If you’re just joining us, check out the About This Project link for details. Basically, I make playlists of all the singles by certain musical artists and then try to order them using the guiding principle “do I like each song more than the last song.” I define “single” in a broad enough way to include any song that was released as a purchasable single in any format in any country; as a promotional single in any country; as a video; or generally any song that I know charted anywhere. My main sources are Wikipedia (mostly reliable) and Discogs (reasonably reliable). I welcome editing feedback since sometimes I favor speed over spelling.
I had two major periods of extreme Pet Shops Boys love in my younger days. First, I was an early fan of “West End Girls” because local college station WXCI played the original version of that song like a year before the reworked hit version came out. From that time through their 1993 album Very, they were one of my favorite synth-pop bands (along with New Order, Heaven 17, Depeche Mode, and a dozen or so others). Second, at some point later on in the 1990’s, I picked up a cassette version of their 1991 greatest hits package Discography and that went into heavy rotation on my Walkman. I picked up a bunch of compilation albums by favorite artists on cassette in the late 90’s because they were cheaper than CDs at the time and because it meant that I could have relatively higher quality recordings of favorite songs.
Anyhow, this is important because it means I largely missed everything the band did after 1993 until, well, very recently in fact. There are many songs on this list (probably as many as 30) that I’d not heard before working on this list. I’ve spent extra time listening to this set of songs because I want to give them all a fair chance and recognize that it sometimes takes a couple of listens before I can appreciate a song. I’m pleased to report that I don’t think the Pet Shop Boys have released any genuinely embarrassing songs – their worst are merely forgettable. On the other hand, they’ve released some genuine classics in the last, oh, twenty years that I’d not have heard if not for this singles ranking project. Yay for me!
Since the Pet Shop Boys have really targeted the dance club circuit, they have a higher-than-usual (for this website) number of promo singles. I’ve limited inclusion of 12″ promo singles to songs that saw no other release. On the other hand, four of the Pet Shop Boys songs were released in two versions that were different enough that I felt I needed to include them both (two in this section). I’ve also included several songs where the Pet Shop Boys were a named collaborator but not the featured artist.
Note (June 6, 2018): While working on the next entry to this list, I discovered a single that I had not previously been aware of and added it to the list. Thus, this section changed from “81-86” to “81-87.” I’ve included the new #81 on both lists just to be safe.
Let’s get to it.
87. Home and Dry
First single from Release (2002), released as a single in 2002
Release was a new direction for the Pet Shop Boy in that it focused more on an “Adult Contemporary” pop sound than on dance music. Not to say you couldn’t dance to it, just that the songs weren’t specifically designed for the dance floor. The album featured ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr (who had played with Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant as well as New Order’s Bernard Sumner in a supergroup called Electronic in the 90’s) on seven songs, including this one. If you’re into adult contemporary music (also known as soft rock), this might be a track that you’ll enjoy. It was a top 20 hit in the UK upon its release, so you would not be alone in enjoying this song at all. I listen to it and think that virtually any band could have created this song – other than Tennant’s distinctive voice, this doesn’t really feel much like a Pet Shop Boys songs. Indeed, lyrically, the song is a sweet (if fairly unimpressive) lovers-missing-each-other tune – not new ground for the Pet Shop Boys, but not really a stretch for them either.
Now, I have to acknowledge that I am showing a bias here. I think it’s great when bands stretch out and explore new styles (or build upon their existing style – something the Pet Shop Boys have generally done splendidly over the years). I just don’t find the adult contemporary sound to be particularly compelling most of the time (though I’ve been digging Wilco’s recent works, so clearly my mileage varies). I feel like a collaboration between Johnny Marr and the Pet Shop Boys should be something more than a pretty decent Phil Collins tune (no disrespect to Mr. Collins, who has released some genuinely excellent AC tunes over the years). The good news is, the song isn’t necessarily bad (just boring) which suggests that even the song I think is the worst Pet Shop Boys song is still pretty good.
