If Led Zeppelin were the band most responsible for hard rock’s vertical expansion in the ’70s, hitting previously unforeseeable heights for the genre, Pink Floyd were the band that expanded it the most horizontally.
Obviously, they stretched out the length — double albums, side-long jams, songs that had more movements and ideas than entire LPs by other bands. But they also broadened the music’s width, with one of the most far-reaching musical palettes of any band approaching their magnitude. Starting with the Syd Barrett-stewarded kaleidoscopic psychedelia Piper at the Gates of Dawn in 1967 — a half-century old this Saturday (Aug. 5) — the band showed a truly staggering artistic flexibility and open-eared inventiveness, for which they remain oddly underrated in an era that increasingly views them as stodgy, cerebral rock puritans.
Yes, they set the standard for college-dorm stoner rock with the prismatic prog of The Dark Side of the Moon, but in between the LP’s space-rock zone-outs are a pulse-racing proto-EDM instrumental, a heart-stopping soul vocal exorcism and a couple ripping sax solos. Yes, Wish You Were Here is overwhelmed by a combined 26 minutes and nine movements of jazzy art-funking (and no shortage of fretting about The Machine), but it’s also centered around the profound humanity of one of the great tear-jerking ballads in rock history. Yes, the ’77 punk movement largely followed in response to the overblown pomposity of their ilk, but play Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols and Animals back to back and see which one sounds more like a bilious screed from a bunch of pissed-off Britons who don’t give a f–k what their fans want to hear. And yes, The Wall was a monstrous double-LP statement of egomania from which there was no returning, but the set’s rock operatics couldn’t obscure the most seamless integration of disco’s thump that any major rock band had yet achieved — resulting in a Hot 100 No. 1 rock fans didn’t even bother to cry “sell out!” over.
With their debut album turning 50 this week, we’ve decided to count down our choices for the 50 best Pink Floyd songs — from the proggiest to the poppiest to the most psychedelic, and the mini-masterpieces that were all three and more. Shine on, you lunatic vegetable men.
50. “On the Run” (The Dark Side of the Moon, 1973)
A fascinatingly ahead of its time interstitial: “On the Run” basically feels like interstellar chase music, or a decade-early soundtrack for the action scenes in TRON, or “Flight of the Bumblebee” as imagined by Giorgio Moroder. Not much song here to speak of, exactly, but the number of doors-of-perception this must’ve opened for music fans in the early ’70s is hard to fathom.
49. “One of My Turns” (The Wall, 1979)
Careful with that axe, Roger! The Pink Floyd frontman’s screaming-in-a-hotel-room voice would well wear out its welcome by the time he left the band a half-decade later — if not by the end of The Wall‘s 81 minutes — but the first time it tears through one of the album’s more sedate-seeming tracks (“Would you like to learn to fly?/ WOULD YA LIKE TO SEE ME TRY??”), it’s legitimately unnerving.
48. “Double O Bo” (The Early Years 1965-’72, 2016)
Originally recorded in 1965 and not officially released for another half century, “Double O Bo” saw the band tributing early hero Bo Diddley in typically perverse fashion: With a mutant Diddley groove and a narrative about Bo as a super-cool super agent who drinks himself to death. It would soon never define them again, but you wish the band coulda carried at least a crumb of this smart-alecky inside-jokiness into their brutally self-serious dominant period.
47. “The Gunner’s Dream” (The Final Cut, 1983)
Speaking of brutally self-serious — 1983’s The Final Cut required a major emotional investment in spending time in Roger Waters’ headspace to make it through all 46 somber, self-indulgent minutes. Occasionally the on-record majesty approaches the drama storming in Waters’ brain, though, as on “The Gunner’s Dream,” a Spectoral ballad with Springsteen-like stakes (and sax!) and a relatively poignant lyric about a gunner’s peaceful fantasies (“You can relax on both sides of the tracks”) in the seconds before his shot-down plane crashes to his death.
