The 10 Best Grandaddy Songs
Music wasn’t the plan for Jason Lytle. In fact, for most of his adolescence it wasn’t even the dream. Lytle began his young adult life as a professional skateboarder, a logical hobby given his suburban Californian upbringing, before a knee injury abruptly ended his athletic career. In his recovery, he poured his attention into music, recording small demos. Those songs would become his first releases as Grandaddy, a project that has expanded and contracted with time but has consistently been a home for Lytle’s lyrics and, by extension, his anxieties. And as is befitting of a band born from the painful failings of the human form, Grandaddy’s discography excavates the splendor in our inevitable degradation.
After half a decade of those homespun cassette recordings, Grandaddy made their full-length debut with 1997’s Under The Western Freeway, a mix of restrained, lo-fi acoustics and explosive, day-glo electronics that achieved critical acclaim, if not immediate popular appreciation. With recurring themes of technological unease and a soundtrack fit for an Atari, critics sought to classify it within the flannel-toned hues of ’90s college rock — Mercury Rev, Pavement, Weezer — while professing the unique charms of its space-age, digital psychedelia.
They continued that momentum on 2000’s self-referentially named Sophtware Slump. With more support from their new record label, V2, Lytle doubled down on his strange vision of an android-driven future, with characters like Jed the Humanoid and 2000 Man personifying the terrifying isolation of the new millennium and its ceaseless march towards innovation. And though a record about alcoholic robots might seem like a niche interest, its dopey, dropout approach to our impending digital doom clearly resonated, eventually landing an opening gig for post-Parachutes Coldplay. Despite the multiple, inevitable OK Computer comparisons, Grandaddy struck a different nerve than Thom Yorke’s disturbing visions of technocratic overlords. Though driven by the same core sense of dread, Lytle leaned into playful nihilism and wistful nostalgia, envisioning a world where we mourn microwaves that have fallen out of use.
But by 2003, Lytle seemed to tire of his glittery, glitchy reputation, and Grandaddy’s third record, Sumday, proved that he could engender the same feelings of romantic hopelessness with a more analog approach. Driven by fuzz pedals and piano, he paired the same middle-aged worries with sharper melodies and more traditional song structures. But after what he called “the ultimate Grandaddy record,” he split from the rest of the band, releasing 2006’s humble Just Like The Fambly Cat as essentially a solo production. It was a fitting goodbye, equal parts somber and silly. The band would then remain largely dormant, save for a few reunion shows in 2012, until 2017. They came together again as a group to record Last Place, an homage to what Grandaddy represented as much as a reflection on the original concerns that fueled the band. It was a welcome comeback, cut tragically short by the sudden death of their bassist Kevin Garcia a few months after the album’s release.
But in the summer of 2020, when the pangs of digital connection were wearing thin, Lytle announced a small return: Grandaddy would be re-releasing The Sophtware Slump, with Lytle playing the entire album solely on the piano. Out today, The Sophtware Slump ….. on a wooden piano is a fitting comeback for a band that disguised melancholy behind MIDIs. Lytle also hinted at another album of new material, his last (he says) before going “off the grid.” He now has an exponentially larger well of internet angst to mine since their last album, but there’s also an impressive longevity in the computer crises he unleashed over two decades ago. Revisiting Grandaddy’s 10 best songs, it’s both eerie and beautiful to find new resonance in repeated listens.
"Yeah Is What We Had" (from Sumday, 2003)
Though Grandaddy would leave behind a legacy of noisy synthesized chaos and thrashing electronics, “Yeah Is What We Had” is exemplary of the band’s capacity for lush, orchestral beauty. Fuzzed-out guitars give way to violin strings and jingle bells, as Jason Lytle’s voice seems to lilt upwards in resignation, a disposition that he’d developed after two album’s worth of nasally yelps. “In this life, will I ever see you again?” he asks, a moment of uncharacteristic earnestness. But there’s plenty of trademark Grandaddy shrugs to balance out his pining, sketching out a relationship defined through single syllables: “‘Good,’ ‘good’ is what we understood.” Though his restlessness always seemed at war with his desire for stability, “Yeah Is What We Had” finds Lytle reflecting on the past with clear-eyed sentimentality.
