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8. Instrument Soundtrack (1999): The soundtrack to Jem Cohen's full-length documentary feature on the band, 1999's appropriately if prosaically titled Instrument Soundtrack is a largely instrumental collection of sketches, ideas, jams, demos, and various ephemera, the highlight of which is a rare piano piece by MacKaye. The incidental music is compelling enough, but, perhaps predictably, works better in the context of the film. Unless you enjoy the idea of an alternate-universe Fugazi, one in which the band is recast as an artsy experimental group inspired more by Slint than by songs, Instrument Soundtrack remains enjoyable but inessential.

Ian MacKaye’s status as reluctant punk godfather was well established before Fugazi played a note. Between fronting seminal DC punk band Minor Threat (whose “Straight Edge” became a misunderstood anthem for an entire movement of sexually repressed hardcore kids) and co-founding legendary DIY label Dischord, MacKaye’s ability to “walk the walk” has made him a legend very much in spite of himself. His enduring legacy in the lineage of punk is as an emblem of autonomy and integrity. MacKaye practically invented the license to say “told you so” to legions of sellouts, hustlers and baby-dick rock stars. If one were to erect a Mount Rushmore of punk, MacKaye would surely be one of the chiseled faces not named Rotten or Ramone.

After the breakup of Minor Threat, MacKaye featured in several short-lived bands before forming Fugazi in D.C. in 1987. Taking their name from black-humored Vietnam slang for a soldier casualty (Fucked Up, Got Ambushed, Zipped In), the band began in earnest as a trio, with MacKaye recruiting bassist Joe Lally and ex-Dag Nasty drummer Colin Sears. Sears soon returned to his former band, and in his place MacKaye eventually gained two band members in drummer Brendan Canty and background vocalist Guy Picciotto, both late of proto-emo band Rites Of Spring. Initially, Picciotto’s role in the band was nebulous, and he might have ended up a novelty member a la Avail’s cheerleader Beau Beau Butler or Pavement’s decidedly non-musical Bob Nastanovich, but Picciotto’s role as hype man was mercifully short-lived. Following an early European tour, Picciotto began playing guitar and sharing lead vocals, immediately asserting himself as a distinctive and integral part of Fugazi in the process.

From the beginning, the band’s anthemic noir-core stood in direct opposition to many of their peers, who still favored the hard/loud/fast ethos over group dynamics and musical proficiency. Fugazi, by contrast, came on like The Feelies with an attitude problem and a reggae fetish. Musically tight, sonically adventurous, and curiously artsy, the band would make a career out of challenging punk’s rigid parameters.

Early critics of the band mostly complained that Fugazi’s music was merely auxiliary support for the band’s habit of making politics into policy — not since Crass had a band so quickly gained a reputation for being self-righteous and po-faced. Fugazi openly scolded stage divers, kept ticket and record prices as low as possible, repeatedly turned down multi-million dollar deals, and refused to produce any merchandise that couldn’t be played in a CD player or on a turntable. To this day, an officially licensed Fugazi T-shirt does not exist, though bootleg shirts emblazoned with the words “This Is Not A Fugazi T-Shirt” quickly became as ubiquitous in punk circles as the “Andre The Giant Has A Posse” meme.

But to call Fugazi an overly serious band is to ignore MacKaye notoriously calling out an unruly audience member for being an “ice cream-eating motherfucker,” or the scene in Jem Cohen’s documentary on the band, Instrument, in which Picciotto reveals his elaborate plan to murder nonagenarian comedy legend George Burns. MacKaye is also an outspokenly rabid, seemingly unironic fan of gun-toting, poon-obsessed caveman Ted Nugent, a man who, spiritually speaking, isn’t so much the flipside of a coin as he is an entirely different currency altogether.

