(My) Ultimate Guide to SUPERCHUNK

Here’s my Best of Superchunk Spotify Playlist. Read on, and find a bonus Covers by Superchunk playlist!

As MOST of you know, I love Superchunk. From the minute I heard No Pocky for Kitty (the band’s 2nd full length) on Dave Mason’s cassette-playing Walkman in the halls of high school, I was hooked. Thanks to carpool rides in The Cliff brothers’ Honda Accord, I already spent forty minutes every morning and most afternoons being exposed to punk and subversive rock like Fugazi, Operation Ivy, X, Ramones, Naked Raygun, the Damned and the Descendants.

But the sloppy, noisy energy of Superchunk’s take on punk resonated with me more than most bands. Not only because the discovery was pretty much my own (I think Dave gave me the tape, never asked for it back, or just never got it back), But because Superchunk was the band to plant the seed in me: I could play music in a band and write music. GODOG was formed shortly thereafter and the lessons I learned from Superchunk went into the song writing. I was still repurposing Chunk riffs upon joining Duster (not that one), my college band.

In celebration of their return to recording and touring with “I Hate Music”, here’s my guide to all of Superchunk’s full-length albums,singles comps, and covers.

FULL LENGTH ALBUMS

I Hate Music
As I’m still taking this new album in, it’s heard to say where I’d place it in rank order for a “best of”, but the singles ‘Me, You and Jackie Mittoo’ and ‘FOH’ are energetic ditties, the former carrying a nostalgic tone most aging rockers can identify with, much like the title of the album. ‘Staying Home’ could be the most blistering punk song tha’ Chunk has delivered in over a decade, and the title and subject seems to identify with the aging rocker condition as well.

‘Breaking Down’ might be the best insertion of synths into a Superchunk yet, while keeping things anthemic and dynamic. I’ve never really reacted well to slow/mid-tempo ditties within the North Carolinian’s catalog so “Out of the Sun” falls pretty flat with me, but again, I can identify with the old-foggy sentiments Mac is presenting.

If anything this is a Superchunk album, which to me makes it inherently good. The fact that it’s their TENTH studio album in almost twenty five years together makes me feel good and bad at the same time: this band I love has always delivered the energy, hooks, and squawking guitars that I’ve needed, but without any great departures in the evolution of their sound (except for whatever the hell you’d call what O’Rourke did to them). Because there are no great departures in style, you’re left liking what you’re most nostalgic for and shunning the new stuff. This is why people make bathroom trips when long-time favorite bands declare “this is a song off our new album” from stage. Or The Rolling Stones let Keith play one from his solo album. At this time I think it is mid-pack right next to or below Come Pick Me Up.

1. Here’s Where the Strings Come In
This is either Superchunk’s best album, or tied with No Pocky. My mind on the matter changes constantly. Strings starts off with a barn burner “Hyper Enough” and ends with the agitated noise pop of “Certain Stars”. The difference on this album is that you can tell Mac and company have improved their chops and have completely melded with Wuster. They’re tight and the band is as dynamic as ever. Where there might have once been warped panels of feedback, Mac inserts more complex guitar solos (and then feedback). The anthems are still in force, “Detroit Has A Skyline” being one of the band’s best and most desperately energetic songs. Unlike its predecessor, Strings mid-tempo songs don’t seem to fall short or lack power. This album reminds me of sing-a-longs fueled by cheap beer in dorm rooms. This album must fall into true indie rock’s all-killer/no-filler Hall of Fame.

2. No Pocky For Kitty
My first love, this is the album I am most nostalgic for. From the (forgive me) chunky guitars that kick off ‘Skips Steps 1 & 3’ through the closer “Throwing Things”, the band throws out one indie rock anthem after another. From hooks, the screaming guitars, and fuzzed-out bass- you can almost hear the band pogoing in the basement of Chicago Recording Company while Steve Albini sat upstairs knowing he was way ahead of the curve in terms of quality coffee. My only regret with this album is that Wurster wasn’t in the band yet, benefitting from that eccentric caffeine freak’s beautiful set of microphones. Another candidate for the indie rock Hall of Fame.

3. On the Mouth
Outside of some of the most exciting songs Superchunk has put together (Precision Auto, New Low), this album also saw Jon Wuster take the drum throne, which inevitably let the band grow into more diverse, dynamic sounds. Having John Reis at the helm recording this gem doesn’t hurt: his perspective gives this album a cutting, buzz saw sharpness most Superchunk albums hold back on.

