Guided by Voices

TrackAlbum / EP
Quality Of ArmorPropeller
Shocker In GloomtownGrand Hour EP
I Am A ScientistBee Thousand
Game Of PricksAlien Lanes
Don't Stop NowUnder The Bushes Under The Stars
Postal BlowfishBrain Candy (OST)
Jane Of The Waking UniverseMag Earwhig!
Surgical FocusDo The Collapse
Glad GirlsIsolation Drills
Class Clown Spots A UFOClass Clown Spots A UFO

GbV photo 2

Guided by Voices c1994 (l-r): Mitch Mitchell (guitar), James Greer (bass),
Robert Pollard (lead vocals), Kevin Fennell (drums),
Tobin Sprout (guitar/vocals)

 

 

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GbV playlist

 

Contributor: Marc Fagel

I’m not going to pretend that compiling a Guided by Voices Top 10 is anything other than an exercise in futility. In fact, I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say that this may be the most difficult list to compile in all of Toppermost. Sure, any great artist who stuck around for more than a few albums is going to have more than 10 truly essential tracks. But when it comes not just to quality, but sheer quantity of tracks to choose from – sorry, there’s just no contest.

Robert Pollard, GbV’s frontman and the sole constant among the band’s revolving cast of musicians, has been prolifically releasing music since the mid-‘80s, both under the Guided by Voices moniker and as a solo artist, as well as with various side projects — often several albums per year. According to the database maintained by BMI publishing, Pollard is credited with writing approximately 2,500 songs as of today. Guided by Voices alone have released about 35 proper albums, to say nothing of countless singles and EPs and multiple box sets collecting literally hundreds of unreleased tracks.

Now, such insane levels of productivity raise the obvious question of whether the music’s any good. And let’s be honest: Pollard isn’t exactly a rigorous self-editor. Even his best albums (many of which include a couple dozen tracks) have a fair amount of chaff in there with the wheat; conversely, while he has a tendency to record just about every partially-formed musical idea that rolls out of his head, even his most inessential albums manage a few tracks that are almost shockingly catchy.

And as one could surmise, with that level of productivity, Pollard is often more interested in quickly capturing every note he conjures than he is in sonic fidelity. For the band’s first decade or so, they were notoriously lo-fi, at times the rising and falling levels of tape hiss serving as just one more instrument in the mix. Later albums took on a more polished sheen, but were still loaded up with half-finished musical snippets and plenty of rough edges. But as they say, that’s part of the charm. Many songs feel more like rough sketches, a sparse hook and a quickly-recorded guitar line, relying on the listener to fill in the blanks and imagine the blueprint as a more fully-formed, completed studio recording.

Given the volume of music to choose from, I’ve given myself a few ground rules for this Toppermost: No more than one song per album (or you could end up just picking 10 songs off band peaks like 1994’s Bee Thousand and 1995’s Alien Lanes). Band tunes only; we can save Pollard solo records and side projects for a future Toppermost. And just the Pollard-penned songs (sometime-bandmate Tobin Sprout has contributed a number of equally fantastic songs to the catalog, on top of his own solo gems, but, again, let’s hold off on Sprout for a future day).

Notably, my Top 10 doesn’t begin until some six years into the band’s career. Which isn’t to say there wasn’t some perfectly fine music in the early days. Beginning with the 1986 debut EP, Forever Since Breakfast, Pollard was already displaying a gift for a memorable hook. These early releases sounded like much of what was being heard on mid-80s college radio; jangly, skewed pop songs that, while not exactly sporting big-budget production, weren’t as deliberately lo-fi as some later work. Tunes like Hey Hey, Spaceman (from 1987’s full-length debut Devil Between My Toes) and Radio Show (from 1989’s Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia) were grade-A earworms, the sound of a developing genius trying to craft post-punk Beatles songs. Of course, these albums also quickly established Pollard’s knack for burying such treasures amid a whole lot of completists-only material. (The first five albums were later collected on a box set, 1995’s Box.)

It was on 1992’s Propeller that the band really found its comfort zone. In some ways, Propeller sounds both better and worse than the early records — there are some joyously boisterous pop tunes, but the seemingly deliberate use of static and home-recorded sloppiness give it a distinctive, off-the-cuff feel. It’s not an easy album, at times abrasive and raw, with too much fluff in its brief 36 minutes; but it also includes some of Pollard’s first truly transcendent songs. Quality Of Armor is a personal favorite with its rousing hook and British Invasion harmonies; the exuberant Exit Flagger is nearly as great. The following year’s Vampire On Titus was comparable, again a few decent songs amidst the din, though lacking the caliber of Propeller’s stand-outs (indeed, guitarist Tobin Sprout may provide the album’s best track, the sweetly melodic Gleemer).

