Music nerds love ranked lists. Music nerds love thoughtful commentary. Music nerds love carefully curated playlists. Catalog Crawl provides all of these things and more. In these features, Strange Currencies takes an exhaustive look at the discographies of our favorite artists – the ones who reside at the core of our music obsession.
So often, the music that we fall in love with is determined by the quality of time that we spend with it. The music that we stay in love with is often determined by the quantity of time that we spend with it. In that sense, Robert Pollard’s career creates a fascinatingly contradictory effect. On one hand, with Guided by Voices – his main musical outlet – Pollard has crafted some of the most indelible music of the past thirty years. Few songsmiths in the history of popular music can claim such mastery of hooks, lyrical witticism, and fist-pounding crescendos as the Dayton, Ohio fourth grade teacher who became one of the world’s least likely rock stars.
On the other hand, the volume of Pollard’s output is exhausting. Rarely do three months pass without a full-length release from any of his myriad musical projects. If his pace during GBV’s heyday of the mid-nineties could be called prolific – which it often was – who but only the most devoted of fans could ever truly become deeply acquainted with a level of prolificacy that, in a slow year, yields two or three records?
To newcomers who may be curious about Pollard’s extraordinarily deep well, there are numerous pitfalls. Critical shorthand has (rightfully) directed most newbies toward Guided by Voices’ twin masterpieces: 1994’s Bee Thousand, and its 1995 follow-up, Alien Lanes. Easily two of the finest albums in the indie rock canon, both are essential listening, but their strict adherence to “lo-fi” production values may prove to be a dealbreaker to neophytes. Veering toward any other given record in the band’s catalog might make for a more welcoming first impression, but this could be something of a crapshoot. If one were to randomly pick up a used copy of 2004’s Half Smiles of the Decomposed – a totally solid GBV release – they’re likely to come away wondering what all of the fuss is about. As far as asking an “expert” goes, be prepared to be inundated with a list of now-out-of-print, vinyl-only EPs and/or an idiosyncratic pick from Pollard’s deep roster of side projects.
I don’t profess to be such an expert on Robert Pollard, even though I have been a fan of the man for twenty years, own dozens of his records, have seen Guided by Voices perform several times, and have read his biography. Pollard is simply too prolific, even for a music obsessive who is more than a little predisposed to love his schtick. I’m not an expert, simply because being one is damn near impossible – especially if one wants to occasionally listen to non-Pollard records.
While I can’t give you a detailed rundown on every Bob Pollard-related release – a number that officially entered three-digit territory over five years ago – I am a pretty devoted GBV fan. Like a lot of those who fall somewhere in-between casual and obsessive, my familiarity with Pollard’s work rises exponentially the closer it gets to the sweet spot of Guided by Voices’ heyday. Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes are essentially sacred texts in my circle – perhaps quoted and referenced less frequently than only The Simpsons – but the entire run from 1992’s Propeller to the band’s initial 2004 breakup is firmly embedded in my wheelhouse.
As something of a devotee, I would argue that the long and complicated history of Guided by Voices can essentially be broken down into five distinct phases, as follows:
1) Pre-Breakthrough (1983-1991)
Robert Pollard christened Guided by Voices in 1983, and in 1986 the project released its first offering, the seven-song EP, Forever Since Breakfast. This first era of the band would yield four full-length albums, none of which made much of a splash in Dayton – let alone beyond – but they would find Pollard’s songwriting voice taking shape, while working alongside a constantly-evolving cast of collaborators that included his brother Jim, as well as future lineup stalwarts such as Mitch Mitchell, Kevin Fennell, Greg Demos, and Tobin Sprout. Though they never all played together during this era, minus Jim Pollard, this five-man combination constitutes would eventually become known as the “classic lineup.”
2) Classic Era (1992-1996)
With 1992’s self-released Propeller, Guided by Voices finally broke through to a wider audience, eventually becoming the darlings of the American rock underground with 1994’s classic Bee Thousand. In 1995, the band inked a deal with Matador Records, turning in the nearly-as-great Alien Lanes that year. By this time, Mitchell (guitar), Fennell (drums), and Sprout (guitar) had become full-fledged members of GBV, with the latter penning some of the most beloved songs of the band’s golden years.
3) Indie Rock Institution (1997-2004)
These years begin with 1997’s Mag Earwhig!, a transitional album that found the members of the “classic lineup” departing, replaced temporarily by the Cleveland rock band Cobra Verde. Only that group’s guitarist, Doug Gillard, would stick around for long, but while the GBV lineup would be a continual work-in-progress during these years, new albums would still appear on a reliable schedule. 1999’s Do the Collapse found the band on TVT Records – a brief, ill-fated dalliance with a “major” label and accordingly slick production – but the group would return to Matador for 2002’s Universal Truths and Cycles. After a farewell show on New Year’s Eve 2004, Pollard would retire the Guided by Voices name for the first time.
4) “Classic Lineup” Reunion (2010-2014)
Originally reuniting for Matador’s 21st anniversary celebration, the “classic lineup” would roar back to life as both a touring and recording entity in 2010. Over the course of four years, the group released six full-length LPs, often capturing the homespun charm of their mid-nineties peak, and rekindling the Robert Pollard/Tobin Sprout give-and-take that defined the group’s best work. In 2014, partway through the tour for that year’s Cool Planet, Pollard again pulled the plug on GBV.
