Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Pink Floyd Album (Part 2)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

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Wish You Were Here (1975, Columbia)

A +

Prior to The Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd had never gone any higher on the album charts in the U.S. than the #46 peak of, surprisingly enough, Obscured by Clouds, never mind have a hit single, but with Dark Side, the band not only scored their first Top Ten  album in America (a Number One, at that) but even had a surprise Top 40 hit single in “Money,” the band’s first song to even so much as crack the Hot 100! The band would follow up this success by switching labels entirely to Columbia and releasing one of the more unconventional albums of its career. Mind you, the disc is never as weird per se as, say, the studio half of Ummagumma or the bulk of Atom Heart Mother, but its relative accessibility and musical similarities to Dark Side tend to mask the fact that there are technically only four songs here, one of which (the nine-part epic “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”) comprises well over half of the album’s running time, while the album’s most concise piece of songwriting (“Have a Cigar”) isn’t even sung by a band member, but, rather, by British folk-rocker Roy Harper (who was better known in the U.S. for having a Led Zeppelin song named after him than for any music he made). That the disc would nonetheless go on to be one of the most beloved of all classic-rock albums and garner the FM radio airplay it does on a daily basis is pretty remarkable, actually. But the band has rarely ever sounded quite so unified as it does here (although this would change shortly thereafter), David Gilmour’s guitar playing in particular reaching a whole new level of atmospheric brilliance on this record, giving this album every bit as much emotional heft as its more iconic predecessor, while the album’s immortal title cut welds a typically maudlin Pink Floyd melody to the most unforgettable acoustic guitar lick in the band’s catalog and some very clever engineering that makes the track particularly fun to listen to through headphones.  

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Animals (1977, Columbia)

A –   

Yes, its cover art is brilliant, and the stadium tour in support of the disc legendary. But there is very much a reason why classic-rock radio tends to sidestep this disc while playing the living daylights out of The Wall, The Dark Side of the Moon, and Wish You Were Here: it’s just not a particularly commercial album. In fact, it’s arguably the least accessible disc they’ve made since Atom Heart Mother. Certainly, nothing here is of suitable length for radio, either clocking in at less than ninety seconds or surpassing ten minutes. Animals also makes the point in the band’s career where Waters began to assert much greater creative control over the songwriting and Pink Floyd’s music consequently took a sharp turn into much more cynical and bleak territory. (Not that Roger Waters was ever one to write happy songs, of course – the title of the band’s best-of package A Collection of Great Dance Songs remains one of the band’s most hilariously ironic and self-aware moments – but whereas each of the band’s last four studio albums have their more playful moments, i.e. “Money,” “Have a Cigar,” etc., absolutely nothing here is even remotely light or uplifting. None of this is to say, of course, that it’s a bad album – to the contrary, it’s quite masterful – merely a mildly depressing one. “Pigs” sports some of Waters’ slinkiest bass work (nearly sounding even downright funky – albeit in a slow way – on the “Ha ha! Charade you are!” sections), “Dogs” actually grooves in its first and third movements in a way few other Pink Floyd cuts do, while “Sheep” pulsates and favorably calls to mind an electric-piano version of “One of These Days.” And while Waters might not exactly be in the happiest of moods here, his lyrics here are both noticeably deeper and cut sharper than arguably any of his prior work with the band. It’s definitely a real grower of an album (it’s certainly not as easy to like upon first listen as either of the last two records), but give it time, and you’ll eventually develop a fascination with it. [For those of you with an 8-track player, you’ll definitely want to go out of your way to pick up this album on 8-track, as the cartridge contains an exclusive alternate version of “Pigs on the Wing” that links the song’s two disparate parts together into a solid whole via a guitar solo from guest player Snowy White. Why this version was used only for the 8-track release remains a bit of a mystery, but it’s a true delight.] 

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The Wall (1979, Columbia)

A –  

While it’s true that there are several classic-rock radio staples to be found here and it’s equally true that this is one of Roger Waters’ more ambitious undertakings, it’s also hard to deny that The Wall is at the very least a little bit overrated. [It’s certainly not as solid from start to finish as Wish You Were Here, Dark Side of the Moon, or even Meddle.]  Part of the problem is that the double album is simply just too long and lacks the focus of the band’s shorter outings, and too little attention is paid to the fact that the record doesn’t even maintain a consistent sound, practically morphing into opera – not rock opera, mind you, but actual opera – towards the end of the record on such cuts as “Bring the Boys Back Home” and “The Trial,” which can be fairly jarring (although less so if you’re watching one of Waters’ solo in-full stage productions of the album as opposed to listening to the original disc sans visuals). But any pretensions on display here are mostly compensated for by the songwriting, which is thankfully tighter here than it was on the more heavily prog-oriented Animals, making for many a memorable individual moment, particularly the highly subversive disco of “Run Like Hell” and “Another Brick in the Wall” (the second installment of which would be released as a single and become a surprise Number One hit, the band’s only song besides “Money” to reach the Top 40 in the U.S.), the hazy euphoria of the “Comfortably Numb,” the cavernous opener “In the Flesh?”, and the harmony-drenched acoustic breezes of “Goodbye Blue Sky,” one of the prettiest and most underrated moments in the band’s catalog. The  album is indisputably a must for any serious rock fan to listen to in full at least once, but while most of the songs here do serve the purpose of advancing the storyline, they don’t exactly all make great standalone songs in isolation, either, so most listeners are likely to skip past quite a few cuts by the second or third listen. Bottom line: it’s not as cohesive an album piece as Animals, but its best tracks are much more easily digestible than anything on that record, so it’s a bit of a trade-off. 