46. “Take It Back” (The Division Bell, 1994)
In this case, “It” appears to apply to the eternally ringing style of guitar patented by The Edge of U2, but arguably pioneered by Floyd six-string wizard David Gilmour on The Wall‘s “Run Like Hell.” In any event, U2 certainly wasn’t using it while in the thick of their Zooropa Eurotrash period, so good on Gilmour to reclaim it for The Division Bell‘s convincingly righteous lead single — with a pretty solid Bono impression to boot, as he becomes one with the emotional elements (“All of this temptation, you know it turned my faith to lies/ Until I couldn’t see the danger or hear the rising tide”).
45. “Vegetable Man” (The Early Years, 1965-1972, 2016)
Another long-buried early Floyd treasure, though by this one Syd Barrett had self-actualized as the psychedelic cult figure who would gain an immense following at the cost of his own mind: “Vegetable Man” is near-total delirium, a stomping, directionless garage-rock number that’s half fashion satire and half lonerist cry for help, the song becoming more confused about its own identity as it goes. It’s a transfixing mess, and despite going unreleased for nearly 50 years, the song developed enough of a legend through fan bootlegs to get covered by ’80s underground heroes The Soft Boys and The Jesus and Mary Chain.
44. “Nobody Home” (The Wall, 1979)
A ballad of legitimate tenderness on The Wall‘s third side, essentially a more unhinged version of ELO’s “Telephone Line,” as the story’s rock star anti-hero goes stir crazy alone among his possessions and yearns over twinkling piano to dial up some kind of human connection. “I’ve got 13 channels of s–t on the TV to choose from,” Waters-as-Pink laments, reminding you just how long ago 1979 was.
43. “Not Now John” (The Final Cut, 1983)
Something of a “Young Lust” retread, to be sure — Gilmour’s guitar solo even starts off identically — but the performance is committed and gritty enough, and it’s so nice to hear a voice besides Waters’ on The Final Cut‘s back end, that Gilmour’s growl “Not Now John” is lent a disproportionate kind of energy and urgency. Definitely the best use of the F word on a Pink Floyd record, at least: “Oi! Wheres’ the f–king bar, John??“
42. “Paintbox” (B-side, 1967)
The flip side to “Apples and Oranges,” the band’s final Barrett-written single, and almost undoubtedly the superior composition: Floyd keyboardist Rick Wright wrote and sang this one, a psych-pop nugget melodic and creative enough to have made it to The Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle. “I feel as if I’m remembering this scene before/ I open the door to an empty room, then I forget,” Wright sings, unintentionally predicting at least two of their ’70s concept albums in the process.
41. “Wot’s… Uh the Deal” (Obscured By Clouds, 1972)
Pink Floyd had an underrated acoustic rock period in between tapping out on psych-rock excess with the execrable Atom Heart Mother and going full future-rock with Dark Side. “Wot’s… Uh the Deal” is a lovely mid-tempo strummer from the mostly delightful Obscured By Clouds that pictures a version of Floyd casual and sun-soaked and preternaturally tuneful enough to have played Classic East last weekend — not their best-case scenario, but an intriguing alternate history.
40. “A Saucerful of Secrets” (Live) (Ummagumma, 1969)
Takes over seven minutes for this one to hit its groove, but that’s nothing for late-’60s Pink Floyd — especially on this superior 13-minute live version of the Saucerful of Secrets title track, from the experimental Ummagumma double LP. It’s worth the wait, anyway — by the time the full band takes flight in the instrumental’s final quarter, the outright sorcery being conjured is enough to inspire a stadium full of raised gothic candles.
39. “Any Colour You Like” (The Dark Side of the Moon, 1973)
Wright’s time to shine on Dark Side, his synth beams taking center stage for the most arresting sections of the short instrumental — though there’s plenty of time for Gilmour’s guitar to raise its own talking points in between. Like “On the Run,” not quite a fully fleshed song, but vital connective tissue for one of the most fluid LPs ever assembled, and undeniable proof that goddamn it, this album really needed its own friggin’ laser show.