5) Current Lineup (2016-present)
In a somewhat odd move, Pollard brought back the Guided by Voices name for 2016’s Please Be Honest – an album that he had recorded entirely by himself. In assembling a new touring ensemble, Pollard would return to working with Doug Gillard and Kevin March (who sat behind the drum kit during “phase 3”), as well as newcomers Bobby Bare Jr. (guitar) and Mark Shue (bass). Since 2017’s double-LP August by Cake, the present incarnation of Guided by Voices has released ten separate albums, including two in 2021.
Before, between, and beyond these five phases of Guided by Voices, Pollard has participated in a plethora of side projects, often with his GBV bandmates. Released under monikers like Boston Spaceships, Circus Devils, ESP Ohio, Ricked Wicky, Teenage Guitar, and Cub Scout Bowling Pins (not to mention his own solo records), several of Robert Pollard’s most celebrated works fall outside of the GBV canon that is the subject of this piece.
However, for this inaugural installment of Catalog Crawl, I have opted to only take Guided by Voices’ full-length albums into consideration for the ranked list, leaving their extensive history of EPs, B-sides, and the Suitcase series of outtakes for another conversation. Fear not, as even this “limited” approach includes a mind-blowing thirty-five releases – a number that is almost guaranteed to be rendered obsolete within months of the publishing of this article.
In deciding the parameters for a playlist, I chose to pick one song from each album – plus the essential EP track, “If We Wait” – but opted against attempting a “perfect introduction” to Guided by Voices. After all, such a thing already exists. Released in the fall of 2003, Human Amusements at Hourly Rates is a thirty-two track overview of GBV’s career to date, lovingly curated by Robert Pollard himself. While an avid fan could complain about a few favorites being omitted, it’s a virtually-flawless introduction to the band’s best years, and the epitome of a “five star” compilation. If you’ve never heard Guided by Voices, stop reading this, and head to Human Amusements first, as I only chose songs that were not on that release for my playlist.
For everyone else, what follows is merely the opinion of one fan – one who holds to the common viewpoint that GBV were never better than when Robert Pollard and Tobin Sprout were bouncing their ideas off of each other in their Dayton basements during the mid-nineties. Unsurprisingly then, I also tend to prefer the “classic lineup” reunion era to that of the band’s current incarnation, though I will fully endorse the argument that Pollard remains a force to be reckoned with to this day. The man is a genuine American original, and a brilliant artist whose titanic body of work will take us many decades – and a government grant-funded research team – to truly parse.
In that spirit, here are my thoughts on the official Guided by Voices canon.
Please Be Honest
Look, any great band – and Guided by Voices are one of the great American rock bands – should never have to justify the existence of an album. With that said, it seems a bit odd that 2016’s Please Be Honest was even issued as a GBV record. It’s the only album in the group’s catalog in which Robert Pollard plays every instrument, and it was the first record released after the project’s second official break-up. Between 2014’s “classic lineup” reunion swan song and Please Be Honest, Pollard had released multiple solo records, and several other albums with various non-GBV projects. Since Please Be Honest would inaugurate another rebirth of the beloved b(r)and, it was not unreasonable to expect something special. Instead, well… you can see the ranking.
With that said, this is by no means a bad album. I’ve never listened to Pollard’s “comedy” albums of stage banter, but even those probably have hooks, and Please Be Honest contains more than enough appeal to make it worthy of a listen. Still, something needed to end up at the bottom of the list, and in my estimation this feels like the least essential GBV full-length.
One for the playlist: Kicking Please Be Honest off on a strong footing, “My Zodiac Companion” is the album’s best track. Plus, it kicked all kinds of ass when I saw the band perform it on the Please Be Honest tour, toward the front end of a fifty-two (!?!) song set-list.
Oddly enough, Guided by Voices’ second album sounds less like the work of the band that they would eventually become than their debut, Devil Between My Toes – released just months earlier. Sandbox found the group – which at the time included “classic lineup” members Mitch Mitchell and Kevin Fennell, along with Robert Pollard’s brother, Jim – sanding down (no pun intended) the rougher edges of Devil Between My Toes. What emerges is an album that is not only less distinct than its predecessor, but one with fewer clear standout tracks. Though it has its defenders – and is far from an embarrassment – Sandbox displays little of the greatness that would follow.
One for the playlist: No Sandbox tracks made it onto Human Amusements at Hourly Rates, leaving me to pick from any of its twelve songs. “Long Distance Man” has always stood out as something of a highlight from one of GBV’s weakest releases, so it’ll get the nod here.
The “classic lineup” reunion limped to its end in 2014, not only because Robert Pollard pulled the plug on a tour that was only partway through, but also because Cool Planet was the weakest of the six albums that the reunited band released in less than three years. Recorded during the polar vortex that hit the Midwest in the winter of 2013-2014, Cool Planet sounds like the work of a group that was struggling to find inspiration. Though its highlights are more scattered than those on the other reunion records, Cool Planet manages to add a few more minor gems to the canon.
