Fearlessly the Idiot Faced the Crowd: Ranking the Pink Floyd Albums

floyd

This is a concept I’ve been toying with for a couple of months now. Pink Floyd is the absolute, unequivocal number one on my list of all-time favorite bands, and David Gilmour is the absolute, unequivocal number one on my personal favorite all-time guitarist list. I love the Floyd. If you asked me to go on about their more iconic albums like Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall, I’d happily oblige you, and then some. If you want to discuss insanely obscure non-album material like “Embryo“, then I’ll gladly wax on about that, possibly while you call in the men with white coats to take me away. I can riff about Pink Floyd for days.* They’re the greatest progressive rock band of all time, and my choice for greatest rock band ever.

*One exception: I will not riff about the song “Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered In a Cave and Grooving With a Pict”. ‘Cause that shit sucks.

Last November, David Gilmour packaged and released what was intended to be the final Pink Floyd album, called The Endless River. Endless River is a collection of stuff that the band recorded in 1994 while making The Division Bell but which never saw the light of day. Gilmour recut the material and turned it into a new album, intending it as both a sign-off on Pink Floyd’s long career and also as a tribute to late band member Richard Wright, who died in 2008.

No matter what the quality of Endless River was going to be, it was certainly going to do one thing: get me back in the Pink Floyd mood. Sure enough, once I downloaded the album and gave it a few listens, I was back in Floyd mode, listening to all their albums, both classic and lesser-known, and I started re-reading the old Floyd articles and books that littered my collection. It doesn’t take much to set my controls for the heart of Pink Floyd obsessiveness.

I also decided to do a ranking, a ranking of all of Pink Floyd’s albums, from worst to first. It seems only appropriate, since the book is now officially closed on the Floyd library. The following is my personal ranking of all fifteen Pink Floyd albums, starting with the worst, from Piper at the Gates of Dawn all the way to Endless River. A long, prolific career that spanned nearly 50 years. Not bad for a band whose original creative leader was kicked out after one album for being perpetually drugged out of his mind.

(Note: This ranking only includes actual original studio albums. There are no compilations like Works or, God forbid, the horrendous A Collection of Great Dance Songs. There are also no live albums like Pulse, although you should really listen to Pulse, because it’s joyous.)

15. Ummagumma (1969)

Ummagumma is a two-disc set that is one part live album, and one part original studio content. The live concert side is a worthwhile insight into the band’s early live performances; the studio portion is best used as tinder to light a campfire. The studio side is a collection of tracks developed solo by each individual band member independent of the others. For example, David Gilmour wrote and recorded three tracks himself, Rick Wright contributed one thirteen minute-long song done on his own, and so on. The tracks were intended mostly to be experimental, and boy does it show. Only “Grantchester Meadows”, a simple acoustic song by Roger Waters, passes the test of time. Waters and Gilmour later dismissed the whole thing as basically a disaster.

14. Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)

I know I’ll get a lot of disagreement about ranking this so low, but I’m just not a big fan of this album, at all. I understand its importance in the Floyd catalog, but judging it purely on the quality of the music, I’m sorry to say that, to me, Piper is barely distinguishable from and little better than anything from the mass of interchangeable psychedelic albums to come out of the 1960’s. As much as we all love Syd Barrett, you’ll never be able to convince me that, if he had retained creative control of the band past the first album, they would have turned into anything more than a forgettable ’60’s curio. At least there’s “Astronomy Domine”, an enduring rocker that opens the album and is easily the best thing on it.

13. Atom Heart Mother (1970)

Atom Heart Mother is, strangely enough, much more famous for the cow on the album’s cover than any song contained within. In fact, I would bet that if you asked any casual Floyd fan, they wouldn’t be able to name even one of the album’s five tracks besides maybe the title track. The most enduring song is Gilmour’s “Fat Old Sun” (which featured prominently in his 2000’s-era solo tours), but Waters’s “If” and Rick Wright’s “Summer ’68” are solid, if not exactly wholly memorable, compositions. Unfortunately, the title track and “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast”, the two songs that bookend the album and comprise the vast majority of its running time, are basically jumbles of unlistenable crap.

12. A Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987)

The first post-Waters album is an inconsistent effort put together by Gilmour. “Learning to Fly” and the ominous, beautifully dark anthem “Sorrow” are the highlights, but a lot of the tracks come across as somewhat mechanical and cold, and the album as a whole now seems like a substandard relic of the ’80’s. It’s like Gilmour was trying to retain the darker aspects of the Waters era, but without the lyrical flair or far-reaching concepts that made that era so successful. The result is a generally flat, forgettable effort. The song “A New Machine” (both parts) is maybe the most gawdawful thing to ever appear on a Floyd album.

