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HIGHS AND LOWS: Pixies’ Albums Ranked

HIGHS AND LOWS: Pixies’ Albums Ranked Photo Credit: Ben Kriemann/Future Image/

The legendary Pixies are about to release Head Carrier – the L.P. will be with us on September 30th. Production started in late-2015 and sees new bassist Paz Lenchantin replace Kim Deal. Singles Um Chagga Lagga, Talent and Head Carrier have shown Pixies still have that grit and energy; the quality of their finest work. In terms of quality: Head Carrier seems to fit somewhere between Trompe le Monde and Surfer Rosa – you’ll have to see our rankings to get an impression – which is good news for die-hards and new Pixies fans. In honour of the imminent Head Carrier: The Metropolist revisits their back catalogue and places the albums in order of quality.

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#6 – Indie Cindy (2014)

The fifth L.P. from Pixies was the first not to feature long-standing bass player Kim Deal. Due to fractions in the band – old tensions between Deal and Black Francis reached boiling point – the new line-up brought a very different feel to Indie Cindy. This was the first Pixies album since 1991’s Trompe le Monde: The band are notable because of their prolificacy and short turnaround times (typically, a year-long gap between their first four albums). Prior to the album’s release, the band released three E.P.s: E.P. 1, E.P. 2 and E.P. 3. – recorded in 2012 by old helmer Gil Norton. The E.P.s, strange for any Pixies release, were greeted with lukewarm reception and created some disappointment. Perhaps the 20-year gap and personnel switch affected the music – not capturing the youthful spark and inspiration of their ‘80s and ‘90s work. Many noted, had Indie Cindy been released right after Trompe le Monde, the music would have resonated and won critics – by 2014, the songs seemed outdated and not a natural progression from the band.

It seems the forthcoming Head Carrier learns from Indie Cindy’s errors and not only incorporates the early sounds but updates the Pixies model and pushes the band forward. That said: Indie Cindy’s opening salvo, What Goes Boom, is up to its title – all snarling, Pixies-esque gold and plenty of sinister undertones. Acoutsic-guitar-with-haunted-electric-guitars-and-grandeur-cum-refined is the cocktail for Greens and Blues. Black Francis wanted a modern-era Gigantic: Greens and Blues offers that throwback mix of melody and anthemics – hardly missing a beat since 1988 (Gigantic featured on debut, Surfer Rosa). It might seem like no big deal to lose your bass player: When you had one of the world’s best, that slight niggle turns into a bullet hole. Bagboy is the album’s only single and deeply misses Deal’s creative input and say – it is a bit of a misfire that wants people to dance without putting substance, rhythm and concrete into the mix.

The lyrics, once intriguing with their savageness and obliqueness, seem like the product of an exhausted creative mind-set. “I needed something to eat” Francis muses on Magdalena 318; trying out a cock/cocktail joke and, on Greens and Blues, apologising for his strangeness. In a world (in 2012) where indie bands are ten-a-penny: Pixies no longer sounded as elemental and unique. Maybe the all-male line-up and missing Deal causes the issues; too big a gap or the band not as freaky and intense as once were – some great songs did prevail. Deal, who as actually pretty vocal about no new Pixies material, perhaps (in an odd way) gave the band freedom to explore new realms. Magdalena 318 is typically smart, biting and brilliant Pixies; Indie Cindy and its key explanations – “Well, look-see what the wind washed back, as we follow the bouncing ball, they call this dance the washed-up crawl” – are definite standouts. Indie Cindy was never going to match the genius of their early work but still proved the band had enough passion, ammunition and intention – it seems Head Carrier is going to be a more solid and consistent effort from Pixies.


