Guided By Voices Albums From Worst To Best
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.
19. Sandbox (1987)
Guided by Voices have never made a bad album, exactly. Nevertheless, even Pollard was unimpressed with the group's second record which, like each of the band's first four albums, was only distributed to about a few hundred people at most. "It's my least favorite," he told gbv.com in 1997. (A web exclusive! from 1997!) "We attempted a power pop, Cheap Trick thing with it, and the experiment failed." Cheap Trick may have been the inspiration, but the whole thing sounds more like a poor man's version of classic '80s SST bands, except that GBV lacked the ferocity of Dinosaur Jr., the attitude of early Sonic Youth, and at the time at least, the melodic sophistication of the Meat Puppets. That said, Sandbox is the most cohesive of the band's first four albums, and songs like "Everyday" and "Trap Soul Door" prove that Pollard always had an effortless knack for vocal melodies. It's also hilarious to hear GBV try to pull off a "cow-punk" song with "I Certainly Hope Not."
18. Do The Collapse (1999)
Although Pollard already learned the perils of attempting power pop on Sandbox, he went and recruited Ric Ocasek, the dark prince of power pop, to produce this 1999 misguided grab for commercial success. To call it a "sell-out" is unfair; I think Pollard was more in love with the idea of making a record the kids of America could rock out to in their cars than he was in cashing in. But in part because of the production cues, and in part because Pollard's songwriting isn't exactly at its best here, the record sounds like any number of alternative one-hit wonders from the '90s. And fittingly, I'm not sure I saw any album pop up more in early-2000s bargain bins than this one.
Of course, there are still some worthwhile tracks here. Opener "Teenage FBI" is a crunchy earworm worthy of early Weezer, even if it's almost derailed by Ocasek's dated keyboards. And think of "Hold On Hope" as GBV's "High And Dry," hitting all the right mid-'90s alternative tearjerker notes (albeit a little too perfectly, right down to the Swelling Strings™).
17. Let's Go Eat The Factory (2012)
After an eight-year recording hiatus, Guided By Voices returned last year with a vengeance, releasing three new albums and bringing the "classic lineup" back together for the first time since 1996. The first of the three, Let's Go Eat the Factory has all the elements of classic GBV: unpredictable song structures, a ramshackle, tossed-off feel, even a bit of tape-hiss for the purists. But even after repeated listens, few of the melodies or lyric hooks have much staying power. There are some exceptions like the rocking single, "The Unsinkable Fats Domino," and the weirdly heartfelt ode to a girl and the pastries she loves, "Doughnut For A Snowman." Honestly, it's impressive enough that after 15 albums GBV is still able to create new melodic formulations using only the most basic atomic units of rock and roll. Still, Let's Go Eat The Factory didn't inspire a whole lot of excitement over the reunion, which is a shame because the two albums that would follow it last year made the comeback worth it.
16. Devil Between My Toes (1987)
Fans who are only familiar with Guided by Voice's post-1990 output might be surprised to find out that band used to sound a LOT like REM. The band's debut LP Devil Between My Toes is basically a low-rent version of Murmur, albeit one punctuated by weird, dark, experimental detours. Which actually turns out to sound pretty cool. On "Discussing Wallace Chambers," propulsive tom hits and jangly electric guitar trade blows with strange, jagged verses. The winning instrumental surf-rocker "Crux" is what the Del-Tones would sound like if they never saw a body of water bigger than Great Miami River. And "Old Battery" is such a masterful approximation of early REM that one wonders how huge GBV would have become, had they written more songs about falling in love and fewer songs about, well, old car batteries. Devil Between My Toes proves that, while GBV had a long way to go before they'd start changing the world, they always knew how to balance the bizarre with the catchy.
15. Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia (1989)
The band's third album, Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia, is the first to really sound like a Guided By Voices record. I know that's a ridiculous thing to say because GBV has gone through so many lineups and styles over its three-decade existence. But this was the first time the band possessed a truly unique voice, instead of merely attempting to capture the sounds of their favorite albums. On opener "The Future Is In Eggs," Pollard discovers his penchant for theatrics, something he probably learned from listening to Who records, not performing in school plays (in high school, Pollard was more likely to be found on the football field). The band also began experimenting with song structures on songs like "Paper Girl," which turns on a dime from skronky in-the-red punk to trebly acoustic guitar. And to cement the band's devotion to playfulness and sonic experimentation, they can't help but fuck up the last and catchiest track on the album, "Radio Song," by running the tape backwards at the end for no apparent reason. Sure, Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia is a total mess. But it's their mess.
14. Mag Earwhig! (1997)
If Guided By Voices albums were Bond movies, this would be On Her Majesty's Secret Service, a strange departure bearing little resemblance to any other entry, and yet one that succeeds on a number of levels. Following Guided By Voices' classic string of albums in the '90s, a consecutive series of greatness that could stand beside flawless runs by bands like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, the band dissolved. But Pollard kept the GBV name and recruited Cleveland rockers Cobra Verde for the excellent Mag Earwhig! The result is the band's most hi-def, studio-polished album to date. But while the album's best song, "I Am A Tree" was written by Cobra Verde's Doug Gillard, Pollard still carried some of the golden mid-'90s songwriting touch, which breaks through the album's bright, glam-rock conventions. In that sense, Mag Earwhig! is one of Guided By Voices' most important albums, proving that Pollard's songs didn't need to rely on lo-fi charm to be appreciated. (Incidentally, this marks the point in the list where we go from "Advanced GBV Studies" to "Albums Every Fan Should Know.")
13. Class Clown Spots A UFO (2012)
After the lackluster Let's Go To The Factory, fans could be forgiven for not being terribly excited for the Guided By Voices reunion. But Class Clown Spots A UFO, released just five months later, made us true believers again. More than anything, it captures the structural rhythm of earlier Guided By Voices albums as the band jumps unpredictably from silly minute-long throwaways like the hilariously cheesy "They And Them" to proper three-minute pop songs like the wonderful title track. GBV's ace-in-the-hole songwriter Tobin Sprout even rekindles some of old '80s jangle-pop love on "Starfire." Like all great GBV albums, it's a friendly reminder that, yes, the band's well of great melodies really is bottomless, and that even with simple ingredients like guitar, bass, drums, and voice, anything is possible.
12. The Bears For Lunch (2012)
Yes, you read that right: Guided By Voices released three albums in 2012 (with yet another on the way this April). Like its predecessor Class Clown Spots A UFO, The Bears For Lunch tries to compress just about every phase of the band's existence into 19 songs, from the Mag Earwhig!-era bombast of opener "King Arthur The Red" to the lo-fi acoustics of "Have A Jug" and "You Can Fly Anything Right." But the secret weapon here, as is often the case, is Tobin Sprout, who brings his psychedelia flirtations to full fruition on "The Corners Are Glowing" and threatens to steal the whole show with the wondrously catchy, Led Zeppelin III-influenced "Waving At Airplanes." Here's to three more GBV albums every year for all eternity.
11. The Same Place The Fly Got Smashed (1990)
The best of Guided By Voices' first four releases is also the darkest, most serious album they've made yet. This concept album about an angry Midwest alcoholic is a difficult, bracing listen, as the listener is bombarded with the boozy anxieties of a protagonist who may or may not bear a resemblance to Pollard himself. There's the achingly raw and beautiful "When She Turns 50," which wouldn't sound out of place on an early Elliott Smith record, where the hero wonders if he'll still be alive when a woman he knows hits the half-century mark. And on "Drinker's Peace," Pollard captures both the comfort and the destructiveness of alcoholism, describing how it makes his felonies feel more like misdemeanors. It's a shockingly candid record from a man whose stage presence is distinguished by a tendency to consume copious amounts of alcohol. What this says about Pollard the man is not for us to judge. The primary thing proven by thing The Same Place The Fly Got Smashed is that Pollard's normally esoteric lyrics can also be direct and devastating.
