Anyone who knows me is well aware of my not-so-minor fixation with the music of Peter Gabriel. Some people mask their love of ‘70s prog and ‘80s pop with a veneer of detached, too-cool-for-school self-awareness. Would that I could be so ironic: I genuinely love the man’s songwriting, and recognize the colossal impact he had on pop music’s landscape.
Gabriel’s cover album, Scratch My Back, just dropped in the U.K. this week, which is actually pretty big news: For the past two decades, his rate of releasing albums could be characterized (charitably) as a slow drip. Fortunately, his massive discography helps to ease the wait for his next to-be-released-whenever studio album, I/O. So, for your consideration—the choicest Peter Gabriel songs ever to have graced the airwaves:
Without Peter Gabriel, and without “Biko” specifically, the Vampire Weekend you know and love would not exist .This song about the murdered South African activist Stephen Biko became an anti-apartheid anthem, and introduced previously unheard-of afro-pop sensibilities to western music. “Yihla moja, yihla moja / the man is dead, the man is dead.”
2. “Solsbury Hill”
Yes, this is basically the go-to paean for every coming-of-age or family-reconciliation flick out there. And do you know why that is? Because this affected, jangly ditty is about his decision to leave Genesis, and the group’s moderate fame and success. It takes serious chops to write a breakup song (“grab your things / I’ve come to take you home!”) that’s simultaneously an anthem about better days ahead.
A legendary song, with an even more legendary music video. Yeah, there’s some gross-out sexual imagery in there (“Fruit cage?” “Honey bee?” Jesus Peter, are you five years old?), but I defy you to find me a song from the 80’s with a funkier bass line. It can’t be done.
4. “Shaking the Tree”
Peter Gabriel, Youssou N’Dour and a rain stick form up like Voltron for this breezy musical journey through Sub-Saharan Africa. Bonus points for addressing the plight of women in Africa, an issue too often ignored, even today.
5. “Games Without Frontiers”
In 1980, this song made its way to our shores and had a modestly successful rotation on the singles charts, though nowhere near its U.K. popularity. It was the first time many U.S. listeners had heard Gabriel’s music, and it made for a hell of an introduction: It’s a full-throated condemnation of war, nationalism and Cold War paranoia.
6. “In Your Eyes”
Which scene from Say Anything do you remember more than any other? Don’t say the part where Lloyd Dobler is in the kickboxing dojo, because that would be a lie and you know it. It’s the boombox scene, that perfect encapsulation of young-love teen movies. And half the reason it’s perfect is because of this song, which ranks as one of the modern era’s greatest love poems. If your heart pumps real blood, and not corn syrup fortified with food coloring and the music of Taylor Swift, that is.
Bonus Track: “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa (Hot Chip Remix)”
The sweater-clad lads of Vampire Weekend acknowledged their forerunner in the original version of this song, dropping Peter Gabriel’s name right in the midst of a titanic hook like a precision-guided missile. With a little prodding from Hot Chip, Gabriel then agreed to cut his own tongue-in-cheek remix of the song, with a minor lyrical alteration: “And it feels so unnatural, Peter Gabriel too / And it feels so unnatural, to sing your own name.”