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  • Counting Down: Guided By Voices Albums From Worst To Best
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I grew up in Columbus, OH, only a Pabst-splash away from Guided By Voices’ hometown, Dayton. Yet I found out about Guided by Voices like much of the rest of America, through SPIN Magazine and Buffy The Vampire Slayer, partly because I was still pretty young during GBV’s first decade of output, and partly because the band’s first releases rarely traveled far down I-70.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a deeper connection with GBV felt by non-Dayton Ohioans. The band’s musical DNA has been inherited by countless Ohio bands both large and small, and it continues to manifest itself in the Columbus music scene. Every time I saw the band play in central Ohio it was a family affair. Cousins, nieces, and old coaches would join the band onstage amid an elephant graveyard of beer bottles, as the band’s fearless leader Robert Pollard unfurled a giant posterboard-sized setlist, grinning maniacally as if he was sent to Earth to torment musicians who don’t write 60 songs a year. It’s also worth noting that Ohio isn’t Los Angeles or New York. When a band breaks out of one of our cities’ scenes, we all take pride in it and feel a sense of accomplishment, whether it makes sense or not. It’s the same reason we’re so crazy about our sports teams.

But even to those whose Guided By Voices education was a rite of passage, the 19-album discography is enormously daunting. There are the early releases, with only a hundred or so album presses each, when GBV tried to work out whether it wanted to be a punk band, an REM jangle-pop band, or a noise outfit, sometimes all on the same album. Then there’s the classic run of unimpeachably great albums in the ’90s where the ramshackle gristle of early Guided By Voices met the sophisticated songwriting of later Guided By Voices head-on. This was followed by the attempts at commercial success, before the band decided if it couldn’t be famous, at least it could be marginally accessible. Then finally, there’s the reunited Guided By Voices of today, dripping with nostalgia and still taking shape.

None of these albums are bad, and most of them are great. In re-listening, albums I was prepared to easily relegate to bottom-half-status like Half Smiles Of The Decomposed suddenly sounded indispensable. And if I published this list tomorrow or yesterday, places No. 8 through No. 14 might be reshuffled in a completely different order. What I mean is that this list is far from definitive; it’s more like a primer for either GBV neophytes or even GBV enthusiasts who want to learn more about the early records or perhaps never bothered to explore what the band had to offer beyond Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes. And by understanding where Guided by Voices came from and where it ended up, we can better understand the factors that helped create some of the greatest albums of the 1990s.

Start the Countdown here.

Comments (46)
  1. oh my god

  2. You know how exciting it can be to discover a band with longevity and a long history of recording for the first time? Researching and gradually digging into their catalogue. So glad that is not the case with GBV. My head might explode from information overload. Just digging through Suitcase could be overwhelming. Tough to split many hairs with this list. Nice job.

  3. Gosh, I’ve been waiting for this list. I disagree with so much, but I think that’s kind of the nature of GBV. There’s just so much music that it’s impossible for there to be any sort of consensus.

    ‘Do the Collapse’ gets a lot of shit, but I think it’s a fantastic album. ‘Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia’ would probably make top 5 on my list and I think ‘Half Smiles of the Decomposed’ would be near the end.

  4. do the collapse is a lot better than it gets credit for.

    i’d also bump earthquake glue and mag earwhig up over half smiles for the decomposed, isolation drills, and maybe under the bushes. as for pre-bee thousand stuff, i can’t really say because i’ve never gotten that deep into it.

    can’t get mad about #1 and #2, though.

  5. Am I the only one that loves Let’s Go Eat The Factory? I find most of their stuff from Mag Earwhig to Half Smiles a bit less playful and fun, whilst the latest 3 seem to recapture that for me. Just my opinion but I’m not a fan of their big rock sound on albums like Isolation Drills,

  6. Pretty predictable top three, but I don’t necessarily mean that as a complaint. Nice to see a Stereogum list that essentially agrees with the consensus.

  7. i got really excited when i read the headline because i thought this was a counting crows article. oh well.

