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 find that I spend a lot more time paining over the songs at the lower ends of these lists than the songs at the upper end. See, as I complete more sections of the list, I can make little adjustments here and there as I go. Once I’ve written about a song, I feel like I’ve committed to leaving it in the spot I placed it (until such a time as I revisit that band, assuming I ever do that). Thus, I am much more certain about the placement of songs I’ve ranked higher than songs I’ve ranked lower. In this spirit, with great confidence, let’s start looking at my choices for the top 30 Pet Shop Boys songs.
Third single from Fundamental (2006), released as a single in 2006
When cool detachment is your default state, a song that betrays deep emotion can be very effecting. “Numb,” a song that seems to be about dealing with the horrors of living in the 21st century (Dr. Studer has more to write about this at his excellent Pet Shop Boys Commentary site), has that sort of effect on me. Written by composer Dianne Warren, and produced by Trevor Horn (who produced ABC’s Lexicon of Love album), the lush orchestration of the song compliments Tennant’s repressed vocal creating the sense that his detachment is just a façade.
What I Love: The moments where the instrumentation switches from electronic to acoustic and back.
29. I Get Along
Second single from Release (2002), released as a single in 2002
I’m sorry to report that Dr. Studer shoots down my interpretation of this song – specifically that the lyrics are a sort of kiss off to the USA since they’re doing quite well without us. Alas! Neil Tennant has stated that there are some political undertones to the song, but they’re strictly of a UK nature. I’d originally ranked this song higher and while I like it just as much as I did when I started ranking these songs, I decided that there were a dozen or so songs I liked even more.
What I Love: This sounds like a Beatles tune to me – like an “All You Need Is Love” era tune – but one where the Beatles were much more bitter and cynical. I love it.
Limited edition fifth single from Super (2016), released as a single in 2017
Sometimes as I’m working on ranking songs, I find a song that I didn’t previously realize I loved and keep moving it up into the next batch of songs until I just can’t rank it any higher. “Undertow” is one of those songs. Currently, “Undertow” is the most recent single from the Pet Shop Boys (Dr. Studer describes how it’s status as a single is complicated) and if you can’t dance to it, there’s something wrong with your sense of rhythm. I feel like some of the Pet Shop Boys forays into contemporary dance music have been indistinguishable from any of a hundred DJs and acts, but “Undertow” manages to sound both current and connected to the band’s stylistic history
What I Love: Much like an actual undertow, the song is relentless and feels like it’s pulling you down… to the dance floor. Or making you dance in your car so you get pulled over by the police. My point is, dance.
27. Se a vida é (That’s the Way Life Is)
Second single from Bilingual (1996), released as a single in 1996
I wrote off Bilingual (and the band) in 1996. Indeed, it was the last Pet Shop Boys album I purchased at the time of its release until 2013’s Electric. I remember reading about a music critic who hated Michael Jackson’s Thriller when it came out and gave away his copy only to purchase every single released from the album (that’s seven of thirteen songs). There were six singles from Bilingual and I’ve come to realize that I dig almost all of them which, in turn, has made me reassess the album. I state here and now – I was wrong. Bilingual is a terrific record and is worth your time. “Se a vida é” was a huge hit all over Europe but – typically for the mid-90’s Pet Shop Boys – a no-show on the US charts. “Se a vida é” really isn’t my kind of song – it’s a little too poppy and even a little too cheery. Something about it – I think the rhythm which was borrowed from a Brazilian song – wins me over every time.
What I Love: Also, I love the chorus so much. I can’t explain why. Its one of those mysteries of music.
26. You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk
Third single from Nightlife (1999), released as a single in 2000
Based solely on the title, I was expecting this song to be humorous on some level. Nope – “You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk” is serious and surprisingly moving. Dr. Studer makes a convincing argument that the Pet Shop Boys set out to create their version of a country song (complete with a steel guitar). The lyrics support this argument – in fact, if I’d known it was intended to be a country song, the title would even have seemed more serious. This is one of the Pet Shop Boys most successful forays into another style (while maintaining the vocal and electric elements that make them a distinct band). You’ll note that I don’t have a lot of personal anecdotes associated with this particular stretch of songs – they’re just really solid singles.
What I Love: That steel guitar.
