Pink Floyd’s 20 Best Songs
In concert with our recent podcast about Pink Floyd, we at Spectrum Culture decided to rank the band’s 20 best songs. It’s no surprise that all of the songs come from the period before Roger Waters left the band. Though the band has been defunct for a long time, Pink Floyd is one of classic rock’s most beloved groups. Here are what we consider Pink Floyd’s 20 best tracks.
20. “Vera” – The Wall (1979)
“Does anybody here remember Vera Lynn?” cries Roger Waters. Who doesn’t? Vera Lynn was the singer of “We’ll Meet Again,” the 1939 hit whose faint promise resonated with families and soldiers during World War II and has become inexorably a song of death in the ensuing decades. Stanley Kubrick used it for the apocalyptic coda of Dr. Strangelove, inspiring its use in innumerable World War II films in the same way Apocalypse Now made Creedence Clearwater Revival’s music all but synonymous with helicopters flying over the Mekong River.
It’s clichéd now, and it probably already was by 1979, when Waters included “Vera” on The Wall. What’s less tangible is what “We’ll Meet Again” really meant to those who grew up in the shadow of the war, and when Waters asks, “Does anybody else in here feel the way I do?” he’s looking for affirmation that others who saw it as no more than a cheap joke. Waters’ father went off to war and they never met again. “We’ll Meet Again” must have comforted thousands, but Waters sees through the bullshit. What does it mean to those who never met their loved ones again?
“Vera” is the elegy “We’ll Meet Again” pretended to be: a hopeless cry of rage, set to sweeping strings that sees into the flat truth of war. Millions of people died, and no one will ever meet them again in heaven or anywhere else. “Vera, Vera, what has become of you?” sings Waters. She’s still alive, 100 years old and going strong, retired after a final single, “I Love This Land,” commemorating the end of the Falklands War. Another war, another hit for Vera. Life goes on. – Daniel Bromfield
19. “Hey You” – The Wall (1979)
The opener of the second half of The Wall, “Hey You” begins with a sense of foreboding, setting the tone for the bitter feelings of alienation that comprise the remainder of the album. The ominous arpeggios from David Gilmour’s acoustic guitar and the careening slides and swirls from Roger Waters’ fretless bass and Richard Wright’s electric piano make for one of the band’s more disquieting intros. Withdrawn and desolate, Gilmour broods quietly: “Hey you, out there in the cold/ Getting lonely, getting old/ Can you feel me?” When Nick Mason’s sputtering drums, along with Waters’ accompanying harmonies, enter the second verse, the song’s feelings of desperation stretch with an earnest yearning for connection.
From there, the song’s haunting balladry strains into one of Gilmour’s most famous guitar solos, full of piercing electric wails over a second guitar’s familiar brooding drive taken from “Another Brick in the Wall,” one of The Wall’s leitmotifs. After Gilmour’s fiery solo disrupts the song’s subdued tone, Waters takes up the vocal reins, pitching his voice an octave higher than Gilmour had in the first and second verses, his desperation mounting as he cries, “Hey you, don’t tell me there’s no hope at all.” Although the song is rather straightforward in its composition, its emotional pleas for help and for contact suggest a larger-than-life longing for something beyond the nihilist realm of much of the album. Yet, unfortunately, this contact never comes for the album’s narrator—“it was only fantasy.” – Ethan King
18. “The Fletcher Memorial Home” – The Final Cut (1983)
The angriest song to ever grace a Floyd record calls for world leaders to literally be rounded up and systematically executed. You can practically see blood dripping from the corners of Waters’ mouth as he calls them out by name—Reagan, Haig, Begin, Thatcher, and who could forget Nixon? It’s a great political song not because it posits a prudent message, but because it’s such a visceral expression of anger. World peace? Sure, but get the warmongers out of the way first.