86. The Boy Who Couldn’t Keep His Clothes On
B-Side to “Red Letter Day” from Bilingual (1996), released as an A-side promo single in 1997
OK, so, here is where things start to get confusing. This song was originally released as a the B-Side of “Red Letter Day” (coming up) but was later remixed and released as a promo single to dance clubs. It was not included on the original parent album to “Red Letter Day” (Bilingual) but has since been included on extended versions of that album. “The Boy Who Couldn’t Keep His Clothes On” strikes me more as a novelty song (in the vein of something like “I’m Too Sexy” or “It’s Raining Men”) than a serious release – perhaps why it was relegated at first to a b-side. I really liked it when I first heard it, but quickly grew tired of it. I enjoy the different singing style Tennant employs here and Chris Lowe’s synthesized suggestion of Latin horns. I also am grateful that researching this song introduced me to the term “banji” (Genius refers to the female spoken word vocal performed by Vanessa Ichak as “Banji girl monologue” and I had to do some research to figure out what that meant). The theme of the song is repressions of one’s true sexual orientation, which I think the Pet Shop Boys explored in more interesting ways on other songs. I do encourage you to listen to this song though because it really is good fun the first few times through.
First single from Bilingual (1996), released as a single in 1996
“Before” was the first single (and a top 10 hit) from Bilingual. In context of their overall career, this was the Pet Shop Boys most traditionally disco-sounding single to date (something which is to be applauded), but the problem for me is that – more than any other song on this list – I find it completely forgettable. It’s one of those songs that, when I hit play, I think “Oh yeah, that song,” but it doesn’t stay with me at all. When I make these lists, I listen to the playlist over and over from the beginning and usually restart the list each time I do. This means that I often end up listening to songs on the lower part of the list more than songs on the upper part of the list. I can sing parts of every other song in the bottom six for you on demand, but I would not be able to do that for “Before.” In conclusion, pleasant enough while it’s playing and I like the ascending “Before… before… before” backing vocals. This was a big hit though, so your plenty of other people did find this song memorable.
84. Love Life
2010 Limited edition UK Record Store Day release
A Pet Shop Boys song originally recorded by Alcazar in 2003
While I think the Pet Shop Boy’s version of their own “Love Life” is significantly more interesting than the version by the Swedish dance band Alcazar, I can’t say I’m an especially huge fan of their version either. I would have hated this song in the 80’s, though my hatred would have been more performative than real – disco was so thoroughly despised that it was difficult to admit you liked it until ’88 or ’89. Sitting here in 2018, I like it fine enough but the only part of the song that stands out for me is the fun chorus.
83. New York City Boy
Second single from Nightlife (1999), released as a single in 1999
I really like the relentlessness of this song – it feels like the chorus is going to come in no matter whether Neil Tennant is finished with his verses or not (I mean, he always finished them fine but that chorus is ready to go no matter what). The lyrics (which seem to make a reference to Bowie’s “Boy’s Keep Swinging” #33) are basically a celebration of the joys of being young while living in New York City. The song got a ton of club play in the US (It was a #1 Hot Dance Club Play song) though I suspect any competent song that had a great beat and talked about the awesomeness of New York City would have made a similar impact. My cynicism about the song is compounded because of the existence of…
82. Paris City Boy
Promo single in Europe (particularly France) released in 2004
…this French language version of the same song, ranked slightly higher because the lyrics are in French and thus sound more continental. This is literally the exact same relentless song with French lyrics. It makes one wonder why they didn’t release “Berlin City Boy,” “Tokyo City Boy,” “L.A. City Boy” and so forth. We all know that one sure way to get a local audience fired up is to say the name of their town or city when you’re performing there. I can’t help but feel like both of these songs were kind of cynical attempts at getting club play in their titular cities. Fine, fine that is part of the craft of making hit pop singles, but it none-the-less effects my ability to enjoy this otherwise fun-enough song.
One thing that does redeem it is Neil Tennant’s outfit in the video.
81. Saturday Night Forever
Promo single from Bilingual (1996), released as a single in 1997
I think there’s more songs from Bilingual on my list than from any other PSB album. I’m noticing that record companies seemed to release a lot more singles as a rule from new albums in the late 80’s through the late 90’s. There are, of course, some albums whose sheer success led to most of the songs being singles in other decades (Michael Jackson’s Thriller, for example, spawned 7 singles from its nine tracks). Anyhow, all told 7 (out of 12) songs from Bilingual are on this list. Furthermore, a couple of the other songs on this list are b-sides from the Bilingual sessions that were later released as single. “Saturday Night Forever” sounds like a tribute to the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever (remove the “or” from “forever” and you have “fever”). I genuinely enjoy the chorus (especially the “Saturday night Saturday night” backing vocals) but the rest of the song doesn’t stick in my head at all (though I quite like it when I’m listening to it). To appear higher on this list, I need to remember the whole song and not have an issue with some aspect of the song.
Coming Soon: Their Christmas single. Bah humbug.