Photos (L-R): Sarah Zade-Pollard, Tony Nelson
Songbook: A Guide To Every Album By Guided By Voices' Current Lineup — So Far
The cult rock band Guided by Voices gets the most ink for their 1990s and early 2000s accomplishments. But as their current lineup's latest run of albums shows, they're a band for right now.
Presented by GRAMMY.com, Songbook is an editorial series and hub for music discovery that dives into a legendary artist's discography and art in whole — from songs to albums to music films and videos and beyond.
His long-running rock band, Guided by Voices, experienced their indie breakthrough in the early- to-mid-'90s with a smattering of indelible, rough-hewn, heart-on-sleeve albums: Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes and Under the Bushes Under the Stars. So, take those classics, throw in a few before and after, and, boom — you've got a neat entryway for GBV beginners.
But there are a couple of complicating factors at play. First, Pollard seems totally disinterested in the notion of a "classic era." When he reignited the project in 2010 with the members from those three albums, he made derisive references to the "so-called classic lineup" and feared a relegation to the indie-throwback festival circuit.
Despite making six reunion albums together, the "so-called classic lineup" didn't last; at press time, the contemporary iteration of the band performs zero songs from this period. When Pollard rips into new songs like "Excited Ones," his boyish enthusiasm is palpable; when it's time for a 30-year-old song like "Tractor Rape Chain," he can look like he's in line at the DMV.
A Guided by Voices song from 2022 does not sound like one from 1992. Thanks in part to Pollard's deepening writing — but also the musicians in his band — there are very few of the band's earlier one-minute, tape-recorded quasi-throwaways, which toggle between inchoate and inspired.
Today, Pollard always completes his songs. And more often than not, they're majestic. Case in point: their potent new album, Tremblers and Goggles by Rank, out July 1.
A meditation on memory and loss in several movements, "Alex Bell" practically contains an album's worth of ideas on its own. "Cartoon Fashion (Bongo Lake)" is listed as an A-B-C-D suite on the album sleeve, like on the '70s prog albums that got Pollard going. And in all of three minutes, "Focus on the Flock" switches tempos, grooves, and even genres, all in the service of engaging dynamics and ascendant hooks.
Perhaps a YouTube commenter on the "Lizard on the Red Brick Wall" video said it best: "Peak GBV is now." And that arguably applies to their entire current era, featuring the lineup of guitarists Doug Gillard and Bobby Bare, Jr., bassist Mark Shue and drummer Kevin March.
While the world wouldn't know GBV at all without Bee Thousand and its ilk — and songs like "Blimps Go 90," "The Official Ironman Rally Song" and "The Best of Jill Hives" remain something of a zenith — perhaps it's time to put this current creative roll on equal footing. Because songs like "Amusement Park is Over," "My Future in Barcelona," and "Black and White Eyes in a Prism" are, at the very least, just as good.
In a unique edition of Songbook focusing on just one era of Pollard's voluminous discography, here's a guide to a reconstituted Guided by Voices' astonishing creative roll in the 2010s and 2020s.
Please Be Honest (2016)
While technically not the product of Guided by Voices' current lineup — Pollard sang every vocal and played every instrument — Please Be Honest remains a crucial introduction to this modern phase of the band.
Announced concurrently with Guided by Voices' relaunch, Please Be Honest felt at the time like a recentering, a palate-cleansing, a recommitment to authenticity and sincerity. (Hell, it's there in the title.)
While reams of thrilling music would follow it, Please Be Honest remains addictive and compelling — not only for that aforementioned quality, but because of the strength of the songwriting. Plus, an eerie and loamy atmosphere, coupled with insectoid themes (see "The Grasshopper Eaters" and "The Caterpillar Workforce") helps it stick in your craw.
Opener "My Zodiac Companion" detonates into one of Pollard's most affecting choruses; "Kid on a Ladder" sets Buddy Holly-esque pop jubilation to a hammering drum machine; the murky-sounding yet clear-eyed title track embodies ragged determination.
It all ends with "Eye Shop Heaven," where Pollard reaches into commanding, Eddie Vedder-esque depths of his register, before an unexpected flip into a sugary, Monkees-like coda.
"You are simply lying!" Pollard sings. But on Please Be Honest, he never is.
August by Cake (2017)
Every GBV fan remembers where they were when they heard Pollard's ringmasterly intro — "Ladies and gentlemen! I present to you: August by Cake!" — followed by an exultant horn fanfare.
Because at that moment, Guided by Voices were not only back after years away: they gave us a double-album feast, like GBV lodestar the Who's Tommy or Quadrophenia.
And on its own, the honest-to-god anthemic opener "5º On the Inside" offers enough momentum to keep the listener engaged for 31 more tunes. But what tunes they are.
The brief "When We All Hold Hands at the End of the World" bends a simple melody into earworm after earworm. The Gillard-written and -sung "Goodbye Note" pumps and slams with brute impact.
"Packing the Dead Zone" is an excoriation of social media-age sloth with an unforgettable spoken-word intro by GBV associate (and NYPD veteran) Steven Stefanakos: "We're creating a society of cell-phone-crazed, marijuana-smoking zombies!"
And by then, you’re only eight songs in. Take some time to kick around inside August by Cake, and you'll likely come up with your own highlights.
Deep within the album, the downstroked acoustic ballad "Amusement Park is Over" is a stirring bit of miniature theater, suggesting childhood bygones, internal turbulence and lashings of violence.
Clearly, "Amusement Park is Over" means something to Pollard: it's the only August by Cake song remaining on their current setlists.
How Do You Spell Heaven (2017)
After the initiatory sprawl of August by Cake — a swirl of hi- and mid- and lo-fi — a renewed Guided by Voices honed their aesthetic with How Do You Spell Heaven.
True to its cover art — featuring Pollard beholding an unearthly orb of light — this follow-up feels pure, focused and executed with aplomb. Mysterious sound effects, intentional recording mistakes and head-scratching interludes need not apply here.
"King 007" climbs staircases only to lapse into languid acoustic strums; the power-popping "Diver Dan" burns mellowly and consistently like a candlewick; "Nothing Gets You Real" is mellow, strummy and downcast.
