Bob Mould Week – Day 2: Bob Mould: A 33 1/3 Playlist

To celebrate the recent release of our 33 1/3 on Bob Mould’s Workbook, we’re pleased to bring you the second installment of Bob Mould Week by authors Walter Biggins and Daniel Couch!

If you’re new to Bob Mould’s music, his catalog can seem both bracing and overwhelming. At this point, he’s nearly four decades and over twenty albums into a pioneering career, and he continues to write and tour. So, here’s a Spotify playlist featuring one song from each album for which he’s a principal musician and songwriter, with our comments. (NOTE: The self-titled record, The Last Dog and Pony Show, and Modulate aren’t on Spotify, so click the song titles to go to the YouTube links for those respective songs.) We hope it gives a good chronological and thematic overview of his work, and encourages you to seek out more.

–Walter Biggins and Daniel Couch

Access the playlist here:

Hüsker Dü, Land Speed Record (1982) – “Side 1”

The first side blasts through eight songs in 12 minutes. The second manages nine songs in 14 minutes. Hüsker Dü would soon outgrow this relentless assault of speed (and the double entendre of amphetamines and velocity in the album’s title can’t be ignored) for melody and nuance, but this live record remains an early glimpse of a seminal band finding their sound and themselves without ever pausing to catch their breath. —DC

Hüsker Dü, Everything Falls Apart (1983) – “Target”

Sounds just like any other hardcore song you’ve ever heard, right? Chanted political slogans in the chorus, blaring guitars, over in less than two minutes, so it fits the bill. Except, listen to those lyrics in the verse: “You don’t like the people who caught on late / If they’re having fun.” In 105 seconds, Mould effectively takes the piss out of punk fans who wear the been-there-seen-that pose and won’t accept new directions in the music–in other words, exactly the people who were starting to have a problem with Hüsker Dü.  —WB

Hüsker Dü, Metal Circus (1983) – “First of the Last Calls”

While this EP still showcases Hüsker Dü’s velocity (and ragged production), it also reveals a lyrical approach that’s more personal than the politically-oriented stuff common to hardcore. Metal Circus’s highlights, and the songs most showing Hüsker Dü in transition, are the songs written by drummer Grant Hartthe melodic pop rock of “It’s Not Funny Anymore” and “Diane,” a sublimely creepy ode to a murdered waitress, largely told from the perspective of the murderer. Musically, Bob’s songs are still hardcore but, on “First of the Last Calls,” he faces down the alcoholism that he would kick four years later. It’s hard not to hear “Hundred hundred hundred bottles on the wall / You wonder if you can drink them all” as a bleak cry for help.  —WB

Hüsker Dü, Zen Arcade (1984) – “Something I Learned Today”

“Something I Learned Today” opens Zen Arcade, a double-album document of the moment where Hüsker Dü’s receding hardcore influences intersect with their rising pop sensibilities and briefly reconcile the two. It’s on this album where two warring songwriters speak with one voice to show how in the self-conscious step into adulthood, “black and white is always grey.”  —DC

Hüsker Dü, New Day Rising (1985) – “Celebrated Summer”

A song well-regarded enough to have a record store named after it, multiple covers done of it, and a Hold Steady homage/ripoff done of it (“Constructive Summer”), it deserves all its accolades. If you’re only vaguely familiar with Hüsker Dü, this track–or the next song on this list–is probably the one you’ve heard. It’s a great song, from an album full of them. The fusion of electric fuzz and intricate acoustic picking marks this song as finally shucking off the “hardcore” label for good.  —WB

Hüsker Dü, Flip Your Wig (1985) – “Makes No Sense at All”

The Hüskers had already signed to Warner Bros. by the time Flip Your Wig was in the can, and the label understandably wanted this album for its own. The band stayed loyal to SST for this one last record, which means that this song was a modest radio success (and a big one by the underground’s standards) instead of the monster hit that it deserved to be. So catchy and singable that you’ll swear you’ve been hearing it forever, and so distorted and angular that it feels perpetually fresh, this is the closest Bob got to a perfect pop smash until Workbook’s “See A Little Light” four years later. This is a band at the height of its powers. —WB

 Hüsker Dü, Candy Apple Grey (1986) – “Hardly Getting Over It”

Hüsker Dü eventually rejected punk’s machismo for an introspective approach to songwriting. Candy Apple Grey, the band’s major label debut, finds the band at their most vulnerable but without their previous self-confidence. Tentative and unsteady, it’s as though they’ve stepped onto a tightrope and, for the first time, looked down. The majority of the album suffers for it, but on “Hardly Getting over It,” the apprehension works. The song starts with empathy, grows into grief over the death his grandparents, and ends with anxiety over the eventual death of his parents. The song has never really left his live set and, with his parents now both gone, his contemplation of mortality takes on a new significance. —DC

Hüsker Dü, Warehouse: Songs and Stories (1987)“Friend, You’ve Got to Fall”

