Arthur Russell: The Essential Albums

MOJO’s guide to the must-have releases from omni-faceted Buddhist-disco savant, Arthur Russell.

Arthur Russell by Tom Lee

by Andrew Male  |
Updated on

Portrait: Tom Lee

If the first question is how to buy Arthur Russell, the next question is surely which Arthur Russell do you buy? In his twenty-plus years of making music, from the late 60s until his death from AIDS in 1992, aged just 40, Russell moved from organic Indian-influenced American minimalism to transcendental forms of New York disco (released under numerous different names including Dinosaur L, Loose Joints and Indian Ocean), and a lonesome, tender sort of space-dub song-form that incorporated elements of pop, country, folk and early music.

Born and raised amidst the corn fields and rusting coalmines of Oskaloosa, Iowa, Russell took cello and piano lessons as a child and was already writing music when, in 1968, aged 18, he moved to San Francisco to study Buddhism. After a deeper education in North Indian and Western forms of classical music, he met beat poet and fellow Buddhist Allen Ginsberg. The poet helped Russell move to New York where he immersed himself in the emerging disco scene and the avant-garde collectives centred around the Kitchen on Wooster Street.

“Everything here… serves to underline the scale of Russell’s unfathomable genius.”

An eternally dissatisfied perfectionist, with an addiction to late-night studio sessions and the constant need to revise and rework, Russell recorded far more than he released, right up until his death. During his short lifetime releases were minimal and manageable. In the wake of his subsequent rediscovery in 2004, following the compilations Calling Out Of Context (Rough Trade) and The World Of Arthur Russell (Soul Jazz), his discography has become increasingly in need of navigation, thanks largely to the excellent work of Portland’s Audika Records, who’ve steadily released archive works from the Russell estate that have simultaneously expanded and complicated the back-catalogue. However, overlaps be damned, as everything here, from futuristic exploded-view club grooves to bittersweet ballads and angular art-pop, only serves to underline the scale of Russell’s unfathomable genius, what was lost, and what might have been.


The Necessaries

Big Sky/Event Horizon

SIRE, 1981/1982

Despite the wealth of Russell reissues in the past twelve years, there are still areas ripe for rediscovery. Possibly top of that list is the series of recordings Russell made with Ernie Brooks, including the full Flying Hearts demo sessions produced by John Hammond, and the one and a half records he made as keyboardist, cellist, guitarist and backing singer with Brooks’ anguished proto-Shins art-pop quartet, The Necessaries. Confusingly, the group’s first LP, Big Sky was withdrawn and reissued in a slightly different form as Event Horizon a year later. Occasionally going for silly money on Discogs both are still spottable for a snip on eBay.


Arthur Russell


AUDIKA, 2002

Culled from an incomplete LP Russell worked on from 1988 to his death, and bulked out with an eight-minute DFA remix, Springfield wouldn’t be anyone’s first Arthur Russell purchase; but they’d be wrong. The title track is soft-spoken downer-house, a spacey early-morning saunter of smothered horns, fuzzed piano stabs and stoned beats, that feels simultaneously futuristic and out-of-time. Other tracks include wilder, scratchier takes on Let’s Go Swimming and Hiding Your Present… (pieces Russell repeatedly returned to) and the incredible You Have Did The Right Thing…, a distorted rag of kosmische euphoria about the installation of a nice new skylight.



The World Of Arthur Russell


Key in the 2004 revival of interest in Russell’s works was this compilation, which effectively presented him as the abstract genius of New York disco, bringing together the sweet gamelan abnormality of Lola’s Wax the Van plus the hypnotic erotic pull of Larry Levan’s mix of Loose Joints’ Is It All Over My Face, alongside the twilight club strangeness of such solo Russell tracks as In the Light Of The Miracle, A Little Lost and Keeping Up. There are crossovers here with 24>24 Music, but as a one-stop-shop sampler of Russell’s best club work, this is hard to beat.


Arthur Russell


AUDIKA. 2015

A spare skeletal framework of voice, cello and drum machine for another almost-album Russell was working on in the early 80s. Assembled from three separate test-pressings of an LP planned for release under the pseudonym Indian Ocean, this a collection of defiantly rough and loose electro-pop, versions of songs that appear more fully fleshed out elsewhere: Let’s Go Swimming, Hiding Your Present From You, Lucky Cloud and This Is How We Walk On The Moon. Ironically, for all its metallic percussion and distorted vocals this one of Russell’s most intimate recordings; full-moon 3am lullabies for weird insomniacs longing for sweet sleep.