Waters sees these people as overgrown babies playing with weapons much too big for their teeny hands, so his solution is to set them aside in a home (named for Waters’ father’s middle name, as “The Waters Memorial Home” would obviously sound wrong) where they’re allowed to be essentially harmless. When they arrive, they’re clueless; one Italian-speaking voice asks where the bar is. They can shine their medals all they like, play cowboys and Indians, and once everyone’s settled down: “Are you having a nice time?/ Now the final solution can be applied.”
Obviously, the truth of the issue is more complex than that, but that’s not what “The Fletcher Memorial Home” is about. Everyone’s had fantasies about what they’d like to see happen to scumbag politicians that’d be at odds with any sane system of justice. That’s what’s remarkable about The Final Cut, the oft-maligned, scarcely-heard Floyd album that followed The Wall: it’s barstool pontification with a budget. The scenario is a fantasy, but the anger is frighteningly real. – Daniel Bromfield
17. “Have a Cigar” – Wish You Were Here (1975)
From Wish You Were Here, this song lays down the kind of thick, syrupy space-blues only Pink Floyd can pull off. After an extended intro with a series of chromatic runs, “Have a Cigar” begins in earnest, with vocals from folk singer Roy Harper (one of only two Pink Floyd songs to feature vocals from non-members) and typical Watersian cynicism—“Come in here, dear boy, have a cigar/ You’re gonna go far/ You’re gonna fly high/ You’re never gonna die/ You’re gonna make it if you try/ They’re gonna love you.” The song predates and prefigures the thematics of The Wall— this is Pink Floyd in its “nasty” mode, with an extra snarl and edge that suits them well.
Gilmour’s guitar licks pair perfectly with Wright’s eerie synths, and the song ends with one of Gilmour’s most desperate solos as the moody keyboard motif rises and falls, reminding the listener of the ascent and descent of an exploited, flash-in-the-pan career (the song’s topic).
Waters has always been one for dark cheekiness, and the chorus is a pure distillation of his sense of humor—“And did we tell you the name of the game, boy?/ We call it ‘Riding the Gravy Train.’” After the earnestness and vulnerability of much of The Dark Side of the Moon, the mid-‘70s Floyd material starts taking on a more acerbic, nihilistic dimension, of which this particular song is perhaps the first clear sign. This song is classic Floyd, riding the elevator down to hell with a mean groove in tow. – Dylan Montanari
16. “Careful with That Axe, Eugene” – B-side for “Point Me at the Sky”(1968)
This song is the most Halloween-appropriate number in the Pink Floyd catalog, a spooky-as-hell nine-minute carnival ride that starts off slow and crescendos to a psychotic high.
Starting with Waters’ signature octave bass pulse and keyboard riffs over Mason’s cymbal ride, the track, featured in a live version on 1969’s Ummagumma, sounds like it could be a practice session. For the first several minutes, Gilmour’s high-pitched soft wail is the only vocal sound to accompany the music, lending it an ethereal, otherworldly quality. It lifts in intensity until it reaches the three-minute mark, at which point everything changes.
After a few whispers, Waters unleashes one of the most horrifying screams to be heard on any song, in any genre—it is the sound of a mind being split apart, not just by an axe, but by itself.
The screams continue as the guitar joins in on the wailing and the drums pound on, as though guiding a shamanic trance. The dissonant, disorienting jam throws us into a kind of chaos—as listeners, we almost forget how we ended up here in the first place. Meanwhile, the bass pulse presses on, underneath the chaos, giving us a heartbeat to hold onto throughout the madness.
Finally, past the six-minute mark, the song settles down again. The intensity decreases and the pressure releases—the wordless intoning returns. Everything slows down, until the cymbal stands alone as the only sound we hear.
This song encapsulates two important sides of Pink Floyd—their psychedelia, their willingness to explore the outer reaches of consciousness musically, as well as their inner superego, their sense that a certain kind of restraint can produce the most pent-up intensity. Both restraint and release are deployed here to stunning effect in one of their finest moments as a band, locked arm-to-arm with one another into a downward spiral of their own making. – Dylan Montanari
15. “Sheep” – Animals (1977)
After the unmitigated dread and chaos of Animals, “Sheep” tantalizingly offers paradise as the album closes. Over a crystal-clear organ intro, we hear the sounds of mewling sheep and chirping birds. But a rubbery bass soon itches in, giving levity and a sense of darkness to a (formerly) pristine English countryside. And that’s before rock ‘n’ roll hell breaks loose.