 

It was around this time that the band also started regularly releasing EPs to complement its full-length albums. Pollard’s ever-increasing release schedule rapidly became something of a fan nightmare; acquiring the slew of brief recordings (for the relatively small number of winners among the cast-offs) was prohibitively costly. But there were almost invariably rewards, most notably the excellent Shocker In Gloomtown on the 1993 Grand Hour EP. It’s a quick blast of staccato drum bursts and raggedy punk-pop (superbly covered by fellow Ohio band the Breeders – here’s their version of Shocker, with GbV lurking in the video background).

The band finally broke through to the higher reaches of indie rock with 1994’s Bee Thousand. Its 20 tracks are all over the place stylistically, mostly sparsely recorded, with more hooks than you can count. Which doesn’t make it any easier for the uninitiated – I remember almost returning my copy when I first bought it, turned off by its rough, unfinished sound; but I gave it another spin just in case, and soon enough it won me over (and then some). The clear standout for me is I Am A Scientist, an anthem of sorts for us rock nerds. Is there a better verse in all of indie rock than, “I am a lost soul, I shoot myself with rock & roll. The hole I dig is bottomless, but nothing else can set me free”? But there are at least another half-dozen songs so deliriously catchy (the Hollies-infused Echos Myron and the deliciously offbeat Goldheart Mountaintop and Tractor Rape Chain to cherry-pick a few) that this would surely be triple-platinum in an alternate universe in which opaque lyrics and casually brilliant hooks are more important than studio shellac. Bee Thousand also sees guitarist Sprout making essential contributions, most notably the wonderful Mincer Ray.

 

1995’s Alien Lanes closely mirrors Bee Thousand: it’s another batch of songs with a high quotient of stunners, still enmeshed in that lo-fi hum, incomplete blueprints for perfect pop songs. The chiming, Beatlesque Game Of Pricks is a stand-out, but I could just as easily point to Blimps Go 90, My Valuable Hunting Knife, Motor Away, and Sprout’s A Good Flying Bird as perfectly encapsulating the mid-’90s indie rock ethos.

The following year’s Under The Bushes Under The Stars capped off a stellar trilogy, maybe not quite the same number of stand-outs, but also sounding more alt.rock radio-friendly, with less reliance on raw lo-fi aesthetics. Again, it’s a crapshoot as to which single track to select; I love the surprisingly poignant environmental anthem Don’t Stop Now (a cleaned-up re-recording of an early outtake), but songs like Cut-Out Witch and Underwater Explosions are also among the band’s best. (The CD appended a few additional songs not found on the LP, including the wistful Drag Days.)

For some inexplicable reason, here are some clips from the 70s sci-fi film Logan’s Run set to Don’t Stop Now:

That same year, the band contributed the boisterous, almost radio-ready Postal Blowfish (another cleaned-up remake of an early track) to the soundtrack of Brain Candy, a film featuring comedy troupe Kids in the Hall.

 

After Under The Bushes, Sprout and several other long-time band members departed, and GbV became more of a revolving cast supporting Pollard’s musical whims. When a new configuration of the band returned in 1997, they kicked off a run of 6 albums which were surprisingly consistent. Pollard for the most part dropped the deliberate lo-fi affectation of the prior releases, coming up with records that were more polished, each offering some 15-20 tracks, typically a handful of drop-dead wonders and a balance that might please existing diehards but were unlikely to win any new converts.

1997’s Mag Earwhig! – a one-off featuring Pollard backed by free-standing indie rock band Cobra Verde but credited to Guided by Voices – gave the clearest indication to date that Pollard viewed himself not as some home-studio-based indie rock version of Smile-era Brian Wilson, but as the heir apparent to classic rock acts like the Who. Powerful, wickedly infectious (if still off-kilter) rockers like I Am A Tree and Bulldog Skin and my personal favorite, the harmony-rich Jane Of The Waking Universe, show the sort of arena-ready (yet still freakishly skewed) songs Pollard and friends could cook up when they got out of the garage. At the same time, there are numerous brief musical snippets that, even with the benefit of a little studio polish, harken back to the throw-everything-against-the-wall template of Bee Thousand.

 

The next couple records, 1999’s Ric Ocasek-produced Do The Collapse and 2001’s Isolation Drills, got even slicker (maybe too much so for some fans), with a bit of new wave/power pop sheen infiltrating the sound. Each of these had a few songs that were as radio-friendly as Pollard would ever get (not that they got the commercial attention they deserved) – most notably the former’s Teenage FBI, Things I Will Keep, and Surgical Focus, and the latter’s Glad Girls and Chasing Heather Crazy.

