I guess why this is top of the list is that it has zero fat or flab; no duff bits. Though essentially comprising three long songs, all over ten minutes, it is dense with invention and fantastic playing. The lyrical and tonal cynicism introduced in Wish You Were Here dominate, but where WYWH‘s negativity comes over as adolescent sulking, on Animals it is skilfully articulated into a broader worldview. That literary flavour is, of course, derived from Orwell, but while on some bands this might have seemed pretentious, the numerous lyrical bullseyes help the Floyd carry it off. “You radiate cold shards of broken glass”, “A certain look in the eyes with easy smiles”, “This creeping malaise”, “Only dimly aware of a certain unease in the air”… brilliant. (I’ve written more on the qualities of Animals here).
The Dark Side of the Moon (1973)
Like Animals, this album absolutely teems with invention, densely packed with sound effects and the broadest musical palette the Floyd had ever dared to use. Synthesizers, female vocalists, jazzy chords, looped tapes, saxophones; the whole damn kitchen sink, man. I guess I don’t need to rhapsodise about what a terrific album this is – you know this already, I am sure. I do have a few quibbles about it, though, which prevent it being top of the list (while still being miles ahead of anything else most bands could ever hope to achieve). FIRST: it’s a bit uneven, with the middle a bit soggy, though the start and finish are amazing. SECOND: there’s a certain irritating dryness to the production during the verses of “Time”. THIRD: I don’t like how they produced “Money” much at all, either. It doesn’t really bring out that brilliant lolloping 7/8 rhythm. Check the demo by Roger Waters seen in the Classic Albums episode about Dark Side: it’s got this almost funky deep-blues rhythm. FOURTH: I am all for longish intros, but two and a half fucking minutes for “Time” to kick in? Still, “Any Colour You Like”, “Brain Damage” and “Eclipse” finish up the album magnificently.
The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)
The sole Barret-era album is a bit of a Marmite album amongst Floyd fans, I think. I’m on the “love it” side. Its whimsicality, teeming invention, lyrical cuteness, pastoral playfulness, and full-fledged psychedelic explorations (“Interstellar Overdrive” literally sounding like galaxies ebbing and flowing, born and reborn) and achingly groovy 1967 vibe, man, make it an utter delight. You really wonder what would have been.
Any album with “Echoes” has to be high on a list of the best. It is a stunning piece of work, stately and unhurried yet filed with drama and incident; vivid and theatrical, but running a gamut of emotions; brooding, mysterious and like, totally deep, man, but instantly comprehensible and recognisable (none of the unnecessary wanky musicfests as you get with King Crimson or early Genesis). Amongst the short tracks, “A Pillow Of Winds” is touching and heartfelt; “Fearless” highly atmospheric, and “One Of These Days” a brilliant pulsating bass-line workout. On the other hand, “San Tropez” is a dryly humourous throwaway, and “Seamus” is easily the Floyd’s least popular song, with good reason.
Wish You Were Here (1975)
I am one of those (relatively few?) who do not rate this album as amongst the Floyd’s very very best. Sure, “Shine On” (both parts) is utterly magnificent, stately and yet pulsing with emotion, and “Wish You Were Here” is such a very fine example of humanity, empathy and loss. However, I really am not a fan of “Have A Cigar”, with its easy targets and sneering, and its jarring keyboards, nor do I much like “Welcome To The Machine”, which is a bunch of sound effects of some more dismal and bitter lyrics (“You bought a guitar to punish your ma”).
The Wall (1979)
I’ve already explained my conflicted feelings about The Wall. Suffice it to say – brave, clever, profound, provocative, skilful, artful; but at the same time, in its bitterness and angst, it’s just a bit much. These days, I have a young family and I need the art I consume to sustain me. In its unremitting negativity, The Wall does not do that. It has its moments of utter greatness, of course; it is one of the most interesting albums I’ve ever encountered. But… I am not sure whether it bears sustained listening, in the same way that Animals or Dark Side do.