#5 – Trompe le Monde (1991)

The last album to feature bassist Kim Deal; the fourth album in four years from the band: Many would forgive Trompe le Monde for being a little tired, idealess and unfocused – given the tensions between Francis and Deal and the mounting expectation on the band’s shoulders. Released in September 1991 – recorded between the U.S., France and U.K. – it was released on the English label 4AD and fared better in the charts here (than the U.S.), 1990’s Bossanova, as its name hints, was a more pop-influenced, danceable record – one where Pixies tried for groove and melody over abrasiveness and snarl. Depending on which way you look at the argument: Trompe le Monde was a return to the cold turkey, brain-melting ferocity of Doolittle and Surfer Rosa – a decision that either shows discomfort in Bossanova’s limitations or the need to constantly evolve and surprise.

Perhaps their loudest and most intense statement to date: Trompe le Monde overspills with blood-curdling screams and explosive riffs – cutting into the brain like a rusty saw. Planet of Sound and Alec Eiffel bring in harmonies, sweetness and enticing sound effects. Black Francis’ knack for twisted, quotable lyrics (“I was looking handsome/She was looking like an erotic vulture”) and barking vocals hadn’t evaded him – the entire album is relentless and unrepentant in its heaviness and volume. More savage and ferocious than Surfer Rosa; more varied than Bossanova – an album that proved they were one of the most consistent and impressive bands of the late-‘80s/early-‘90s. Nods to The Beatles, Ramones and The Velvet Underground came into the album: A blend of ear-catching pop manoeuvres and full-throttle rock that proved to be a huge critical success.

Some bemoaned Bossanova’s lack of spark and attack’; others commended its varied palette and impressive 180-degree shift. The band knew, with Bossanova, they could keep putting out the same bracing and mind-shattering albums – a fatigue would set in and a sense of the formulaic. They also knew two Bossanovas in a row would be a misstep: Trompe le Monde is a dreamy, exotic and bizarre insight into a very different world. While contemporaries around them were talking about love, personal issues and predictable themes: Pixies looked at higher themes – “Keeping low doesn’t make no sense” – and displayed their typically fragmented and Byzantine approach to lyrics. Even if Black Francis and company were as tripped-out and strange as normal – the album was a cohesive and narrative gem that was to proceed a long hiatus. The album just celebrated its 25th birthday and is one of the most enduring albums from the early-‘90s.


#4 – Bossanova (1990)

Depending on whether you prefer Pixies unhinged and berserk or a bit more rounded: Bossanova was aimed at satisfying the latter. Because of that, some critics were lacklustre and yearned for a return to their previous album – an arguable career-high of Doolittle – and its dynamics. Bossanova keeps the grunge ethics of Surfer Rosa and the melodic sensibilities of Doolittle – whilst progressing the band’s sound and ensuring they do not repeat themselves. If Bossanova was closer to conventional and peers than Doolittle and previous output – it can never be accused of being normal, predictable or tame. If Doolittle looked at slicing eyeballs, pollution and weird roommates: Bossanova puts space explorations, U.F.O.s and far-off galaxies into the blender. Completely insane and off-the-charts-odd: Pixies at their fantastical finest.

The Happening, perhaps one of the best tracks from the album, concern an alien vessel landing in Vegas and sees the peace-seeking/alien overlord putting the ship “right on the strip”, stretching his legs (or whatever aliens have) and “Saying hi”. The heroine of Is She Weird has a fancy mind – “And your car is bitchin’” – and rip-tide month: Someone Francis is willing to surrender to and try to unpiece. If Allison seems like a straight-forward love song: It’s intergalactic, floating-in-the-upper-atmosphere drift and detachment sees Pixies go further into space – further away from civilisation and human life. Purists would argue Pixies needed to keep the momentum of Surfer Rosa Doolittle alive – and not losing that focus and energy. What they did, cagily and with sagacity, is incorporate the finest elements of both albums to create something rounded, multi-layered and more interesting – rather than just plough the same furrow.