Perhaps the most distressing thing about the tiresome, endless talk of the band’s controversial politics is that such talk often eclipses Fugazi’s actual music. Fugazi is, first and foremost, a great rock ’n’ roll band in the traditional sense, as much as a band in wool beanies and cargo shorts can be considered traditional. Note the elusive Jagger/Richards dynamic, with MacKaye’s outspoken accessibility contrasting classically with Picciotto’s laconic, serpentine cool. While MacKaye’s songs are perhaps better known, many fanatics feel that Picciotto’s songs provide the best glimpse into Fugazi’s true essence (see also: Thurston/Lee). With his distinctive onstage dancing and wiry contortionist frame, Picciotto manages to strike a perfect balance between class clown and troubled existentialist. For all of MacKaye’s bellowing and ridiculing of the mainstream, it’s Picciotto you’d probably not want to approach in a crowd. This is a band of dynamic performers, reared as much on Zeppelin as Howard Zinn, and to actually witness a Fugazi concert is to render any piddling discussion of their politics moot.

Of all the bands easily taken for granted, Fugazi may be the easiest. Though you can detect traces of the band’s sound in almost every smart, blues-eschewing guitar band of the past 25 years, no one sounds exactly like Fugazi. On hiatus since 2003, the band recently announced plans to release some 800 live recordings via CD and digital download, 224 of which have been released to date. The suggested cost per show is $5. Recent remasters of the Fugazi catalog correct any thinness that might have been apparent on the original pressings and serve as a reminder of the band’s timelessness.

Fans may argue the merits of each Fugazi album, but most agree that theirs is a discography virtually devoid of clunkers. This makes “worst” is a relative term, one I don’t relish using in this context, as I am not eager to find my name on any indie rock hit lists. I ask that you bear this in mind as you read on. The Countdown starts here; The Argument (har har) starts in the comments.

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Comments (51)
  1. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, aaannnd yes.

    First time I am in full agreement with one of these things. Huzzah!!

  2. Corey Beasley  |   Posted on Aug 23rd, 2012 +10

    Guy was the one who said “ice cream eating motherfucker.”

    …I’ll see myself out.

  3. End Hits remains perennially underrated. One of these days, someone is going to capitalize on the opportunity these lists present, give it a close listen, and reevaluate it.

  4. That is the exact same rank I’d have for their catalog. The Argument was such a big deal for me in middle school.

  5. Black Flag albums from worst to best please!!!

  6. Wow. I had the exact opposite reaction. After the last one of these I kind of hoped they wouldn’t do Fugazi. So much for that. Aside from putting Instrument last (as it is not a proper album) this list is pointless. Granted the preface was made that there are no clunkers but Killtaker is one of my favorite albums of all time. Guess I was just sad to see it so low. Oh well, glad someone is happy about it.

    • Here’s my list for what it’s worth:

      8. Instrument
      7. End Hits
      6. 13 Songs
      5. The Argument
      4. Steady Diet of Nothing
      3. Repeater
      3. Red Medicine
      1. In On the Killtaker

      • I love IOTK too dude. Word.

        • Yeah. These lists are interesting. So far they have been bands that I like well enough but don’t have a strong attachment to, so the order didn’t bother me too much. It was just kind of fun to see where my favorite Cure or Pearl Jam records ranked. It’s good to see so many people saying what I feel which is that Fugazi have 4 or 5 albums that all could take the top spot.

  7. If the debut EP and Margin Walker were considered separately, the former would come out close to or on top IMO.

    It’s a shame that Ian’s only piano appearance is the bit on Instrument, he is actually a fantastic piano player .

  8. Tough list to do, Fugazi never made a mistake. I’d say self-producing Steady Diet was the closest they ever came to a fumble. It just doesn’t sound as good as the other albums. For this reason alone, I’d move it down to next-to-last place.

    I have a very hard time picking between The Argument and Kill Taker as a top choice. I don’t think Kill Taker is that front-loaded, not with Instrument and Last Chance for a Slow Dance finishing things off.

  9. Nice list

    Unwound albums from worst to best?

