Ranked: The Jesus and Mary Chain
Sep 06, 2012
Welcome to Ranked, our regular series in which one of our writers takes an artist’s catalogue and ranks all of their official studio albums from best to worst. The order is decided by the individual writer, rather than our editors. If you disagree with our ranking then please let us know in the comments section. This time Austin Trunick ranks The Jesus and Mary Chain.
Riding seemingly out of nowhere on a wave of harsh fuzz and candy-sweet hooks, Scottish brothers William and Jim Reid—leaders of The Jesus and Mary Chain—would inspire dozens of other acts to turn up the gain dials on their amplifiers with the release of their 1985 debut, Psychocandy. Though the band’s sound and lineup would change many times until their breakup 14 years later, the handful of classic albums they put out in that time was amongst some of the most influential indie records of the era.
Here are The Jesus and Mary Chain’s major releases, ranked from most essential to least.
Words by Austin Trunick
Listening to Psychocandy today, it’s possible that the record’s aural impact has somewhat faded. After two and a half decades of shoegaze acts and other denizens of fuzz re-appropriating its formula and taking it to higher levels, the influential first LP by The Jesus and Mary Chain hardly sounds as abrasive or as unusual as it once did. It’s unlikely, however, that we’d be so conditioned to the use of distortion as a musical instrument in and of itself without Psychocandy; while their peers were coating their songs with a wash of synthesizers, Jim and William Reid took traditionally “ugly” guitar tones and layered them over old-school rock and pop song structures. Outside of straining their amplifiers, the Mary Chain were doing little else here that hadn’t been done for decades already—listen for the clear Phil Spector, Beach Boys, and especially the Velvet Underground influences—but perhaps those familiar trappings made the far-out guitars so easy to swallow. That, or because the songs—simple as they are—were just so damn good. “Just Like Honey” is their quintessential track: languid vocals almost definitely about sex, swaths of fuzz, an occasional drumbeat here and there, laid-back and catchy. Even if the guitar noise sounds pretty tame by our current standards, Psychocandy is no less a classic.
By the time The Jesus and Mary Chain were ready to put out a fourth LP, shoegaze had exploded. Between Automatic in 1989 and Honey's Dead in 1992, music fans had been exposed to My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, Ride's Nowhere, Swervedriver's Raise, and other similarly noise-embracing classics. (For the first time, they were also competing with grunge for radio play.) Whether or not this rapid proliferation of distortion had anything to do with the band's change of direction, the album's title—a reference to their early single, “Just Like Honey”—made it clear that they'd had their fill of the Psychocandy sound. The album is the most inspired they sounded since their debut; opener “Reverence” blasted the group into the new decade with its jangly, buzzing guitars and sneering, blasphemous lyrics.
When the Reid brothers first embraced the abrasive guitar tones of Psychocandy and their early singles, they were doing it in part to get away from the cold, detached feeling inherent in much of the synth-pop being put out by a lot of their peers. By the time they got to their third full-length, Automatic, they'd clearly had a change of heart. The majority of the percussion on the record is handled by a drum machine; synthesizers replace much of the bass guitar. Recorded by Jim and William mostly on their own, it sounds almost naked in comparison to the two previous LPs. Luckily, the results of the new electronic approach were more New Order than New Wave; it's less a step toward the mainstream than a different method of showcasing their rock and pop songwriting sensibilities. It's not really as much a departure as it was made out to be on its release: bursts of feedback still rule the day from time to time, and single “Blues From a Gun” is about as aggressive as anything that came from them before.
The follow-up to Psychocandy turned down the amplifiers for a more restrained-sounding approach. Darklands is moody and calm, still seeped in reverb but less pronounced in the noise department. It falters when it relies on acoustic guitars and more laid-back melodies; “Nine Million Rainy Days” and “On the Wall” drag on overly long, and “Deep One Perfect Morning” sounds less like a Velvet Underground homage than a straight rip-off. On the other hand, the more upbeat “Happy When It Rains” and “April Skies” were great, catchy singles, and keep the album from sinking into its own gloominess. In the end, it may be a more refined record than its predecessor, but is much less exciting in comparison.
Stoned & Dethroned
The Jesus and Mary Chain entered the studio to record Stoned & Dethroned under the mindset that it'd be their acoustic record but later abandoned the idea when they ran out of ideas for things to do while unplugged. The album would still wind up the lightest-sounding in their discography. The problems with the low-key tracks that marred Darklands are more pronounced here; with much of the tension and charge seemingly sucked away from their songs, there's little left to hold it all together. The record breezes by, a bit weak and underwhelming. It wasn't all a loss, however: the album's first single, “Sometimes Always,” featuring Jim singing a duet with Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval, was one of the band's biggest stateside hits.
Tension between the brothers amounted to a final album that doesn't feel nearly as put-together as earlier entries in the band's discography. Opener “I Love Rock 'N' Roll” is a bright surge of pop music; more than an hour later, “I Hate Rock 'N' Roll” closes the record with hostile blasts of noise, unlike anything the band had recorded since their earliest days. What lies between jumps and jostles about the band's different sounds and styles, from heavily-produced pop pieces to dark, guitar-driven dirges. Jim and William Reid have said in interviews that they were barely speaking leading into the album's recording, and Munki's lack of any singular big picture could point to that being a cause. The Jesus and Mary Chain would call it quits the following year.
Bonus Selection: The Power of Negative Thinking: B-Sides & Rarities
( The bonus selection includes albums and side projects that don’t quite neatly fit into the band’s studio discography, but will likely be of interest to fans of the band.) As with a lot of British indie bands of the era, a Jesus and Mary Chain collection is barely complete if you've only collected their studio albums. Their discography is packed with non-album cuts from singles to EPs, as well as a few more baffling releases, such as the 1995 almost-an-album-but-not-quite The Jesus and Mary Chain Hate Rock 'N' Roll. The band put out several different compilations collecting different portions of this material over the years, but Negative Thinking—which spans four discs—comes closest to being complete. It includes tracks from The Sound of Speed and Barbed Wire Kisses B-sides collections, as well as many other various rarities, soundtrack cuts, demos, and live takes. Much of it is essential, particularly the early-career-covering disc one, which includes the original “Upside Down” demo given to Creation Records and a far-out cover of Syd Barrett's “Vegetable Man.”