In the late 1980’s, a bunch of kids in the Midwest, inspired by the burgeoning indie rock movement being pumped through college radio, grabbed instruments and started a new type of band. They took the scruffy indie sound and added their own touch: odd time signatures, dissonant structures, and irregular stopping and starting. Some were inspired by progressive rock stalwarts like King Crimson and Yes, others just wanted to try something new and cool. Most of the bands started recording at Electric Audio in Chicago, overseen by a nerdy but cantankerous audio engineer, columnist, and bassist named Steve Albini. The groundwork for math rock was being lain.

It was over thirty years ago that bands like Slint, Bastro, Bitch Magnet, Breadwinner and Don Caballero started the wheels turning. Today, math rock takes even stranger forms: rapid finger-tapping, wildly angular guitar phrases and a plethora of guitar pedals and digital effects. Of course, you can go on Wikipedia and learn about all this. You can read our unabridged math rock history series, or our articles on the math rock instrument mainstays like telecasters and pedals. But what’s really missing here is a crash course on the essential records of this niche but overwhelming genre – a ‘who’s who’ of math rock.

A couple of months ago, we ran a reader’s poll on the essential math rock albums. This article is the outcome of that poll. We were all really happy with how readers voted and, while we would have loved to see some other fine albums make the cut, this really is a solid list that spans the full math rock timeline. So enough of this crap, let’s do it…


50. Cleft – BOSH! (2014)

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No one has matched the energy that guitarist Dan Wild-Beesley and drummer John Simm exuded onstage, the acrobatics that two musicians can perform with their instruments. BOSH! is the exemplary record that showcased Dan and John’s captivating instrumental play, their ability to accommodate and complement each other’s musical trickeries and, above all, to carve out math rock riffs that were both knotty and bouncy. NH


49. Three Trapped Tigers – Route One or Die (2011)

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Route One Or Die offers some of the most beautiful musical passages in underground music. It also offers some of the most ugly. Armed with their impressive array of digital toys, Three Trapped Tigers‘ channeled acid jazz, heavy metal and EDM in their debut full length. The three members, each professionally trained, brought a strong maturity to this loose and often whimsical genre. NH


48. And So I Watch You From Afar – Gangs (2011)

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Instrumental rock quartet ASIWYFA have always been a band that trade in magnitude – long, epic songs; a general monolithic-ness, whether through blazing enormity or potent delicacy; ambitions toward concept. What’s great about Gangs is the way that stuff feels controlled, harnessed, tightly and precisely shaped into a phenomenally effective record, as powerful in its relentless barrages of lightning riffs as in its more reflective moments. Albums that feel like bands realising a vision are usually dang special and this one certainly seems like it falls into that category. JL


47. June of 44 – Engine Takes To The Water (1995)

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25 years after its release, Engine Takes to the Water still sounds ahead of its time and where contemporary rock currently resides. The music is moody, the songs are dark, the lyrics are poignant and cathartic, and it is all wrapped up on record by a band discovering not only themselves, but discovering a new direction for experimental and mathy music. June of 44 takes some obvious hints and cues from Slint, but the band sounds like the rightful heir in taking up the mantle of dark, moody, internal perspective math rock and June of 44 ultimately create something unique and different rather than recreating a sound that came before them. The band sounds like a collective playing together for years, but Engine Takes to the Water was their debut album that was written and recorded in the early days of the band. The album sounds like what happens when a band is able to catch lightning in a bottle. WC


46. Three Trapped Tigers – Silent Earthling (2016)

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Three Trapped Tigers’ second LP, Silent Earthling, cuts back some on the manic density of much of their earlier material, for a spacious sound that foregrounds their mastery of hooks and atmosphere. Not that chaos and noise are at all disregarded, often frantically simmering below the surface or weaved somehow into the fabric of the band’s titanium melodies. In all, Silent Earthling just has a really satisfying sense of magnitude and wholeness, stellar as an innovative piece of art but rammed full of fat synths, massive melodies and thick soundscapes. JL