    I’ll make my predictions if this ever happens:

    8. Unwound

    7. The Future of What

    6. A Single History:1991-1997 (comp)

    5. Challenge for a Civilized Society

    4. New Plastic Ideas

    3. Fake Train

    2. Repetition

    1. Leaves Turn Inside You

  10. Do Stone Roses next!

  11. Fugazi have my favorite catalog in the history of music because each of the top 6 here are albums I can sit down and listen to front to back at any given time. I just can’t quite say that about any other musical artist with as much conviction as I can about Fugazi.

  12. Such a brilliant goddamn band. I’ve had more of their albums grow into favorites over the years than any other band. As such, it seems like they’re the type of band where it’d be easy to grow into them in a completely different way, hence giving each of us a completely different list. I fucking love In On the Killtaker, but never got as excited for The Argument as many others did. Everything they ever did was incredibly strong, so it just boils down to personal preference.

    Mine:
    8. Instrument (barely qualifies as an album)
    7. End Hits
    6. Red Medicine
    5. The Argument
    4. Steady Diet of Nothing
    3. 13 Songs
    2. In On the Killtaker
    1. Repeater

  13. Delighted you did this. You got the right No. 1. Although I’d probably rank End Hits and Killtaker higher and Steady Diet and Repeater lower. I love those albums, but Repeater especially seems to be slightly less than the sum of its amazing parts. Also, I find the recording to be pretty lacking.

    All that said, The Argument is a stone cold masterpiece and the fact it hasn’t been given the canonization that the likes of Radiohead and Arcade Fire have is an indictment on a whole lot of peoples’ taste in music.

    • Agreed. Repeater, on paper, should be their best, but it just doesn’t sound quite as good as the others. Still great, just falls to a lesser place in a great catalog.

  14. I dont think i could pick a favorite, but wanted to post how singular and unique Fugazi is. I dont think there currently is, nor there ever be another band like them. Theres only 1 fugazi, and that includes all the now near mythic stories about their ethics and moral stances. I cant think of a single band since their formation or their hiatus, who has run their band and buisness like fugazi does or did. And I dont think we will ever see a band like that ever again, sadly. I think that speaks to our culture, but also i think speaks to how hard it is to stick to your guns and morals when you become successful in any art form. And Fugazi was the only band that I can think of that did stick to their guns.

  15. I missed this initially, but this article is by James Jackson Toth, also known as Wooden Wand! If you don’t know him, look him up: he’s an unbelievably talented songwriter, and his most recent album, Briarwood, was, in my opinion, one of the best of last year. It’s really weird seeing his name capping an article on Stereogum.

  16. Thank you for this list, I recently purchased the wholse lot off someone on ebay for tenner. Only listened to In on the Kill Taker properly. Was so floored by that I haven’t got to any of the others. If that’s only at number 6 the others must be incredible. Can’t wait!

  17. Gotta do it myself.

    It’s kind of in order but really there is a 5 way tie for 1st and a three way tie for 2nd. I never knew folks thought so highly of The Argument…

    2. Instrument
    2. 13 Songs
    2. The Argument
    1. Red Medicine
    1. Steady Diet of Nothing
    1. In On the Killtaker
    1. Repeater
    1. End Hits

  18. 8. Instrument
    7. End Hits
    6. Red Medicine
    5. Repeater
    4. In on the Killtaker
    3. Steady Diet of Nothing
    2. 13 Songs
    1. The Argument

    I’m thinking the top 5 are more or less interchangeable.

  19. love fugazi, this is really tough because they’ve never really made a bad album.

    can the next one of these lists be Swans, since they’ve got a new album coming out and a ridiculously large catalog that I’m just now starting to delve into.

  20. Only got to see Fugazi once but it was EPIC! Glad they went out so perfectly.

  21. I was gonna put my own list on here, but I could not, for the life of me, come up with an order I was happy with. These lists are fun, but this is a band whose albums I really, really don’t want to rank next to each other.

  22. this list/article is, as with most, absloute trash. not even any point in saying anything else. i think i’m finally done with this shit site.

  23. I agree with a lot of the list. But maybe I’m the only person who LOVED End Hits and wasn’t as fond of Red Medicine. I’d push In on the Kill Taker up past Steady Diet of Nothing, but all in all I think it’s a good list and well written.

