To celebrate this week’s release of the Pet Shop Boys outstanding new single, “Thursday”, I thought it would be interesting to rank the English duo’s best albums. Given the group’s pop sensibilities, they are typically considered a “singles band” and given their vast numbers of pop hits it’s not hard to fault this line of thinking. That thinking is especially timely given that three of their four singles this year are among their best ever (the previously mentioned “Thursday”, video shown below, and the previously blogged about “Axis” and “Vocal.”).
But to truly appreciate the Pet Shop Boys you really need to dig into their albums for songs that often deal with more complex topics than is typical in a single release. Musically, there’s often an opportunity to “stretch” as well. And in my mind the best albums follow some sort of theme or at the very least pull together a great collection of songs.
For my criteria I eliminated collections of previously released songs. This meant that 1995’s amazing B-sides collection, Alternative, wasn’t able to make the cut. But, as an “album” you typically are looking at what the record says about “right now” musically or at least what’s going on with the group and so compilations don’t really make it.
10. Nightlife - 1999. A pretty uneven record, though there are some highlights that are amongst the group’s seminal efforts. Two non-single tracks in particular, “Radiophonic” and “In Denial” (duet with Kylie Minogue), are among my favorites. The club-oriented “For Your Own Good” opens the album that leaned in an urban/disco direction.
9. Very - 1993. More dance oriented than the group’s 1990 mellow downer, Behaviour. The record embraces current dance trends and avoids being a rehash of their late 1980’s sound. Check out the rich arrangements of “The Theatre” and “Young Offender.”
8. Yes - 2009. After two very uneven efforts, the Pet Shop Boys returned with a contemporary album featuring one of their best singles in years, “Love, etc.”
7. Relentless - 1993. An EP of sorts that was paired with Very as a special edition release. The tracks here are very club oriented and electronic to the extreme. Some songs feature very little vocal content. The song “We Came From Outer Space” definitely is well named, though my favorite track is “KDX 125″ (named after a motorcyle, not a synthesizer).
6. Introspective - 1988. An interesting album that featured “long versions” of songs that were eventually released in shorter versions as singles. Features the group’s last big US hit, “Domino Dancing” as well as their good time anthem “It’s Alright.”
5. Bilingual - 1996. There a pronounced Latin influence on this album, with outstanding tracks such as “Discoteca” and “Se A Vida E (That’s The Way Life Is).” A great example of the more complex material you’ll find in a non-single track is provided by “Metamorphosis” which describes Neil Tennant realizing “he was that kind of guy” and includes an always-welcome vocal appearance by keyboardist Chris Lowe. The lyrics and musical themes are extremely tight on this album.
4. Disco - 1986. Smart readers might consider this album to break my “no compilation” criteria, though the album pre-dated the single releases for a re-recorded version of “Suburbia” as well as Chris Lowe’s signature vocal appearance with “Paninaro.” So, in a way, the singles did function in a way to promote the upcoming album release. In any case, Disco was the prime example of how the Pet Shop Boys embraced dance sensibilities rather than “careerist sensibilities” as well as highlighting their single remixes to a more mainstream audience.
3. Actually - 1987. This album probably has the strongest selection of singles from any album, including “It’s a Sin” and “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” There’s some great material here, including the UK singles “Rent” and “Heart”, plus a great re-recording of their original B-side “One More Chance.” It’s a great album but some of the album tracks including “Shopping” and “Hit Music” weigh down the rating just a tad.
2. Electric - 2013. The group’s most thematically solid album ever. And for someone who prefers the “dancy” records to the “theatrical” ones this is maybe the group’s best ever representation of that kind of material. As noted, this album has some of the group’s best singles ever, plus some outstanding non-single tracks including “Inside a Dream” and the Bruce Springsteen cover “The Last to Die.”
