I've been meaning to write this article since we started the blog. Peter Gabriel is a favorite. A top 5 artist for me and one we all know to an extent. But today I want to step into the role of Peter Gabriel czar and definitively tell you what to listen to. Warning: this is a long one.
Recently a saw a Top 10 Peter Gabriel Songs listicle somewhere and 5 of the 10 songs were from the So album. Great album. I was lucky enough to see the 25th anniversary show of So at the Santa Barbara Bowl (see anything you can there, gorgeous) and for "In Your Eyes" Peter was joined onstage by local resident John Cusack holding up a boombox. Again, great album. But you deserve a much better playlist than just So plus "Solsbury Hill".
Artist I'm Jealous Of
If there is a recording artist I'm most jealous of or whose career would I want, I think the short list would be comprised of Randy Newman, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Bruce Hornsby and Peter Gabriel.
Of all of these favorites, Gabriel seems to be the biggest. You probably have a pretty good preexisting relationship with Peter Gabriel’s music. But I think we’re all going to learn some new stuff here.
Best Playlist For A Massage
Here's something I found out in the past couple of years. I got a couple of in-house massages (that's not a happy ending, get your mind out of the gutters). Getting massaged at your house is an incredible value-added proposition - you don't get wound up by driving in traffic before or after, your dog can be there with you, and you get to pick your own music! No more Enya or soft wave sounds. Whatever you think is best is what you'll listen to.
What I found is that Peter Gabriel is the right man for the job. So many of his lyrics are about basic human senses: touch, breath, feel. It's uncanny. A couple of times by me and my masseuse out loud said "Whoa" because at the moment Peter was singing something like "let go" would happen right while my shoulder would pop, or my exhale would reveal something. It sounds nuts but try it.
Also, I think Peter Gabriel music is somehow simultaneously incredible meditative and yet actively engaging. I can't come up with an artist who does that for me.
Of course, Peter Gabriel wrote incredible lyrics and lots of music with Genesis in the early to mid-1970s. They got a little less prog-rock after his departure, though just a little less for a while. The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway might be one of the best albums ever, and unchallenged as the best concept album of all time.
This list is not about that. A Genesis list could be coming soon. But enjoy solo Pete here today in this celebration.
Here's your list of the Best 40 Peter Gabriel songs. Yes, "best" is usually subjective. But I stand behind this one for both longterm fans and Gabriel newbies. What follows the list is my reasoning and rationale for the song's high ranking.
1 Solsbury Hill
I could dick around and make something else #1 but it would be pretty ingenuine on my part. This song has everything. Catchy as fuck, inspirational when you're at a crosswords, great sing along chorus. We all know it's at a moment in time when he was leaving Genesis but this song seems like it's about so much more than that. When you need to make a decision in life, put this song on.
2 Mercy Street
In a live intro, Pete tells us it was inspired by poet Anne Sexton so we gotta take him at his word. I think it's his best vocal performance. I love playing it on piano myself, and the vibe of the recording masquerades how heavy it is. Yeah there's suicide in here, but Peter Gabriel's usual use of imagery instead of explicitness helps a lot. That's all well and good, but come for the music and stay for the music. Hypnotic and beautiful.
3 Down To Earth
I'm not even a big Pixar animation fan but this whole song was a promotional single for WALL-E and it says everything that movie says about man's technology outstripping our humanity. Incredible arrangements, I think you could listen to this 4-5 times in a row without getting sick of it. Maybe the best environmental song I've ever heard.
4 In Your Eyes
This could have been a #1 choice or #2. Don't hold its popularity against it. If you're tired of it, that's only because you've listened to it an awful lot over a number of years. According to interview, Peter had this idea that by looking into someone’s eyes, you would see, quite specifically in the lyric, "the doorway to a thousand churches. I think it’s as simple as that - the power of commitment and care and love will be stronger."
5 Digging In The Dirt
The Us album from 1992 is every bit as solid as the 1986 So record was, at least for me. Think of this song as occupying the "Sledgehammer" slot while having a depth of real emotions (based on the book Why We Kill) whereas Sledgehammer is lyrically silly. You can hear the New Orleans chops of the band deep inside of this. Looking deep within oneself and all humans doesn't mean the song has to sound morose; just the opposite.