Originally titled “Raving and Drooling,” Pink Floyd’s “Sheep” certainly set the standard for apocalyptic rock prophecies that compared normal people to the aforementioned barnyard animal: “Harmlessly passing your time in the grassland away/ Only dimly aware of a certain unease in the air.” But much like George Orwell’s Animal Farm, from which Animals took a heaping helping of influence, the “Sheep” are dangerous once corralled and goaded into hate. A trademarked progressive rock freakout portrays the sheep led out of pasture to slaughter, scored by floating synths and screaming guitars. A robotic voice reads out a corrupted version of the Lord’s Prayer (“Master the art of karate/ Lo, we shall rise up/ And then we’ll make the bugger’s eyes water”), completing the song’s horrid transformation from the sunny mundane to the spooky surreal.
Though Orwell’s text was a deconstruction of Stalinism, Pink Floyd clearly states that capitalism breeds its own sick combination of rage and apathy. As the curtain closes, the sheep rise up in violence, overthrowing their canine rulers, only to find themselves unfit to rule thanks to lives that taught them only to obey and graze. The music fades, and we return to the idyllic sounds of the pasture, now soaked in blood. – Nathan Stevens
14. “Mother” – The Wall (1979)
Pink Floyd’s “Mother” begins with an exhale, a kind of “OK, here we go, let’s get this over with” sound. Indeed, this song is one of their most emotionally powerful and also, for some listeners, one of their most embarrassing, an example of why they are sometimes passed off, dismissed by detractors as embodying a distinctly male and adolescent outlook.
Starting off as a kind of acoustic ballad, the song begins with a series of questions to “mother”—Do you think they’ll drop the bomb? Do you think they’ll like this song? Do you think they’ll try to break my balls? “Mother, should I build the wall?” All of Waters’ fears and insecurities are on the line, as his voice strains to reach the high notes his questions demand of him.
As additional melodic elements get added, David Gilmour’s voice cuts in as the mother’s answer, which takes the form of a contradictory message of consolation and damnation—don’t cry, she says, but she’s also the one who’s going to “make your nightmares come true,” she’s the one who’s “gonna put all of her fears into you.” She’ll keep you “under her wing”—to keep you from flying. She’ll keep you “cozy and warm,” but—scariest of all—she’ll be right beside you, helping you “build the wall. Brick by brick, as it were.
Here, Gilmour’s solo doubles as a kind of baby’s wail as well as a man’s attempts at assertion and affirmation, hope, longing and weakness at once. After a second verse about a potential romantic partner, the mother’s response grows even more ominous, as protection veers into obsession and control—“You’ll always be baby to me” has never sounded creepier.
This is one of Pink Floyd’s most unabashedly “male” songs, but as far as “male” songs go, it is hardly traditional. It shows the splitting of a single consciousness into its own mother and its own baby, and reveals how bound-up those impulses, to mother and to be babied, really are. – Dylan Montanari
13. “One of These Days” – Meddle (1971)
Pink Floyd always excelled at creating atmosphere but Pink Floyd’s sixth album, Meddle, kicks off with a literal atmosphere. Howling wind whips from speaker to speaker, swirling chaotically. Like a vacuum, “One of These Days” is lonesome and empty, a fitting feeling for an album that was initially titled Nothings. It’s a full 30 seconds before another presence makes itself known though its alien tones don’t exactly inspire hope. The echoing bass note is tentative, a little toe-dip in the water to see how it feels. Soon, it’s a cacophony of bass as the notes begin to gallop away through the vacuum, the wind swirling even louder. A second bass in the opposite speaker joins in. The sound of these dueling basses is thrilling and tense, the listener conflicted by the thrill of the unknown and the dangers that surely lurk wherever those bass notes are headed.
