05. The Division Bell (1994)
The cover of 1994’s The Division Bell depicts two large, metallic heads pointed directly at one another, their profiles combining to form a third visage. Constructed in an English field by celebrated artist and longtime Floyd collaborator Storm Thorgerson, it is a perfect corollary to an album that’s all about connection and communication. Some fans and critics have postulated that these themes constitute an olive branch to estranged member Waters, but they’re actually more reflective of a collaborative recording process that saw the existing band members feeding off one another like they hadn’t for years. Gilmour, Mason, and Wright improvised with each other until they had arrived at dozens of possible songs, then voted democratically on the tracks to include on the album. The process wasn’t without its hiccups, but it was a welcome steadying of the ship and a definitive punctuation mark on the Waters era, even if purists balked at the idea of Gilmour’s wife helping him with the lyrics.
The result is indeed a more cohesive record than A Momentary Lapse of Reason. It’s also a welcome return to the dreamy, atmospheric soundscapes of an earlier Floyd; for the first time in nearly 20 years, the band had made an album that was easy to get utterly lost in. Which isn’t to say that The Division Bell has the same level of songcraft as The Wall and Wish You Were Here, but fans could at least rest assured that Gilmour-era Floyd had rediscovered something intrinsically theirs (and not, as is true with much of their ‘80s work, dominated by the personality of Waters). No song exemplifies this more than closer and album standout “High Hopes”, an eight-and-a-half-minute borderline masterpiece that revels in clanging percussion, cryptic vocals, and haunting strings.
04. Wish You Were Here (1975)
In a career of excellent, thoughtful album covers, the image that emblazons the front of 1975’s Wish You Were Here may be the best. Depicted are two businessmen shaking hands in a sunny, industrial alleyway, one of whom is engulfed in flames. What this photo represents is up to interpretation, but one could link it to a few band developments at the time: monetary success, creative disagreements amongst the four members, the pressure to followup Dark Side of the Moon, and/or the deterioration of Syd Barrett’s health. Either way, there’s a strong mournful undertone to Wish You Were Here. It may not be about death as its title, perhaps, suggests, but it’s hard to dispute the fact that the album is born out of some unshakable sense of longing.
On the goofy, groovy “Have A Cigar”, that sense of longing is associated with not having the pressures of fame and fortune. The song is, quite blatantly, about capitalism and the impurities associated with profiting from art. It’s even sung from the perspective of (what one can only assume is) a bloated, chain-smoking record executive. “Welcome to the Machine”, by comparison, feels like a thematic cousin to “Have A Cigar” only through a darker, seedier dystopian lens. “What did you dream/ It’s alright we told you what to dream,” Gilmour sings, like a possessed fascist pawn in a George Orwell novel.
Similar to Meddle, Wish You Were Here is buoyed by one long track: “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”. The first half of the song is the album’s opening cut; the last half is the closing cut. It’s probably the closest thing to a symphony in the Pink Floyd catalogue. However the finest, most concise moment of Wish You Were Here comes with its crushingly sad title track, which begins with Gilmour strumming an acoustic guitar along to the radio. It’s a strikingly human moment on an album that actively laments the inhumane artificiality of everything.
Wish You Were Here may not be the band’s best record, but it’s undoubtedly their most reflective one.
03. Animals (1977)
Sweet and slow, “Pigs on the Wing (Part One)” is a pleasant door chime for the Usherian house of social, political, and psychological drama the listener is about to enter. Loosely inspired by Orwell’s Animal Farm, Animals is perhaps the most ruthless attack on society and, well, everything Pink Floyd ever assembled. It’s no coincidence that it’s also the first album primarily written by Waters and an undercurrent of anxiety and anger is palpable.
“Dogs” offers an instructional parable for the aspiring Patrick Bateman. The playbook: ruthlessness is rewarded by some wealth and comfort before “dying of cancer alone.” Gilmour shines in an extended instrumental passage as his screeching tones (and echoing counterpoint) are woven beautifully with understated supporting work from the rest of the band. As the song progresses, self-consciousness awakens within the “dog”, and the bliss of the ignorant gives way to the terror of the aware. The weight of a life spent in mindless pursuit of capitalistic success is concretized, a stone composed of regret and pain. The song concludes as Waters chants out a list of accusations before finally condemning him, them, us, to death.
