The 25 Best Guided by Voices Songs

We’ve collected a list of the 25 greatest songs in the band's dauntingly huge catalogue.

Guided by Voices
Photo: Tony Nelson

Since reforming in 2012, Guided by Voices has 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 the group 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.

We’ve collected a list of the 25 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 25 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.

25. “Space Gun”

The title track from Guided by Voices’s 2018 album is, like the album itself, one of the true highlights of the band’s reformation and resurgence in the last decade. With production pitched between the spiky compression of their 4-track beginnings and the cleaner big-rock noise of their post-Alien Lanes run in the 2000s, it’s a four-minute glam-prog stomper built around a glittering guitar line that sounds like “I Am a Tree” took the brown acid. And with lyrics which name-check John Philip Sousa, it isn’t difficult to imagine “Space Gun” as the future fight song for a gang of besotted galactic raiders.

24. “An Unmarketed Product”

At various times in the band’s storied career, Robert Pollard has abandoned his normal lyrical template of beguiling cosmic Dadaism to provide meta commentary on the band’s legacy as mischievous outsiders playing on the margins of the corporate rock game. The lyrics caution, “I can give you credit/Suitable and custom tailored/And if you have any luck/You’ll get ahead/Before you’re dead,” as this 69-second piss-take anthem mines sugary post-punk for a single-finger salute to the KROQ dreams that should’ve been the band’s birthright.

23. “Man Called Aerodynamics”

When Bee Thousand first conquered the ’90s indie-rock landscape, rock criticism’s elder guard bemoaned the melodic ADD of their songs, with their manic rush to hooks and choruses an alleged affront to classic-rock formalism. What, then, would they have made of this roaring track from Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, seeming to begin midstream, at the very moment where its ’60s and ’70s forebears would already be at the minute mark? Sharing with “Space Gun” a sound that could be described as “Pete Townsend destroying his Gibson in a wind tunnel,” “Man Called Aerodynamics” is as mammoth as anything lo-fi indie rock has ever produced.

22. “Over the Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox”

“G-B-V! G-B-V! G-B-V!” chants the raucous crowd at the beginning of the nearly six-minute epic that kicks off the band’s transitional 1992 album Propeller. As we’d discover later, the “crowd” was the band themselves using echo and a little striving wish fulfillment to imagine the kind of frenzied excitement that would greet the band a few years later. The track itself is like many of the group’s forays into prog-rock: blazing mini-songs (technically two, if the title is to be trusted, though three by structure) strung together like a “Stars on 45” for the British invasion (non-Beatles edition), starting restless and rough, turning bright and hopeful, and then concluding in a cascade of reverbing choral tranquility.

21. “Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory”

Because almost everything Bob and the boys do is like a bizarro-world inverse of the rest of rock ‘n’ roll, when it comes to lighter-waving power ballads, their ne-plus-ultra entry stops right when everyone else’s is just reaching the chorus. Built on a bed of keys from a piano that one imagines stained with tears, whiskey and spit, “Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory” is both melancholy and majestic—Leonard Cohen via “Champagne Supernova”—and the spectral production is so perfect that when And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead covered it years later with 10 times the budget, the dollars couldn’t add a thing beyond surface shine.

20. “Planet Score”

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.

19. “Unspirited”

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…”

18. “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.

17. “Liquid Indian”

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.

16. “Expecting Brainchild”

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.

15. “Twilight Campfighter”

The yearning, plaintive “Twilight Campfighter” is quite possibly the saddest song Robert Pollard ever wrote. It isn’t a song that one immediately tracks as worthy of heartrending, because it eschews the signifiers one associates with such material. No stark guitar or pianos or vocal quivering are echoing to signal This Is Sad. With its chiming, widescreen guitars and driving rhythm section, the song was instantly ready to be your favorite song on KROQ, in a just world at least. Yet listen closely to the quiet heartache in Pollard’s vocals and the wistful lyrics, and the full weight of the song emerges. Yet Pollard is ever the tragic but realistic romantic, as the lyrics attest: “Could I have seen a sight much greater/Than your twilight eyes/That penetrate our silent lives.”