This might be my first reach but I fucking love this song. The dark parts might not be the soothing, smooth Peter Gabriel music you've come here for. But Jesus Christ the imagery gets me. "I peer through the window, knock at the door. And the monster I was so afraid of lies curled up on the floor. Is curled up on the floor just like a baby boy." The tension between the industrial verses and the sensitive chorus is the same tension between our worst fears and our reassuring realizations.
7 Shock The Monkey
Musically, this sounds a little thinner than his later works. But it was a legitimate early solo hit. This isn't an animal rights song (though Gabriel has some of these). The "monkey" is the monkey on everybody's back of feeling jealous. Perhaps this sounds a little dated to the 80s but I was listening to the radio at the time and Human League was 80s. This was more otherworldly.
8 Shaking The Tree
This belongs on the short list of best song that only appears as a new toss-in on a greatest hits album. Check out the String Cheese Incident's funkier live version if you are a jam band fan. This song is unusually easy to track what he's talking about: Woman, particularly in Africa, asserting their rights in a firm but inclusive way.
9 Don't Give Up
Beautiful and unlikely hit in the middle of So-mania in 1986. There's some incredible wiki-facts (which is almost like facts) here. This would be on any artist's Top 10, even just for the Tony Levin bassline alone. Gabriel's thoughts: "The basic idea is that handling failure is one of the hardest things we have to learn to do."
10 Downside Up
You might not know the OVO album project from Peter Gabriel, it doesn't really count as part of his normal discography. But if you like Pete at all, dig in. Lots of beautiful killer lines like "All the strangers look like family - All the family looks so strange" about the physical universe and how it can get turned around after a life event or weird experience. Watch this incredible live performance with his daughter
11 Games Without Frontiers
An extended allegory of children's games being the stand-in for geopolitical tropes. That could have been just a clever little exercise. But the music is great and there are some really smart specific allusions in here too. This, and not Solsbury Hill, was PG's biggest UK and US hit until the So album.
12 Washing Of The Water
Another gem from Us. Slow, spiritual. Let's just short-hand this one: If you like "Don't Give Up" then I think you'll like this one. That one is gospel and this one is a spiritual, if I'm splitting hairs. To me, this is about giving yourself a break for being previously awful - or doing the sometimes hard work of forgiving yourself.
13 Animal Nation
Was just a one-off for The Wild Thornberrys Movie of all things. It's so much more than that. If this was on So it would be one of his most beloved songs. Only warning is that on this live version that I love, he spends the last five minutes introducing everybody on the band. Skip when you get there. Maybe not his best lyrics, but how important are lyrics to a song? 50%? 10%?
14 No Self Control
Think all of the addiction-based emotions of Dave Matthews Band "Too Much" but with more primal music to match the internal fuck-up of any of us who even occasionally don't have a handle on our appetites. By the way, PG's old bandmate Phil Collins played drums on the studio version; and with an edict from Gabriel to not have cymbals anywhere on that whole record. But I included the live version which matches the sentiment better for me.
15 I Grieve
A really slow build that starts off beautiful and then picks up into a driving celebration of the life that will outlive us all. Normally, Gabriel tracks have a combination of world class musicians and regular collaborators on them. This one is mostly just him and you can hear the hypnotic, focused effects of that.
16 Love To Be Loved
At this point of the list, we're in a real zone of a lot of primal emotions. Everything all of us do is mostly out of a desire to be loved. This song gets it musically. And maybe this gets to the heart of what I really love about Peter Gabriel: his music could be summed up as "primal". He apparently dedicated this one to his ex-wife (meaning they'd already split).
17 Big Time
Speaking of basic emotions, this one is tongue-in-cheek about wanting to be famous and/or "big". It satirizes and supports that one particular feeling. And it sounds like a million bucks. Stewart Copeland from The Police played drums here, no stranger to ego himself.
18 Here Comes The Flood (live)
The album version is very much of its early 80's time of synthesizers. But this live, mostly just piano version is much better. It's not his first song to have Biblical imagery and it's not his last. To me, the "flood" is really death, but who the hell knows. It's just great to listen to.
