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  • Superchunk Albums From Worst To Best
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10. Superchunk (1990)

Superchunk's first full-length is a window into a young and gifted band blindly making their way toward genius. Weak production cannot disguise the irrefutable energy and songcraft behind tracks like "Slack Motherfucker" and "My Noise." However, it is obvious that greater things are soon to come.

Almost everybody likes Superchunk, and they have their share of ardent superfans, but with regard to their estimable catalog, it feels in some ways that they have been underappreciated. Over the course of its 20-plus years together the group has greatly expanded its musical palate, but the principal attributes that comprise the band’s unmistakable sound remain largely as they were from the outset: Mac McCaughan’s reedy, urgent vocals; Laura Ballance’s steady, unfussy bass playing; Jon Wurster’s forceful and creative timekeeping; and McCaughan and Jim Wilbur’s energetic, intertwining lead/rhythm guitars. Though probably best known for barnstorming major-key anthems, throughout the years Superchunk has manifested an extraordinary diversity, widening their scope to include exciting digressions into country and avant-folk, while still managing to maintain the signature strengths that made the band great in the first place. Superchunk’s uncanny ability to remain just themselves even while steadily evolving is to their infinite credit, but has been something of a blessing and a curse in critical circles, with too-complacent music journalists frequently ignoring the band’s seismic advances, and resolving instead to a “Good Ol’ Superchunk” approach to reviews. In reality, Superchunk’s is a rare story of continuity and growth, a great band staying together and sticking it out, all the while adding new layers of texture, ambition, and complexity to their work without ever straining themselves toward a contrived reinvention.

Superchunk’s first blush with real notoriety came in the form of their epochal 1989 single “Slack Motherfucker,” a careening bit of power pop later reissued to a larger audience on the band’s early singles compilation Tossing Seeds. “Slack Motherfucker” became one of those whimsical moments that occur periodically in popular culture wherein an unforgettable song somehow gets shoehorned into a completely inappropriate media narrative (see Ronald Reagan adopting “Born In The USA” as his theme song for his 1984 re-election campaign). In this instance, “Slack Motherfucker” found itself somehow a piece with the largely asinine early-’90s media fixation on a supposed crush of young, unambitious layabouts known alternately as “slackers” or “Generation X.” The irony could scarcely be thicker. “Slack Motherfucker” (recorded with original drummer Chuck Garrison and original second guitarist Jack McCook) was actually McCaughan’s scathing indictment of a fellow employee at a minimum wage job, for his colleague’s unwillingness to carry his own weight throughout the drudgery. Thus on the their first well-known song, Mac was playing anything other than the slacker. Instead it was a window into the near-Calvinist work ethic that would power the band through numerous great albums, countless transcendent live shows, and eventually the formation, in partnership with Ballance, of Merge Records — the impeccably curated label who would survive and advance and become an institution, as seemingly every vestige of the old record industry withered around it.

McCaughan has periodically been self-effacing on the topic of his lyrics, but in reality this is one of the band’s great strengths. Even in the early going, when first-wave classics like “Precision Auto” and “Skip Steps 1 & 3″ laid bare preoccupations running toward a deeply felt impatience with just about everything from slow traffic to stemwinding speech, McCaughan’s capacity with a well-judged turn of phrase gave Superchunk’s songs some of the memorable epigrammatic genius of the Replacements and Dinosaur Jr. As the years have progressed, his singing has taken on greater dexterity and dynamism, with his lyrics becoming more expansive in a roughly equivalent fashion, bringing to bear an ever more authoritative and emphatic capacity for storytelling. For devoted fans, much of this trajectory could be charted on McCaughan’s always interesting and periodically wonderful solo project Portastatic, an alternate identity that seemed to free him from expectations and reinforce his creative restlessness.

If there is a singular turning point for Superchunk, it is surely the 1994 masterpiece Foolish, an astonishingly intense pop record, which ranks as one of the best releases of its era. This was not the band’s first brilliant act — the previous year’s On The Mouth was as great a collection of rollicking punk anthems as anyone could hope to expect — but Foolish nevertheless represented something new entirely. Various interpersonal dynamics had brought the band to a state of near dissolution and the frustration is more than palpable. Here McCaughan is reminiscent of Blood And Chocolate-era Elvis Costello, filled with rage and recriminations and nearly feral in his wounded state, and yet self-aware enough to recognize his righteous indignity is profoundly flawed.

If it can be stipulated that Superchunk never felt quite so desperately lightning struck, it is only understandable — this was the kind of open-nerved expression rarely sustainable over the long term. But Foolish was a crucial touchstone in the development of the band — never again would they release music that was less than profoundly adult, complex, and engaged. On subsequent albums, Superchunk frequently vacillated between emotional uplift and profound melancholy.

1995′s Here’s Where The Strings Come In was a muscular and exciting album, replete with galvanizing rockers, tricky time signatures, and ebullient anthems. 1997′s brilliant Indoor Living was a different animal altogether, wedding some of McCaughan’s most evocative lyrics and best singing to a reflective album verging on the funereal. Both releases are terrific, as are the valedictory releases of 1999 and 2001 Come Pick Me Up and Here’s To Shutting Up. It was something of a surprise when the band resurfaced with 2011′s Majesty Shredding, a back-to-basics primer that touched upon all of Superchunk’s distinct charms with a kind of “we’re not dead yet” insouciance. It isn’t the greatest album the group ever made, but it sure functions as a shot over the bow. They’ve been with us for a long time now –- dismiss them at your peril. Superchunk has come to represent so many things above and beyond the greatness of their music. They are the flagship band for Merge, the champions of Chapel Hill, and the reliably excellent live act that’s come through your community for years without ever disappointing. Setting all of that aside, this is an attempt to talk about the band in terms of their achievements on record (including for consideration their studio LPs; only one of the band’s several compilations is listed here), a remarkable catalog that stands shoulder to shoulder with any of their contemporaries.

