Ranked: Every Pink Floyd Album from Worst to Best
With a new special edition of The Wall out today, we reassess the only band that could get a twenty-minute instrumental on the radio.
Today sees the completion of a massive set of Pink Floyd rereleases, including giant box-set versions of the band's major albums. (Unsurprisingly, the Wikipedia entry about these rereleases alone sprawls for pages.) If you're trying to figure out where to go from Dark Side of the Moon, we've conveniently ranked the band's entire discography for you from worst to best.
14. A Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987)
The songwriting is lackluster, but it's the glossy, synthetic 1980s production that places Momentary Lapse firmly at the bottom of the list. Recorded ten years earlier or later, "On the Turning Away" might have been a nice acoustic social-conscience song, but here it sounds like the theme from Chariots of Fire. Dave Gilmour co-wrote the best track, "One Slip," with Roxy Music's Phil Manzanera, which suggests he didn't have much in the tank at the time.
Listen: "One Slip"
13. Obscured by Clouds (1972)
Imagine a band that sounds just like Pink Floyd, but not as good. That band would have probably produced a bunch of albums that sounded like Obscured by Clouds; it contains the main sonic elements of other Floyd records (ethereal organs, dark synths, pastoral acoustic guitars, and melodic guitar solos), but the songwriting and performance aren't at the same level. The exception is "Free Four," in which Roger Waters' over-the-top morbid lyrics are lightened by an upbeat rhythm, some romping guitar work, and more humor than usual.
Listen: "Free Four"
12. The Final Cut (1983)
If you find The Wall to be a bit too cheerful and life-affirming, then The Final Cut is for you. This suite of Roger Waters songs, lamenting war and the scarred societies that result, has impressive lyrics and a nice unity of theme. But the music falls short of Pink Floyd's other efforts, both on account of the band's anemic performance and Waters' own fragmentary songwriting. The album is subtitled "A Requiem for the Postwar Dream," and indeed, it has the atmosphere of a funeral — maybe mostly for the band itself, which was all but broken up at this point. Fans of The Wall looking to branch out will probably get more enjoyment from Waters' 1992 solo effort Amused to Death.
Listen: "The Final Cut"
11. Soundtrack from the Film More (1969)
This album's been ignored by classic rock radio and "best of" collections, so it feels surprisingly fresh. "Cirrus Minor," with a minimal arrangement of guitar and organ, sets a brooding, introspective mood at the album's opening. "Green is the Colour" is one of the prettiest songs Pink Floyd ever wrote. And "The Nile Song" is an aggressive rocker, closer in spirit to Led Zeppelin than to most other Pink Floyd songs. Unfortunately, the second half of More, consisting mostly of forgettable instrumentals, fails to sustain the energy.
Listen: "Cirrus Minor"
10. A Saucerful of Secrets (1968)
This strange and disjointed album finds Pink Floyd in transition. The lone composition from Syd Barrett, "Jugband Blues," is a disconcerting portrait of schizophrenia; "Corporal Clegg" sounds like the evil twin of "Yellow Submarine." The rest of the album is dominated by spacey, largely instrumental tracks, which aren't as immediate as those on later albums like Meddle. (Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii features more interesting versions of these songs.)
Listen: "Set The Controls for the Heart of the Sun"
9. The Division Bell (1994)
Often lumped together with A Momentary Lapse of Reason as an inconsequential post-Roger Waters effort, The Division Bell has much more to recommend it, and it stands on its own nicely as Pink Floyd's final statement. The sound is the band's warmest since Wish You Were Here, and the guitar solo at the end of "High Hopes" is one of Gilmour's best.
Listen: "High Hopes"
8. Ummagumma (1969)
The first half of this double album features live takes of Floyd's earliest work, played with more energy and power than was evident in their studio recordings; you can hear echoes of this material in the work of more recent psychedelic bands like Flaming Lips and MGMT. A particular highlight is the hypnotic "Careful With That Axe, Eugene." The new songs on the second half of the album are "experimental," to say the least, and range from interesting to unlistenable. But buried under the directionless instrumentals is the evocative acoustic piece "Grantchester Meadows."
Listen: "Careful with that Axe, Eugene"
7. The Wall (1979)
This is probably the most perverse album ever to sell eleven million copies. While it's admirable at some level that Roger Waters decided to bare his psyche, The Wall's bombast seems to glorify the the narrator's paranoia, neurosis, and misery. Furthermore, Waters' songs relentlessly put the blame on other people, which undermines much of the catharsis he's going for at the end of the album. There are some great songs here, among them, of course, "Another Brick in the Wall Part II," "Comfortably Numb," and the refreshingly understated "Nobody Home." Still, the slick production, repetitive themes, and frustrating half-songs make this an oddity within Pink Floyd's catalogue: it works better as a collection of singles than as an album.