One for the playlist: Cool Planet gains momentum in its last few songs, and while the closing title-track is a rousing anthem worthy of consideration, I’m going with the preceding “Ticket to Hide” – the last Tobin Sprout track to appear on a GBV album to date.
Do the Collapse
To many fans, Guided by Voices working with Ric Ocasek to produce the radio-ready Do the Collapse was a sin on par with Bob Dylan “going electric” at the Newport Folk Festival. While the slickness of the album can be jarring, and at times the band sounds like a fish out of water, the real problem with Collapse lies with its relatively uninspired material. If this was Bob Pollard’s swing at the big time, he probably should have brought a stronger set of songs. There are highlights, but too often, Do the Collapse meanders at a languid mid-tempo pace, making for the rare GBV album that feels longer than it needs to be.
One for the playlist: Out of deference to Pollard, I’ll refrain from picking “Hold on Hope” – which, in his biography Closer You Are, he insinuates is his least favorite GBV song. Since “Surgical Focus,” “Things I Will Keep,” and (a different version of) “Teenage FBI” all made it onto Human Amusements, that leaves relatively slim pickings from Do the Collapse. I’ll go with the jangly late-album track, “Wrecking Now” for the playlist.
Devil Between My Toes
GBV’s debut album presents the band as the “post-punk X-men” that Robert Pollard would later reference on Alien Lanes‘ “Auditorium.” Bearing an often-heavy resemblance to Wire and early R.E.M., Devil Between My Toes may sound inauspicious compared to what would come later, but its constant back-and-forth volley between pop song craft and lo-fi experimentation sets a template for the band that Guided by Voices would eventually become. It’s definitely a “scattered” release, but there are more than a few standout songs to be unearthed.
One for the playlist: “Captain’s Dead” was a wise inclusion on Human Amusements; its anthemic mix of Hüsker Dü and The Who close out Devil on its highest possible note. Among the remaining tracks, the Byrds-by-way-of-R.E.M. “Hey Hey, Spaceman” stands above the rest.
English Little League
The “classic lineup” gained momentum through its first few reunion albums, but that progress ground to a halt on 2013’s English Little League. While far from an outright disaster, it was the least-inspired set from Guided by Voices in some time. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the reunion itself was starting to run out of steam by this point, and at times throughout English Little League, it sounds as if Robert Pollard himself was looking for a way out. His pair of strong solo records from 2013 seem to indicate where his heart was at the moment.
One for the playlist: Tobin Sprout was on a creative roll throughout the entire reunion, and with “Islands (She Talks in Rainbows),” he was finally rewarded with his first GBV A-side. The comparative lack of first-rate material from Pollard on English Little League makes it an easy choice for the playlist.
Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia
Less indebted to their influences than on their first two records, Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia found Guided by Voices beginning to discover their own, well… voice. Though more of Robert Pollard’s personality as a songwriter was starting to come through in his work, most of the record still sounds embryonic compared to what would soon follow. Still, fans of the band’s later work will find Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia plenty enjoyable – if not exactly worth shelling out over $500 for an original copy on Discogs.
One for the playlist: Not a ton to choose from here, but a few decent contenders – especially since Pollard opted against including any Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia tracks on Human Amusements at Hourly Rates. My pick is “Liar’s Tale” – a song that finds Pollard beginning to come into his own as a vocalist.
Zeppelin Over China
Robert Pollard’s prolificacy reached a new level of absurdity in 2019, when Guided by Voices released three full-length albums – the first of which was this thirty-two song double-LP. Like all GBV albums, Zeppelin Over China houses enough gems to make it a worthy addition to the catalog, but it’s A LOT to take in; at seventy-four minutes, it’s the longest release in the group’s discography.
One for the playlist: Single, “The Rally Boys,” provides a much-appreciated jolt of energy and melody on Zeppelin Over China‘s first half. It’s easily one of the strongest showcases for GBV’s current powerhouse lineup.
Styles We Paid For
Recorded separately by the band members during the early months of COVID-19, Styles We Paid For largely continues in the same muscular/hooky mode of Guided by Voices’ previous two 2020 albums, Surrender Your Poppy Field and Mirrored Aztec, while occasionally returning to some of the “proggier” elements of 2019’s Sweating the Plague. While it’s easy to imagine “GBV fatigue” settling in for all but the most devout followers of Bob Pollard, there’s something singularly remarkable about Pollard’s commitment to quality and quantity, global pandemic be damned. When this stands as the third best album released in a single year by a group with a nearly-forty-year history, it’s safe to say that band is something special.
One for the playlist: Perhaps the most overt nod to Pollard’s well-documented love of R.E.M. in over two decades, “In Calculus Strategem” is a highlight of Styles We Paid For’s arguably superior B-side.
A slight step up from 2013’s English Little League, Motivational Jumpsuit found Guided by Voices struggling to match the work of the first year of their reunion, let alone the band’s glory years – a fact underscored by the album cover’s nod to the 1995 Tigerbomb EP. With that said, Motivational Jumpsuit harbors a few more highlights than the two records that surround it – even if, at times, GBV seems to be going through the motions.