And even as closer "Just To Show You" ups the ante section-by-section, Pollard never gets swept into the drama — he sounds stony and undeterred.
GBV would go on to make albums with more distinct peaks and valleys, but there's something to be said about this kind of entry — one that makes the band's detractors, who might view the ultra-productive band as unedited or unserious, eat crow.
Space Gun (2018)
Where August by Cake waded through volatile psychological waters and How Do You Spell Heaven felt philosophical and stoic, Space Gun is almost unerringly flashy, colorful and loud.
"Here it comes!" Pollard announces again and again in the opening title track, kicking up the interstellar drama to almost a comical degree, crashing riff into crashing riff into crashing riff.
This leads to the goofy, almost AC/DC-like swagger of "Colonel Paper," inspired by a real-life account of a drunken night eating chicken — and Pollard's hometown buddy rooting through cigarette-filled garbage for a hangover snack.
Space Gun keeps the energy percolating for 13 more songs, but it's hardly one-note. "Blink Blank" is hypnotic, psychedelic and mantra-like; "I Love Kangaroos" is peppy and irresistible; "Grey Spat Matters" burns for a minute and a half with a vocal melody to die for.
Near the end, we get "That's Good" — a dead-earnest ballad culled from the archives and newly recorded with a string arrangement by Gillard (a talent that would reach full flower in ensuing years).
All in all, Space Gun is a good one to reach for if you want utter immediacy from GBV — a quick hit, a sugar rush, a 38-minute whirl around the cosmos.
Zeppelin Over China (2019)
Craving the slicker side of GBV, stretched across four sides? Enter Zeppelin Over China, a weirdly under-discussed yet major work from this epoch of the band.
As always, the pacing is ironclad: "Good Morning Sir" instantly wakes you up in a rush of anticipation, then "Step of the Wave" withholds, withholds, withholds until an exhilarating crescendo.
As with any classic double album, the tunes keep flying by, with more gems lurking around every corner. Some are deliciously lumpy and impenetrable, like "Blurring the Contacts" and "Holy Rhythm"; others are immediately radiant, like "Your Lights are Out" and "You Own the Night."
While the whole hangs together gloriously, it's up to a fan's discretion as to whether any individual Zeppelin Over China tracks belong in the time capsule. That said, the album features two crown jewels that represent the apogee of Pollard's powers.
One is "The Rally Boys," an update on the chest-beating camaraderie of yesteryear's classics, like "The Official Ironman Rally Song" and "Don't Stop Now." The ascendant chorus, a statement of purpose on Planet GBV, is meant to be beerily belted into your concert neighbor's ear. It just feels good.
The other is "My Future in Barcelona," practically a doctoral thesis on the limitless power of human imagination.
From a half-heard soccer-game announcement — something about "the future of Barcelona" — Pollard crafted an absolutely magical rock song, bursting with possibilities and expectation and longing and anything else you might want to map onto it. If you only check out one song from this article, make it this one.
Who else can be so receptive to the din of daily life, enough to pull a song like this from the air? John Lennon could do it. Pollard can do it. And the message of "My Future in Barcelona" is seemingly that we can all do it. From all but thin air, we can make music.
Warp and Woof (2019)
On the most informal end of the later-GBV spectrum is Warp and Woof, initially released in the form of two EPs: Wine Cork Stonehenge and 100 Dougs.
Recorded on the fly during soundchecks, in hotel rooms and even while teetering on the bench of the van, Warp and Woof has an unadulterated quality that might appeal to fans of Guided by Voices' most unpolished work from the early '90s (think Vampire on Titus).
Emerging from the GarageBand-y hiss and noise are a handful of tunes that stick in the imagination, like the happy-go-lucky baroque-pop pastiche "Photo Range Within" and hammering pop song "Blue Jay House."
But from the hip-swinging "My Angel" to the melodically serpentine "Cool Jewels and Aprons" to the lovably lunkheaded "My Dog Surprise," the highlights are yours to discern amid this curiosity-shop of an album.
And as usual, the band would take a very different tack with the follow-up.
Sweating the Plague (2019)
Think of the consistent aesthetic of How Do You Spell Heaven and Zeppelin Over China. Then, apply it to a stripped-down, 12-song sequence and beef it up with a stadium-rock heft. You'll land within spitting distance of Sweating the Plague.
Warp and Woof's far more traditional follow-up dispenses of almost everything one might find extraneous about Guided by Voices — left-field genre experiments, Pollard singing in funny voices, too many songs. No track could be reasonably cut; every decision lands.
As on those two aforementioned spiritual cousins of GBV albums, that consistency can sometimes translate to a lack of clear highlights. But in this case, one song stands tall.
"Heavy Like the World" is part of a proud GBV lineage of songs about nerve, pluck and courage — the band's true wellspring of emotional resonance, which transcends tired references to Miller Lite and high-kicks and album after album per year.
The next time you feel like you've waded out so far that your feet aren't touching the bottom, heed Pollard's counsel in the outro: "Get some danger in your life/ And more ink in your tattoo."
Surrender Your Poppy Field (2020)
Another swing in the opposite direction, Surrender Your Poppy Field is an album of rough terrain, jagged edges and odd marriages of tones.
Opener "Year of the Hard Hitter" sets the tone immediately — even after multiple listens, it's hard to predict which direction the song will zip into. "Volcano" has a meaty, alt-rock chorus that's more Nirvana or Smashing Pumpkins than GBV.
Moving forward, the seemingly tossed-off "Queen Parking Lot" belies a melody of Beatles-level sweetness; "Woah Nelly" is a drunken boat of ghostly Pollards; the woozy "Andre the Hawk" has an almost plasticine sparkle.
The quiet triumph of Surrender Your Poppy Field, however, is "Cul-de-Sac Kids," where a stately Jethro Tull-style introduction bursts unexpectedly into wondrous, double-time ebullience.
By the time the Book of Revelation-like closer "Next Sea Level" subsumes the album, one walks away having experienced a one-of-a-kind — and wondrously scatterbrained — GBV experience.
