There’s no secret: as far as cities with a thriving music scene go, Portland ranks at the top of the list, holding court with the likes of New York City, Austin, and Nashville. The Pacific Northwest has hosted several best-selling albums and offerings from indie darlings that have now been encapsulated as bonafide classics.
With summer winding down, now is the best time to go on a road trip. For the commute, here are seven essential albums that define our city’s illustrious musical history, influencing great talent locally and outside our state lines.
Paul Revere & The Raiders — Spirit of ’67 (1966)
One of the earliest, successful albums released in our city, Paul Revere & the Raiders have recently escaped the British Invasion label with a comeback this century, after a few tracks appeared in Quentin Tarantino’s Oscar-winning Once Upon A Time In… Hollywood. The band was formed locally in 1962. Adorned in colonial uniforms, their image and rich sound led to a contract with Columbia, where they released their biggest hit Louie Louie.
Influenced by contemporaries The Kinks, the group recorded a series of best-selling albums that led them into the early stages of ‘punk rock. They were the first local act to receive considerable mainstream success in the ‘60s-‘70s.
Elliott Smith — Self Titled (1995)
The patron saint of Portland has his imprint throughout the city, with a local map devoted to the record stores, streets, and clubs that influenced the singer-songwriter’s haunting discography.
The closest thing our city has to a bard, Smith attended Lincoln High and spent much of his free time purchasing vinyl at Django Records — a now close music store. Smith’s sophomore effort after the dissolution of his post-college band Heatmeiser was based almost entirely on Alameda street, with several intersections mentioned in the song “Needle in the Hay.”
Oscar-winning single “Miss Misery” was recorded at Jackpot Studio, located on the corner of Southeast Morrison Street and 20th Avenue (it’s since moved to Southeast Division and 50th).
Sleater-Kinney — One Beat (2002)
After jamming in a basement in Olympia, the band became staples in our city, so much so that Carrie Brownstein co-created the hit show Portlandia based on the people she observed during her days with the band. Recorded from March-April 2002 at Jackpot! Studio, the band was received as one of the best albums of the year, making the top list in both Pitchfork and Spin publications.
Nearly 30 years after their start, the trio still lives around our city, specifically in the sleepy Northeast region.
The Shins — Chutes Too Narrow (2003)
Albuquerque formed, but Portland proud, The Shins settled into our city in the beginning of the 21st century, recording their best record in frontman James Mercer’s basement, located in Southeast Portland. Coincidentally, it’s also the house where the late Elliott Smith recorded his first several offerings.
Clearly, there’s something in the water pipes at the property.
The home studio served as the location for the rest of The Shins albums. The band is now on a tour across the country and has released five records to date, with a rumored sixth on the way sometime this fall.
Modest Mouse — We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank (2007)
Recorded between Mississippi and Portland, the album We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank is one of the only homegrown records to hit No. 1 on the Billboard chart. Thank former The Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr. The Brit was itching to join another band and struck gold (record, that is) jamming with the indie rock band. To date, it’s the only release in the band’s discography with Marr as a full-time guitarist.
Recorded at Audible Alchemy, Modest Mouse is committed to nautical sounds, incorporating instruments of every shape and size, from accordions to a brass section.
Portugal. The Man. — The Satanic Satanist (2009)
They should be renamed Portland. The Man. Also known as The Lords Of Portland, the band originally hailed from Wasilla, Alaska, and moved to our state after their members graduated. Their first several records were all recorded in our city, before departing to bigger and better studios after signing with Atlantic Records in 2010. The best of these — The Satanic Satanist and its acoustic rendition counterpart — eventually led to major label interest.
After playing a total of 1,600 shows, the band kept faithful to their roots, releasing an Oregon City Sessions live album last year. Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard is a frequent collaborator, volunteering multiple fundraisers for the band’s nonprofit foundation; in turn, PTM contributed a theme song for Rip City.
The Decemberists — The Hazards Of Love (2010)
The Portland-based act has been accused of being pretentious with bloated offerings. That may be true on some albums, but for the most part, the Grammy-nominated indie rock band has released some killer tracks, further emphasized by their eclectic live performances. Best of all is this concept album, later performed live as a musical in Canada.
The band recorded most of their work with Tucker Martine and his studio Flora Recording and Playback, throughout its many iterations. Originally located in Martine’s basement, the studio shifted to a barn in Happy Valley and a studio space in the Northern part of our city. In 2019, the studio was robbed of nearly $70,000 in equipment, prompting the band to do a benefit show at Crystal Ballroom.