Fugazi Albums From Worst To Best
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.
7. End Hits (1998): End Hits was released amidst rumors that it was to be the band's final album, which would have been tragic, as it's easily Fugazi's least successful full-length. While the continued experimentation that began on the excellent Red Medicine is notable, the addition of synthesizers and studio effects seems conspicuous and overly ambitious, while the louder songs feel more obligatory than transcendent. This is not to say the album is not without its merits. Churning album closer "F/D" is a highlight complete with fake-out ending (and actual source of the album's title), while the groovy "Closed Captioned" showcases the band's singular approach to rhythmic layering. A slow-burner, End Hits earns the distinction of being the first Fugazi album you can smoke pot to, for better or worse. Headphones mandatory.
6. In On The Kill Taker (1993): In On The Kill Taker is Fugazi's rawest, most visceral release, and one that would expand their fanbase considerably. The album inexplicably cracked the Billboard Top 200 chart (the first Fugazi album to do so), dragging Fugazi kicking and screaming toward something resembling mainstream attention. Even the album's conceptual collage-style artwork, which utilized found objects and text, would be mercilessly ripped off a year later by avowed Fugazi fans Pearl Jam for their Vitalogy album package. Though Rolling Stone famously lauded the album, calling Fugazi "the only band that matters," In On The Kill Taker could also be considered the first Fugazi album to include filler (Canty's semi-regular drum solo showcases on record notwithstanding), and is front-loaded, with a less than memorable second side. Opener "Facet Squared," however, is easily one of the band's finest moments, including the immortal lyric "Irony's the refuge of the educated / Always complaining but they never quit / Cool's eternal but it's always dated." Other album highlights include the caustic "Smallpox Champion" and the haunted "Returning The Screw," one of most emotionally evocative and underrated songs in the Fugazi oeuvre.
5. Steady Diet Of Nothing (1991): With longtime producer Ted Nicely unavailable, the members of Fugazi, ever resourceful, opted to bypass a producer altogether and record their second full length themselves. If Steady Diet Of Nothing is one of the less essential Fugazi albums, it still boasts some crucial material, like minimalist funk curveball "Long Division," scathing pro-choice battle cry "Reclamation," and the dense and meticulous "Latin Roots." A great album diminished only by its relative place in a discography beyond reproach.
4. 13 Songs (1989): 13 Songs -- actually a combination of the EPs Fugazi (1988) and Margin Walker (1989) -- is as auspicious as punk debuts come. For guitar-playing outcasts on campus looking to find solace among their own kind, the "Waiting Room" bassline would soon replace the "Blister In The Sun" riff as the misfit mating-call of choice, and it remains one of the most identifiable openings of any punk song this side of "Lust For Life." 13 Songs is also remarkable in that it illustrates that most of the Fugazi elements were in place from the jump, albeit in a somewhat less-developed form. If the concept of a punk band writing a song from the perspective of a woman being hooted at by sexist loudmouths seems revolutionary now, imagine what it sounded like in 1988, when the canon of classic punk still consisted largely of songs dealing with beating on brats, lynching landlords, and the ritual impaling of cats. If Fugazi wasn't the first punk band to inject a social conscience into the music (Gang Of Four and the Clash, to name two obvious examples, had them beat by about a decade), they were certainly one of the most visible American bands to do so. The debut EP is nearly flawless, and if the Margin Walker EP is slightly less so, it still includes classics in both the teethy, indispensible title track and the clamorously melodic "Promises," both of which lay the groundwork for anything approaching a Fugazi formula.
3. Red Medicine (1995): "Your eyes / Like crashing jets / Fixed in stained glass / But not religious" -- is there a better opening line in all of punkdom? Red Medicine marks the beginning of Fugazi's second life as an experimental rock band, and the results are an unequivocal success. Finally (and audibly) confident in the studio as a self-producing band, the band's use of space on Red Medicine represents an about-face from the cacophonous assault of In On The Kill Taker. Fugazi's love of dub music is finally more than merely hinted at with "Version," a bold and menacing instrumental that utilizes dissonance and echo in ways King Tubby never imagined. Elsewhere, the band incorporates relatively unusual instruments such as clarinet, a trend that would continue with increasing regularity on subsequent Fugazi albums. This is not to say that Red Medicine is an album for quiet reflection -- one of the album's finest songs is MacKaye's air-guitar worthy "Bed For The Scraping," as raucous and raging as anything the band ever committed to tape. It's Picciotto, however, who emerges as the star here. His yearning, desperate "Forensic Scene" ably showcases the band's knack for intensity and restraint, while opener "Do You Like Me" imagines a major corporate merger between warmongering companies Lockheed and Martin Marrietta as an innocent grade school romance. We're a long way from drinking, fighting, and fucking here, folks.
2. Repeater (1990): In the first weeks of 1990, Fugazi released a three-song EP (later tacked onto the end of the Repeater CD) called, err, 3 Songs. The best of these is "Song No. 1," in which MacKaye explains that "Song number one is not a 'fuck you' song / I'll save that thought till later on." If there was ever any doubting his word, proper debut Repeater (its title a reference to the Beatles' Revolver), released a few months later, is where Fugazi makes good on that promise. Specifically, it is the double-shot of "Merchandise" and "Blueprint," both critiques of the commodification and cooptation of art, that sends the strongest message. Philosophically speaking, this pair of songs is perhaps Fugazi's boldest and most important seven minutes on record. It doesn't hurt that they're also two of the band's catchiest, most enduring tunes. This is not to ignore the rest of this nearly flawless album -- spooky closer "Shut The Door" is as poignant a statement on the nature of addiction as ever written, while the jaunty, taunting title track provides one of the band's most memorable choruses. As with every Fugazi release, Repeater was not promoted via traditional channels -- there were no posters, no T-shirts, no press kits, no giant ads, no cover stories, and no payola. To date, it has sold more than 2 million copies worldwide.
1. The Argument (2001): If Fugazi never return from their almost decade-long hiatus, their sixth and final official longplayer The Argument is as good a legacy as they -- or any band -- could ever desire. The album is the distillation and culmination of almost two decades of tireless ingenuity and a restless, high maintenance muse. If "post-punk" were a descriptive term rather than a genre invented by journalists, The Argument might be one of the only albums worthy of such a distinction. Singling out specific tunes feels frivolous and counterproductive -- The Argument is definitively an album as opposed to a collection of songs, and as such, is best confronted as a singular work. Featuring outside collaborators for the first time (most notably second percussionist Jerry Busher), the album is a dense and multifarious grower in the great tradition, a game-changer album that puckishly refuses to easily reveal its intricacies and nuances. Only after repeat listens does the album emerge as a definitive statement alongside Daydream Nation, Zen Arcade, or Kid A. Weird, wonky and wonderful, The Argument is Fugazi's masterpiece.