It is perhaps the ULTIMATE SIN OF ROCK N’ ROLL that XTC are not mentioned right along side The Beatles as the greatest pop band of all time. They are just as good, some would say better. Don’t miss the point, and that point is that people are missing out by not knowing XTC. The band came out of the punk era as a nervous, excitable bunch of kids. They stood out from the crowd though, becoming ‘perfectors’ of the pop song and melodic visionaries. They take some getting used to, that is for sure, but there is not a band I can think of that is more likeable that this one. When growing up I used to love say, Barenaked Ladies or Ben Folds Five, I had always heard of Skylarking being an influence on them. When listening to any “indie” band in the 00’s, it is impossible not to hear White Music or Drums and Wires as inspiration. This makes XTC easily one of the most influential bands sadly unknown to the average person (and no R&R hall of fame induction yet? You gotta be joking). One of the reasons I do this site is to educate others like myself who love rock music and trust me, if you like music you’ll appreciate XTC in a very large way.
Andy Partridge – Vocals, Guitar
Colin Moulding – Bass, Vocals
Barry Andrews – Keyboards (White Music and Go 2)
Terry Chambers – Drums
David Gregory – Guitar, Percussion (Drums and Wires – Apple Venus)
English Settlement and Skylarking
The Beatles, Beach Boys, The Bonzo Dog Band, Big Star, Todd Rundgren
1978 – (4.5 / 5) − White Music
1979 – (3 / 5) − Go 2
1979 – (5 / 5) − Drums and Wires
1980 – (5 / 5) − Black Sea
1982 – (5 / 5) + − English Settlement
1983 – (3.5 / 5) − Mummer
1984 – (3.5 / 5) − The Big Express
1986 – (5 / 5) − Skylarking
1989 – (3.5 / 5) − Oranges and Lemons
1992 – (4.5 / 5) – Nonsuch
1999 – (4.5 / 5) − Apple Venus
2000 – (1 / 5) − Wasp Star
Sidenote: Ignore the bonus tracks at first on these albums. Each XTC recording has been bastardized with rereleases and bonus tracks in the middle of albums, stuff like that. Do yourself a favor and listen to the records in their original orders and THEN see if you like the bonus songs. There are many great bonus tracks, don’t get me wrong, but it can all be very distracting.
White Music – (4.5 / 5)
Toss years of twisting and torture onto your stereo and bam – you have XTC’s first album. You can dance and bop to the pop, but you also must have a unique sense of humor and get what they are being sarcastic about. I mean, this is starting off like XTC is a hard band to get into, which is the total opposite (but early XTC is different from their classic era stuff). Most of the band’s short, punchy songs sound effortless and spontaneous at the same time. Songs like “I’ll Set Myself on Fire”, “I’m Bugged”, “Crosswires”, and “Spinning Top” have this quality, though they are great songs. There are some standout, pop single ready songs – “This is Pop”, “Radios in Motion” and radical closer “Neon Shuffle” are the easiest to like, but the “filler tracks” might be considered just as good. Really it’s all one nervous, mechanical, fun ride. There is not one song I don’t like on here, though the variety of good to great songs does vary. Comparisons to Devo, The Police, and The Clash are right on, but XTC has a uniqueness of their own and this album can stand right by all of those early punk band’s debuts (save The Clash, which is in a league of its own). The best song off of here, which also illustrates where I am coming from, is their version of Dylan’s classic “All Along the Watchtower”. They give a paranoid, drugged-out twist on the song which completely gets down to the core of why it is so great, something I had personally not seen before. White Music has a flow to it, a unique little universe that establishes the band as a talent different then their contemporaries. What they might do in the future after a debut like this is unsure, but for a debut this is very unappreciated and also simultaneously very influential on all Naughties rock music.
Greatest Tracks: Radios in Motion, All Along the Watchtower, Neon Shuffle, This is Pop
Go 2 – (3 / 5)
The inevitable sophomore slump shows the band with less of the same – the album has a little worse production, is less consistent, and just shows a band that should have waited longer between albums for more material. Where White Music was a factory of quirky fun, Go 2 feels like its out of ideas. Basically I don’t feel like writing a lot about it but I’ll try; that is the impression it leaves upon us. “Red” and “The Rhythm” are the best and most thought out songs, which no one ever agrees with me on, and even the tunes that supersede their reputation don’t match up like “Are You Receiving Me” and “Mechanic Dancing”. Still, it is hardly as bad of a slump as some records have been on the second go around, and it is worth hearing for the die hard fan. “Battery Brides”, “Jumping in Gomorah” and “Beetown” are fun little novelties, and of course there are keyboardist Berry Andrews’ two songs at the end that also make it a fun act. Andrew’s added a lot of dementia to the bands sound, and I guess he begged for a spot for his songs “Super Tuff” and “I am the Audience”, and what a surprise we all got! He just sounds like a not so talented Colin Moulding to me, and these songs are certainly more of an oddity than anything. It is hard to find any in depth reviews of this record, which is a shame, but when the search is done and the effort is made the results are all the same: Go 2 is ok, but not essential listening.