Listen: "Another Brick in the Wall Part II"
6. Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)
It's difficult to rank this with Pink Floyd's other albums, because in a sense, it's the work of a different band — it's the only album-length exploration of Syd Barrett's naive-literary vision of psychedelic rock, and the only one without Dave Gilmour's contributions. Piper is nothing if not unique; standout track "Astronomy Domine" is built largely on cycles of chromatic scales, with a sonic texture of soaring guitars, almost constant drum fills, and eerie vocal harmonies. How you rank this album really comes down to whether Barrett's style is your cup of (very English and hallucinogenic) tea.
Listen: "Astronomy Domine"
5. Meddle (1971)
Meddle begins and ends with two of Pink Floyd's strongest musical statements. The opener, "One of These Days," is a driving, foreboding instrumental rocker, and the closer, "Echoes," is a twenty-three-minute psychedelic piece which drifts nicely between grounded verses with rich vocal harmonies and abstract instrumental passages. The middle section, like Atom Heart Mother's, features some acoustic tracks which generally aren't quite at the level of the spaced-out instrumentals; the best of these is "San Tropez," a swinging, light-hearted send-up of the one percent.
Listen: "One of These Days"
4. Animals (1977)
The followup to Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here breaks from its predecessors; gone are the gospel choruses and saxophones of Dark Side, and the warm acoustic guitar of Wish is relegated to two short tracks that bookend the album. While those two albums were at least partially based in traditional rock song structures, Animals abandons them entirely and focuses on three dense, dark, ten-plus-minute compositions. While the unrelentingly cynical lyrics and the expansive structure makes this a difficult listen, the powerful instrumental performances place this among Pink Floyd's best albums. The highlight is "Sheep," which showcases the interplay of keyboard and bass as well as some of David Gilmour's most blistering guitar work.
3. Atom Heart Mother (1970)
Starting with the cover, Atom Heart Mother seems to invite incomprehension. The title track, a twenty-three-minute instrumental, might be the most bizarre piece in the entire Floyd catalogue, but its quasi-classical trumpet passages, haunting organ melodies, and floating guitars make it one of the musical high points of the band's career. The album also features some strong acoustic pieces, including "Fat Old Sun," in which unexpected minor chords in the chorus add some mystique to the otherwise dreamy, pastoral tone; "If," which sounds like a precursor to both The Wall and '90s Radiohead; and "Summer of '68," a nice piece of Baroque-psychedelia with great vocal harmonies.
Listen: "Fat Old Sun"
2. Wish You Were Here (1975)
Roger Waters was able to write with more warmth and humanity about other people's mental breakdowns than about his own, which is why this album holds up better than The Wall. The title track is one of the most heartfelt in the band's whole catalog; "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" not only contains one of the band's best guitar motifs and its jazziest keyboard explorations, but is wisely broken into two twelve-minute sections at the beginning and end of the album, making it much more accessible than "Echoes" or "Atom Heart Mother." "Have a Cigar" showcases a funkier side of the band that would almost completely disappear after this album.
Listen: "Wish You Were Here"
1. The Dark Side of the Moon (1973)
Despite being to played death by both classic rock radio and marijuana-filled planetariums, Dark Side remains Pink Floyd's most powerful and enduring album. Musically, the songs are grounded in blues-rock structures but veer into stranger territory; "Breathe" and "Any Colour You Like" are based on familiar chord progressions, but jazz chords in the choruses separate them from the hundreds of other songs in the same vein; "Money" reinterprets the twelve-bar-blues structure with its 7/4 timing and abrupt shifts in tempo and dynamics. Lyrically, Dark Side addresses alienation, mental illness, and the fear of wasting your life (or someone else wasting it for you) in a sparse, impressionistic way, allowing room for rumination in the long instrumental passages between verses and phrases. And then, there's "Great Gig in the Sky," completely unique in Pink Floyd's catalog, wherein singer Clare Torry's wordless vocal seems to simultaneously suggest a sexual climax and a terrifying death. This is the album where Pink Floyd most successfully combined their psychedelic explorations with observation and reflection on life as actually lived.
Listen: "Great Gig in the Sky"
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