There are a few people who will tell you that Guided By Voices is the greatest band of all time.
Now they’ll probably tell you that The Beatles or The Rolling Stones are the greatest band of all time – because that’s the answer you’re supposed to give – but they’ll tell you, after a few drinks, that no band means more to them than that band from Dayton, Ohio made up of thirtysomethings who recorded most of their albums on 4-tracks. They’ll also tell you that band leader and main songwriter Robert Pollard is the greatest songwriter of a generation, a man who was Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ray Davis, and Michael Stipe all in one who could write minute-long buzzy guitar anthems that could change your life if you were 12 or 42 years old. Their classic album Bee Thousand is considered one of the definitive albums of lo-fi. Some of their fans include PJ Harvey, Radiohead, R.E.M., The Strokes, U2, and a good portion of 90s teenagers.
And yes, they’re actually that good.
GBV are a beloved band because, other than their great music, they took a very atypical path to fame. They’re made up of a bunch of buddies who loved music (and drinking) and recorded songs that they wanted to make for themselves. Yes, this sounds like every other band ever formed, but while every other band ever formed either compromised or broke up after the strains of failure or the pressures of success, GBV never compromised; in 2014 they still sound as noisy and great as they did in the late 80s.
They took inspiration from widely different genres – from jangle pop to fuzzy post-punk to British Invasion to prog rock – and crammed them all into songs about Tractor Rape Chains, Teenage FBIs, Salty Salutes, and other strange things that meant everything and nothing at the same time. Their song titles sound more like jokes than works of art, but the punch line is that these are some of the best rock songs of the 90s.
GBV was also never intended to become anything more than just a hobby. Everyone in the band was in their 30s and had careers and families of their own – Pollard was a 4th grade teacher until Bee Thousand. For the first few years the band never played outside of Dayton and the early records were just handed out to close friends. Even when success and fame did find them, they still acted (and sounded) like a bunch of drinking buddies who accidentally became rock stars. Even if there was always drama and tension between Pollard and the ever-changing lineup (over 40 musicians have come and gone through GBV) the band managed to carry on through over twenty years of success, failure, and indifference.
GBV was also proof that you didn’t have just a short window of time to create something beautiful and meaningful and that you didn’t need to give up your life for the sake of art – Pollard was 37 years old when Bee Thousand was released. With cheap recording techniques, the band proved that you didn’t need fancy equipment to sound incredible. And even when the band traded in their 4-tracks for higher quality studios, they never compromised their core sound. They are one of the few bands who managed to gain massive success without compromising or selling out, and for that they are an essential band to hear.
From 1987 to 2014 they recorded over 20 (!) studio albums and countless EPs and bootlegs and none of them are really that bad, making their discography one of the most prolific and impressive runs of any rock band. However, it can be intimidating trying to navigate through all that music, which is why many people just stick to Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes, the only two GBV albums that are universally praised by indie-snobs and diehard fans alike. Those two albums are indeed their best, but there are so many more great songs that go unheard of that are stuck in weaker albums.
That’s where I come in. This is not the definitive list of GBV’s best songs, but it’s a place for newbies to start.
1) “Captain’s Dead”
GBV’s story began sometime around 1987 with the release of their first LP Devil Between My Toes. It’s not a great album, but Pollard and the gang had already figured out that their songs were going to be short, loud, and to the point (though “A Portrait Destroyed By Fire” is a whopping 5-minutes long), and, though it doesn’t necessarily sound lo-fi, it’s lo-fi in spirit. A band has to start somewhere, but GBV were already heading somewhere promising.
2) “Long Distance Man”
There are two types of GBV songs: short loud songs that are awesome and short acoustic songs that are awesome. Off GBV’s second album Sandbox, this is my favorite of the acoustic songs. For a whole minute we get to hear the kind of Rubber Soul inspired harmonies and thumbing acoustics that make it sound like a Beatles song.
