The Guess Who: The Best of the Guess Who

You may never think you need to hear a Guess Who song, but they often come as some relief when they crop up on the radio or in the supermarket Muzak mix.

The Guess Who

The Best of the Guess Who

Label: Legacy
US Release Date: 2006-01-16
Amazon affiliate
iTunes affiliate

You don't have to strain very hard to think of reasons to hate the Guess Who: the stupid, derivative name; the band's ubiquity on classic-rock radio; its appearance at a Nixon inaugural; the terminal blandness of the band members (it's no accident that they were photographed in the shadows for the cover of this best-of collection -- but I can't even venture as guess as to why they are standing in about a foot of floodwater); the fact that it spawned Bachman-Turner Overdrive and gave retreader Lenny Kravitz a hit with a cover of its most famous song. In the early 1990s, before grunge swept this kind of 'corporate rock' away, you could be sure to hear the Guess Who blasting out from frat parties, along with the Steve Miller Band and Bad Company.

But it was only after the fact that the Guess Who's music became generic. The group, surely the biggest to ever make it out of Winnipeg, Manitoba, thrived in the waning days of AM radio, providing concise, pretension-free music that served as an antidote to the prog rock and art rock that was just beginning to emerge in the early 1970s. This collection of the band's surprisingly durable hits, a reissue (with three bonus tracks) of the one originally released by RCA in 1971, is not only nostalgic (the one I had on eight-track as a kid) but also much more concise than later collections such as the two-disc Track Record or the three-disc Ultimate Collection. The album showcases singer Burton Cummings's powerful (albeit at times maudlin) vocals and Randy Bachman's uncanny talent for invigorating elemental rock riffs, without exhausting us or revealing too much of their limitations.

While it's easy to slot the band in the same post-British Invasion, vaguely rootsy freedom-rock niche as Creedence Clearwater Revival and Steppenwolf, they first broke big in the States as purveyors of slightly off-kilter ballads that played like cornpone adaptations of the Zombies: "These Eyes", "Laughing" and "Undun" each in their own way echo the crafty changes and harmonies of "Tell Her No" and "She's Not There" while adding the touch of aggrieved pleading that was Cummings's specialty. The way he belts out "Are you laughing at me?" in the fade of "Laughing"" or "But it was too late!" at the end of each verse of "Undun" are clinching moments that distract you just long enough to make you feel like there's really something at stake for the singer, that real emotion has been ventured. With its string and horn arrangements orchestrated for maximum melodrama, "These Eyes" is achingly and memorably earnest, climaxing with the spill of words in the chorus -- "These eyes have seen a lot of love but they're never going to see another one like I had with you."

After their initial hits, the Guess Who took a turn toward the anthemic. "American Woman" (presented here in the abbreviated version, which cuts the acoustic-blues "I said A, I said M" intro) takes Zeppelin-style riffing, some snarling reactionary attitude and a brilliantly minimal fuzz guitar solo and makes it into a iconic rock statement, one that captures the contradictions that animate much of the genre: the misogyny that masks an underlying masochism, the rebellion that has already half petered out in exasperation, the thundering denunciation of the very audience it chases after, the spirit of refusal that nevertheless plays like an affirmation. It seems like a protest song, but it's rejection of American values is so vague that Americans could eagerly make it a number-one single. The Guess Who adopted the late 1960s spirit of protest and generalized it to the point of harmlessness, so that anyone could feel comfortable joining in, no matter how unformed or indifferent their politics were.

"No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature" perfects the pseudo-protest strategy. Employing the "Day in the Life" song-within-a-song structure, it layers two strum-along confections on top of each another so that the lyrics can achieve a kind of point-counterpoint profundity. After an ambivalent evocation of a druggy scene ("A smoke filled room in a corner basement/ The situation must be right/ A bag of goodies and a bottle of wine/ We're gonna get it on right tonight") the song sets the "lonely feeling deep inside" against a reprimand to someone (Chaka? Jocko?), who "hasn't got the faith or the guts to leave" a relationship, giving a good sense of the mental gridlock failing friendships can provoke. Yet these lyrics are delivered as though they are fist-pumping declarations of independence rather than acknowledgements of paralysis and despair. It's as though the band has decided that the fact they'll be getting "no sugar tonight" is simply inevitable and they may as well celebrate it with a string of scat syllables and power chords.

In this respect, the Guess Who remains oddly uplifting. You may never think you need to hear a Guess Who song, but they often come as some relief when they crop up on the radio or in the supermarket Muzak mix. Their best songs can still perform the conjuring trick of calling forth satisfying pop from unlikely elements, managing to stifle those worrying or interrogating parts of our brains for long enough to let easy comfort creep in. But listening to the Guess Who isn't ever going to win you points for collector creativity or musical insight, so their songs have no one (outside of Canada anyway) invested in their preservation. When the oldies stations that make them a staple now start to vanish, who will be left to play "Share the Land"?


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.