Mirrored Aztec (2020)
If the psychedelic artwork by Courtney Latta makes you think you're getting GBV in their Incredible String Band phase, think again. Mirrored Aztec — a "summer album" by design — is a tight and dry listen that nonetheless allows ample whimsy through.
First, the wonderfully offbeat moments: "Math Rock" ridicules the titular subgenre with help from a children's chorus; "Haircut Sphinx" is a brief, punch-drunk bar rocker; and "Lip Curlers" is a head-scratcher, even for these guys.
Aside from the outliers, several of its tunes, like "Citizen's Blitz," wriggle about for a minute or two before peacing out.
But a handful of them shine brightly, from the shone-up oldie "Bunco Men" to the radiant, 12-string-strummed "To Keep an Area" to the rowdy closing sequence, closing the curtain with "Party Rages On."
Styles We Paid For (2020)
A high watermark of GBV's current run of albums, Styles We Paid For drives straight down the middle of the road, keeping the focus squarely on the songcraft.
More than almost any album around it, this one lives right in the Goldilocks zone: just weird enough, just traditional enough, just enough tape hiss, just enough fidelity. The vibe is moody, philosophical, a tad paranoid. In other words, it hits a sweet spot for Guided By Voices.
Styles We Paid For is also the GBV album that, intentionally or not, most reflects its times — specifically, the early pandemic. The band had recorded remotely for many albums at this point, but the jagged edges of that process show — gloriously.
But the real reason Styles was such a pandemic savior wasn't its cabin-feverish, vaguely menacing vibe — but its sense of unbroken group solidarity.
Like "14 Cheerleader Coldfront" 30 years earlier, the acoustic "In Calculus Strategem" feels momentous, like a national anthem. "Never Abandon Ship" is permeated with steely-eyed resolve. And the beatific ballad "Stops" feels lost in reverie, awestruck at the power of song.
But all that aside, the simple fact remains that the hitters really hit.
The dirgelike anti-hit "Slaughterhouse" is deliciously sulky and morbid; the kinetic "Mr. Child" is seemingly about some Peter Pan-syndromed dervish; and "Electronic Windows to Nowhere" is one of the most gloriously melodic anti-tech bitch-fests in recent memory.
Earth Man Blues (2021)
Pollard arguably sold Earth Man Blues short when he called it a "collage of rejected songs." Because what could have simply been their first album of 2021 turns out to be something like their Sgt. Pepper’s.
This isn't just in the diversity of material, or the occasional psychedelic twist, or that it's even presented as some tongue-in-cheek performance. Rather, its Pepper-ness comes from its profound longing for and curiosity about the past — and how that can chart a path into the future.
During the demoing process, Pollard opted not to write new songs, but dig through old cassettes for material. "They were all rejects from other projects," he told Louder Than War. I was somewhat astonished by a few of those finds. Like, 'Why did I not think this song was good enough?'"
Indeed, they weren't just "good enough." Realized by his muscular current band, the Earth Man Blues tunes all but sum up what makes GBV great.
The majestic "The Disconnected Citizen" evocatively references "radiated halls" and "psychogenic fugues" as the melody aims heavenward; "The Batman Sees the Ball" marries Television-like guitar interplay with a patient and bouncy groove; and the band throws the kitchen sink at "Dirty Kid School," exploding a simple composition to cinematic effect.
And so many other surprises lurk, including the warped, variety-show-style '60s-isms of "Sunshine Girl Hello" and the crepuscular "How Can a Plumb Be Perfected?" If this is what Pollard simply had lying around, how many other masterpieces could he make?
It's Not Them. It Couldn't Be Them. It Is Them! (2021)
Released about a week before Halloween, It's Not Them. It Couldn't Be Them. It Is Them! could represent the shadow of Earth Man Blues, featuring some of Pollard's most immersive, arcane writing to date.
"Climb another wall over the mountain," he sings in opener "Spanish Coin" with a Fantean energy. "Breathe in the force of experience." Then, something we've never heard at all on a Guided by Voices record: Spanish-influenced horns.
Side one consists of kick-the-tires rockers ("High in the Rain") and beatless, phantasmagorical experiments ("Maintenance Man of the Haunted House").
On top of that, the indisputable highlight "Dance of Gurus" is wound tight around a looping vocal line ("What'll I do with you? You do with me?") that'll lodge itself into your head for days.
But from then on, it's rock and roll time, with every string- and/or horn-laced track hitting harder than the last: From "I Wanna Monkey" into "Cherub and the Great Child Actor" into "Black and White Eyes in a Prism."
And the curtain-call, "My (Limited) Engagement," is one of the all time great GBV closers — capped off by a spectacular guitar solo from Gillard.
Crystal Nuns Cathedral (2022)
Vaguely in the same galaxy as the streamlined How Do You Spell Heaven and Sweating the Plague, Crystal Nuns Cathedral shows how the band could reel back their experimentation yet, somehow, land in a deeper place.
"We approached this one with more of an eye to get slightly bigger sounds — slightly more homogenous throughout the album," Gillard told The Ash Grey Proclamation in 2022. "And deliberately less idiosyncratic mixes than usual, perhaps."
If this sounds like standard GBV, give it a chance — you'll be surprised on multiple levels. For instance, the band had never recorded a song like "Climbing a Ramp," building and building on a sawing cello line. Nor had they done anything like "Forced to Sea," which materializes in a twilit, ambient soundfield.
Plus, Pollard's lyrics on Crystal Nuns Cathedral hit harder than usual. "Nothing moves me like this," he admits in the gorgeous, mid-tempo rocker "Never Mind the List."
And in "Excited Ones," a galloping rocker about those who wrap their arms around life: "They crush it every day!" he proclaims. Pollard can certainly relate.
Tremblers and Goggles By Rank (2022)
This is no exaggeration: all the various GBVs represented in the above albums — the goofy, the intrepid, the moody, the plucky, the experimental, the pensive — are reflected in Tremblers and Goggles By Rank.
Want to be pummeled with galactic kabooms, like on Space Gun? Dig the flangered vortex of "Lizard on the Red Brick Wall." Want bittersweetness that hits from multiple angles, like on Earth Man Blues? "Alex Bell" and "Unproductive Funk" will send you. Interior explorations a la Styles We Paid For? "Boomerang" and "Who Wants to Go Hunting?"
