Battle of Famous Albums can only happen when a band has two records that stand out in their discography and that are generally in very close competition with each other in terms of popularity and critical reception. If the band has more than two peaks, it won’t apply. Nor if one of the two peaks is regarded as much higher.
When I’m asked to name my favorite 80s band (by myself, as I make lists and rankings in my head) I usually choose the Pixies. Although this has been the case for quite some time now, I always get a weird feeling about it, as if I’m cheating, as if the band didn’t really belong to that decade. This of course could be attributed to the fact that they indeed came right at the end of the 80s, but it’s not just that. It has more to do with the fact that listening to their music always gives you feeling that everything they do is a direct reaction to the excesses of that decade. Much like the Ramones a decade earlier, the Pixies’s purpose seems to be that of reminding everyone what rock ‘n’ roll originally was about.
So what does this really mean in musical terms? A first thing you notice is the band’s loyalty to the “Holy 3” of guitar, bass and drums. No artificial synths sterilizing the sound. No overdubs polishing and polishing until the essence’s lost. Noisiness is never abandoned in favor of accessibility and yet it’s never just about the noise either – nobody can deny Frank Black’s ear for a catchy melody. Then there’s their image – everything about the Pixies screams DIY, with no elaborate stage-shows, no high-budget videos and no eccentric clothes; just three guys and a gal and their love for music. They both sound and look real, which wouldn’t be that much of a big deal were they not birthed by the decade that has aged the worst, to almost caricaturistic degrees.
Of course, the Pixies always were an indie band, so it eventually took Nirvana to bring that sound and attitude into the mainstream. In retrospect, many fans complain that what Kurt essentially did was just copy the Pixies and become lucky with it, especially given the two bands’ similar approach to the quiet-loud dynamics. Me, I can certainly see both sides. On one hand, I’d be a fool to deny that Kurt had something that still makes so many people resonate with him, something that none of the Pixies really had and that transcends any musical similarities. But I’d be a fool as well to deny the direct influence that the Pixies clearly had on Nirvana and hey, if Kurt was so open about it, then why should any of us fight to deny it?
But getting back to our subject, the Pixies originally released 4 albums that are all considered more or less critical successes. But out of those 4, only the first 2 really ever attained the ‘classic’ status and it’s not hard to see why – Surfer Rosa and Doolittle are the ones truly representative for the sound and attitude that I described above. The reason why it is extremely hard to choose between them is because they both display and perfect the Pixies formula – short songs, fast-tempo guitar-driven music, unintelligible lyrics that are screamed by Francis as if his life depended on them, and quirky harmonies by Deal to offer a counterpoint. Not much experimentation with sounds that would characterize their third album. And just enough excitement to make both albums still sound fresh to this day.
There are slight differences of course, like Surfer Rosa being home to the only Kim-sung tune in their catalogue; or Dooolittle featuring the mock-Western Silver and the tongue-in-cheek La La Love You, but not enough to really make a difference. Unlike most bands, the Pixies truly seem to have had it all figured out as early as their debut album. Doolittle is a continuation of that, not disappointing in the slightest, but still only a continuation. So in cases like this, where a band enters the scene with such a bang!, that first impression will always have the most lasting effect on me. I was not there to witness it back in 1988, but hearing Surfer Rosa at a stressful time in my life proved to be the exact dose of adrenaline and escapism that I needed. I can still feel the excitement, although I now know the album by heart. I can never help but harmonize together with Kim on her ghostly, wordless contribution to Where Is My Mind. Or laugh out loud at the randomness of the “He bought me a soda and he tried to molest me in the parking lot” lyric. Or air-guitar along with the buzzing lines of Vamos. And I know that the guitar riff will start in Bone Machine right after the rhythm settles in, yet it always takes me surprise, making me wonder where the hell did that come from.
And if the same can be said about the Pixies as a whole and their impact on the musical scene, then surely their debut is the best place to get that feeling.
Buy Surfer Rosa (CD) from Amazon
Buy Doolittle (CD) from Amazon
Categories: Battle of Famous Albums