Greatest Tracks: Red, The Rhythm
Drums and Wires – (5 / 5)
For fans of the band in the late 70’s, the slump of Go 2 was hardly noticeable at all because the bands third album, Drums and Wires, is their crowning achievement by far. Simultaneously fulfilling the promise of White Music and making Go 2 seem like a bunch of b-sides (which is likely), Drums and Wires finds the band without permanent keyboardist Andrews. Replacing him on guitar/keyboard is David Gregory, finalizing the band’s classic line up. And classic album this is, right from the get go with “Making Plan for Nigel”, songwriter Moulding tells the tale of a very traditional British family who want nothing more than to plans their son’s life for him. It is set to a crazy guitar and drum loop and is the best single song the band had done do this point. The rest of the record measures up though, whether it’s the similar working class tale of “Day in Day Out”, the observations of “Roads Girdle the Globe”, or the maniacal struggle of “Complicated Game”, which will most likely scare the hell out of anyone on first listen. What changes in XTC’s legacy with Drums and Wires is the grown up attitude the band develops. These are no longer the child like songwriters of White Music; they have traveled the world and have made some very real observations about society, as well as grown some musically. So they evolve, but it is very natural and, again, effortless like all good music should be. Yes, it is not a perfect record in my opinion, “That is the Way” and “Outside World” could have been switched for the even better “Life Begins at the Hop” and “Chain of Command” (b-sides and bonus tracks of the time) and “Ten Feet Tall” never has fit quite right to me. But in all, the record has strong songs and each could be taken on its own and it is just such great music. It’s all here: power pop, dementia, rhythm, lyrical genius, and it is all combined in a way only XTC can do it.
Greatest Tracks: Making Plans for Nigel, Complicated Game, Millions, Roads Girdle the Globe
Black Sea – (5 / 5)
On the fourth record, it is like the band has gotten into the “habit” of making perfect pop records. Just as good as Drums and Wires, it is actually a little tighter and punchier to boot. Most of all, stellar songs run rampant from the political sarcasm of “Respectable Street”, “Generals and Majors”, “No Language from our Lungs” to the more straight pop rock of “Rocket from a Bottle”, “Sgt. Rock”, “Burning with Optimisms Flames” and “Towers of London”. Oh, don’t forget the dementia of tribal closer “Travels in Nihilon” and the guitar break in “Love at First Sight”. Wowsa! Just how perfect can a band make pop music and why do more people not worship this band? A question for another day I guess. While not a absolutely perfect, because of the lame “Paper and Iron” and the drawn-out hokey-ness at the end of “Living Through Another Cuba” which is cute, but not as cute as they want it to be. I can’t think of much else to say except this is more of the same from the XTC that made Drums and Wires, a band at the top of their game and enjoying every second of it. XTC inherit the British tradition of telling tales of old merry England form The Kinks before them, but they perhaps surpass them because they saw beyond pure pop and pompous and into the dark heart of human beings (well that and they stayed consistent over the years). They see the big picture, have learned from their forefathers, and Black Sea shows off that strategy stunningly.
Greatest Tracks: Rocket from a Bottle, Towers of London, Generals and Majors, Travels in Nihilon
English Settlement − (5 / 5) +
Here is a record that shows a band growing, but also rising above all expectations. Drums and Wires and Black Sea really showed the world we are dealing with a special band here, a band that can effortlessly toss off some consistent pop albums, which is a pretty rare feat in rock music. Add to that formula of a band at its peak mysticism, style experimentation, expanded instrumentation, a more specialized production, and you have an idea of English Settlement. It is just as consistent as the albums before it, but its 72 and a half minutes long, so that puts it in a class of its own. Songs lengths are expanded but not to annoying effect like so many double albums, each of these songs feel like they should be as long as they are. The balance of music in the flow is perfect too: Moulding opens it up with a one two punch of “Runaways” and The Beatles’ “Getting Better” homage “Ball and Chain”, which sound like they were written by completely different people, and later his “Fly on the Wall” and “English Roundabout” show great versatility and melodic depth – it’s his best batch of songs for an XTC album. Partridge writes the other eleven tracks, and with the exception of the passable “Leisure”, they all shine. “Senses Working Overtime”, “No Thugs in Our House” and “All of a Sudden” all bear his stamp of being single ready, inherently English, and complex. However, things really shine on the political rap of “Melt the Guns”, the pacifism of “Knuckles Down”, and clash of styles in “Snowman”, “It’s Nearly Africa”, and “Yacht Dance”. English Settlement is often referred to as a fan favorite, but really I just think it strikes at the core of what makes the band great: it is the ultimate showcase of their melodic fantasies.
