Set the controls for the heart of every Pink Floyd fan: We’re celebrating Roger Waters’ highly anticipated return with a week of Floydian features that will make you wish you were here forever. Today, we revisit our definitive ranking of every Pink Floyd album from worst to best.
And so, the final bell tolls over the career of Pink Floyd. Spanning six decades, 15 studio albums, and five band members, the legendary UK outfit’s career is both elevated and stained by the excess of genius. Each member was a savant in their own right and extraordinary as both a performer and composer. Yet, such talent inevitably warrants a touch of madness, as proven by the group’s extraordinary highs and excruciating lows. Throughout their sordid career, the band fought against label expectations, their own fame, the interior of their minds, and each other.
This endless conflict, however, influenced some of the most moving and beautiful rock music ever recorded. At the center of every delicious pop melody was the ashy taste of personal excoriation: Syd Barrett, Roger Waters, David Gilmour, Nick Mason, and Richard Wright each took a turn burning their interior selves to the ground, all before they built themselves up again. They did more than write songs; they projected personal yet universal thought patterns into the world, altering the history of music, art, and expression.
With the release of their fifteenth album, The Endless River, the powers that be have declared the end of Pink Floyd. In honor, we take this opportunity to reflect upon the long, fruitful career of a band that was always too smart and too daring to live forever.
15. More (1969)
Pink Floyd’s third album is also its first without erratic founding member Syd Barrett, and it finds the band leaning heavily on recent addition David Gilmour. The results are wildly uneven, with psych-tinged, pastoral folk ballads pressed up uncomfortably against avant-garde sound experiments. Barrett’s heavy drug use is often cited as a reason for him leaving the band, so it’s richly ironic that their first album without him is the original motion picture soundtrack for More, a French film that depicts the unraveling effects of drug addiction. It’s likely that Barrett’s presence would have made the record a more consistently relevant one, though it’s even more likely that things would have unraveled at the seams. And for all of its flaws, when More hits, it hits hard. “The Nile Song” is a full-steam-ahead rocker that bridges the gap between the reckless abandon of “Interstellar Overdrive” and the beginning of the steadier (though equally fertile) Gilmour/Waters era. If this is as bad at it gets, we’re in pretty good shape.
14. Ummagumma (1969)
Ummagumma may not be the worst record of Floyd’s diverse early days, but it’s likely their most scattershot. It’s a double album, the first part of which features live versions of classics such as “Careful with That Axe, Eugene” and “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun”. The second record, though, is all original studio work with a quirky, ill-advised concept: four solo LP sides from each of the four members of Pink Floyd. The results of this avant-garde experiment are pretty wide-ranging: some gorgeous (Rick Wright’s piano-laden “Sysyphus Pt. 2”) and some downright ridiculous (Nick Mason’s six-minute, percussion-only “The Grand Vizier’s Garden Party, Pt. 2 – Entertainment”).
13. The Endless River (2014)
In many ways, the jury is still out on The Endless River — Pink Floyd’s self-proclaimed final record, culled from 20 hours of unused music from The Division Bell sessions. In my recent review of the album, I explored the quandary that the album represents: whether it’s an apt closing note for Pink Floyd or simply a very high-end collection of outtakes. Though the album recycles and nods to many of their previous works, it still stands as a provocative collection of music, and does eclipse some of Floyd’s lesser albums in terms of quality.
In The Endless River, Gilmour, Mason, and Wright star as definitive purveyors of the band’s iconic sound; tracing through Division Bell to Saucerful of Secrets. The album acts in many ways as a love letter to Wright – highlighting his wealth of work from the ’94 sessions all the way to the inclusion of an archived recording of his organ playing at Royal Albert Hall in 1968. The track’s title, “Autumn ’68”, acts as a nod to the Wright-penned “Summer ’68” from Atom Heart Mother. Its intentions and sources are varied, but The Endless River offers a uniquely Floydian soundscape: moody instrumentals harkening back to their jazzier, proggier days.
