The 20 Greatest Peter Gabriel Songs of All Time

Music Lists Peter Gabriel
The 20 Greatest Peter Gabriel Songs of All Time

Peter Gabriel is a shapeshifter. To listen to his discography is to watch him transfigure. First, Genesis frontman and patron saint of prog. Then, an art-rock experimentalist. Later, a global popstar and soundtrack orchestrator. #1 hitmaker and uncompromising avant-garde. Crisp, punchy pop alongside oddball ditties, space-y ambient and a then-radical incorporation of non-Western music. Rock’s most lovable flautist. Wearer of extravagant (and ridiculous) costumes. Winner of a record-breaking number of MTV Video Music Awards. Always wielding his smokey tenor to make emphatic, heart-driven music.

And yet, Peter Gabriel still feels underrated. He hasn’t had the Gen-Z resurgence of his fellow art pop pioneer Kate Bush, and he’s not typically included on the A-list of pop music’s great trailblazers—David Bowie, Madonna, Prince, Björk, et cetera. But Gabriel is still walking the walk. This year, he unveiled a new album, I/O, by releasing a new single on every full moon. It’s classic Gabriel: atypical, nerdy and dramatic. But he’s also intentional with his art. The I/O release strategy demands patience from his audience. It’s a challenge to take each song as they come. And the songs from I/O are still curious and rewarding. Peter Gabriel is still shapeshifting, albeit without dressing like a flower.

To the unfamiliar: Peter Gabriel’s career can be summarized into four main phases. He started as the vocalist and flautist for the progressive rock figureheads Genesis. Prior to any kind of Phil Collins pop-meddling (which I also love very dearly!), Genesis’ music was complicated and pastoral. They released eight-minute songs with titles like “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight.” After the fraught tour for their ambitious double album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Gabriel departed Genesis in 1974.

His first four solo albums, all named Peter Gabriel, grew increasingly experimental. He incorporated global music and New Wave. Drum machines, synthesizers, anti-Apartheid folk melodies and politically-charged lyrics all found their way in his eclectic blend. To use the modern terminology, Gabriel officially entered his “main pop boy” era with 1986’s So, a multi-platinum album which transformed him from cult-classic into mainstream blockbuster. He followed it up with 1992’s divorce-era Us, which also used pop as camouflage for his musical eccentricities.

Since then, Peter Gabriel has done, frankly, whatever he’s wanted. He released the ominous and underrated Up in 2002, re-recorded his songs as classical arrangements on New Blood and called up everyone from Bon Iver to Regina Spektor to David Byrne to cover his catalog on And I’ll Scratch Yours. To celebrate his current arena tour and the once-in-a-blue-moon arrival of new music from the Surrey legend, we’ve ranked Peter Gabriel’s 20 greatest solo songs (sorry, “In the Cage” die-hards, PG-era Genesis is a whole different ballgame).

20. “I Don’t Remember” (Melt, 1980)

With Robert Fripp’s guitar scratching on a bedrock of drums, “I Don’t Remember” is the closest Peter Gabriel has ever gotten to the physicality of punk rock. On his early ‘80s albums, Gabriel explored discomfort with neurotic, dissonant compositions. Deep cuts like “The Family And the Fishing Net” and “Intruder” pushed those neuroses to their limits, but nothing was quite as cathartic as “I Don’t Remember.” Gabriel channels fear into each David Byrne-style shriek (who would later cover the song) as he plays a character with amnesia. Who would’ve thought that the Genesis front-man would make a convincing case as a punk rocker?

19. “D.I.Y.” (Scratch, 1978)

Gabriel’s first two solo albums found him flexing his songwriting muscles as he established his identity outside of Genesis. But the reputation of his former band cast a long shadow. “D.I.Y.,” the sole single from Gabriel’s sophomore album, is particularly Genesis-like. Gabriel’s application of his voice throughout “D.I.Y.” is familiar to long-time Genesis fans. He’s raspy like on “In The Cage,” sarcastic like “I Know What I Like,” soft as “Carpet Crawlers.” It’s fascinating to hear Gabriel toy with Genesis’s styles on his own terms, and “D.I.Y.” packs prog rock-levels of drama in its two-and-a-half-minute runtime. For any naysayers, “D.I.Y.” proves Gabriel is quite capable of doing it himself.