Greatest Tracks: Melt the Guns, Snowman, Knuckle Down, Runaways, Fly On the Wall, No Thugs in Our House
Mummer – (3.5 / 5)
And after the breakdown, all he could let out was a small sound. Yes, Partridge had a nervous breakdown about performing live after English Settlement, and from then on (1983 – present) XTC has been only about studio records. It has been said that is the reason for this records more “produced sound”, which is a false statement. Where as the last album had timeless production, this one is more of a 1980’s kind of sound. This fact makes Mummer a difficult listen for sure, because even when wanting to enjoy some of the band’s more laid back songs it is almost impossible; the over production gets in the way. Sometimes it works, like on “Deliver Us from the Elements” and “Funk Pop a Roll” which are some of the band’s trademark demented rock songs (the bonus track “Gold” that was left off the album is better than any song on it in my opinion), or on the relaxed “Wonderland” and “Me and the Wind”. The rest of the album is hardly bad, but not great either, to the point where naming songs becomes a moot point. The album comes off as feeling longer than it is and more of a strain then it should be even though it is a good, entertaining listen throughout. Now don’t misunderstand me people, the “production” more the most part is genius and very enjoyable – it is just that it over shadows the music to the point of instead of remembering “songs” you remember “sounds” about Mummur.
Greatest Tracks: Deliver Us From the Elements, Wonderland, Me and the Wind
The Big Express – (3.5 / 5)
What is strange about the band’s seventh record is it’s almost exactly like the previous one: the production stands out more then the songs! The difference, just about the only difference, is that there are more stand out tracks on this record and also more complete misfires. It starts off with three killer tunes: “Wake Up” is a genius single that makes good use of the band’s new studio mastery and recalls Warren Zevon’s “Join Me in LA” at times; “All You Pretty Girls” is defiantly 1980’s in a good way; and “Shake Your Donkey Up” makes you wonder how exactly the band rights these unique pop songs. There are multiple misfires after that (“The Every Story of Small Town”, “I Remember the Sun”, “Scream Seagulls”) and the album is somewhat of a chore to wade through, the largest misfire being the closer “Train Running Low on Soul Coal”, the band’s worst attempt ever at a song. But there some moments of glory latter on two songs, the moody ballad “This World Over” and one of the greatly overproduced tracks of the band’s career, “Reign of Blows”. The six good songs on The Big Express make the album worth getting for the diehard, but like Mummer, it is not essential listening.
Greatest Tracks: Reign of Blows, Wake Up, Shake Your Donkey up, This World Over
Skylarking – (5 / 5)+
Sidenote: There are at least 3 versions of this album, but this is the most prominent one these days AND it contains all possible songs, so I’m going to rate this version. This matters a lot to me yes, because I rate by consistency and if certain tracks are not on here (“Dear God” and “Mermaid Smiled” especially) it does indeed make a difference.
Skylarking is the band’s great attempt at an ultimate statement, at least this is how it comes off. It is a concept album about life and death that you can actually relate to, certain songs flow from one to the other continuously and it sees Moulding and Partridge working together like never before. Pure pop is the goal here, unlike The Big Express and Mummer where random studio trickery seemed to ‘propel’ the ideas. Seriously, the ideas on Skylarking are just better and it is right up there after English Settlement as the band’s best work. Accessibility? Yes, get this XTC album first and you will be hooked for life – “The Meeting Place”, “That’s Really Super Supergirl”, “Earn Enough for Us”, and “Big Day” are the most likeable right off and “Summer’s Cauldron”, “1000 Umbrellas”, “Dying” and “Dear God” are the ones you love once you REALLY get into the flow of things. Rundgren’s production cannot be ignored of course because the man just does a great job of knowing how the band should sound (though XTC quite disagreed with this and their feud still goes on to this day)! The album is one of those you can listen to with anyone, and recalls the best part of the band’s great works: the diversity of English Settlement, the conciseness of Black Sea, and some of the hooks from Drums and Wires while adding a kind of toned melodic sense. In other words, what is missing form their demented and ‘in your face’ kinda style on the 1970’s albums is replaced with an adult kind of understanding of how music works. It makes pop music seem easy to do, because it is so fun to listen to and that is quite an accomplishment for a 45 minute record.
