Bob Mould, Hüsker Dü, And Sugar Albums From Worst To Best
18. Bob Mould - Modulate (2002)
It's generally poor critical practice to single out a record as unsuccessful merely on the basis of its failure to conform to what the artist is "supposed to" sound like. And indeed, Mould is to be applauded for trying his hand at dance music on 2002's Modulate (as well as Long Playing Grooves, released the same year by Mould's alter-ego LoudBomb). Having said that, Mould frequently sounds out of his comfort zone and unsure of himself while attempting to combine his genre experiments with his more typical straightforward rock approach. The highs are high on Modulate (tracks like "Comeonstrong" find a nice balance between Mould's robust pop songcraft and his new experimental leanings), but on balance this is a tentative first step forward into a potentially intriguing direction for an always-restless artist.
17. Bob Mould - Body Of Song (2005)
Another instance of Mould's worthwhile 2000s-era attempts at tinkering with his signature sound, em>Body Of Song improves mildly on Modulate's experiments with dance music by more seamlessly integrating those elements with the muscular guitar exertions that Mould knows best. Tracks like "(Shine Your) Light Love Hope" and "Paralyzed" are Mould's most effective dance-inflected tracks to date, suggesting something like an overdriven New Order on a particularly Blue Monday.
16. Hüsker Dü - Metal Circus EP (1983)
By 1983, Hüsker Dü had honed their live chops to a ferocious edge, but had yet to fully develop the knack for great hooks and melodies that distinguished the band's blistering sonic assault from a thousand other hardcore contemporaries. Intimations of nascent genius can be seen here, but the best songs are all drummer Grant Hart's -- "It's Not Funny Anymore" and the harrowing "Diane." Around this time the band also released their first unqualified act of genius, an epochal re-imagining of The Byrds' "Eight Miles High" that set the punk-rock world on notice that a new sheriff was coming to town.
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.
14. Bob Mould - Black Sheets Of Rain (1990)
Mould's second solo album after the breakup of Hüsker Dü and the follow-up to the fine and almost winsome Workbook can feel like an overcorrection. If Black Sheets was the solution to a math problem, it would look something like "misery squared." A relentless catalog of desperate and angry declarations and recriminations, there are few silver linings to this dark cloud, and while Mould deserves credit for the courage of his unhappy convictions, this is not an album many of us would like to have over for dinner. To his credit, "It's Too Late" is a wonderful single, channeling the album's deep despair into something you could imagine singing along to on the radio.
13. Bob Mould - District Line (2008)
2008's strong release District Line finds Mould reckoning with a new town, a new maturity, and a new sense of purpose. On songs like "The Silence Between Us" Mould evinces a more evolved viewpoint on romantic hardship while still proving that thoughtfulness and perspective doesn't necessarily mean he's lost anything off his fastball. Parts of District Line punch nearly as hard as anything Mould has ever done. He may be more centered, but he's every bit as likely to knock you on your pins with apocalyptic, guitar-driven rockers like "Return To Dust."
12. Hüsker Dü - Warehouse: Songs And Stories (1987)
The final Hüsker Dü release, Warehouse: Songs And Stories is a record full of great ideas, but maybe not enough to justify its double-album running time. With tensions running high in the band and the songwriting now split equally between Mould and Hart, Warehouse can be a fascinating study in two creative alpha males attempting to make a collaboration work even when it has become apparent that the partnership serves neither band nor audience. Warehouse runs long, for sure, but the highlights are considerable and not to be dismissed. Mould's great compositions "Standing In The Rain" and "These Important Years" forecast the heights of pure pop genius that he would soon achieve with Sugar. Meanwhile, Hart tracks like "Actual Condition" and "She Floated Away" provide a welcome contrast to Mould's unending emotional catharsis. These are the last days of Hüsker Dü played out with aplomb.
11. Bob Mould - Life And Times (2009)
The title suggests that this will be Mould's foray into the realm of the reflective and retrospective, but actually this proves only half-true. On tracks like the titular opener, Mould seems more preoccupied by his current state of affairs than anything his legacy buys or begrudges him. On "Life And Times" he sings, "You're taking me back to the places I've left behind," sounding none too pleased. The comi-tragic, "I'm Sorry Baby, But You Can't Stand In My Light Anymore" addresses the abiding love between a sober figure and one who can't be fixed. Like much of the album, it's a somber matter that Mould navigates with dexterity, humor, and humility.
10. Bob Mould - Bob Mould (1996)
Following the dissolution of Sugar, Mould made a statement of purpose playing every instrument on his self-titled 1996 record. By this time, we all knew he could do just about everything, but eager to prove the point, he does just that here. He renders brilliant and deeply personal tracks such as "Anymore Time Between," "Fort Knox, King Solomon," and "Art Crisis" with unmistakable assurance. However, despite all of the evident genius at work, one can still detect that which is lost in Mould's collaboration with gifted others. This is a good record, but one that evidently suffers from the lack of compatriots at the magnitude of Sugar and Hüsker Dü.