One for the playlist: The band released five singles from Motivational Jumpsuit, none of which stand as GBV “all-timers,” but each with their own charm. Of those, the most memorable is “Vote for Me Dummy” – a track that recalls the group’s peak years, with a classic Bob Pollard title to boot.
Surrender Your Poppy Field
By 2020, the present-day lineup of Guided by Voices were releasing albums so quickly that mere months would pass before their current album was no longer “current.” That, coupled with the band settling into a consistency that felt both impressive and mundane, made it wholly possible for even a devoted fan to lose sight of individual albums in what amounted to a deluge of new material. The first of the band’s three 2020 records, Surrender Your Poppy Field combined Robert Pollard’s penchant for hooks with the more ambitious song structures of the group’s preceding LP, Sweating the Plague. As has become customary, ultra-enthusiastic fans dubbed it their “best since [insert recent favorite here],” critics damned it with faint praise, and the rest of us picked out a handful of favorites from its surprisingly varied track list and commenced the short wait until the next album dropped.
One for the playlist: A somewhat uncharacteristic choice for a GBV single, “Volcano” matches a deliberate tempo with a hazy atmosphere and explosive chorus to striking effect. Bob would probably hate me for saying it, but the punchy production – and the guitar work in particular – reminds me a bit of Weezer at their best.
Sweating the Plague
Delivering a full album in the progressive rock stylings that had been hinted at since the beginning of Guided by Voices’ career, Sweating the Plague – the third album that the group released in 2019 – stands out as a unique entry in their discography. Featuring only twelve tracks, Sweating the Plague uses its extended (for GBV) track lengths to emphasize the current lineup’s muscular musicality, rather than as a vehicle for Robert Pollard’s effortless pop acumen. That makes for a record that may take a little longer to burrow its way into your memory, but one that is uniquely rewarding.
One for the playlist: An obvious choice as Sweating the Plague’s first single, “Heavy Like the World” is the album’s most immediately appealing track, but one that also hints at the ambition of the surrounding songs.
It’s Not Them. It Couldn’t Be Them. It Is Them!
The latest Guided by Voices album is the band’s thirty-fifth full-length LP, and second of 2021 – not counting the record that the same lineup released under the moniker Cub Scout Bowling Pins this summer. The most notable difference between It’s Not Them… and GBV’s recent run of albums is found in the record’s more ambitious arrangements – several of which incorporate strings and/or horns. These flourishes make for an intriguing complement to Robert Pollard’s songwriting, perhaps signaling potential avenues for GBV to pursue as the project approaches its fortieth anniversary.
One for the playlist: With novel arrangements being the defining feature of It’s Not Them…, it makes sense to single out the opening “Spanish Coin.” Sounding like nothing else in GBV’s vast catalog, the track integrates a rich foundation of auxiliary percussion, lush strings, and mariachi horns into its Latin-inspired rhythm and melody.
Earth Man Blues
It wasn’t my intention for the “current incarnation” albums to all be bunched relatively-closely together, but in a way it seems appropriate. The present lineup’s stability may only stretch back to the tour for 2016’s Please Be Honest, but that’s practically an eternity for a band whose continually-revolving door of musicians is a significant part of its legacy. That stability has turned the present version of GBV into a touring and recording dynamo, one that shows absolutely no sign of slowing down anytime soon. It also gives their recent releases a sense of being part of a collective body of work. While most of these records have an identifiable “thing” – Zeppelin Over China is the sprawling one, Sweating the Plague is the prog-y one, Warp and Woof is the collage-like one – they are ultimately united by both their proximity of release and consistent quality; none of them come close to challenging the group’s mid-nineties peak, nor are any outright duds.
This year’s Earth Man Blues keeps that streak of consistency alive. To be certain, it will not supplant Propeller, but its sharp popcraft and burly production settle into a satisfying equilibrium. Today’s Guided by Voices are a well-oiled machine – a seasoned group of craftsmen content to ply their trade in forty-minute increments, two to three times a year. It’s easy to take them for granted after all these years, but it’s always nice to hear from them.
One for the playlist: The winner here is “Free Agents,” a track that mixes classic Pollard power-pop with a propulsive beat and whooshing production effects, all while coming off as the logical midpoint between The Who and The Strokes.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the GBV era with the least consensus is that of the current lineup – a result of its prolificacy, rapid-fire releases, and relative newness. With that said, I’m a bit surprised to see that the band’s second album of 2020, Mirrored Aztec, tends to have garnered one of the most “ho-hum” receptions of the lineup’s ten releases. More than just a product of its excellent LP cover (that reminds one of the psychedelia that has always been an underrated element of GBV’s music), Mirrored Aztec is a delightfully colorful record. It is bright, hooky, varied, and often resembles 2003’s exceptional Earthquake Glue in its “widescreen mid-fi” production. Though it loses a bit of steam in its second half, Mirrored Aztec is a strong record – one that I feel more compelled to return to than most of those that surround it in chronology.
One for the playlist: There are a few good contenders, but the nod goes to “To Keep an Area” – one of the best singles from the current lineup. The track showcases Mirrored Aztec’s sharp attention to arrangement details in its combination of twelve-string acoustic guitar, melodic electric lead work, and textural use of the Mellotron.