19 Walk Through The Fire
From an underrated 80s Jeff Bridges picture, Against All Odds. One of the last great early-period Peter Gabriel songs before he completely figured out how to make ahead of their time records like Security and So. I would bet that he started writing songs by starting with rhythm around here instead of being on a guitar or piano.
20 Family Snapshot
We listed this at #45 in our best political songs list. It's a great story of a song about a plan for a political assassination with the twist ending being that the would-be assassin is a grown wounded child looking for love and attention. PG explored the basic human reasons why people do awful things on several songs on this list. I saw him play this at an Amnesty International concert circa 1986 and it knocked me out.
21 No Way Out
This kind of late period Gabriel, for me, has kind of a symphonic feel albeit with great drumming. Lots of movements of distinctly different emotions. Another fantastic one for your massage playlist. To me, the narrator is begging a dying person to stay alive, in a not-on-my-watch kinda way.
22 Father, Son
A great one. This from a commenter at SongMeanings.com: "This is a beautiful song. When I last saw Peter Gabriel in concert (have seen him 3 times now), he talked about this song. He and his father had never been really close. As he grew older, his father developed some sort of painful disability, and one of the best therapies was for Peter and his father to sit back to back, arm linked to arm. They would rock back and forth, helping his father strengthen and keep flexible."
23 Burn You Up, Burn You Down
This recording is as Big Blue Ball, a collective recording project of international musicians at Pete's studio HQ. You'll find World Party's Karl Wallinger and jazz's Billy Cobham in here. All that said, this is just a great Peter Gabriel song you could have on your playlist for a fun cocktail party.
24 Blood Of Eden
Musically it sounds a lot like his Passion record (aka the soundtrack for The Last Temptation Of Christ). Quiet but not without great feeling and a really cool breakdown bridge. Lyrically, lets defer to Songfacts: "Gabriel used the image of the Garden of Eden because it was a time when man and woman were in one body, a state they have been trying to get back to ever since."
25 I Have The Touch
I've already mentioned that so many of his songs are sensual, in many senses including that they are literally about our senses. And touch is the most important, yet unsung of the senses. This is from that fourth album, Security, where he seemed to unlock how to record music better than just about anybody on the planet.
26 Not One Of Us
Suspicion, fear and hatred of strangers is a pretty common phenomenon. This song gives voice to that. I would describe this as one of the most Genesis sounding songs of his solo career.
27 The Tower That Ate People
The larger collaborative project this is from is a bit of sci-fi about earth people vs. sky people. That music, which is Peter Gabriel's OVO album, lives up to that spacey, futuristic and amazing sound. Get into this one; I think you're gonna like being in there.
Personally, I love the message of not necessarily "personal responsibility" in terms of actions but when it comes to taking direction in one's life or choosing what's important to you, the answer is "Do It Yourself"; yes, misfortune can happen to you, but you are the one in control of your emotions and the little things you do. This song is intentionally more acoustic to continue distancing himself from sounding like Genesis.
29 Growing Up
Maybe this is about reincarnation or maybe just about the beginning and end of a life with no reincarnation connective tissue. Who knows. It's a great groove with plenty to think about. "My ghost likes to travel" is a hell of a mantra.
30 Come Talk To Me
How do you follow up the success of So after 5 or 6 years? It starts with this opening track. While it's ostensibly rooted in his real-life experience of wanting to communicate with his daughter after Gabriel left his marriage, it also communicates a more basic human need to connect. One thing I'm not hammering home about Peter Gabriel is that on stage he plays so many songs as amazing, thoughtful performance pieces. "Come Talk To Me" is no exception, watch it.
31 I Don't Remember
Another one of those songs from the first three albums with balanced really jangly, angular guitar sounds with bass player Tony Levin driving things with that stick bass. But the lyrics here are just as dependent on the ear of the beholder as Genesis' The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. Is the narrator a captured spy, a psychiatric patient, a foreigner, a trauma victim or just Peter Gabriel himself tired of Genesis questions?
