Ranking XTC: Less Great to Most Great

There’s a thing about lists ranking movies, TV shows, albums, etc. by their level of quality – subjectivity. These kinds of lists are just opinions and, no matter how reasoned the list-makers think they’ve been, someone is bound to disagree. At best, the list gives people unfamiliar with the topic an overview and recommendations on where to start exploring the theme. At worst, it gives the list-maker the chance to smack talk about a subject they might think to be overrated in general.

A list ranking the British Pop band XTC‘s albums from worst to best has surfaced on an XTC Facebook fan page. It has stirred up some controversy. First of all, even though I understand the technicality of language when describing a ranking list, how can a consistently great recording artist, such as XTC, have a worst album? In my opinion, they just don’t have one. They may have worst songs, some I flat out don’t like or even hate, but not a worst album in the bunch.

That’s why my list goes from less great to most great. I will handle this list in much the same way as my other ranking lists, but I might include a song pick which demonstrates a failure, in my opinion, in the band’s usual high quality. I’m also including the two albums by XTC‘s alter-ego: The Dukes of Stratosphear.

Again, this is my list, my opinion. Your results may vary.

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14) White Music (1978) This one is a bit uneven, I think mainly due to the band attempting to find its voice. Overall, the album has all that quirkiness that defined the band in their early years, which works most of the time. It seems Colin Moulding is trying a little too hard to be quirky on two of the three songs he wrote, but I’ll Set Myself On Fire is a good early effort. Radios In Motion is a fantastic opening track and Andy Partridge also scores well with Into The Atom Age, New Town Animal, and This Is Pop? (I do agree with that other list-maker that the later single version of this song is much better). However, their cover of Dylan’s All Along The Watchtower really does fall flat.

Favorite track: Statue Of Liberty

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13) The Big Express (1984) Plenty of greatness to be found, but for me the album tends to go a little heavy on the bashing drums side, as on Reign Of Blows and Train Running Low On Soul Coal. However, there is some quiet subtlety to be found on This World Over. Other stand-outs include You’re The Wish You Are I Had and I Remember The Sun. And my favorite song on the album is another fantastic opening track.

Favorite track: Wake Up

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12) Go 2 (1978) Released the same year as their first album, Go 2 shows Partridge and Moulding getting better at their songwriting. They are more focused on this their sophomore effort. Keyboardist Barry Andrews contributes two songs (My Weapon and Super-Tuff) which are early efforts for him and are OK. There’s some quirkiness still to be found on Meccanik Dancing (Oh We Go!), Buzz City Talking, and Jumping In Gomorrah; but more thoughtful songwriting emerges with Battery Brides (Andy Paints Brian).

Favorite track: Are You Receiving Me?

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11) Psonic Psunspot – The Dukes Of Stratosphear (1987) This is the second album for which the fellows donned their disguise as a 60s Psychedelic band. If you are a fan of 60s Pop and Psychedelic music, you will be a fan of the Dukes. Lots of catchy tunes and another terrific opening track : The Vanishing Girl. Other greats include Pale And Precious, Collideascope, and Shiny Cage.

Favorite track: Brainiac’s Daughter

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10) Mummer (1983) Continuing in the direction of more a pastoral Pop sound that was started on 1982’s English Settlement (I’ll get to it!), Mummer was XTC’s first studio album after the band decided to stop touring. It sounds like an album that wasn’t intended to be played live. Softer, more acoustic songs (Ladybird, Wonderland, In Loving Memory Of A Name) dominate, with the exception of Funk Pop A Roll, written by Partridge when he thought the band was about to be dropped by their record label.

Favorite track: Great Fire

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9) Wasp Star (Apple Venus Vol. 2) (2000) XTC’s swan song album is better than some folks give it credit as being. It’s got plenty of catchy tunes, including what I think is Moulding’s best song since My Bird Performs from 1992’s Nonsuch (Yes, I’ll get to that one, too!): Standing In For Joe. The band’s tradition of excellent opening tracks continues with Playground. And there are other gems to be found: I’m The Man Who Murdered Love, In Another Life, and Church Of Women.

Favorite track: The Wheel And The Maypole

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8) Nonsuch (1992) XTC’s last album before their seven year strike against and subsequent liberation from the Virgin label builds on the groundwork laid by their 1989 album, Oranges & Lemons. (Yes, yes! Be patient.) Some have said it’s a little too similar to that previous effort. Perhaps, but there’s still some really good stuff on here. Dear Madam Barnum, The Disappointed, That Wave, Omnibus, the aforementioned My Bird Performs, and Wrapped In Grey. All great tunes. But I was never fond of Rook and Bungalow. They just don’t work for me.

Favorite track: Then She Appeared

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7) Oranges & Lemons (1989) Another great opening track, Garden Of Earthly Delights, leads to an album filled with earthly delights: King For A Day, The Loving, Scarecrow People, One Of The Millions, Pink Thing… Whew! I haven’t even gotten to my favorite track yet. There’s also Poor Skeleton Steps Out, in which I learned I wasn’t the only person in the world who thought of our skeletons as separate living entities trapped inside our bodies. Andy and I are on the same page there.