How Do You Spell Heaven
Following closely on the heels of what had been the longest GBV album to date, How Do You Spell Heaven was a tight, concise record that showcased the power of the band’s newly-solidified lineup. Whereas the previous August by Cake featured several songs penned by Robert Pollard’s bandmates, Heaven is – aside from an instrumental co-written with longtime collaborator/guitarist Doug Gillard – focused on Pollard’s composition. That gives the album a consistency that – at least to fans of GBV’s more “scattered” work – may be somewhat damning, but it’s the sound of an excellent band settling into what they do best.
One for the playlist: The late-album highlight “Nothing Gets You Real” is an appealing mid-tempo track that finds Pollard hitting a sentimental note that comes off sounding far more sincere than he had on 1999’s single, “Hold on Hope.”
Warp and Woof
Comprised of songs that were initially released on a series of EPs over 2018-19, Warp and Woof features a particularly economical-yet-accessible version of Guided by Voices; only two of the album’s twenty-four tracks pass the two-minute mark. Perhaps more than anything, Warp and Woof showcases Robert Pollard’s mastery of the art of album sequencing. Tracks that had felt somewhat disjointed in their original EP appearances reach a new level of impact in becoming part of a cohesive whole. As such, it’s an album that reveals more with each subsequent listen.
One for the playlist: While I’m somewhat tempted to go with the melodic instrumental, “It Will Never Be Simple,” the brisk album closer, “End It with Light,” seems to be a much more accurate representation of the band on display throughout Warp and Woof.
Half Smiles of the Decomposed
The final Guided by Voices album before Robert Pollard disbanded the project for the first time, Half Smiles of the Decomposed is one of the more hot/cold albums in the band’s catalog. Aside from its obvious highlights, the record sounds as if Pollard’s decision to pull the plug on GBV was a move to ignite a new creative fire. Nevertheless, initially seeming like a significant step back from the group’s previous three records, Half Smiles‘ reputation has improved in the years since its release.
One for the playlist: Half Smiles was the only album from GBV’s initial run to be released after Human Amusements at Hourly Rates. Therefore, I have total freedom to pick from the record’s three standout tracks. “Everybody Thinks I’m a Raincloud (When I’m Not Looking)” is an excellent opener, and the soaring “Huffman Prarie Flying Field” shuts the club down with one of the band’s best closing tracks, but I’ll opt for the Beatle-esque glory that is “Girls of Wild Strawberries.”
August by Cake
It’s a bit surprising that it took thirty years into their recording career for Guided by Voices to release a double-LP. The first album by the band’s current incarnation, August by Cake is an expansive set that – while initially a bit overwhelming – manages to not overstay its welcome across thirty-two tracks. One reason for this is the variety in songwriting, due in large part to the fact that Robert Pollard’s bandmates are treated as true collaborators – each turning in original songs of their own, and several of which rank among August by Cake‘s best tracks.
One for the playlist: Even when Tobin Sprout was at his best, it was rare for Robert Pollard to not author the best song on a GBV record. However, the gold star for August by Cake is awarded to drummer, Kevin March. His track, “Overloaded,” is the album’s best moment – despite Pollard returning to strong form after a pair of comparatively lackluster GBV efforts.
Tonics & Twisted Chasers
A fan-club only release that has since become part of the group’s official canon, Tonics & Twisted Chasers is a much welcome set of previously-unreleased recordings from GBV’s peak era. While it’s not as fully-realized as Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes, or the other collection of outtakes from a similar time frame, Tonics is yet another must-hear for fans of the band. Since it’s no longer being sold through the band’s website, it’s one of the few CDs that I own that is of any decent value. With that said, I’d happily trade my near-mint disc, straight across, to anyone looking to get rid of their dusty old vinyl copy.
One for the playlist: Unsurprisingly, no tracks from Tonics & Twisted Chasers found their way onto Human Amusements at Hourly Rates. Though the album is largely made up of comparatively minor tracks, “Dayton, Ohio – 19 Something and 5” has become a fan-favorite “deep cut.”
Let’s Go Eat the Factory
Over the course of its four-year reunion, the “classic lineup” would release six albums. In addition, the current lineup has now released ten albums of its own. While this is bound to ruffle some feathers among the GBV faithful, I stand by the argument that Let’s Go Eat the Factory is one of the best of the band’s post-return releases. It was at least the most highly anticipated, and that fact alone made it one that I listened to enough times for its scattered gems and curious toss-offs to worm their way into my brain. I can still recall the genuine excitement in hearing the group roar back to life in all of their lo-fi glory on the opening “Laundry and Lasers” – a personal GBV moment surpassed only by being a first-hand witness to the band’s triumphant return to the stage at the previous year’s “Matador at 21” festival in Las Vegas.
One for the playlist: Tobin Sprout made the most of the band’s long-awaited return, and while several of his contributions (“Waves,” “Spiderfighter,” “God Loves Us,” and “Old Bones”) each warrant consideration, I’ve gotta go with Bob’s “The Unsinkable Fats Domino” – a classic blast of Pollard power pop.