38. “Lucifer Sam” (Piper At the Gates of Dawn, 1967)
Pink Floyd’s post-“Double O Bo” version of stereophonic spy music, tense and alluring, about the coolest cat that Syd Barrett knew — in this case, an actual cat, his pet Siamese. “That cat’s something I can’t explain!” he exclaims on the refrain, stopping the song in its tracks, and a world of frustrated feline owners nods in resigned recognition.
37. “Cymbaline” (More, 1969)
A sublime song about a nightmare: Over sweet-sounding Farfisa organ and lush bass and bongos, Gilmour sings “The ravens all are closing in/ And there’s nowhere you can hide,” before unveiling the song’s true villains: “Your manager and agent are both busy on the phone/ Selling coloured photographs to magazines back home.” Welcome to the machine, boys.
36. “Mother” (The Wall, 1979)
A moderately overwrought power ballad from side one of The Wall that became a somewhat unlikely classic rock staple and remains one of the least appropriate songs to sneak its way onto Mother’s Day playlists every year. The song leans in a little too far into its more sarcastic moments (“Mama’s gonna wait up until you get in/ Mama will always find out where you’ve been”) but is much more affecting in Pink’s “Mother will she break my heart?” (and in the film, “Mother, am I really dying?”) questioning, the scared-little-boy side of Waters’ persona still obviously a source of real rawness for the singer.
35. “Welcome to the Machine” (Wish You Were Here, 1975)
Not necessarily the easiest song in the Floyd catalog to defend, particularly against those who view the band as nothing more than pandering fare for 14-year-olds who think they’re the first person to compare high school to a fascist regime. Yeah, but those sonics — where else are you gonna hear bass that throbs like muscle pain, acoustic chords where every individual note stabs like an icicle to the back, or synths that shoot off like laser fireworks in the post-Skynet sky? A compelling case that sometimes, we all gotta engage with that inner easily-mind-blown teen and do a little anti-machine raging.
34. “High Hopes” (The Division Bell, 1994)
The Division Bell: a lot better than you remember! The band made the curious decision to significantly backload the album, though — with all three singles coming on the second side — so you have to sit through a whole lot of new-age noodling before you get to the actual song-songs. But the finest of ’em comes at the end, when the clanging church bells of the “Lost for Words” outro give way to the blood-curdling piano plinks of “High Hopes,” a dolorous retrospective epic that’s maybe a little more “Silent Lucidity” than “Comfortably Numb,” but still comes the closest to the cinematic grandeur of classic Floyd than any other song since The Wall came down.
33. “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” (Animals, 1977)
Maybe not quite enough musical and lyrical ideas to sustain 11:25 — takes a long time to even get past the “Ha-ha, charade you are!” refrain — but a worthy sequel to the slop-funk chug of the previous album’s “Have a Cigar,” and the only Pink Floyd song to maximize the potential of the most ’70s of all instruments, the cowbell. Would you believe Roger Waters resorts to Donald Trump imagery when he plays the song live now?
The beginning to one of the most famous albums in rock history pretty successfully lays the groundwork for what’s to come, with the “Speak to Me” intro essentially acting as a teaser trailer for the album’s action highlights (the “Money” cash register, the “Brain Damage” cackle) and the sighing guitar slides of “Breathe” establishing the album’s gorgeous Neil Young-across-the-fifth-dimension core jamminess. “Don’t be afraid to care,” Gilmour advises, words the band would either ignore or follow way too closely later in their career, depending on your perspective.
31. “Is There Anybody Out There?” (The Wall, 1979)
It could’ve very easily been plot filler, but exemplary production and some heart-rending arrangements make “Is There Anybody Out There?” one of the most stunning tracks on The Wall. The synths and sirens that swirl imposingly around Waters’ panicked exhortations of the track’s title — the song’s only lyrics — give it an incredibly evocative post-apocalyptic ambiance, and the plucked acoustics and weeping strings that follow end the song with totally unexpected sensitivity, making it a transition track more rewarding than the full song it leads into.