Arthur Russell

First Thought Best Thought

AUDIKA, 2006

The cheapest way to immerse yourself in the meditative wordless compositions Russell made between 1973 and 1983 is via this 2006 Rough Trade compilation. On Instrumentals Vol. 1 and 2 (recorded at The Kitchen between 1975 and 1977) you hear the clearest influence of the flat expansive Iowa landscapes of Russell’s childhood but also, in its phrases of clear, quiet, calm change, his own Buddhist teachings. The other long work, Tower Of Meaning, adapted from an original commission by Robert Wilson, plays like a forlorn wordless pastoral cousin to another Wilson commission, David Byrne’s Music For “The Knee Plays”.


Dinosaur L

24 > 24 Music: The Definitive Arthur Russell


Originally conceived as a disco-based jam with his downtown avant-garde pals at the Kitchen in April 1979, 24 > 24 Music was Russell’s attempt to bridge the worlds of club music and new composition. In the manic repetitive, discordant chamber-disco and jazz-punk cries of No, Thank You and In The Corn Belt, plus Francois Kervorkian’s remix of Go Bang, Russell created a future-club sound, chromatic euphoric wonk-funk that pointed the way to Chicago House and early hip hop and still sounds forward-thinking today. This double disc version comes with essential 12” mixes profiling Russell’s Sleeping Bag label.


Arthur Russell

Love Is Overtaking Me


A collection of folk, pop, and country songs Russell wrote and recorded between 1973 and 1990, Love Is Overtaking Me split fans on release, with some arguing it was the first sign of barrel-scraping from the Russell estate. Others heard something different; an emotional overview of an artist’s entire career, containing some of his very last recordings, that presented him at his most tender and autobiographical. Although audibly influenced by James Taylor and The Modern Lovers, in their unguarded narrative style the songs here also anticipate such alt. singer-songwriters as Kurt Wagner, Bill Callahan, The Magnetic Fields, and Neutral Milk Hotel.


Arthur Russell

Another Thought


Originally released on CD in 1994, when World Of Echo was already out of print, for many this was their first full-length experience of Arthur Russell. Compiled from 800 reels of tape by producer Don Christensen in the wake of Russell’s death, Another Thought has a veiled, valedictory feel, a ghostly autumnal intimacy that is partly down to Christensen’s personal aesthetic of mourning - defined by his decision to concentrate chiefly on spare, hushed voice and cello compositions - but also due to the circumstances of its composition; a sudden chill that breaks the dream, to paraphrase the album’s final track.


Arthur Russell

Calling Out Of Context

AUDIKA, 2004

Like Another Thought, this is another composite LP, compiled from tracks Russell was working on in the years leading up to his death, including yet more material intended for the Corn LP (apparently completed in 1985 but never released) and hours of recordings for a Rough Trade record that was never finalised. However, in terms of mood and groove it couldn't be more different. Very much a celebration of Russell’s late period club minimalism, Calling Out Of Context is a collection of constantly pulsing, agitated, rhythmic pop poems where the sadness and longing, undeniably ever present, is always just below the surface.


Arthur Russell

World Of Echo

UPSIDE, 1986,

His masterpiece. Originally released in 1986, World of Echo is the sound of late-night creation under a full moon, a solitary man, shrouded in the warm sedative blanket of decaying cello rhythms, the eerie cave reverb of his own voice, and the reflections of his own Iowa childhood; “Echo in various meanings” Russell said the album’s liner notes. The lyrics here were chosen more for sound than meaning, but when their meaning breaks through, often accompanied by jags of cello feedback they reveal that resonant Arthur Russell melancholy, the eternal farm kid realising he is alone in the New York night.

Now Dig This…

There are two essential documents to seek out, Tim Lawrence’s detailed and moving Russell biography, Hold On To Your Dreams, and Wild Combination (below), director Matt Wolf’s documentary, which comes complete with 25 minutes of archival performance footage. You might want to check out Loose Joints’ Pop Your Funk - The Complete Singles Collection, but only if you require multiple versions of three tracks (including the admittedly amazing Is It All Over My Face). Also, if you’ve never heard it, lend an ear to Russell’s first disco collaboration, Dinosaur’s Kiss Me Again. It’s never appeared on any Russell retrospective (thanks Sire Records) and it’s glorious.

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