The Hüskers’ last stand is better than it’s given credit for but it does go on too long. By this point, Bob had been in a band for a decade, his entire adult life up to then, and he’d seen his share of friends and peers fall to overdose, lost dreams, and the slow grind of capitalism. Here, he plays the scold, telling a friend poetically that actions have consequences, and they’re a-comin’ soon. This could be his bandmate Grant Hart that he’s addressing, who was deep in the throes of heroin addiction by this point. What makes this thrilling and morally complicated, though, was that Bob was pretty new to sobriety at this point, and there’s an unsettling rasp in his voice that makes you think he’s talking to himself, talking himself off the ledge. —WB

Bob Mould, Workbook (1989) – “Heartbreak a Stranger”

Mould wrote reams of short stories and poetry in his lonely Minnesota farmhouse, and it’s largely from those texts that he drew the lyrics to Workbook, pulling lines into the songs for their meaning but also for how they sounded to the ear. It was an intuitive process that occasionally came fast but much more often required patience through the long, recursive composing process. On “Heartbreak a Stranger,” the imprint of this meditative, deliberate approach is clearest. Slowly, the song gathers substance — each new pass revealing as much as it strikes out. The first chorus crumples, but by the second, the toms punctuate an accusatory finger jab to the chest. The song seems to explore how art can delight or dishearten, all depending on how much we allow in, and it’s the bravery to let so very much in that makes Workbook the achievement that it is.  —DC

Bob Mould, Black Sheets of Rain (1990) – “It’s Too Late”

A poppy, sprightly rock song on an album that’s otherwise full of dense sludge, it’s still a song ultimately about a looming apocalypse. With its ecocritical critique, it’s arguably one of the first political songs Bob had written in half a decade, but even that fear of world collapse is hidden in the story of (once again) a collapsing relationship. Tony Maimone’s bass and Anton Fier’s drums are higher in the mix than on Workbook, and Jane Scarpantoni’s cello is long gone, so this sounds like a long-lost Hüsker Dü song.  —WB

Sugar, Copper Blue (1992) – “Hoover Dam”

Hüsker Dü anticipated the alternative rock explosion but broke up before the music broke to the mainstream. On Copper Blue, Bob Mould returns to a changed musical landscape and draws against his successors’ inheritance, delivering the album a generation had long expected. That said, there are more electronic sounds here than the standard narrative allows for. “Hoover Dam,” as beloved as any song on the record, is awash in keyboards and yet fits the album so well it’s hardly noticeable. Mould is masterful at orchestrating the push and pull of anticipation and release and after an unrelenting first half of forceful, tightly-wound pop songs, “Hoover Dam” and its euphoric keyboards are the necessary pause “on the center line / right between two states of mind” before Mould’s layers of guitars start to crank up the tension again.  —DC

Sugar, Beaster (1993) – “Tilted”

Though Beaster was recorded concurrently with Copper Blue, they sound worlds apart. Beaster is more densely layered in its sonics, with even more echoing keyboard washes, cut-and-pasted conversational snippets, and loads and loads of guitar tracks. The vocals are even more desperate and yelping than usual, crying out lyrics darkly focused on God (as opposed to the love and romance of Copper Blue). This six-song blast pummels the listener, and this song is Exhibit A, at once a return to early Hüsker Dü’s sheer speed and a corrosive flipside to Copper Blue’s poppier dynamics.  —WB

Sugar, File Under: Easy Listening (1994) – “Gift”

Mould largely withheld the “hard” songs from File Under: Easy Listening, but “Gift” remained, its title a reference to the Octavia pedal, rumored to have once belonged to Jimi Hendrix, that Kevin Shields  of My Bloody Valentine gave Mould. Shields uses the pedal in the song “You Made Me Realize,” and you can hear Mould stomp it in at the 0:25 second mark of “Gift.” One track later, Mould returns the gift with “Your Favorite Thing,” a song that bears more than a passing resemblance, musically and lyrically, to MBV’s “Blown a Wish.”  —DC

Sugar, Besides (1995) “Needle Hits E”

With most b-sides, you know exactly why they remained hidden, off the album, buried in a vault, etc. Occasionally, though, there’s the gem that’s just as good, if not better, than the official output. So, count “Needle Hits E” as a complete head-scratcher–a classic with bounce and precision that would have been the best song on half the indie-rock records of the 1990s, and which Bob Mould apparently regarded as a throwaway. Well, no one ever accused him of having low quality standards.  —WB

Bob Mould, Bob Mould (1996) – Egøverride

Fans call this the Hubcap album because of the cover art, but it’s actually self-titled, the beginning of Mould’s second run of solo albums. To write it, he returned to a familiar (and successful) approach. Just as he disrupted years of ingrained muscle memory by experimenting with alternate tunings on Workbook, Mould composed most of these songs on bass. Whereas he immersed himself in folk and Celtic music while writing Workbook, here he listened to indie outfits like Sebadoh and Guided by Voices. Unfortunately, he didn’t carry the similarities through to the recording. Instead of bringing in a band of accomplished musicians to record it, as he did on Workbook, on Bob Mould, he played every instrument himself. On “Egøverride,” grating guitar and grating lyrics lay bare his struggles with control and self-importance. Mould’s pride in the album is understandable, but it’s nevertheless a difficult listen, particularly as it portends Mould’s coming separation from rock.  —DC