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The Final Cut (1983, Columbia)

D  

Its songs may be more concise than those on the band’s more heavily prog-influenced outings like Wish You Were Here or Animals, but even though nothing on this album  lasts much longer than five minutes, The Final Cut – a very, very ballad-heavy antiwar concept disc and Waters’ last hurrah with the band, as it would turn out – still ironically manages to end up feeling like the most self-indulgent record the band has made since the studio half of Ummagumma, and it’s also arguably the worst record by far the band has ever issued publicly.  [Mind you, it was no longer much of a band at this point: Richard Wright, the band’s longtime keyboardist and a vital part of the band’s distinct sound, has been dismissed, and David Gilmour neither contributes to the songwriting (which is credited to Waters alone) nor does he sing much here, either (popping up only to sing the verses on “Not Now John”), making this a Roger Waters solo disc in everything but name.]  But the reason this disc is so insufferable while the post-Waters albums are at least listenable has less to do with the state of the band than the material, which no prior lineup of the band could have salvaged. Pink Floyd has never made especially happy music, no, but here, Waters takes the band’s brand of world-weariness to a new and almost laughable extreme that borders on outright self-parody, especially on the agonizing and overly melodramatic “The Fletcher Memorial Home,” which makes Animals’ “Sheep” sound like Katrina and the Waves’ “Walking on Sunshine” in comparison. The bleak lyrical content of the album wouldn’t be so insufferable if it were at least wedded to some memorable melodies, but Waters appears completely disinterested here in throwing any kind of bone to radio programmers. In fact, it’s hard to tell who exactly Waters is even making this record for, other than himself. Even though much of the disc is comprised of leftover compositions from The Wall, Waters doesn’t seem to be interested in satisfying fans of that album, either, or else he would have remembered that he had thrown a couple mildly up-tempo songs onto that magnum opus to provide some levity, something which this disc has absolutely none of. 

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A Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987, Columbia)

B –   

After four years away (during which Gilmour issued his second solo album, busied himself with session work for the likes of Paul McCartney, Bryan Ferry, and Supertramp, and produced the self-titled debut album from The Dream Academy) and a long and bitter legal battle over rights to the band’s name, Gilmour, drummer Nick Mason, and a returning – albeit as a heavily featured guest – Richard Wright reconvened sans Roger Waters for this unlikely comeback disc. The album did good business in record shops, selling twice what The Final Cut had; critics were considerably less kind, although it’s a pretty safe bet that the album would have been received far more warmly had it simply been issued under Gilmour’s name alone. But Gilmour shows more reverence here for the sound of vintage Pink Floyd than Waters did in his last few years with the group (for starters, the band is including prog-inspired instrumental cuts again, including the sound-effect adorned “Signs of Life” and the excellent “Terminal Frost,” featuring both Tom Scott and, in a rare extracurricular appearance, Supertramp’s John Helliwell on saxophone), and he’s also writing more easily approachable and less self-tortured songs than anything that could be found on The Final Cut (indeed, “One Slip,” co-written with Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera, is the most upbeat song the band has issued in a very long time) and pens a fine pair of singles in the hypnotically percussive “Learning to Fly” and the stirring ballad “On the Turning Away.” What ultimately most prevents the disc from holding its own against the band’s ‘70s work is its contemporary production touches – particularly Mason’s electronic drums – which make the album sonically much colder and harsher on the ears than any previous outing from the band and one that hasn’t aged nearly as well for that matter, either.

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The Division Bell (1994, Columbia)

B –

The general opinion tends to be that The Division Bell is the superior album to Momentary Lapse, and in some ways, it is. It’s certainly a more collaborative effort, Richard Wright having been made a fully-credited member again and co-writing five of the tunes here. [Interestingly, two of the songs here, including the single “Take It Back,” sport lyrics co-written by The Dream Academy frontman Nick Laird-Clowes.] It’s also both considerably sonically warmer than Lapse and more of a throwback to the band’s more prog-oriented ‘70s albums, especially on such atmospheric instrumentals as the Wright co-cowrites “Marooned” and “Cluster One.” But, great though Gilmour’s guitar work remains (and, truly, few players in rock can say so much with one simple note as Gilmour can, his atmospheric style having a way of making song lyrics almost unnecessary), he doesn’t seem nearly as passionate here about the songwriting itself as he did on Lapse; the songs aren’t exactly terrible, but they don’t sport particularly strong hooks, either, and not one song here is even half as catchy as “Learning to Fly” from the last record. So the two discs ultimately end up being equally satisfying; Division Bell is undeniably the one that’s the more faithful to the band’s sound of old and will appeal the most to fans of the band’s instrumental interplay, but Lapse has far superior singles (at least as far as songwriting is concerned, anyway). Of course, there are some who will simply refuse to accept this as a real Pink Floyd album due to the absence of Waters, but give Gilmour some credit: whatever you might think of the post-Waters discs, without them, the band’s discography would have ended with the abysmal The Final Cut, and that was no way for the group to go out.

