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  • Bob Mould, Hüsker Dü, and Sugar Albums From Worst To Best
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15. Bob Mould - The Last Dog And Pony Show (1998)

1998's The Last Dog And Pony Show was Mould's ostensible farewell to his punk-rock past and guitar-hero persona. Demoralized by the whims and indignities of the music industry, Mould had decided (prematurely, it turns out) that he was finished. The premise is intriguing but ultimately too much of this material comes across as defeated rather than valedictory. On songs like opener "New #1" and "First Drag Of The Day" Mould's approach feels perfunctory, as if not the work of the artist himself, but instead a highly lifelike simulation. It's not a bad album, but one that ultimately seems a little bloodless.

Over the course of his three-decade run as one of the preeminent geniuses in rock and roll, Bob Mould has shared a great deal of himself through his work, while somehow remaining something of a distant figure. Perhaps it is the inherent modesty of Midwestern remove. Maybe it is the unmodulated croak of his drill-sergeant singing style, an effective instrument to be sure, but one that tends not to vary much between soaring rock numbers and downbeat acoustic laments. Maybe it is the wall of ominous-sounding feedback and squalling guitar that frequently armors his live appearances. From his roles as the hardcore troubadour that led the legendary Hüsker Dü, to the brains behind the revelatory power-pop of Sugar, to his occasionally muted but always intriguing work as a solo artist, the fact of Mould’s greatness has never been much in question. But the exact nature of his greatness feels less clearly defined than certain other of his contemporaries. This makes exploring his catalog all the more fascinating.

Consider for a moment the thriving strangeness of the Minneapolis music scene that Hüsker Dü emerged from in 1981: Prince was already the established local genius, sufficiently weird and undeniably great enough to be embraced by the mainstream and counterculture alike. For every understandable reason, Prince brought light and heat from the music industry to this Midwestern outpost, a scrutiny that could not help but shine the spotlight on other locals. That meant additional attention on the production duo of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, but also meant extra awareness for the burgeoning punk-rock scene, which consisted of at least two legendary greats: Hüsker Dü and the Replacements.

In many ways Hüsker Dü and the Replacements were a version of the tortoise and the hare, with the ironic caveat that no one actually crossed the finish line. The Mats were locally celebrated from the gate, an anointed band by local scene mavens, quickly signed on the basis of a demo to the preeminent Minneapolis indie label Twin/Tone. That same label passed over the nascent Hüsker Dü, who lacked not only the immediacy of the Replacements’ soundcraft, but also the undeniable glamour of their personal appearance. While Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson seemed for all the world like junior varsity members of the Faces, Hüsker Dü looked like a ragged St. Paul bowling team.

The Hüskers bristled at their own lack of hometown acceptance, and responded by defiantly taking their act on the road. Their efforts eventually attracted the attention and dedication of the legendary punk-rock label SST, who released four records before the band signed with Warners in 1987. During this period the band’s skills grew geometrically, starting with the Quadrophenia-like rock opera Zen Arcade and culminating with Flip Your Wig, one of the best-realized power-pop albums of the 1980s. Their transformation over time, from hardcore missionaries to tough but tuneful popsmiths, remains one of the most fascinating in rock and roll history. By the time Hüsker Dü followed the Replacements to the major leagues at Warner Bros., they had developed a unique and accessible sound that belied their avant instincts and spoke to their most commercial impulses without ever compromising their principles. As a live act, years on the road had shaped them into titans — the interplay between Mould’s massively loud and potent guitar work and drummer Grant Hart’s frenetic flailing suggesting nothing so much as the Who circa Live At Leeds — a pop band with more than a trace of ’70s-era metal in their DNA. The major-
label releases were good, but not particularly mainstream-sounding or successful, and long-simmering creative and personal tensions between Mould and Grant Hart soon became insurmountable. (For the record, bassist Greg Norton was a crucial linchpin to the power trio, and seems by all accounts to have been well liked by all involved.) Hüsker Dü finally called it quits in 1988, amidst sundry recriminations, and Mould set out on his own.

In Hüsker Dü, Mould had shared songwriting duties with Hart, and stylistic differences in their writing made for an increasingly diffuse listening experience. The two solo records that Mould released between the end of Hüsker Dü and the formation of his next great trio, Sugar, were the first window into his approach as a sole creative engine. They were remarkably, extraordinarily bipolar. 1989′s Workbook was a contemplative, largely acoustic affair — surprisingly light in mood and featuring the spry, upbeat hit “See A Little Light.” This was the closest anyone had ever come to Mould appearing playful on a record, and the results were startlingly enjoyable. Just in case anyone thought that the end of Hüsker Dü had permanently unleashed a kinder, gentler songwriter … well, just play 1991′s follow-up Black Sheets Of Rain. It is essentially one solid hour of unyielding, impenetrable despair. The title is about the most cheerful thing about it.