1. Please - 1986. One might look at this album and think the sound is pretty uniform and thus penalize it for not trying to branch out into different musical directions. Or you might look at how you could reorder the tracks to tell the story of life in London in the mid 1980s. You know the singles such as “West End Girls” and “Love Comes Quickly” but equally excellent are album tracks such as “I Want a Lover” and “Tonight is Forever.”
I heard a version of this remix when Jacques Lu Cont opened for the Pet Shop Boys last week. It sounded similar to this remix by Aeroplane. It’s a killer track from The Human League’s 2011 album Credo and does a great job of combining the group’s signature synth-based sound with some modern touches. Love the driving beat and synth riffs in this remix.
You can compare the remix to the original version of the song, which features an incredible music video:
Franz Ferdinand’s last album Tonight was my favorite album of 2009 and their 2009 single “No You Girls” was my most-listened track of the year as well. The band has been quietly working on new material and is set to release Right Thoughts Right Words Right Action (iTunes link) at the end of the month.
The lead single is the title track of sort, “Right Action.” This is by no means a reinvention of the Franz Ferdinand sound, though I do sense a tiny bit of a funky undertone in this toe-tapping number that’s a bit new for the Scottish post-punk revival pioneers. I like the sitar as well. This is a killer track but honestly the music video completely overshadows the song with some great visual design and use of color. Check it out!
Another track from Right Thoughts Right Words Right Action is “Love Illumination”, which I also happen to find engaging. The music video for this one is pretty interesting too.
One of the pleasant surprises of our Globus Best of Switzerland trip was an optional excusion to Lauterbrunnen Valley to see the Trummelbach Falls. I had read about this valley as being very similar to Yosemite, and knew were going to be very close in the city of Interlaken. Thus, I was pleased that an excursion to this valley was added to the optional itinerary for our tour.
The photos don’t really do it justice, but this one here taken with my iPhone I hope gives you a sense of the spectacular beauty of the valley.
The attraction we attended in the valley was the Trummelbach Falls (or, Truemmelbachfaelle if you prefer). These falls include portions inside the mountain and thanks to an elevator and stairs you can get a close-up view of these inside portions. It was amazing to see, so I took a top-to-bottom video of the falls.
Last year I did something I haven’t done in… well, actually, something I’ve never done. Which was to not buy the new Pet Shop Boys album. Yep, I’ve got every single studio and remix album dating back to their 1986 debut, Please. Of course the group’s heyday was in the late 1980s but I’ve liked all their albums since then, though certainly some (1996’s Bilingual) were better than others (2006’s Fundamental). Some of the recent singles such as “Love, etc.” (2009) and “Miracles” (2003) were among their best ever.
But when I sampled 2012’s Elysium, I was completely underwhelmed. Lots of slow and atmospheric songs that also veered more than typical into “theatrical” style. The songs were not that catchy (which is bad for a pop group). So last Fall, for the first time ever, I didn’t buy the album or even the singles.
I think I might not have been alone because not too long after the release, the Pet Shop Boys announced they would be releasing a new album in summer 2013. After nearly two decades of three or four year gaps between albums, the group would release a new album less than year after their last one. Unprecedented. (In an interesting aside, No Doubt is following the same plan by going back into the studio after their 2012 album wasn’t well received).
Would the group change tactics for this new album? Well, the album name is Electric, which bodes well for those of us who’ve always preferred the strong dance material to the slower ballads. The first track to be released is an outstanding club track called “Axis.” There’s not a lot of lyrical content there, though it’s always special when keyboardist Chris Lowe makes a rare appearance with vocals (as with most cases, processed vocals). Musically, and visually in the video, this song says to their electronic fans, “we’re back.” It has guys dancing with bull heads! Amazing.
Even better is the second single, “Vocal.” This is a more traditional pop song but still has a energetic beat. For longtime Pet Heads, it’ll remind you both lyrically and musically of 1989’s underrated single “It’s Alright.” Hopeful, optimistic, and a song you can dance to. Great stuff.