30. “Arnold Layne” (Single, 1967)
The first Pink Floyd A-side, a catchy third-person character study that was too warped, inside-jokey and musically unpredictable for anyone to possibly mistake it for the Kinks. Probably hard to guess from this one that its creators would go on to sell over 250 million records worldwide, but by the time it got to its classic closing couplet — “Arnold Layne/ Don’t do it a-gain!” — you had to know something was up with these guys.
Unfolding with a guitar phrase adapted from The Beatles’ “Dear Prudence,” the “Brain Damage” / “Eclipse” conclusion to Dark Side seems to see Pink Floyd making peace with their former leader, winking at Syd’s madness (“And if the band you’re in starts playing different tunes”) and acknowledging they’ll all likely be joining him there soon enough (“I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon”). But of course, the band lets a recording of their damn doorman undercut the album’s whole scheme at the end of “Eclipse”: “There is no dark side of the moon, really. Matter of fact, it’s all dark.”
28. “In the Flesh?” (The Wall, 1979)
“So ya thought ya might like to… go to the show?” Though it hardly ended up one of its most famous tracks, “In the Flesh?” is the best kickoff The Wall could’ve asked for, Waters-as-Pink literally shouting stage directions as he cues the album’s grand production, with Gilmour’s soaring riffs and Wright’s glowing organs giving him all the backing he could possibly need from the pit. By song’s end, the dive-bombers are humming, the babies are crying, and the audience is silently screaming from the rafters.
27. “Free Four” (Obscured By Clouds, 1972)
P. Rex! Pink Floyd didn’t exactly have a ton of natural overlap with the concurrent glam rock explosion as they finished their own ascent to U.K. rock primacy, but this Obscured By Clouds single borrows Electric Warrior‘s jaunty handclaps and hip-swaying boogie — though it’s clearly set apart by a searing Gilmour mini-solo, a gently foreboding Waters vocal (“You are the angel of death!“) and synth bombs detonated at the end of each line by Wright. It’s a fiendish concoction, and one of the most purely likeable things the Floyd did in the ’70s.
26. “Astronomy Domine” (Piper at the Gates of Dawn, 1967)
Appropriate that the first song to ever appear on a Pink Floyd LP should begin with the sound of their manager reading the names of the planets over a megaphone, and unfold with zooming guitars, Morse code synths, pounding drums and disembodied vocals. The band would find many new and innovative ways to ready their brew for mass consumption — and its been rightly pointed out that the band never really sang about space that much after this — but all the ingredients for their mega-success were still pretty much right there from the beginning.
25. “Echoes” (Meddle, 1971)
Not the first strap-yourself-in-folks Pink Floyd song by any means — “Atom Heart Mother” ran about ten seconds longer, and they’d hit double-digit minutes on a couple others even before that. Still, Meddle closer “Echoes” feels like a eureka moment for the band, the first time they’d had a central motif (that monster proto-Phantom of the Opera riff) strong enough to build ten-plus minutes of music around, and the first time they’d matched it with an ambient breakdown section (the whale-sounds middle) that was compelling enough in its own right to wade through until the hook’s return. It might not captivate for all 23-plus minutes, but it came impressively close, an early demonstration of a band on the verge of one of the most limitless musical runs in rock history.
24. “Goodbye Blue Sky” (The Wall, 1979)
A brief Blitz ballad with some of the most heavenly harmonies acoustic picking of the band’s career, the serenity of the main refrain chillingly undercut by the creeping synths and shellshocked lyrics (“Did-did-did you see the falling bombs?“) on the verses. They may have nicked the outro melody from the chorus to The Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday” from a decade earlier, but “Sky” ended up lending the main riff to Def Leppard’s “Hysteria” a decade later, so it evens out.