  8. AIN’T NO WAY Sandbox should be dead last, especially if we’re talking about the front-to-back listenability of an album. Weak, dudes.

  9. This list gets a Gold Star For David Boy

  10. Slow deep breath

    Lean back in chair

    Thoughtful pause

    “Well, shit”

  11. Sometimes “Glad Girls” is my fave GBV song too.

  12. I haven’t even read the list yet but I’m just gonna say “good job”. Now I’m gonna go read it but it doesn’t matter if I agree or not, it’s a hell of an undertaking.

    • Having read the list I now have to say “great job”. Tough work for sure. Only other thing I have to say is I would put Universal Truths on the “essential” side of the invisible line. It’s easily in my top 5. So many great tunes.

  13. Great list. Daunting for sure. Great to see the two last albums getting their due. It is nice to see this written by a person who is actually a fan and not a tourist.

    Best line is in the Bee Thousand entry: “The album practically teaches you how to listen to it, teasing you with catchy choruses then thrusting you into the weeds with layers of tape hiss.” Great music writing.

  14. ya know, the boston spaceship years are pretty damn list-worthy too

  15. “Oh, so that’s what came third.” – Everyone reading this list

  16. Nice, they finally did it (perhaps because I recomended it in the Stones list’s comments? Hmmm?)! And it doesn’t suck!

    I’ve always liked Under ther Bushes more than Alien Lanes, which I find ever so slightly overrated in their catalog. Still, no beef with the top 3, and Bee Thousand is definitely #1.

    Do the Collapse IS as bad as it was rated here – “Things That I Will Keep”, “Surgical Focus”, & “Teenage FBI” all rock and got to stay in setlists because of it, but the fact is most of it was flat.

    I’d definitely move Universal Truths & Cycles higher, though. It’s in my top 3 or 4, but I think it at least belongs somewhere in the top 5. I really love that album.

    Conversely, I’d move Isolation Drills down a good bit. I don’t dislike it, but despite some awesome stuff, it’s hardly a favorite. I’d put Earthquake Glue, Same Place the Fly Got Smashed (killer album), The Bears for Lunch, and maybe Class Clown all ahead of it.

    • There are more good songs on Do the Collapse than those three. “Optical Hopscotch,” “Much Better Mr. Buckles,” “Liquid Indian” and “Picture Me Big Time” are all excellent.

  17. Thank you for interrupting my plans to check out some new albums this morning by forcing me to listen to half the GBV catalog in order to verify my opinions about this list. Arbitrary or not, these lists are indispensable solely for triggering discography dives. And honestly, what album that came out this month could make me happier than listening to Under the Bushes, Under the Stars right now.

  18. Mag Earwig, Their absolute finest hour. No question.
    Disgraceful positioning. DISGRACEFUL!

    • Second this. Mag is the perfect combination of what they had done and where they were going at the time and is my personal favourite. It also happens to be the album released at the height of my GBV fandom. It also is in my mind the best sounding GBV album production wise. I was often disappointed by the later Matador releases because the production was just so blah.

      Other than Mag’s low placement and the exclusion of King Shit, which was easily the best thing on the first Box set, this was a fair list.

  19. Do The Collapse is way better than people think. Earthquake Glue needs to be higher as well. Other than that, this list is pretty good. I think it’s safe to say that Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes are two of the best albums ever recorded and deserve the top spots.

  20. Honestly, my first reaction was “wow, GBV has only done 20 albums”?

  21. Mine:

    19. The Bears for Lunch
    18. Half Smiles of the Decomposed
    17. Sandbox
    16. Devil Between My Toes
    15. Let’s Go Eat the Factory
    14. Universal Truths & Cycles
    13. Vampire on Titus
    12. Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia
    11. Do the Collapse
    10. Earthquake Glue
    9. Class Clown Spots a UFO
    8. Same Place the Fly Got Smashed
    7. Isolation Drills
    6. Tonics and Twisted Chasers
    5. Mag Earwhig!
    4. Propeller
    3. Bee Thousand
    2. Under the Bushes, Under the Stars
    1. Alien Lanes

    Notes:

    * I don’t think any of these are flat out bad
    * I’m not a Collapse-hater. It’d be top 4 if its back 9 were as good as its front 7 (Picture Me Big Time can go toe to toe with any of those 7).
    * Do the Collapse and Earthquake Glue are the most underrated albums.
    * Vampire On Titus and Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia are the most overrated albums.
    * The Bears for Lunch, Universal Truths & Cycles and Let’s Go Eat the Factory are the most inconsistent albums.

