Since reforming in 2012, Guided by Voices have seemed to be on a mission to record more long-players than they did during the entirety of their original run, a 17-year stretch that began with 1987’s charming, self-produced Devil Between My Toes and ended 15 albums later in 2004 with the muscular, mature Half Smiles of the Decomposed. Conventional wisdom says the band peaked with Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, the last album featuring the “classic” lineup featuring Tobin Sprout, Mitch Mitchell, and Kevin Fennell, but anyone who continued to pay attention after the band fell out of indie-snob favor knows that any permutation of GBV only has one essential member: lead singer and world-class songwriter Robert Pollard. His mastery has never ceased for creating two-minute post-punk anthems that make singing along at maximum volume seem like the greatest pastime in the world.
Prompted by the release of two remarkably strong new albums in 2014, February’s Motivational Jumpsuit and last week’s Cool Planet, we’ve collected a list of the 20 greatest songs in Guided by Voices’s dauntingly huge catalogue. It’s a list cut down from an initial group of 60, any one of which could’ve been included here. So if you don’t see one of your personal favorites, know that I probably wrestled over whether to include it. With that caveat out of the way, here are the 20 tracks that most proudly represent a group that’s not just one of the very best indie-rock bands, but on the short list of the greatest rock n’ roll bands in history.
This big, trouble-minded garage-rock anthem from Motivational Jumpsuit is the gem of the two aforementioned 2014 releases. It’s one of a modest handful of songs among the post-reunion albums that gets all the details right: brighter post-four track production that retains just enough dirt under its fingers; booming, snarling guitars; and saucily defiant vocals that sound like they’re sneering at you.
A bitter poison-pen letter becomes a gorgeous and oddly touching sonic poem to an unnamed friend or lover in this song from 2001’s Isolation Drills, featuring swelling strings, winding guitar lines, and a cloud-soaring chorus that doubles as a comforting reminder to those who’ve loved the band’s music over the years: “Everywhere that you go, I’m with you now…”
“Unsinkable Fats Domino”
This initial single from the first of the post-reunion albums, 2012’s Let’s Go Eat the Factory, was a bracing announcement that the band wasn’t back just to bang out a shrink-wrapped medley of their classics in front of adoring fans who’ll sing along to every word. A grinding, echo-laden quasi-punk stunner mixed to make the accompaniment sound like barely ordered, menacing chaos, “Unsinkable Fats Domino” springs into a cheerily luminous chorus celebrating one of the forefathers of the genre Pollard knows and loves so well, making clear that his deep love for and knowledge about rock’s history hasn’t diminished one iota over the years.
This deep cut is from 1999’s Do the Collapse, an album that was terribly and wildly, unfairly maligned as a major disappointment at the time, in no small part to Ric Ocasek’s super-glossy production. More than any other song on the album, “Liquid Indian” shows the power all that gloss can have if employed correctly. The first minute finds the band in slow, quirky-psychedelic mode, but at the 55-second mark, the track morphs into a titanic, nearly shoegaze wall of guitars and keys, with Pollard cooing the title on a loop as if hypnotizing a Boa constrictor, and suddenly the word “sellout” completely loses all meaning.
This track off of 1993’s Vampire on Titus gets none of the love given to its better-known spiritual cousin from the previous year’s Propeller (which can be found a little further down the list), yet this seldom-discussed jewel has all the same world-conquering ’70s-era album-rock radio thrills on the same micro-budget. If you’ve ever wondered what King Crimson would sound like covering Black Sabbath in a bathroom stall (and excelsior to you if you have), look no further.