Counting Down

Guided By Voices Albums From Worst To Best

By Michael Nelson / March 4, 2013 - 1:59 pm

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.