Same Place the Fly Got Smashed
Easily the best album of their career up to that point, Same Place the Fly Got Smashed is something of an outlier in GBV’s immense catalog. First off, it’s their only clearly-identifiable concept album – surprising, given Bob Pollard’s outspoken love of progressive rock. Second, Same Place is easily the band’s darkest release. A fictional account of alcohol abuse, a crumbling family, and murder, several of the album’s plot points (not the murder part), seem to hit a little close to home for a songwriter whose prodigious drinking looms large in their legend. It’s perhaps irresponsible to speculate just how much of Same Place the Fly Got Smashed is autobiographical, but either way, it’s one of the most fascinating records in Robert Pollard’s body of work.
One for the playlist: Human Amusements included the most heartbreaking track from this record, “Drinker’s Peace.” Though “Pendulum” is a favorite of many fans, for me, the other best song from Same Place the Fly Got Smashed is Pollard’s lonesome-but-lovely rumination, “When She Turns 50.”
The third album from the current Guided by Voices lineup is widely considered to be the best that particular incarnation of the group has made to date, and I’m inclined to agree. One of the leanest records in the GBV discography, Space Gun finds Robert Pollard in confident form as a songwriter, and the band behind him gelling into a powerhouse – albeit one with enough nuance to accommodate Pollard’s idiosyncracies.
One for the playlist: The title track and first single, “Space Gun” launches the album off on a high note. It’s a typically hook-filled Pollard track – one that provided an intriguing first glimpse at the best Guided by Voices album in several years.
Class Clown Spots a UFO
To some, the “classic lineup” sounded tentative on Let’s Go Eat the Factory – perhaps a valid critique for a group that had been dormant for fifteen years. In contrast, the second reunion album, Class Clown Spots a UFO – which arrived less than six months after Factory – featured several tracks that saw a road-tested band firing on all cylinders. Its low-key moments were also strong, as Tobin Sprout again proved to excel in the role of Robert Pollard’s foil – even threatening to overshadow him on occasion.
One for the playlist: The classic lineup’s reunion would yield a number of miniature masterworks. In comparison, “Class Clown Spots a UFO” almost sounds like a major statement – an anthemic track that repurposed previously-unfinished pieces, and turned them into a GBV classic.
Universal Truths and Cycles
I’m probably upsetting more than a few fans of this album by including it in the middle of a run of reunion-era releases, but while some GBV lovers see this as the glorious return of peak-era Robert Pollard, I’ve always kept Universal Truths and Cycles at arm’s length. Yeah, settling into a “mid-fi” production style would suit Pollard’s newly relatively-consistent lineup well, but for an album that harkens back somewhat to the sound of classic GBV, I’ve always found the songs themselves to be comparatively lacking (with a few notable exceptions). Personally, I feel like the group’s next effort would strike a far more impressive balance.
One for the playlist: Seeing as how Bob Pollard included both “Back to the Lake” and “Everywhere With Helicopter” on Human Amusements (the latter being one of the best songs from this era of GBV), I can forgive him for skipping the also-excellent “Cheyenne.” However, I can’t forgive him for the old-timey “v’s in place of u’s” on the album cover. Affhole.
The Bears for Lunch
The best album from the reunited “classic lineup,” The Bears for Lunch was the third GBV album released in 2012 – though Let’s Go Eat the Factory was technically surprise-released at the tail end of 2011. Even more than its two predecessors, Bears felt like a true spiritual successor to 1996’s Under the Bushes Under the Stars, the last album that the lineup had released prior to its dissolution. More than anything else, the real treat of The Bears for Lunch is the perfectly complementary work of the Robert Pollard/Tobin Sprout songwriting duo. Pollard spends most of the album recapturing the barreling nature of the band’s mid-nineties heyday, while Sprout provides welcome respite with his melodic bedroom pop.
One for the playlist: Despite another strong showing from Sprout, Pollard’s “White Flag” is often cited as the best track on The Bears for Lunch, and for good reason. It’s an uncharacteristically nuanced GBV track from an instrumental standpoint – abandoning the band’s typical power-pop approach for a moody, atmospheric soundscape that comes and goes quickly, but leaves a lasting impression.
I’m far from the first person to suggest that Isolation Drills is the album that Do the Collapse probably should have been. While GBV’s second-and-final release for TVT Records is every bit as polished as its predecessor, Isolation Drills sounds and feels like a natural progression for the group. In addition to more sympathetic production choices, Robert Pollard undoubtedly brought a stronger cache of material to the sessions for Isolation Drills. Regrettably, his chance at crossover stardom appeared to have passed by the time of the album’s 2001 release. Despite this, its melodic quality and slow burn guitar work make for one of the most immediately appealing entries in GBV’s catalog.
One for the playlist: Three could-have-been hits made their way onto Human Amusements at Hourly Rates, in the form of “Chasing Heather Crazy,” “Twilight Campfighter,” and “Glad Girls.” Easily their equal, album opener “Fair Touching” is one of Pollard’s great rock anthems – its crisp chords and vocal harmonies should’ve landed it on rock radio over any number of contemporary heavy rotation regulars.