4. Superchunk (s/t)
Debut albums, in my estimation, usually contain the best output of any given band (80% of the time?). They usually capture the most energy and enthusiasm, and also show the most focus on song craft before the years of touring take their toll. This first album contains so many ‘hits’ (“Slack Motherfucker” is an indie landmark) and is so wonderful in terms of its pure punk energy, but Superchunk bucked the first album/best album trend simply because they got better as musicians, started working with better producers, and brought on a fantastic drummer by the third album.

5. Foolish
I’m constantly confused as to why this album seemed like a dud to me 19 years ago: Was it the tempo and length of first song “”Like A Fool” I couldn’t get past? I love that sing now! “Driveway to Driveway” was an anthem I’d sing arm-in-arm with college cronies around a twelve pack. “Water Wings” is a complete shredder. In the end, I think Brian Paulson’s recording techniques weren’t right for the band and left them flat. But there’s no denying side one is badass.

6. Majesty Shredding
I was a little worried about a ‘comeback’ album after a nine year hiatus, especially when “Here’s to Shutting Up” never got its hooks in to me. But songs like ‘My Gap Feels Weird’, ‘Crossed Wires’, and ‘Learned to Surf’ had the energy of Superchunk’s best tracks, and possibly contained some more sophistication in terms of song structure, guitar works and production.

7. Come Pick Me Up
Sitting squarely in the middle and at the height of the “damn the torpedoes – SYNTHS” phase, this album is also the high point of Mac testing out the highest ranges of his voice. Combined with Jim O’Rourke twisting nobs, cutting Wurster’s balls off, and adding string and brass sections into the mix, this is the worst type of mediocre/pretty good album: one that the producer is solely to blame for (see also Broken Social Scene’s 2005 self-titled album). The songs are THERE. I’ve seem them rock this album live! Only on “Pulled Muscle” does the band sound vaguely like itself. A good, if frustrating, listen.

I still remember reading an interview with the band at the time of this album’s release and Laura Ballance was vocal – and perturbed – about how the production touches (like the saxophone and brass jam at the end of “Pink Hearts”) were too much like the E. Street Band. Looking back I think it’s hilarious that her own wallet has been well-lined by bands (namely Arcade Fire) professing love for and attributing their sound to The Boss and Company.

8. Indoor Living
Following up Strings would be a shit job for any band. While Indoor Living IS the beginning of the “oh there’s an empty track on the board? SYNTH!” phase, this is still a band that had quality songs coming of out of their ears. Contrary to everything I’ve wrote, “Watery Hands” is a catchy, mid-tempo, synth-laden song I thought could be HIT for them. And the anthems persisted: “Burn Last Sunday” showed the band still would let the guitars feedback, and “Nu Bruises” let the drums be the hook. It was hard putting this below Come Pick Me Up, and still I’m not sure it belongs here.

9. Here’s to Shutting Up
“Are they trying to be Yo La Tengo?” was the first thought that entered my mind on hearing opener ‘Rainy Streets’. Things got better for the second song, but then lap steel and strings slither in on the third song! And potentially strong songs like “Florida’s on Fire” seemed to fall apart. What is this nonsense?!? I think a lot of what falls flat on this album for me could be contributed to Superchunk’s ill-advised “the more synths, the better” phase. Even the great “Out on the Wing” dilutes some raging guitars with layers and layers of synths. Although “Art Class” retains some attitude from earlier albums, the lyrics start to get embarrassing by the chorus. This is not a horrible album, but it’s great band doing nowhere near what they do best.

TOSSING SEEDS, INCIDENTAL MUSIC, CUP OF SAND
ALL three of these singles comps are worth having and are chock-full of covers and alternate or acoustic versions of songs. These are possibly the best way to introduce a stranger to tha Chunk.

COVERS
Superchunk has never been afraid to pay tribute to their influences, big or small, from Bowie to Destiny’s Child to Adam Ant, Devo and contemporaries like Sebadoh. Although I’ve created this Spotify playlist of Superchunk playing covers, there are still some covers only available in other formats:

  • Misfits – Tha’ Chunk has recorded “Where Eagles Dare” and “Horror Business” and pull them out live as well.
  • The Cure– Participating in the Onion AV Club Undercover series, Superchunk chose “In Between Days” and did a pretty great job.
  • Motörhead’s “I’ll be Your Sister”, The Verlaines’ ” Lying in State”, and The Chills’ “Night of Chill Blue” all appear on the Incidental Music singles comp, which is oddly missing from Spotify.

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