By Ché Salgado
If you’ve been keeping up with the KTSW blog or maybe just music news in general, you know Spoon have come out with a new album, Hot Thoughts. (I wrote about it here.) And so of course, with this ninth LP, a whole generation of “All Eight Spoon Albums Ranked” articles become outdated. But after some extremely cursory Googling, I found that some outlets have already rolled out their new lists for the times, some even on the day of Hot Thoughts release–which is way too soon, you have to sit with an album to know its place, especially in a discography like Spoon’s, which everybody seems to have an opinion on. Anyhow, I wouldn’t want to name names, but Paste Magazine’s new ranking of the nine Spoon albums was, well, in my opinion, pretty flawed. Although I have to give props for the high ranking of 2005’s Gimme Fiction, it doesn’t make up for the lazy Telephono–Series of Sneaks–Transference filling of the bottom three spots which popular narrative might have you believe is the case, but it isn’t. But then, I suppose everybody’s Spoon list looks stupid to at least one other person. So, to bare ourselves in the court of public opinion, KTSW presents a ranking of every Spoon album (so far).
- Telephono (1996)
There’s only one easy thing about ranking Spoon albums. The first is this: guaranteed to be on the bottom of the list is the band’s 1996 debut album, Telephono. It’s not that the album is terrible or anything, it’s just bland and derivative. If you’ve ever read any other opinion on it then you’re probably already familiar with allegations that Spoon at this point was basically just biting the Pixies. Well the rumours are true, from Britt Daniel’s ad-lib squeals and high-pitched delivery on “Not Turning Off” to the Deal-esque background vocals on “Dismember”. Both these songs are album highlights but only because they’re passable imitations of another band’s style, which isn’t really a compliment. The view from ‘96 wouldn’t have clued anybody in how Spoon would become one of the most acclaimed bands of the ’00s, their next record would, but we’ll get to that later.
- Hot Thoughts (2017)
Spoon and Matador just seem to be two things that don’t really go together. After spending almost a month with the new album and after almost a dozen listens, Hot Thoughts has proved itself to be something of a relative disappointment. The band’s first outing without longtime member Eric Harvey might have been considered a promising installment if it were coming from a band with a lesser reputation that Spoon. But seeing as this is a record from a band who were on an almost 20-year hot-streak, the blandness of songs like “Shotgun” and “I Ain’t the One” was a letdown. Hot Thoughts called into question whether Spoon’s reputation as a “reliable” rock band was still endearing, or just becoming boring and it pulled them closer to being what some snobbish friends of mine insist that they are: the preeminent band of bland-core.
- Transference (2010) – 9.59
Arguably the second-most underrated album in the band’s discography, upon release in 2010, Transference was met with trepidation and lukewarm reviews that deemed the album a relative disappointment compared to the four-album streak the band had been on from 2001-2007. For many people this is where the story ends, with Transference, but this record deserves more than that. The record explored avenues Spoon had never been down before, from experiments in music like sudden time changes (“I Saw the Light”) to experiments with studio technology, or lack thereof (“Before Destruction”). The “demo is the record” philosophy Spoon adopted during the recording of this hidden gem proves Spoon’s reputation as a solid and reliable rock band wasn’t based on complacency by the band or fans but based on the fact that Spoon, plainly put, make genuinely good albums, even if they shake up the formula. It’s not as thought longtime producer Mike McCarthy was completely absent during recording, but we know now that left to their own devices, Spoon can churn out an album full of great songs like “Trouble Comes Running” and “Out Go the Lights”. Shame on those who consider this a low point in the Spoon catalog.