14. “Teenage FBI”

Do the Collapse was GBV’s all-or-nothing application to the Big Rock Stars Club. But because we live in a cruel, provincial world, the bid failed spectacularly by any measure other than “ability to soundtrack a scene in a random episode of Buffy the Valentine Slayer.” This is that song, and it’s about as perfect a fusion of ’80s new wave and early punk as you’ll ever hear. An earlier version before the LP is mixed in more familiar DIY fashion, but the black-sheep Ric Ocasek production is the version worth seeking out.

13. “Postal Blowfish”

These two minutes are punk at its most ragged, undistilled Pistols-at-band-practice essence. The guitars are slashing and vengeful, and the vocals are slurry enough to question the singer’s sobriety. It’s also a stealthily brilliant pop song, which may explain why it was commissioned for the soundtrack for the Kids in the Hall’s ill-fated (but very funny) film Brain Candy.

12. “Your Name Is Wild”

This burst of exhilarating glam romanticism from the mid ’90s clocks in at tight 121 seconds, and like many of the best GBV songs, it’s so fidgety to get to its joyous refrain that it quickly abandons other verses entirely. At the time, critics decried the songwriting style as “immature.” Now it looks like Pollard was a prophet for the forthcoming no-attention-span era. “Your Name Is Wild” is among the best of these “all chorus” songs, imagining Marc Bolan jamming with the Buzzcocks to create pure audio rush.

11. “Hold on Hope”

Guided by Voices has never traded in the cheesy acoustic balladry designed for the indiscriminating lighter-waving Bon Jovi/Poison set. Pollard’s heartbreak has usually been couched in fist-pumping earworms. Moreover, his lyrics have rarely traded in the literal. This is a man who named a brilliant potential alterna-hit off the band’s breakthrough album “Tractor Rape Chain,” after all. (Note to novices: The song is about neither tractors nor rape.) All of this is preamble to describe what a delightful surprise “Hold on Hope” represents. With big-hearted, unashamedly slick production, the track is all ringing acoustic guitars, orchestral backing, and possibly the most earnest lyrics Pollard has ever composed. In terms of accessibility, this is one of the best entryways in the band’s catalogue. And heard for the first time or in concert, it can cause even the most cynical indie lifer to find themselves embarrassedly wiping away tears.

10. “Sensational Gravity Boy”

Tom Hanks once approached Guided by Voices to write the songs in That Thing You Do, and it’s not hard to see why. Despite its unnecessary tremolo and warbling vocals, “Sensational Gravity Boy” is the most ecstatic, watertight homage to the Hamburg-era Beatles ever made. Recorded for the 1995 AIDS benefit album, Red Hot + Blue, the song was originally credited to a mysterious unknown band called Freedom Cruise, but those with even a passing interest in the genre could immediately recognize Pollard and Sprout’s stamp.

9. “Game of Pricks”

As with the previous entry here, Fab 5 fandom is pushed to the fore (Rubber Soul/Revolver era, specifically), but unlike, say, Oasis at their most uninspired, “Game of Pricks” could never be confused with cover-band caricature. First, it has the signature—and most effectively employed—four-track compression people associate with GBV. Second, and more important, the Beatles aren’t the only influence here, with Cheap Trick, the Who, and Johnny Thunders also fighting for supremacy. A staple of their encore in concert, “Game of Pricks” replicates on record the kinetic energy of the band’s live performances with remarkable accuracy.

8. “Gold Star for Robot Boy”

The first of two selections on this list from the band’s most heralded album, 1994’s Bee Thousand, “Gold Star for Robot Boy” stands out for its crackerjack songwriting, but what gives it an edge (and makes it worthy for inclusion here) is the absolute noise collapse in the background. It’s gorgeous atonal racket teetering at the edge of madness, one that must’ve filled then-contemporary feedback connoisseurs like Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. with bilious envy. For everyone else, this is noise rock at its most elated and inclusive, a raging party run magnificently riot.

