Perfect Twenty Years On: Ranking the Built to Spill Records

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of these indie rock stalwarts out of Boise, Idaho. To commemorate the occasion, PopMatters presents this ranking of their albums, from worst to best.

The Pacific Northwest has been home to more than its fair share of iconic musicians — Jimi Hendrix, Quincy Jones, Kurt Cobain, and Elliott Smith all spent their formative years in this rain-soaked corner of the world. But for my generation, those who came of age in the years shortly after grunge’s demise, there is no band that better exemplifies the Northwest sound than Boise, Idaho’s Built to Spill.

The band has seen many incarnations, from its beginnings as a loosely conceived solo-project for founder/songwriter Doug Martsch, to its current line-up of drummer Scott Plouf, bassist Brett Nelson, and guitarists Jim Roth and Brett Netson, which has earned a reputation as one of the most dynamic and inventive live rock bands in recent memory. As a guitarist, Martsch belongs to the same school of outre virtuosity as Dinosaur Jr.’s J.Mascis and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, although he balances his more experimental tendencies with a heavy dose of classic rock sensibility. But it is his unique approach to melody and songcraft that have exerted such a considerable influence over the music of the Pacific Northwest. And while a few of Martsch’s most ardent admirers, such as Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard and Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock, have gone on to achieve greater levels of commercial success, Built to Spill maintains a core of deeply devoted fans to this day.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Built to Spill, and to commemorate the occasion, I’ve put together the following tribute to their catalog, ranking their full-length releases from worst to best. I’ve included both live and compilation albums here to provide a sense of their evolution as a band and the range of their material.

9. The Normal Years
(K Records, 1996)

The Normal Years is a compilation of previously unreleased tracks recorded between 1993 and 1995, and it provides a sense of the constant state of flux and reinvention that characterized the early years of Built to Spill. The cast of players throughout this period included guitarist Brett Netson and bassist Brett Nelson, contributions from members of Martsch’s previous band Treepeople, and a seemingly endless procession of drummers. As a whole, it’s a scattered and disjointed affair that reveals the evolution of the band throughout this period, growing pains and all. “Joyride” is a burst of jangled punk-pop that remains a fixture of the band’s live repertoire, and a cover of Daniel Johnston’s “Some Things Last a Long Time” is touching in its raw simplicity. And album closer “Terrible/Perfect” exhibits Martsch’s deeply creative approach to the guitar, building from a beginning of clean electric finger-picking to a climax of noise-drenched textures and huge, resonant chords.

8. Ultimate Alternative Wavers
(C/Z, 1993)

The influence of Martsch’s previous band, Treepeople, is all over Built to Spill’s 1993 debut, from the proto-grunge guitar soloing to the angst-ridden rasp of the vocals. But on tracks like the unapologetically poppy “Lie for a Lie”, and the aptly-titled slacker-soul of “Hazy”, Martsch displayed a determination to take his new project in some very different directions as well. The album begins, naturally, with “The First Song”, an amalgamation of guitar feedback, jolting tempo changes, and Martsch’s vaguely existential lyrical ruminations. And on the standout track “Nowhere Nothin’ Fuckup”, Martsch draws heavily upon the Velvet Underground’s classic ode to drifters and druggies, “Oh Sweet Nothin”, marking the beginning of his career-long commitment to foregrounding and celebrating his own influences as a musician and a songwriter.

7. Ancient Melodies of the Future
(Warner Bros., 2001)

After the back to back releases of Perfect from Now On and Keep It Like a Secret, 2001’s Ancient Melodies of the Future, was met with a reception from fans and critics that was often lukewarm at best. In many ways, the album is a return to the more traditional songwriting of There’s Nothing Wrong with Love, but it lacks the gleefully haphazard nature of that record, trading the roughly-hewn appeal of the band’s early work for an overly refined production aesthetic that detracts from the simple beauty of these songs. Martsch would later admit that it wasn’t that great of a record, and after its release he went on an indefinite hiatus from the band to spend more time at home with his family. But looking back from the present stage of the band’s career, Ancient Melodies of the Future feels like a necessary step from the sprawling and experimental work of their mid-career albums, as the band returned to the more traditional, song-focused efforts of recent years. The strongest offering here is the opener, “Strange”, which foregrounds Sam Coomes’ distinctive keyboard style as the backdrop to one of Martsch’s most instantly infectious vocal melodies. And “Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss” stands out to this day as one of the catchiest, straight-up pop numbers in the band’s catalog.

6. You in Reverse
(Warner Bros., 2006)

After Ancient Melodies of the Future’s largely lackluster reception, Martsch went into a creative hibernation, releasing one solo album of blues-based acoustic work, and taking a step back from the constant grind of touring, writing, and recording to spend more time at home. When You in Reverse finally arrived in 2006, it was greeted by fans and critics as a welcome and unexpected return to form. Much of this album was written through live improvisation, with each member of the now permanent line-up contributing to the songwriting process. And there is a loose and informal feel to these songs that comes closer than any other recorded material to replicating the energy of the band’s live performances. Opener "Goin’ Against You Mind" bursts forth with tightly mechanized rhythms and urgent, spiraling guitars. Martsch’s lyrics are weird and wonderful as ever, singing “When I was a kid I saw a light / Floating high above the trees one night / Thought it was an alien / Turned out to be just God”, in his scratchy and lilting tenor. And on songs like “Liar”, “Just a Habit”, and “Saturday”, a more subtle compositional approach allows for Martsch’s mesmerizing vocal melodies to really shine through.

5. There Is No Enemy
(Warner Bros., 2009)

In many ways, You in Reverse played like the proper follow-up to Keep It Like a Secret that Ancient Melodies of the Future failed to deliver. There Is No Enemy was an even more consistent effort that harkened back to the rich symphonic guitar textures and minor key moods of Perfect from Now On. But whereas that album was characterized by its expansive and unpredictable approach to structure, the songs here are more focused and restrained, foregrounding Martsch’s poignant vocal melodies and introspective lyrics. Themes of aging, memory, and mortality dominate the album, but Martsch tempers this heavy subject matter with characteristic irony and wit, as on the alt-country-tinged track “Hindsight”, where he wonders if “the grass is always greener because it’s fake”. Musically, the album is rich with multi-layered guitars and gently plodding rhythms. Each song flows seamlessly into the next, and although the mood is generally somber throughout, there are a few surprise elements thrown into the mix as well. “Nowhere Lullaby” is as gorgeous and moving as anything the band has ever recorded, “Life’s a Dream” pays tribute to the oldies with its winking, doo-wop backing vocals, triumphant horns color the climatic “Things Fall Apart”, and “Pat” explodes as aggressively as anything since Ultimate Alternative Wavers.

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In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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