Pink Floyd’s skewering of capitalistic Britain gets no cheerier with “Pigs (Three Different Ones)”. It throws a funky but curled fist at the capitalists running the show. Gilmour once again prevails as he weaves his churlish guitar around some overdone (and unironic) cowbell. Meanwhile, Waters leaves his mark in the derisive chorus of “Haha, charade you are.”
On “Sheep”, Wright and Waters combine forces for the band’s sleekest organ/bass combo in their oeuvre. Set at a ripping tempo, it’s perfectly paced for the tale of slaughter, revolution ,and redemption. Our sheep have teeth, they bite back, and the dogs are dead. But ultimately, new boss = old boss. The song concludes as Gilmour outdoes himself, launching wave after wave of defiant chords.
Animals offered zero moral complexity and set the stage for Waters’ inward turn/exploration that would ultimately manifest as the transcendent The Wall.
02. The Wall (1979)
The Wall is the most cinematic experience ever committed to an album — and also one of the darkest. The dream of being a rock star is mercilessly shattered as the once-charming Pink becomes a raving monster, consumed by his insecurities and the alienation of excess. Amidst sing-a-long rock tracks, mood pieces, and sound effects, the record’s complex narrative bounces between flashbacks and nightmares with an unreliable narrator at the center. In different hands, the concept would’ve proven too lofty and amorphous to succeed, but Floyd, at the height of their success, forged an album and stage show the likes of which none have matched since.
The record was fueled by Waters’ personal torments as well as the tragedy of Syd Barrett’s burn out. Rather than being burdened by the semi-autobiographical austerity, The Wall becomes more relatable even as the protagonist struggles with crippling emotional distance. Rebelling against school, struggling with an overbearing mother, living in the shadow of a dead father, and even emasculation, Waters channeled a generation of British youth looking for meaning in the excess of the modern age and in a culture famous for bottling up its emotions.
With The Wall, we see the height of Water’s creative tenure directing Pink Floyd. Even with the partial departure of Wright, the record is still definitively cut from the band’s sonic cloth. From the heart-wrenching confessions of “Comfortably Numb”, to the inappropriately uplifting chords of “Run Like Hell”, and the eerie tranquility of “Goodbye Blue Skies”, the songwriting is razor sharp and the auditory spectacle is as impressive as the day it debuted. The Wall brings narrative concept records to an emotional and theatrical pinnacle. It’s a visceral ride, but one that rewards with each successive listen.
01. The Dark Side of the Moon (1973)
Pink Floyd’s best album also happens to be their most accessible conceptually, a record that lacks the angry, political bent of The Wall, the wistful Syd Barrett recollections on Wish You Were Here, or the unfocused psychedelia of their earlier material. Instead, Dark Side of the Moon is about the mundane: breathing, wasting time, making money, and death. There are no protagonists, antagonists, or grand narratives; the album’s so universally loved because it is, in fact, so universal. It’s a blank canvas for anyone with a pulse.
On a smaller scale, though, it’s filled with brilliant sonic and stylistic decisions that stand the test of time. There’s Wright’s gorgeous piano tinkling on “Us and Them”, the burbling, stutter-stepping synths on “Any Colour You Like”, the pummeling transition from 7/4 to 4/4 time on “Money”, the gospel-tinged backing vocals on “Brain Damage”, and, of course, the little bits of spoken word dialogue that play throughout the record.
Dark Side of the Moon, though, peaks at its very end with “Eclipse”, where the record’s themes of minutiae comes full circle. “All that is now/ All that is gone/ All that’s to come/ Everything under the sun is in tune/ But the sun is eclipsed by the moon,” sings Waters. In essence, our everyday lives, though important to us, amount to nothing on a wider, grander scale. At the same time, what exactly does exist on that “wider, grander scale” is unbeknownst to us. So we stay concerned with the small things: breathing, wasting time, making money, and eventually, our own deaths.
“There is no dark side of the moon, really. Matter of fact it’s all dark,” says an extraneous voice at one point. Who knew Floyd’s most poignant statement could also be so stark and beautifully obvious?