On September 9, iconic indie rockers Guided by Voices will end a yearlong reunion of their "classic" 1993-1996 lineup with an appearance at Raleigh, North Carolina's Hopscotch Festival. From 1986 until 2004, frontman Robert Pollard and a revolving cast of backing musicians released a steady stream of full-lengths, EPs, singles, compilations, box sets, side projects, and on average more songs per year than most musicians release over an entire career. The band burst onto the scene with an arsenal of shoddily-recorded 90-second verse-chorus-done songs that owed as much to The Who and The Kinks as hipper, more indie-friendly punk and college-rock touchstones. With a beer-guzzling, mic-twirling frontman who looked more like your goofy uncle than a rock god, GBV were the little anomaly that could. In their long career they went from Ohio obscurities to Snoop Dogg label mates and pretty much everywhere in between.
Guided by Voices embodied a truly American ideal. They gave fans a wealth of world-beating songs, but they were also proof that genius, beauty and poetry can generate anywhere - in the soul of a middle-aged elementary schoolteacher named Bob; in the crackly recesses of cryptic tape recordings made by inscrutable amateurs on consumer-grade cassette equipment; in the reverie and racket created by drinking buddies acting out arena rock fantasies in their basements; in a town as Anywheresville as the decidedly un-romantic Dayton, Ohio. For every metric ton of hyperbolic, overwrought praise GBV has inspired, Robert Pollard has written a perfect song. And that's a lot of perfect songs. (cough)
And yet, as years go by, Guided by Voices seems in danger of becoming even more of a cult band than they were while on active duty, probably due to the vastness of their discography. They released one universally acknowledged (by rock critics and rock nerds, anyway) classic in 1994's Bee Thousand, and an almost as well-regarded followup, the slightly more ungainly Alien Lanes. Those are both great places to begin, but at a combined 48 songs in 80 sometimes-overwhelming minutes, it'd be easy to get the impression those are the only Guided by Voices albums you need. The truth is Bob Pollard never stopped writing amazing songs, and though his hit-and-miss ratio varies from year to year, his output is rewarding-if you're willing to do some sifting.
But let's be serious: who's got time to listen to a song that might not be amazing? Don't worry, I've got a few suggestions for where to start. These aren't the ONLY songs you ought to hear if Pollard and company's style strikes your fancy. Part of the joy of a GBV record is getting a high off the immediately catchy gems, only to discover on subsequent listens just how integral the weird and cryptic "filler" tracks you'd previously been inclined to skip over are. But for now, here's a quick gateway. The club is open.
The 29 Guided by Voices Songs You Need To Hear Before You Die
1. Hardcore UFO's (Bee Thousand, 1994) - GBV were one of the leading lights of lo-fi's first wave. In the '90s, it was more about spontaneity, necessity, and the freedom home recording provided, rather than fashion and fads. The bit at 1:20 where the guitar drops out? Somebody hit the wrong button on the Portastudio. So what? They had six other songs and another full case of Miller High Life to get through that night. It's rock and roll. Can you imagine The Dum Dum Girls and all their publicists being okay with something like that?
2. Quality of Armor (Propeller, 1992) - Supposedly the first song Pollard ever wrote, "Quality of Armor" oozes adolescent American joy. For some reason this song always makes me want to drive my car.
3. Shocker in Gloomtown (Grand Hour EP, 1993) - In and out in just over a minute. One of the greatest one-note riffs in rock history. Fellow Ohioans The Breeders do a pretty great cover of this one.
4. Teenage FBI (Do the Collapse, 1999) - GBV released two albums on wanna-be major label TVT, an awkward pairing that saw them sharing a publicist with acts like the Yin Yang Twins. Their first TVT release, Do the Collapse is generally seen as their nadir. Overproduced by The Cars' Ric Ocasek and featuring a dearth of worthwhile material, there were still a handful of gems to be found: "Teenage FBI" ranks as one of GBV's finest moments, goofy synth hook and all.
5. Game of Pricks (Alien Lanes, 1995) - A number of Pollard's songs deal, in typically cryptic fashion, with the melancholy of straining or doomed relationships. I always found "I never asked for the truth but you owe that to me" a particularly affecting line. Good thing it's sugarcoated with one of the more directly catchy melodies on Alien Lanes.
6. Everybody Thinks I'm a Raincloud (When I'm Not Looking) (Half-Smiles of the Decomposed, 2004) - Even up to the end, Guided by Voices were putting out solid albums about once a year (and Robert Pollard hasn't slowed down since: his post-GBV output, while all over the place, has yielded gems like the From a Compound Eye album and several great albums by new band The Boston Spaceships). This cut from swansong Half-Smiles of the Decomposed ranks among GBV's high-kicking best.
7. Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory (Bee Thousand, 1994) - Co-written with Tobin Sprout, the Harrison to Pollard's Lennon/McCartney . A wonderful enigma of a song, a widescreen, inscrutable epic of biblical proportions, rendered in 90 seconds about as amateurishly as can be (dig that recorder!). Nobody, probably not even GBV, knows what a goldheart mountaintop queen directory is, but give yourself over to the tiny universe of this song and everything makes all the sense it needs to.
8. Dodging Invisible Rays (Tigerbomb EP, 1995) - A sugary Tobin Sprout original, sung by the man himself. In another world, a better-recorded version of this power-popper could've hung comfortably on mid-90s alt-radio, alongside cuts by Del Amitri and the Gin Blossoms (that is meant as a compliment). Instead, it was buried at the end of a six-song 7" EP. At their peak, GBV was hemorrhaging classics.
9. Wire Greyhounds (Universal Truths and Cycles, 2002) - Blink and you'll miss it: 36 seconds of fully-formed pop godhead. It's like they're just showing off.
10. I Am a Tree (Mag Earwhig!, 1997) - Feeling stymied by a lineup that was failing to keep pace with his ambitions, Pollard dissolved his backing band and replaced them with hard-rocking Cleveland band Cobra Verde in 1997. Guided by Verde didn't last long, but guitarist Doug Gillard stayed in GBV 'til the end. He penned this towering arena rocker, giving Pollard one of the greatest riffs he ever wrapped his voice around.
11. Matter Eater Lad (Clown Prince of the Menthol Trailer EP, 1994) - There actually was a Matter Eater Lad in DC Comic's Legion of Super Heroes. Things like that are why I was always a Marvel guy. This song is ridiculous.
12. If We Wait (Sunfish Holy Breakfast EP, 1996) - This vaguely Sam Cookian lament is chief among GBV's closing time / front porch drinking ballads. Drink a beer, sigh, take stock of your job and your friends and your life, drink a beer. A sad and beautiful song.
13. Weed King (Propeller, 1992) - One of the longstanding narratives of Robert Pollard's life was his ambitions always outstripped his means. From the boy who'd sit in his kitchen making fake album covers for imaginary bands, to the indie rocker who fired his friends in favor of more technically proficient sidemen, he was always under the bushes and stabbing at the stars. Weed King, written when he was just sixteen ("Long live Rockathon," "Freedom cake / quick to bake") is the sound of those rock and roll glory dreams: yearning to escape the dirge-like day-to-day of Ohio, the excitement of the march outward, the cosmic colored light explosion. It has to stop (STOP!) someday, but until then the dreams of the Weed King will save us all. Or at least they saved Bob.
14. Glad Girls (Isolation Drills, 2001) - Possibly Guided by Voices' biggest mainstream "hit," if they can be said to have had such a thing. Isolation Drills, their excellent followup to the disappointing Do the Collapse, was full of big rock hooks; produced by Rob Schnapf (Elliot Smith, Dr. Dog, Beck), it's probably the closest they ever got to making an actual Who album.
15. A Good Flying Bird (Alien Lanes, 1995) - Another Tobin Sprout standout, this song epitomizes Alien Lanes for me: insanely catchy power pop missing a chromosome or two, with a bridge that goes to nowhere (or, rather, to the next song). For all GBV's oblique lyrical genius, sometimes all you need is "YEAH!"
16. Christian Animation Torch Carriers (Universal Truths and Cycles, 2002) - Robert Pollard IS Guided by Voices, and the scores of fired bandmates left by the wayside are testament to this. But he always worked best with a foil, be it Tobin Sprout's direct pop songs or Doug Gillard's tastefully explosive lead guitar work. Gillard gets a great showcase here, in one of GBV's most fully-realized fist-pump epics.
17. Official Ironmen Rally Song (Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, 1996) - A wistful, triumphant celebration of the America GBV created for themselves. "Tonight, alone / to build a private zone / or trigger a synapse / and free us from our traps." The American dream is whatever you make of it.
18. Postal Blowfish (Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy OST, 1996) - Another classic one-note riff. If it sounds easy, let's see you it, hmm?
