If I were to pick one band to consider my favorite, I’d have to go with Pink Floyd. I have always loved their music and particularly their lyrics. I was fortunate enough to see them play live in the 1990s and I saw Roger Waters perform The Wall live, and that ranks as the greatest concert I’ve ever seen. Inspired by Iron Mike Gallego, and his incredibly spot-on and outstanding piece on ranking Beastie Boys songs, I present to you the 26 greatest Pink Floyd songs. I really really recommend giving these a listen.
I originally liked Floyd for the music, but as I grew older I began to appreciate the intricacies of the lyrics. When the music and the lyrics were on the money, it couldn’t be beat. There are certain stereotypes when someone identifies himself as a Floyd fan, two of which are stoner and Prog-rock fan. I am neither. I am a fan of writing and music, a fan of intelligence (which is odd, since I am also a fan of dick and fart jokes), and I’m a fan of concepts.
So I give you the top 26 Pink Floyd songs as ranked by me, a lifelong Pink Floyd fan.
26. Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun - Saucerful of Secrets
This Roger Waters piece was a staple of Pink Floyd concerts from the late 60s into around 1973. As a very curious bit of trivia, it’s the only song in their catalog which features both Dave Gilmour and Syd Barrett on guitar. However, it’s a mainly rhythm-section and keyboard dominated song so you can’t really discern the guitar parts all that well. Waters continues to perform this song at certain live events.
25. Jugband Blues - Saucerful of Secrets
I included this Syd Barrett song because it is a musical manifestation of mental psychosis. Some say Barrett suffered from schizophrenia, and if so then this song is a fairly accurate representation. It’s disjointed and sad, yet harrowing. It’s the musical equivalent of a cautionary tale.
24. Atom Heart Mother - Atom Heart Mother
This is the first real effort by Pink Floyd to shake the astral boundaries they’d set (or had others set) for themselves and move towards cohesive and uniform pieces of music. It’s almost purely instrumental, save for the lyric, “Silence in the studio!” At almost 24 minutes long, it’s a lot to listen to. I also chose this song because I have two specific personal anecdotes. First, I used to have a radio program in college, the much coveted 1:00am - 4:00am Sunday night slot. I used to put this song on so I could go out, grab a smoke, eat a quick bite, grab another smoke, and come back in with time to spare. A second anecdote I have is that my old roommate used to thank me for this, as each time I’d get high and play it in our apartment, he’d bang his girlfriend. Turns out it was their sex soundtrack. *shudder*
23. The Gunner’s Dream - The Final Cut
A strong song off of what is generally considered a Roger Waters solo album. The entire album is, in my estimation, greatly underrated. While it’s dominated by Waters, the painful honesty of the lyrics is what sets this album, and song, apart. This song, and others from this album on this list, is like a raw exposed nerve.
(No video available. Stupid copyrights.)
22. Learning to Fly - A Momentary Lapse of Reason
I included this song simply because it reaffirmed that the Floyd was still a relevant band even without Roger Waters. Released in 1987, this single launched Pink Floyd v.3. The song, like the album, focused more on music and melody and less on lyrical and thematic content. It’s a great stand-alone song and was a concert staple for many years following its release.
21. Interstellar Overdrive- The Piper at the Gates of Dawn
Most people would pick Astronomy Domine as a classic early Floyd song, but I think Interstellar Overdrive is more representative of what they were all about. This is a guitar-heavy track which still calls to the cosmos, which is what Floyd was going for in those days. It demonstrates the musical ear of Syd Barrett quite nicely and has a fantastic driving rhythm.
20. One of these Days - Meddle
The only lyric is, “One of these days I’m going to cut you into little pieces.” That’s why it makes the list.
19. Nobody Home - The Wall
This is the first of six songs I’ve included from The Wall. I chose this because to me it represents the loneliness and solitude we all feel sometime after our late 30s. I understood Dark Side of the Moon when I was 25. I understood The Wall only after I hit my 30s. Regardless of how social we may be in our younger years, we tend to regress as we age. This song is about wanting to reach out, even a little, knowing that while we may have what we think we want in a materialistic fashion, we’re essentially alone. It’s fine to remove yourself from society, but don’t do it so much that when you want to re-enter you’ve got nobody there to help.
18. Lucifer Sam - The Piper at the Gates of Dawn
I think that had Syd Barrett not gone insane, this is the direction Pink Floyd would’ve taken. They would be more along the lines of the Beatles or the Stones insofar as they would’ve represented a certain era of sound. This is pure power pop.