  24. Horrible…just horrible. In on the Kill Taker is by far their best album.

    What is wrong with you?!?

    Facet Squared, Great Cop, Smallpox Champion, Instrument?!?

    Jesus man. Go sit down and listen to the album again and then come back and recognize that you had everything wrong!

    It’s cool. I’ll wait….

  25. Gotta be Red Medicine for me. Can someone clear this up for me though, is it pronounced foo-gay-zee or foo-gaa-zee?

    And furthermore, is the last Joy Division album pronounced like the Nine Inch Nails song or a pitcher who saves a game?

  26. avalanches list plz

  27. seriously though, a tom waits list would be pretty good. if you haven’t already done that, i haven’t bothered checking.

  28. 8. Instrument
    7. Red Medicine
    6. End Hits
    5. Steady Diet of Nothing
    4. 13 Songs
    3. In On the Killtaker
    2. The Argument
    1.Repeater

    This is so hard!

  29. 13 Songs and Repeater are easily the best albums Fugazi ever released. The Argument was a fantastic swan song, yes, but greatest ever it is not.

  30. fugazi is such an honest and complex project that any ranking about their albums is interesting but cotinues irrelevant, and I think it happens with every real fan. There are no a best, or great album, it always will depend the prespective of the search.

    This is a very close and one of the best attemps i’ve read, is nice the way you didn’t use any valoration. This phrase is one of the highlights “End Hits earns the distinction of being the first Fugazi album you can smoke pot to”

  31. “In On The Kill Taker” and “Steady Diet of Nothing” ranked above “End Hits”?! I agree with your sentiment that it’s hard to really call one of their albums the “worst,” but End Hits should be in the top 3. Break is the strongest opening tracks from any of their albums. Place Position, Recap Modotti and Five Corporations are all in my personal “best of Fugazi” list.

  32. I could be completely wrong, but I thought Fugazi’s name came from the word fugazi, meaning something that’s not there.

  33. In Alphabetic Order

    1 – 13 Songs
    1 – Arguement, The
    1 – End Hits
    1 – Furniture EP
    1 – In On The Killtaker
    1 – Instrument
    1 – Red Medicine
    1 – Repeater
    1 – Steady Diet of Nothing

    Sorting out this list is like cracking a bank vault

  34. What a cool piece; James shows how we each bring our own personality into the act of appreciating art. Moving beyond the obviously subjective nature of such an exercise, I think this piece is strongest when an album (or song) is compared to another album or the Fugazi canon as a whole. That “relative value” idea just seems more interesting and avoids the obvious problems with sweeping, “objective” claims. I could geek out discussing whether “Steady Diet” is true to the band’s punk identity or a confused mess, and applauding the gutsy clarinet call in a later album as true to the band’s experimental spirit is more interesting than statements like “the best of these is “Song No. 1.” The latter reminds me of an uninvited party guest who pounded my coffee table while insisting “obviously, the best ice cream is Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia. That’s a fact!”

    It seems to me that the bipolar balance or dynamic that Fugazi created extended beyond the contrasts between Ian and Guy. In a VERY general sense, their discography fits the pattern of increasing complexity / experimentation, so that earlier albums channel a cohesive, consistent sound and focus and later albums showcase widely different song structures. One result of that pattern for me is that on later albums I’ll find myself loving one song and really disliking the next. Then again, albums like Steady Diet defy that description.

    Having said all that, however, In On The Kill Taker is obviously the greatest album ever. EVER (slaps coffee table). Of any band, not just Fugazi. It did something to me in high school, sure, but I still think it is as relentless, savage, sophisticated, and cathartic as that first listen. Hearing the Steve Albini alternate takes added a fascinating dimension to that either / or (pun intended) Fugazi magic. I like James’ attention to the production context for each album, too, by the way.

  35. top three:

    repeater
    13 songs

    then…..

    kill taker tied with medicine

    list blows. the argument was good and is better than most rock bands will ever do, but not the best fugazi can do

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