Last week Guided by Voices — indie rock legends released Let’s Go Eat the Factory, their first album since reuniting in 2010. And lo, it was very good. (More on that in a sec.) Bands get back together to play live seemingly all time usually around April or so, when Coachella happens. (Glad to have you back, Refused and At The Drive-In.) Or sometimes, like Van Halen, just to make a billion dollars playing arenas and releasing more music that we ultimately will despise. But most reunions only wind up with a small percent back in the studio. From there, an even smaller percentage doesn’t result in embarrassment. Here’s our list of the five best (mostly) indie-rock reunion albums that can actually hang proudly with the best work the band did before everyone went their separate ways.
1. Sunny Day Real Estate, How It Feels to Be Something On (1998)
Of all the bands that have ever reunited and recorded a new album, Sunny Day Real Estate are the only band that got back together and made their best album. This might sound like heresy, considering that 1994’s Diary and the 1995 self-titled “Pink Album” are considered emo touchstones, but it’s true. The mysterious Seattle group broke up for reasons still not explained but often chalked up to unease about singer Jeremy Enigk conversion to Christianity, and then reunited shortly afterwards, sans bassist Nate Mendel, who stayed with the Foo Fighters. How It Feels To Be Something On, the album they recorded afterwards, is filled with slowly unraveling epic beauty, as in debt to Peter Gabriel and the 4AD canon as Fugazi, and filled with raw pleas for connections and hope that are too painfully, nakedly sincere for any blithe genre term. The band broke up one solid album after this, and then reunited a decade later for a tour behind reissues of the first two albums. This tour, frustratingly enough, tended to only feature one Something song, but “10,” the new song the band performed, sounded as powerful as ever. If any band could ever record another great album after reuniting again, it’s this one.
2. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, The Rising (2002)
The Boss as a lost man in the ’90s narrative isn’t completely fair, because Rage Against the Machine didn’t cover “The Ghost Of Tom Joad” because he lost his singular insight on man’s struggle for dignity. But when Bruce Springsteen disbanded his beloved backing band in the late ’80s, he spent a lot of time figuring out what it meant to be Bruce Springsteen, and his “trying new things” period was only sporadically memorable. But give him credit for knowing when to cut it out. After the September 11 attacks, many cultural commentators and fans just assumed that Bruce would make an album that would speak to the soul of a country still reeling from the attack. So he called up the E Street Band, whom he had recently begun touring with again, and did just that. The acclaimed reunion album The Rising was credited to just Springsteen, but the extra oomph and triumphant gang vocals were unmistakably E-Street, and singles like “The Rising” and “Lonesome Day” captured a feeling of disbelief and courage that spoke to his devoted-as-ever fans.
3. Mission of Burma, ONoffOn (2004)
One of the reasons that indie rock bands tend to do better in the reunion album game than their mainstream counterparts is that most groups reunite in an attempt to chase a past commercial success. As corny as the sentiment is (which is very), the best indie groups are about something greater than commercial success, and don’t want to embarrass themselves by pretending no time has past. The indie standard-bearers that do reunite might like the increased popularity and festival paychecks, but they also realize the chemistry they had and their collective vision was something unique, worth revisiting and still vital enough to stand an update. Such is the case with Boston legends Mission of Burma, who famously reunited to crowds far larger than they played to in the early ’80s, and proceeded to record a series of albums that showed that their white-knuckle intensity, the political-is-personal insight and morse-code guitar trickery had not diminished during the lengthy break brought on by guitarist Roger Miller’s tinnitus. Mission Of Burma continue to shame punks half their age, and 2004’s OnoffOn, the first album since reuniting, shows their locked in musicianship and knack for anthemic sing-a-longs was in fine form.
4. Dinosaur Jr., Beyond (2007)
The hilariously sad passive aggressive infighting of Dinosaur Jr. made for one of the most depressing/entertaining chapters of Michael Azerrad’s essential ’80s indie rock chronicle Our Band Could Be Your Life. That frontman J. Mascis and bassist/pushover Lou Barlow and mensch drummer Murphy could even be in a room together years after Mascis kicked them both out (and later retired the name), much less go on a reunion tour, was a legitimate shocker. And they upped their own shock-value ante when original line-up recorded Beyond, an album that captured the mountain-size riffage, sweet pop-hooks and desperate yearning of prime Dinosaur while updating the lyrical concerns to reflect middle age discontent is the sort of miracle that makes you believe in rock ‘n’ roll. The original line-up continues to deliver crushed-by-a-boulder live shows and worthy albums to this day.
5. Guided by Voices, Let’s Go Eat the Factory (2012)
The mystique surrounding the “classic” line-up that recorded ’90s lo-fi pop classics like Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes is a bit overstated, because Bob Pollard and whoever was around kept making melodically intoxicating songs after Tobin Sprout, Mitch Mitchell, Greg Demos and Kevin Fennell left the club. But the chemistry these old drinking buddies have is undeniable, and on the first album since the classic line-up disbanded in 1997 and Pollard quit using the name in 2004, Guided by Voices (high) kick up a poppy, lo-fi mess, with should-be-hits “The Unsinkable Fats Domino” and the Sprout-sung “Who Invented The Sun” earning their place beside “Exit Flagger” on all future setlists.