Cecilia Ann – covering The Surftones’ song – is a blend of space-age and old-time cowboy drama: A wonderful mash-up that transforms the song and gives it a decidedly quirky edge – one could argue Muse’s most bonkers moments stemmed from this track (Knights of Cydonia is their equivalent). Velouria was the attempt of a new Gigantic: It is not as established and enduring as that song but is impressive in its wigged-out, lovingly mad manner. Among the google-eyed weird are cryptic lines and insights. Ana finds Francis paying tribute to “my fave, undressing in the sun” at his most David Bowie-esque; “Return to the sea – bye. Forgetting everyone”. The songs, unlike their most direct and attacking songs, Bossanova is more tender, nuanced and fascinating – songs that unravel layers and emotions many weeks down the line. As albums go: There are few compliments higher than that.


#3Come On Pilgrim (1987)

Although it is a mini-L.P., you cannot have a Pixies discography without the brilliance and influence of Come On Pilgrim. This was the Boston band’s debut and showed just what they were made of. Released in September 1987 through 4AD: Black Francis, Kim Deal; Joey Santiago and David Lovering entered Fort Apache Studios in Boston to cut their demo. tape. That 17-track tape was in the hands of 4AD founder Ivo Watts-Russell, who upon first investigation, was a little reluctant to sign the band. On the insistence of his girlfriend, Watts-Russell played the tape on his Walkman and the penny dropped – a hand-picked 8-track selection was born (with it, a legendary band was launched).

Come On Pilgrim laid out Pixies’ musical variation and switched between (partly) Spanish-sung numbers (Vamos and Isla de Encanta) and incest (Nimrod’s Son and The Holiday Song). If the Latin grooves and swagger wins the hips and body: The seedier and disturbed heartbeat of Nimrod’s Son (“You are the product of incestuous union”) still manages to kick, race and bogey in spite of the subject matter. Religious topics and references find their way into Caribou and Levitate Me (the aforementioned incest-mentioning tracks) and Caribou stands as the album’s centrepiece. It’s nervy, eerier opening strings and slow build lead to an explosive Black Francis chorus; all balanced and blended with Deal’s sweeter vocals and commanding basslines. It may be a 20-minute release but manages to hook you in and introduce you to the wonderful and enticing world of Pixies – their subsequent albums were based on the Come On Pilgrim template; they were fully-formed and clear right from the off.

The original U.K. release entered the U.K. indie album charts and spent 29 weeks there – managing to peak at number 5. Not released in the U.S. until 1988 – it failed to find distribution upon initial release – Rough Trade incorporated it alongside debut album Surfer Rosa – by 1992, Elektra Records issued both on separate discs in the U.S. Deserving to stand on its own two feet: A reminder of just how strong, focused and electric the band was from their first days. In a period where there were very few groups willing to push music and be daring: Pixies were the rebels and leaders that stood out and lead the charge. Not just a mini-L.P. that propelled and pushed Pixies onto better things (see below): It is still influencing modern bands – modern Pixies tracks like Um Chagga Lagga have gone back to Come On Pilgrim for guidance; highlighting how vital and enduring the music is.


#2 – Surfer Rosa (1988)

After the captivating and inquisitive Come On Pilgrim: Surfer Rosa was Pixies’ first full-length release and arrived in March 1988 via 4AD. Like its predecessor, the subject matter was far from cliché and safe – looking at mutilation, voyeurism and the darker side of the spectrum. References to Puerto Rico and Spanish lyrics continue from where Come On Pilgrim left off but Surfer Rosa is a wider, more expansive work that has inspired musicians Billy Corgan, PJ Harvey and Kurt Cobain (stating Nevermind was written with Surfer Rosa in mind). Ivo Watts-Russell, prior to Come On Pilgrim’s release, suggested the band record an album. Due to difficulties between the band and The Purple Tape producer Gary Smith: Pixies turned from Fort Apache Studios and hired Steve Albini (who would produce Nirvana’s In Utero) and a deal was brokered. Albini met the band one evening and a day later they were all in the studio – the motivation, instant bond and inspiration was hot and solid.