A Saucerful of Secrets (1968)
The first post-Barret album retains his influence, though only one song bears his writing credits, “Jugband Blues”. The other tracks keep it relatively conventional, with Richard Wright’s “Jigsaw” and “Remember A Day” achingly English, and not so far from the tone of Piper, if lacking their madcap invention. The seeds of the new Pink Floyd are there, but mutedly: the title track does have several great ideas in it, with the shift to the sombre organ after the madness of the syncopated drums perhaps the finest transition in the whole album; yet the live version on Umma Gumma blasts it out of the fucking water. “Set The Controls” – frankly, this songs stumps me a bit.
This double album is half live, half studio. Unusually, it’s the live section which is the more interesting: instead of being filler, it shows the Floyd working on their arrangements and improving their delivery of existing tunes. Both “Set The Controls” and “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” are more full-bodied, and the Floyd’s handling of dynamics in both songs is masterful. Their version of “Saucerful Of Secrets” is even more noteworthy – Gilmour’s overblown guitar in the “Something Else” and “Syncopated Pandemonium” sections is outstanding, but his wordless singing in the concluding section, “Celestial Voices” is mind-blowing, majestic, magnificent. This was where he went from new-boy in the band to essential member, and his contributions in succeeding albums became increasingly remarkable.
However, the studio disc is… crap. OK, it’s not all bad – “Grantchester Meadows” is very nice, and Gilmour’s “The Lonely Way III” is very good, creating a weary, desolate atmosphere. But holy fuck, all four parts of “Sysyphus” and all three parts of “The Grand Vizier’s Garden Party” are utter gash.
The Division Bell (1994)
I think this is a fine album. It’s not great – it’ll never win any prizes for originality or invention. But within its modest aims, it has perfectly crafted mature pieces of rock. The sound on it is also terrific, with lovely clean guitar (no fuzzy psychedelic noodling) and fine singing from Gilmour. (Too much from the female backing singers though, especially in “What Do You Want From Me?”). I love moments like the way the song kicks back into gear in “Poles Apart” (around 4.13), Gilmour’s emotion-soaked singing at the start of “Coming Back To Life” (“Where were you…?“), and the very fine “High Hopes”. It’s a dignified ending to their studio career.
Atom Heart Mother (1970)
If Piper is a Marmite album, then the title track on Atom Heart Mother is a Marmite song. And here I come down on the other side – it just seems like a bunch of stitched-together pointlessness to me. It has moments of colour and drama, but it just does not sustain your interest. It’s good, I suppose, that the Floyd were ambitious and took risks – their approach paid major dividends later in their career. But not here. “Fat Old Sun” is a nice piece of English nostalgia, as is “Summer ’68”, but “If” is a bit of an oddity, and “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast” like an underpowered self-rip-off.
The Final Cut (1983)
This album doesn’t do much for me. Some people whose opinion I respect tell me it’s a good one; but it seems to progress the formula of The Wall about being about concept and lyrics rather than music or even tune. Now it seems a dated series of diatribes. Waters’ lyrical facility never wavers, but the increased topicality and personal nature of the songs make all seem a bit forced, like he is writing as a Very Important Lyricist, rather than doing honest heartfelt stuff like in Animals or Dark Side.
A soundtrack album, with a few memorable songs like the minor-key “Cirrus Minor”, the roaring “Nile Song” and “Cymbeline”.
Obscured by Clouds (1972)
Less memorable tunes than More. The soundtrack albums stand a little apart from the rest of the Floyd body of work, I think, unlike, say, Dylan’s Pat Garret & Billy The Kid, but similar to Miles Davis’ Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud.
A Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987)
Apart from “Learning To Fly” (which I was a bit disappointed to learn was actually about Gilmour getting his pilots licence – I had always taken it to be metaphorical…), this really is a duff album, bland commercial late-80s rock. The production is sterile (unlike the organic, band-in-a-room feel of much of Division Bell), and there’s very little Floydian about it. It’s really a Gilmour solo album of course, and I suppose it’s good he kept the show on the road, but I really feel this is the weakest album in their catalogue.