45. Sleeping People – Growing (2007)

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Sleeping People’s sophomore work Growing is a thoughtful exploration of layered and textural arrangements, taut prog riffs against a backdrop of dynamic rock energy, machine language with a human heart. Alternating between intellectual and visceral, minimal to hook-laden and expansive, the San Diego favourites take compositional risks and delve into innovative immensity with ease. Blending elements of math, post-rock, minimalism and improv, Growing walks the tightrope of flexed tension and elastic space. Joileah Maddock’s interlocking guitar on “James Spader” resists and persists the whirring undercurrent of Kenseth Thibideau’s bass. “Mouth Breeder” drones and buzzes, staccato rhythms and melodic, articulated guitar and bass lines, building from control to carefully hinted-at disorder. Growing is instrumental save for last track “ People Staying Awake” featuring guest vocals by Pinback’s Rob Crowe, which rapturously soars and falls. A unique record in the genre. KG


44. Owls – S/T (2001)

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For nearly 30 years, Tim Kinsella and guitarist Victor Villareal have collaborated across numerous projects. The duo will always be known for Cap’N’Jazz, the emo band that could justifiably be called the ‘game-changer’. But it was in Owls that Villareal could really flex his fingers, piecing together the warbling guitar lines that are pertinent to the band’s sound. Their self-titled debut really lays the paving: Villareal’s trademark phrases are complemented by Kinsella’s raspy, ever-flipping vocals. This a is a math rock/emo treat. NH


43. Floral – Floral (2014)

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In 2014, Nate Sherman, the mastermind of Californian duo Floral, quickly turned from a bedroom musician to a math rock star. Floral’s debut EP showcased Sherman at his most dexterous; the speed and range of his guitar taps highlights the athletic nature of math rock music. The Floral EP is a candid math rock release, its unapologetic focus on indulgence has garnered Floral a league of impressed fans. NH


42. Enemies – We’ve Been Talking (2010)

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Irish math rock band Enemies have a spectacular oeuvre of instrumental records to their name, but nothing quite matches the gently bouncy and coolly effervescent feel of their debut We’ve Been Talking. It’s an album that can be satisfying as punchy background muzak but also oozes textural pithiness if one cares to dig deeper. It is no wonder the Irish press lapped this one up, no wonder the album scored the band a devoted Japanese fan base, no wonder it set them on a path to brighter places… NH


41. The Dillinger Escape Plan – Calculating Infinity (1998)

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Many math rockers’ first foray into the genre was via the slightly ajar route of The Dillinger Escape Plan‘s cult sensation Calculating Infinity, one of the most difficult and mind-boggling listening experiences in the history of heavy music. The band brought together three key elements: the sonic aggression of hardcore punk, the metrical fluidity of jazz, and the game-changing ingredient: extreme speed. This concoction has since become the trademark sound of The Dillinger Escape Plan, and the gold standard for the mathcore genre. The name ‘Calculating Infinity’ implies that the band were tacitly aware of what they set out to achieve rhythmically (or arhythmically). Over twenty years later, it remains a exhausting task to fully pick apart tracks like ‘Destro’s Secret’ and ‘Sugar Coated Sour’. NH


40. Tera Melos – X’ed Out (2013)

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California math rock weirdos Tera Melos’ second excursion into poppier territory, the beauty of X’ed Out lies in how, despite condensing their songs down from explosive, linear, 12-minute exercises in controlled chaos to 3 minute “more conventional” tracks, somehow none of the former’s glorious, inventive oddness was sacrificed in the process. Between Nick Reinhardt’s bizarre lyrics and technicolour guitar work and John Clardy’s crazed drumming, weirdness and wonkiness still abound; it’s just that Nick’s guitar is, here, bleeping out hooks and Clardy’s drums drive verses and choruses. A brilliant, creative and hella catchy album. JL


