So if there is a time for the band to be discovered anew, or rediscovered, this is it. Emerging out of the punk/new wave era and evolving into postpunk and then chamber pop, the band has a career arc that is extraordinary enough that even founder Andy Partridge "immodestly" claims XTC, like one other well-known British band, "started pretty damn good and got better." The fact that their career spanned almost 30 years says much about the tenacity and quality of the music created by the band.
For the purposes of this article, I'm going to divide the 13 albums into three categories before going through and "ranking" them. Part of the impetus for this essay is that it is not uncommon for someone who is unfamiliar with the band to ask me, "where should I start," when jumping into their varied discography. That is still a tough question to answer, based as much on my mood as their own tastes in music. If it's helpful, the three categories define what I'll call the larger phases in their oeuvre.
Drums and Wires
Even though there is a distinct shift in sound with the departure of Barry Andrews on keyboards and the addition of Dave Gregory on guitar between GO 2 and Drums and Wires, at heart there is an energy level to these songs and the ability to flex the bands considerable ability to play live that, for me, links the albums.
25 O'Clock/Psonic Psunspot (Dukes of Stratosphear)
English Settlement still belongs in the touring years I suppose, but it really feels like the band is getting better at adding textures that we had not seen before. Likewise, the departure of drummer Terry Chambers, can't be disregarded with post ES records. More importantly, these albums clearly demonstrate an embracing of the Beatlesque studio pop as well as a whole bevy of other '60s influences, culminating in Skylarking, one of their best, and most notorious, records.
Oranges and Lemons
Apple Venus vol. 1
The full flowering of the band's strengths as studio wizards, this period is marked by the long gap (aka "strike") between a Nonsuch and AV1. All three of these phases really do bleed into each other and are somewhat arbitrary. It's difficult enough to rank the albums in each of these three phases much less the entire canon. But here goes....
13. GO 2
The ubiquitous "sophomore slump" isn't really much of a slump. It has some stellar tracks, specifically Battery Brides, Meccanik Dancing, and Are You Receiving Me. It's a very good record for its era. It's also the last album I'd likely recommend to someone who is wanting to dip their toe into the XTC pond. The Barry Andrews keyboard energy is still on display here and I have to admit, as much as Dave Gregory was one of the best things that happened to the band, I missed Andy Partridge not getting more free reign with his slashing, unique guitar style on subsequent records.
12. Drums and Wires
Ok, let me admit from the get go, I would anticipate many a fan asking how in the hell I could put this album as the second to lowest in my rankings. I feel your pain even as I write this. First, let me say that this is XTC we're talking about here. They don't have any bad albums. Period. This album has their first big "hit" with Making Plans for Nigel and explodes with energy, from Gregory's guitar playing, to...well, the whole band is just on fire. Look at some youtube clips of them touring these songs and you can see a live band at the height of their powers.
It makes the tragedy of not getting to see them play live for real all the more painful. Other highlights include a host of songs that are much more confidently written than the earlier material: Helicopter, Ten Feet Tall, and Complicated Game. The only reason I'm putting...
11. White Music
...ahead of D&W is the unabashed exuberance of their first record. Who rips through songs like Neon Shuffle, Into the Atom Age, This is Pop, Statue of Liberty, and still has the guts to cover All Along the Watchtower in such a fashion? This record is ballsy and they got a couple of bonus points for that alone. I remember reading a long time ago that the only purpose for a keyboard in a punk band is as a percussion instrument. Barry Andrews proves that's absolutely not true. And even here, in their debut during the time of punk, they demonstrate how much more advanced they were than so many other bands of that era.
10. Wasp Star
The last album released by the band and if there was a last song, on your final album, to fade out on, you'd be hard pressed to end with a track as strong as The Wheel and the Maypole. And thematically/lyrically, it seems prescient:
Everything decays, forest tumbles down
To make the soil, planets fall apart
Just to feed the stars and stuff their larders
And what made me think we're any better
And what made me think we'd last forever
Was I so naive? Of course, it all unweaves
This is a cheat I suppose but for some reason I've always filed these two albums together in my brain, in spite of them sounding drastically different. In some ways I see them as Mark 1 of the Apple Venus/Wasp Star template. One more pastoral and orchestrated, followed by a more angular, electric guitar based record. In the recent documentary, This Is Pop, Colin Moulding talks about these two albums right after the touring years concluded and the loss of drummer, Terry Chambers, as albums that left the band in the wilderness so to speak. They didn't sell all that well. But to ignore them is a grave mistake. There are some beautiful songs on these two records and lyrically you can sense that both Partridge and Moulding were sharpening their wordplay. With more time to write since the touring version of the band was no more, you can see the extra time and attention to detail paying off.
Mummer, there are the obvious catchy songs, paired with the more interesting and adventurous tracks. I'm thinking Love on a Farmboy's Wages and Wonderland next to Human Alchemy, Beating of Hearts, and Me and the Wind, respectively. The Big Express has that clanging, almost industrial sound to it best exemplified by Wake Up, Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her, and Reign of Blows. Both of these albums are pretty regularly on the turntable.