7. “Weedking”

“Weedking” is a tribute to towering ’70s album rock that announces its intention immediately with the chant “long live Rockathon.” Though the track begins with low-key psychedelic guitar, it wastes little time before the rest of the band comes roaring in like jet engines firing up, the power of which is undiminished despite the fact that the production suggests it was recorded through Dixie cups and a string. (The band was largely recording on cassette with primitive equipment at this point in the early ’90s.) Pollard has often expressed his affection for Blue Oyster Cult in interviews, and “Weedking” turns that affection into something that gives AOR cock-rock a good name. As an aside to the 420 set, Pollard has answered the question definitively: No, the song isn’t about marijuana.

6. “Smothered in Hugs”

“Smothered in Hugs” is a study in disparate elements coming together with astonishing synergy. The proudly ramshackle performance is, like “Gold Star for Robot Boy,” a loving celebration of garage noise, but this one moves the clock back to herald the godfathers of numbskull rock: the Troggs, the Stooges, Blue Cheer, and Black Sabbath. Over the song’s bed of neanderthal-amplifier abuse, Pollard decides to get his Morrissey on, putting an extra syllable on every word, lazily dancing in and out of the melody, all the while mimicking (or perhaps mocking) Moz’s louche boredom. But then the chorus comes and with it a blast of pure dopamine as Pollard’s voice surges with quixotic romanticism.

5. “Everybody Thinks I’m a Raincloud”

Largely abandoning the youthful arrogance that drove most of the band’s songs prior, 2004’s Half Smiles of the Decomposed was the first GBV album to fully acknowledge that the man behind the songs was a lot closer to 50 than 20. “Everybody Thinks I’m a Raincloud” is, along with the sardonic album title, an acknowledgement that the band’s opportunity for superstardom had likely passed, as the lyrics self-effacingly note “’Cause this is not my day/And nobody really cares/Any more anyhow/Nobody called again/’Cause they said I’m too lazy to stay alive.” Anthemic yet introspective in the mold of “Unspirited,” the song is an ace introduction to Pollard’s last album without the “classic” GBV lineup, and equal to anything Pollard created with or without them.

4. “My Son Cool”

Existing in the center of a Venn diagram between Herman’s Hermits and Bill Haley and the Comets, “My Son Cool” starts with the rallying cry “decide now!” About 50 words and 90 seconds later, the song fades out with Pollard repeating “around you, my love” to an unnamed paramour who’d need a heart of stone to resist him.

3. “Don’t Stop Now”

Three years removed from the band’s first introduction to success, the lyrics to “Don’t Stop Now” reflect a kind of wry ambivalence: “Woke up this morning/Saw a rooster struttin’ down my house/Six pack rings round his neck/Cock of the block.” The music starts similarly, stumbling in unsteadily like someone just getting up the morning after a wicked bender. Then after a midpoint transition of what sounds like violins strained through a cheese grater, the guitars and drums erupt, and the track becomes a 24-track salute to the kind of big, emotion-tugging rock song the band has done more adeptly than anyone else for about two decades.

2. “Motor Away”

The paradox when discussing the greatness of certain Guided by Voices tracks is that, since nearly all of the songs run less than two minutes, you risk talking all the joy out of the thing you’re describing. By comparison to most of their oeuvre, “Motor Away” qualifies as one of the “long” ones at over two minutes, but it feels as fleet as the 50-second toss-off ditties that dot most of the band’s albums. A blazing garage-rock hymn that imagines a superstar pairing of Bruce Springsteen and the Ramones, the song would sit proudly among the prime tracks of either artist. And as a master class on how to make towering post-punk on a shoestring budget, it’s without peer.

1. “Cut-Out Witch”

A mirror image of “Motor Away” in both speed and tone (albeit with more cynical lyrics), “Cut-Out Witch” gets the nod for having the courage to abandon the four-track sound that, at that point in the band’s development, had become a debilitating crutch. “Cut-Out Witch” is not only bereft of that four track “nobility,” it rises above the others absolutely because of its embrace of better technology. As a four-track selection on one of GBV’s first eight LPs, this would still rate in the top 10, but listen to the mighty collision of power chords and drums after the deceptively sinuous and quiet guitar intro and the idea that muddied compression would improve it is ridiculous-to-insane.

Blue Sullivan

Blue Sullivan has written about music for 25 years, including one of the very first American interviews with Guided by Voices's Robert Pollard and Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood. He's the author of Your Ex-Boyfriend Will Hate This.

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