12. Atom Heart Mother (1970)
The greatest weakness of Atom Heart Mother is also its greatest strength. The titular suite is over 23 minutes of stunning orchestral bombast. It rises, falls, and offers slick guitar, swinging bass, and organ work. A chorus sings gibberish as washes of psychedelic errata zoom in and out. It’s not the kind of song one throws on casually, but it’s truly an impressive work. Yet it also serves as a roadblock to the album’s semi-hidden treasures. If you’re not feeling the suite, you’re likely to change the record before finding the second side’s slick 1-2-3 punch. Following the rough structure of Ummagumma, side two offers three pop rock tracks composed by each of the band’s members. Roger Waters’ deliciously sweet “If” is one the band’s best least known tracks. “If” is followed by Richard Wright’s “Summer ‘68” and David Gilmour’s “Fat Old Sun”. All three are decidedly pleasant pop tunes that warrant a good listen. (Interesting moments aside, the less said about Nick Mason’s “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast”, the better.) The low place of Atom Heart Mother on this list is less an indictment of the album than a testament to the extraordinary music Pink Floyd would produce in the coming decades.
11. Obscured by Clouds (1972)
Pink Floyd’s second collaboration with Franco-Swiss director Barbet Schroeder is less uneven than the first, though this soundtrack to French film La Vallée is not without some peaks and valleys of its own. Interestingly, the material for Obscured by Clouds was written and recorded when the band had already begun working on the seminal Dark Side of the Moon. Touches of that classic album are apparent in the dreamy soundscapes of “Burning Bridges” and “Mudmen”, though to call Obscured by Clouds a preface of anything meaningful is revisionist history at best. For every “Burning Bridges” or “Wots … Uh The Deal” (the latter a beautiful, slightly playful Gilmour ballad), there’s a forgettable instrumental that belies how rushed this recording session was for the band. Granted, the only truly unforgivable song on the album is “The Gold It’s In The…”, a by-the-books rocker that sounds suspiciously like a few of the tunes on The Beatles’ White Album. In any case, it’s not Floyd doing what Floyd does best, and it would soon be all too appropriately obscured by the band’s first bona fide classic.
10. The Final Cut (1983)
To rank The Final Cut as a part of Pink Floyd’s discography is simply to acknowledge that some of the band had a hand in ushering the record into being. The album began as a follow-up to The Wall – confronting additional themes and leftover material that Waters wasn’t finished handling. However, the rest of the band was very much done with it. Officially it is “The Final Cut: A Requiem for the Post-War Dream by Roger Waters, performed by Pink Floyd” with all members but Waters merely being players in his grand project. All that said, the record is a powerful artistic statement and remains one of the songwriter’s finest works.
Waters perceived the onset of the Falklands War as a betrayal of the soldiers who gave their lives for England in World War II. The Final Cut explores the sacrifice of soldiers, both physically and emotionally, and the cost of perpetuating war: inevitable nuclear holocaust. It’s a haunting, heartfelt record that humanizes the plight of the ex-military in ways seldom represented. Musically, the album embodies the complexity and rage of its subject matter. While “Not Now John” comes off as silly in the grand scheme of the album, tracks like “The Final Cut”, the song cycle of “The Hero’s Return” and “The Gunner’s Dream”, and the revisionist inclusion of The Wall B-side “When the Tigers Broke Free” are powerful and well-crafted songs that build into a profound, if not sobering, listening experience.
09. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)
Captured here is one of the last beautiful flares born of the psychedelic moment. Piper at the Gates of Dawn is a classic of psychedelic rock and contains examples of the best and worst of the much derided genre. At the helm is mad-genius Syd Barrett, whose candle surely burned too bright. His tenure as leader of Pink Floyd was short lived but his fingerprints are all over Piper. The album swings wildly between freak-out jam instrumentals and sudden shifts into Sgt. Pepper-esque pop music. Even at this album’s most navel-gazingly trippy, the exceptional musicianship and compositions that would define the band’s later work are evident, if hazy. Album opener “Astronomy Domine” would become a live staple and demonstrate the band’s epic instrumental power. Tracks like “Lucifer Sam” and the crazed carnival-esque “Bike”, show that Pink Floyd were never strangers to the pleasures of pop sensibilities and could write a hook with the best of them. Today, Piper at the Gates of Dawn feels uneven, almost schizophrenic. With the benefit of hindsight we see that this is no illusion and Barrett, and the band, were in fact unraveling at the seams.
08. A Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987)
The first and lesser of the two Gilmour-led Floyd albums, A Momentary Lapse of Reason is the work of a band in the midst of a seismic transition. It’s also a massive break from the album that precedes it, The Final Cut, which saw Waters taking the helm and dominating the performance and composition to an almost laughable degree. Waters left the band shortly after the release of The Final Cut, leaving Floyd without one half of its visionary core.