17. If - Atom Heart Mother
The first soul-bearing song by Roger Waters. There are times when I think that this song says more by way of its honest simplicity than all his other shout-from-the-rooftops rhetorics could ever achieve. It’s a wonderful song bemoaning the growing distance between people.
16.Sheep - Animals
One of only five songs from the album, this song bemoans the lives of people who blindly follow others or allow themselves to be led around by the nose. The album was released when Punk was in vogue, but it wasn’t an intentional representation of the musical climate. Any Floyd fan knows they didn’t even really know what the musical landscape was anytime after Dark Side. It’s a hard charging album and this song deserves a spot on the list if only for the really really cool effect of vocals seamlessly changing into notes from a keyboard.
15. What shall we do Now? - The Wall (film version)
This song takes the place of Empty Spaces from the original album. I chose this cinematic replacement because I think it segues better into Young Lust. Lyrically it just uses short, choppy lines of verse but it moves quickly and purposefully and reinforces the mood of that particular place in the film and on the album. While not available on The Wall, it can be found in the film accompanied by Gerald Scarfe’s outstanding animation.
14. The Fletcher Memorial Home - The Final Cut
Another song from The Final Cut, this one name-drops Roger’s father, Eric Fletcher Waters. I included it because of the political name dropping (Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Leonid Brezhnev, Menachem Begin) involved, as well as the deeply political nature of the song. It equates to Waters stating that all world leaders should be put into playpens and forced to get along nicely. If they couldn’t, he suggested a “final solution.”
(No video. Stupid, stupid copyright laws.)
13. Dogs - Animals
This 17 minute epic is included simply because it has the second-best Gilmour guitar solo(s) in the entire Pink Floyd catalogue. Its closing also echoes the poem “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg, with the almost rhetorical repetition of “who.” Both Gilmour and Waters share the vocals, with the former singing the first ¾ of the song, and the latter finishing. Animals also signals when the Floyd became less about the music and more about the lyrics.
(No good video available.)
12. Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts I-V) - Wish You Were Here
This song set the stage for the cold, calculating, distant album that was Wish You Were Here. Many people feel that this is the quintessential Pink Floyd album. I disagree, but I do think it’s their most complete album. This song engages the listener in a very personal way, bringing them into the fold and allowing them to share the feelings of loss and regret that the members feel towards Syd Barrett. There is also a feeling of guilt to the song, caused the way the band decided to kick Syd out. On the way to a gig, the band just one day opted not to pick Barrett up. His increasing instability, his manic ranting and raving, and his lost grip on sanity all led to the band not being able to work with him anymore. This song is an olive branch. Musically, as well, Rick Wright’s keyboards dominate the album, and that is evident from this song forward. The overwhelming presence of clinical, almost sterile, keyboards help to set the mood of the entire disc.
11. One of my Turns - The Wall
Where to begin with this one? It’s a song that represents the tipping point of madness, where everything finally bubbles to a head. Lyrically, this song is the last straw for a very unstable persona. When the narrator finally has it with his unfaithful wife, when he’s had it with his own infidelity, when he’s had it with the pressures of his own life, created by him, he explodes with a fury and lays waste to a hotel room. The last line represents his fragile state of mind best when he asks, “Why are you running away?” after doing everything he can to drive a wedge between himself and society at large.
10. Us and Them - Dark Side of the Moon
My impression of this song is that nobody is really in control of what goes on, except for the political powers that be. It’s a direct condemnation of a global war machine, constantly sending individuals to die in wars while they sit back and simply plan out maneuvers. The album as a whole concentrates on the pressures of young adulthood and the feelings of helplessness that people have before realizing they will never be in control of their own destiny.
9. The Final Cut - The Final Cut
This is almost a sequel to Nobody Home. While it’s from a different album, it continues the self examination of the persona. This time it’s not “Pink,” but instead Roger Waters taking inventory of where he is in life and what he’s lost over the years. Another in the album-long paean to his lost father, The Final Cut not only laments his losses, but also the feeling of distance that years of touring and studio time that Waters feels has eroded his family connections. Regardless of how any Floyd fan feels, this is a great song on a great album.
8. Money - Dark Side of the Moon
Money is exactly what the title implies: Money. It’s about what you can finally get when you have the monetary resources. It both celebrates and bemoans the idea of wealth and everything it brings. The best part about this song, however, is that it’s played in ⅞ time. If you don’t know musical rhythms, this is a very tricky and uncommon beat. Floyd pulls it off well. Money is the only real “single” off this album.
