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’m noting that – perhaps because they record music that is frequently intended for the dance floor – that The Pet Shop Boys have a higher-the-normal-for-this-website number of 12″ remixes that I’ve learned about from Discogs but not from Wikipedia. This is your regular reminder that Discogs may not be 100% reliable even though I treat it like it is. This is your less regular reminder that Wikipedia is not always 100% reliable too.
50. Music for the Boys
UK Promo single released in 1991
Originally, “Music for Boys” was the b-side for “DJ Culture” (#55) and that means that this song might be the first b-side I’ve ranked higher than an a-side on any of ranking list. The tune was later released as a promo a-side in the U.K. It’s a great dance song that is EXTREMELY 90’s. Furthermore, you wouldn’t necessarily hear it and think “Oh, that’s the Pet Shop Boys,” which is something that led me to rank several songs a little lower. Fine, my prejudice for early 90’s dance music is showing. The Pet Shop Boys also released an ambient mix of “Music for Boys” on Behavior/Further Listening: 1990-91. Is ambient still a thing anywhere? For a while in the 90’s, it seemed like something that was going to take off. Well, not take off, but sort of ease in at 4 in the morning because everyone was so exhausted and didn’t want to hear anything that might even make them think about dancing.
Second single from Fundamental (2006), released as a single in 2006
48. It Always Comes As A Surprise
Brazilian promo single from Bilingual (1996), released in 1996
Neil Tennant’s vocal is the highlight of this terrific track off of Bilingual. To paraphrase the lyrics, he sounds cool and nonchalant as he sings this (to my ear) Cole Porter influenced love song (note: the “Porter” who receives co-songwriting credit with the Pet Shop Boys for this song is producer Chris Porter). Several songs on the Bilingual album had a “Portuguese/Brazilian feel” including this one. In addition to Tennant’s vocal, I also very much like guest guitarist Hugh Burns’ contribution to this song. The Pet Shop Boys vastly increased their sonic palette on this album, a decision which proved to be an excellent and timely choice. At the time, I was a bit put off because I wanted more purely electronic music (I was really loving Prodigy and Fatboy Slim around the same time) but the record has really grown on me in the intervening years.
German and UK Promo single from Release (2002), released as a single in 2003
As I mentioned way, way back when I wrote about “Home and Dry” (#87), the Pet Shop Boys’ 2002 album Release sound to me like the Pet Shop Boys were deliberately choosing to focus on Adult Contemporary pop. This produced some mixed reactions from me – I didn’t especially care for the dull “Home and Dry” but am rather enthusiastic about the Beatles-esque “I Get Along” (coming up). “London,” the third single from the album and the second one on this list, falls somewhere in between (specifically here in the “songs I like quite a bit” section). The lyrics seem to suggest a couple of people coming to London from the EU to seek a better (in this case, possibly criminally oriented) life. From Tennant’s delivery, this proposed life of crime sounds more like a stab at freedom than some sort of bank robbery spree. It sounds like the band chose to use autotune for an appropriately electronic vocal effect – this is my favorite way to use autotune.
UK only Record Store Day single from Electric (2013), released as a single in 2014
Trying to decipher the meaning of “Flourescent” just led me to discover this website by Dr. Wayne Studer which provides commentary on all of the Pet Shop Boys songs. Much like Chris O’Leary’s excellent Bowie site does for the great man – Pushing Ahead of the Dame – Dr. Studer’s site offers in-depth analysis of the work of the Pet Shop Boys along with some history and direct quotes from the band. If you love the Pet Shop Boys, I highly recommend a trip over there. As for Dr. Studer’s analysis of this song, he points out that there’s an underlying sense of menace or danger to this tune, both in terms of Tennant’s vocal but also in terms of the lyrics (which suggest the subject of the song – a “nightlife habitué” – is going to eventually burn out). He phrases it better than I can paraphrase it. What I love about this song is the way the chorus slides into the word “fluorescent” and the quirky little keyboard figure that follows that. Apparently, this song was something of a tribute to the classic new wave band Visage. I didn’t hear that before but now that I know it, it’s crystal clear.
First single from Ultimate (2010), released as a single in 2010
Many bands seem to have abandoned the greatest hits package format since the rise of digital music has rendered that sort of obsolete. Everyone can make their own greatest hits package by downloading or (more frequently these days) streaming the songs of their choice. As of 2010, the Pet Shop Boys decided they could still get some mileage out of a new package and, thus, they released Ultimate. They followed the grand tradition of including a new track on this collection so super fans would have a reason to buy it. Do fans and collectors download greatest hits collections if they’ve downloaded all the albums? Is there any joy in collecting identical digital files with different words in the “album” section of the info screen? Since I’ve now discovered Dr. Studer’s site, I can send you over to his detailed description of four different possible interpretations of the lyrics and instead focus briefly on the music. I like it, yes I do, that music. To expand, there’s a touch of delightful club bombast after the chorus – Lowe’s keyboards create one of those artificial sounds that only exist on dance songs – that stands in contrast to the (possibly) sweet and naïve or (also possibly) dark and creepy lyrics. I also dig that the first sung line we hear is, in fact, the backing “response” vocal from the chorus – this choice makes it feel to me that the song is set in the distant past of this relationship. Can’t really explain why that is, but that’s what it makes me feel.