10. Earthquake Glue (2003)
It took them 15 years, but Guided By Voices finally made a stadium record worthy of Cheap Trick. This is the purest form of Guided By Voices' "arena-rock" years, a big, polished, tightly constructed beast of a record that is too damn catchy to be hated, even by the lowest of the lo-fi purists. "Useless Inventions" is the pinnacle of post-grunge, the best song the Foo Fighters never made (that's a compliment). The vaguely new wave "Mix Up The Satellite" provides a glimpse of what Do The Collapse could have been. And if Pollard was ten years younger and had a face like Rob Thomas, "The Best Of Jill Hives" could've been a perennial TRL favorite. It's like an alternate history of the '90s where the bands had heart to go with their gelled hair and expensive music videos. It's too bad Guided By Voices didn't release this when they had a distribution deal with the major label TVT in the late '90s. They might've taken over the world after all.
9. Half Smiles Of The Decomposed (2004)
History has been kind to Half Smiles Of The Decomposed, the last album released before the group disbanded for six years. At the time, the Guided By Voices sound was becoming further and further removed from the tastes of indie rock fans who wanted to dance, not pump their fists to 40-something rock and rollers. But while the kids were trying to shake their heels to younger bands, Guided By Voices had quietly perfected its songcraft. Pollard's confidence in form and execution resulted in an album without showiness or sensationalism, but that doesn't stop these 14 tracks from infiltrating the listener's brain and staying there, even 10 years later in some cases. Songs like "Window Of My World," "Girls Of Wild Strawberries," and "Asia Minor" sound familiar in the best way possible, as if we've heard them a thousand times before. If Half Smiles Of The Decomposed had been Guided By Voices' final album, its maturity would have been a fitting swan song. But of course, ending it all like that would be too predictable, and so Guided By Voices returned last year in all its immature shit-kicking glory.
8. Universal Truths And Cycles (2002)
More than any other release from Guided By Voices' post-"classic lineup" period, Universal Truths And Cycles embraces the scattershot methodology of those mid-'90s classics. Alternatively pretty and pummelling, the record successfully captures the unpredictable flow of prime-era Guided By Voices. At the same time, it puts its higher production qualities to good use by attempting to recreate the energy of a GBV live show. This clever balancing act results in one of the band's most enjoyable records, front-to-back. Straightforward jams like "Cheyenne," "Back To The Lake," and "Everywhere With Helicopter" are counterweighted by strange acoustic wonders like "Factory Of Raw Essentials" and "The Weeping Bogeyman." Lo-fi enthusiasts won't find much to hang their hat on here, but by 2002, the myth that Pollard's songs only worked when tied to the lo-fi aesthetic was well-debunked.
7. Isolation Drills (2001)
If there's an invisible line between non-essential and essential GBV, this is where we cross it. The seven greatest GBV albums represent a big step up from the rest, starting with 2001's Isolation Drills. Following the commercial and critical failure of Do The Collapse, Pollard could've given up on his hi-fi dreams and retreated to the basement. Thankfully he gave the studio another try and the results were a revelation. Instead of stripping the charm from his melodies which is what happened on Do The Collapse, the bright guitars and big drums on Isolation Drills freed them from the tyranny of shitty sound quality. The key to its success is that the high production values still sound organic, less like a million-dollar studio job and more like a live show where the sound guy totally nails the levels. And that's how we get high-flying anthems like "Chasing Heather Crazy" and the ebullient "Glad Girls" which, after 19 albums and hundreds of tracks, is still my favorite Guided By Voices song (best experienced in a live setting, but still).