18. “Here Comes The Flood” (Car, 1977)

Peter Gabriel has always been an open collaborator, working with the likes of Kate Bush, Sineád O’Connor, Youssou N’Dour and Brian Eno. In his solo debut, Gabriel teamed up with Fripp, the guitarist and founder of King Crimson. They would reunite on subsequent Gabriel albums, and Fripp included a cover of “Here Comes the Flood” on his own debut. Fripp’s guitar turns “Here Comes The Flood” from a ballad into a dramatic slow burn. Gabriel’s catalog often defies easy genre categorization, but “Here Comes The Flood” is a pure classic rock gem.

17. “I Have the Touch” (Security, 1982)

“I Have the Touch” exemplifies Gabriel’s unexpectedly addictive sense of melody. The Security cut is high-strung and powered by a jittery drum beat. But the song’s hook—a boisterous plea to “Shake those hands!”—finds its way into the pocket of those metallic drums. By the bridge, he careens through the phrase “But nothing seems to please.” Gabriel has a knack for transforming neuroses into pop, and “I Have the Touch” is a prime example of this transformative power.

16. “Darkness” (Up, 2002)

Up has some of Gabriel’s moodiest music ever. Whereas So and Us announce themselves with grandiosity, “Darkness” sets the album’s tense tone. “Darkness’ creeks and shivers until it hits like a jump scare and snaps into a groove. The song is a study in the ways Gabriel manipulates dynamics. “Darkness” swerves between whispering verses and bombastic choruses. His voice ranges from uncanny warmth to steely and distorted. Even in the brighter moments of Up, the shadow of “Darkness” is so strong that it colors the album in dusk.

15. “Digging in the Dirt” (Us, 1992)

Usually, Peter Gabriel channels his anger in a political way. He’s frustrated at institutions, situations and injustices. But on “Digging in the Dirt,” he’s the subject of his own rage. Gabriel digs through the “dirt” of himself, and that self-interrogation brings out muck and shame. “Digging in the Dirt” shifts like a mood-swing: the verses are low and groovy, the chorus lashes out with rage, the post-chorus coos with fragility. “Digging in the Dirt” is as difficult as a therapy session. But even Peter Gabriel’s messiest, most baggage-filled music is sharp, shiny and intricate.

14. “Washing Of The Water” (Us, 1992)

Peter Gabriel is not one for minimalism. Even the lower-key moments on Melt, Security and So felt huge. He layers his earlier ballads like “Family Snapshot” and “Wallflower” in echos. They build to triumphant choruses, meant to be shared with big crowds. “Washing Of The Water” is an anomaly in his discography. It’s stark and small. Gabriel’s voice has never sounded so close to the mic. Combined with the heartache of its lyrics,s “Washing Of The Water” is perhaps the most vulnerable and emotional track in his discography.

13. “Red Rain” (So, 1986)

Steward Copeland—drummer for The Police—has the first notes of So. He opens “Red Rain” with an intricate hi-hat rhythm. Copeland didn’t actually know he was on “Red Rain” until later. Per an interview with Aquarium Drunkard: “I went down to his studio with Tony Levin, and we just jammed, we created grooves…A year later an album comes out. Apparently, I’m on it, I’m on the credits. “Oh look, I played hi-hat on this track I’ve never heard, ‘Red Rain.’” There couldn’t be a more appropriate opener to Gabriel’s best album. A cut-up piece from a world-class drummer, specifically selected to simulate the rain. The exact instrument needed from the exact musician who could best play it. “Red Rain” is the most So track on So, a cavernous song inspired by a reoccurring dream of Gabriel’s. It sounds like a thunderstorm, huge and echoey. And that perfectly sets the tone for So, an album as cinematic and high-res as a movie screen.

12. “The Rhythm of the Heat” (Security, 1982)

From the 7/4 beat of “Solsbury Hill” to the swaggering New Jack Swing of “Steam,” Gabriel’s experimentation with drums—their pace, their origins and their sounds—has defined his career. “The Rhythm of the Heat” is Gabriel’s ode to their inscrutable force. The song was inspired by Carl Jung’s experience joining tribal drummers and dancers during his trip to Kenya and Uganda. But “The Rhythm of the Heat” is Gabriel’s own relinquishment to rhythm. When it culminates in its room-filling drums, the momentum is as powerful as a freight train.

11. “No Self Control” (Melt, 1980)

“No Self Control” is a high-stress bundle of energy thanks to its marimbas, saxophone and Robert Fripp’s guitar. But the song’s star is Gabriel’s former bandmate Phil Collins. The Melt album debuted an audio effect called gated reverb, which makes every drum sound cavernous and brutal. Gabriel asked Collins to drum without any cymbals, leading to the song’s colossal tom-tom fills. You can hear the seeds being planted in Collins’s drumming. Phil will use gated reverb once again for his own solo material the next year, resulting in a slightly more well-known song that went on to have the most famous drum fill of all time. Still, it was Gabriel’s studio experimentation and curiosity that paved the way for “In the Air Tonight.”

