Of all the bands and artists beloved to me whose song catalogs we’ve tried to rank, that of the iconic progressive-rock group Pink Floyd has been the most difficult. This is largely because the Floyd is an album-oriented band and most of their best work (The Dark Side of the Moon, The Wall, Wish You Were Here) was designed to be listened to as a single, cohesive unit.
All the same, many of the band’s songs are powerful enough to stand alone independently, so with the remastering campaign Why Pink Floyd? now fully underway, we wanted to celebrate the mind-melting individual highs of this unique, profound and relentlessly adventurous band that has given us so much strength and inspiration over the years.
20. When the Tigers Broke Free
ALBUMS: Pink Floyd The Wall (film soundtrack) / The Final Cut (2004 reissue)
One of the band’s oft-overlooked gems, “When the Tigers Broke Free” could originally only be heard in The Wall film and is bassist and leader Roger Waters’ most direct tribute to his father Eric Fletcher Waters, who died in combat during World War II. An orchestral piece that evokes the solemn atmosphere of WWII, its lyrics skewer the English government for trivializing the lives lost in battle and treating such a serious matter mechanically, which is one reason it fits into the context of The Wall so well: It’s a direct parallel to Waters’ overarching theme of “another brick in the wall.”
19. Goodbye Blue Sky
ALBUM: The Wall
A short, acoustic-based piece, “Goodbye Blue Sky” morphs almost impossibly from gentle, beautiful harmonic passages into chilling, harrowing darkness multiple times during its less-than-three-minute run. In the context of The Wall’s story, it’s a lament for the failure of the post-war dream, a promise that involvement in war and conflict would help solve the world’s problems and lead to better society. It also stays consistent with the message of the English government’s disregard for those who suffered because of it. Best seen along with its animated sequence from The Wall film, which juxtaposes elements of Nazism with Christianity amid a horrifying, war-torn landscape.
18. Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun
ALBUMS: A Saucerful of Secrets / Ummagumma
One of the first songs Roger Waters wrote in the wake of Syd Barrett’s mental breakdown and subsequent dismissal from the band in 1968, “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” stays true to Barrett’s psychedelic influence but replaces the fallen genius’ characteristic whimsy with a more formal, somber and haunting tone, one that would become common in Pink Floyd’s later work. Driven by a hypnotic, Eastern-tinged bass line, the studio version pales in comparison to its wildly experimental, extended versions of Floyd’s live shows of the era. The live half of Ummagumma showcases “Set the Controls” at its most riveting and rewarding.
17. Have a Cigar
ALBUM: Wish You Were Here
“Have a Cigar” has the distinction of being the only Pink Floyd song whose lead vocal is sung by someone who isn’t a member (save Clare Torry’s performance on “The Great Gig in the Sky,” though her vocal part functions as more of an instrument). The story goes that Roger Waters intended to sing it, but his voice was suffering from severe strain during the sessions, so they got English folk singer Roy Harper to fill in. Harper’s performance dovetails beautifully with the slick, funky track that concerns the dangers of giving up creative and artistic integrity when faced with monumental success — Waters’ direct response to the watershed sales of The Dark Side of the Moon. Topped with a searing guitar solo by David Gilmour, “Have a Cigar” is one of Pink Floyd’s most hard-driving rock tunes and emphasizes the band’s sense of swagger and groove.
16. One of These Days
Essentially a jam with a really, really psychedelic breakdown, the instrumental “One of These Days” leads off Meddle and instantly points toward the tighter, more-focused Pink Floyd that would unfold. Driven by a throbbing dual bass line courtesy of Roger Waters and David Gilmour, it would also provide Nick Mason with some of his most prominent drum work in the live setting — as well as one of his only vocal parts in the band’s lengthy catalog, uttering the downright evil, slowed-down threat, “One of these days I’m going to cut you into little pieces.”
15. Careful with That Axe, Eugene
Never officially released on a studio album, “Careful with That Axe, Eugene” was one of the first fully collaborative pieces written by Pink Floyd after Syd Barrett’s departure. Whereas at first David Gilmour seemed to struggle to hone his sound as the group’s new guitarist, “Careful with That Axe” is one of the first signs of his potential, creating an airy, ethereal atmosphere during the buildup and providing bluesy lead work during Roger Waters’ famous scream section. As it represented a band finding its feet after losing its original leader, “Careful with That Axe” quickly became a fan favorite and a staple of early live shows.
14. Atom Heart Mother
ALBUM: Atom Heart Mother
Beginning with “A Saucerful of Secrets,” Pink Floyd began experimenting with a specific multi-movement, epic form of songwriting that bordered on the classical. “Atom Heart Mother” was the band’s second stab at this opus technique, this time taking its classical implications more literally, employing avant-garde composer Ron Geesin to collaborate with them on a 23-plus-minute song. Moving through an orchestrated, Western-sounding theme and into a haunting choir section, an ultra-funky jam section and back around to the main theme, it shows Pink Floyd at its most ambitious and musically creative up to that point. Roger Waters and David Gilmour would later decry this suite (and its namesake album) in their later years, dismissing it as “childish” and “rubbish,” but most hardcore Floyd fans still hold “Atom Heart Mother” dear.
13. Brain Damage / Eclipse
ALBUM: The Dark Side of the Moon
Is there any album closer more climactic and emotional than the sequence of “Brain Damage” and “Eclipse?” If there is, I’ve yet to find one. Bringing together all of the universal themes and questions raised during the course of The Dark Side of the Moon, the two-part piece details the ultimate danger of what can happen to the human mind when faced with all the fears and problems inherent in modern life. Never known for being compassionate, Roger Waters offers a glimpse of that side here, with the central line “I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon” directly relating to and empathizing with Syd Barrett’s mental instability and insanity—a theme that foreshadows the subsequent tribute to Barrett, Wish You Were Here. “Eclipse” goes on to sum up all of the things and choices that define a person’s life, building to a stunning climax.
“Sheep” is the final segment of the dense, monolithic Animals and the third component of Waters’ bleak Orwellian concept, where he callously divides up the human race into dogs, pigs and sheep. Naturally, the “sheep” caste of humans represents those who are driven by comfort and security and are often afraid to think for themselves and question authority. In the context of the song, propelled by a signature dark bass line and featuring eerie keyboard work from Richard Wright, the sheep are manipulated by the pigs (the upper crust) to turn on the dogs (the competitive, ruthless achievers of society); they eventually overwhelm and defeat them in sheer numbers. The central message is quite clear: For the pigs, it’s all just a big game.
11. Speak to Me / Breathe
ALBUM: The Dark Side of the Moon
The slow, faint pulse of a heartbeat that opens the sound collage “Speak to Me” and segues into “Breathe” has nearly become a cliché due to the immense stature of The Dark Side of the Moon, but in actuality it’s an entirely appropriate opening effect for an album that so candidly examines the core of life and the human condition. “Breathe,” replete with gorgeous slide guitar work from David Gilmour and keyboardist Richard Wright’s jazzy chord progressions, is a laid-back, melancholy prelude to the madness that follows it. The song also features some of Waters’ most simple, direct lyrics, encouraging the listener to not be afraid to seriously assess their lives: “Breathe, breathe in the air / Don’t be afraid to care.”