Along the way, backwards cymbal crashes, organ flourishes and occasional pounding drums pepper the soundscape while David Gilmour’s gritty slide guitar attempts to keep us tethered to our earthly origins. Soon, we’re in a black hole of madness. The dueling basses that once inspired wariness are now long gone, and their absence in the darkness is stark. Don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone, right? Then, a voice like a troll (in reality drummer Nick Mason’s sole vocal contribution in all of Pink Floyd’s discography) warns, “One of these days I’m going to chop you into little pieces.” Finally, the party starts. A rollicking piano joins in and those once ominous bass notes have become bouncy balls, rolling along on their jaunty way. And Gilmour’s guitar strikes the balance between melody and atmosphere that he would go on to perfect on later albums. “One of These Days” is the gateway to something special, a clear sign that all the noodling of previous albums had finally paid off. – Eric Mellor
12. “Goodbye Blue Sky” – The Wall (1979)
Roger Waters had two clearly defining moments in his life: his father’s death in World War II and the loss of his friend Syd Barrett to madness. Both formed the core of Waters’ lyrical obsessions and he puts them both on full display in this beautiful lament. As birds tweet innocently, the sound of planes off in the distance buzz ominously and then, like using a Buick to swat at flies, the sound of an adorable little kid points out the airplanes up in the sky. Uh oh. The pastoral guitars kick in, the birds still tweeting innocently in the background until the first change. The chords shift and a low synthesizer note sounds underneath recalling the drone of the war planes that are about to rip England to shreds and turn the notion of safety to the wind. A good day has just gone horribly sour.
David Gilmour’s gorgeous harmonies fill Waters’ lyrics with a powerful sense of grief as they wonder, “Did you ever wonder why we had to run for shelter/ When the promise of a brave new world/ Unfurled beneath a clear blue sky?” Of course, Waters sees the Nazi bombing as a metaphor for a profound loss of innocence, the fate of all humans who live to experience the transition to adulthood where the full force of society is finally applied. Where Barrett’s songwriting attempted to look at the world through the eyes of a child, an attempt to rip the crust from the eyes in an attempt to see clearly, Waters’ has lived long enough to see that innocence in all its forms is only temporary. Sooner or later, we all say goodbye to that gorgeous blue sky. – Eric Mellor
11. “Fearless” – Meddle (1971)
Ask two Floyd fans what they think of David Gilmour and expect wildly different responses. He’s one of the best guitarists ever, but he also led Pink Floyd into the hard-rock legacy hinterland with A Momentary Lapse of Reason and The Division Bell—and there are some who’ll gladly defend those records too. No one would deny he’s an awful lot sweeter than the white-knuckled polemicist Roger Waters. A lot of people don’t like that, but his guileless vision produced at least one great album, and that’s Meddle, with its folky, filigreed psych-pop fantasies like “Fearless.”
“Fearless” is an empathetic and heartwarming song, easy on the ears but fleshed out with rich, evocative details like a faint shimmer of steel guitar wobbling beneath the chorus. Even when the lyrics descend into baroque madness—“Who’s the fool who wears the crown?,” Gilmour sings, evoking both “The Court of the Crimson King” and “The Fool on the Hill”—they’re delivered with levity rather than gravitas. It’s almost Syd Barrett-like; perhaps it was Gilmour that took up the psychedelic mantle of the band from Barrett while Waters penned his brutal screeds.
Listening to some of those early Barrett songs, it’s amazing how ramshackle they are; on “Flaming,” for instance, the whoosh of wind is represented simply by everyone blowing into the microphone. “Fearless” represents one of the first times the band fully embraced the sound-collaging and sampling they’re known for, with its stunning coda of a cadre of football fans singing their team’s fight song, though some mishear it as African chants. It’s hard to say what it has to do with the song—maybe the fans are cheering on the song’s hero as they climb that hill—but it seems to open onto a parallel world. It deserves comparison with the ends of Sgt. Pepper and Pet Sounds, moments where the acid-bleached fantasy falls away and we enter the real world. – Daniel Bromfield