39. Tangled Hair – We Do What We Can (2018)

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Imagine you’re drinking a warm cup of tea, sat by a window, in a thick, cosy jumper, watching some grim storm outside – this is what We Do What We Can makes your ears feel like. Guitars glisten, all weightless twinkling melodies, drums sparkle and skitter, Alan Welsh’s voice gently croons of nostalgia and past love. There is force, when needed, but never in excess. Clever, elegant and touching, Tangled Hair’s debut LP, appearing after six years of radio silence, is a beautiful master work in math pop. JL


38. Shellac – At Action Park (1994)

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There is no denying the influence Steve Albini had on the development of math rock both stylistically and from an engineering standpoint of the sound of math rock records. Albini recorded seminal albums by Slint, Don Caballero, Breadwinner, Dianogah, The Jesus Lizard, Owls, Bitch Magnet, Dazzling Killmen, Storm & Stress, and Craw just to name some of the important bands of the genre he’s worked with. At Action Park being the debut LP by Steve Albini, Todd Trainer, and Bob Weston as Shellac, it’s no surprise this album has left its imprint on math rock as well. The music takes influence from noise rock and angular Midwest post-hardcore, but also injects a lot of minimalism in the playing and song writing. Shellac has commonly referred to themselves as a minimalist rock trio, and At Action Park is a great showcase of that. Todd Trainer and Bob Weston as a rhythm section establish themselves on this record as a tight knit functioning unit that pushes and pulls against the abrasive squeal tone guitar work and punctuated vocals of Albini that paved the way for vocally driven angular post-hardcore sounding bands using odd-time signatures and ostinato rhythmic patterns to exist in the math rock world. At Action Park shows what you can do by taking minimalism mixing it with angular rhythms and then having some fun with it too. WC


37. Polvo – Today’s Active Lifestyles (1993)

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Polvo‘s trademark slack aesthetic and off-kilter instrumental play was made exemplary in Today’s Active Lifestyles. The North Carolina quartet eschewed precision and pop idealism in favour of a sound that was clunky, jolted, impetuous but altogether satisfying. From the wonky, slacker rock styling of ‘Thermal Treasure’ and ‘Lazy Comet’. to the somber guitar that carries ‘My Kimono’, Today’s Active Lifestyles is the textbook definition of Polvo. a band that inadvertently made a math rock delicacy. NH


36. Blakfish – Champions (2009)

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In the late 2000s, the British ‘weird rock’ scene produced a red-hot streak of bands – Reuben, Tubelord, Hundred Reasons, Meet Me In St Louis, Biffy Clyro, Rolo Tomassi, to name just a few – but none quite matched the bitterness or biting edge of Blakfish. Champions drips with acidic lyrics, buzz-saw riffs and a cynic’s scowl towards the bankers, Simon Cowell and hipsters who buy from Topshop. Between the discordant riffs and spite, though, Blakfish pull back just enough to let a ray of light through with undeniably pretty vocal harmonies and guitar noodles – before the clouds slam shut again and the storm continues. NWB


35. Hella – Tripper (2011)

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Tripper was a tidal wave of hot riffs and mystic mayhem, and is often cited as one of Hella’s most defiant head trips. The 2011 full length marked the return of guitarist Spencer Seims and drummer Zach Hill from a five year hiatus, working once again as a two piece, after experimenting with additional personnel on There is No 666 in Outer Space and Church Gone Wild / Chirpin Hard. MW


34. Meet Me In St Louis – Variations On Swing (2007)

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In just three years of activity, Meet Me In St Louis left a legacy and a lot of ardent followers. Their first and last album Variations On Swing offers delicate drumming with anomalous and overwhelming speed, beautiful arpeggios, emotional expressions, and screechy vocals. Each track on Variations On Swing, the titles of which make reference to a famous film, are magnificent collages of post-hardcore, with soft harmonies erupting into sudden tantrums. It is a whimsical masterpiece that we qualify as math rock, whether they are conscious of it or not. TY


