Ranked: Every Guided By Voices Album from Worst to Best
The venerable indie band returns, and we assess their massive catalog.
by Joseph Martin
With a reunited "classic" line-up (hello, Tobin Sprout!) and a new record, Guided By Voices has become the latest indie paragon to revive and hit the reunion-tour circuit. Their first record since 2004, Let's Go Eat The Factory, dropped this month on Fire Records and another, Class Clown Spots a UFO, is on deck for May. But what might seem like overkill for a less inspired band is just standard operating procedure for GBV. From their lo-fi beginnings to their later work as Ric Ocasek-produced popsmiths, the band's always nursed an almost per annum album habit. So let's take a look back at their extensive — and influential — discography, from best to work.
17. Devil Between My Toes (1987)
Essentially a passable '80s college-rock record, Devil Between My Toes makes a few neat moves — the sinister "A Portrait Destroyed By Fire," stands out for its ambition — but Pollard's crow of a voice has yet to flesh out, and jammy instrumentals abound. Neither terrible nor good, Devil mainly suffers from a lack of personality.
Listen: “A Portrait Destroyed By Fire”
16. Tonics and Twisted Chasers (1996)
First released as a gift to the band's fan club, Tonics and Twisted Chasers should be a magnificent pile of magnetic tape; the collection came out right in the middle of their classic period and, unlike on Under the Bushes Under the Stars (which appeared later that year), the band hadn't sterilized its production. But Tonics just sounds like the end of something. With its poor fidelity and unfinished songs, it almost plays like a parody of GBV. There are sweet spots — heartfelt acoustic number "Look, It's Baseball" comes to mind — but more duds.
Listen: “My Thoughts are a Gas"
15. Sandbox (1987)
What a difference half a year makes — though Sandbox arrived right on the heels of Devil Between My Toes, it's the work of a band far more comfortable in its skin. Gone are Devil's squeaky post-punk guitars and listless interludes, replaced instead with the hard rock of "Lips of Steel" and the R.E.M.-style jangle-pop of "Everyday." While the band still sounds a little anonymous, it's miles tighter, and the album's fidgety mix of styles (likely winked at in its title) suggests a brighter future than its predecessor did.
Listen: “Lips of Steel”
14. Same Place the Fly Got Smashed (1991)
This curiosity is the band's first concept record, the wandering tale of a self-destructive dipsomaniac. Same Place's overall mood is necessarily dreary — song titles include "Local Mix-Up/Murder Charge" and "Blatant Doom Trip" — but the record gets points for ambition, however misguided. And some tracks, like "Pendulum" and the aforementioned "Trip," find Pollard trying out a few new British Invasion moves and psychedelic tics. It's an exhausting listen, though, and the Voices (understandably) wouldn't try this sort of conceptual work again until 1997's Mag Earwhig!
Listen: “Local Mix-Up/Murder Charge”
13. Do The Collapse (1999)
Originally received as a slick misstep (think Weezer's Green Album or Aerosmith's "I Don't Want To Miss A Thing"), Do The Collapse has aged with slightly more dignity; some of its tracks, like Rentals-style new-wave anthem "Teenage FBI" and string-laden pastoral "Hold On Hope," now stand among the band's finest. But there's no doubt producer Ric Ocasek left Guided By Voices' classic-rock heart on the cutting-room floor, making most of the album sound merely average.
Listen: “Teenage FBI”
12. Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia (1989)
Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia can be read as the blueprint for GBV's most remarkable run of records — the album where the group learned to stop worrying and love its four-track machine. From the vocal blur of opener "The Future is in Eggs" to the sloppy edits of "Short on Posters," "Paper Girl," and "Slopes of Big Ugly," the band lets the proverbial tape run and finally starts to exploit its amateur production for warmth and space. While the finished product isn't nearly the sum of its parts that Propeller would be just three years later, Nostalgia is the first Guided By Voices record that feels like a Guided By Voices record.
Listen: “The Future is in Eggs”
11. Let's Go Eat the Factory (2012)
After eight years of patchy solo work, Pollard turns in a respectable comeback on Let's Go Eat the Factory. Home-recorded by members Greg Demos, Mitch Mitchell, and long-absent melodic counterpoint Tobin Sprout, Factory has many haphazard pleasures, with unfinished bangers and snippets "God Loves Us," "The Head," "Spiderfighter," and "The Room Taking Shape" buzzing by in classic puzzle-piece form. But much of the record is shapeless and solemn; though promising, Factory ultimately sounds like practice on tape, a great band shaking off its hiatus.
Listen: “The Head”
10. Under the Bushes Under the Stars (1996)
With songs like "The Official Ironmen Rally Song," "Don't Stop Now," and "Big Boring Wedding" in tow, Under the Bushes regularly hits GBV's patented pop notes and may even have a higher hit-to-miss ratio than Alien Lanes and Vampire on Titus. Its major failing was that the band's tradition of long track listings heavy on filler was just getting tired. This was exacerbated by the sterile production of Steve Albini and Pixie/Breeder Kim Deal. The whole package resembles a hi-fi reiteration of past glories and there's not much to distinguish it from its more bracing precursors.
Listen: “Big Boring Wedding”
9. Half Smiles of the Decomposed (2004)
Full up with menace ("Sleep Over Jack"), skittering indie pop ("Asia Minor"), and oceanic guitars ("Tour Guide at the Winston Churchill Memorial"), Half Smiles of the Decomposed was GBV's last album until this year, but it doesn't look funereal on paper. There's a feeling of distance to the record, though, and on many tracks, Pollard sounds like he's simply playing through his chugging old style one last time. But damn it, he invented that style, and Decomposed is ultimately an admirably varied (if temporary) coda to the band's schizoid career.
