The 20 Best Pink Floyd Songs

Music Features Pink Floyd
The 20 Best Pink Floyd Songs

Eds note: Pink Floyd mastermind Roger Waters is readying his seventh studio album, Is This The Life We Really Want?, for release this Friday. It’s his first straight rock album since 1992’s Amused to Death, a 25-year span that has seen the world gradually inch closer to the one Waters presaged on his classic Pink Floyd albums like Animals and The Wall. So we figured it was a perfect time to look back at the best of the Floyd, in honor of Waters’s return to pedantic, anxious rock music. This summation was originally published on Oct. 20, 2011.

Of all the beloved bands we cover 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 was an album-oriented band and most of its best work (The Dark Side of the Moon, The Wall, Wish You Were Here) was designed to be absorbed as a single, cohesive unit.

All the same, many of the band’s songs are powerful enough to stand alone through the decades, so we want to celebrate the mind-melting individual highs of this unique, profound and relentlessly adventurous band, which 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’s 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’s 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’s 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’s 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”
ALBUM: Meddle
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”
ALBUM: Ummagumma
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 Suite”
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 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 their 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. Not always known for being the most 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.

12. “Sheep”
ALBUM: Animals
“Sheep” is the final segment of the dense, monolithic Animals and the third component of Waters’s bleak Orwellian concept, where he callously divides up the human race into dogs, pigs and sheep. Naturally, the “sheep” caste of humans are those 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 thanks to the immense stature of Dark Side, but 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’s 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.”

10. “Dogs”
ALBUM: Animals
The 17-minute journey of “Dogs” is the first warhorse conceptual piece of Animals, outlining Waters’s definition of one section of the human race. According to Waters, the dogs are the cutthroat people who have to screw over anyone and everyone to survive and achieve what they want, the implication being that it’s because of the aforementioned upper-crust “pigs” that they have to work so hard and reduce themselves to savages to get by. Later in the album, Waters seems to identify himself and his own group as part of the “dog” category, as alluded to in a lyric from Animals closer “Pigs on the Wing (Part 2)”: “So I don’t feel alone on the way to the stone / Now that I’ve found somewhere safe to bury my bone / And any fool knows a dog needs a home.” Musically, David Gilmour’s twin-guitar harmonies dominate the proceedings, providing a soaring, anthemic progression before the eerie synth-driven passage seeps in.

9. “The Happiest Days of Our Lives / Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)”
ALBUM: The Wall
Often remembered solely for its line “We don’t need no education” and misconstrued as an anti-intellectual slacker anthem, the most commercially successful hit of Pink Floyd’s career is actually more specific in meaning — it’s part of the storyline of The Wall, after all. In the case of “Another Brick in the Wall (Part II),” central character Pink faces abuse from strict, antagonistic teachers and an oppressive school system that looks to quash out any creative thought in the minds of its students. This means, then, that Waters is really decrying the narrow, rigid doctrines that schools often used to cling to, blaming them for turning out so many people who are apathetic and devoid of individuality. A disco-inflected tune with a simple yet effective bass groove, it’s David Gilmour’s blistering guitar solo that really elevates “Another Brick (Part II)” into the stratosphere. Short intro “The Happiest Days of Our Lives” is a prelude to the main theme, exploring what makes the bigoted schoolteachers the way they are.

8. “Money”
ALBUM: The Dark Side of the Moon
Responsible for establishing Pink Floyd as a commercial force in the U.S., “Money” gave Pink Floyd their first trans-Atlantic hit (despite the fact that the band never officially released it as a single). “Money” is perhaps most acclaimed for being one of the rare pop hits that isn’t in the standard 4/4 or 6/8 time signatures: Though David Gilmour’s fierce lead guitar passage reverts to a common time, the majority of the song rides on a dynamic bass riff in 7/8 time, resulting in a slightly off-kilter but still remarkably hummable groove. Lyrically, “Money” lampoons the modern world’s obsession with money and is a tongue-in-cheek look to the sad reality that money drives the vast majority of the decisions and actions of mankind—ironically, this sour take on money wound up making Pink Floyd just that, and enormous amounts of it too. For this reason, “Money” changed the inner chemistry of the band forever.

7. “Wish You Were Here”
ALBUM: Wish You Were Here
Perhaps Pink Floyd’s most fragile and emotionally tragic song, “Wish You Were Here” represented a rare instance where the band wrote the lyrics first and set music to them afterward. Built around a midtempo, melancholy acoustic chord progression, the song is Waters’ most personal ode to former close friend and bandmate Syd Barrett. As Wish You Were Here the album is steeped in an existential crisis and reaction to sudden superstardom and commercial success, the song can be seen as Waters’s desire to not let this sudden fame eclipse Barrett’s legacy and original vision, and the overt regret over the band’s original leader not being able to be present for it—literally and metaphorically—thus making it one of the weightiest songs of Pink Floyd’s career.

6. “Mother”
ALBUM: The Wall
Another crucial ingredient to The Wall’s concept and a key component of the wall Pink builds around himself, “Mother” is a sparse, understated acoustic song that solemnly recounts the negative consequences of an overbearing mother and the sheltered upbringing that results. Waters, whose mother raised him singlehandedly, seems to blame her in part for his problems, which has led to some criticism, but there is a kernel of undeniable truth in the song. He acknowledges on the album that the mother figure of The Wall “loves her baby” and has the best intentions, but the bottom line is that such an overprotective attitude inevitably instills fear of the outside world into the impressionable mind of a child. Since the crux of The Wall’s message is that fear builds walls, it makes for a bittersweet narrative with no easy resolution, echoed in the song’s final lament, “Mother, did it [the wall] need to be so high?” The film version is quite different, featuring an entirely orchestral, dramatic arrangement of the song.

