismatic singing on Grace and the church-like hush of Lover, You Should Come Over all of this and more carved out a rich legacy that ensures Buckleys music will never fade.
11/35 25) Eminem The Slim Shady LP (1999)
The whipsmart, cynical, outrageous young man on Eminems major label debut was a breath of fresh air or perhaps more of a slap in the face after a spate of soulful, conscious hip hop records. Of course, the rampant misogyny and homophobia his so-called character Slim Shady spat out caused uproar, regardless of how surreal the scenarios to which they were applied were. Arguably what stands out the most on The Slim Shady LP is the sheer technical skill and lyrical ability that few have been able to match since.
12/35 24) The Who My Generation (1965)
Not only did it lay the groundwork for so many punk, rock and heavy metal bands that came after them but the manic rhythms and raw intensity of their power-chord ballads featured on The Who’s my Generation propelled rock and roll to new heights in 1965.
13/35 23) The Strokes Is This It (2001)
Saviours of rock and roll! The greatest rock band since the Rolling Stones! You have to pity The Strokes, who released their debut album under the biggest wave of hype imaginable. Yet its hard to deny the impact Is This It had on rock music critics have argued that the Arctic Monkeys and Franz Ferdinand wouldnt have existed if not for this band. They eschewed pre-programmed beats and autotuned vocals in favour of a gritty post-punk approach, and the result was an album that reinvigorated a floundering music industry, and inspired an entire generation of bands.
14/35 22) Run-DMC Run-DMC (1984)
The idea of a rap album was virtually inconceivable until Run-DMC released their full-length, self-titled debut in 1984. When he inducted them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Eminem called them the first movie stars of rap they are The Beatles. Busta Rhymes proclaimed: Run-DMC didnt change music, they changed everything. The trios aggressive yet stark tracks like Sucker MCS and Hard Times were a dramatic contrast against the R&B-driven rap of the time, an approach emulated by the rappers themselves, who spurned outlandish costumes in favour of tracksuits and sneakers. As an anniversary piece in Billboard noted, they were authentic before authenticity in hip hop was even a thing.
15/35 21) Roxy Music Roxy Music (1972)
Brian Enos experimental synths met Bryan Ferrys romantic, old-school charm on the debut album from Roxy Music’s bizarre art-glam-rock outfit. There were odes to Humphrey Bogart (2HB) and cyber-rock jams (Ladytron), and songs decorated with spooky-sounding hooks that wouldnt sound out of place in The Rocky Horror Show (the character Riff Raff even seemed to take his cues from a balding Brian Eno).
16/35 20) Jay-Z Reasonable Doubt (1996)
Still regarded by many as his greatest album to date, Reasonable Doubt asserted Jay-Z as a master freestyle perhaps the best of his generation recorded in a studio he compared to a psychiatrists couch. At the heart of the record is a blistering duet with the Notorious BIG, Brooklyns Finest, which practically heralded the shift of focus back from West Coast hip hop to the East.
17/35 19) Black Sabbath Black Sabbath (1970)
Rolling Stone’s Lester Bangs described the Black Sabbath as just like Cream! But worse, and their debut album as a shuck despite the murky song titles and some inane lyrics that sound like Vanilla Fudge paying doggerel tribute to Aleister Crowley, the album has nothing to do with spiritualism, the occult, or anything much except stiff recitations of Cream clichés. The Village Voice werent keen either, with critic Robert Christgau condemning it as bulls**t necromancy. Yet this is the album that invented heavy metal. Black Sabbath arrived ready to lure fans over to the dark side with Ozzy Osbournes piercing, operatic cry: My name is Lucifer, please take my hand. Critics be damned.
18/35 18) Sex Pistols Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977)
The album will last. The sleeve may not, said the adverts for the Sex Pistols first and only studio album in 1977. The Sex Pistols were already controversial before the release of Never Mind the Bollocks, having caused nationwide uproar for swearing on live TV, been fired from two record labels, and been banned from a number of live venues in England. Yet despite many major retailers refusing to sell it, the album debuted at number one on the UK album charts and is today regarded as one of the most important punk albums in music history.
19/35 17) The Clash The Clash (1977)
Joe Strummer was a ball of rage and ambition when he and the rest of The Clash laid down the tracks for their debut album. Most of the guitar on this record was provided by Mick Jones, because Strummer didnt think technical ability was punk enough. Yet their vision burns through on the buzz-saw attack of Career Opportunities and White Riot, raising a fist against unemployment, racism and the fat cats of industry.