- Kill the Moonlight (2002) – 9.6
It really hurts me to do this, it really does, but you’ve gotta give credit where credit is due. Up until recently, I’d downplayed the quality of Kill the Moonlight, seeing it as an album undeserving of its praise, feelings heightened by apathy to the aforementioned Transference, which I saw as much more deserving. But after listening through it again on a whim, well… it was like rediscovering it. I always knew the album had great songs like “Small Stakes”, “Jonathan Fisk” and “Back to the Life”, but I rediscovered that no amount of disdain for “The Way We Get By” can suppress songs like “Don’t Let it Get You Down” and “Something to Look Forward To”. Like I said, after shirking it for so long, listening again was like hearing it for the first time. How could you deny the best closing track Spoon’s ever written, the beautiful, spacey and ethereal “Vittorio E.”? Though I still don’t agree with all the other writers placing it on the top of their Spoon lists, nor with the ridiculous notion that it’s “minimalist” in any way, I will say that what it is, is “nuanced” (an adjective that frontman Britt Daniel has confessed to hating) in its lyrics that continue to capture the world as Britt Daniel sees it and in its music that at times hints at the sounds of the bands past as well as their future. Kill the Moonlight is the sound of a band propelling itself onto the path of a journey they don’t even know they’re about to undertake which will bring them face-to-face with the success that had eluded them for almost a decade at this point.
- They Want My Soul (2014) – 8.5
It was billed as a comeback record but it didn’t need to be. If anything, this vocabulary of redemption was a disservice to the band. There wasn’t anything to “comeback” from. Transference, the band’s previous effort, was a solid record that remains underrated to this day despite reviews at the time. And as for the four-year absence? Well, considering every Spoon member stayed busy during the downtime –Britt Daniel working with ex-Wolf Parader, Dan Boeckner to release 2012’s wonderful A Thing Called Divine Fits, Eric Harvey, also in 2012 releasing his Lake Disappointment record, bassist Rob Pope regrouping with his old band, emo standby, The Get Up Kids to record 2011’s There Are Rules, and finally drummer, Jim Eno working behind the boards on several projects in his own Public Hi-Fi recording studio– there wasn’t ever anything to rebound from. But that’s alright, because They Want My Soul is a great record outside of any manufactured context. The only discrepancy could be a disappointing back half (save for the blistering, incredible title track and the nocturnal “New York Kiss”) which includes a subpar cover of Ann Margaret’s 1961 hit “I Just Don’t Understand”. All things considered, at the time and still today we all considered it another solid album from a solid band.
- A Series of Sneaks (1998)
How underrated can one album get? I always see this one at the second-to-last slot on people’s Spoon lists but the fact is, it deserves to be in the top half. Sneaks is the record where Spoon took the Pixies-biting and Wire-worshipping and co-opted them to successfully carve out their own sonic space, thanks in large part to Britt’s guitar playing. If Spoon had ended their career after the commercial failure of this album in the late ’90s, well, they’d probably be a lot less known, but no less respected. This record is hard to talk about because it really seems like the conclusion to the sound they’d explored on Telephono only fleshed out and matured and then it’s sort of abandoned. Where else do we see the stark, angular guitar tones of songs like “The Minor Tough” in the Spoon discography? Perhaps what Spoon didn’t get, that their heroes the Pixies did, and what contributed to the blandness of Telephono is that they play pop songs. And so while songs on Telephono start off like and stay brutish and forceful numbers devoid of any melody you might call “well thought out”, the songs on A Series of Sneaks develop into wonderful pop pieces. Take the aforementioned “Minor Tough”: it starts off another angular, lean rock song Spoon would write but develops into a great pop song by the time the chorus hits. The same goes for songs like “No You’re Not” and “Utilitarian”. And the album isn’t short of songs that would be considered single-material, just great pop songs like “Metal Detektor” and “Advance Cassette”. This record is what a Pixies devotee gets when they remember that underneath the howls and dark Bible references, Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV loved the pop songs of Buddy Holly.
- Gimme Fiction (2005)
The first Spoon record that debuted on the Billboard 200, it actually got up to no. 44 which is both impressive but unsurprising when you consider the album produced singles as heart-swelling as “Sister Jack” and as sharp as “I Turn My Camera On”. Much more straightforward than the already fairly straightforward Kill the Moonlight, Spoon embrace every part of their trademark phrase “reliable rock band”. Songs like “Sister Jack” and “The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine” are straight rock numbers although not without their own subversions, the former’s being its switch to 5/4 time at the end of the song and the latter’s being the warped strings throughout. It encapsulates the record as a whole: “just rock music, but with a little twist at the end”. But the straightforwardness of the first half of the record works incredibly well. Even the most straightforward track, the acoustic singer-songwriter track “I Summon You” has ended up being one of the band’s most endearing songs that’s never not in the setlist even 12 years later. The real explorations that hint at the synth sounds of later records come in the back half of the record. Songs like “The Infinite Pet” and “Was It You?” prove the “songs-as-a-microcosm-for-the-album” theory completely. Gimme Fiction: it’s just rock music, but with a little twist at the end.
- Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (2007)
And so now we arrive at the hardest of tasks when creating a ranking of Spoon albums: Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga or Girls Can Tell? We’ll get to the reasoning in a bit actually, as it ties in well to exactly why Girls Can Tell is such an achievement. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is the lean record, the slick record. Even in its spread-as thin-as-it-gets, it remains incredibly robust and compressed. It’s the only other record that could contend for the top spot because it takes every element from Spoon albums past– the acoustic balladry of “Vittorio E.” reappears as “Black Like Me”, the lean-funk of “I Turn My Camera On” comes back to us as a cover the Natural History’s “Don’t You Ever”, retitled “Don’t You Evah”, indicative of its precise slack compared to the original. And of course the heart-swelling romp of a Spoon song that was “Sister Jack” comes back to charm us as the best victory lap ever put in song form, “The Underdog”. Even the album, clocking in at 36 or so minutes, feels lean and sharp. It comes in, dazzles us, and disappears. Lyrically, Britt Daniel is at the top of his game describing subjects from the Bush presidency to his own victories in the music business in slick and clever pop poetics. Nothing feels auxiliary here. Every song has a purpose, from the spacey “Ghost of You Lingers” that shows us a new side of Spoon as well as sets us up for the measured fanfare of “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb” to the pair of “Rhthm and Soul” and “Eddie’s Raga” delivering us to the explosive “Underdog”. This is the closest Spoon ever got to “art-rock” because reverb and “trippy” sounds don’t elevate pop music out of its de facto place as a consumer concept, only forward thinking arrangements, innovations and sounds can do that, all of which are present on penultimate track “Finer Feelings”, let alone the album.
- Girls Can Tell (2001)
It’s the best one, no doubt. When you consider how Spoon could have ridden the guitar pop they were cultivating on A Series of Sneaks to indie-rock reverence, (for reference: in a since-deleted Pitchfork review, that record was given a 9.4/10) it’s remarkable how they completely changed course. If only indie-rock reverence held the cultural currency in 1998 that it does today. No, for the next two years Spoon spent time listening, writing, building a studio to record in, all for a new album that would depart from the angular guitars of their two previous efforts. Inspired by classic rock acts such as Fleetwood Mac, Spoon signed to Merge Records and in the February of 2001 gave us Girls Can Tell. An electric piano leads us into opener “Everything Hits at Once”, a track devoid of guitar except to use it how guitar bands would use an electric piano– to accentuate rhythm and melody. We then continue through Britt Daniel’s nocturnal Austin odyssey which takes us through covers of songs by other Austin bands (“Me And The Bean”), through songs confessing feelings of being washed up (“Lines in the Suit”), through wistful yearnings for yesteryear (“The Fitted Shirt”), to a song that can be traced to the mid-’90s, when Daniel moonlighted as “Drake Tungsten”, the melancholy and mystifying “Chicago at Night”. In between all these musical landmarks we find things that, peering from the view from ‘96, you would never have expected Spoon to utilize. A harpsichord on “The Fitted Shirt”, a mellotron on the opener and “10:20 AM”, and a taste for poppier, more complex songcraft that only began to appear when Daniel realized the world doesn’t revolve around Pink Flag and Doolittle. Perhaps Girls Can Tell isn’t the most forward-thinking record–it’s steeped in the sounds of classic rock, an area of music that’s well-mapped out– but in bringing these sounds into their sonic palette, Spoon not only set the bar for every one of their records since, but brought us close to the much-need musical singularity by blurring the lines between indie and classic rock. And by doing that, they began to inch closer in stature to their musical heroes, rather than remaining imitators.