Black Sheets had predictably failed to build upon the commercial promise of Workbook and Mould’s career seemed at a precarious impasse. Dropped from his deal with Virgin and seemingly stuck in the unenviable position of being an out-to-pasture elder statesman for the brand of “alternative rock” that was suddenly dominating the airwaves, Mould pivoted back to band mode — forming Sugar with bassist David Barbe and drummer Malcolm Travis. Thus commenced one of punk rock’s few great second acts: To the surprise of practically everyone, Sugar would proceed in the next years to release some of the best and most popular music of Mould’s career, as well as some of the greatest of the era overall. At the time, it seemed practically impossible that Mould was somehow expanding upon and improving the palate that had made Hüsker Dü so great. Twenty years later the terrific set of recent reissues by Merge Records makes plain that this was anything but illusory. Add Mould’s name to John Lennon, Bernard Sumner, Ian MacKaye, and a few others on the very short list of those who have been integral bulwarks to more than one legendary rock band.

 (It’s worth noting here that Mould is playing Sugar’s 1992 debut, Copper Blue, in its entirety today at Fun Fun Fun Fest. The fact that this is one of the sprawling festivals legitimate highlights is evidence of Sugar’s massive and lasting value; the fact that many fans are frustrated that such a set won’t include tunes from Mould’s wonderful new album, Silver Age, is evidence of the man’s continuing greatness.)

After Sugar disbanded in 1995, Mould kept busy, releasing an ever more eclectic series of solo records that dabbled in stripped-down folk, dance music, and electronica. Other albums like The Last Dog And Pony Show and District Line hewed closer to the old formula, but as Mould has aged, his interests have diversified intriguingly — he even spent a short period writing scripts for professional wrestling in the late 1990s. Most recently, Mould released The Silver Age, a delightfully catchy and accomplished power pop record that manages to wed the tuneful bombast of late Sugar with the upbeat introspection of Workbook. It is one of his finest albums in years, and maybe, just maybe, the beginning of another run of Bob Mould classics.

So here we examine the catalog of one of the most important and unwieldy figures in recent music history. By turns an irascible, toxic, miserabilist noise-merchant and a generous, lighthearted, tuneful romantic, the many moods of Mould can be difficult to metabolize. As he and his restless muse continue to keep one step ahead of us, we can all continue to take pleasure in just trying to keep up.

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Comments (52)
  1. it crushes me a bit to see warehouse pushed so far back, but thank god you guys got the best two husker records right

    and hooray for silver age at #5! definitely going to be in my top 10 of the year

  2. As much as I like Sugar, New Day Rising, Metal Circus, and Zen Arcade are so much better than anything else Bob Mould has done.

  3. First they listed the Pixies, and I didn’t speak out.

    Then they listed Jesus Lizard, and didn’t speak out.

    Then they listed The Velvet underground, and I didn’t speak out.

    Then they listed Husker Du, Bob Mould and Sugar, and did NOT put a Husker Du album at the top. They also downplayed the importance of Grant Hart.

    You have made an old man very sad Timothy and Elisabeth, and I don’t think we can be friends anymore.

    • I’m waiting for the best of Replacements with Chinese Democracy on the top. “GnR is a good band and the Tommy Stinson contribution to chinese democracy would never go unnotice. who cares about Let It Be or TiM. Chinese is a diamond and is better than any Replacements or Paul Westerberg record. Go Stinson”

  4. Well, I’ll say this much. I think Flip Your Wig might be my favorite Huskler Du album as well.

    Also, Grant Hart’s solo albums are really good as well. I always kind of preferred his stuff with Husker Du anyway.

  5. I find it interesting the feedback about this particular list (opinions…”we all got’em”). While I came on during the first solo records batch, I love Sugar and even some of Bob’s solo material. I love some of the Huskers records, though, they seem patchy to me and the “sounds” on some of those records drive me mad (see: horrible production) . But, this article seems to be about Bob’s influence on the music world. Husker Du was the songwriting of 2 people…. I know Grant was a large part of that dynamic… but it is now 2012…We don’t see much about Grant these days, now do we?? Bob’s grown up… we all can too…

  6. “Silver Age” above “Zen Arcade”???!?!????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I love em both, but that’s just a big Husker Don’t.

