I’ve resisted ranking Peter Gabriel’s albums for a long time, but finally ready to commit. I rank the seven studio albums, not the soundtracks, covers, and live performances.
1. Up. 2002. 5 stars. I’ve seen many rankings that don’t have Up far up enough. It’s Gabriel’s second masterpiece since Security, and even better. But it’s not an accessible album, to say the least, and those who wanted commercial repeats of So and Us were disappointed. I didn’t want another So or Us. I wanted the raw and wildly imaginative Peter Gabriel of old. Some of the songs on Up really sound like they took ten years to write and hone. Where Us examined relationships, Up mediates on death and grief. Lyrically it’s most like Melt, soundwise like Security. Think of songs like “Intruder”, “No Self Control”, “Rhythm of the Heat”, “San Jacinto”, “The Family and the Fishing Net”, and “Wallflower”. Then blacken the darkness a bit more, dial up the misery, and throw in some techno-industrial shrieks. That’s Up. There are no “Sledgehammers”, “Big Times”, or “Steams” to be found. “Growing Up” is the closest to those mega-hits, but even that one was too cerebral for the Billboard charts. If Up doesn’t grow on you after repeat listens, you’re not a serious Peter Gabriel fan.
2. Security. 1982. 5 stars. The first masterpiece. There are few hooks here; Gabriel makes earworms out of African and Latin rhythms — if you have the ears to hear. The first two tracks remain the most ambitious songs he’s ever written: “The Rhythm Of The Heat”, which took the texture of “Intruder” and gave it wilder mood and percussive thunder; and “San Jacinto”, which did for the Native American spirit what “Biko” did for South Africans, but twice as compellingly. (It’s about a coming-of-age ritual in which boys are left alone to fend for themselves in the wild.) “Wallflower” is a hymn to all prisoners of conscience, still one of my favorite songs. There are two accessible pieces — “I Have the Touch” and “Shock the Monkey” — which provide Security‘s hooks. The latter song (which isn’t about animal rights but burning jealousy) became his first top 40 hit, but there’s nothing hollow about it; it’s as good as the esoteric tracks. If I had to list the ten albums that I most overplayed in my teen years, Security would make the cut. I still play the living hell out of it.
3. Melt. 1980. 4 ½ stars. The third album is Gabriel’s Dark Side of the Moon, a creative nightmare filled with menace in every dripping song save the last. It paints a canvass of damaged souls — intruders, assassins, amnesiacs — represented by the metaphor of Gabriel’s disintegrating face on the cover. “Intruder” is about a home invasion from the intruder’s viewpoint, filled with spooky chants and scratching noises. “Family Snapshot” gives us a sniper’s point of view. Other tracks, like “Lead a Normal Life”, “I Don’t Remember”, and “No Self Control” remain some of the bleakest mental portrayals in rock music. Finally, at the end of this dark road comes one of the best rock anthems of all time, the ode to Steve Biko. The live versions of “Biko” are epic. Melt isn’t widely loved by fans of the So-Us era, but it’s the album that promised Gabriel a great career if he could keep this up and do even better. Which he sure as hell did.
4. So. 1986. 4 ½ stars. If there was ever a commercial album that I don’t begrudge people calling a masterpiece, it’s So. Unlike his Genesis pals in 1986, Gabriel aimed for wide appeal without whoring himself. “Sledgehammer” may be the catchiest and happiest thing Gabriel ever composed, and “Big Time” just as big, but they are not the sell-out trash of “Invisible Touch”. Alongside those blockbusters are darker pieces with the Gabriel trademarks: the apocalyptic nightmare of “Red Rain” (actually my favorite Gabriel song of all time); the suicide biography of “Mercy Street”; the spooky voodoo finale of “This Is The Picture”. Of course, “In Your Eyes” is the timeless track everyone loves, and which Gabriel always plays an extended version live supplemented by talented musicians. So is an admittedly powerful album, and a towering exception to the popular dreck of the mid-’80s.
5. Car. 1977. 4 stars. Not surprisingly, Gabriel’s first solo effort channeled the prog years of Genesis. Car is as eclectic as Nursery Cryme, Foxtrot, and Selling England by the Pound, though of course not as grandiose as those classics. The lead track “Moribund the Burgermeister” especially channels old-school Genesis, and is probably the most underrated song in the Gabriel catalog. Quite opposite in tone is “Solsbury Hill”, the most overrated song though still very good. “Modern Love” (no relation to Bowie) hits the spot nice and hard, and songs like “Excuse Me” and “Humdrum” are gleefully absurd. There’s no consistent texture to Car: it’s Peter Gabriel driving wherever his wheels take him, until he finishes on the haunting piano ballad “Here Comes the Flood” — about people seeing into each other’s thoughts, producing a mental flood; undeniably the album’s best song.
6. Us. 1992. 4 stars. Because it’s his most accessible album — even more than So — there are critics who think Us is his best, for example this ranker. They remind me of critics who say Jackie Brown is Quentin Tarantino’s best film, which simply means they don’t really like Tarantino films. Jackie Brown is very good, but it’s the only Tarantino film not set in a weird alternate reality where characters behave in weird Tarantino-like ways. Same thing for Us. It’s a beautiful album, but any album that can be described as “beautiful” isn’t the real Peter Gabriel at his essence. It’s Peter Gabriel playing at optimism, as he explores the theme of relationships. The final song, “Secret World”, is the “In Your Eyes” of the album — everyone loves it, and it’s become one of his finest concert pieces. Two songs in particular, “Steam” and “Kiss That Frog”, are the low-points of the album, and indeed of Gabriel’s entire solo career.
7. Scratch. 1978. 3 stars. The only Gabriel album I almost never listen to from start to finish. It’s not a bad record, but it’s not especially good either, and it doesn’t do much to distinguish itself. For Peter Gabriel that’s unusual. The best tracks are the first three — “On the Air”, “D.I.Y.,” and “Mother of Violence” — but I don’t feel strongly enough about them to list them as such below. Scratch shows Gabriel trying to find his voice after the awesome Genesis homages of Car, but the voice we know and love wouldn’t emerge until the pivotal point of Melt.
Best Tracks: None in particular.
1. Up is the ultimate Gabriel masterpiece.
2. Security is the first masterpiece, and quintessential Gabriel.
3. Melt is the most important and foundational (and darkest) album, promising greatness ahead.
4. So is the most influential album.
5. Car is the transitional album from the Genesis years, showing verve and nerve.
6. Us is the most accessible (and optimistic) album.
7. Scratch is the not-particularly-distinguished album.