Bee Thousand turns 20 today. Guided By Voices’ breakout record became an instant classic the day it came out, almost immediately lifting the band from obscurity to the upper echelons of mid-’90s indie rock success, an entirely different plane of obscurity that meant they were still less famous than one-time hitmakers Dishwalla or Primitive Radio Gods or that band who sang about the banditos. Bee Thousand introduced Robert Pollard and his prodigious songwriting acumen to a wider audience, cramming almost two dozen songs into just under 37 minutes, almost every one sounding like a possible radio smash from a world where recording technology never progressed past the four-track. Most importantly, it led countless young men into a lifelong love affair with rock music and alcoholism, forever equating the two and uniting them into sweaty, chant-filled biathlons of male bonding and hearing loss at mid-sized indie rock clubs the world over. In honor of Bee Thousand’s 20th anniversary, and in no particular order, here are the 20 best songs* from Guided By Voices’ most iconic record.
It doesn’t matter what a “hardcore UFO” is. What matters is the majestic but rundown intro, the anticipation that something pivotal is about to happen, the ingrained nostalgia of “playing solos” and getting “amplified to rock.” If this was the first you’d heard of GBV, you already knew the score: timeless rock songs that are impeccably written but tossed-off in a non-studio by hobbyists.
This song is built around Pollard’s vocals, particularly in the chorus. It begins with that faux-tuff blues strut that stumbles through some of GBV’s worst songs, like your dad doing a Mick Jagger impersonation, but it’s almost immediately rescued by Pollard’s inflection on the second line. The bridge slides it into the lead even before it hits the chorus, where the melody and lyrics effortlessly combine into one of those timeless bits of songwriting where every syllable and note seems perfectly matched.
Hey, that last sentence you just read, at the very end of the entry above? About the words and notes meshing perfectly? Goes double for “Tractor Rape Chain.” Despite the questionable name, this remains one of Pollard’s 10 or so best songs. His lyrics remain surreal, especially during the chorus, but there’s an emotional weight to the verses and the main guitar hook.
The somber, low-key “Queen Directory” turns from eerie to anthemic after a trip through “the hallway of shatterproof glass.” That tonal shift is echoed by some of Pollard’s most portentous and dread-filled imagery, turning a scene of terror and reckless abandon into a cry for freedom. Is this the first appearance of the manic pixie dream girl in an indie rock song?
Probably the worst song ever made by man. It’ll wind up in Cialis ads in 10 years—if a middle-aged penis could play rock music, it would sound like this.
Let’s not shortchange the music to “Hugs”—it’s a powerful exercise in repetition, with the band chugging through a single riff (with slight variations) for three minutes. Again, though, it’s mostly Pollard’s words and melody that makes this one of the band’s most beloved songs. As he solemnly intones over the drone about judges, saints and textbook committees, “Hugs” almost sounds like a working-class riff on “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
A haunting trifle, this acoustic snippet is essentially an intro for “Echos Myron.” It proves that even their shortest and most unguarded moments can result in indelible memories.
Pollard sings “most of us are quite pleased with the same old song” on the most conventionally accessible thing on the album, but that doesn’t mean “Echos Myron” is more of the same. It’s an exceptionally crafted pop song, with Beatles-esque hooks and harmonies, and some of Pollard’s most cohesive and dramatic lyrics. It’s a perfect distillation of the promise of pop.
“Gold Star” is no less catchy than the pristine lo-fi pop of “Echos Myron,” but it’s a good bit noisier, with a fuzz-drenched guitar basically playing a single clamorous note the entire way through. It reasserts the band’s rougher edges (which might sound ridiculous to somebody hearing the plenty rough Bee Thousand for the first time, but rest assured this album as a whole is cleaner and more accessible than the handful that preceded it) without sacrificing Pollard’s ability to write unforgettable should-be hits.
Tobin Sprout’s first song on Bee Thousand is another acoustic respite, and a characteristically sweet but melancholy slice of earnest pop balladry.
Sprout’s second song on Bee Thousand is a buzzy, sluggish sister to “Awful Bliss,” with a downcast but hopeful tone buoyed by noisy guitars similar to but less overpowering of those from “Gold Star.” Sprout was an invaluable contributor to the “classic era” of Guided By Voices, generally writing one or two amazing songs per record, but oddly enough his songs on the band’s most famous album are among his lesser works.
You know you’re finally in the record’s back half when you hear this rambling, idiosyncratic mess of a song. Imagine Jandek if he tuned his guitar and attempted a pop song. It’s actually charming, and Pollard’s vocal performance remains admirable. At the end it segues into an unrelated full-band jam, the first Bee Thousand appearance of Pollard’s collage sensibilities.
The tuneful but noisy guitar figure that intros “Queen of Cans and Jars” sounds like something from an early Flying Nun single. The elements of a fine pop song are here—that catchy guitar line, a complimentary vocal melody, a quiet confidence—but they never quite congeal into a top-line production.
Bob Pollard is a big Pere Ubu fan. Pere Ubu is awesome. Bob Pollard trying to do Pere Ubu is less awesome. “Her Psychology Today” is the biggest outlier on Bee Thousand—much of the record is influenced clearly by both ‘60s pop and late-’70s post-punk, but not much of the ‘60s is discernible in this song. Bookended by unrelated snippets from other songs, “Her Psychology Today” is a muscular work-out that adds a surprisingly aggressive edge to the record, if only fleetingly.
Surprisingly intense for such a goofy name, “Kicker of Elves” is a quick, crisp, wordy sketch that sounds like folk-punk from Ravenloft. If they replaced the sparse bass drum hits with a loop of non-traditional percussion, it could easily be a Tall Dwarfs song.
Sprout sounds even more elegiac than usually on “Ester’s Day,” another short acoustic sketch, this time with a fuzzbox guitar solo buzzing around on the right channel after the halfway point. Inexplicably it begins with a snippet from “At Odds With Dr. Genesis,” a song that was eventually released in full on the King Shit and the Golden Boys compilation.
Pollard boils the pomposity of Zeppelin at their Tolkienated worst down into 48 seconds of turgid mock-bombast, with absurd lyrics and bizarre squiggles of noise on the edges. It’s a fun joke that Pollard might be completely serious about.
No, it’s not the Fall’s “Oswald Defence Lawyer,” even if the opening guitar line starts off exactly like the Fall’s bassline. “I am a lost soul / I shoot myself with rock ‘n’ roll” is probably the closest Pollard’s ever gotten to a mission statement. It’s a self-aware song by a self-aware man who knowingly projects a buffoonish image.
“Peep-Hole” sounds like a joyful coda, an upbeat acoustic send-off to a record that’s at once both manic and laidback, until you listen to the lyrics. Tenth-grade English taught us that an albatross bodes ill, especially when worn across a neck. “Peep-Hole” is another semi-autobiographical song, perhaps even unintentionally, about the success that had at this point largely eluded Pollard, a success glimpsed fleetingly through a peep-hole but never attainable, and the pursuit of which was an endeavor destined to fail. And it ends with a dejected round of atonal nonsense syllables. This might be the record’s saddest song.
Between the distant piano and the extreme tape fuzz, Sprout’s album-ender sounds like a 78 recorded during Prohibition. It’s the record’s “Her Majesty,” basically.
*Ed. note: the joke is funny because there are 20 songs on Bee Thousand.