Guided by Voices are often defined by their "prolificity," but let's face it: fans are getting both quality and quantity. And live performances get a dozen times the reaction for oldies like "Game of Pricks" than something like "Stops," but it's time to knock that down too.
The fact that even some professed fans sleep on the new stuff doesn't dim the reality one iota: Guided by Voices are a band for right now. And their still-ravenous cult fanbase won't fault you for getting on the train late.
Indeed, for fans of any forward-thinking rock music with a beating heart, eye for invention and sense of wonder, nothing will move you like this.
Photo: Trevor Naud
10 Guided By Voices Songs You Need To Hear, From "Over The Neptune" To "Alex Bell"
Parsing Guided by Voices' voluminous discography can be daunting. To mark the release of their new album, 'Welshpool Frillies,' here are 10 can't-miss tracks that distill their essence into glorious indie rock.
It came in the form of 2003's The Best of Guided By Voices: Human Amusements at Hourly Rates — a mixtape-style program where Pollard seamlessly toggles between the band's eras.
Lo-fi, hi-fi, mid-fi: it's all Pollard, and it all flows together. "14 Cheerleader Coldfront," his crackly, acoustic 1992 duet with his old foil, Tobin Sprout, segues seamlessly into the gripping, aerodynamic "Twilight Campfighter" — from the slickly produced Isolation Drills.
There's just one unavoidable problem: it stops at 2003, because that's when it came out. The idiosyncratic, touching, wacko, and feverishly productive Ohio rock band would release one more album, 2004's Half Smiles of the Decomposed, before temporarily pulling the plug.
Since then, there have been two additional, distinct eras. At the top of the 2010s, Pollard brought back some classic-era members; across six albums, they produced a number of solid songs, like "Class Clown Spots a UFO" and "Flunky Minnows."
Arguably more consequential has been their current lineup — a mix of old and new faces, in guitarists Bobby Bare Jr. and Doug Gillard, bassist Mark Shue and drummer Kevin March. From this run of albums has come cuts that stand up to the classics, like "My Future in Barcelona" and "Mr. Child."
Guided by Voices continue to forge ahead with their 38th album, Whirlpool Frillies, released July 21. A return to live-to-tape recording after at least half a dozen executed remotely, the new album features numerous sluggers worth diehards' and neophytes' time, like "Meet the Star," "Awake Man," "Seedling," and "Radioactive Pigeons."
Safe to say, there are a lot more coming. Before (or after) you digest Whirlpool Frillies, take a quick run through 10 of Guided by Voices' most powerful songs — solo and side projects notwithstanding.
"Over The Neptune / Mesh Gear Fox" (Propeller, 1992)
If you're new to Guided by Voices, perhaps this is a helpful digest: Imagine the rock pantheon from the Beatles to post-punk, boiled into one amalgam. Then, strip away the canonization and glitz and mystique; place the music at eye level.
That's sort of what Propeller, the album that began their '90s ascent, sounds like. The triumphal "Over the Neptune / Mesh Gear Fox" sounds like the Who recorded a couple of Tommy tunes in your garden shed.
The scrappy two-parter crescendos with an underdog call to arms, outlining emotional territory the band would soon plumb to astonishing effect: "I'm much greater than you think!"
"Tractor Rape Chain" (Bee Thousand, 1994)
Most with even a cursory interest in Guided by Voices will point you toward three mid-'90s albums as go-tos: Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes and Under the Bushes Under the Stars.
Over the years, Bee Thousand has become increasingly agreed upon as the one, and there's a certain amount of truth to that. While it's less consistent than the other two, a handful of songs slice as deep as a Guided by Voices song possibly can.
One is "Peep Hole," a brief, heartrending bash on an acoustic guitar about loving someone with a screw loose: another is "Tractor Rape Chain." Don't let the bizarre, quasi-offensive title throw you: think of the trails the titular machinery leaves in a field.
But "Tractor Rape Chain" isn't simply about one path through life, but two in parallel — and how they eventually deviate and depart from each other. That makes "Tractor Rape Chain" universal: everyone with a pulse can raise a glass to this stone classic, and believe every word.
"Game of Pricks" (Alien Lanes, 1995)
While Bee Thousand seems to be the desert island disc for many fans, "Game of Pricks" is arguably GBV's signature song. (Pollard seems to think so, too: over the course of at least one concert, they've played it twice.)
The most popular version of "Game of Pricks" tends to be the one from their Tigerbomb EP, which features two oldies recorded anew in a professional studio. With due respect to that one, seek out the rawer, more concise Alien Lanes version.
Either way, though, Pollard’s lyrics are fantastic — full of mistrust and self-flagellation and catharsis. ("I'll climb up on your house/ Weep to water the trees" is one of Pollard's most moving images.) But it's their connection to the melody that will truly make your head spin.
Through the tape-recorder hiss, "Game of Pricks" is like every song on Meet the Beatles rolled into one, and shot out of a cannon into your solar plexus. Pollard has written many more developed songs, but never one this degree of distilled impact
"Motor Away" (Alien Lanes, 1995)
Like "Game of Pricks," a more refined version of "Motor Away" is floating around: again, go for the Alien Lanes version.
Ever barreling forward, this GBV staple is best communed with when you're young and on the precipice of a fresh start — but its philosophical ambiguity remains potent at any age.
In "Motor Away," you're not hurtling toward the "chance of a lifetime"; "you can free yourself from the chance of a lifetime." Furthermore, "You can lie to yourself that it's the chance of a lifetime."
By considering the life left behind and the life pursued on the same moral plane, Pollard renders "Motor Away" totally bracing and moving. Anytime you find yourself in a situation that seems intractable, let the kicker pop to mind: "Why don't you just drive away?"
"The Official Ironmen Rally Song" (Under the Bushes Under the Stars, 1996)
We are all the ironmen. Much like "A Salty Salute," the opener on Alien Lanes, "The Official Ironmen Rally Song" feels like a chest-beating anthem for the GBV devout. (In this regard, "Don't Stop Now," a summation of their message of tenacity and courage, deserves a mention too; it's left off this list solely for space.)