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The Endless River (2014, Columbia)

B +

It may still fall short of reaching the glorious heights of the band’s run of albums from Meddle through The Wall, but The Endless River is bloody ingenious all the same and an admirably creative way for Gilmour to have retired the band on disc.Inspired by the passing of longtime bandmate Richard Wright, Gilmour and Mason have gone back and unearthed a wealth of additional material from the band’s vaults dating from the sessions for The Division Bell. Not since the days of The Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here has Wright had such a major influence on the sound of one of the band’s records; eleven of the eighteen tracks here, in fact, were co-written by the keyboardist. What distinguishes this disc from your average posthumous tribute, however, is that Gilmour has cleverly opted to let the music stand on its own, writing lyrics and taking the microphone only on the very final cut, “Louder Than Words.” That this disc is otherwise fully instrumental might strike some fans as being fairly dull, but it’s also in keeping with the band’s prog roots (bear in mind that quite a few of the cuts on the band’s most iconic record of all, The Dark Side of the Moon, including “On the Run” and “Any Colour You Like,” were instrumentals, and that cuts like “It’s What We Do” and “Allons-y (1)” still manage, even without words, to echo the sound of the band circa The Wall), and besides, Pink Floyd was always such a heavily atmospheric band – and Gilmour’s and Wright’s playing so emotive – that no words are needed here, the music every bit as effective at creating a visual in the listener’s mind as the packaging. Try not to marvel at the added instrumental touches, be it Gilmour’s E-Bow on “Things Left Unsaid” or Gilad Atzmon’s sax solo on “Anisina,” or the inteplay between Gilmour and Wright on the electric piano-based “Ebb and Flow,” the synth-tinged “Night Light,” or the lovely guitar and piano duet “The Lost Art of Conversation.” The lack of lyrics might make it initially seem less engaging, but as the disc goes on, you realize Gilmour’s instincts were right and this music had to be instrumental. It may not be the best Pink Floyd record, but it’s arguably the prettiest record the band ever made, and what an epitaph for Wright and the band alike!

Compilations:

If you don’t mind springing for a double-disc, the most satisfying Pink Floyd best-of package out there is 2001’s Echoes: The Best of Pink Floyd.While its track sequencing is anything but chronological and jumbles all the band’s eras together (following up the Division Bell cut “High Hopes” with Syd Barrett’s “Bike,” for instance), the way it attempts to segue seemingly completely disparate cuts together thematically is actually quite clever, and there are few major omissions of any note (although “Run Like Hell” really ought to be here.)The 2011 package The Best of Pink Floyd: A Foot in the Door does a fairly solid job of trying to distill the band’s full career onto a single disc, though, again, “Run Like Hell” is still absent and time constraints mean that the album is largely comprised of the band’s singles and similarly concise material, bypassing such longer, more prog-oriented pieces included on the 2001 package like “Echoes” and “Sheep.” Avoid A Collection of Great Dance Songs, which, in spite of its hilarious title and great cover art, is far too brief to be satisfying. 1971’s Relics, assuming you can find it, is a fairly solid summary of the band’s late ‘60s work, coupling such essential Barrett-period cuts as “Arnold Layne,” “Bike,” and “See Emily Play” with a very generous heaping of rarities, including the B-sides “Paint Box,” “Julia Dream,” and “Careful with That Axe, Eugene” and the previously-unreleased “Biding My Time.” Works tries to entice buyers with the rarity “Embryo” (a studio outtake from Ummagumma that previously only found its way onto a Harvest various-artists sampler) but is otherwise a sloppyanthology of the band’s years on the Harvest label that picks all the wrong songs to represent Dark Side, somehow leaving out “Money” and “Time.”

Live Albums:

Strangely, in spite of the band’s reputation for its visually stunning live shows, there are only three officially-sanctioned fully-live albums in the band’s catalog, one of which (Is There Anybody Out There? The Wall Live 1980-1981) contains nothing but a live performance of The Wall in its entirety and the other two (Delicate Sound of Thunder and Pulse) of which date from the post-Waters era of the band. They’re all more or less equally flawed, but Pulse is arguably the most satisfying of the three by default due to its solid and well-rounded song selection that draws on all eras of the band (even going back to “Astronomy Domine”) and even includes a performance of The Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety); the album also sports some lovely and lavish packaging that even incorporates a battery-powered flashing light into the spine.