Mark Kozelek has one of the most distinctive voices in American music, and has steadily put out great albums since the early 1990s. Even though the names he’s used have changed over the course of his 25-year recording career, you know when you’re listening to Kozelek, whether it’s one of his earlier albums with the Red House Painters, a solo record, or something by his newer band, Sun Kil Moon. His deep, haunted, about-to-break-at-any-second voice is as unmistakable as the famous baritones of Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash, or Bill Callahan.
Although he can claim to have been part of the iconic 4AD roster in its heyday, and has consistently put out excellent albums, today marks a milestone in Kozelek’s career: the release of Sun Kil Moon’s Benji. Pitchfork’s Brandon Stosuy calls the record “astonishing,” among many rhapsodic early reactions from critics. Kozelek is no stranger to critical acclaim, but the reception this album has already received suggests the possibility that Benji might become the defining album of his long career. Still, it’s got a lot to live up to — namely, these highlights from Kozelek’s discography.
Red House Painters (“Rollercoaster”), Red House Painters (1993)
This is one of the albums people cite when attempting to define the sound of 1990s indie. The second Red House Painters self-titled album (the one fans call “Bridge”) is also worth listening to, but the haunting, confessional sound that issues from your speakers in the opening notes of “Grace Cathedral Park” will leave you wondering how something so sad could feel so perfect.
Songs for a Blue Guitar, Red House Painters (1996)
Basically a Kozelek solo album, Songs for a Blue Guitar has its share of slide guitar and epic jams (“Make Like Paper” and “Sill Love Songs”), but is still undeniably weepy and beautiful throughout. Also, a fun fact: Red House Painters’ first album after departing 4AD, Songs for a Blue Guitar came out on the John Hughes-founded label Supreme Recordings.
What’s Next to the Moon, Mark Kozelek (2001)
There’s a story that one night, Kozelek performed a Bon Scott-era AC/DC song during a show and somebody asked him if it was a Leonard Cohen cover. That moment spawned this, one of the best and most original covers albums, full of songs by Australia’s greatest rock import done in Kozelek’s signature style.
The Finally LP, Mark Kozelek (2008)
Remember that time Kozelek did a song for Yo Gabba Gabba!, a Hüsker Dü cover, and a rendition of “Send in the Clowns”? They’re all collected on this compilation.
April, Sun Kil Moon (2008)
We could claim that this is the closest to perfection that Mark Kozelek has ever come, but that would be plain silly. It might have been the best Sun Kil Moon album until Benji took its place, although there really isn’t a weak point in his entire catalog — there are only high points and higher ones.
Among the Leaves, Sun Kil Moon (2012)
“Sunshine in Chicago” is one of the best songs in all of Kozelek’s songbook. It’s funny, but also sad, because Mark Kozelek’s voice is always at least a little bit sad.
Mark Kozelek & Desertshore, Mark Kozelek and Desertshore (2013)
It’s hard to describe this, or any Kozelek album, as playful. But 2013 collaboration with the band Desertshore is perhaps the most interesting examples of what a great collaborator Kozelek can be.