23. “Dogs” (Animals, 1977)
The 17-minute proper entre to Animals, complete with Call of the Wild-meets-Wolf of Wall Street survival-of-the-fittest lyrics, extended sections of guitar-lead harmonizing, heart-racing acoustics, several tempo changes, and yes, no shortage of barking sounds from the title characters. Sounds exhausting, but it surprisingly isn’t — least not until the very final “who was…” lyrical checklist — as the song’s discrete sections all stand out as individually arresting, and hand off to the next at seemingly just the right moment, with enough memorable lyrical checkpoints from Waters and Gilmour to mark time and maintain interest throughout.
22. “The Nile Song” (More, 1969)
As purely heavy (musically, if not thematically) as Pink Floyd ever got, with a rave-up so scorching you can practically feel the acid dripping off the guitars, and production so fuzzy you’d never guess the unnerving sonic spotlessness of A Momentary Lapse of Reason lay within the band’s next two decades. It’s not what Floyd was best at, obviously, but it’s a much more persuasive argument for the band as a potential Blue Cheer or early Who rival than you’d expect, and it makes you feel a little bad for Gilmour and drummer Nick Mason that they didn’t get to play Roger Daltrey and Keith Moon more often.
21. “The Great Gig in the Sky” (The Dark Side of the Moon, 1973)
Perhaps an “interlude” by virtue of being entirely wordless — minus the well-chosen “I am not frightened of dying” spoken-word sample in the song’s intro — but still one of the most memorable tracks on Dark Side, thanks to one of Rick Wright’s greatest spotlight piano riffs and a stop-the-world, non-verbal vocal from soul singer Clare Torry. Despite coaxing her to classic-rock immortality through her solo, the sessions for “Great Gig” were about as awkward as you’d expect, Waters recounting the recording in ’03: “Clare came into the studio one day, and we said, ‘There’s no lyrics. It’s about dying – have a bit of a sing on that, girl.'”
20. “Have a Cigar” (Wish You Were Here, 1975)
The definitive mid-tempo Floyd lurch, sleazy quasi-funk that sets the perfect stage for the surfeit of empty promises and self-skewering ignorance (“Oh and by the way — which one’s Pink?”) offered by the song’s music-exec narrator, portrayed with delectable vulgarity by guest singer Roy Harper. And no matter how many times you’ve heard it, nothing ever really prepares you for that shocking whoosh near song’s end that sonically transports the band — in the middle of one of Gilmour’s all-time closing shreds — into a tinny FM radio, leaving them seemingly trapped inside the dial, as they no doubt felt they were by that point in the mid-’70s.
19. “Hey You” (The Wall, 1979)
The opener to side three of The Wall, and early proof that Floyd had the stuff to maintain two LPs worth of enthralling riffs and structural imagination. Doesn’t exactly kick the record off with a bang — the slithering mix of acoustic guitar and fretless bass (by Andy Bown from Status Quo, of all people) makes for one of the band’s most disquieting intros — but by the time Waters leaps in an octave higher on the third verse, it’s demonstrated itself as a ballad powerful enough to raise the emotional stakes for the set’s back end, setting the tone for all the bitter isolation and chilling emptiness to follow.
18. “Fearless” (Meddle, 1971)
Floyd’s finest early acoustic jaunt, a blissful mid-tempo saunter that sounds like a more ethereal Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, or a less sentimental Led Zeppelin III. There’s absolutely no good reason why a groove this divine should end with a field recording of Liverpool F.C. hooligans singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” but the unexpected outro ensures that the song is instantly unforgettable — an early lesson in keeping songs surprising till their very final seconds that Floyd would heed well in the decade to follow.
17. “Bike” (Piper at the Gates of Dawn, 1967)
The one song that seems to stick with everyone from their first listen to Piper, the childlike absurdity of its verses — which pays little attention to meter, rhymes when it feels like doing so, and wastes a verse on a “good mouse” named Gerald — making an unsettling contrast with the almost-coherent refrain: “You’re the kind of girl that fits into my world/ I’ll give you everything, anything, if you want things.” Then it dissolves into a cacophony of percussive scrapes and manic giggles. Like Barrett at large, near total anarchy, but with just enough of a whiff of something true at the center for fans to continue decoding the enigma 50 years later.