We're getting to the point where I could start flipping a coin as to which of these last few records are their best. They are all so strong, sometimes in different ways. Nonsuch is one of their records that feels like a fully formed vision from top to bottom. Great songs, and the quality of the sounds coming from the speakers is near perfect. Perfectly written, arranged, and mixed.
The obvious catchy songs seem almost too easy. Sometimes I think Andy Partridge could write songs like Then She Appeared and Holly Up on Poppy in his sleep. But that's not giving him, and the band, enough credit. The songs have clearly been obsessed over and the layers work so well together. The contributions of Dave Gregory seem, from my perspective, to really lift a lot of these songs. His guitar on That Wave may be one of his finest moments with the band.
6. Oranges and Lemons
There was a time where I would have put Oranges and Lemons at number 1 on this list. Much of what I love about the record is how top to bottom solid the songwriting is. But even though it has some really catchy pop songs on it, the record transcends the genre with the "weird" songs. What is to be made of Across This Antheap? That is just a strange song with all of its layers upon layers. It's also one of the most impressive songs the band ever released.
The production on this album is so crisp and while I know others have suggested that it went a little too far in some regards, it feels like it captures a moment in time both musically and lyrically. Highlights for me have been the wall of sound opener, Garden of Earthly Delights, Scarecrow People, and some of the quieter tracks later on the record, like Pink Thing and Chalkhills and Children. Just pretty melodies throughout.
5. 25 O'Clock/Psonic Psunspot
Every band worth anything needs to reinvent itself, even if it's only for an album or side project. The fact that this album is so strong attests to what great songwriters they are. I love that the EP feels knocked out and trippy, while the full-length PP creates a concept record vibe. The music references are a hoot as well for nerds like me. I'm not even a big Beach Boys fan but I delight in Pale and Precious, the best Brian Wilson song he didn't write. Actually, I think it's better than anything the Beach Boys ever did but I'll be strung up by my buster browns for saying that out loud.
4. Black Sea
Black Sea feels like the culmination of the band's years touring. Each song is a perfect pop gem and there is simply no filler. After Drums and Wires, an album that had some of Colin Moulding's catchiest compositions, Partridge's work came roaring back, from the opener Respectable Street, to my personal favorite, No Language in our Lungs. This is not to slight Colin's songs in anyway. Again, there is no filler here. They are a tight machine of a band at this point and it shows in particular when you hear some of these songs played live on the various releases or videos of the band.
3. Apple Venus
Some of the finest moments XTC ever had are on this record. At turns catchy pop, musically adventurous, and absolutely sublime. It's an album to put on your headphones to and immerse yourself in from the opening drops of water to the final refrain of the Last Balloon. The album marked the freeing of the band from what I'll diplomatically call unjust servitude to their former label. And you can really hear how freeing that was on the record. Easter Theater is one of the best songs they recorded and still gives me chills as it builds.
The simple, I'd Like That, is deceptively so and the obvious first single I suppose but the unplayable on radio, Your Dictionary, is my favorite.
A masterpiece. Whether you prefer the early version without the "hit" Dear God, or the version with the track, this is an album to take you on a journey. Much is made of the Todd Rundgren production and the strife in the studio but you can't really argue with the results. I will say that if you haven't listened to the remastered version you are missing out.
The quintessential Sunday Morning Album for me, I like nothing more than to grab my cup of coffee and listen from the first sound effects of Summer's Cauldron to the end. The wordplay is a delight throughout (listen to That's Really Super Supergirl or Season Cycle) and the music itself is so perfect, tight, and controlled. Everything feels just so on the record. The album takes you on a journey and is one of the best examples of the greatness of the band and how good pop music can be. It stands alongside the best in pop music by anybody.
1. English Settlement
Full disclosure, if you ask me tomorrow to name my favorite record, it might not be English Settlement. The last four picks could have gotten this spot. But this record has a special place in my heart besides the fact that it is just a stellar double album. I first heard of XTC via the single, Senses Working Overtime, as a kid in the midwest. That song in many ways, captures the heart of what XTC does. It begins with a really odd, almost medieval sounding melody, that sounds like not much else from the 80s, and then bursts at the seams with the catchiness of the chorus. That's exactly what XTC did from album to album during their career. One track might be strange and a "grower" in terms of rewarding the listener. And then it's followed by another song that you swear should have been a #1 on the charts.
ES is full of great examples of this. It's energetic like their early live stuff, but adds textures that suggest where the band might possibly go on subsequent records. The guitar play between Gregory and Partridge is wonderful, the drumming perfectly suits the songs, and Moulding's bass is the glue holding it all together. It's by turns raucous and sublime, transcends any sense of their "punk" roots and leaves most of their contemporaries in the dust. If someone said I had to pick one XTC album for my 10 album Desert Island list this would be it. Just don't ask me tomorrow.
For over 12 Years I wrote the Reno Rambler Blog covering everything from Bicycle Advocacy, Reno Politics, Popular Culture, and my experiences as a long-time cyclist.