20/35 16) Guns N Roses Appetite for Destruction (1987)
Guns N Roses’ Appetite for Destruction was the biggest thing to happen to hard rock since Led Zeppelin IV. Slashs guitar and Axl Roses wild, animal howls contribute to the raw energy on songs like Paradise City and marked a dramatic shift away from the commercialised heavy rock that was being played on MTV at the time proudly championing a gritty form of hedonism instead. A lot of rock bands are too f***ing wimpy to have any sentiment or emotion, Rose said. Not this band.
21/35 15) Daft Punk Homework (1996)
Daft Punk’s Homework was originally intended as just a load of singles, until Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo realised they had enough quality tracks for a full-length release. Each one opens with a kind of motif upon which multiple textures build and sprawl outwards sleazy guitar hooks, G-funk whines and glittering synths. Its the album that alerted the rest of the world to the French house music scene.
22/35 14) The Doors The Doors (1967)
Sex and poetry go hand in hand, especially if youre a Jim Morrison fan. While few bands manage to divide critical opinion as much as The Doors, their debut albums organ-driven rock was as tight as their frontmans famous leather trousers. They brought theatricality to the Sixties music scene and went onto inspire as broad a range of artists as The Stranglers to Skrillex. The baroque pop stylings and lustful lyrics on Light My Fire proved to be a breakthrough, and helped propel them to number two on the US Billboard 200.
23/35 13) Kanye West The College Dropout (2004)
After making a name for himself on Jay-Zs The Blueprint as well as by producing hits for Janet Jackson and Ludacris, Kanye West spent four years recording The College Dropout. His background as a producer was obviously beneficial to his own debut, at a time where hip hop sampling was being accused of being too safe. And he subverted many other hip hop clichés, skirting round the dominant gangsta persona and instead finding solace in family and the church.
24/35 12) Pink Floyd The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)
Pink Floyds debut The Piper at the Gates of Dawn stands as a classic of psychedelic rock. Helmed by an unravelling Syd Barrett ousted a year after the albums release it shows the band at their most playful, with several tracks going onto become staples of their live shows. Songs such as Bike, meanwhile, proved the band were not averse to a good pop hook along with the acid guitars and hazy production.
25/35 11) Lauryn Hill The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998)
Lauryn Hill raised the game for an entire genre with the immense and groundbreaking record, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Flipping between two tones sharp and cold, and sensual and smoky the former Fugees member stepped out from raps misogynist status quo and drew an audience outside of hip hop thanks to her melding of soul, reggae and R&B, and the recruitment of the likes of Mary J Blige and DAngelo. Its sonic appeal has a lot to do with the lo-fi production and warm instrumentation, often comprised of a low thrumming bass, tight snares and doo-wop harmonies. But Hills reggae influences are what drive the albums spirit: preaching love and peace but also speaking out against unrighteous oppression. Even today, its one of the most uplifting and inspiring records around.
26/35 10) Dizzee Rascal Boy in Da Corner (2003)
Its staggering to listen back to Boy in Da Corner and remember Dizzee Rascal was just 18-years-old when he released it. Rising through the UK garage scene as a member of east Londons Roll Deep crew, the MC born Dylan Mills allegedly honed his skills in production after being excluded from every one of his classes, apart from music. If you want any sense of how ahead of the game Dizzee was, just listen to the opening track Sittin Here. While 2018 has suffered a spate of half-hearted singles playing on the listeners sense of nostalgia for simpler times, 15 years ago Dizzee longed for the innocence of childhood because of what he was seeing in the present day: teenage pregnancies, police brutality, his friends murdered on the streets or lost to a lifestyle of crime and cash. Boy in da Corner goes heavy on cold, uncomfortably disjointed beats, synths that emulate arcade games and police sirens, and Dizzee himself delivering bars in his trademark, high-pitched squawk.
27/35 9) Beastie Boys Licensed to Ill (1986)
Hip hops first number one album was an incendiary, all-guns-blazing record that would send shockwaves around the music industry for years to come. Few artists release something so assertive as this a statement of intent to middle America that demanded they fight for their right to party. Beastie Boys’ Mike D, Ad-Rock and MCA would move on from the frat boy humour and good time attitude of Licensed to Ill, but it is that record that delivered rap against a backdrop of Led Zeppelin and James Brown-inspired guitar licks.
