The prog godfather and pop iconoclast has released nine studio albums — with a 10th, the long-awaited i/o, on the way later this year. (Its first two singles, “Panopticom” and “The Court,” are absolute stunners.) He’s also composed four movie soundtracks, re-recorded two of his albums in German, led the shambolic Big Blue Ball collective, released a half-dozen essential live records, curated a collection of Gabriel cover tunes, and slipped even more new songs into the world via standalone singles and hits packages. Plus, that list doesn’t account for the massive amount of international music he’s helped find an audience through his Real World Studios, Real World Records, and World of Music, Arts and Dance (WOMAD) festival, which celebrated its 40th anniversary last year and will return to Charlton Park in England this March.
All that is to say: A lot of music is missing from the list below. Consider this the syllabus from Intro to Peter Gabriel. More advanced coursework is available for those who want it, and in my experience, most people who dip a toe into his discography end up taking the full-body plunge. While we wait for the rest of i/o to arrive, here’s a ranking of Peter Gabriel’s studio albums, from least to most essential.
9. Scratch My Back (2010)
One half of a two-album project that also included the covers compilation And I’ll Scratch Yours, Scratch My Back sees Gabriel reworking tunes by contemporaries like David Bowie and Talking Heads alongside then-buzzy indie acts like Bon Iver and Arcade Fire. It’s not a terrible idea, and the song choices are interesting enough, but there’s something grimly academic about the whole affair. Peter Gabriel can sing a Regina Spektor song — well, so what? All the songs are burdened with soporific string arrangements, blunting the impact of Gabriel’s gravelly delivery.
8. New Blood (2011)
Gabriel followed Scratch My Back with New Blood, which gives his own tunes the orchestral treatment. At his best, Gabriel lends gravitas to his songbook as an older, wiser man. At his worst, his approach results in a jarring and actively unpleasant listening experience. “Intruder” should be menacing; on New Blood, it’s kitschy. The thrilling world music flourishes of “In Your Eyes” become a morass of classical cliches. The song that loses the most in translation is “Don’t Give Up,” which swaps in the Norwegian singer-songwriter Ane Brun for the original’s Kate Bush. I’m sure Brun is a fine artist in her own right, but she should have a “will not replace Kate Bush” clause in all her future recording contracts.
7. Peter Gabriel (aka Scratch) (1978)
We’ve already reached the point on this list where there won’t be any more truly bad albums. Seven out of nine ain’t bad! For Gabriel’s 1978 self-titled album — known to fans as Scratch — he collaborated with King Crimson’s Robert Fripp for a second consecutive time. Both men were survivors of the English prog scene that punk was in the process of killing off. They were spared the brunt of punk’s critique by staying light on their feet, and Scratch frequently feels punk in attitude if not in sound. (“D.I.Y.” might as well be a declaration of the project’s ethos.) Unfortunately, the songcraft can’t quite transcend the disjointedness sewn by the album’s myriad genre experiments. File this one under “couple tracks.”
6. Peter Gabriel (aka Security) (1982)
By 1982, Gabriel was clearly as focused on rhythm as melody, if not more. His first solo hit, “Solsbury Hill,” was in an unsettled 7/4, and his nascent embrace of world music had introduced exciting new drum sounds to his songs. Even so, Security feels like a big swing. Starting with the thumping (and instructively titled) “The Rhythm of the Heat,” Gabriel’s fourth album is a showcase for the beat. Gabriel is comfortable incorporating djembe, surdo, and timbales, but he also utilizes cutting-edge sampler technology to conduct a symphony of found sounds — rainfall on tin, smashing windshields, scraping concrete. Security is Gabriel’s de facto dance record, and beyond the pseudo-novelty of “Shock the Monkey,” a rich rhythmic world awaits.
