Ranking the albums by Pixies is as hard as choosing which parent, or child, I imagine, you love the most. Especially when it’s your second favourite band of all time. When we repromote the Alex Turner – Rank The Albums blog published on NME.com last summer, the Arctic Monkey fan clubs rise up to say ‘there is no worst! There’s only perfect and more perfect!’. I feel like this about the Pixies’ four albums. Oh, and there’s another problem: ‘Come On Pilgrim’. The 7-song EP contains some of the band’s finest material, but it’s not technically an album. Still, we’re going to count it as one. A further impasse is the battle between ‘Surfer Rosa’ and ‘Doolittle’. It’s almost impossible to put one above the other.
2013 has been a significant year for the Massachusetts band already. After 27 years together, Kim Deal announced last month that she was leaving the band. At around the same time, ‘Bagboy‘, a blast of classic Pixies magic, was released and a European tour announced. Bittersweet for fans, hey? Anyway, here goes…
Gah. It pains me to put this album “last”. Released in 1991, ‘Trompe Le Monde’ is the band’s swan song before splitting up in 1993. It spurts forward with a fusion of heavy shredding and torpid drumfire (‘The Sad Punk’, ‘Planet Of Sound’, the spectacular ‘Alec Eiffel’) and the surf-rock sublimity of ‘Bossanova’ (‘Head On’, ‘Bird Dream Of The Olympus Mons’, ‘Motorway To Roswell’). The loud-quiet-loud trademark dynamic remains, as well as spoken word excerpts, heart-pumping licks, balmy key changes but… there is an absence of Kim Deal. Often described as Black’s first solo album, Deal is hardly present at all, which is a shame. The riff of ‘U-mass’ was written while Black and Joey Santiago were at Masachussets University years before. The album explores Black’s interest in sci fi – he sings about sea monkeys, martians and space – along with the Daliesque title, album cover and opening track. Interestingly, it was released the day before ‘Nevermind’, a precursor of the alternative music boom of the 90s. A solid 9/10 record, despite patchy moments.
Unlike ‘Surfer Rosa’ and ‘Doolittle’, ‘Bossanova isn’t a cohesive listen. Sure, it’s one of the greatest albums released in 1990, but it doesn’t quite hang together: a majestic four-run triumph – ‘Velouria’, ‘Allison’, ‘Is She Weird’, ‘Ana’ – can’t help but make the following tracks seem weaker. ‘Is She Weird’, though, with its ecstatic ‘like the stars and the sun, like the stars and the sun’ semi-bridge and romance between Santigo’s guitar and Deal’s bass is one of the highlights of the Pixies canon. Underneath the music, tensions were rising. The band had moved to LA without Deal, who later travelled there from Boston, but the recording sessions were problematic and quick. Black recalled, “So I was writing [lyrics] on napkins five minutes before I sang. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes not. That’s just the nature of that songwriting.”
Perhaps you don’t agree with ‘Come On Pilgrim”s inclusion on the basis of it not being a full album but, c’mon, we can’t ignore ‘Caribou’. Oh, and ‘The Holiday Song’ and ‘Nimrod’s Son’. And ‘I’ve Been Tired’. The first recording from 1987, it was whittled down to 8 tracks from a 17-track demo called ‘The Purple Tape’ and introduced the unique, original Pixies sound with raw power. Black’s revitalising vocal range and humorous trills, Santiago’s virtuoso riffs, Deal’s ethereal vocals, stomach-curdlingly beautiful key changes, lyrical snippets in Spanish, surreal lyrics and energy that would go on to influence the next decade in music. And Caribou. Jeez, what an incredible introduction to the world.
*Ducks*. It’s controversial not to rank Pixies’ first full-length album top. NME gave the album 9 and a half out of ten when it was released in 1988 but in retrospect it feels like a 10/10 record. ‘Surfer Rosa’ was the album that encouraged Kurt Cobain to choose producer Steve Albini for ‘In Utero’, telling Melody Maker in ’92 that it informed much of his songwriting for his album. It’s the record that made Billy Corgan exclaim ‘Holy shit!’ – and for good reason. It begins with the delicious assault of ‘Bone Machine’, building up from just drums, to Deal’s morse-code bassline and Black’s deranged sing-shouting before an angry, loud-quiet-loud chorus. ‘Gigantic’, of course, sees Deal take lead vocals, ‘Where Is My Mind?’, though slightly tarnished by its ubiquity after featuring on the ‘Fight Club’ soundtrack, remains one of the greatest songs of the 80s. It has everything: wit, bombast, ‘Tony’s Theme’, moments of musicality that must’ve been divinely inspired and the unique alchemy of the band before difficulties arose. Hence why you might disagree with my placement of it second. NME’s Reviews Editor thinks ‘Surfer Rosa’ should be at the top, saying “they are both 10/10. But really, SF is 11/10. I think SF is more rewarding ‘cos it’s harder to get into. But when you do…”
In 2003, NME ranked ‘Doolittle’ the second-greatest album of all time. Big call, but understandable. Why is it number one for me? Simply put, it’s a perfect album from start to finish. The complete shebang. The kit and caboodle and whole nine yards and full monty etc. From the angelic monkey on the cover and the fire of ‘Debaser’ through to ‘Gouge Away’ at the end of the loaf, there are no weak moments. Though there are better songs on other albums, ‘Doolittle’ is consistently brilliant. The band’s poppiest record (‘Here Comes Your Man’) and most commercially successful, it retains personality, savage grunge, avant-garde lyrics, sonic courage and shows the indie vanguards right at the top of their game. It was recorded in the basement of a hair salon in Boston and cost $40,000 to make (bear in mind Albini was paid just $1,500 for ‘Surfer Rosa’ the year before) perhaps explaining the more sophisticated and sheeny sound. It’s got love songs and whistling (‘La La Love You’) and songs about whores and suicide. It’s got sing-a-long anthems and tracks which can take months to unlock before they blow you away. It’s got the thrilling crescendo of ‘Mr Grieves’ and the low-key howl of ‘No 13 Baby’. Let’s be honest: this is what music was made for.