32 Kiss That Frog
I'm taking pot shots at "Sledgehammer" being his most overrated song and tired, fucked-out metaphor. Favorable in comparison, "Kiss That Frog" is a groovy allegory where the frog really being a prince is filled with both storybook and sexual imagery. One of the best organ performances I've ever heard in a song (which is believe is Peter himself) and a great frog vocal impression in a couple of spots.
33 Make Tomorrow
Great advice of "make tomorrow today" which shouldn't be hard to parse. A less sci-fi snapshot from OVO with lots of the So band doing their thing, plus a great guest vocal from Richie Havens.
34 This Is The Picture (Excellent Birds)
Yes, the So album had a glossy sheen and was a successful pop masterpiece. But this was a collaboration between Gabriel and performance artist / music artist Laurie Anderson - who never really agreed on the recording and they released separate versions of the song. It's pretty damn cool and I'm about 50% sure it's about the act of watching television.
35 Moribund The Burgermeister
It's the B-side to "Solsbury Hill" and yet it's way more of the Genesis sequel that fans may have been expecting at the time, in terms of theatrical vocal performance, wild keyboards and jarring prog-rock transitions. Two great factoids from Songfacts: "This is about "Saint Vitus’ Dance," which is a nervous disorder called chorea that which causes rapid jerking motions in its victims. Usually affecting children, it is associated with rheumatic fever. In the Middle Ages its victims prayed to St. Vitus, who was said to have the cure" and "Gabriel got the idea from a book about Middle Ages epidemics."
36 This Is Party Man
The lyrics are pretty oblique to me, I couldn't tell you the first thing what this song is about. It's kind of an outtake from something for the 1995 Denzel Washington vehicle, Virtuosity. But then this version was recorded for real about 10 years ago for release on the then-new PG album. It's always great to continue to get new songs and musical ideas from Peter Gabriel, even if they all can't be Mercy Street or Solsbury Hill.
37 On The Air
It starts his second solo album in 1978, doing vintage Genesis-type Gabriel of a wild character performance piece (in this case somebody living in a dumpster but dreaming of an alternate life "on the air"). Musically this is what you get, in a good way, when your song is performed by King Crimson's Robert Fripp and E Street Band's Roy Bittan - right in that sweet spot of weird and musical.
38 The Story Of OVO
As mentioned above, OVO was a concept album about earth-people coexisting with sky-people, kind of like the Morlocks and Eloi of H.G. Wells "The Time Machine". Yes, that sounds heady. But this is a really cool industrial sounding rap. That might sound crazy, just press Play.
39 The Barry Williams Show
Making fun of shit daytime talk shows like The Jerry Springer is a pretty pedestrian topic by Peter Gabriel standards. But on the web I saw a great comment, "Someone’s gotten the better of Barry Williams, master manipulator. He’s lost his show to a pretender, and is now 'drowning' in emotion, when he always stayed above the fray" and what the host might do next is ominous. Sounds great, even if I'm reading too much into it. Btw, "Barry Williams" was supposed to be just a generic sounding name, not the actor from The Brady Bunch.
40 The Rhythm Of The Heat
The song's working title was apparently "Jung in Africa" which should tell you a lot. "Jung was studying the Collective Unconscious, and was afraid he would go mad as the drummers and dancers let the music control them." (Songfacts) Talking Heads and Paul Simon have been accused of cultural appropriation of African music, but this song has a context that belongs there and is even a little bolder.
"Sledgehammer", "Steam" - Yes, I'm kind of making a point about "Sledgehammer" which was a fun video when you were stoned in the 1980s. But "Steam" and "Big Time" do a lot of the same things as that song and a little better, IMO.
"Signal To Noise", "My Head Sounds Like That" - Fantastic but maybe just on the intense side for a casual listener.
"San Jacinto", "Red Rain" - Great songs. I might be harsh on "San Jacinto" being on the same album as "Biko" and a little too aggressively multicultural. But it's great.
"And Through The Wire", "Waiting For The Big One", "Mother Of Violence", "Intruder" - All from those first 3 unnamed albums. If this was a Top 50 list, they’d have a chance. Lots of this era still has some Genesis feel, while "Waiting For The Big One" is his most uncharacteristic song, IMO, and sounds almost like a vaudeville number.