Vampire on Titus
Propeller put Guided by Voices on the cusp of a breakthrough that would come to fruition with Bee Thousand. However, in between the two albums stands the thorniest release in the band’s catalog. Recorded by Robert and Jim Pollard along with Tobin Sprout, Vampire on Titus is the most willfully “lo-fi” GBV album; even some of its poppiest tracks come off as nothing short of abrasive. However, once one gets under the surface of these songs, they reveal themselves as some of the band’s greatest compositions. And if nothing else, Vampire on Titus serves as a fascinating document of the blooming creative partnership between Bob Pollard and Tobin Sprout.
One for the playlist: Vampire on Titus was represented on Human Amusements with its catchy-but-somewhat-slight closer, “Non-Absorbing.” While that leaves a certified GBV classic for the picking in “Wished I Was a Giant,” I’m gonna go with “Gleemer (The Deeds of Fertile Jim)” as my choice. First off, it adds another great Tobin Sprout song to the mix, and secondly, it provides for an easier entry point into the notoriously harsh-sounding Vampire on Titus.
The first Guided by Voices record that I ever heard, Mag Earwhig! represents a significant turning point in the history of the band. Following their mid-nineties breakthrough, the members of the so-called “classic lineup” would ultimately find themselves replaced by a Cleveland rock outfit called Cobra Verde. While the shorthand (and inaccurate) version of the story is that they were summarily dismissed by Robert Pollard, the actual circumstances are far more complicated; each member of the group (Tobin Sprout, Greg Demos, Mitch Mitchell, and Kevin Fennell) departed at various points during the recording for Earwhig!, and Sprout, in particular, was begged by Pollard to stay with the band. As such, Mag Earwhig! is a highly transitional album, but one whose “mid-fi” nature provides an introduction to GBV that is both acclimating and accessible. For some fans, it represented the beginning of the end, but for others – myself included – it’s one of their finest efforts.
One for the playlist: Pollard gave Mag Earwhig! fair representation on Human Amusements by including three of its songs (including the low-key beauty, “Learning to Hunt”). There are plenty of strong leftovers to pick from, but I’ll go with “Jane of the Waking Universe,” one of the last recordings by the “classic lineup” – at least before their eventual reunion.
The best of the post-classic GBV albums, Earthquake Glue is the closest that Robert Pollard would ever come to living out the Who-sized fantasies of his youth. Continuing in the “mid-fi” mode of 2002’s Universal Truths and Cycles, Earthquake Glue finds Pollard turning in a consistently compelling set of tracks, while the now-stable lineup behind him had solidified into a certified rock and roll force. Many long-time fans of the group had checked out by the time of Earthquake Glue, but even though it arrived nearly a decade after their best work, those fans would be well-advised to give this near-classic another chance.
One for the playlist: Bob got it right by picking “My Kind of Soldier” and “The Best of Jill Hives” as the representatives for Human Amusements at Hourly Rates, which was released just two months after Earthquake Glue; both songs are stellar, and the latter is one of the best of any phase of his career. Several excellent leftovers remain – including what may be GBV’s most Who-esque track in “Secret Star” – but I’ll go with the high-paced “Useless Inventions” as my pick; it’s what Foo Fighters might sound like if they were remotely interesting.
King Shit & the Golden Boys
A treasure trove of previously-unreleased material from Guided by Voices’ peak era, King Shit & the Golden Boys first appeared as part of the 1995 collection, Box. Since reissued as a standalone album, it is not to be missed by any fan of Bee Thousand or Alien Lanes, because – even though it doesn’t quite reach the heights of those classics – King Shit is cut from the same cloth. Really, this one is outstanding, and it deserves far more attention than it has received.
One for the playlist: This is a tough one, partly because King Shit was not represented on Human Amusements at Hourly Rates, and partly because there are a ton of great fan favorites scattered throughout. I’ll give the nod to the opening “We’ve Got Airplanes,” which edges out some strong competition.
Under the Bushes Under the Stars
The final official release from Guided by Voices’ “golden era,” Under the Bushes Under the Stars doesn’t quite match the two albums that precede it, but is still a stellar record nonetheless. The product of a somewhat disjointed recording process – several tracks were produced by Kim Deal and others were overseen by Steve Albini – the album is somehow both more consistent and less cohesive than Bee Thousand or Alien Lanes, but the strong songwriting that ultimately defined those records (even more than their lo-fi production), remains fully intact.
As a “show me” album that arrived on the heels of GBV’s surprise breakout success, Under the Bushes Under the Stars failed to usher the group to a wider audience. Instead, it further confirmed their status as a cult act – albeit, one that could stand as a marquee name for the venerable Matador Records. However, within the next two years, both the departure of the “classic lineup” and Robert Pollard’s desire to test the waters of a major label would ensure that Under the Bushes would be the last Guided by Voices record of its kind.
One for the playlist: Though Under the Bushes was represented with three tracks on Human Amusements, one could argue that Robert Pollard made some curious choices. After the no-brainer that is “The Official Ironmen Rally Song,” the picks of “Cut-Out Witch” and “To Remake the Young Flyer” – both excellent tracks – left a few classics on the table. While a case could be made for “Acorns & Orioles” or “Underwater Explosions,” I can’t repeat one of Pollard’s few Human Amusements missed calls by omitting “Don’t Stop Now” from my playlist.