16. “Money” (The Dark Side of the Moon, 1973)
Certainly not the subtlest song in the Floyd arsenal — hard to demonstrate a light touch with Gilmour beginning each lyric by literally shouting “MO-NEY!,” and that cash register sound effect smacking you upside the head every measure. But save subtlety for songs that don’t have a bass riff so funky you don’t even notice it’s in 7/4 time, or a zooming sax solo that shreds harder than most guitar clear-outs: “Money” was just blunt enough to give Pink Floyd their first stateside crossover hit, and offers a much needed sing-along in the midst of all the atmospheric abstraction at Dark Side‘s middle.
15. “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” (LIve) (Ummagumma, 1969)
A textbook acid-rock freakout, and much more effective with the live build on the Ummagumma version than in the more abbreviated form as the B-side to the largely forgettable “Point Me at the Sky.” You need those first three minutes of eerie falsetto, menacing organ and lightly plodding bass, before Waters offers the bad omen of the whisper title phrase, and the song absolutely explodes with his screaming — a hurricane howl that that would become a signature sonic element of the band in the decade to come. Somewhere, a young Alan Vega was taking careful notes.
14. “Learning to Fly” (A Momentary Lapse of Reason, 1987)
After years of inter-band legal battling had left Pink Floyd depleted and spent in the mid-’80s, Gilmour may have been more emotionally invested in his aviation hobby than in his recording career by the time of Monetary Lapse‘s development — which would explain why the weightless “Learning to Fly” is the one song on the album that really connects. With panoramic production, a heart-swelling guitar hook and a chorus that soars well above the clouds, “Learning to Fly” became not just the band’s only true MTV-era hit — with a stunning video to match — but maybe the only undeniable counter-argument to Waters’ claims that the band’s fundamental DNA lay solely with him upon the time of his mid-’80s departure from the group.
13. “Sheep” (Animals, 1977)
The thrilling 10-minute climax to “Animals,” with racing organs and bass and portentous vocals (“You better watch out! There may be DOGS about!”) that make the band sound like Evil Steely Dan — especially in time for the “bad dream” moaning synth breakdown halfway through. But the song picks back up for the song’s unexpectedly righteous close, a triumphantly chiming guitar riff that either proves that the animals in power are vanquishable after all (“Have you heard the news? The DOGS are dead!”), or that we’re simply long past the point of fighting them anyway.
12. “Young Lust” (The Wall, 1979)
It says something about this song’s blistering 4/4 strut (erupting mid-verse from lead-in track “Empty Spaces”) that Waters and Gilmour — just about the last two people on the planet who you’d optionally choose to hear cooing “Ooooh, I need a dirty woman/ I need a dirty girl” — make “Young Lust” legitimately sexy, a roaring expression of stir-crazy horniness that comes across every bit as blood-pumping and unstable as it should. Foreigner must’ve been seething with jealousy the first time they heard it.
11. “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” (Parts I-V) (Wish You Were Here, 1975)
Regardless of how much you believe the apocryphal-seeming story of Syd Barrett wandering into the studio as his old band was recording their sympathetic symphony to his lunacy, there’s definitely at least a sprinkling of Syd’s magic in “Shine on You Crazy Diamond,” the epic opener to their Wish You Were Here masterwork. The composition’s majesty shimmers with every synth twinkle and guitar echo, and the alternately despairing and chuckling lyrics (“You reached for the secret too soon/ You cried for the moon”) seem to conjure Barrett’s madcap spirit, even as the production displays a fundamental pristineness his chaos would never have allowed.