Favorite track: (And just how the hell wasn’t this a mega-hit?!) Mayor Of Simpleton

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6) 25 O’Clock – The Dukes Of Stratosphear (1985) This was the first time the boys adopted new identities and brought in Dave Gregory’s brother Ian to play drums to produce an homage to their favorite tunes and artists of the 60s. The budget wasn’t big, which is why it was kept to a mere six songs, but they put every penny’s worth on the vinyl. It’s great from start to finish.

Favorite track: The Mole From The Ministry

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5) Drums & Wires (1979) Barry Andrews was out and Dave Gregory was in on this the third XTC album. Gregory’s entry not only eliminated Andrew’s manic keyboards, it expanded the guitar sound of the group. He also helped lead the band into their more pastoral, less quirky sound of their later releases. Moulding’s songwriting had greatly improved by this album and he steals the show by contributing all its best songs, which includes my favorite track and Day In Day Out, Ten Feet Tall, and That Is The Way. They all outshine Partridge’s songs. Not that Andy’s songs are bad. Oh, no. When You’re Near Me I Have Difficulty, Millions, and the terrific Complicated Game are nothing to sneeze at.

Favorite track: Making Plans For Nigel

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4) Apple Venus Vol. 1 (1999) It had been seven years since XTC fans had some new material from their favorite band. Did they break up? What had they been doing? The band went on strike against Virgin in 1992. They didn’t like their deal and the way Virgin didn’t promote them. The band finally won their freedom and went to work on this masterful album. Partridge called it an orchoustic effort, combining orchestral arrangments with mainly acoustic songs. It really is very good. Moulding’s songs, two in total, are fine, but they just don’t quite measure up to his prestrike songwriting. Partridge, however, is firing on all cylinders. Greenman, The Last Balloon, Easter Theatre, I Can’t Own Her, Harvest Festival are all lush and beautiful. The circular orchestration of the brassy River of Orchids may make it a challenging opening track, but it is a piece of excellent songwriting. Even the bitter and sad song about the dissolution of a marriage, Your Dictionary,  has its beauty and manages to uplift by the end. This album was worth the wait.

Favorite track: I’d Like That

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3) English Settlement (1982) This is where XTC began to go into more acoustic and pastoral songs. A lushness began to find its way into their sound on songs such as Runaways, All Of A Sudden, Jason And The Argonauts, Yacht Dance, and Snowman. There’s even a couple attempts at straight up dance songs: Melt The Guns, Down In The Cockpit. This double album also has the distinction of containing both my favorite and my most hated XTC songs. I can’t stand, and never could, Leisure. Its herky-jerky, start and stop pacing punctuated by Partridge barking, “Leisure!” really puts me off. The song only gets going at the very end just as it begins to fade. But my favorite XTC song is there to balance everything out.

Favorite track: Senses Working Overtime

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2) Black Sea (1980) This is the first XTC album I ever heard. It also contains the first XTC song I ever heard, Respectable Street. This album has the group almost completely losing their quirk factor and rocking out some very hook-laden pop tunes. I don’t think there’s a dud on the entire album. Partridge might disagree as he wasn’t too fond of Sgt. Rock (Is Going To Help Me), but I think that song has a certain light-hearted charm. Moulding only contributes two tracks, but they do include the excellent Generals & Majors. But it’s Partridge who is in complete command of this album. Living Through Another Cuba, Rocket From A Bottle, Paper & Iron, Burning With Optimism’s Flame, No Language In Our Lungs…Whoa! Outstanding!

Favorite track: Towers Of London

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1) Skylarking (1986) That controversial list that inspired this blog at least got this one right. The writer also put this album at number one. And it is brilliant. Out of the struggles between Partridge and producer Todd Rundgren, came this loose concept album of the passing of a single summer day. Rundgren came up with the concept and the running order of the songs they were to record after listening to the demos, but before consulting with Andy. Contentious recording sessions still yielded this masterpiece. From start to finish it is a brilliant piece of Pop music. And it provided XTC their first radio hit in America. Sort of. The song was Dear God, but it wasn’t included on the first pressing of the album. It was a B-side for the first single, Grass. American DJs liked it and played it into a hit and onto the second pressing. Stand out tracks on an album of nothing but stand outs include Summer’s Cauldron, Season Cycle, The Meeting Place, and The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul. In 2010, the album was remastered and an audio problem was corrected and it was re-released on vinyl. The song Mermaid Smiled was returned to the album, it had been removed to make room for Dear God, but the atheist anthem was still included. The original album art concept by Partridge was also used for this reissue, but it’s a little too risque to go with here. You can Google it if you are curious.

Favorite track: Earn Enough For Us

Packing Peanuts!

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