Albini employed unusual recording techniques during the sessions. Kim Deal’s vocals for Where Is My Mind? (backing) and Gigantic (lead) were recorded in the studio’s toilets – able to capture authentic echo and lo-fi charm. Albino spent weeks on the album hoping to mine as much gold as possible – experimenting with vocal techniques and ways to distort instruments and vocals – and it brings new magic and edges from Something Against You, Gigantic and Bone Machine. If Gigantic is the only song with a Kim Deal writing credit: Black Francis showed what a truly unique and astonishing songwriter he is. Able to evoke huge impact and reaction from short songs – most are under 3 minutes long. Vamos and Brick Is Red recalls the slinky, Latin-flecked sound of Come On Pilgrim while Where Is My Mind? is in a different league – a menacing and epic song that sounds like nothing else (made famous due to it scoring the closing credits to Fight Club).

During the studio sessions; banter and conversation would often preface a song. The end of Oh My Golly! features Deal (leaving the studio for a cigarette, she threatened anyone who would dare touch her equipment) and Francis’ spiky retort – all left to capture the reality and relationships in the band. These snippets not only gave originality and freshness to the album: It predicted the eventual break-up of Deal-era Pixies – her and Francis often fighting and at loggerheads throughout recording. Take that away, and Surfer Rosa is hugely influential. Cobain hired Albini for In Utero off the back of Surfer Rosa; Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan was a huge fan of the sound and production techniques – many prefer Albini’s leadership and style over than favoured by Gil Norton on Doolittle.


#1 – Doolittle (1989)

Doolittle followed on quickly from Surfer Rosa and brought themes of surrealism, torture and death to the lyrics: The music and production often cleaner, more sanitised and sane. Those who criticise Doolttle and prefer Surfer Rosa do so because of the production. Doolittle is a more theatrical and polished record. Pixies released Here Comes Your Man and Monkey Gone to Heaven as singles – both went to enjoy chart success in the U.S. Acclaimed and celebrated by critics – regardless of the debates about sound – it is an astonishing album that is one of the most influential albums ever created. In 1995, Doolittle was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America. In 2003, NME ranked the album the second-greatest album ever; Rolling Stone placed in 226 in their list of the 500 best albums of all time.

Doolittle’s eclectic mixes define the album. Tame is a short, sharp burst while Crackity Jones is a barking, yapping song that incorporates the quiet-loud dynamic of the band. Here Comes Your Man goes into country territory while Silver and I Bleed continue to play across the softer, lighter end of the scale. Unlike their debut album: Doolittle is sonically ambitious and hops across more genres (than Surfer Rosa). Violins and cello go into Monkey Gone to Heaven– giving it a (strangely) romantic underpinning. Tame is based on a three-chord formula; one that included Joey Santiago playing a ‘Hendrix chord’ – a dominant 7♯9 chord that Jimi Hendrix popularised the funky, jazzy sound – over the main bass line. I Bleed builds around a simple, repeated rhythmic progression while Crackity Jones employs Spanish influence – Tame was perhaps the most influential song with regards Nirvana and what they would go on to create.

Despite some disliking Gil Norton’s sound and production; he would be favoured by a new generation of bands who wanted to achieve a Doolittle-esque feel to their music. During recording of Doolittle, tensions between Kim Deal and Black Francis became unbearable. The band took a short break – recording three records in two years – but would go on to record two more albums in the following two years after Doolittle. Eventually, that conflict would see Deal leave the band but also makes Doolittle such a vibrant, fascinating and fraught creation. Undisputable one of the 1980s’ best albums but a record that changed music and helped to create and popularise grunge music – without it, the likes of Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and their contemporaries might have never come to be. A protosocial masterpiece that laid the foundations for ‘90s guitar music and has yet to be topped in terms of its sounds and influence – not even by Pixies themselves.


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