  7. Am I the only one who is only getting the first five slides to load? Using the latest version of Chrome

  8. I’m only seeing the first five too. Pre-emptively though. Seriously though, The first Grant Hart solo record is better than anything Bob has done bar Copper Blue / Beaster. The first Nova Mob record is solid too. Any list of this kind without Zen Arcade at the top can only be done by the same people that thought In On The Killtaker was only an OK Fugazi record.

    • Finally got it to load all 19 slides but then midway through browsing it kicked me back to the first slide and the final 14 disappeared once again. I’ll try back later, I can only assume there’s some internal tinkering going on behind the scenes

      • Sorry about the slides, all. Not sure why that occurred or is occurring; as far as I can tell it’s working OK now. Let me know if it’s not. Thanks!

  9. only 5 here too . . . plus the overly bombastic, gushingly over the top intro article – i’ll let someone else get outraged by the lennon blaspehemy

  10. okay, now i see them all – nice to see flip your wig up near the top

  11. i respect bob mould, like i respect lou reed or public image ltd or neil young, for continuing to play music, release records, explore new ideas and do what interests them musically even after their most creative and fame-accumulating years are behind them. nevertheless, i don’t see how any of mould’s post-hüskers work even begins to stand up to the sheer force, creatively and musically, of zen arcade or new day rising. i know lists have to be subjectively made by their writers, but seriously—find a punk fan to talk about hüsker dü or at least respect mould enough to dissociate albums he made under different monikers rather than lumping all of his work together and rating it. there’s no reason albums of such different sounds/”genres” should be ranked in the same list just because the same artist made them.

  12. As you can tell by my user name, I might have an opinion about this. I think this would be hard for anyone to put together because while the lesser works are easy to single out, it’s harder to distinguish between Bob’s best and I’m sure my list would change on any given day. Copper Blue at number 1 seems right to me because it is the perfect distillation of Bob’s sound and style and it is all Bob, Husker’s is a two headed monster and probably deserves its own list (no use starting the Grant vs Bob thing here – that argument was played out twenty years ago). The only things I would change: Zen Arcade and Warehouse would be higher although New Day Rising remains my favourite. File Under Easy Listening is too high, it’s got some great songs but it really isn’t close to Beaster or Copper Blue or half the records below it. While I wouldn’t raise it too much, Body of Song actually contains some of Bob’s best post 2000 songs but they’re the deeper cuts towards the end. Also, no land speed record? – sure it’s almost unlistenable but it was Husker’s first album.

    It’s been a good few years for Bob fans as it seems like he is finally getting the recognition he deserves and let’s face it, Silver age fucking rocks. Thanks for the list although if you’ve read Bob’s autobiography, I think your description of Greg Norton might be a little charitable.

  13. I do find it difficult with all the mentions of Harts offerings on Husker Du albums. As he gets nearly as much airtime as Bob when it comes to all things Du, find some room for his solo gems. Intolorence is a lo fi masterpiece, which i personally prefer over any Mould solo albums. And the fact that Sugar came in at number 1 is just plain stupid. Good album, a few great songs, but it is an album of the time, it was for grunge kids, it certainly didnt kick down any walls, something Husker Du would attempt and achieve annually.

    • Grunge kids… I was neither…It is an amazing record of songs at that time. That’s the way writing songs, then recording them usually workd…

  14. zen arcade at number 7? that’s not wise stereogum, you know commenters will rage.

  15. Great list for a very deserving talent. Speaking of great American bands that need more attention, how about an American Music Club/Mark Eitzel list?

  16. Best Kinsella Albums would be a cool list

  17. these list are a total joke. New Day Rising and Zen Arcade are too low here.

    Hail to the Thief higher than the Bends! No Heroin! Slanted and Enchanted slated at 3! Let’s finally call this sites lists what they are: a desperate cry for attention and a total joke. I would say that the reviewers are trying to be cool in their choices but really they need to try harder. The examples I have given show how little the reviewers know the source material (no matter what the editors say).

    • I think the lists show the reviewer’s entry point into the band more than anything. This list is clearly Hüsker Dü as introduced by Sugar or late Bob Mould more than anything to me.

      Same goes for about every other list I’ve seen here. If you bought Slanted and Enchanted when it was released, no way in hell would it be number three on your list, and the Mats list was just plain all over the place, equal to the Bends example you gave or in my opinion, the New Day Rising ranking here. I think the writers are giving their all, they are just coming up with completely different takes than I would.

      Again, it becomes glaringly obvious what their entry point into these bands were. And in the end, if someone is ranking a band’s discography it’s bound to offend someone else’s take.