Like so many other songs on this list, "The Official Ironmen Rally Song" must be experienced live for the full effect — Pollard's octave jump on the chorus maintains the ability to project Miller Lite out of cans and all over your clothing.
But even on record, "The Official Ironmen Rally Song" is indestructible — it's like a reliable old car whose engine always turns over. Whenever you feel out of sorts, let it offer a perennial, life-affirming reminder: "You are free: champions officially."
"Twilight Campfighter" (Isolation Drills, 2001)
After 1999's Do the Collapse — lumpy yet slick, produced by Ric Ocasek, reputationally still up in the air — GBV eased into high fidelity more naturally with 2001's Isolation Drills.
Fleet and aerodynamic, Isolation Drills was GBV's second album with crucial guitarist Doug Gillard, who's back with the band today — numerous lineup reshufflings later.
Who is the Twilight Campfighter? Who knows, but it seems to be an imposing, godlike, healing figure: "You build your fires into an open wound/ You want us to feel better/ On these darker trails/ With light revealing holy grails."
But the primeval mystery's the point — as with so many Pollard compositions. As "Twilight Campfighter" swells and swells, and light increasingly pierces its blanket of melancholy, the effect is spellbinding — especially during the final chorus, when Gillard and fellow guitarist Nate Farley absolutely lay into those chords.
"The Best of Jill Hives" (Earthquake Glue, 2003)
Here's to Pollard, the vocal melodist: could he have come up with a more clever, creative part over such a simple chord change?
And here's to Pollard, the lyricist: "Paid up, weathered and type/ Clad in gladstone watch him go/ Swimming 'neath the microscope/ Hello lonely bless the nation" is an mind-bending and evocative opening line.
By his telling, Pollard got the idea for "The Best of Jill Hives" while getting his muffler fixed.
"Jill Hives is not a real person," he told an interviewer in 2004. "I was sitting in the waiting room with some people watching television so I played this game I play sometimes when I can't quite hear what people are saying, I'll start writing what I think they're saying."
The soap opera "Days of Our Lives" came onscreen. And with that, a song was born.
"Kid on a Ladder" (Please Be Honest, 2016)
After six solid albums with the "so-called classic lineup" that played on Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes and the like, Pollard again dissolved the band, then brought the project back two years later with a necessary reset: Please Be Honest.
On that album, Pollard didn't just write every song, as usual; he also played every instrument. After the arena-rocking opener "My Zodiac Companion" comes "Kid on a Ladder," perhaps his most dazzling one-or-two-minute wonder since "Game of Pricks."
Over a scratchy guitar and 4/4 pump-and-slam, Pollard casually tosses ribbons of gorgeous melody in the air: in 1 minute and 47 seconds, it's all over. He's on to 13 more strange, beguiling songs from there, but you'll want to hear "Kid on a Ladder" over and over again.
"My Future in Barcelona" (Zeppelin Over China, 2019)
Like Paul McCartney conceiving the epochal "Yesterday" and "Let it Be" in his dreams, some of Pollard's greatest songs have arisen from intentional mishearings and decontextualizations.
And "The Best of Jill Hives" wasn't the only one: "My Future in Barcelona" came from "the future of Barcelona," vis-à-vis one televised soccer team or another.
Part of the essence of Guided by Voices is that magic is everywhere, in the most quotidian of places. And from that random snippet of commentary, Pollard wrote a masterpiece — one that marries the wonder of "Jill Hives" to the heft and majesty of "Twilight Campfighter."
From Pollard's pen — and lungs — a city known for sunbathing and sight-seeing seems like a fantastical, awesome realm. "Tested, invested waters/ Move local as you know," he sings in the pre-chorus. "When the idea of fast can be/ Excruciatingly slow/ Excruciatingly so."
That's what he sang about in "Motor Away," and returns to here: when your surroundings aren't cutting it, forge fearlessly ahead.
"Alex Bell" (Tremblers and Goggles By Rank, 2022)
In five minutes, Pollard and company breeze through more ideas on "Alex Bell" than some bands come up with in their entire careers. The seesaw between drumless breaks and charging verses compounds the drama, and the the track builds to a gonzo, unpredictable climax.
This tune from Tremblers and Goggles by Rank — which at press time, was three albums ago, despite being released last year — was named after the last names of Big Star members: Alex Chilton and Chris Bell.
But despite news outlets' characterization of "Alex Bell" as a "tribute to Big Star," it's not really that. It's a poignant meditation on time, memory and loss that spiritually dovetails with those power pop heroes' rocky run, and both men's tragic passing.
"I see you around every time there's a ghost in town," Pollard sings during the galumphing outro. Then it slams to a halt. Which turns out to be a fake-out. There's another. Finally, a skyward power chord concludes this spectacular song.
With Guided by Voices, something unexpectedly moving and galvanizing is always around the corner — and even after any number of masterpieces, it always feels like Pollard's finest hour remains ahead of him.
Photo: Rachel Kupfer
A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.
It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.
Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.
Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.
In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.
Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.
There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.
Say She She
Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.
While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."
Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.
Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.
Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.
Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.
L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.
During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.
Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.
Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.
Photo: Steven Sebring
Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
"One foot in the past and one foot into the future," Billy Idol says, describing his decade-spanning career in rock. "We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol."
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Billy Idol about his latest EP, Cage, and continuing to rock through decades of changing tastes.
Billy Idol is a true rock 'n' roll survivor who has persevered through cultural shifts and personal struggles. While some may think of Idol solely for "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding," the singer's musical influences span genres and many of his tunes are less turbo-charged than his '80s hits would belie.
Idol first made a splash in the latter half of the '70s with the British punk band Generation X. In the '80s, he went on to a solo career combining rock, pop, and punk into a distinct sound that transformed him and his musical partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, into icons. They have racked up multiple GRAMMY nominations, in addition to one gold, one double platinum, and four platinum albums thanks to hits like "Cradle Of Love," "Flesh For Fantasy," and "Eyes Without A Face."