Gilmour was left to shoulder the weight of songwriting on A Momentary Lapse of Reason, and he responded by leaning heavily on material he had recorded for his third solo effort. This probably explains why the album feels a bit slapdash at times and lacks a strong, unifying theme—usually a prerequisite for a Pink Floyd record. Freshly resigned and embroiled in a legal dispute with his former band members, Waters predictably hated the album and, though far from unbiased, he wasn’t entirely incorrect in his criticism.
Songs like “The Dogs of War” sound like pale imitations of the band’s Dark Side of the Moon era, relying too much on the same dynamics to feel surprising in the least. And both chapters of “A New Machine” date themselves with a Frampton-esque “talk box” effect that’s both unnecessary and annoying. Still, Floyd’s trademark atmospherics are largely in place here, and they sound more on the same page in the wake of Waters’ departure.
Though far from essential listening, A Momentary Lapse sees the band transitioning into a brave new era with a drunken kind of grace.
07. Meddle (1971)
1971’s Meddle is a record of progress, the first album where the iconic Pink Floyd sound, perhaps, finally snaps into focus. It is not as complete or well-rounded as Dark Side of the Moon, as emotional as Wish You Were Here, or as pissed-off as Animals or The Wall, but it is, perhaps, the earliest example of the band forgoing their love of madcap experimentation in favor of a concise music-making ethos. And they manage to spread it across an entire album.
Songs like “San Tropez” and “Fearless” feel like full-realized pop songs, with gorgeous melodies, discernible structures and lyrics that don’t just serve as mere texture. “Sooner than wait for a break in the weather/ I’ll gather my far flung thoughts together/ Speeding away on a wind to a new day/ If you’re alone I’ll come home,” sings Roger Waters on “San Tropez” underneath the soft, jazzy strums of an acoustic guitar. His lyrics punctuate another important theme on Meddle, which is the concept of the pastoral. While past Floyd albums exist more in a psychedelic haze than in any particular place, Meddle is a rural record that dwells in wide, open spaces.
The most striking example of this sense of “space” comes on the record’s final track: the monstrous, multi-part, 23-minute opus “Echoes”. “Overhead the albatross hangs motionless upon the air/ And deep beneath the rolling waves in labyrinths of coral caves,” sing Gilmour and Wright, their voices interlocked and effortlessly wispy. In many ways, “Echoes” is the turning point in the Pink Floyd canon, the culmination of everything that came before it and the “starting gun” for everything that will follow.
Like the rest of Meddle, it’s beautiful, airy, and ripe with pastoral imagery. But it’s also otherworldly and downright frightening in places, specifically during Wright’s wailing keyboard movement midway through the song, which eventually feeds back into the central melody. In essence, it’s a little bit of everything, all of which is damn good and distinct in its own right.
06. A Saucerful of Secrets (1968)
Today we know that psychedelia isn’t all “Summer of Love” flower power and meditative affirmation. In the wrong hands, and over done, the psychedelic experience can quickly turn into a terrifying roller coaster ride through the Haunted Mansion of our greatest fears and anxieties. In 1967 and 1968, Syd Barrett, and by extension his Pink Floyd bandmates, were experiencing the awful anguish of a troubled mind ravaged by excessive drug use. During the recording of Saucerful of Secrets, Barrett’’s increasingly erratic behavior led the other members of Pink Floyd to find a more reliable guitarist. Enter David Gilmour, who in the process of recording this album would leave his mark, becoming a full time member, as Barrett was escorted out.
“Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” stands as the only recorded track of Pink Floyd as a five-piece, featuring both Barrett and Gilmour on guitar. The song is a stunning early example of the band’s incredible, sometimes terrifying power. At the center of the album, it shows how the band could do “less is more” and “more is more” with equal skill. This song is followed by “Corporal Clegg”, a song penned by Waters that demonstrates how early he was at work draping vicious social and political attacks in swaths of pop sweetness. Over the next decade, he would refine this method, eventually erupting in the anger and anxiety of Animals, The Wall, and The Final Cut.
Album closer“Jugband Blues” is appropriately the last song Barrett would contribute to the band. Its wild-tinged pop melody and eccentric structure stands as a suitable farewell to the wild influence of the increasingly unstable performer. When Barrett sings “I don’t know who is writing this song,” it is not psychedelic identity play, but a thinly veiled cry for help. With A Saucerful of Secrets, we leave behind the psychedelic experimentation of the 1960s and a mature Pink Floyd emerges, ready to redefine the power and purpose of rock music in the 1970s.