10. “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” (A Saucerful of Secrets, 1968)
The passing of the torch from the Barrett era to the Gilmour era of Pink Floyd — and it’s a chillingly beautiful, neon-green-glowing torch, at that. “Controls” is the only Floyd song with all five canonical Floyd members playing on it, and the balance it strikes between Barrett’s improvisational heat-vision jamming and the ultra-controlled cacophony of the band’s later highlights is downright eerie — unlike most of the band’s extended workouts, “Controls” never really detonates, instead producing a hypnotizing simmer that remains unmatched by the band before or since.
9. “Time” (The Dark Side of the Moon, 1973)
The cruelest trick that Pink Floyd ever played on their stoner fans, setting the alarm clark to end all alarm clocks to go off right when Dark Side seems to be settling into its early mellow. Blame engineer Alan Parsons and his quadrophonic sound tests for that one, but credit the band to living up to so dramatic an intro with one of their best lyrics — about Waters’ sudden quarter-life crisis — a trademark wailing Gilmour solo, and the band’s first on-record reprise, of album opener “Breathe,” cleverly following the “Time” closing sentiment: “The time is gone the song is over/ I thought I’d something more to say?…”
8. “See Emily Play” (Single, 1967)
Pink Floyd’s signature early hit in their home country, with sighing guitar slides, lush production, an expert chorus, and the least knotty melody or song structure of Barrett’s tenure. Of course, Syd thought it was too poppy and begged the band not to release or promote it (“John Lennon doesn’t do Top of the Pops“!), and it’d be years before the band released anything nearly so immaculate again, with or without their self-destructive frontman. All the more reason that “See Emily Play” stands today as such a standard-bearer for psych-pop, brilliant, precious and thoroughly transportive.
7. “Another Brick in the Wall” (Pt. 2) (The Wall, 1979)
An unlikely chart-topper on both sides of the Atlantic — though maybe not so unlikely when you consider the song’s blend of arena-rock muscle with punk snottiness and (most importantly) disco propulsion, making it enough of a sledgehammer to tear down walls a lot more fortified than Roger Waters’ metaphoric self-isolation. The band resisted it at first, but producer Bob Ezrin dragged Dave Gilmour into the discos and sent engineers off on secret kiddie choir-recording missions until they had a single as riotous as “School’s Out” and as club-ready as “Miss You,” one still soundtracking middle-schooler revenge fantasies nearly 30 years later. “It doesn’t, in the end, not sound like Pink Floyd,” Gilmour begrudgingly admitted in 1999. True!
6. “One of These Days” (Meddle, 1971)
The true starting gun for ’70s Floyd, a spectral voyage into the great art-rock unknown, entirely instrumental except for a heavily altered “One of these days I’m going to cut you into little pieces” bellow from drummer Mason. One heavily delayed, single-note bass riff shouldn’t be nearly enough to build a song this mighty around, but that kind of studio ingenuity would prove the group’s greatest weapon in the decade going forward — and here, the band surrounds the anti-hook with sweeping wind noises, growling guitars, extraterrestrial organs, racing drums and reversed percussion until it poses as much of a threat as Mason’s garbled title intro.
5. “Interstellar Overdrive” (Piper at the Gates of Dawn, 1967)
Yeah, the band’s outer-space allegiance may have been historically overstated, but when their debut album has two songs as good as “Astronomy Domine” and this, could you really blame us for doing so? “Interstellar” is the instrumental opus of the Syd era, a nearly-ten-minute expansion of Barrett’s all-time grungiest riff, with a mind-melting mid-song breakdown of meowing guitars and chirping organs, that hisses back to life with a (dated, but still decently psychedelic) stereo-panning riff reprise. Only “Sister Ray” managed to get quite this dark or deep in ’67, and the fact that the band was able to achieve such stratospheric later-career success without ever straying too far from this experimental, instrumental core is the true testament to the group’s collective genius.