But, unlike many legacy artists, Idol is anything but a relic. Billy continues to produce vital Idol music by collaborating with producers and songwriters — including Miley Cyrus — who share his forward-thinking vision. He will play a five-show Vegas residency in November, and filmmaker Jonas Akerlund is working on a documentary about Idol’s life.
His latest release is Cage, the second in a trilogy of annual four-song EPs. The title track is a classic Billy Idol banger expressing the desire to free himself from personal constraints and live a better life. Other tracks on Cage incorporate metallic riffing and funky R&B grooves.
Idol continues to reckon with his demons — they both grappled with addiction during the '80s — and the singer is open about those struggles on the record and the page. (Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, details a 1990 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed a leg, and how becoming a father steered him to reject hard drugs. "Bitter Taste," from his last EP, The Roadside, reflects on surviving the accident.)
Although Idol and Stevens split in the late '80s — the skilled guitarist fronted Steve Stevens & The Atomic Playboys, and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Rick Ocasek, Vince Neil, and Harold Faltermeyer (on the GRAMMY-winning "Top Gun Anthem") — their common history and shared musical bond has been undeniable. The duo reunited in 2001 for an episode of "VH1 Storytellers" and have been back in the saddle for two decades. Their union remains one of the strongest collaborations in rock 'n roll history.
While there is recognizable personnel and a distinguishable sound throughout a lot of his work, Billy Idol has always pushed himself to try different things. Idol discusses his musical journey, his desire to constantly move forward, and the strong connection that he shares with Stevens.
Steve has said that you like to mix up a variety of styles, yet everyone assumes you're the "Rebel Yell"/"White Wedding" guy. But if they really listen to your catalog, it's vastly different.
Yeah, that's right. With someone like Steve Stevens, and then back in the day Keith Forsey producing... [Before that] Generation X actually did move around inside punk rock. We didn't stay doing just the Ramones two-minute music. We actually did a seven-minute song. [Laughs]. We did always mix things up.
Then when I got into my solo career, that was the fun of it. With someone like Steve, I knew what he could do. I could see whatever we needed to do, we could nail it. The world was my oyster musically.
"Cage" is a classic-sounding Billy Idol rocker, then "Running From The Ghost" is almost metal, like what the Devil's Playground album was like back in the mid-2000s. "Miss Nobody" comes out of nowhere with this pop/R&B flavor. What inspired that?
We really hadn't done anything like that since something like "Flesh For Fantasy" [which] had a bit of an R&B thing about it. Back in the early days of Billy Idol, "Hot In The City" and "Mony Mony" had girls [singing] on the backgrounds.
We always had a bit of R&B really, so it was actually fun to revisit that. We just hadn't done anything really quite like that for a long time. That was one of the reasons to work with someone like Sam Hollander [for the song "Rita Hayworth"] on The Roadside. We knew we could go [with him] into an R&B world, and he's a great songwriter and producer. That's the fun of music really, trying out these things and seeing if you can make them stick.
I listen to new music by veteran artists and debate that with some people. I'm sure you have those fans that want their nostalgia, and then there are some people who will embrace the newer stuff. Do you find it’s a challenge to reach people with new songs?
Obviously, what we're looking for is, how do we somehow have one foot in the past and one foot into the future? We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol.
You want to do things that are true to you, and you don't just want to try and do things that you're seeing there in the charts today. I think that we're achieving it with things like "Running From The Ghost" and "Cage" on this new EP. I think we’re managing to do both in a way.
Obviously, "Running From The Ghost" is about addiction, all the stuff that you went through, and in "Cage" you’re talking about freeing yourself from a lot of personal shackles. Was there any one moment in your life that made you really thought I have to not let this weigh me down anymore?
I mean, things like the motorcycle accident I had, that was a bit of a wake up call way back. It was 32 years ago. But there were things like that, years ago, that gradually made me think about what I was doing with my life. I didn't want to ruin it, really. I didn't want to throw it away, and it made [me] be less cavalier.
I had to say to myself, about the drugs and stuff, that I've been there and I've done it. There’s no point in carrying on doing it. You couldn't get any higher. You didn't want to throw your life away casually, and I was close to doing that. It took me a bit of time, but then gradually I was able to get control of myself to a certain extent [with] drugs and everything. And I think Steve's done the same thing. We're on a similar path really, which has been great because we're in the same boat in terms of lyrics and stuff.
So a lot of things like that were wake up calls. Even having grandchildren and just watching my daughter enlarging her family and everything; it just makes you really positive about things and want to show a positive side to how you're feeling, about where you're going. We've lived with the demons so long, we've found a way to live with them. We found a way to be at peace with our demons, in a way. Maybe not completely, but certainly to where we’re enjoying what we do and excited about it.
[When writing] "Running From The Ghost" it was easy to go, what was the ghost for us? At one point, we were very drug addicted in the '80s. And Steve in particular is super sober [now]. I mean, I still vape pot and stuff. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s incredible. All I want to be able to do is have a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant or something. I can do that now.
I think working with people that are super talented, you just feel confident. That is a big reason why you open up and express yourself more because you feel comfortable with what's around you.
Did you watch Danny Boyle's recent Sex Pistols mini-series?
I did, yes.
You had a couple of cameos; well, an actor who portrayed you did. How did you react to it? How accurate do you think it was in portraying that particular time period?
I love Jonesy’s book, I thought his book was incredible. It's probably one of the best bio books really. It was incredible and so open. I was looking forward to that a lot.
It was as if [the show] kind of stayed with Steve [Jones’ memoir] about halfway through, and then departed from it. [John] Lydon, for instance, was never someone I ever saw acting out; he's more like that today. I never saw him do something like jump up in the room and run around going crazy. The only time I saw him ever do that was when they signed the recording deal with Virgin in front of Buckingham Palace. Whereas Sid Vicious was always acting out; he was always doing something in a horrible way or shouting at someone. I don't remember John being like that. I remember him being much more introverted.
But then I watched interviews with some of the actors about coming to grips with the parts they were playing. And they were saying, we knew punk rock happened but just didn't know any of the details. So I thought well, there you go. If ["Pistol" is] informing a lot of people who wouldn't know anything about punk rock, maybe that's what's good about it.