10. “San Jacinto” (Security, 1982)

Peter Gabriel formulated the ideas for “San Jacinto” after talking to an Apache man about his tribal initiation, where he was bitten by a rattlesnake and sent up a mountain to survive. Gabriel continued to meditate on indigenous American culture when visiting the San Jacinto mountains near Palm Springs, home to the Cahuilla people. In 2023, a song like “San Jacinto” is a complicated piece of art to reckon with. Indigenous tribal rituals certainly aren’t Gabriel’s—a white South East England native—stories to tell. And yet, “San Jacinto” isn’t condescending or ignorant. Marimbas, chimes and synthwork weave together in an arrangement that shimmers like light. “San Jacinto” also features some of Gabriel’s most impassioned vocals ever. He pleads to “hold the line” against the destruction of indigenous people and culture. All we can do with “San Jacinto” is accept it as Peter’s best efforts to do right by indigenous stories, even if he isn’t the perfect storyteller.

9. “Mercy Street” (So, 1986)

“Mercy Street” is the most haunting piece of music Peter Gabriel has ever made. Triangles and glockenspiels circle around the track, whispering on its edges like a phantom. “Mercy Street” works like a spell: mysterious, unnerving and powerful. Gabriel is always respectful of his references, and Anne Sexton—the American poet who inspired “Mercy Street”—is similarly treated with dignity. The song ends with the lines “Anne, with her father / Is out in the boat / Riding the water / Riding the waves on the sea,” immortalizing Sexton’s poetry and its stark, confessional brilliance.

8. “Come Talk To Me” (Us, 1992)

Nowadays, an artist calling their new album their “most personal project yet” is a tired trope. But 1992’s Us followed through on that promise. It takes the elements that defined So—big-room drums, layers of keyboards and guitars bathed in reverb—and adds more. More instruments. More world music. More vocals. More personal writing. There’s no better example than “Come Talk To Me,” the record’s mammoth opener. Written for his daughter, it’s a brutal plea to reconnect and find common ground. Complimented by Sinéad O’Connor on vocals, “Come Talk to Me” establishes the tone for Us immediately: vulnerable lyrics painted across massive productions. Big sounds for big feelings.

7. “Don’t Give Up” (So, 1986)

For a professional rockstar of fifteen years, Peter Gabriel’s song about the humiliation of getting laid off is uncannily accurate. Gabriel and Kate Bush play husband and wife on “Don’t Give Up,” and Bush’s affirmations uplift Gabriel’s despair. If anyone else sang the line “Don’t Give Up,” it would come across cheesy, obvious and diminutive. But Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush play their roles with a deep sense of empathy. “Don’t Give Up” doesn’t just work as both an unemployment anthem but a testament to any kind of resilience. As an aside: “Don’t Give Up” showcases the magic of Tony Levin, Gabriel’s long-time recording and touring bassist. He guides the song into a muted resolution, and his rhythmic playing is a defining feature of So.

6. “Games Without Frontiers” (Melt, 1980)

“Games Without Frontiers” springs into action like a windup toy. Gabriel whistles his way through the song, and he pronounces every lyric like a teacher taking attendance. You can’t help but feel its sing-song playfulness. Of course, “Games Without Frontiers” is actually an anti-war statement, led by some of Gabriel’s most obvious metaphors ever (“Adolf builds a bonfire,” “Dressing up in costumes/playing silly games”). Even though its Cold War anxieties are dated, “Games Without Frontiers” depicts war as juvenile, and that message is equally relevant now. “Jeux sans frontières,” Kate Bush, on backup vocals, repeats. She sounds phantasmagoric, delivering her haunted message until it finally sinks in.

5. “Shock the Monkey” (Security, 1982)

With its drum machine programming and sleek synths, “Shock the Monkey” is Peter Gabriel at his most New Wave. You can hear the flecks of Duran Duran and The Human League. “Shock the Monkey” is a highlight because of its synth-pop pulse and catchy hook. But Gabriel has a penchant for the unexpected. The hook isn’t about love, girls or romance. Nor is it—as anyone would expect from a song called “Shock the Monkey”—about animal cruelty. Instead, the song is an oblique metaphor for envy, and the titular “monkey” is an amalgam for Gabriel’s jealous impulses. As per usual, Peter Gabriel toys with ambiguity in his lyrics. And he’ll do it on the most chart-friendly song of an album.