19. Motor Away (Alien Lanes, 1995) - If Alien Lanes isn't the most underrepresented album on this list, things are that way for a reason; there's a lot of weirdness on the record ("Pimple Zoo," "Big Chief Chinese Restaurant") but you pretty much can't go three songs without hitting a bona-fide classic. The rumbling "Motor Away" may not resonate as much now that gas prices and carbon emissions and so forth and so on, but as an ode to breaking free of your past and "speeding on," it's hard not to want to get on the highway. The "Motor Away" video tacked on the song "Auditorium," which should give you an idea of the internal logic of Alien Lanes' genius sequencing: after a few listens, even the weird filler becomes essential.
20. The Best of Jill Hives (Earthquake Glue, 2003) - It's quite rare that Pollard turns in anything approaching an "angry" breakup song; whenever he writes about a relationship's end there's more of an air of quiet, sad resignation than anything else. "The Best of Jill Hives" is all low-key regret from a guy who probably relates better to songs than to women. A gorgeous, even-keeled heartbreaker.
21. Big School (Static Airplane Jive EP, 1993) - Another effortless power-pop triumph in a catalog full of them. You have to wonder if our boys knew how great this was when they recorded it, or if was just put in the pile with the other cassettes during a weekend Portastudio basement bender to be sorted through later.
22. Ha Ha Man (Tonics and Twisted Chasers, 1996) - Dig that "Be My Baby" beat! I dare you not to crack into a big smile at this wonderfully ebullient little ditty (but don't laugh). This song was a longtime favorite of mine but I realized I had completely forgotten about it until I started making this list. Hell, I'd completely forgotten about the entire Tonics and Twisted Chasers album. You can see why some people say GBV are the only band you'll ever need. Their merchandise is sublime, and good lord they have a lot of merchandise.
23. Fair Touching (Isolation Drills, 2001) - "Perhaps at last the song you sing will have meaning" Pollard sings towards the top of this leadoff track of GBV's most lyrically-direct album. Of course, he follows it up with a chorus of "The Queen's prize awaits / she might rub her legs," which isn't anywhere as obscure as earlier lines like "I met a non-dairy creamer exclusively laid out like a fruitcake," but still isn't quite "I want you to want me." Still, anyway you slice it: great song.
24. Sad if I Lost It (Mag Earwhig!, 1997) - Speaking of mission statements, "Sad if I Lost It" was Pollard's big "Hey, I'd better take this seriously" moment at the top of the post-buddies-laying-off Mag Earwhig!, and it's the perfect mix of triumph and heartache you'd expect from a middle-aged former schoolteacher who's committing himself to rock and roll dreams.
25. I Am a Scientist (Bee Thousand, 1994) - ... and while we're on the subject, here's the mission statement to end all mission statements. The idea that salvation can be found through rock music is about as old as rock music itself, but in just over two minutes the men of Guided by Voices make sense of their entire lives. "I am a scientist / I seek to understand me," and if it took entire suitcases full of home recorded cassette tapes to figure things out, that's alright with them. Cue an entire generation of like-minded scientists, journalists and pharmacists, heading out into the world to buy four-track recorders, eager to discover themselves the same way.
26. Things That I Will Keep (Do the Collapse, 1999) - Try as though he might, Ric Ocasek couldn't ruin EVERY song on Do the Collapse. Ignore the dippy one-note synth blanket in the background and enjoy.
27. Edison's Memos (Robert Pollard and his Soft Rock Renegades, 2001) - Okay, this is from a Bob Pollard solo album; I meant to stick to regular Guided by Voices songs but couldn't resist just this one. Pollard's solo joints were generally about as strong as his main band's output, and his backing band was pretty much the regular GBV lineup. As for this song, there's something so grand and majestic about it, like an aging king reflecting upon his reign and pondering the metaphysical. It's probably just about rocking out, but anyway.
28. Tractor Rape Chain (Bee Thousand, 1994) - It's a fine line between "amazing song title" and "terrible song title." Like a lot of things with Guided by Voices - the endless discography, the wildly varying audio fidelity, the concept of middle-aged men doing high-kicks and Pete Townshend windmills - you have to give yourself over to their way with words. If you're a fan of rock music, give yourself over to Guided by Voices. Let the hooks sink into your brain and you'll be straining to hit those high notes within no time. What's a tractor rape chain? Just some words, some words you sing as loud as you can.
29. Don't Stop Now (Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, 1996) - Sitting on that porch, drinking that tall boy, listening to that tape, dreaming that dream, wondering when or if the sun will come up and tomorrow will matter. It was close to a decade before anybody outside (or, arguably, inside) of Dayton, Ohio gave a crap about Guided by Voices, but Bob Pollard just kept doing what made sense to him. This was the last song they played at their initial breakup show on New Year's Eve 2004, and since then Pollard has continued to churn out songs. The man simply can't help it, and I'm glad he'd never try to. Don't stop now.