Maybe down the road John Lydon will get the chance to do John's version of the Pistols story. Maybe someone will go a lot deeper into it and it won't be so surface. But maybe you needed this just to get people back in the flow.
We had punk and metal over here in the States, but it feels like England it was legitimately more dangerous. British society was much more rigid.
It never went [as] mega in America. It went big in England. It exploded when the Pistols did that interview with [TV host Bill] Grundy, that lorry truck driver put his boot through his own TV, and all the national papers had "the filth and the fury" [headlines].
We went from being unknown to being known overnight. We waited a year, Generation X. We even told them [record labels] no for nine months to a year. Every record company wanted their own punk rock group. So it went really mega in England, and it affected the whole country – the style, the fashions, everything. I mean, the Ramones were massive in England. Devo had a No. 1 song [in England] with "Satisfaction" in '77. Actually, Devo was as big as or bigger than the Pistols.
You were ahead of the pop-punk thing that happened in the late '90s, and a lot of it became tongue-in-cheek by then. It didn't have the same sense of rebelliousness as the original movement. It was more pop.
It had become a style. There was a famous book in England called Revolt Into Style — and that's what had happened, a revolt that turned into style which then they were able to duplicate in their own way. Even recently, Billie Joe [Armstrong] did his own version of "Gimme Some Truth," the Lennon song we covered way back in 1977.
When we initially were making [punk] music, it hadn't become accepted yet. It was still dangerous and turned into a style that people were used to. We were still breaking barriers.
You have a band called Generation Sex with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. I assume you all have an easier time playing Pistols and Gen X songs together now and not worrying about getting spit on like back in the '70s?
Yeah, definitely. When I got to America I told the group I was putting it together, "No one spits at the audience."
We had five years of being spat on [in the UK], and it was revolting. And they spat at you if they liked you. If they didn't like it they smashed your gear up. One night, I remember I saw blood on my T-shirt, and I think Joe Strummer got meningitis when spit went in his mouth.
You had to go through a lot to become successful, it wasn't like you just kind of got up there and did a couple of gigs. I don't think some young rock bands really get that today.
With punk going so mega in England, we definitely got a leg up. We still had a lot of work to get where we got to, and rightly so because you find out that you need to do that. A lot of groups in the old days would be together three to five years before they ever made a record, and that time is really important. In a way, what was great about punk rock for me was it was very much a learning period. I really learned a lot [about] recording music and being in a group and even writing songs.
Then when I came to America, it was a flow, really. I also really started to know what I wanted Billy Idol to be. It took me a little bit, but I kind of knew what I wanted Billy Idol to be. And even that took a while to let it marinate.
You and Miley Cyrus have developed a good working relationship in the last several years. How do you think her fans have responded to you, and your fans have responded to her?
I think they're into it. It's more the record company that she had didn't really get "Night Crawling"— it was one of the best songs on Plastic Hearts, and I don't think they understood that. They wanted to go with Dua Lipa, they wanted to go with the modern, young acts, and I don't think they realized that that song was resonating with her fans. Which is a shame really because, with Andrew Watt producing, it's a hit song.
But at the same time, I enjoyed doing it. It came out really good and it's very Billy Idol. In fact, I think it’s more Billy Idol than Miley Cyrus. I think it shows you where Andrew Watt was. He was excited about doing a Billy Idol track. She's fun to work with. She’s a really great person and she works at her singing — I watched her rehearsing for the Super Bowl performance she gave. She rehearsed all Saturday morning, all Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning and it was that afternoon. I have to admire her fortitude. She really cares.
I remember when you went on "Viva La Bam" back in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?
I think it was his car.
Did he get over it later on?
He loved it. [Laughs] He’s got a wacky sense of humor. He’s fantastic, actually. I’m really sorry to see what he's been going through just lately. He's going through a lot, and I wish him the best. He's a fantastic person, and it's a shame that he's struggling so much with his addictions. I know what it's like. It's not easy.
Musically, what is the synergy like with you guys during the past 10 years, doing Kings and Queens of the Underground and this new stuff? What is your working relationship like now in this more sober, older, mature version of you two as opposed to what it was like back in the '80s?
In lots of ways it’s not so different because we always wrote the songs together, we always talked about what we're going to do together. It was just that we were getting high at the same time.We're just not getting [that way now] but we're doing all the same things.
We're still talking about things, still [planning] things:What are we going to do next? How are we going to find new people to work with? We want to find new producers. Let's be a little bit more timely about putting stuff out.That part of our relationship is the same, you know what I mean? That never got affected. We just happened to be overloading in the '80s.
The relationship’s… matured and it's carrying on being fruitful, and I think that's pretty amazing. Really, most people don't get to this place. Usually, they hate each other by now. [Laughs] We also give each other space. We're not stopping each other doing things outside of what we’re working on together. All of that enables us to carry on working together. I love and admire him. I respect him. He's been fantastic. I mean, just standing there on stage with him is always a treat. And he’s got an immensely great sense of humor. I think that's another reason why we can hang together after all this time because we've got the sense of humor to enable us to go forward.
There's a lot of fan reaction videos online, and I noticed a lot of younger women like "Rebel Yell" because, unlike a lot of other '80s alpha male rock tunes, you're talking about satisfying your lover.
It was about my girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister. It was about how great I thought she was, how much I was in love with her, and how great women are, how powerful they are.
It was a bit of a feminist anthem in a weird way. It was all about how relationships can free you and add a lot to your life. It was a cry of love, nothing to do with the Civil War or anything like that. Perri was a big part of my life, a big part of being Billy Idol. I wanted to write about it. I'm glad that's the effect.
Is there something you hope people get out of the songs you've been doing over the last 10 years? Do you find yourself putting out a message that keeps repeating?
Well, I suppose, if anything, is that you can come to terms with your life, you can keep a hold of it. You can work your dreams into reality in a way and, look, a million years later, still be enjoying it.
The only reason I'm singing about getting out of the cage is because I kicked out of the cage years ago. I joined Generation X when I said to my parents, "I'm leaving university, and I'm joining a punk rock group." And they didn't even know what a punk rock group was. Years ago, I’d write things for myself that put me on this path, so that maybe in 2022 I could sing something like "Cage" and be owning this territory and really having a good time. This is the life I wanted.