Listen: “Sleep Over Jack”
8. Mag Earwhig! (1997)
Having repaced his entire band, Pollard made his second stab at rock-opera pomp with Mag Earwhig! Covering the life and times of an Ohioan named the Magnificent Earwhig, the record actually manages to vindicate Pollard's personnel shakeup, letting chunky riff rock like "Bulldog Skin" and "Portable Men's Society" make a case for the band's fresh talent. Half of what makes Earwhig! work is its lack of fidelity to the band's messy past: while the firings alienated fans of Pollard's lo-fi years, they also allowed him to experiment and move away from his earlier method's diminishing returns.
Listen: “Bulldog Skin”
7. Universal Truths and Cycles (2002)
Universal Truths found GBV returning to their lo-fi production, and the band sounds retrenched as a result. Happily, Pollard's knack for snappy half-songs has returned — the record leads off with the kinetic riff rock of "Wire Greyhounds," and other vignettes, like "Zap" and "Factory of Raw Essentials," allow for a whimsy missing from the radio-friendly portion of his band's catalogue. But spread out over nineteen tracks, Cycles is at times both uneven and monotonous. But the album itself still signifies a winning return to the old albums' sketchbook aesthetics.
6. Isolation Drills (2001)
Sporting producer Rob Schnapf behind the boards and a newfound talent for editing without neutering, Drills made good on Do The Collapse's high-end ambitions: "Glad Girls" may be the most bittersweet rock anthem Pollard ever penned, with "Chasing Heather Crazy" and "How's My Drinking" trailing not too far behind. Plus, the band's major label iteration finally got a chance to rock believably. Isolation Drills made radio-friendly indie rock seem like a foregone conclusion, even if the album's actual impact was limited.
Listen: “Glad Girls”
5. Vampire On Titus (1993)
"And now the fun begins," Pollard announces in Vampire On Titus' second track. And while Vampire isn't the first record to feature GBV's "classic" sound (crooned fragments, tape hiss-marred melodies, crunchily out-of-tune guitars, and song titles like "Jar of Cardinals"), it's the first to present the aesthetic as a planned whole. The band would later match that homespun flavor with undeniable songs on Alien Lanes and Bee Thousand, but Vampire was a big step forward — boisterous and drunk on possibility, the band makes every new song sound like a discovery.
Listen: “Expecting Brainchild ”
4. Earthquake Glue (2003)
The press pegged Earthquake Glue as a return to form and, in some ways, it was: after GBV's radio-ready period, it brought back some of the lo-fi production (the squawky reverb of "I'll Replace You With Machines," the woozy, horn-led balladry of "My Son, My Secretary, and My Country"). And the album's tracks, largely chopped into bite-sized pop singles on the band's previous three outings, explore messier facets of the band's sound. Glue's real achievement, however, is its seamless joining of GBV's many moods and personalities, somehow resolving the band's earlier ADHD mischief with the polished pop songcraft that marked its later work.
Listen: “I'll Replace You With Machines”
3. Propeller (1992)
With the band in mounting debt, Propeller was originally slated to be their last album — a badass Viking funeral perhaps, but a funeral nonetheless. The threat of collapse rejuvenated GBV, though, and a college-radio fan base glommed onto the record's sense of go-for-broke innovation: studio punch replaces the thin bedroom mix of previous outings on prog suites like "Over the Neptune/Mesh Gear Box," and other tracks reveal a Pollard finally unfettered by traditional structure or literal meaning. Propeller rides high on its last-minute adrenaline, making it GBV's first stone classic.
Listen: “Quality of Armor”
2. Alien Lanes (1995)
It starts wobbly, but Alien Lanes — twenty-eight songs in about forty-one minutes — quickly develops into Guided By Voices' ur-text, a pile of perfect gems ("Watch Me Jumpstart," "Game of Pricks," "My Valuable Hunting Knife") and fool's gold (the eighteen-second "Cigarette Tricks") all crammed together. The record resists flow so insistently that its randomness becomes a kind of flow in itself. Sweet pop harmonies like "As We Go Up, We Go Down" and "Chicken Blows" lead easily into the Who-style excess of "Auditorium" or the dozing dirge of "The Ugly Vision." The Finnegan's Wake to Bee Thousand's Ulysses, Alien Lanes has something for everybody.
Listen: “My Valuable Hunting Knife”
1. Bee Thousand (1994)
Arguments have been made for other GBV albums, but screw it: Bee Thousand will always be the band's high-water mark, the moment where its lo-fi innovation and ear-infesting melodies crystalized perfectly. Few bands could spin a tune named "Tractor Rape Chain" into a glorious (and cathartic) pop masterpiece, let alone belt Dada-style lyrics like "dee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee kicker of elves" ("Kicker of Elves") or "I met a non-dairy creamer explicitly laid out like a fruitcake" ("Hot Freaks") with unwavering conviction. But such was Guided By Voices' particular magic circa 1994. Call it the Rosetta Stone of lo-fi indie rock, the band's White Album, or just a shambling miracle, but Bee Thousand threw down a gauntlet that four-track impresarios have measured themselves against ever since.
Listen: “Tractor Rape Chain”