11. The Final Cut (1983)

The final Pink Floyd album to feature Roger Waters, The Final Cut is essentially a Waters solo effort, a long and heartfelt anti-war polemic that serves as a kind of lead-in to his later solo work. While the lyrics are undoubtedly poignant (as usual for Waters), many of the songs are turgid and gloomy, and trying to listen to the album in one sitting can turn into an exercise in wrist-slashing. It comes as no surprise that the best tracks on the album are those in which Gilmour’s guitar figures prominently, especially “The Fletcher Memorial Home”, which features one of the most beautiful solos of Gilmour’s career. If taken as a Roger Waters solo work, I’d say the album compares favorably to his Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking and Radio KAOS albums. It’s not a bad album by any means, but it doesn’t really feel like a true Pink Floyd work, even though Gilmour and Waters both figure on it.

10. The Endless River (2014)

The album which closes the book on the Pink Floyd saga, and one that was 20 years in the making. David Gilmour crafted this almost solely-instrumental album from cutting room floor material from the band’s Division Bell sessions. Fans of Gilmour certainly won’t find anything to quibble about here, but as a whole, it’s not a whole lot more than pretty background music.

9. A Saucerful of Secrets (1968)

Syd Barrett had begun to really lose his mind by the time the band started recording this album, and he ended up only contributing one song to the entire effort (the weird and, frankly, frightening, “Jugband Blues”). David Gilmour was brought in to replace Barrett, and Pink Floyd would never be the same again. Freed from the erratic behavior of their former band leader, the other Floyds began to explore the more elaborate, expansive sound that would later become their hallmark (most notably the 12-minute-long title track). The dark, serpentine “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” is my favorite track on the album, and one of my all-time Floyd favorites. The anti-war theme that would saturate Waters’s later songwriting first manifests itself here on “Corporal Clegg”, and fans of Rick Wright should get a kick out of the fact that he handles lead vocal duties on the majority of the album. My pick for most underrated Floyd album.

8. Obscured By Clouds (1972)

This album sadly gets overlooked a lot because (I think) many fans simply see it as a throwaway album because it was composed for a soundtrack for some crappy movie from the early-70’s. That’s unfortunate, because there are some truly terrific songs contained in this album.  “Childhood’s End” is just a supremely, supremely underrated Floyd song, a David Gilmour rocker and one of the last song (if not the last song) he contributed lyrics to. As a matter of fact, there are no stinkers on this album (at least of the non-instrumental tracks). “Wot’s…Uh the Deal?”, “Free Four”, “Burning Bridges”, and “Stay” are all solid contributions to an album that, while it doesn’t have a whole lot of historical importance for the band, is just a flat out great listen.

7. More (1969)

Another soundtrack album, this time for a shitty 1969 Barbet Schroeder movie about a bunch of hippies killing themselves with heroin, and, yet again, one of Floyd’s most overlooked early works. The album features an eclectic assortment of tracks, mixing several different styles of music, not exactly what many music fans would associate with the Floyd. This variance in styles is never more evident than in the album’s two best songs: the metal rocker “The Nile Song”, with Gilmour screaming out the lyrics over thunderous power chords; and “Green Is the Colour”, a gorgeous and simple acoustic song sung by Gilmour to Waters’s bittersweet lyrics. The album is an early window into the band’s versatility as musicians, laying to rest the claim that they were nothing but drug-addled “space rockers”.

For completists: the film includes the long-lost song “Seabirds“, which didn’t make the soundtrack album was never released on any album or compilation, ever.

6. The Division Bell (1994)

The second post-Waters Floyd album, this one gets unfairly shat on in some circles for not being “true Floyd”, but come on. This album kicks ass. All of the blandness from Momentary Lapse of Reason is gone; this is a much more polished album that flows cohesively from beginning to end, without any of the clunkiness of its predecessor. Gilmour’s guitar tears it up on almost every track (especially “What Do You Want From Me?” and “A Great Day For Freedom”), and it features the long-awaited return of Rick Wright on vocal lead (on “Wearing the Inside Out”)! This is a great album, and with the moody lyrics and themes of lack of communication and isolation, it’s about as close to a real Pink Floyd album as you can get without actually having Roger Waters included. My personal highlight: the album’s tearful closing track, “High Hopes”, which is stunningly beautiful and sad, a perfect way to end what we all thought was going to be Floyd’s final album.

5. Animals (1977)

Due to the length of the songs (three of the album’s five tracks clock in at over ten minutes), and the album’s relentlessly bleak subject matter, Animals is the Floyd’s least-listener-friendly and least-accessible album. Understandably, it kind of got lost in the shuffle because none of these songs could ever really be played on the radio without depressed music fans racing in hordes to burn down the local affiliate. Ambitious in concept, Animals is Waters’s vicious Orwellian commentary on the British social and political climate at the time. It is perhaps more famous for it’s catastrophic album cover shoot than any of the music it contains. It was also blatantly referenced in the movie Children of Men, for those scoring at home.