4. “Comfortably Numb” (The Wall, 1979)
The ultimate in Pink Floyd as classic rock titans, an absolutely towering power ballad where both elements of that phrase feel individually and collectively insufficient to appropriately summarize the song’s might. “Comfortably Numb” is iconic from its opening line, and nails both the little things (the “pinprick” sound effect) and the big things (Gilmour’s GOAT-contending closing guitar solo) with such unquestioned mastery that the song endures as one of the most recognizable of its era, despite never charting pretty much anywhere. It might not be as mystifying or genre-blending as some of the group’s other signature moments, but it ensures they’ll have at least one standard circulating on classic-rock radio for as long as classic-rock radio is a thing.
3. “Us and Them” (The Dark Side of the Moon, 1973)
Dark Side’s crown jewel, a slow-burning sway built around a softly flaring Gilmour riff and radiant Hammond organ from Wright. It’s a Floyd song for sure, with militaristic lyrics, a surging chorus and a tough-talking roadie spoken-word sample (“Well I mean, they’re not gonna kill ya, so like, if you give ’em a quick short, sharp shock… they won’t do it again”), but it stands out because it’s one of the few Floyd songs you could picture being recorded by a whole range of artists. Maybe it’s the What’s Going On?-worthy sax that shows up at all the right moments, or the universality of the opening lines, but the song connects on a level that’s closer to soul than prog, giving Dark Side a beating heart to go with its overactive brain.
2. “Run Like Hell” (The Wall, 1979)
Not like it’s surprising that nobody ever thought to combine the strengths of Chic and Rush before Pink Floyd, but the fact that Floyd did, and came up with The Wall‘s side-four highlight in the process, is forever one for the top of the band’s resume. Like “Young Lust” and “Another Brick,” it’s at least based in the steady thump of disco, but unlike those songs, it’s still mostly led by its guitars, the galloping, chiming six-strings of Gilmour. It might be the most anthemic chest-beater Floyd ever devised, but it’s also one of the group’s most unsettling, with dramatic tonal shifts before the explicitly fascistic Waters-as-Pink verses, and some of the singer’s most stomach-churning, guttural wails (“If they catch you in the backseat trying to pick her locks/ They’re gonna send you back to mother in a cardboard box!“). Unlike “Us and Them,” it’s impossible to imagine any other band even attempting a song like “Run Like Hell,” but that just makes you grateful to have had such extended access to Floyd’s singular dementia.
1. “Wish You Were Here” (Wish You Were Here, 1975)
Feels kinda wrong, doesn’t it? To have a relatively straightforward ballad as the crowning achievement of one of history’s greatest progressive rock bands — it’s sorta like putting “Patience” at the top of a Guns N’ Roses list, no? Fair, but you have to consider that being Pink Floyd means even an accessible lighter-waver like “Wish You Were Here” has untold layers of subtle production and structural depth to it. Consider the radio crackle the opening riff emerges from — a thematic holdover from the preceding “Have a Cigar” outro — and the way the song’s acoustic solo lands on top of it with such comparative clarity, with every finger-on-strings slip audible, that it’s heart-piercing from the first note. Or how the bleating synths come in to fortify the melodic refrain in between the first verse and chorus. Or how despite being among the most legendary sing-alongs in rock history — epochal enough that even a mook like Fred Durst knows all the words — the song’s chorus only appears once in the entire song.
“Wish You Were Here” lands like no other song in the band’s catalog, because it does all these clever, unobtrusively inventive things, but the song’s core remains as emotive and relatable as a Lynyrd Skynyrd classic. It’s about Syd Barrett, of course — though he probably would’ve hated the lack of bongos or feedback freakouts — but it doesn’t have to be, not by a long shot. And even with a chorus so sky-scraping, you don’t need to deploy it more than once when you’re falling back to a riff that anyone who’s ever learned the acoustic has attempted to master within the first month. “Wish You Were Here” packs the obligatory anti-authoritarian messaging into its verse, but its ultimate feeling is one of human connection, of needing friends and family and loved ones to give you a reason to keep fighting in the first place. It’s as beautiful a composition and production as the ’70s produced, and it should live on well after the last Dark Side of the Moon poster is torn down from a college undergrad dorm room.