5. “Us and Them”
ALBUM: The Dark Side of the Moon
Pink Floyd has a reputation as being a “space-rock” band, a moniker that tends to confuse casual fans of Pink Floyd (and non-fans): The group gets stuck with this label not because their songs are often about outer space, but because a key element that drives much of their best work is an attention to aural space in the music itself. “Us and Them,” the airy, relaxed centerpiece of The Dark Side of the Moon, is one of the best examples of Pink Floyd’s delicate touch and use of space, with a slow, gentle chord progression swirling atop a bass-pedal tone. The song’s power is amplified by a gigantic shift in dynamic from the calm, floaty verses to a thunderous chorus as well as emotive saxophone work from frequent collaborator Dick Parry. The lyrics of “Us and Them” are Pink Floyd at its most philosophical, searching for meaning in the futility of conflict and asking the crucial question of whether or not humanity is capable of truly being humane.

4. “Comfortably Numb”
ALBUM: The Wall
Throughout Pink Floyd’s catalog, David Gilmour is allowed plenty of moments to let his guitar skills shine, but nowhere does he play with such visceral power and energy as during his solos on “Comfortably Numb.” Often misinterpreted as a song about heroin use or drug use in general, the song actually details The Wall antihero Pink’s moment of breakdown, where he’s pushed beyond his mental limits and slips into full-fledged insanity. Waters’s sinister vocals in the verses, as the crooked doctor who injects Pink with a drug to render him able to play a show when the rock star has sunken into a hopeless state of burnout, contrast magically with Gilmour’s serene, distant vocals in the chorus. Gilmour’s guitar work that cements “Comfortably Numb” as a classic—his first solo filled with longing and sorrow, while the longer, darker second solo plays like a scorching retreat into mental collapse.

3. “Time”
ALBUM: The Dark Side of the Moon
Containing perhaps the finest lyrics in the Floyd canon, “Time” addresses a concern deep at the heart of anyone caught up in a hectic, overwhelming life, namely the constant, nagging fear that one day they’ll wake up and discover their entire life has passed them by, filled with regret at all the dreams and goals they were never able to achieve. Containing a majestic, beautifully rendered guitar solo from David Gilmour and shared vocals from Gilmour and Richard Wright, “Time” toys musically with the subject of the song itself by opening with the jarring din of alarm clocks (a perfect alarm in and of itself) and a sparse, patient introductory passage. There are way too many memorable lyrical lines in “Time,” but one of the most profound and affecting refers to the constant, unstoppable passage of time: “No one told you when to run / You missed the starting gun.” The official ending of “Time” is a reprise of “Breathe.”

2. “Echoes”
ALBUM: Meddle
A further maturation of the suite-oriented songwriting technique of “Atom Heart Mother,” “Echoes” is a completely balanced full-band composition that features the earliest signs of Pink Floyd’s grandiose, highly conceptual art-rock that would fully bloom two years later with The Dark Side of the Moon and subsequent albums. It’s the first song where Roger Waters begins to address more philosophical and universal concerns, grounded in the basic, primal connection all humans share at their core and the things that interfere with it. Also notable is the abstract midsection, featuring no real structure but rather a tapestry of instrumental effects that resemble whales, sirens and the rumbling of a stormy sea. The main riff, built around a distinctive descending chromatic pattern, will be recognizable to some as practically identical to the main motif used in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, which came out a full 13 years after “Echoes.” Waters has acknowledged the similarity in interviews and claims he could sue Webber for plagiarism (and he probably could), but he’s never taken the matter to court—perhaps because he’s burned out from the ugly legal turmoil between himself and his former bandmates.

1. “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”
ALBUM: Wish You Were Here
The two-part “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” Pink Floyd’s longest song and ultimate perfection of their suite-song technique, is the band’s magnum opus. Deliberately written as a final tribute to the fallen Syd Barrett, whom Roger Waters never directly wrote about after Wish You Were Here, “Shine On” sums up the influence and importance Barrett had on the members’ musical vision as well as the honest realization that the band could never have reached the heights they had if he hadn’t gone insane. This underlying message makes “Shine On” a rather ambivalent and certainly bittersweet ode, an acknowledgment that Barrett’s mental breakdown was tragic yet fundamental to the band’s music and story. The suite, actually divided into nine parts, is built from a mournful guitar arpeggio courtesy of David Gilmour and covers musical terrain ranging from a funk jam, a tempo-shifting saxophone solo and even a funereal dirge to close the piece. “Shine On” also has an unsettling piece of history attached to it: As acknowledged by all the members of Pink Floyd, Barrett actually showed up in the studio while the band was recording this lament about him. It was the first time any of them had seen him in years, and due to his drastically altered physical appearance nobody recognized him at first. When they finally realized it was Barrett, Waters was reportedly reduced to tears. This inexplicable alignment of events can only be explained by random circumstance, but such unlikely coincidence seems eerily supernatural and oddly befitting of a musical act as colossal and astral as Pink Floyd.

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