5 “Velouria” from Bossanova, 1990
Flanged out guitars and a theremin? On a Pixies song? Bitchin’! One of the few times on later Pixies albums that it all comes together on one track, Black Francis’ surf rock love is on full display. In a different universe, the Beach Boys might have recorded this song themselves (with five-part harmonies instead of two and clean guitars instead of distorted ones). Compositionally, Francis’ does his best Brian Wilson impersonation, but with a twist — the song is about obsession and necrophilia instead of high school sweethearts. Again, Francis’ off-kilter theme lends the song a haunting edge that fits with both the requiem chord progression and his yearning howls.
4 “Debaser” from Doolittle, 1989
Whatever templates you think the Strokes created in alternative, you can hear pretty much every “original” move on this one Pixies track: jagged guitar slashes, Mountain Dew tempos, coolly rasping vocals, stuttering one-note solos. Oh, and the Strokes never wrote a song about anything as cool Un Chien Andalou. We have to give mad props to drummer David Lovering, turning in the performance of a lifetime, and finding some beautiful middle ground between Charlie Watts and Neil Pert. Of course, the racecar fuel guitars will get the most love (and their brilliant in their own right), but people never seem to mention how much Lovering knocks it out of the park on this one. So, we have to.
3 “Gigantic” from Surfer Rosa, 1988
The best song Kim Deal wrote while she was with the band, this is also one of the few where she gets a lead vocal. (Francis sings the high parts on the chorus and the keening intro, just for the record.) The whole thing is a runaway freight train of sloppy guitar genius that should run off the rails a dozen or so times, but manages to maintain momentum even as it crashes into its final destination. Mid-way through the song, the rest of the band drops out so Joey Santiago can play his most conventional riff ever. The effect is haunting, until Black Francis unleashes a flurry of dissonance over it. Simply a brilliant song.
2 “Where Is My Mind?” from Surfer Rosa, 1988
Black Francis’ first completely successful melding of his pop smarts and his stream-of-unconsciousness lyrics, “Where Is My Mind?” is also his most memorable. The song starts off with ethereal cooing and tape effects, before the thundering drums and razor wire guitar begin to mutilate the composition. When Francis’ manic vocals careen into the track, it ties everything together in the most unexpected of ways — without losing any edge, the disparate parts of the rest of the band now sound complimentary. The steady bass line, authored by Kim Deal, remains singular in its purpose and impact, providing a lightening rod for the more frantic members to strike. And they do, with measured lunacy, dancing around Deal’s steady persistence.
1 “Hey” from Doolittle, 1989
Instead of letting rampant noise run free (like they did on their first two records), Doolittle found Pixies adapting their trademark sound to new contexts with refinement. Oh, but there’s still plenty of noise! Listen to how the slap-back echoes ripple on top of each other through Joey Santiago’s noisy, bend-obsessed solo. Starting off as a slinky minor blues, the track becomes as violent and cagey as any Pixies song by the chorus. Black Francis’ lyrics are even about more conventional themes on this song — yet, he too manages to freak out towards the end. This song summarizes why Pixies were so wildly successful: their adoption of rock’n’roll conventions disarms you for their outright freakiness. And they never did so more tunefully or effectively than here. This isn’t just Pixies best, it’s one of the best in all of alternative. Maybe all of rock.
Truly, the Pixies released some of the best music of late 80s and early 90s, and never got the credit they deserved. If this is the first time you’ve seen someone talk about these songs — Seriously? What, did someone slice up your eyeballs? — you have a pretty good idea of where to start. But if you’re a longtime fan, maybe you think we forgot an indispensable classic. What, you got something against us? Well, leave your choices below, and maybe (if you’re a superhero named Tony) your choice will make it on our list. But before you go calling us a nimrod’s sons, take a look at our honorable mentions.