9. Hüsker Dü - Candy Apple Grey (1986)
The Hüskers' major label debut is a thick-skinned and tough amalgam of angst-driven rockers like the opener "Crystal" and the dead-of-midnight acoustic confession "Too Far Down." The overall environment is claustrophobic and exceedingly dark. Great pop numbers like Hart's "Don't Want To Know If You're Lonely" are mitigated by a profound sense of imminent despair. Even tuneful highlights like Mould's "All This I've Done For You" don't fully ameliorate the toxic atmosphere of the group's bleakest release. Dark, paranoid, and hopeless, Candy Apple Grey was arguably the worst possible way to expose Hüsker Dü to a mass audience.
8. Sugar - Beaster EP (1993)
Beaster is comprised more or less of outtakes from Copper Blue -- it's a reservoir of Mould's pain and suffering that simply did not fit on such a pitch-perfect, sprightly pop LP. But the songs are great in their own right and deservedly warranted an outlet for their airing. The hazy, ethereal opening track "Come Around" is followed by the driving and ferocious "Tilted," possibly the best song in Mould's entire catalog. "Judas Cradle" can be a bit of a tough hang -- what it lacks in brevity it makes up for in catharsis, but is not entirely devoid of its own unique charm. And the organ-driven album closer, "Walking Away," is an airy and otherworldly palate cleanser. All and sundry, Beaster is a complex but deeply rewarding listen.
7. Hüsker Dü - Zen Arcade (1984)
The ambitious double album Zen Arcade is the first true acknowledgement of Hüsker Dü's determination to make the move from pedestrian hardcore to visionary greatness. The two-disc, 23-track opus follows the travails of a young punk in a state of conflict. Like the Who's rock operas, much of the narrative is incoherent, but the drive and intention are meaningful. Here, we experience a great punk band questioning what other modes of subversion might be out there. By defying the loud-fast orthodoxies of contemporary hardcore in order to tell a lengthy story, Hüsker Dü changed the game entirely. Zen Arcade was issued alongside the similarly visionary Minutemen release Double Nickels On The Dime and was the forerunner to countless impressive works including Titus Andronicus' history-obsessed The Monitor and Fucked Up's recent rock opera David Comes To Life.
6. Sugar - File Under: Easy Listening (1994)
The second full-length Sugar record, File Under: Easy Listening, doubled down on all of the virtues first exemplified by the band's initial two releases, with a special attention to the toughness and impenetrable sound of Bob Mould at his guitar's take-no-prisoners best. The ironic title is both an acknowledgement and a refutation to those who imagined that the chiming pop gems on Copper Blue are what Sugar is entirely about. Great songs like the rueful industry critique written by Dave Barbe "Company Book," the infectious "Your Favorite Thing," and the excellent, no-holds-barred "Gee Angel" are some of the most superlative that Sugar has ever recorded. An utterly brilliant power-pop album.
5. Bob Mould - Silver Age (2012)
Following a string of solo output that allowed Mould to entertain his interests in electronica and a few more experimental notions, 2012's Silver Age emerged as a refreshing surprise and energetic affair that hearkens back to the magnificent highs of Sugar's Copper Blue. Opening with a one-two punch of "Star Machine" followed by the title track, which leads into the utter guitar-destroying bliss of lead single "The Descent," Silver Age is a hook-driven commingling of potent rockers and contemplative slow numbers. Rarely has Mould seemed so completely in control of his art.
4. Bob Mould - Workbook (1989)
Freed from the artistic hindrances of the power-trio monolith Hüsker Dü, Bob Mould's first solo record, Workbook, is an extraordinary case study in an artist making the best possible use of his creative autonomy. On this record, Mould's songwriting comes to the fore. "See A Little Light" was the unexpected but deserved hit, a uniquely positive paean to happiness well earned. Other tracks like "Sunspots" and "Wishing Well" confirmed the presence of a new and ever more introspective author eager to bring more sophisticated thinking to a punk-rock audience.
3. Hüsker Dü - New Day Rising (1985)
The culmination of hardcore ethos and pop aesthetics, New Day Rising is a fascinating album and one that marks Hüsker Dü's transition from punk-rock stalwarts to jangle-rock aficionados. The journey isn't always easy -- a lot of ground is covered. The opening title track seems to suggest a full-fledged awakening, the idea that hardcore aesthetics can only take such a gifted band so far. By the time of the psychedelic-inflected closer, "Plans I Make" the playing field for Hüsker Dü is wholly changed. Everything that has come before is everything to no longer expect.
2. Hüsker Dü - Flip Your Wig (1985)
Amongst the best power-pop albums of the 1980s, Flip Your Wig combines all of the Hüskers' greatest talents -- unforgettable hooks, start-and-stop-on-a-dime drums and desperately tuneful guitars -- into an unmistakably intoxicating brew. Mould's "Makes No Sense At All" is one of the finest singles of the era, while Hart's "Green Eyes" is a touching romantic reverie that finds the band at their most endearingly sentimental. All things equal, Hüsker Dü was never better.
1. Sugar - Copper Blue (1992)
One of the most superb albums ever made, Copper Blue represents Bob Mould's genius on full display. From the ominous opener "The Act We Act" to the near-perfect pop gem "If I Can't Change Your Mind," Mould and his band hit a high-water mark for pathos, intelligence, and catchiness -- a feat repeated throughout a tough and brilliant release that also includes unforgettable moments such as "Hoover Dam," "Fortune Teller," and the vaguely creepy album closer "Man On The Moon." And while the epitome of Bob Mould's greatness may have come at the middle of his career, many terrific records preceded and followed, and there is every reason to believe that the best is still yet to come.