  22. Psyched to see Tonics and Twisted Chasers. Never talked about as much as it should be. Good on ya.

  23. Agree. I love Tonics and Twisted Chasers.

  24. 19. SANDBOX **
    (Stand Out Tracks: Barricade, Long Distance Man)

    18. SAME PLACE THE FLY GOT SMASHED **½
    (The Hard Way, Drinker’s Peace)

    17. SELF-INFLICTED AERIAL NOSTALGIA **½
    (Chief Barrel Belly, Short On Posters)

    16.HALF SMILES OF THE DECOMPOSED ***
    (Everyone Thinks I’m A Raincloud, Huffman Prairie Flying Field)

    15.TONICS AND TWISTED CHASERS ***
    (Dayton, Ohio-19 Something and Five, Unbaited Vicar Of Scorched Earth, Ha Ha Man)

    14. LET’S GO EAT THE FACTORY ***
    (God Loves Us, Waves, The Room Taking Shape, 2nd half of Spiderfighter)

    13. THE BEARS FOR LUNCH ***
    (King Arthur The Red, Skin To Skin Combat, Waking Up The Stars, White Flag)

    12. CLASS CLOWN SPOTS A UFO ***
    (No Transmission, Keep It In Motion, Chain To The Moon. *”Breathing”, B-side if Jon The Croc single
    should have been included on the album. Best song since reunion)

    11. ISOLATION DRILLS ***½
    (Glad Girls, Sister I Need Wine, Fair Touching, Chasing Heather Crazy)

    10. UNIVERSAL TRUTHS AND CYCLES ***½
    (Cheyenne, Back To The Lake, Everywhere With Helicopter)

    9. DO THE COLLAPSE ****
    (Teenage FBI, Wormhole, Wrecking Now, Things I Will Keep)

    8. EARTHQUAKE GLUE ****
    (My Kind Of Soldier, Useless Inventions, Dead Cloud, The Best Of Jill Hives)

    7. DEVIL BETWEEN MY TOES ****
    (Old Battery, Hanks Little Fingers, Hey Hey Spaceman)

    6. MAG EARWHIG! ****
    (I Am A Tree, Mute Superstar, Not Behind The Fighter Jet, Mag Earwhig!)

    5. VAMPIRE ON TITUS ****
    (“Wished I Was A Giant”, Expecting Brainchild, Gleemer, Non-Absorbing)

    4. UNDER THE BUSHES, UNDER THE STARS ****½
    (Ghosts Of A Different Dream, Acorns And Oriels, Underwater Explosions, Official Ironmen Rally Song)

    3. PROPELLER *****
    (Over The Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox, Unleashed! The Large Hearted Boy, Exit Flagger)

    2. BEE THOUSAND *****
    (Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory, Smothered In Hugs, I Am A Scientist, Gold Star For Robot Boy)

    1. ALIEN LANES *****
    (Motor Away, Game Of Pricks, A Salty Salute, Watch Me Jumpstart, Blimps Go 90)

  25. Largely a good assessment but with two glaring errors for me. Mag Earwhig is a stunning album; produced about right (punchy, but not too produced), really melodic. I’d have it top five.
    And Isolation Drills is really overrated. A few excellent songs (Glad Girls etc), but mostly a bit lumpen. And why does no-one criticise its production? It’s as glossy and AOR as Do The Collapse, but probably not as consistent song-wise. Universal Truths and Half Smiles have both really grown for me over the years too.

  26. Thanks for the mojo to listen to “Vampire on Titus” Having a great time with that one. Same feeling I had when I got into Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes. Not a proper GBV album but I still pull out “Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department” (Bob Pollard/Doug Gillard) before any of the Cobra Verde line up albums. Bob says he regretted not releasing that under the GBV moniker.