Bob Mould, The Last Dog and Pony Show (1998) – “New #1”

This is seemingly what broke him. With The Last Dog and Pony Show, Mould announced his retirement from music and supported the album with a farewell tour. “New #1” is one of the  stronger tracks, but it nevertheless feels as underdeveloped as its title, an outline to a song Mould lost the will to finish.  —DC

Bob Mould, Modulate (2002) – “Trade”

In a career full of curveballs (see: Workbook), Modulate is the curviest. It’s a mash-up of electronica and pop rock, full of tape loops, samples, house beats, synthesizer washes, vocal manipulations, and the noticeably diminished role of Mould’s signature guitar tone. Within this mad reinvention, there’s “Trade,” a song that he began writing during the tail end of the Hüsker Dü era. Despite all the techno flourishes, the song fits well within the wheelhouse of deteriorating relationships, unresolved melancholy, general catchiness, and the willingness to challenge sonic expectations that define Workbook—WB

Bob Mould, Body of Song (2005) – “(Shine Your) Light Love Hope”

Bob’s not known for overwhelming optimism even at the best of times, so this dance-rock song (complete with vocoder effects and slurring guitar loops) counts as a minor miracle in his oeuvre. He’s still working with the cheesy synths that, let’s be honest, have been present since the Sugar era of the 1990s. Here, though, he’s found a groove and melody that makes it enjoyable, and throughout Body of Song his guitar is better integrated into the mix–treated as a cool synth in and of itself–than on Modulate. Chalk it up to Rich Morel’s techno influence, or to Bob’s increasing confidence in the arc of his career. Whatever it is, Body of Song is the most hopeful, damn near hippie-ish album that this post-punk avatar has ever recorded.  —WB

Bob Mould, District Line (2008) – “Walls in Time”

Mould emerges from a mid-career dalliance with electronic music with songs about the (re)discovery of self at the conclusion of a dysfunctional relationship. There are no clean breaks in love or music however, and the album retains echoes of all that came before at the threshold of a new beginning. Case in point: “Walls in Time,” the album’s final song, is actually a track Mould wrote for Workbook that didn’t make the final album due to its similarity to “Sinners and their Repentances.” It’s not just the cello, the length, or the intuitive lyrical style. As with “Sinners,” “Walls in Time” wrestles with the difficulty of communication and the way meaning can change depending on perspective. It’s fitting then that Mould eventually finds his way back to the song to, as he puts it, provide a “period to a sentence . . . I wrote twenty years ago.”  —DC

Bob Mould, Life and Times (2009) – “The Breach”

Immersed in the writing of his autobiography, the appropriately named Life and Times finds Mould sifting through a drawer full of memories. Twenty years since Workbook, he’s remembering things he’s forgotten and letting go of things he’s held onto for too long. It’s a dredging up of the past and a letting of air in. The songs he writes draw from every era of his career, and “The Breach” is, on the surface, a classic Mould song about the difficulty of drawn-out endings (see: “Hardly Getting Over It,” Explode and Make Up,” and Anymore Time Between and that’s just a start). In hindsight, the song seems to presage the end of his second solo period. With the autobiography done, the concert DVD celebrating his legacy wrapped, the Sugar reissues primed, the next album would launch Mould into a career renaissance as alternative rock’s elder-statesman, a new Silver Age if you will.  —DC

Bob Mould, Silver Age (2012) – “Keep Believing”

Bob works best in trios Grant Hart (drums) and Greg Norton (bass) for Hüsker Dü; Anton Fier (drums) and Tony Maimone (bass) for Workbook; David Barbe (bass) and Malcolm Travis (drums) for Sugar. With this record, he may have found his perfect team with Jason Narducy on bass and the propulsive, inventive Jon Wurster on drums. Here, the new trio jells on a song that harks back to Bob’s underground days, with lyrics calling out to SST bands, great alt-rock songs of the 1980s, and the glory days of his own rocking youth. Thing is, this band sounds as muscular as and is better produced than most of the stuff he’s hailing. They are vets (Bob was 51 when this record is released; Wurster was 45) but they keep the torch burning bright.  —WB

Bob Mould, Beauty & Ruin (2014) – “I Don’t Know You Anymore”

Exactly the sort of perfect alt-rock song that Bob has at least one of on each record–catchy, hummable, vinegar-tinged in vocal execution, precisely timed (and not too long) guitar solo, great bridge, great everything, and all over in three minutes so that it’s primed for the radio airplay that was his mainstay as a kid listener. He makes it sound easy, thirty years into a songwriting career.  —WB

Bob Mould, Patch the Sky (2016) – “You Say You”

Listen to those backing vocals. Listen to those drums. Somewhere along the way the Bob Mould Trio became a real band. The guitar work makes it unmistakably a Bob song, but after three records together you can hear each member anticipating (and trusting) the other. Bob has worked in sets of threes for virtually his entire career. Here’s hoping that whatever comes next still includes Jason Narducy and Jon Wurster. —DC

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