"This Is How It Always Starts" (from Just Like The Fambly Cat, 2006)
Grandaddy’s fourth and final pre-hiatus album, Just Like The Fambly Cat, was essentially a Jason Lytle solo album. In interviews, he likened the band’s dissolution to the loss of a family cat: “When the family cat dies, he doesn't make a big deal about it,” he said at the time. “There's no dramatic squealing or rolling around on the floor. He just disappears.” And fittingly, these songs have a markedly more plaintive, grounded sound, largely eschewing the knob-twiddling bleeps that defined the band’s earlier output. “This Is How It Always Starts,” by contrast, feels like a last gasp of the band’s shimmering sluggishness. The song opens with space-age synths and laser-like interjections, like an old computer booting up one final time. Lyrically, it’s the quintessence of Lytle’s economical nihilism, defining his mindset through negations: “Nothing clear, nothing bright/ Nothing I'll feel tonight.” It’s an aptly self-effacing farewell from a man who seemed to distance himself from his music almost as soon as it hit the airwaves: “This is how it always starts/ Dumb choices from the heart.”
"O.K. With My Decay" (from Sumday, 2003)
Lytle once described the process of recording Sophtware Slump like one might imagine a desperate developer churning out lines of new code: “In my boxer shorts, bent over keyboards with sweat dripping off my forehead, frustrated, hungover, and trying to call my coke dealer.” On his piano-driven slacker anthem “OK With My Decay,” he makes the clearest connection between the inevitable obsolescence of technology and the haggard breakdown of a drug crash. There’s an element of fatalism that unites Grandaddy’s output — a defeatism that makes its moments of hope glimmer more brightly — and this Sumday cut takes that pessimism to its logical conclusion. “I have no choice,” he sings, his voice sloping upwards in a strange state of post-acceptance bliss. As Lytle became more acoustically-focused in their later years, “OK With My Decay” stands out as a mission statement of sorts: As the world continued to push into the electronic realm, Grandaddy would walk, smiling, into the post-hype ether.
"So You'll Aim Toward The Sky" (from The Sophtware Slump, 2000)
It’s easy to remember Grandaddy for their wry, detached lyricism, but “So You’ll Aim Toward the Sky” makes the case that they could very well stand on their own as a purely instrumental outfit. With only the barest of lyrics over the course of the four-minute song, it instead builds drama through synths and piano. A swirling echo adds a layer of digital dust throughout the whole recording, as if performed on a grand piano at the edge of the abyss. It carries with it the manic beauty of bands like the Olivia Tremor Control, who similarly turned age-old instruments into extraterrestrial explorations. As a closer on an album with no lack of anxious verbosity, it functions as a mesmerizing, cleansing balm, equal parts lullaby and epilogue.
"12-Pak-599" (from Concrete Dunes, 2002)
Released as a 7” B-side ahead of their debut, and then repackaged unsanctimoniously on Concrete Dunes, an unauthorized rarities compilation released by Lakeshore Records, “12-Pak-599” is markedly more acoustic than Grandaddy’s typical fare. The song’s core melody is built out from a guitar and a piano, leaving room for Lytle’s wistful falsetto to float in all its melancholic whimsy. Lytle’s writing often cuts deepest when it skews most obtuse, and here, we hear only the barest sketches of a man at the end of his rope. “Won’t somebody please/ Take away my keys/ Drunk again,” he sings meekly. With its sparse instrumentation and barebones verses, “12-Pak-599” is an early sketch of Lytle’s knack for potent melodies, the resolutions in his piano progressions lending a glimmer of hope to a song, and a band, with an otherwise bleak outlook.