The original UK punk movement challenged societal norms. Despite all the craziness going on throughout the world, it seems like a lot of modern rock bands are afraid to do what you guys were doing. Do you think we'll see a shift in that?
Yeah. Art usually reacts to things, so I would think eventually there will be a massive reaction to the pop music that’s taken over — the middle of the road music, and then this kind of right wing politics. There will be a massive reaction if there's not already one. I don’t know where it will come from exactly. You never know who's gonna do [it].
Graphic: The Recording Academy
Hear All Of The Best Country Solo Performance Nominees For The 2023 GRAMMY Awards
The 2023 GRAMMY Award nominees for Best Country Solo Performance highlight country music's newcomers and veterans, featuring hits from Kelsea Ballerini, Zach Bryan, Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris and Willie Nelson.
Country music's evolution is well represented in the 2023 GRAMMY nominees for Best Country Solo Performance. From crossover pop hooks to red-dirt outlaw roots, the genre's most celebrated elements are on full display — thanks to rising stars, leading ladies and country icons.
Longtime hitmaker Miranda Lambert delivered a soulful performance on the rootsy ballad "In His Arms," an arrangement as sparing as the windswept west Texas highlands where she co-wrote the song. Viral newcomer Zach Bryan dug into similar organic territory on the Oklahoma side of the Red River for "Something in the Orange," his voice accompanied with little more than an acoustic guitar.
Two of country's 2010s breakout stars are clearly still shining, too, as Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini both received Best Country Solo Performance GRAMMY nods. Morris channeled the determination that drove her leap-of-faith move from Texas to Nashville for the playful clap-along "Circles Around This Town," while Ballerini brought poppy hooks with a country edge on the infectiously upbeat "HEARTFIRST."
Rounding out the category is the one and only Willie Nelson, who paid tribute to his late friend Billy Joe Shaver with a cover of "Live Forever" — a fitting sentiment for the 89-year-old legend, who is approaching his eighth decade in the business.
As the excitement builds for the 2023 GRAMMYs on Feb. 5, 2023, let's take a closer look at this year's nominees for Best Country Solo Performance.
Kelsea Ballerini — "HEARTFIRST"
In the tradition of Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Carrie Underwood, Kelsea Ballerini represents Nashville's sunnier side — and her single "HEARTFIRST" is a slice of bright, uptempo, confectionary country-pop for the ages.
Ballerini sings about leaning into a carefree crush with her heart on her sleeve, pushing aside her reservations and taking a risk on love at first sight. The scene plays out in a bar room and a back seat, as she sweeps nimbly through the verses and into a shimmering chorus, when the narrator decides she's ready to "wake up in your T-shirt."
There are enough steel guitar licks to let you know you're listening to a country song, but the story and melody are universal. "HEARTFIRST" is Ballerini's third GRAMMY nod, but first in the Best Country Solo Performance category.
Zach Bryan — "Something In The Orange"
Zach Bryan blew into Music City seemingly from nowhere in 2017, when his original song "Heading South" — recorded on an iPhone — went viral. Then an active officer in the U.S. Navy, the Oklahoma native chased his muse through music during his downtime, striking a chord with country music fans on stark songs led by his acoustic guitar and affecting vocals.
After his honorable discharge in 2021, Bryan began his music career in earnest, and in 2022 released "Something in the Orange," a haunting ballad that stakes a convincing claim to the territory between Tyler Childers and Jason Isbell in both sonics and songwriting. Slashing slide guitar drives home the song's heartbreak, as Bryan pines for a lover whose tail lights have long since vanished over the horizon.
"Something In The Orange" marks Bryan's first-ever GRAMMY nomination.
Miranda Lambert — "In His Arms"
Miranda Lambert is the rare, chart-topping contemporary country artist who does more than pay lip service to the genre's rural American roots. "In His Arms" originally surfaced on 2021's The Marfa Tapes, a casual recording Lambert made with Jack Ingram and Jon Randall in Marfa, Texas — a tiny arts enclave in the middle of the west Texas high desert.
In this proper studio version — recorded for her 2022 album, Palomino — Lambert retains the structure and organic feel of the mostly acoustic song; light percussion and soothing atmospherics keep her emotive vocals front and center. A native Texan herself, Lambert sounds fully at home on "In His Arms."
Lambert is the only Best Country Solo Performance nominee who is nominated in all four Country Field categories in 2023. To date, Miranda Lambert has won 3 GRAMMYs and received 27 nominations overall.
Maren Morris — "Circles Around This Town"
When Maren Morris found herself uninspired and dealing with writer's block, she went back to what inspired her to move to Nashville nearly a decade ago — and out came "Circles Around This Town," the lead single from her 2022 album Humble Quest.
Written in one of her first in-person songwriting sessions since the pandemic, Morris has called "Circles Around This Town" her "most autobiographical song" to date; she even recreated her own teenage bedroom for the song's video. As she looks back to her Texas beginnings and the life she left for Nashville, Morris' voice soars over anthemic, yet easygoing production.
Morris last won a GRAMMY for Best Country Solo Performance in 2017, when her song "My Church" earned the singer her first GRAMMY. To date, Maren Morris has won one GRAMMY and received 17 nominations overall.
Willie Nelson — "Live Forever"
Country music icon Willie Nelson is no stranger to the GRAMMYs, and this year he aims to add to his collection of 10 gramophones. He earned another three nominations for 2023 — bringing his career total to 56 — including a Best Country Solo Performance nod for "Live Forever."
Nelson's performance of "Live Forever," the lead track of the 2022 tribute album Live Forever: A Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver, is a faithful rendition of Shaver's signature song. Still, Nelson puts his own twist on the tune, recruiting Lucinda Williams for backing vocals and echoing the melody with the inimitable tone of his nylon-string Martin guitar.
Shaver, an outlaw country pioneer who passed in 2020 at 81 years old, never had any hits of his own during his lifetime. But plenty of his songs were still heard, thanks to stars like Elvis Presley, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. Nelson was a longtime friend and frequent collaborator of Shaver's — and now has a GRAMMY nom to show for it.