28/35 8) The Notorious BIG Ready to Die (1994)
The rapper Notorious BIG, born Christopher Wallace, had been taking part in rap battles around Fulton Street, Brooklyn since he was 13 years old, but it was only at the urging of his friends that he quit a lucrative drugs operation and devoted himself to music. Living on a knifes edge was all Biggie Smalls knew as a kid, when he was waking up every morning, hustling, cutting school, looking out for my moms, the police, stickup kids; just risking my life every day on the street selling drugs, as he told Rolling Stone back in 1995. The things he witnessed and experienced were poured into Ready to Die one of the best debut albums in hip hop delivered in his signature throaty vocals with wit and humour.
29/35 7) Ramones Ramones (1976)
At less than 30 minutes, Ramones debut injects their rage, their disillusionment and their frustration directly into the listeners veins. Its a record that spurned the posturing of Seventies rock and stripped all of the artifice away to the bare bones beneath, with songs such as Beat on the Brat and Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue proving to be as surly as the band themselves. Our early songs came out of our real feelings of alienation, isolation, frustration the feelings everybody feels between seventeen and seventy-five, singer Joey Ramone said. The whole record cost just $6,000 to make.
30/35 6) NWA Straight Outta Compton
NWA unveiled their cold, menacing sound on debut record Straight Outta Compton that heralded the beginning of gangsta rap and also launched the careers of Dr Dre, Eazy-E and Ice Cube. The latter made it clear they werent positioning themselves as people to look up to: Do I look like a mother***ing role mode? he demands on Gangsta Gangsta. Their track F*** tha Police a protest track against racism and police brutality led to them receiving a threatening letter from the FBI, which only contributed to their growing fame.
31/35 5) The Velvet Underground The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)
Dubbed the Banana Album for its famous Andy Warhol cover art, The Velvet Underground & Nico is proof of what a band can do when they are completely fearless. With Nico the beautiful German vocalist added to the band at Warhols request you have this exquisite balance of cool femininity and fiery machismo. Sex and hedonism are everywhere on this record, from Venus in Furs to Run Run Run, but its not so much glamour as glam rock gritty tales of drug addiction and raw desire. Speaking of its initially low sales figures, Brian Eno observed that, nonetheless, everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band. David Bowie called it the future of music, and 52 years later, it still feels like it.
32/35 4) Jimi Hendrix Experience Are You Experienced
A virtual unknown to rock fans just a year before Jimi Hendrix used Are You Experienced to assert himself as a guitar genius who could combine pop, blues, rock, R&B, funk and psychedelia in a way no other artist had before. Thats even without the essential contributions of drummer Mitch Mitchell and bassist Noel Redding, who handed Are You Experienced the rhythmic bridge between jazz and rock. Few album openers are as exquisite as Purple Haze. Few tracks are as gratifying, as sexy, as the strut on Foxy Lady. And few songs come close to the existential bliss caused by The Wind Cries Mary. Hendrixs attack on the guitar contrasted against the more polished virtuosos in rock at the time yet it is his raw ferocity that we find ourselves coming back to. Few debuts have changed the course of rock music as Hendrix did with his.
33/35 3) Patti Smith Horses (1975)
Jesus died for somebodys sins, but not mine, go the immortal opening words of Patti Smiths debut album Horses. Theres a heady anticipation as she speaks the lyric in a low, seductive murmur, before switching to a cocky swagger as the electric guitar line kicks in. It was a bold move, to open her debut album with a reinvention of someone elses song (in this case Van Morrisons Gloria), but Smith was unlike anything the music world had ever seen. She was a poet, who wanted to capture the literary genius of her idol Arthur Rimbaud and channel it via the raw passion of an artist like Jimi Hendrix. She was like a wildcat, walking out with this jacket slung over her shoulder, Sonic Youths Thurston Moore once recalled of seeing her perform the album live in 1976. It was life-changing.