4. “Solsbury Hill” (Car, 1977)

For years, Gabriel was seen as the eccentric force in Genesis, propelling their high drama tours and multi-act concept albums. When he left the band in 1974 and released his first album in 1977, I can’t imagine anyone expected anything as…ordinary as “Solsbury Hill.” With bright piano and acoustic guitar, Gabriel’s debut single could slide right into AOR radio station programming, next to Fleetwood Mac and Wings. But he works remarkably well in the genre. “Solsbury Hill” channels the pain of letting go into an arena-ready chorus: “Grab your things, I’ve come to take you home!” “Solsbury Hill” heart-laden nostalgia set the tone for PG’s entire career to follow.

3. “Sledgehammer” (So, 1986)

If any song exemplifies Peter Gabriel’s ability to transform himself, it’s “Sledgehammer.” Back in the 70s, Gabriel sang lyrics like “Slubberdegullions on squeaky feet / Continually pacing / With nonchalant embracing” and wore a costume that can only be described as unforgettable. And here he was, a decade later, riding a Motown beat on this number one hit and sounding… fun? Cool? Maybe even a little sexy? Talk about transformation.

“Sledgehammer” is a mammoth funk-pop song replete with horns, call-and-response vocals and Manu Katché’s swaggering drum beat. The song is simultaneously an ode to Otis Redding and the Stax record label while sounding deeply and unapologetically ‘80s. That combination of ’60s groove and ‘80s reverb permeated pop music ever since, mimicked by mainstays like The 1975 and Harry Styles. And to top it all off, “Sledgehammer’s” stop-motion music video won a record nine VMAs. Infectious and danceable, “Sledgehammer” sparkles like a platinum record.

2. “Biko” (Melt, 1980)

In 2022, the Recording Academy added a “Song for Social Change” category at the Grammys, meant to recognize music that contains “lyrical content that addresses a timely social issue and promotes understanding, peacebuilding and empathy.” Few songs retroactively deserve that award like “Biko.” The closing track to Gabriel’s Melt album honors the anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, who died in police custody in 1977. It increased awareness on the injustice of apartheid while offering a platform for South African folk music. Academics have studied “Biko” as a paradigm for effective protest music.

Gabriel broke barriers with “Biko.” Before the Nigerian-inspired polyrhythms of Remain in the Light and Graceland’s controversial hit status, Gabriel offered exposure to African music through the song’s incorporation of “Ngomhla sibuyayo” and “Senzeni Na?” It’s both an ode to Steve Biko and combustible with the fury of infringement on human rights. It demonstrates the power of political advocacy in music. And at its heart, it is fiercely brave.

1. “In Your Eyes” (So, 1986)

For all the complicated music that Peter Gabriel has made, it’s ironic that the crown jewel of his discography is a massive, hook-laden love song. On the original track-list of So, “In Your Eyes” is right at the middle. The beating heart of this big pop record. “In Your Eyes” was certainly successful after its initial release, hitting #1 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Tracks chart. But it will forever be associated with an iconic, much-parodied needle-drop from Cameron Crowe’s 1989 rom-com Say Anything… Picture it: you’re in a challenging relationship, you love each other but it got complicated. The IRS is involved. She breaks up with you. There’s only one voice that can remedy the situation, and it’s certainly not yours. It’s Peter’s. So you go to her house, hold up a Sharp GF-7600 boombox and play “In Your Eyes.”

John Cusack holding a boombox over his head will forever be tied to “In Your Eyes.” But it’s the song that made the scene, and not the other way around. “In Your Eyes” is a song so full of light that it makes that big, silly, romantic gesture actually mean something. Beyond its classic status, “In Your Eyes” encompasses everything PG had been doing throughout his solo career: experimentation with rhythm, warm pop melodies and respectful incorporation of non-Western music. He spotlights Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour in its outro and employs a talking drum in the song’s mid-tempo beat. “In Your Eyes” is the pinnacle of Peter Gabriel’s ethos. An earnest, an unironic and un-jaded dedication to feeling moved by the world around you. “The resolution/Of all the fruitless searches,” he sings on a chorus as expansive as an atrium. It’s hard to listen to that and not believe him.

Listen to a playlist of these 20 Peter Gabriel songs below.

Andy Steiner is a writer, musician, and works in the music industry. When he’s not reviewing albums, you can find him collecting ‘80s Rush merchandise. Follow him on Instagram or Twitter.

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