Over the course of their career, Pink Floyd made 15 albums, five of which topped the UK charts. Not all of them were great (the less said about the post- Roger Waters’ era, the better) but some of them were transcendent, helping to change, shape, and define the face of popular music. For a while, they were the biggest band on the planet. To find out why, take a listen to these 20 best Pink Floyd songs of all time.
20. Set The Controls Of The Heart Of The Sun
According to Wikipedia, Set The Controls Of The Heart Of The Sun was the first (and only) time both David Gilmour and Syd Barrett appeared together on the same Pink Floyd recording. Barrett was on his way out, Gilmour was on the way in. The tensions could have been enough to sink it. They didn’t. Despite never being released as a single, it still ranks as one of the band’s most popular recordings from their early years.
19. Have a Cigar
If there was one type of person Pink Floyd never trusted, it was a suit. Especially if that suit happened to work in the record industry. Written about all the shady music execs who see music as a money-spinner rather than an art, Have a Cigar is Pink Floyd at their cynical, most tongue-in-cheek best.
18. One of These Days
Taken from the 1971 album Meddle, One of These Days is an oddity. Built entirely around a single-note bass riff, it’s almost entirely instrumental save for the bellowed line “One of these days I’m going to cut you into little pieces.” It shouldn’t really work. In the hands of a lesser band, it probably wouldn’t. In the hand of Pink Floyd, it’s transcendent.
17. Run Like Hell
It might have a disco beat, but Gilmour’s galloping six strings are what sets the tone for this most unsettling of anthems. Its dramatic key changes, guttural vocals, and disquieting, nihilistic lyrics are mind-bending. No one else could do something like this and carry it off… all the more reason, then, to be thankful for Pink Floyd.
16. Astronomy Domine
Syd Barrett may have founded Pink Floyd, but he didn’t last long with them. After just one album and a handful of singles, his erratic behavior and escalating mental health problems forced the band to cut him loose. They didn’t want to, and it took them months to build up the courage to actually tell him. In the meantime, he hung around the recording studio waiting to be asked to play and throwing his replacement, Dave Gilmour, the occasional stink eye. But while the end of his time with the band may have been tragic, the beginning was glorious, as evidenced by this stunning piece of psychedelic-prog-rock from 1967’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.
15. The Great Gig in the Sky
Named by loudersound.com as one of the best Pink Floyd songs ever, The Great Gig in the Sky was one of the last songs for The Dark Side of The Moon to be completed, and, appropriately enough, the last to be included. After the sensory rollercoaster its predecessors take us on, it serves as something of a restrained come down at first. Then back up singer Clare Torry kicks in with a rage-filled scream, ripping apart the idea that “I am not afraid of dying, any time will do, I don’t mind” before finally, inevitably, succumbing.
14. Interstellar Overdrive
Despite their reputation, Pink Floyd have never sung about space half as much as everyone seems to think they have. But here they do, and that’s A-OK. Syd Barrett’s downright dirty riffing serves as the basis for the entire song, which stretches on for almost ten minutes in total. Experimental, instrumental, and reeking in creativity, it’s one of the highlights of their debut album and, even now, of their entire career.
13. The Happiest Days of Our Lives / Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)
The Happiest Days of Our Lives is, technically, a separate song to Another Brick in the Wall (Part II), but given that it segways into the latter on the album, and is rarely if ever played in isolation, it seems reasonable to treat them as one. What’s not reasonable, on the other hand, is to assume that it’s some kind of anti-education, slacker anthem. It’s not, even if its most famous line ( “We don’t need no education”) implies it. Roger Waters’ doesn’t have a problem with education, he has a problem with the narrow doctrines that spew out generation after generation of apathetic drones, devoid of individuality and incapable of intellectual thought. Fortunately, each and every member of Pink Floyd seems to have escaped the lot of the rest of us, at least if this blisteringly creative masterpiece is anything to go by.
12. Us and Them
Pink Floyd have always been masters of space. They know when to let a song breathe – something not every band does, but which seems to come to them effortlessly. Us and Them is one of the best examples of just how much attention they pay to aural space in their songs. Serving as the relaxed centerpiece of Dark Side of The Moon, the track is quiet and almost floaty during the jazz-inflected versus. When the choruses kick, the dynamic changes, with some thunderous riffing and mindblowing saxophone from Dick Perry. Rarely can something sound sad and beautiful at the same time. This does.
Named as one of Pink Floyd’s greatest songs by Paste, Money gave the band their first trans-Atlantic hit. On paper, it didn’t have the makings of one – it’s over 6 minutes long, it’s got a sour message, and, instead of a standard 4/4 or 6/8 time signature, it rides along in 7/8 time. But people bought it… in their millions. Ironically enough for a song that lambasts the world’s obsession with money, Money made Pink Floyd very rich indeed.