3) “Exit Flagger”
1992’s Propeller was the first album of the GBV classic lineup, which consisted of Pollard and some other people I don’t know (this is a joke because it’s easy to think of GBV as the Robert Pollard show – the classic lineup consisted of Pollard, Tobin Sprout and Mitch Mitchell on guitars, Greg Demos on bass, and Kevin Fennell on drums). You can immediately hear the improvements – “Exit Flagger” is leaner and catcher than many of their songs up to that point – as GBV are slowly coming into their own. This is also when the band started to become more famous outside of their hometown Dayton and began attracting a larger audience. This was supposed to be the band’s last album, but instead it was the first of many classic albums.
4) “Hardcore UFO’s”
If there’s one GBV album you’ve already heard of (or think you’ve heard of) it’s Bee Thousand. It’s their best album, and it went on to become the band’s breakthrough and one of the most beloved albums of the decade (you know your album is ok when Rolling Stone calls it one of the greatest albums of the 90s).
“Hardcore UFO’s” is one of the most unusual opening tracks of any rock record. It sounds like it starts in mid-track, as if by accident, and the guitars are clashing but in a strange way that makes you want to tune in and hear how they resolve. The song, like the album, sounds “off” in the best way possible. And what the hell is a Hardcore UFO? I don’t think anyone, including Pollard, actually knows, but that’s the beauty of this song and of this band; you don’t need ultra clarity to speak something universal and make people feel emotion.
Now individually many of these songs might not seem special, but the whole album is something to appreciate in its entirety, with all its strengths and weaknesses. “Hardcore UFO’s” is only the beginning of something truly special – listen to whole album.
5) “Game Of Pricks”
Bee Thousand is the stronger album, but Alien Lanes showcases the best of GBV. Twenty-eight songs clocking in just over 40 minutes, with only 6 of those songs going over the 2 minute mark, and most of them range from “meh, this is pretty good” to “Oh my God if The Who and The Kinks had a baby it would be ‘Game Of Pricks’ this song is amazing”. There are many forgettable moments, but some of the band’s best songs – “A Salty Salute”, “A Good Flying Bird”, “Motor Away”, “My Valuable Hunting Knife” – are all present here. Again, another album that must be heard in its entirety.
6) “I Am A Tree”
1997’s Mag Earwhig! was the transition record from the short lo-fi songs of the classic lineup to the long hi-fi songs of a new lineup. It was essentially a new band (Pollard pretty much fired everyone and hired Cleveland punk band Cobra Verde to back up his songs), but Pollard still wrote some brilliant tunes, and “I Am A Tree” (actually written by new guitarist Doug Gillard) is proof that hi-fi doesn’t necessarily mean a song is less authentic. This is also probably one of the few GBV songs that could have been on Guitar Hero.
7) “Hold On Hope”
This is actually the first GBV song I ever heard. When I heard this song during Scrubs I had no idea who the band was, but I immediately loved the song. I don’t want to call this a sellout song, BUT if I had to pick one it would have to be this – is there another GBV song with so many clean instruments? Lyrically this is also a very straight forward song about, well, holding onto hope, which may turn off some fans of Pollard’s typically cryptic lyrics. But hey, even a sellout GBV song is still great.
8) “Fair Touching”
2001’s Isolation Drills is one of the better albums of GBV’s more recent albums, and surely it’s the most accessible of their hi-fi album. “Fair Touching” might be one of my favorite album openers of any album by any band, and the rest of the songs sound good on their own, something you can’t even say for some songs on Bee Thousand. Other highlights include “Chasing Heather Crazy” and “Glad Girls”.
9) “Obvious #1”
This isn’t a GBV song, but you should know that Robert Pollard has a decent solo career worth checking out. Warning: like his band, his song (and albums) are also very hit and miss.
10) “Planet Score”
This is the sound of GBV in 2014. Motivational Jumpsuit came out this year, yet it sounds just as dirty (and great) as the band did in the 90s. It’s a beautiful thing knowing that Pollard can still write great songs this late into his already extensive career.
Here’s to the future. The club is open.