25. Losing My Mind
Fulfilling the dream of every Broadway fan, the Pet Shop Boys produced an album titled Results for Liza Minelli in 1989 that featured the great singer performing their version of Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind.” The album didn’t fare especially well in the United States (because we’re uncultured heathens), but it was an enormous success in Europe. They prepared a demo of the song for her that was eventually a white label release in the UK. It’s a great arrangement and the backing track on both versions is essentially the same (albeit in different keys, as suits the voices of the different singers). This is one of my favorite of the Pet Shop Boys covers an if it were not for the annoying laugh/screams in the chorus, I’d rank it considerably higher. Minelli opted not to include those and her version is better for it. Love you, Liza.
What I Love: This is one of Sondheim’s best songs (listen to the Dorothy Collins version above if you have a chance) and when the Pet Shop Boys approach it with the love they clearly have for it, it’s a delight in their hands.
24. Love Is a Bourgeois Construct
Third single from Electric (2013), released as a single in 2013
Electric, as I’ve mentioned, was the album that brought me back into Pet Shop Boys fandom. I confess, it was the title of this song that drew me back in but then when I listened to the song (with its faux-symphonic hook and fantastic, ironic lyric) it exceeded all expectations. In fact, the whole album was a most pleasant surprise (I’ve even placed one song from Electric in my top ten). Neil Tennant likes to write songs about losers (“Opportunities” is the most famous example) and this song’s jilted lover – who buries himself in Marx and rejects the bourgeois – is one such character. Note the last line of the song if there’s any questions about that point.
What I Like: I love the symphonic hook that fades in at the start and continues through the song.
23. One More Chance
Stand-alone single released in 1984
Before they released their first album, the Pet Shop Boys recorded a series of songs with producer Bobby Orlando. Two were released as singles and one of them (“West End Girls” was remixed and released again to much greater success. “One More Chance,” ironically, did not get one more chance at climbing the charts (though it did find a home as an album cut on Actually). The song is of a very different character than the other early Pet Shop Boys songs – the lyrics are a earnest (?) plea from a dumped lover for (Yes!) one more chance. I can’t honestly say how I’d have felt about this song in 1984 (I first heard it some years after hearing the Actually version) but at this point in my life, I love the original unabashedly. It’s one of the few Bobby O era singles that I think wasn’t improved in the newer version.
What I Love: In toto, it’s just so dramatic and desperate.
22. I’m with Stupid
First single from Fundemental (2006), released as a single in 2006
It’s just like Americans to assume that every song is about us. When “I’m With Stupid” first came out, many writers in the USA focused on the fact that the titular stupid person was George W. Bush (which raises the question “what must PSB think of the current denizen of the White House?”). While this is true, the song is really more focused on the titular “I’m,” which is to say Tony Blair. More specifically, it’s about the relationship between the two, as Dr. Studer explains in detail. When this popped up on my radar is 2006, I was briefly interested but not enough to jump back on the Pet Shop Boys wagon. I appreciate clever, pointed political commentary in song form (and this is certainly that) and was not a fan of W, so I got a kick out of hearing him called flat-out stupid in a pop song. As it happens, the lyrics suggest that W wasn’t so much stupid as he was playing dumb for the sake of his base. But, again, the song is about England’s relationship with America not specifically about America. It’s like we hear our name and think this song is about us (don’t we don’t we?).
What I Love: Could that chorus have a better hook? Whoa-oa….
21. Memory of the Future
Third single from Elysium (2013), released as a single in 2013
I encourage you to read Dr. Studer’s analysis of the lyrics of “Memory of the Future” as a leaping off point for understanding the brilliance of this song. I was initially drawn to it because of the way “Over and over again” pre-chorus blossoms into the “it’s taken me all of my life” chorus. Musically, lyrically and vocally that is a magical moment. In fact, it gives me chills when I hear it. While I think the single version of this song is slightly inferior to the slower album version, “Memory of the Future” is easily my favorite track on Elysium and just outside my top 20 Pet Shop Boys singles.
What I Love: In addition to the pre-chorus to chorus moment, Chris Lowe’s synthesizer work is at its most lush here.
Coming Soon: You’ll note that I’ve not yet ranked any of the singles from Please or Actually.