The Pixies Albums Ranked
The Pixies story is one of the most interesting in the alt rock narrative, in my humble opinion. They found relatively modest success, but set up numerous acts (lotta grunge ones) for success in the ’90s, including Nirvana and my favorite band, Weezer. Formed in Boston in 1986, Black Francis, David Lovering, Joey Santiago, and the legend Kim Deal forged a fusion of punk, surf, and pop rock quickly and powerfully until the group disbanded in 1993. The Pixies reunited in 2004 for a bunch of tours before releasing new material for the first time in 2013 with EP1. However, just earlier in the year, Deal left the group; session bass player Simon “Ding” Archer gave his talents to the three EPs that would form INDIE CINDY and Kim Schattuck joined the group as a touring bassist for the rest of the year. She was replaced by the incredible Paz Lenchantin in 2014, who is still with the band to this day. I saw the Pixies live with Weezer last year, and my interest in the band’s newer work was revived (although I had in fact listened to it already). In fact, Lenchantin is the vocalist on what just may be my favorite Pixies track. We’ll get to that.
Anyways, the Pixies have released seven studio albums since 1988, including the impetus for this piece, the recently released BENEATH THE EYRIE. However, I’d like to propose an eight-album “canon,” which includes COME ON PILGRIM. One half of the “Purple Tape” that got the Pixies their deal with British label 4AD, the “mini-LP” or “EP,” as it is variably described, was commercially released in 1987. It’s made up of eight tracks, almost the entirety of which did not end up on future releases (besides “Vamos”). However, this is why I won’t be considering the band’s EPs for ranking here. PIXIES (2002) was the second half of the Purple Tape, which in an inverse of COME ON PILGRIM had been re-recorded in almost its entirety (besides “In Heaven [Lady in the Radiator Song], I believe) before its release. And EP1, EP2 (2014), and EP3 (2014), as mentioned, were just compiled into the full-on fifth (or sixth, in my estimation) Pixies studio album. This weird contextualizing is just to precede my opinions below.
EDIT 10/5/2022: Added DOGGEREL to the list.
#9 — DOGGEREL (2022)
Favorite track: “Nomatterday”
Unfortunately, DOGGEREL, the latest Pixies album at the time of this writing, is the band’s worst in the 35 years since COME ON PILGRIM. But as is the case with bands as great as the Pixies, their “worst” is still leagues ahead of much of the contemporary work in the rock space. Black Francis and others have noted a sort of “orchestral” approach to the Pixies’ traditionally raw and offbeat alternative sound with this album. I kind of get that, as DOGGEREL often feels softer than other works, even in this late-career, post-reunion era for the band, but more accurately, it often has a verve in its guitar sound and a lofty production that embody this description. It’s a bit difficult to describe, for this writer at least, but “Nomatterday” is both the album’s best track in general and the best track to exemplify the band’s direction. It’s not like this is some vast misdirection from the Pixies’ weirdness and brilliantly crafted, out-of-step tunes. But it is true that DOGGEREL seems to lack a vitality, and even pure catchiness, perhaps in favor of experimentation for an aging rock group.
#8 — HEAD CARRIER (2016)
Favorite track: “All I Think About Now”
Look, even as the Pixies’ worst album, HEAD CARRIER is still a great evolution from their return a few years earlier. It’s the first album to feature the aforementioned Lenchantin, who sang lead vocals and received a rare Pixies co-writing credit for “All I Think About Now.” “All I Think About Now” is that aforementioned potential favorite Pixies song. Rather than embody the band’s loud-quiet-loud philosophy, it kind of just leans into mostly quiet, not unlike “Where Is My Mind?” “All I Think About Now” haunts like that song, perhaps the Pixies’ best-known, but Lenchantin’s vocals are truly beautiful and the song is more wistful and, well, straight forward. This song, and in fact the whole album, shows the value of seeing live music; when the Pixies performed the song on stage, I was immediately transfixed and dialed in, although I had certainly heard the song before. And now it’s probably my favorite Pixies song, a phenomenal track amid a commendable, if dialed down, nouveau Pixies record.
#7 — INDIE CINDY (2014)
Favorite track: “Indie Cindy”
But then, the post-reformation Pixies records could probably described as more dialed down than the original line up’s output. I don’t know, the dudes are older. That doesn’t mean they don’t have punch though, with tracks like “Blue Eyed Hexe” and “What Goes Boom” reminding you of that. And they still have warped pop sensibilities in spades, which songs like “Magdalena 318” and especially “Indie Cindy” embody. The latter is probably the best encapsulation of the loud-quiet-loud style (the implication of this phrase is pretty clear), with overt tonal shifts between verse and chorus. At first, it’s relatively jarring, but repeat listens offer up an effectively varied experience. The same could be said for the Pixies’ discography in general, but INDIE CINDY reduces the range. The quiet and loud extremes aren’t quite as potent.