Despite its status as sort of the black sheep (no pun intended) of Pink Floyd’s brilliant 1970’s string of records, Animals features some of David Gilmour’s most intricate and powerful guitar work, and the 17-minute-long “Dogs” is an absolute guitar tour-de-force, a must-listen for any fan of Gilmour’s playing. Live versions of the material (which can be heard on bootlegs from the time) are some of the most epic in Floyd’s storied concert history. A classic example of an album that became better understood and appreciated with the passage of time.

4. Meddle (1971)

Meddle is often overlooked because it came right before the band’s Dark Side of the Moon-era superstardom, but it’s a legitimately great album nonetheless, a definite foreshadowing of the musical brilliance that would follow. One whole side of the album is made up of the 23-minute-long epic “Echoes”, a masterwork of electronic studio tricks (which the band would later perfect on Dark Side) that builds slowly from a simple raindrop sound and crescendos into an orgasmic guitar cacophony that should induce goosebumps on anybody with a pulse. The other side of the album is fleshed out with the lap guitar masterpiece “One of These Days” and the catchy (and underrated) “Fearless”. The album’s an overlooked classic, but it does get minus points for “San Tropez”, which is one of the worst songs to come out of the Floyd catalog.

3. The Wall (1979)

The concept album to end all concept albums, Roger Waters’s mammoth tale of a rock star’s mental breakdown and subsequent descent into a self-imposed nightmarish fantasyland has become one of the most iconic records in rock history. The record is bogged down a bit in the second half by some incredibly dreary songs, but the first half is brilliant and the album includes such classics as “Another Brick in the Wall (Pt.2)”, “Comfortably Numb”, and “Run Like Hell”.

The main highlight, for me, is some truly amazing guitar work by Gilmour throughout the entire album. “Comfortably Numb” obviously features Gilmour’s most popular and iconic guitar solo, but his stunning work on songs like “The Thin Ice”, “Young Lust”, and “Hey You” deserve equal plaudits. The album is, largely, a Waters-dominated project, but the Gilmour guitar stamp of approval is what solidifies this as a legendary record.

2. Dark Side of the Moon (1973)

This is it. This is the monster. Not just a great album, but one of the greatest and most influential rock albums of all time. Dark Side turned Pink Floyd into legends and changed the landscape of what bands could do in the studio and what they could do with sound on a record. Suddenly, in addition to music you had insane cackling reverberating from one ear to the other, alarm clocks blaring out of nowhere, footsteps clomping in one ear and out the other, and ominous voices perpetuating the hour-long run time and enhancing any 1970’s-era stoner’s drug trip. It was unlike anything anyone had ever seen or heard at that point. Many a joint was lit up in celebration.

Of course, none of this would matter a wit if the music weren’t so damned good. You can have all the sound tricks and studio tomfoolery in the world, but if the music sucks, no one is going to remember your record in the long run. “Time”, “Money”, the anti-war anthem “Us and Them”, “Breathe”, and “The Great Gig in the Sky” (maybe the prettiest song about death, ever!) have become classics of the genre. Dark Side is a tremendous, one-of-a-kind achievement, an album that flows perfectly both musically and thematically, and it rightfully holds its place as one of the titans in rock history.

1. Wish You Were Here (1975)

No one will agree with me on this, but not only do I consider Wish You Were Here my favorite Floyd album, but I consider it Floyd’s best album even over Dark Side. It’s my favorite for the simple fact that it’s Pink Floyd’s most grounded album, at least of their classics from the 1970’s. The band, in an attempt to pay tribute to Syd Barrett, focused a bit less on experimentation and cut a bunch of simple, bloody good songs. Simplicity like Gilmour’s blues-inspired riff and Dick Parry’s snazzy saxophone solo on “Shine On, You Crazy Diamond”. Simple like the easy acoustic melody of “Wish You Were Here”. Simple like the desolate, haunting, two-chord acoustic melody that punctuates “Welcome to the Machine” and makes the song so desperate and menacing. The album’s theme of absence and loss and, specifically, loss of humanity resonates through one of the most haunting, lyrically poignant, and melancholy records to ever be produced. It’s a work of genius, musically and conceptually, and I rank it as one of my two or three favorite albums of all time, right next to High Violet, by The National, and Achtung Baby!, by U2.

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2 Responses to Fearlessly the Idiot Faced the Crowd: Ranking the Pink Floyd Albums

  1. MetaKoopa99 says:

    I agree with everything you have to say, except for that bit about San Tropez, I really like that song.

  2. Anthony M. LaScala says:

    You are an idiot. Obscured by clouds came before Dark Side not Meddle!!!!1

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