10. The Final Cut (1983)
To rank The Final Cut as a part of Pink Floyd’s discography is simply to acknowledge that some of the band had a hand in ushering the record into being. The album began as a follow-up to The Wall – confronting additional themes and leftover material that Waters wasn’t finished handling. However, the rest of the band was very much done with it. Officially it is “The Final Cut: A Requiem for the Post-War Dream by Roger Waters, performed by Pink Floyd” with all members but Waters merely being players in his grand project. All that said, the record is a powerful artistic statement and remains one of the songwriter’s finest works.
Waters perceived the onset of the Falklands War as a betrayal of the soldiers who gave their lives for England in World War II. The Final Cut explores the sacrifice of soldiers, both physically and emotionally, and the cost of perpetuating war: inevitable nuclear holocaust. It’s a haunting, heartfelt record that humanizes the plight of the ex-military in ways seldom represented. Musically, the album embodies the complexity and rage of its subject matter. While “Not Now John” comes off as silly in the grand scheme of the album, tracks like “The Final Cut”, the song cycle of “The Hero’s Return” and “The Gunner’s Dream”, and the revisionist inclusion of The Wall B-side “When the Tigers Broke Free” are powerful and well-crafted songs that build into a profound, if not sobering, listening experience.
09. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)
Captured here is one of the last beautiful flares born of the psychedelic moment. Piper at the Gates of Dawn is a classic of psychedelic rock and contains examples of the best and worst of the much derided genre. At the helm is mad-genius Syd Barrett, whose candle surely burned too bright. His tenure as leader of Pink Floyd was short lived but his fingerprints are all over Piper. The album swings wildly between freak-out jam instrumentals and sudden shifts into Sgt. Pepper-esque pop music. Even at this album’s most navel-gazingly trippy, the exceptional musicianship and compositions that would define the band’s later work are evident, if hazy. Album opener “Astronomy Domine” would become a live staple and demonstrate the band’s epic instrumental power. Tracks like “Lucifer Sam” and the crazed carnival-esque “Bike”, show that Pink Floyd were never strangers to the pleasures of pop sensibilities and could write a hook with the best of them. Today, Piper at the Gates of Dawn feels uneven, almost schizophrenic. With the benefit of hindsight we see that this is no illusion and Barrett, and the band, were in fact unraveling at the seams.
08. A Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987)
The first and lesser of the two Gilmour-led Floyd albums, A Momentary Lapse of Reason is the work of a band in the midst of a seismic transition. It’s also a massive break from the album that precedes it, The Final Cut, which saw Waters taking the helm and dominating the performance and composition to an almost laughable degree. Waters left the band shortly after the release of The Final Cut, leaving Floyd without one half of its visionary core.
Gilmour was left to shoulder the weight of songwriting on A Momentary Lapse of Reason, and he responded by leaning heavily on material he had recorded for his third solo effort. This probably explains why the album feels a bit slapdash at times and lacks a strong, unifying theme—usually a prerequisite for a Pink Floyd record. Freshly resigned and embroiled in a legal dispute with his former band members, Waters predictably hated the album and, though far from unbiased, he wasn’t entirely incorrect in his criticism.
Songs like “The Dogs of War” sound like pale imitations of the band’s Dark Side of the Moon era, relying too much on the same dynamics to feel surprising in the least. And both chapters of “A New Machine” date themselves with a Frampton-esque “talk box” effect that’s both unnecessary and annoying. Still, Floyd’s trademark atmospherics are largely in place here, and they sound more on the same page in the wake of Waters’ departure.
Though far from essential listening, A Momentary Lapse sees the band transitioning into a brave new era with a drunken kind of grace.
07. Meddle (1971)
1971’s Meddle is a record of progress, the first album where the iconic Pink Floyd sound, perhaps, finally snaps into focus. It is not as complete or well-rounded as Dark Side of the Moon, as emotional as Wish You Were Here, or as pissed-off as Animals or The Wall, but it is, perhaps, the earliest example of the band forgoing their love of madcap experimentation in favor of a concise music-making ethos. And they manage to spread it across an entire album.
Songs like “San Tropez” and “Fearless” feel like full-realized pop songs, with gorgeous melodies, discernible structures and lyrics that don’t just serve as mere texture. “Sooner than wait for a break in the weather/ I’ll gather my far flung thoughts together/ Speeding away on a wind to a new day/ If you’re alone I’ll come home,” sings Roger Waters on “San Tropez” underneath the soft, jazzy strums of an acoustic guitar. His lyrics punctuate another important theme on Meddle, which is the concept of the pastoral. While past Floyd albums exist more in a psychedelic haze than in any particular place, Meddle is a rural record that dwells in wide, open spaces.
The most striking example of this sense of “space” comes on the record’s final track: the monstrous, multi-part, 23-minute opus “Echoes”. “Overhead the albatross hangs motionless upon the air/ And deep beneath the rolling waves in labyrinths of coral caves,” sing Gilmour and Wright, their voices interlocked and effortlessly wispy. In many ways, “Echoes” is the turning point in the Pink Floyd canon, the culmination of everything that came before it and the “starting gun” for everything that will follow.
Like the rest of Meddle, it’s beautiful, airy, and ripe with pastoral imagery. But it’s also otherworldly and downright frightening in places, specifically during Wright’s wailing keyboard movement midway through the song, which eventually feeds back into the central melody. In essence, it’s a little bit of everything, all of which is damn good and distinct in its own right.
06. A Saucerful of Secrets (1968)
Today we know that psychedelia isn’t all “Summer of Love” flower power and meditative affirmation. In the wrong hands, and over done, the psychedelic experience can quickly turn into a terrifying roller coaster ride through the Haunted Mansion of our greatest fears and anxieties. In 1967 and 1968, Syd Barrett, and by extension his Pink Floyd bandmates, were experiencing the awful anguish of a troubled mind ravaged by excessive drug use. During the recording of Saucerful of Secrets, Barrett’’s increasingly erratic behavior led the other members of Pink Floyd to find a more reliable guitarist. Enter David Gilmour, who in the process of recording this album would leave his mark, becoming a full time member, as Barrett was escorted out.
“Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” stands as the only recorded track of Pink Floyd as a five-piece, featuring both Barrett and Gilmour on guitar. The song is a stunning early example of the band’s incredible, sometimes terrifying power. At the center of the album, it shows how the band could do “less is more” and “more is more” with equal skill. This song is followed by “Corporal Clegg”, a song penned by Waters that demonstrates how early he was at work draping vicious social and political attacks in swaths of pop sweetness. Over the next decade, he would refine this method, eventually erupting in the anger and anxiety of Animals, The Wall, and The Final Cut.
Album closer“Jugband Blues” is appropriately the last song Barrett would contribute to the band. Its wild-tinged pop melody and eccentric structure stands as a suitable farewell to the wild influence of the increasingly unstable performer. When Barrett sings “I don’t know who is writing this song,” it is not psychedelic identity play, but a thinly veiled cry for help. With A Saucerful of Secrets, we leave behind the psychedelic experimentation of the 1960s and a mature Pink Floyd emerges, ready to redefine the power and purpose of rock music in the 1970s.