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Comments (17)
  1. I think “On the Mouth” is my favorite. I spent a really special summer with it. Glad to see it so high.

  2. I think what I like about this list is that even though it’s “worst to best”, the way the albums are being described make it sound more like “really good to really great”.

  3. I can’t really argue with the first three choices but No Pocky and Majesty Shredding would be higher in my list. Indoor Living and Come Pick Me Up were good but a shadow of the three records that came before them. I have a soft spot for Here’s to shutting up which is often reviled by some of my friends but there’s a lot of depth to that record. It’s a hard list to compile though, like picking a favourite child or Bee Gee.

  4. No Pocky for Kitty at 6 is laughable…The best they’ve ever done.

  5. I saw that this was up on twitter, so before i read it i quickly compiled my own…

    8. HTSU
    7. Majesty
    6. Indoor
    5. CPMU
    4. No Pocky
    3. On the Mouth
    2. Foolish
    1. HWTSCI

    here’s where the strings come in pretty much distills everything i love about superchunk. plus the show they played at mawell’s in the summer of 95 previewing it and the subsequent show at irving plaza after the record came out that fall still rank as two of my favorite live music experiences ever! but truth be told, i love all the records!

  6. Come Pick Me Up caught me at just the right moment in life and has always contained within itself the vital beating heart of youth. It is the unstoppable emblem of my younger self. The standard I held high as I faced the world with careless optimism and reckless determination.

    I remember every “Oooh oooh oooh” I’ve ever heard in “Cursed Mirror”, and the broken drum set kicked down the stairs that drives “So Convinced” and opens the album has pattered a particular portion of my mind to move in its same erratic rhythm. “Pink Clouds” still surprises with every turn of melody, which is about every 20 seconds. The entire set is just a powerful spell of music. A twisting controlled chaos of never ending choruses, horns played like guitars, guitars played like drums, drums played like an epileptic dog chained to Mac’s vocals alternatively pulling the song and being drug behind it.

    It’s an album that has grafted itself into the sides of my head. I will never get tired of. If I went deaf tomorrow I would still listen to this album until the day I die.

  7. Majesty Shredding really grew on me over time. I tried hard to get into Superchunk right around Foolish and that album never did for me what it did for everyone else. I do love On The Mouth though. Great album.

  8. I know you’re working through the 80s/90s alternative canon for now (I expect we’ll see New Order soon, maybe Meat Puppets?), but I’d love to see this column tackle some heavier stuff like maybe Metallica, Maiden, Megadeth or Sabbath or even Neurosis.

  9. This is actually a pretty accurate list, especially with the top 3. I’ve always felt that the band was great at creating this feeling of weirdly cheerful anxiety while being remarkably light-footed and even funny about the depressive bits. It always reminded me of Charlie Parker in that way, even though the comparison is obviously remote.

  10. I’ll go to my grave saying that Superchunk is the most criminally underrated band in rock history. Rating Chunk’s songs for a mixtape would be harder than rating the albums, I’d think.

    I think Here’s Where The Strings Come In is almost a perfect record, so that’d be #1 for me. “Hyper Enough,” “Animated Airplanes,” “Detroit Has A Skyline, Too,” “Iron On” … just great, great songs.

    #2 “On the Mouth,” if only for the Ultimate Superchunk Rockers, “Package Thief,” and “Precision Auto.”
    #3 “No Pocky” is this low because the first half is so great I hardly ever listen to the rest except of course “Throwing Things,” which might be their most underrated song.
    #4 “Foolish” for the Big Reasons named above
    #5 “Tossing”. It’s a compilation, but “Cadmium,” “Shallow End,” “On The Mouth,” alternate “Throwing Things”…

  11. 1. On The Mouth
    2. Foolish
    3. Here’s Where The Strings Come In
    4. No Pocky For Kitty
    5. Come Pick Me Up
    6. Majesty Shredding
    7. Incidental Music
    8. Here’s To Shutting Up
    9. Indoor Living
    10. Self-Titled Debut
    Everyone’s list is personal, On The Mouth was a big part of my life soundtrack in 93.

  12. 1. Foolish
    2. No Pocky
    3. On the Mouth
    4. Indoor Living
    5. HWTSCI
    6. CPMU
    7. Majesty
    8. HTSU
    9. Superchunk

    I’ve never quite gotten over my initial reaction to HWTSCI, which was fairly profound disappointment after the shockingly brilliant Foolish. Strings sounded like “ordinary Superchunk” to me. I wasn’t really looking forward to another Superchunk record when Indoor Living came out – it sounded to me like a substantial come back and that perception still tilts it higher in my list. Meanwhile, Strings has made its way a few notches higher over the years.

  13. Incidental Music should be higher, and No Pocky should be #1 – it’s perfect.

  14. Gotta go with the On The Mouth honks as being the best Superchunk LP. It’s just one awesome adrenaline rush after another. Yes, Foolish is more “mature”, but I like my Superchunk supercharged and energetic as possible.

    No Pocket For Kitty is about 3 spots too low at 6 and Majesty Shredding is way too low at 8. It is an astoundingly triumphant comeback record that just keeps on coming at you. Y’all misfired badly on that one…Maybe next time you’ll get it right when doing the Archers of Loaf / Crooked Fingers ranking.

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