5. Peter Gabriel (aka Car) (1977)
Your mileage may vary on this, but there’s certainly a case to be made that Gabriel left the greatest prog rock band of all time right after they released the greatest prog record of all time. The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and its subsequent marathon tour may have tugged too hard at the loose threads in Genesis, but it also pushed Gabriel to scale new heights as a singer, a showman, and a genuine eccentric. Perhaps naturally, there’s still a fair amount of Genesis in his solo debut, 1977’s Car. “Moribund the Burgermeister” opens the album with the madcap theatricality of Selling England by the Pound, while “Modern Love” and “Slowburn” stomp and sway like The Lamb. The highlights, of course, are “Solsbury Hill” and “Here Comes the Flood,” the latter of which proved Gabriel could be a brilliant balladeer when he wanted to be. (The definitive version of “Here Comes the Flood” is on Growing Up Live. Seek it out.)
4. Us (1992)
Gabriel’s marriage to Jill Moore ended in 1987 — and in 1992, he excavated the unwinding of their relationship, among other interpersonal matters, on his sixth and most personal full-length. The lens into the real Peter Gabriel had never been clearer. Us boasts warm production by Daniel Lanois and a wrenching emotional rawness that reaches far beyond the character studies and social commentaries of his past albums. There’s room for playfulness, too; “Steam” and “Kiss the Frog” are equal parts groovy and goofy. But Us really soars when Gabriel goes straight for the heart. The Sinéad O’Connor duet “Blood of Eden” rivals “Don’t Give Up” as Gabriel’s most affecting, and “Secret World” and “Come Talk to Me” are among the most poignant songs in his catalog.
3. Up (2002)
Contemporary reviews for Up, still Gabriel’s most recent album of new material, were harsh. The decade he spent tinkering made it an easy target for critics, many of whom accused him of overbaking. But the album has aged gracefully. Up is Gabriel’s densest and darkest album, its arrangements and production freighted with the apparent agony of its creation. “Darkness” screeches and groans like a mirror-universe Nine Inch Nails, while “No Way Out” and “I Grieve” revisit the stark emotional intensity of Us. “Signal to Noise” is the album’s towering showpiece, a duet between Gabriel and the qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Since Khan had passed away by the time of the “Signal” session, Gabriel sampled a recording from a 1996 concert where the duo performed an early version of the song. The result transcends time, space, culture, even death.
2. Peter Gabriel (aka Melt) (1980)
Gabriel’s four self-titled albums are united by their eclecticism. Where So, Us, and Up strove for internal coherence, his early work was more gleefully reckless. On Melt, his third LP, the misshapen whole far transcended the sum of its parts. Gabriel had his ears open to everything, from NYC new wave and English post-punk to South African rhythms and the gated drums being pioneered by his former Genesis bandmate, Phil Collins, and engineer Hugh Padgham. Melt incorporates all those sounds and more, building a smorgasbord as satisfying as it is varied. How can a single album contain the creeping paranoia of “Intruder,” the Talking Heads slink of “I Don’t Remember,” the blurry cinematics of “Family Snapshot,” the stomping riff-rock of “And Through the Wire,” the icy satire of “Games Without Frontiers,” and the swelling anti-apartheid protest song “Biko”? And how can it only be Peter Gabriel’s second best?
1. So (1986)
Melt is Gabriel’s second-best album because So exists. Every song on the 1986 blockbuster feels like a universe. It found Gabriel at the peak of his powers as a pop star — the world-conquering “Sledgehammer” video certainly helped — but nothing about So is pandering. This is an album that introduces its hit single with a shakuhachi. Gabriel’s world music affinity had wormed its way into his sound on previous records, but So is where everything comes together. Producer Daniel Lanois simultaneously widens Gabriel’s sonic palette and focuses his energy, which means an openhearted ballad like “In Your Eyes” can also be a showcase for the Senegalese mbalax singer Youssou N’Dour. Lanois’ lush production is So’s not-so-secret weapon. Even in an era of painstakingly (and expensively) crafted pop music, this might be the most immaculately rendered album of them all. Stewart Copeland of the Police, one of the world’s most widely respected drummers, was brought in to play the hi-hat on the “Red Rain” intro. That’s slightly insane, but it’s indicative of the intense care that helped bring So to life. It remains Peter Gabriel’s finest hour.
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