Feet On The Air, Head On The Ground // 10 Releases Featuring The Artwork Of Vaughan Oliver

Enigmatic, yet, easily recognizable, Vaughan Oliver's work is interconnected with the eclecticism of 4AD, and it represents some groundbreaking music from the post punk, shoegaze and indie rock realms. Particularly during the eighties and nineties, whether as 23 Envelope alongside his creative partner and photographer, Nigel Grierson, or later under the studio name v23 which he created, Vaughan Oliver envisioned 4AD's releases by adding an extra layer of emotion and intricacy to the music's prominence.

In Oliver's own words: "I like to elevate the banal through surrealism. Mystery and ambiguity are important weapons in a designer’s arsenal. I try to make images where you don’t always get 'the message' straight away – but these things leave a hook in you. Leaving some space for interpretation is important."

This list is a celebratory feature of Oliver's finesse and forward thinking mind as a designer and artist, and grounds for a brief commentary on some of the finest music the world saw during the last forty years.

10. Mojave 3: Ask Me Tomorrow (1995)

Moving on from the based shoegaze sound of Slowdive, the next project by Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell went toward slowcore and alternative country. On their first try Mojave 3 delivered a very much sentimental and downhearted record whose nostalgia is paralleled to the folk and Americana greats of the past, as well as the sweet warmth for which Slowdive blossomed, and logically earned comparisons to Mazzy Star and Cowboy Junkies. It's truly striking, and something that connects to the band's aestheticism and musical education, how a British act managed to carry through an aura that sounds so naturally American.

9. David Sylvian: Secrets Of The Beehive (1987)

David Sylvian's third record under his own name brings forth the grandeur of his beautiful voice and his continued proclivity for exploration, passing over classic structures and arrangements, and trifling with ambiance and jazz. Secrets Of The Beehive is a serene record which masterfully combines acoustic instrumentals with electric ones, and highlights Sylvian's enchanting vocal abilities, his aberrant poetry and art pop class.

8. This Mortal Coil: It'll End In Tears (1984)

More of a studio project than an actual band, This Mortal Coil was the vehicle which showcased the impeccable taste of 4AD founder Ivo Watts-Russell, and producer John Fryer, as they enlisted a group of talented musicians to execute their vision. This partnership resulted in a trilogy of amazing albums, all of which are milestones for dark dreampop. It'll End in Tears, This Mortal Coil's debut was composed of hair-raising renditions of songs originally by Tim Buckley, Big Star, Rema-Rema and others, and featured 4AD artists from Cocteau Twins, Colourbox, and Dead Can Dance, and also Howard Devoto (Buzzcocks, Magazine).

7. The Breeders: Pod (1990)

Although The Breeders started as a side project of Kim Deal and Tanya Donelly, coinciding with Pixies and Throwing Muses, the band blew up for all the right reasons, and Pod was the first specimen of what they were capable of. Rounded out by Josephine Wiggs of The Perfect Disaster and Britt Walford of Slint, The Breeders recorded their gritty, grungy and melodious debut album with Steve Albini who considers it to be one of his best works. Although this lineup of The Breeders was for one album only, the band went on to greater success with Last Splash, and provided a means for Kim Deal's fantastic songwriting to prosper, farther than the restrictions of her previous band.

6. Clan Of Xymox: Clan Of Xymox (1985)

Dutch darkwave band, Clan Of Xymox, have put together a solid body of work during their long career, yet, their first two full lengths on 4AD still seem more praiseworthy than everything else they've done. Their eponymous debut is a dark club classic with its cyberpunk and goth aesthetics harnessed to the maximum and full of spunk. The album was produced by head of 4AD, Ivo Watts-Russell. In the long run the album has ripened as a point of reference for anything darkwave-related, all cryptic and obscure enough, yet, accessible, and sanctioned by all dressed in black fiends.

5. Modern English: After The Snow (1982)

An all around great post punk band, definitely deserving of more appreciation, Modern English are mostly known for their single, I Melt With You which is a crucial part for the success of their sophomore album, After The Snow, but not that much typical of neither the band's general posture nor this LP's moody new wave direction. Crisply produced by the band and renowned producer, Hugh Jones, the album triumphs on all technical details, making up for everything that it may be lacking in cohesion.

4. Lush: Spooky (1992)

Although Lush scored bigger commercial success and sales with their later work which to a great degree matched the Britpop craze of the mid-nineties, the band started as a shoegaze and dreampop act; a mighty good one whose first full length release, Spooky, doesn't lack in anything compared to some of their more esteemed peers. Robin Guthrie of Cocteau Twins does the album's production which is rich and reverb-ridden as expected; powerful work which sparks off something incredibly atmospheric, and as time has proven, emblematic for this dignified, but often weighed down genre.

3. Pale Saints: The Comforts Of Madness (1990)

With a cleaner sound than most of their contemporaries, Pale Saints emerged in 1990 with the compellingly titled, The Comforts Of Madness, followed by two more albums which comprise a very much solid triptych. Jangly, guitar-driven indie pop and musing dreampop come together in a special blend akin to both the sophistication of Cocteau Twins and the pop sensibility of Ride, something which also works much better on the level of a solid unit rather than as individualistic singles. Pale Saints called it quits while they were still ahead, and although their members ventured on other projects, it was unattainable for them to achieve the quality and importance of this band again.

2. Cocteau Twins: Head Over Heels (1983)

A landmark for dreampop by one of the genre's archetypal bands, Head Over Heels, Cocteau Twins' second album, is one of the finest, if not first examples of shoegaze, dreampop and post punk put together to seamless perfection. Elizabeth Frazer's vocals are otherworldly; the compositions and arrangements click at once, the instrumentation and lyricism are utterly compelling, and in a general sense it all culminates in a standout LP, part of a legacy with little to no defects. This is where ethereal shoegaze begins taking the shape and form for which it became cherished later on, and still maintains today through the hundreds of acts that followed in Cocteau Twins' leading footsteps.

1. Pixies: Surfer Rosa (1988)

Pixies provide the perfect marriage between indie rock sophistication, experimentalism and memorability, instilled with firm, straightforward melodies and a lot of grit, and they justly became notorious, besting every other name on 4AD's catalog, at least on a commercial level. It all started with the brilliant Come On Pilgrim in 1987, and burst out with the far better realized Surfer Rosa and Doolittle in 1988 and '89 respectively which propelled the band to the legendary status they still preserve today. Vaughan Oliver kept a strong relationship with Pixies, and illustrated their entire discography up to last year's Beneath The Eyrie. Another one of Albini's many high points, Surfer Rosa is undoubtedly one of the most influential records ever in alternative rock.

More releases by the likes of Pixies, Cocteau Twins, Lush, Pale Saints, as well as albums and EPs by Throwing Muses, Red House Painters, His Name Is Alive, Heidi Berry, David Lynch, Asobi Seksu, Ultra Vivid Scene, The Mountain Goats and Scott Walker could have comfortably been including in this list, together with compilations like Lonely Is An Eyeshore and Anakin. 4AD's catalog has a whole lot to offer in terms of grace and cultivation, and so did Vaughan Oliver's inspiring visual work.

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