34/35 2) Illmatic Nas (1994)
How good can rap get? This good. There are albums where the myth can transcend the music; not on Illmatic, where Nas vaulted himself into the ranks of the greatest MCs in 1994, with an album that countless artists since have tried and failed to emulate. Enlisting the hottest producers around Pete Rock, DJ Premier, Q-Tip, L.E.S and Large Professor was a move that Complex blamed for ruining hip hop, while still praising Nass record, because it had a lasting impact on the use of multiple producers on rap albums. Nas used the sounds of the densley-populated New York streets he grew up on. You hear the rattle of the steel train that opens the record, along with the cassette tape hissing the verse from a teenage Nasty Nas on Main Sources 1991 track Live at the BBQ: When I was 12, I went to Hell for snuffing Jesus.
35/35 1) Joy Division Unknown Pleasures (1979)
Unknown Pleasures is unlike any album that had been created before it or indeed any album since. Its mysteriousness makes it as compelling as many great works of literature; indeed, our critic Chris Harvey said the spiritual force emanating from the Joy Division’s record’s grooves make it feel almost Dostoevskyan. Peter Hooks basslines veer and thrum wildly beneath Ian Curtiss dark mutterings that are at once urgent, detached, and strangely sexless. On Shes Lost Control it as though youre hearing the band play from the end of a dark tunnel the echoes of Curtis’s voice and the ominous rumblings of that bass build and build. By the time you reach those final, shivery notes on I Remember Nothing, it doesnt feel like an overstatement to call this a life-changing record.
XO was Smiths lustrous masterpiece, where sublime folk, country, ragtime, indie rock and the softer notes of late-era Beatles melted together into viscous sonic treacle, and uncompromising lyrics hit back at controlling forces and cut to the core of rock star mythology: they took your life apart and called your failures art. Buoyed by a move to the Silver Lake area of LA, where hed often play low-key solo shows and bellow Scorpions and Don McLean tunes at karaoke nights, he planned to expand his sound further on its follow-up and, in interviews, began playing down his image as a very depressed hermit who cant do anything but sit on the edge of his bed and look at his shoes writing songs its not like that at all. I can talk to people, but sometimes I dont want to.
The songs Smith wrote for 2000s Figure 8 were more reflective and sanguine, no longer blind to silver linings. Many seemed to regretfully dissect his recent split from girlfriend Joanna Bolme of Stephen Malkmuss Jicks, while others addressed the stifling expectations of fame (Cant Make a Sound) but there were also optimistic songs about finding new purpose (LA, Happiness) and the art of owning ones loneliness (In the Lost and Found (Honky Bach)). Somewhere in Smiths enclosed world, a window had opened onto the Californian sunshine.
Only rarely did the lyrics suggest distraction. Son of Sam, he explained, concerned not so much the infamous New York serial killer as a destructive, repetitive person wrestling with a clouded mind. Junk Bond Trader spotlit the plight of the artist pressed to give the people something theyd understand, and Everything Means Nothing to Me was born of a violent reaction, during a 48-hour mushroom trip, to the pressures of having to worry about the future of his art.
A lot of people from the label were telling him he needed to get it together, producer David McConnell told Spin. He was so sick of people talking about the future. So he carved the word NOW into his arm with a knife. And he sat down at the piano and wrote Everything Means Nothing to Me as the blood was dripping down his arm.
Schnapf suggested recording Figure 8 in batches, to lighten the burden on Smith. Which meant that, after working in a variety of LA studios, Smith could make a pilgrimage to Abbey Road Studios in London to record strings and immerse himself in the records of his childhood.
Smith performs in Austin, Texas in March 2000, shortly before the release of ‘Figure 8’
Hes playing that upright piano you hear on Lost and Found and the piano sounded so familiar to me, says Schnapf. I get over the top going Elliott, you know that piano? Yeah. You know what that is? No. I go Lady Madonna and Penny Lane.
What emerged was a dreamlike collection of what Smith called little movies, a narcotic drift through pop history, from doo-wop to modern psychedelia, that was arguably the equal of XO. XO was about exploring possibilities of the studio and arrangement, Schnapf says. Figure 8 is about playing with form and impressionism. Smith named the album after the idea of a self-contained, endless pursuit of perfection. Yet behind the scenes, things were turning pretty ugly. Hard drugs crept in and escalated fast. Smiths partner towards the end of his life, Jennifer Chiba, would suggest he wasnt someone prone to half measures.