#6 — BENEATH THE EYRIE (2019)
Favorite track: “Catfish Kate”
And yet, BENEATH THE EYRIE might be the Pixies’ worst display of the loud-quiet-loud concept. That doesn’t mean it’s not a principled, cohesive album with an impressive display of nuance. Because it is. And, sure, it’s not without its energy. As meditative as the lapses in derangement might have been on previous Pixies’ records, BENEATH THE EYRIE succeeds as a fundamental plunge into serene darkness. “Serene” might not be the word to come to mind for some listeners of BENEATH THE EYRIE, but nevertheless, the album enfolds and doesn’t really let go, flowing into and out of tracks unlike any other Pixies album. That also means its individual tracks are less immediately distinguished, although “Catfish Kate” swiftly stood out as the pulse-pumping exception.
#5 — BOSSANOVA (1990)
Favorite track: “Is She Weird”
You know, for a minute I wasn’t sure if I was gonna go full “controversial” on this ranking and put the three new albums ahead of BOSSANOVA and TROMPE LE MONDE. But through an agonizing process of deliberation, I had to decide that there was an admirable dedication to confusion happening on the latter two records. On BOSSANOVA, that confusion goes a bit too far, leaning into space and surf rock and getting a little more heady than the band’s previous three releases. And I’m usually all for surf rock, but the spaciness of BOSSANOVA loses me a little bit. Nevertheless, “Is She Weird” is a romping song with a catchy chorus, while “Rock Music” quickly knocks you over the head after “Cecilia Ann” and “Stormy Weather,” the penultimate track, winds you down. BOSSANOVA’s all over the place, but the trip is not without great experiences.
#4 — TROMPE LE MONDE (1991)
Favorite track: “U-Mass”
You have to wonder (or maybe you already know this is the case) if the Pixies’ incredibly prolific few years had something to do with their demise shortly after the release of TROMPE LE MONDE. I mean, they put out a record every year from 1987 to 1991, two of them being alt rock masterpieces. And although TROMPE LE MONDE would have formerly been my choice for the “worst” album for them to go out on, during reflection for this piece I decided it narrowly beat out BOSSANOVA. And that decision was made mostly on the strength of “U-Mass,” an incredible pop rock song that is supported also by “Alec Eiffel” and Purple Tape holdout “Subbacultcha.” I think I also appreciated TROMPE LE MONDE’s variance a bit more as well, with closing tracks “Motorway to Roswell” and “The Navajo Know” representing a drive into the distance for the band, not neutered but somewhat measured after a raucous journey.
#3 — COME ON PILGRIM (1987)
Favorite track: “Caribou”
Incest, biblical references, plenty of Spanish lyricism, all overlaid on deranged post-punk instrumental energy yet recognizable pop methodology: COME ON PILGRIM was a hell of a debut. Believe it or not, I almost put the “mini-LP” ahead of SURFER ROSA, but ultimately I had to concede that the latter, landmark record was the more comprehensive experience. Nevertheless, COME ON PILGRIM is pretty much a perfect collection of eight songs. Now, not every song is perfect, but together, they culminate into a frothing swamp of rock not without heart and sentimentality. “Caribou” is the best thing to crawl out of that beautiful swamp.
#2 — SURFER ROSA (1988)
Favorite track: “Where Is My Mind?”
What words have not yet been spoken about the sublimity of SURFER ROSA, one of the most influential albums in rock history? What, that it was key in Steve Albini’s career, one that would itself influence a whole host of bands and artists? What, that it gave Kurt Cobain the basis for NEVERMIND (1991)? Oops, I guess I’m giving some of the historical context that has already been given elsewhere. And in fact, these footnotes are irrelevant to the bizarro pop rock universe contained in SURFER ROSA (and its follow up). “Where Is My Mind?” has to be commended for its inevitability, but “Bone Machine,” as an opening track no less, almost takes the cake for best track on the album. Everything else, though? Loud-quiet-loud as sung from the elevated hook-laden rooftops.
#1 — DOOLITTLE (1989)
Favorite track: “Monkey Gone to Heaven”
The Pixies closed out a decade of musical highs and very, very low lows (in regards to the whole music industry) with a masterpiece pretty much unmatched (not necessarily in total quality, but just in totally comparable sound) by anything before it or since. DOOLITTLE is a heftier record than SURFER ROSA; not because it’s a rawer or heavier-sounding product, however. In fact, it’s probably the opposite, the SURFER ROSA, Albini-infused barebones approach given direction into a guided unleashing of mystical pop and fury. “Monkey Gone to Heaven” is as sunny as the album gets. Well, except for the extremely sunny “Here Comes Your Man,” a bizarre yet welcome interlude in addition to the warped and misleadingly simple “Wave of Mutilation” and “There Goes My Gun.” And come on, pilgrim (sorry), you gotta give it up to “Debaser,” a just tremendous proclamation as the opening track. Although I would like to acknowledge the contributions of the entire band, you have to commend Black Francis, as the Pixies’ frontman and songwriter, for ushering in a new era of rock music and taking the band’s listeners to a wholly unique musical dimension. DOOLITTLE was the apotheosis of that vision.