It would be a grave misstep to box up the 15 studio albums, five live releases, and enduring album artwork of Pink Floyd and put it on the shelf under “British Rock Bands.” Though their roots have shown brightly (albeit maybe not always entirely proudly) through their work, it’s their achievements within psychedelic and space rock which earned them worldwide acclaim and a spot in the upper echelon of musicians.
To explore Pink Floyd is to explore the ebbing and flowing of states of mind over a lifetime. They go to the outer reaches of space just as seamlessly as they explore the rolling hills of their backyard and consequences of war.
But what truly makes an album “good” let alone “the best”? What makes a band–any band’s– single project worthy of top ranking and, in this cut throat sort of ranking system, the dreaded last spot? Die-hard Floyd fans may be hard pressed to line up their favourite albums in hierarchical order.
Luckily, the history, evolution, and pure data available on this band helps to create a better understanding of where their work lies on a scale from magnum opus to commissioned flop.
Like anything else, it’s completely subjective. Pink Floyd fans are many (if their 250 million album sales worldwide are anything to go by), so I move forward treading lightly, but confidently in this ranking.
Whether it be by a hair, or by a mile, this is where each album ranks, best to worst.
1. The Wall
Some people will rank this the best Pink Floyd album. Others will rank it as the best album ever made. This double album, in fact, sits in the 87th spot on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” No matter how much personal faith you have in this work, the Wall is top of the list given its story-telling concept, political commentary, and enduring singles, like “Comfortably Numb” and, of course, “Another Brick in the Wall.” This album also holds a special place in the history of the band, as it’s the last album to feature the band as a full quartet.
2. Wish You Were Here
Pink Floyd’s major commercial success with Wish You Were Here is slightly ironic, given the album is about the inescapability of the machine, and wanting to be walled up in a state of solace. This one also went off the rails from the norm of what fans expected of Pink Floyd, but gave us the ever-important “Shine On Your Crazy Diamond.” It received mixed reviews when it came out, but has since also earned a spot on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.”
3. Dark Side of the Moon
Dark Side of the Moon is recognizable to almost anyone who fancies themselves a fan of music, notwithstanding Pink Floyd fans. The iconography of the front cover’s prism refracting into rainbow is more than a zeitgeist: it’s a legend. But the music behind the light refraction is just as impressive, combining elements of light and darkness. This album gives us the ethereal vocals (as on “The Great Gig in the Sky”) as well as the very down-to-earth lust for wealth on “Money,” which became their first official US hit. This song also features the iconic guitar solo from David Gilmour. “Us & Them” and “Time” also went on to become hits on the Billboard charts.
This follow-up to “Wish You Were Here” had big shoes to fill, and it did so from cover to cover. The artwork on this one is memorable for its inflatable swine that was accidentally set loose over London. It’s befitting of an album with three of its five songs devoted to pigs.
Though the track list is short, Animals is more about the musical composition than commentary and story-telling.
5. Piper at the Gates of Dawn
This is the debut album of Pink Floyd, giving a very short-lived glimpse into the band strongly led by Syd Barret. The title itself is drawn from his own favorite childhood book. The album is childlike in a way, teetering on whimsy of innocence and the exploration of the far reaches of the mind through LSD. This album lights the way for their kaleidoscope of a career that’s to come. With time, it proves to be quintessential to the band, and is also considered one of the most important psychedelic albums in history.
This album puts its best work not in the meat, but in the crusts of its tracks. The six minute “One of These Days” starts off the album, which eventually ends with a 23 and a half minutes of “Echoes.” What’s best about this album is each member gets their time to shine. It’s personal, all adding their own elements of loved-one tributes, and gave the world a chance to look at–and fall in love with–what Pink Floyd had to offer.
7. Division Bell
David Gilmour and keyboardist Richard Wright took charge on this album, which is named after the British Parliament’s ceremony of announcing a decision. In truth, a lot of people didn’t like this album. It’s meant to explore the importance, and often inability, to communicate. This is the second to last album from Pink Floyd, and, although it didn’t receive much initial praise, became certified double platinum in the US the same year it was released.
8. Atom Heart Mother
A softness shines through on this album, as the band purposely tried to move away from psychedelic side of thing. They chose the cow for the cover art to truly achieve this dissociation. Though the last song, “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast,” may allude to some sort of spacey concept by title, it’s really just about making breakfast. This is the last track, which some consider the album’s most redeeming. Up until that point, there’s plenty of orchestral work to keep you grounded–and perhaps even a bit melancholy.
9. Saucerful of Secrets
In this album, we get the overlap of leadership from Syd Barret and David Gilmour. It stays true to space rock with “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” as a standout song. Overall, the reception was the middle of the road; not a smash hit nor a commercial flop, but a clear transition phase for the band.
10. A Momentary Lapse Of Reason
This album marks a turning point for the band, particularly David Gilmour, who had newly entered the lead role. It rose to the top of the charts immediately in both the UK and the US, with “Learning to Fly,” not to be confused with Tom Petty’s song of the same name, as a lead single. They moved away from psychedelic instrumentals and focused more so on lyrics and vocals, a move many considered to be a far cry from their true persona as a band.
11. The Final Cut
The Final Cut’s subtitle: A Requiem for the Post War Dream by Roger Waters, tells you everything you need to know about this album. This album doesn’t seek to expand the mind through drugs and rebellion. It’s a true reflection of wartime love and loss through the eyes of Waters (who lost his father to WWII). It ended up being Water’s last album with the band, and certainly one that spotlighted his abilities. Rolling Stone gave it five stars.
12. Endless River
The Endless River was, in fact, the end for Pink Floyd. The final installment in their studio album discography also acts as a tribute to their late keyboardist, Richard Wright. This song hasn’t particularly gone down in history as much as it marked the ultimate demise of Pink Floyd. The anticipation was where the excitement was held. It was the most pre-ordered album in history on Amazon.
13. Obscured by Clouds
The album that was interesting, but underwhelming. It was made to accompany a French film, La Vallée; a valley marked on a map as “obscured by clouds.” The film, exploring freedom and the pursuit of paradise outside of the confines of society, made for a surprisingly tame production from Pink Floyd. There’s certainly some synth and very light on vocals. There’s also no escaping the similarities with the Beatles.
This album was constructed as a soundtrack to a film of the same name, which centered on a drug-addled hitchhiker. Pink Floyd was the perfect match to accompany a film of this sort of counter culture. The film was controversial, to say the least, but has endured, perhaps in part, thanks to the Pink Floyd contribution. As an album itself, this off-the-walls sort of music making didn’t strike a resounding chord with fans.