7. Wish You Were Here - Wish You Were Here
Some consider this to be the signature song of the band. While I disagree, I believe this song sums up loss and the distance between people who were once close. It could imply a death, physical distance, or more precisely emotional distance. As we age, we grow out of relationships. It’s the very nature of relationships to be quite frank. Wish You Were Here sums up the emotions that everyone feels when they realize part of their life has passed and how things, for good or for bad, will never be the same. A classic.
6. Brain Damage/Eclipse - Dark Side of the Moon
Where to start with this? This is the coda to what is generally considered the Floyd’s greatest masterpiece. It examines the lengths of madness that the pressures of life can bring. The song is a manifestation of the voices that we all hear, questioning our motives and decisions. The final couplet sums it up best - “And if the band you’re in starts playing different tunes/I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon.” Fun fact: Dark Side of the Moon stayed on the Billboard Top 200 charts for 741 weeks - from 1973 to 1988. Let that sink in. It stayed on the charts for 15 fucking years. That’s an accomplishment that can never be denied or duplicated.
5. Echoes - Meddle
This was the first indication of what the Floyd would eventually become. They finally shed their 1960s psychedelic beginnings and became the band they were always meant to be. Coming in at a lengthy 24 minutes, this song combined lyrical flights of fancy with unparalleled musical talent. This is the centerpiece of the film “Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii” which served as both a concert film and a prelude of what was to come on Dark Side of the Moon. Fun fact: the Beastie Boys loved this song and film so much that they incorporated the visual of the amps stamped with “Pink Floyd. London” in their video for Gratitude. Dave Gilmour and Rick Wright completely carry this song. It’s a must-listen.
4. Mother - The Wall
This is the ultimate “Am I doing it right? Am I doing OK?” song. This song expresses the desire one has to break out on his own, but still wanting to please a parental figure. It doesn’t matter that the figure is smothering or overwhelming, there is always that warm nested feeling that one gets from parental approval. We all long for the approval of our parents, we all want to do right by them and in their eyes, no matter how old we get. This song is about seeking the blessing from those whom we value most and shape us the most permanently.
3. When the Tigers Broke Free - The Final Cut (originally heard in the film version of The Wall)
A stark, harrowing song first heard in the film The Wall. This is a raw, open examination of why Roger Waters and so many others lost their fathers in World War Two, and the cold “thanks” from the government for their service. Its subtle vitriol is represented in the lyrics:
And kind old King George sent Mother a note when he heard that father was gone.
It was, I recall, in the form of a scroll, with gold leaf and all.
And I found it one day
In a drawer of old photographs, hidden away.
And my eyes still grow damp to remember
His Majesty signed with his own rubber stamp.
The song was re-released on a version of The Final Cut in 2004 and it fits much better with that album than in the aforementioned film. While the film version does it justice, it just dovetails nicely in album form.
2. Time - Dark Side of the Moon
This song is the manifestation of when you realize you’re not going to stay young forever. It’s the stark realization that life has already taken hold, that one day you wake up and realize that, for better or worse, you’re an adult. And there’s nothing you can do about it. The clock ticks for all of us, and Time makes that point perfectly. The last two verses sum it up best:
So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it's sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again.
The sun is the same in a relative way but you're older,
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.
Every year is getting shorter never seem to find the time.
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way
The time is gone, the song is over,
Thought I'd something more to say.
1. Comfortably Numb - The Wall
It had to be number one. It’s the most complete Pink Floyd song in their catalog. The music, written by David Gilmour, blends perfectly with the lyrics written by Roger Waters. The song is based in reality, as Waters needed a doctor’s shot in order to get him through a show in Philadelphia in 1977. With Waters handling the verses and Gilmour handling the chorus, this song finds the perfect medium. While it may seem like a cop-out to consider this number one, I dare anyone to find a more fitting and representative song that captures the essence of the band. Add to that not one but two blistering guitar solos by Gilmour and you’ve got a recipe for success. This is the song that most casual, even indifferent, Floyd fans know, yet it means just as much to those who revere the entire catalog of music. Comfortably Numb holds a place in the pantheon of great rock and roll songs since the creation of the genre. It’s everything a song should be. My belief is that the greatness of the song, for people in their 30s or older, can be found in this excerpt:
When I was a child
I caught a fleeting glimpse
Out of the corner of my eye.
I turned to look but it was gone
I cannot put my finger on it now
The child is grown,
The dream is gone.
I have become comfortably numb
If you haven’t listened to it in a while, turn it on, mute out every other ambient noise, and just absorb it sonically. It works on so many levels.