33. Dilute – Grape Blueprints Pour Spinach Olive Grape (2001)

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At face value, Dilute‘s debut felt like a droll affair. But the sombre nature of Grape Blueprints Pour Spinach Olive Grape achieved an unusual paradox, it’s rich sound conjured up the feeling of emptiness. With their slow percussion, creaky vocals, and interlaced chiming guitar lines, Dilute created a slow-swirling melancholy, and allowed listeners to introspect on the murkier elements of being alive. NH


32. Yowie – Cryptooology (2004)

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One of the most, if not the most, technically insane albums on this list. The aggression of Yowie is not in palm-muted guitars or guttural growls, it’s in the nausea-inducing structures. Cryptooology is their magnum opus, a feast of equal parts beauty and horror. It is as confusing and tangled as the name insinuates. NH


31. The Bulletproof Tiger – You Wanna Kiss About It? (2011)

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The extinct quartet from Toronto, Canada set a milestone in the contemporary math-rock scene at the time. It was You Wanna Kiss About It? in particular which made plenty of odd-metered music enthusiasts to get into the genre, because of the technique, syncopation and rhythm it offers the listener. It is filled with warm, honest, fast songs, and all four musicians show how they have mastered their instrument.
Who hasn’t tried to play through the guitar riffs or the percussion of ‘Everything Popular is Wrong’? We all hope we can have more TBT in the future but, for now, let’s dive into a deep sea of nostalgia. IM


30. Drive Like Jehu – Yank Crime (1994)

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Perfect time to revisit this classic, in the era of a new plague. San Diego’s Drive Like Jehu‘s 1994 release Yank Crime fits into a proto-math-rock category, between noise-rock, post hardcore and emo. Frenetic melodic angularity straddles the messy/mathy song structure, with scattershot rhythmic shifts laying the foundation for the alchemic hue and cry of John Reis and Rick Froberg’s interwoven jagged guitars lines. Frantic, buzzing feedback of “Here Come The Rome Plows” brings an Old Testament riotous, dissonant clamour. Visceral and energetic, “Do You Compute” sprawls and snarls. Froberg’s feral shrieks float icily atop, all pure audio assault. Yank Crime delivers us from evil with furious sonic catharsis. KG


29. Adebisi Shank – This Is The Second Album Of A Band Called Adebisi Shank (2010)

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An unknown figure walks into a room and starts stomping slowly then manically on a giant floor piano. This is, ostensibly, the picture that Adebisi Shank were painting in the opener to their sophomore release, the aptly titled This Is The Second Album Of A Band Called Adebisi Shank. What follows can only be described as instrumental tomfoolery. A barrage of keys, synths, pedals and software disfigures Adebisi’s sound into a carnival-esque fiasco, a lavishly and unashamedly oddball affair. NH


28. Totorro – Home Alone (2014)

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Home Alone is an absolute delight of an album, I feel that needs stating foremost. It is a musical smile. Totorro’s own warm and identifiably unique sense of melody bubbling throughout, Home Alone exhibits a mastery of pretty math; its songwriting is subtly clever, sharp, inventive, while also wholly exhilarating and entirely just lovely, playing out across a cosy panorama of choppy but tuneful guitars, chunky bass, driving drums and occasional splashes of glowing group vocals. 10/10 too for being math rock so enjoyable both your grandparents and John Niblock would probably like it (probably). JL


27. And So I Watch You From Afar – And So I Watch You From Afar (2009)

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In January 2009, a monster landed on the shores of math rock – a huge, stomping behemoth crushing forests and towns beneath its feet. Blending post-rock, math rock and intense grooves, the Belfast four piece’s debut album put a fist through the wall of the genre. While ASIWYFA would go on to push instrumental and musical boundaries on their later albums, their debut is a raw, unmatched display of power. NWB


26. Town Portal – Chronopoly (2012)

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Many years ago my mate at Brighton’s label Small Pond enthusiastically slammed this album on, shouting “Duuude, we are trying to sign these guys; check it out.” Within the first 10 seconds I was hooked. Showcasing some of their best grooves and atmospheres with both nuance and power, Town Portal dropped this in a pool of music enthusiasts, creating a rippling effect across genres. You can’t just like them after playing this record: you will become obsessed. TM

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