The first great album from a truly great band, Propeller was famously planned as a final hurrah for a project that had failed to even register as more than a blip on their local rock scene; instead, it would launch one of the most improbable and durable careers in the history of modern pop music. Recorded both in a professional studio and in the band members’ homes, Propeller collected the best material that Robert Pollard had to offer, and combined it with fantastic contributions from occasional-collaborator-turned-full-fledged-GBV-member, Tobin Sprout.
After completing the recording process, the band pressed 500 copies of Propeller to vinyl – each of which received a unique, custom-made cover. These discs were then split between the group and their supporters – many consigned to boxes in the band members’ respective garages and basements, as their creators returned to their day jobs. Today, any copy from this initial run is likely to fetch at least a couple thousand dollars. I hope to have one someday.
The thing is, the effortless hooks of Pollard and Sprout, coupled with spirited instrumental performances, well-deployed vocal harmonies, and a healthy dash of experimentalism, would ultimately prove too great to be confined to dusty corners of midwestern basements. Friend of the band, and so-called “manager for life,” Pete Jamison sent several of his own copies out to music publications. Those copies would lead to the reviews that would make Guided by Voices the most buzz-worthy American rock band of the mid-nineties.
One for the playlist: Bob Pollard made this one too easy for me (even if it means that I need to leave the triumphant “Quality of Armor” standing on the sidelines). Opting to open Human Amusements with Alien Lanes‘ “A Salty Salute,” there was no logical place left for Propeller‘s opening one-two punch of “Over the Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox.” Fortunately, Spotify rightfully recognizes them as one single, ass-kicking track.
If merely measured by its sheer number of great songs, one could argue that Alien Lanes is GBV’s greatest album. Across twenty-eight tracks in just over forty-one minutes, Alien Lanes is an embarrassment of riches from a group that were truly at the top of their craft. And make no mistake, Guided by Voices were truly a group at this moment. While Robert Pollard seems to dominate over the record, Tobin Sprout earns writing credits for nine of the album’s tracks (turning in a pair of his own classics in “A Good Flying Bird” and “Little Whirl”).
Even still, Pollard is on a totally different planet throughout this album. The hype generated by Bee Thousand would ultimately set expectations high for Alien Lanes, but much of this follow-up had already been written and recorded before Guided by Voices had broken through. As such, even though it wasn’t the last album to feature the majority of the “classic lineup,” it was the last GBV record of its kind – recorded, in one estimation, for ten dollars, plus the cost of beer.
To say that something was “lost” when Guided by Voices entered the world of professional studios and promotional budgets may sound reductive, but it is true – even when acknowledging that so much of what followed was legitimately great. Alien Lanes captures the last days of a band – or really an art project – before it left the basement and entered a world that would both love it and tear at the fabric of what had made it so extraordinary. Robert Pollard would remain a genius long after Alien Lanes, but the mix of spontaneity, unbridled creativity, and (yeah) innocence would never be the same. It is a truly special record from a truly special band.
One for the playlist: Wow, so many great ones to choose from, despite the fact that Alien Lanes was already represented by six tracks on Human Amusements at Hourly Rates. While I’d love to include “As We Go Up, We Go Down,” “Blimps Go 90,” “Little Whirl,” or the Beatle-esque “Chicken Blows,” I’ve gotta go with “Closer You Are” – one of Guided by Voices’ best fist-pumping singalongs.
Why do we love Bee Thousand so much? Perhaps it’s because we can see ourselves in it. Even though it belongs on the shortest of short lists of the greatest rock and roll albums ever made, from time to time, we all picture ourselves capturing lightning in a bottle, the same way that Robert Pollard and his group of drinking buddies did over the late nights and weekends that led to Bee Thousand.
In his quest to pay homage to the greats of generations past, and on a budget that could best be described as “non-existent,” Pollard created a new archetype for rock greatness. While Bee Thousand is a marvel of hooks and glorious non-sequiturs, its true contribution to the canon is its mastery of the underrated art of sequencing. Listening to Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes, and King Shit & the Golden Boys – say nothing of their contemporary EPs, B-sides, and outtakes – one stands in awe at the quality and quantity on display, but where Bee Thousand sets itself apart is in its uncanny ability to make the illogical sound profound, all by ensuring that every piece of ephemera is placed perfectly on the puzzle board.
And ultimately, all of this is what makes Bee Thousand legendary. It’s the idea that a group of middle-aged hobbyists, whose labor of love was shunned by even their own families and local rock scene, could happen upon something so relentlessly beautiful and twisted through tirelessly cultivating their own little insular art scene during “off-hours.” What they ultimately discovered together was the sound of being perfectly imperfect. We’re just lucky that we get to discover it too.
One for the playlist: What have I done to deserve this? Bob Pollard only included four Bee Thousand cuts on Human Amusements, leaving me to have to choose between a host of great leftovers. Bottom line is, if you’ve even the slightest inclination that you’d like Guided by Voices, you need to listen to Bee Thousand, ASAP. In the meantime, I’ll just go with “Gold Star for Robot Boy,” and shed a tear for having to leave “The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory” off of my playlist.