  27. The only thing that’s obviously wrong with the list is the ranking you give Do the Collapse (“Mushroom Art”!), and maybe Tonics being up so high. If you followed them from the early nineties I suspect you’d agree that Mag Earwhig was the first record post-Bee Thousand where the unevenness started to set in, but it doesn’t really matter–there’s at least one song on each record thereafter that’s better than anything anyone else has ever written. Try writing up a list of the top 100 GBV songs, that would be interesting…

    One thing that’s missing as far as albums are concerned though is Power of Suck, the record they made between Alien Lanes and Under the Bushes but canned. I read somewhere that Pollard thought it was too much of a dirge, but’s its fecking awesome–the bootleg cassette I once had of it spent most of 1996 in my car stereo, until the thing broke down (the car, not the stereo). If you look around the web you can probably find it somewhere as mp3s, or you can look up the discography (google it) and try to put it together yourself–a lot (but I think not all) of it was released as B-sides and singles around that period (e.g. the “bonus” 12″ EP that came with Under the Bushes, the Official Ironman Rally Song single, Plantations of Pale Pink). A huge pain in the ass to find it all now probably, but worth the effort.

    Bob, if you’re reading though, it would be cool if you put Power of Suck out finally. The lost GBV record… Rockathon limited issue, vinyl only, etc. Easy beer money.

    Also some of the EPs are better than entire albums. Fast Japanese Spin Cycle, for one. And Pollard solo, and Lexo and the Leapers, ah, I could go on…

    GBV! GBV!

  28. The ones that I own:

    1. Under the Bushes Under the Stars
    2. Bee Thousand
    3. Alien Lanes
    4. Vampire on Titus
    5. Isolation Drills
    6. Tonics and Twisted Chasers
    7. Mag Earwhig!
    8. Propeller
    9. Half Smiles of the Decomposed
    10. Universal Truths and Cycles
    11. Earthquake Glue

    The only one of the above I don’t like is “Earthquake Glue”.

  29. Recently bought “Do the Collapse” which, in spite of all the negative reviews, I think is a good album. More consistent than its TVT companion, “Isolation Drills”, though with fewer highlights.

  30. I seriously think the really early stuff is way overrated. Bee Thousand has some fantastic songs but the sound quality is terrible – i don’t mean that everything should be polished to a blinding gleam but songs on some of the later albums really did benefit from using decent recording equipment.

    Anyway, Do The Collapse isn’t as terrible as you make it out to be, it was solid, definitely more consistent than Isolation Drills which is their weakest of the post-classic lineup albums.

    I think Earthquake Glue is their masterpiece, at the very least it should be in the top 5. And Half Smiles Of The Decomposed just needed some editing (as did many of their albums) – take it from 14 tracks to 10 or 11 and it would have been amazing. As it is there are some weak tracks on there but also some of their best work. Would have loved to hear the followup to this with that line up.

    Anyway, I could keep going but instead I’ll just name my top 5 (in no order):

    – Earthquake Glue
    – Under The Bushes, Under The Stars
    – Mag Earwhig!
    – Universal Truths & Cycles
    – Half Smiles Of The Decomposed (some weak songs but also some of my faves)

    Or maybe I will keep going :) Under The Bushes is my favorite of the early line-up. I really want to LOVE Bee Thousand, but honestly, I just can’t: the sound quality really diminishes the potential of some tracks. As astoundingly good as Robot Boy and Tractor Rape Chain are, they would have sounded much better recorded with better equipment. It’s still a great album, of course, but I don’t get why fans are so hung up on that one and Alien Lanes when Under The Bushes took everything about those two albums and improved upon it. It’s also one of their most overall consistent albums.

    Also, Bob’s solo albums deserve mention. I haven’t kept up with ALL his latest releases but From A Compound Eye and Normal Happiness were excellent albums. Of course they also arguably suffer from having way too many tracks (From A Compound Eye is 26 tracks!) but they’re still great albums.

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