6. Vampire On Titus (1993)
GBV's first album to fully embrace lo-fi as an aesthetic and not just a necessity is also the album where the band takes this genre to its most abrasive extremes. If ears could squint, that's what they'd have to do to suss out some of these vocal melodies. But like the aural equivalent of a Magic Eye poster, once you hear them, they are etched onto your cerebral cortex forever. Songs like opener "Wished I Was A Giant" are an assault on eardrums while songs like "Superior Sector Janitor X" barely exist at all. But the overall effect created by Vampire On Titus is that of being buried, covered in mud and tape hiss, yet able to recognize carefully constructed melodic structures through the muck. It's a challenging listen, but one that goes so far to the extreme that the only way for the band to go from there is into the light. And that incremental peeling away of the layers of noise on each successive release would be what made GBV's classic mid-'90s run of albums so compelling.
5. Tonics And Twisted Chasers (1996)
Leave it to Guided by Voices to record one of their all-time greatest albums and only make it available to fanclub members. From the suburban squalor of "Dayton, Ohio -- 19 Something And Five" to the introspective "My Thoughts Are A Gas," Tonics And Twisted Chasers is arguably Pollard's most personal Guided By Voices album. It also contains some of his most straightforward lyrics and most recognizable characters, like the "Key Losers" who will let you down "in the clutch, twice as much" or the "junkies on the corner" shooting up next to children in the sprinkler. They may be losers, but these are Pollard's people.
4. Propeller (1992)
If Pollard really wanted Propeller to be a farewell album as he's stated in the past, maybe he shouldn't have kicked the album off with the sound of a crowd chanting "G-B-V! G-B-V!" Maybe he meant it to be ironic, but in retrospect it's impossible not to hear that opening salvo as anything less than an announcement that this band has finally arrived. From the trippy mythology of "Weedking" to the ersatz Britpop of "Metal Mothers" to the punk anthem that would create the mold for all future GBV punk anthems, "Exit Flagger," Propeller is where the blistering noise, the sophisticated songcraft, and the flawless execution of Guided By Voices came together for the first time. Luckily it wouldn't be the last.
3. Under The Bushes, Under The Stars (1996)
At the time, Under The Bushes, Under The Stars had the highest production values of any Guided By Voices album, recorded on 24-tracks instead of their 4-track Portastudio. But honestly most of these songs sound like they could've been captured on 4-tracks. The biggest difference between Under The Bushes, Under The Stars and its predecessors are that nearly every song here is structured like songs are "supposed" to be. But again, you'd hardly notice. Like Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes, the record is made up of unforgettable riffs, infectious vocal melodies, and little else; the fact that they fit together more logically is beside the point. Meanwhile, on classics like "The Official Ironmen Rally Song," "It's Like Soul Man," and "Your Name Is Wild," the band begins to hint at stadium-sized ambitions while keeping the songs themselves human-sized. By remaining tethered to the lo-fi aesthetic but thinking big, Under The Bushes, Under The Stars is propelled by a sense of tension that the band hasn't really explored since.
2. Alien Lanes (1995)
I wonder how many bands started because of the five bass notes on "A Salty Salute," the minute-and-a-half masterpiece that kicks off Alien Lanes. The bassline is as simple and elegant as any of Newton's theorems, and of course that's only the beginning of this 28-song epic battle between harmony and discord. In the end nobody wins but the listener. Meandering tracks like "(I Wanna Be A) Dumbcharger" end awkwardly like an unanswered question, only to be immediately resolved by an exhilarating song like "Game Of Pricks." Alien Lanes isn't quite GBV's best album, but none other had such a sophisticated flow and structure. Who knows, maybe it was just random luck that it all fits together so well. Either way, it just works.
1. Bee Thousand (1994) I could spend this whole blurb talking about how opener "Hardcore UFOs" disrupts the notion of how two electric guitars are supposed to fit together. Or I could focus solely on the brilliantly executed transition in the middle of "The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory." Or why riffs like the one GBV willed into existence on "I Am A Scientist" sound like they were written and etched our collective subconscious five decades ago. This sort of aural witchcraft is all over Bee Thousand, which still stands as the undisputed king of the noise-pop genre. 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. And whenever the album threatens to lose the listener, it casually drops a song like "Echos Myron" and before you know it you're dancing like a teenager again.