"Now It's On" (from Sumday, 2003)
By their third album, Grandaddy had garnered a fair amount of critical goodwill. “Now is a good time,” Lytle put it, uncharacteristically optimistic, in one interview. That positivity emanates from Sumday’s opener, the bright and playful “Now It’s On.” With sampled sounds from children's toys (“click, click,” almost menacing if it weren’t so twee), the band pays homage to their technology-obsessed reputation before launching into driving power chords. Palm muted and perky, the song is more reminiscent of Weezer than previous comparisons to solipsistic rockers like Sparklehorse. “Once you’re outside you won’t want to hide anymore,” Lytle croons, surprisingly self-assured. Though there were darker moments to come on their biggest album to date, “Now It’s On” was a well-deserved moment of relief.
"He's Simple, He's Dumb, He's The Pilot" (from The Sophtware Slump, 2000)
There’s an element of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” in Grandaddy’s nine-minute epic, an ambitious intro to Sophtware Slump. Bowie’s Major Tom symbolized the existential unknown of interstellar exploration, a pawn in humanity’s endless Icarus complex. Lytle, by contrast, sends homing dispatches to “2000 Man,” who’s returned to “solid ground” a bit worse for wear. The song’s discrete episodes carry the narrative forward, the soft acoustic strumming behind Lytle’s reassurances (“It’s just nice to have you back again”) transitioning into swirling synths. “Are you giving in?” he asks meekly, as if conflicted about how he would answer himself. The song’s final third finds Lytle repeating that query a dozen times — its answer growing more rhetorical, the question more desperate. Backed by maudlin piano, it embodies Grandaddy’s knack for making even sweeping soundscapes sound utterly paranoid.
"The Crystal Lake" (from The Sophtware Slump, 2000)
Jason Lytle once considered a career as a mailman, just so he could guarantee he’d spend most of his day “outside walking around.” Even as touring and fame took him further from the verdant California Sierras, he continued to aspire to return to nature. “The Crystal Lake,” with its fluttering synths and winsome guitar riff, epitomizes that sense of yearning. Lytle has described the song as an “age-old story, repeated many times in country music,” and there is an element of “Dixie On My Mind” in his disses, thumbing his nose at “folks who flake” and fake trees. But unlike Hank Williams or his lonesome contemporaries, there’s no sense that home misses him back. In classic Sophtware form, it laughs at his plight: “It knows you’re just a modern man.” There may be no returning to the shimmering, titular lake, but in the meantime, they make do with a killer guitar solo.
"Everything Beautiful Is Far Away" (from Under The Western Freeway, 1997)
Modesto isn’t particularly known for churning out celebrities, but it is the hometown of George Lucas. The Star Wars creator allegedly said that the California suburb inspired his sci-fi masterpieces through pure boredom, the town so dull that he was forced to invent robots in his head. On “Everything Beautiful Is Far Away,” a cacophony of synthesizer bleeps even seem to evoke a cinematic soundboard, like a spaceship malfunctioning before a crash. The best Grandaddy songs reach for a Star Wars-esque sense of escapism, but keeping with the band’s trademark disillusionment, “Everything Beautiful Is Far Away” puts the fantastical mirage just out of arm’s reach.
"A.M. 180" (From Under The Western Freeway, 1997)
Grandaddy had a few regular covers in their repertoire, but none they seemed to enjoy more than “Here,” an ambling treatise on religion and romance from Pavement’s debut. The original 7” for “A.M. 180,” the effervescent and kinetic final single from Under The Western Freeway, even featured the cover as a B-side. It’s easy to see the connection — Stockton, Stephen Malkmus’s hometown, is only a stone’s throw from Modesto, and the bands share twin conflicts between slackerism and connection.
On the band’s most popular, and arguably most earnest, songs, that struggle plays out in beautiful chaos. It opens with organized chaos, pixelated synthesizer plucks meeting comically overdriven guitars, like the Main Street Electrical Parade performed at Silent Barn. Sweet and simple, it’s a love song to small towns and the people who find love in them, occasionally ambitious — ”We’ll defuse bombs” — but primarily low-stakes. To this day, it’s covered and synced often, for good reason. Besides its irresistible synth solo, it exemplifies Grandaddy’s knack for elevating the ordinary and finding transcendence in the humble acts of chilling and vibing. Or, as Lytle puts it on the song’s raucous outro, “Whatever, together.”
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