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.”