44. She’s Madonna (Robbie Williams featuring Pet Shop Boys)
Third single from Robbie Williams’ Rudebox (2007), released as a single in 2007
Cliff Richard is one of the biggest artists in the history of the U.K. His record sales are just behind those of Elvis and the Beatles. I will not be ranking his singles, but a quick glance at his singles discography at Wikipedia will demonstrate that he had enormous success almost everywhere in the English-speaking world but the United States. For whatever reason, Richard just never clicked over here (and his few songs that did hit in the U.S. feel more like “answers to trivia questions” hits).
And that brings us to Robbie Williams. Williams, like Richard, is a U.K. hit-making phenomenon that has also never really broken through on this side of the Atlantic – or, for those of us in Hawaii, this side of the Pacific. He has had hits in Australia, so you’re not necessarily safe from Williams just because you’re separated by a large body of water. Anyhow, my point is, Robbie William could order a burger at In-N-Out Burger in L.A. at noon and nobody would bother him. He might get some flirty questions about his accent. Since this is the case, I don’t have any opinion at all about Mr. Williams or his music and at this point in my life, the only two songs I know by the dude are this one and the previous ranked “We’re The Pet Shop Boys” (#60).
Apparently, Williams was dating the woman who Guy Richie had been dating right before Richie met Madonna. According to her, when Richie broke up with her to pursue Madonna, he said “”Look, you know I really love you, but she’s Madonna.” According to Neil Tennant, Madonna dug the song. Anyhow, as Wikipedia notes, the Pet Shop Boys contribute a keyboard line inspired by Kraftwerk’s “Tour de France.”
This is a whole lot to write about a song that is a collaboration that features a different artist, but the song is really fun (that first verse especially is a delight) and the Pet Shop Boys musical contribution is key to its success. In conclusion, I won’t be ranking Cliff Richard or Robbie Williams singles, but I really should start putting together a Kraftwerk list.
First single from Elysium (2012), released as a single in 2012
This is another song that I initially ranked near the bottom of this list, but the more I’ve listened to it in the last month, the more I’ve started to love it. I was sort of dismissive initially because it is an overwhelmingly positive pop song and felt a little uncomfortably out of character for the band. Indeed, I can imagine a contemporary rock/pop act singing this tune and having an enormous hit with it. Two things happened – I saw the video which made me realize that the song is about being accepted and I thought of how much I still dig “We Are The Champions” by Queen (which, according to Dr. Studer, figured into the creation of this song). I gave the song a closer listen and found that there’s a lot to like about it – my favorite part is the lyrical sort-of-coda inserted into the final run of choruses. It’s a genuinely inspiring bit of music and makes me feel like a winner, too.
42. Left to My Own Devices
Second single from Introspective (1988), released as a single in 1988
In his analysis of this classic, Dr. Studer falls short of (in his words) “throwing up [his] hands and admitting that ‘Left to My Own Devices’ is about a lot of different things.” Indeed, I think he does a rather good job of finding a critical point of attack to a challenging set of lyrics. The song was a huge hit everywhere but the U.S. In fact, their previous single (“Domino Dancing”) was their final U.S. Top 40 hit which is shocking to me. “Can You Forgive Her?” wasn’t a top 40 hit? No “Being Boring?” Not even “Love etc?” What are we thinking in the U.S.
Anyhow, in 1988, I was a DJ at WRBC at Bates College in Lewiston, ME and I don’t recall ever seeing this album on our shelves. This suggests to me that either it was stolen (very possibly) or that it was not sent to college stations for whatever reason (somewhat possible, but a bad choice if so). Thus, my exposure to the songs from this album were exclusively from the 12″ remixes that we did receive or from MTV. I had an aversion to 12″ singles back in my DJ days for reasons that I have never examined but suspect was just obstinance. Send me to DJ detention.
I really like how the song shifts from the detached-rap of the verses to the smooth pop hooks of the chorus. This might not be in my top 40 all time Pet Shop Boys songs, but as I’ve established, I like so many of their songs that it’s been difficult to sort them accurately. This is a great song.
First single from Disco 4 (2007), released as a digital-download only single in 2007
The dystopian chant at the heart of “Integral” (“If you’ve done nothing wrong/You’ve got nothing to fear/If you’ve something to hide/You shouldn’t even be here”) resonates with me here in the United States in 2018. As it happens, the song was a pointed attack on the U.K. Identity Cards Act 2006. I did not know this context while I’ve been listening to it for the past month, but I’m struck by how much an attack on a particular bit of creeping fascism in a particular year can still sound like an attack on all creeping fascism everywhere and at all times. Dr. Studer goes into some in-depth analysis of the song that is worth your time if you’re into that sort of thing (I certainly am). I am enthusiastic about songs that critique a topic by embodying it thus showing off the terrible things about that topic. In addition, this is a great dance song and the lyrics perhaps take on a second meaning in a club setting. An album highlight from Fundamental, a remix of the song was released from Disco 4.
Coming Soon: Two terrific original versions of songs that became even better when they were rerecorded.