      • No way man. Entry points should not be an excuse for a misguided ranking of an artists Q-U-A-L-I-T-Y. My entry point for this list is is Sugar. However, I (along with most other sane record reviewers listeners etc etc), would place New Day Rising and Zen Arcade at the top of the list. Both incredible albums, among the best alternative albums of the 1980′s. Would I put them both higher than Copper Blue? I don’t know, but they deserve higher places than what they are here. Total joke.

        I didnt buy the Bends when it came out (OK Computer was my entry point). However, I am not basing my opinion that it is better than Hail to the Thief because I first got into the band in the 1990′s. HTTT is a great album but come on. High and Dry, Planet Telex, Bones, Fake Plastic Trees(!), Just(!), Street Spirit(!!!!!!). The only thing approaching the quality on HTTT is There There.

        I realize these reviewers are doing the best they can (I think), but excuses for entry point bias is lame lame lame.

        • I wasn’t offering excuses, just my opinion or perspective on why these lists look so fucked up and laughable compared to what my own list would be. I don’t happen to agree with this one much at all myself, but I don’t think it was made for the purpose of pissing anyone off. I’ve slept fine since it was published. Funny enough, between your down vote and need to call me out on my opinion on these lists, I’m pretty sure our lists would come to about the same conclusion based on what you’ve said. Oh well……….

  18. I don’t really want to look

  19. wow this is really the worst one yet

  20. i’m drunk and zen arcade sounds pretty darn good to me right now….followed by new day rising, AND THEN copper blue.

  21. This is a good list, though open to question (Flip your wig as the best Husker Du album just doesn’t convince me, but I accept it). The big problem with this is that if you put Bob Mould and Husker Du in the same list then you should put in Grant Hart and Nova Mob as well. Husker Du never was Mould’s band exclusively.

  22. And, with this list, I have finally lost all interest in Stereogum’s doomed “Worst-to-best” series.

    “Zen Arcade” was a stop-the-world moment, recognized as such at the time by the music fans that passed on this information person to person in record stores (seriously, that’s how it was done); the press that covered such things; and by the bands that would ultimately influence, well, about half of the stuff you write about on this site (Nirvana, Pixies, J&MC, etc).. “Flip Your Wig” and “New Day Rising” were excellent albums and probably had better execution and songcraft, but had nowhere near the importance.

    So, the Stereogum approach to list-making is weighted to ignore influence and importance, which is a legitimate approach, but one I personally won’t care to wade through any more.

  23. Another Stereogum list, another attempt to rewrite history. Zen Arcade only at #7? Really?

  24. husker du isnt #1..:(….I should have guessed there would be some trickery like that from the start………….

  25. agree w/ kellstud and others….This list is as much of a joke as the others. Zen Arcade at 7 and Metal Circus at 16? It’s laughable.

  26. Zen Arcade/Copper Blue/New Day Rising > Flip Your Wig/Beaster >>> Everything else

  27. I know Grant Hart was at least spoken of, but this list really should be “How Can We Discredit Grant Hart?”

  28. Did Ryan Adams commission this post?

  29. Really surprised that Everything Falls Apart is at the bottom. That spot is definitely reserved for Modulate. I’m listening to Everything Falls Apart right now and it’s a great noise/hardcore hybrid.

    And where the hell is Land Speed Record? If you’re covering all the Husker Du albums, that one should be there as well.

  30. As catchy as “If I Can’t Change Your Mind” is, it still sounds like the theme song to Friends and it is in no way better than any of the Husker Du albums. Husker Du will always reign supreme.

  31. Just checking, the Husker catalog still hasn’t been remastered yet, right? I’ve just about given up hope they ever will be.

  32. No Loudbomb or Blowoff included, nor the aforementioned Land Speed Record. Would have been interesting to see where they placed.

  33. I can’t be the only one who thinks the production on Husker Du records is terrible. t makes it hard for me to really get into those records.

  34. i won’t even check the whole list after seeing everything falls apart being listed as worst mould record. bleh.

  35. One definition of a moron: someone who thinks Copper Blue is a better album than Zen Arcade or New Day Rising

  36. You are truly on crack to place Warehouse this low on the list. Beaster was barely listenable.

  37. fuck this list

  38. I’m 2 years late to this party and nobody will ever read this, but Metal Circus as Mould’s 4th worst record? You’ve got to be fucking kidding.

  39. Just curious, where would Beauty & Ruin rank on this list?

  40. Curious as to the age of the authors for this list? I’d like to know if they grew up during this timeline, as I did, and truly understand the impact of some of these records? Putting “Black Sheets of Rain” behind very average records from the 00′s is very curious. Not an attack on the list or the authors, just feels like it’s looking back without context rather than experiencing the ride.

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