I’m almost embarrassed to be writing this. Having any earnest opinions about Pink Floyd should seem lame by the time you're old enough to get your driver's license. For whatever reason, though, I've never managed to shed my views on the group, the most important and obvious of which is that the quality of Pink Floyd's output declines sharply with Wish You Were Here. That said, the Floyd did make a decent amount of good music in their first decade and a half of existence. Separating the worthy from the much larger amount of totally awful, unlistenable stuff is a dirty job, one I'm happy to do so long as I get paid.
Piper at the Gates of Dawn, for example, is one of the best albums of the '60s. As English psychedelic art it is—that's right, I'll say it—track for track better than Sgt. Pepper, though it never quite hits the heights of "A Day in the Life." It’s also a totally unique record. There is nothing else that really sounds like Piper at the Gates of Dawn, including the band’s subsequent releases (with the possible exception of "Jugband Blues"). I guess if Ray Davies had sat around for two months in a country house in Somerset reading nothing but Kenneth Grahame and Belloc's Cautionary Tales while getting stoned out of his mind and then gone into the studio with Brian Jones we might have ended up with something roughly similar—but that's it.
Every song on Piper is a classic. This is true even, perhaps especially, of "Astronomy Domine," the title of which exactly zero percent of American stoner bros have ever pronounced correctly. The same goes for the early Syd Barrett-penned singles. For strict Barrett fans—"originalists," as they are known in the word of Pink Floyd theory—the next best thing after Piper is not A Saucerful of Secrets but his amazing solo albums. There's a tendency among critics to say that The Madcap Laughs is vastly superior to Barrett, an opinion not borne out by actual listening. For the kind of person whose idea of gnarly rock and roll is "Slide guitar plus lyrics that Lewis Carroll could have written," both albums are nearly perfect.
Unfairly neglected by casual fans are Saucerful and Ummagumma. By casual I mean people who have ever had posters of The Wall on their dorm wall, and everyone else except for people who agree that both albums are better than Animals. If the doomed, spacy electric jazz of "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun" had appeared in 1974 on a King Crimson album, Robert Christgau would be singing its praises to this day. In the event that I am ordered to undertake a doomed solo space mission on behalf of an apocalyptic cult leader, I hope he lets me bring my copy of Saucerful.
Ummagumma is even more rewarding. Essentially Floyd’s "White Album," it’s one of those records you can play whenever you feel like without getting sick of it. The band is just throwing stuff at the wall, with all four members composing their own material and everyone else going along with it. Richard Wright's four-part contribution, "Sisyphus," gives me chills every time I listen to it. It's impossible to hear this song without thinking that you're standing outside the castle of some kind of dark sorcerer into whose foul clutches your beloved has fallen. When you reach "Pt. IV," you think you've escaped from the cthonic forces into a bright forest, until suddenly it hits you that’s it all an illusion and you're back at the gate where you started.
Deep stuff, I know. Then there’s "Granchester Meadows," a quiet pastoral folk tune so winsome that I almost don’t know what to make of it. I sometimes wish Roger Waters had done a whole album like it. I have an idea about the "plot" of "The Grand Vizier’s Garden Party" that's been in my head since I was 12 that I won't bother sharing with you; basically it's a neat little suite, in a "This sounds like it could be an outtake from the soundtrack to an Aladdin game for Sega Genesis" kind of way. Then there's the live disc, which showcases the early post-Barrett incarnation of the group at the height of their powers.
Pink Floyd was always about moods and textures, even colors, rather than songs. Mining the band's next few records—More, Zabriske Point, and Obscured By Clouds—for sick deep cuts used to be one of my pastimes. It’s still rewarding if you want to remember why people actually liked this band. Try "Free Four" if you want to see them going against type, sounding like a revived Small Faces. Atom Heart Mother holds up better than any of the soundtrack albums. It is a beautiful exercise in nostalgia that looks ahead to the atmosphere and lyrical obsessions, if not the style, of Dark Side-era Waters. The eponymous suite, "Fat Old Sun," and "If," a "Granchester Meadows" sequel of sorts, are better than anything from The Wall.
Meddle is far and away the group’s best '70s effort, while the better-regarded Dark Side has not aged well. The synths sound dated; the sound effects and whispers and random chatter make my children cry. And the sax was always a cheesy move. "Money" I could do with never hearing again. On the other hand "Time" and "The Great Gig in the Sky" are basically inexhaustible. One of my unfailing tests for prospective drinking companions is to ride together in a car late at night and wait for "Time" to come on and see if he knows the exact moment when the vocals kick in. If you chime in early, we can’t be friends.
Wish You Were Here is, in my opinion, where the rot starts to set in. It's also where the band moves past gentle melancholy into self-righteous "Gosh, it’s so hard being rich and famous" territory. "Welcome to the Machine" is boring and pseudo-profound and does not show Floyd playing very well or really even at all. "Have a Cigar" is so dorky I blush just thinking about lines like "Which one's Pink?" The title track is a painful country pastiche with some of the worst lyrics you’ll ever hear. If Willie Nelson had sung "We’re just two lost souls / Swimming in a fish bowl," people would say he had lost his touch. Why is it, then, that every classic rock station in the country plays this song 15 times a day, and that every frat boy with a shell necklace and an acoustic guitar has played it in front of a beach campfire on Spring Break? "Shine on You Crazy Diamond" is good, but it doesn't really live up to the band’s best long-form stuff from Echoes or even Saucerful.
Most two-tier Floydists assert that Animals is a sadly neglected little masterpiece that happened to appear after the boring "long instrumental albums about nothing" period and in the midst of the band's three best records. The truth is it's very meh. The playing isn't as strong or as experimental as anything on, say, Zabriske Point and the lyrics are 10,000 times more pretentious. I kind of like "Pigs on the Wing," another Waters acoustic outing.
Which brings us to The Wall, tied in my book with Appetite for Destruction and Days of Future Past for the title of Most Overrated Album of All Time. "Another Brick in the Wall Pt. II" is a late, embarrassing attempt at disco. "Mother" has some of Water’s absolute worst lyrics. "Comfortably Numb" is okay, but Van Morrison sang it better. The riff for "In the Flesh?" is neat. Otherwise the strictly rock-operatic stuff is cringe inducing. It’s clear on disc two that Waters is having way too much fun pretending to be a Nazi.
Last is The Final Cut, which, in contrast to its predecessor, is almost painfully underrated. The best way to think about this record is that it is a kind of spiritual sequel to The Kinks' Arthur: a concept album about English decline. Most people say it hasn't caught on because it's too personal, which is wrong. The truth is that very few Americans are going to thrill to a rock record about the shabby state of the National Health Service and the end of industrial mining. I say "Last" because if, as someone has pointed out, post-Barrett Floyd is like the Foo Fighters if they called themselves Nirvana, then post-Waters Floyd is a sick, analogy-breaking aberration.
I realize some people disagree. Waters vs. Floyd is, then, a kind of Rorschach test. A friend of mine from middle school got into Tool around the same time I bought my first copy of Forever Changes: He became an electrical engineer, while I make my living writing articles like this one. I like the cover of A Delicate Sound of Thunder. When "Learning to Fly" comes on the classic rock station, I don’t turn off the radio. Otherwise the Gilmour era can be skipped.
At best, the Floyd have three classic albums to their credit. One is a decidedly hokey masterpiece. The reason we get away with liking Dark Side of the Moon is every single person in all five countries with permanent seats on the UN Security Council owns at least two copies of it.