Greatest Tracks: The Meeting Place, Dying, Another Satellite, Earn Enough for Us, Summer’s Cauldron
Oranges and Lemons – (3 / 5)
Sigh. That is all I can really say about this one. It is not horrible, but maybe it was necessary with the bands career to show why they succeeded before. You see, XTC was never band that gave you too much music per album (except for English Settlement and they could back that up with their best songs), and even when they tried too hard for all tastes (Big Express, Go 2), it was fairly short and to the point. Here the band crosses the line into pure excess and who knows why they did it but it is just to long! Where Skylarking was 15 songs in 45 minutes, Oranges and Lemons is 15 songs in 65 plus! Even if they could pull this length off (again see English Settlement), they don’t have the songs and try too make it up in production. See the opener “Garden of Earthly Delights” where there is absolutely nothing going on musically, but it goes on somehow for five minutes. The same is true more much of the album, and some songs like “Scarecrow People”, “Hold Me Daddy”, and “Miniture Sun” should have been completely trashed. “Pink Thing” is unintentionally funny also because Partridge keeps singing about the mysterious “pink thing” he loves so much…we’ll leave that one open for discussion…..
Even if the album was say, 10 songs, it still might not save it. “Mayor of Simpleton”, “King for a Day”, and “The Loving” are the sole reasons from this album to exist and having them there just casts a bad light on how shabby the rest of the production is. These three singles are everything great about the pop music side of XTC, and in all honesty the world is a better place for having those songs in them; “Mayor of Simpleton” is perhaps the band’s greatest song period. XTC is known for being a singles band more than an albums band, and while that is not true for most of their discography and a grave misjudgment of the band’s talent, Oranges and Lemons is the one record where that kind of rings true.
Greatest Tracks: Mayor of Simpleton, King for a Day, The Loving
Nonsuch – (4.5 / 5)
This album is a divider among the band’s fans, but I think it is great. It might be a little longer than the early records, but it marks a new transformation for the band: a kind of laid back comfort seeps through on Nonsuch that shows Partridge and Moulding growing up as artists. Surely, the XTC of the 90’s is a far cry from the 70’s and even the 80’s. While it takes a different kind of ear to appreciate, I think the band comes off with one its better efforts with this record. Moulding pleases us with his “War Dance” and “Bungalow”, while making more defiant statements on “Smartest Monkees” and “My Bird Performs” with the great lyrics “Fine art never moved my soul, no vintage wine designer clothes”. Partridge also succeeds in this laid back style, creating an album of his own at 13 songs that has everything form pure rock music (“Ugly Underneath”, “The Ballad of Pete Pumpkin Head”) to melodic ballads (“Wrapped in Grey”, “The Dissapointed”) to the poppiest of pop music (“Omnibus”, “Dear Madam Barnum”). Perhaps the only thing keeping the album from being a masterpiece are the duds “Crockadile”, “Rook”, and the more difficult “That Wave”, but even those songs are more out of place then out-right bad. Though it is quite a long listen, it succeeds in being relaxed, adventurous, and life affirming. Nonsuch rejuvenated the band in a new decade and is the best post-Skylarking XTC release. XTC’s legacy in being underrated is best expressed through Partridges lyrics in the closer “Books are Burning”, “You know where they burn books, people are next.”
Greatest Tracks: War Dance, The Ugly Underneath, Dear Madam Barnum, The Ballad of Peter Pumpkin head
Apple Venus pt. 1 – (4.5 / 5)
If you enjoyed “Wrapped in Grey” from Nonsuch, it kind of paints the picture of what Apple Venus pt. 1 sounds like. Originally part of a double album (though it holds up much better viewed separately), this was the band’s “experimental” attempt later in their career. It honestly just sounds like a natural successor to the previous record with its laid back orchestration and comfortability. Some elements of the record really soar, like the breathtaking “Easter Parade” and “Greenman”, epic sounding songs that bring even more to Partridge’s ability as a songwriter. Some of them are more subdued, like “Knights in Shining Karma” which carries with it a kind of new age feel, and latter moments of “Harvest Festival”, “I’d Like That” and “I Can’t Own Her” also stand out. Moulding has his final great XTC moment with “Frivolous Tonight”, one of his best songs, with a Beach Boys beginning and lyrics that make fun of upper class living. Truly a fun and fantastical voyage through pop music form the band’s 60’s icons and beyond. Last but not least we have “Rvier of Orchids”, the opener and stunner of this whole set that really makes you wonder, “Will these guys ever stop morphing and outdoing everybody?” They might not be as prolific as they used to be but I’d have to say that is a good thing, most band’s don’t know when to stop. Truly, XTC has preserved through 20 years of great albums, sounding very different form White Music for sure at this point, but still on top of their game.
Greatest Tracks: River of Orchids, Frivolous Tonight, Harvest Festival, Knights of Shining Karma
Wasp Star – (1 / 5)
The band’s last album is the only bad one they ever made. It is not worth your time.
Greatest Tracks: You and the Clouds Will Be Beautiful