 

Incidentally, GbV continued to intersperse long-players with the occasional EP; 2000’s Hold On Hope, reprising a single from Collapse with a half-dozen additional tracks, is particularly great, with inexplicable B-side Avalanche Aminos among the band’s greatest songs.

The next three records – 2002’s Universal Truths & Cycles, 2003’s Earthquake Glue, and 2004’s Half Smiles Of The Decomposed – pulled back from the brink a bit, a little more ragged (but still a far cry from the old lo-fi days). There were plenty of gems to be found; that songs like Cheyenne and The Best Of Jill Hives and Huffman Prairie Flying Field, from the three albums respectively, don’t even make the cut for a Top 10 confirms how insane it is trying to distill this band down to a shortlist. But after such an extended period of productivity, it wasn’t shocking that Pollard decided to wind down the operation for a while.

Pollard continued releasing solo albums and various side projects, but didn’t return with another Guided by Voices album for another 8 years. In 2012 he reformed the band – bringing back the ‘classic line-up’ from the mid-90s, including co-songwriter Tobin Sprout – releasing three (3!) new GbV albums that year alone. Indeed, the post-reformation Guided by Voices (which, after a couple years, was once again swapped out for a new, albeit relatively stable, set of band members) has released seventeen albums over the past decade. 2019 and 2020, like 2012, each saw three separate releases (on top of Pollard solo albums).

So, no, I’m not going to even try to run through these. Indeed, for the Top 10 list, I’m just pulling a single song from 2012-2021, and while the title track from 2012’s Class Clown Spots A UFO is my favorite, one of Pollard’s most joyously pure pop tunes, I don’t mean to suggest there hasn’t been plenty of other noteworthy music during this period. (To the contrary, check out the rare Pollard/Sprout duet Keep It In Motion from the same album, or 5º On The Inside from August By Cake, or Chocolate Boy from Let’s Go Eat The Factory, or King Arthur The Red from The Bears For Lunch, and on and on and on.) But at some point, any overview of Guided by Voices just becomes exhausting and one has to get on with life.

 

The question, of course, is where someone just discovering the band, who finds those 10 almost randomly-selected tunes at the top of this page enticing, is supposed to start. While Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes are arguably the band’s definitive long-players, casual listeners put off by the lo-fi sound and some of the more abrasive song snippets might prefer cleaner-sounding records like Do The Collapse and Isolation Drills, though those are arguably more hit-and-miss. (Under The Bushes may be the best way to split the difference.) Fortunately, the band does have one greatest hits collection to date, 2003’s Human Amusements At Hourly Rates. Diehards may (and will) quibble with some of the song selections – ask five fans for their GbV Top 10, and you’re likely to get 50 different songs – but its 32 tracks give a fair overview of the highlights from the band’s initial run. Alas, we’re overdue for a similar collection of the band’s best work from the post-2012 era.

Readers exploring the band’s work should feel free to check out a couple Spotify playlists I’ve thrown together, including a relatively brief 45-track introductory mix, and a more exhaustive double-length mix. Both of these include songs from Pollard’s non-GbV albums as well as some Tobin-penned tunes, to give a more well-rounded view of the band’s work; if there’s interest, I may offer some additional Toppermosts down the road to fill in those gaps.

 

 

GbV poster 1

Poster by John Mavroudis

 

GbV poster 2

Poster by Brian Ewing

 

Guided by Voices official website

Guided by Voices (Wikipedia)

GbV Database

An Earful O’ Wax: GbV/Pollard song by song

Pitchfork’s GbV Page

Robert Pollard (Wikipedia)

Tobin Sprout official website

Robert Pollard Art

Robert Pollard interview (Louder Than War 2021)

Guided by Voices biography (AllMusic)

Marc Fagel is a semi-retired securities lawyer living outside San Francisco with his wife and his obscenely oversized music collection. He is the author of the rock lover’s memoir “Jittery White Guy Music”. His daily ruminations on random albums in his collection can be seen on his blog of the same name, or by following him on twitter.

Marc’s previous posts include Connells, Big Audio Dynamite, Sleater-Kinney, Liz Phair, Elephant 6, Apples in Stereo, Sweet, The Bats, Matthew Sweet, Badfinger, New Pornographers, Bettie Serveert, Flaming Lips, Neil Young, My Morning Jacket, Raveonettes, Phish, Luna, Jesus and Mary Chain, Feelies, Genesis, Wilco, King Crimson, Brian Eno

TopperPost #992

1 Comment

  1. Andrew Karas
    Oct 30, 2021

    It’s a good good list, as good as a list like this can be.

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