Seemed like he went pretty all-in, Schnapf sighs, sadly. Up until then he didnt smoke weed, he didnt do drugs. A lot of Figure 8 was very positive. It just started to slowly unwind Towards the end of the process there was skittish behaviour, not looking you in the eye kinda stuff. It seems like everybody hits this point in your late twenties or early thirties where however youve been dealing with shit stops working. Either you start to get your shit together or go heavily down the other way. He hit that fork and went the other direction.
Early sessions in Schnapfs garage for a weird, stripped-down and ambitious follow-up fell apart when he objected to Smith turning up wasted. He said he was going to work with [producer] Jon Brion because he thought Jon wouldnt disapprove of whatever he was going to be doing. He was wrong; Brion stopped their sessions over Smiths drug use. When Smith resumed recording on his proposed double album of noise and experiment, working primarily on his own, he was subsisting largely on ice cream and a reported $1,500 worth of heroin and crack a day, mixed with alcohol and tranquilisers, a cocktail which medical books had told him was often used to help the terminally ill slip away.
Chiba later explained to Spin that Smith had been planning to take his own life the socially acceptable way, with alcohol and drugs.
I had him on constant suicide watch, said McConnell. He tried ODing The guy was immune to drugs. Ive never seen anything like it in my life, where somebody could take that many drugs and walk away. He used to talk about it: I just did $800 worth of drugs in an hour! Whats wrong? What the f***!
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Paranoia set in. Disappointed at the lack of success for Figure 8, Smith became convinced DreamWorks were stalking and bugging him and had broken into his house to steal songs; he threatened to kill himself in order to escape his contract. They were nothing but supportive, says Schnapf, but he went down this rabbit hole and that was not what was happening.
Smiths gigs became shambolic gaunt, scruffy and rambling, hed virtually fall asleep mid-song, fluff chords and have audiences shouting out lyrics he couldnt remember: Undoubtedly one of the worst performances ever by a musician, a reviewer wrote of one show where Smith had lost all feeling in one hand. He was reportedly found unconscious in a Silver Lake club bathroom in a heroin stupor and injured his back in a brawl with the LAPD at a Flaming Lips show in November 2002.
Several attempts at detox failed, until a split with then-girlfriend Valerie Deerin inspired him to quit everything in August 2002, virtually all at once. Undergoing a controversial IV amino acid treatment at LAs Neurotransmitter Restoration Centre and flushing all his drugs, he got clean. But such a brutal cold turkey, even cutting out vital prescription meds, had deep psychological consequences. Chiba would return home to find him taking a knife to old cigarette burns on his arm from his heroin days, and as his head cleared, so did his childhood.
He was remembering traumatic things, Chiba said to Spin and, while Welch denies any wrongdoing, Smith spoke obsessively about his belief that his stepfather had abused him. My stepfather used to take me up to the attic, he told his friend Andrew Morgan, according to Spin. Thats all I remember. I dont remember what he did.
On his 34th birthday, on 6 August 2003, Smith quit drinking overnight, and also soon gave up red meat, caffeine and sugar. He might have been cleaned up, but he was not well still super paranoid, Schnapf says, yet Smith felt hopeful enough to propose to Chiba in the studio. Then, following an argument in their Echo Park apartment in the afternoon of 21 October, Chiba claims she emerged from the shower to find Smith with a knife in his chest. He died in hospital an hour later. His final album, From a Basement on the Hill, would be completed and compiled by Schnapf and Smiths family posthumously. Some found the circumstances surrounding his death to be mysterious, and the LAPD investigation into his death remained open until fairly recently, though the coroners website now says it is closed.
The danger in lingering on the darkness that enveloped Smith, particularly in his final years, is that it shrouds the enlightening impact of his music, both on subsequent generations of Americana artists who took on his mantle of airy melodic melancholy and on the listeners finding their own stories in his words. Something that makes you feel sad might make someone else feel happy, because theyre like, Well, thats how I feel now, he told NME. I dont want to perpetuate the notion that if somebody plays music they must be f***ed up or crazy It winds up being another part of your cartoon costume I dont play music because Im a tortured person. I play music because I enjoy it. Im no sadder than anyone else I know. People overlook the happiness.
The Figure 8 anniversary, then, is a time to celebrate the breezy consolations to be found hearing him hanging around feeling both lost and found. To bask in the billowing bright sides of Happiness, the lovestruck harmonies of Pretty Mary K and the evident joy in Smith making the Penny Lane piano his own. Its what he wouldve wanted.