10. Hey You
As Louder Sound says, despite bearing David Gilmour’s stamp (particularly in its soaring solo), Roger Waters’ middle eight vocal entry is what provides Hey You with both its grounding and its bite. As the man himself later explained to Mojo, the song was written about his emotional state in the wake of his marriage break up. “It’s about the break-up of my first marriage, all that misery and pain and being out on the road when the woman declares over the phone that she’s fallen in love with somebody else,” he explained. “It’s a complete disaster, especially if you’re someone like I was. I was flotsam on the turgid seas of women’s power. Hopeless, really, I could do nothing but go fetal and weep.” His pain is evident in the lyrics. Listening to him plaintively ask “Can you feel me?” “Would you touch me?” “Can you help me?” it’s hard not to follow his example and go fetal and weep.
9. See Emily Play
Syd Barrett thought that See Emily Play was a piece of pop trash that didn’t deserve to be played, let alone released as a single. The truth is, it’s glorious, with a psych-pop vibe, immaculate melodies, a lush production, and a simplicity and fragility the likes of which the band would never again replicate. They’d go on to make better songs, but never one quite so pretty.
Like many of Pink Floyd’s best songs, Mother is best appreciated as part of the greater album, rather than in isolation. But still, even as a standalone cut, it knocks spots off the competition, with an atmospheric arrangement and a bittersweet sentiment that finds Waters’ pointing the finger at his overprotective mother and asking “Mother, did it [the wall] need to be so high?”
7. Brain Damage
They may have ousted him, but Pink Floyd never lost their affection for the madcap genius that was Syd Barrett. Several of the band’s members worked with him on his solo efforts – David Gilmour, who replaced him, even produced his album. In their own work, they made numerous nod’s to his continuing influence. Brain Damage, the penultimate track to Dark Side of the Moon, reflects on the mental scars left on them following his descent into mental illness. It’s brave, beautiful, and almost painfully personal.
Dogs is depressing as hell. When David Gilmour sings “You have to be trusted by the people that you lie to/ So that when they turn their backs on you/ You’ll get the chance to put the knife in,” it’s all you can do not to curl up in an embryonic ball and start sucking your thumb. But for all its world-weary resignation (and it is resignation – there’s no hate in Gilmour’s words, despite how they sound on paper), it still makes for captivating listening, even if your heart does weigh heavier by the end. Radiohead clearly thought so, and even went so far as to borrow its opening synth arrangement for Kid A.
5. Comfortably Numb
Although Waters’ composed the majority of The Wall, Comfortably Numb was written alongside Gilmour, who not only offers some choice words, but one of the most visceral guitar solos in the history of rock. Factor in some frankly sinister vocals from Waters in the verses, a narrative that explores a man’s descent into insanity, and Gilmour’s almost angelic vocals in the choruses, and it’s not hard to see what makes Comfortably Numb one of the band’s most enduringly popular songs.
4. Shine On You Crazy Diamond
Wish You Were Here is the thinking person’s Pink Floyd album. A meditation on friendship, madness, and the music industry, it’s one of the most literate and intelligent albums to come out of the 1970s. Shine On You Crazy Diamond is one of its highlights. A sobering yet deeply affectionate tribute to Syd Barrett, it’s epic in both its intent (originally intended as a side-long composition, the band ultimately decided to split it in two and use it to bookend the album) and its realization.
Pink Floyd has always been an albums band, rather than a singles band. To fully understand the majesty of Dark Side of the Moon, you have to listen to it in full. If you can’t spare the time, then either make some or listen to it. Described by Ultimate Classic Rock as the album’s linchpin, Time features an extraordinary performance from the band, with David Gilmour ripping it up on guitar and Nick Mason turning it an extraordinary drum performance.
Very few songs manage to capture the essence of Pink Floyd quite so succinctly as Echoes. Taken from the 1971 album Meddle, it’s epic in length (the studio version runs 23 and a half minutes long), grand in ambition, and utterly compelling. There are no unifying themes – the group simply mixed and edited together a hotchpotch collection of instrumental pieces, laid three sets of lyrics over the top, and called it a day. Maybe that’s what makes it so hypnotizing. Richly atmospheric, it set the template for every Pink Floyd song and album to come. It was also a huge commercial success, selling over 2 million copies in the US alone and breaking the top 5 in the UK singles chart.
1. Wish You Were Here
When Syd Barrett was ousted, it wasn’t done out of animosity. By that point, his mental health was in serious decline; his removal was done as much for his benefit as for the rest of the bands. While The Dark Side of The Moon touches on the mental health issues that ate away at Barrett’s creative genius, the 1975 album Wish You Were Here is a full-blown tribute to him. Its titular track takes the band away from their usual preoccupation with raging against the machine to honor the madness and genius of their former bandmate. It’s as loving and beautiful farewell as anyone could wish for.