Pet Shop Boys’ Pop Report Card: We Grade Their 12 Albums Released Prior To ‘Super’
It’s the eve of the release of the Pet Shop Boys‘ lucky 13th album Super (out April 1), and so as we’ve done with acts like Coldplay, Katy Perry, Kanye West and Rihanna on such occasions in the past, we’ve sat down with our red pen and the stack of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe‘s prior 12 studio releases and put each one through Idolator’s Pop Report Card grading system.
The iconic British duo have made an indelible mark on popular music, thanks to a mind-boggling run of singles that first started with “West End Girls” in the mid-1980s and has carried on up through current house throwback “The Pop Kids.” Just as impressive is the body of work comprised of their albums as a whole, each one a different sonic journey for the listener.
And so while last week Idolator took a closer look at (and listen to) Pet Shop Boys’ debut LP Please upon its 30th anniversary from the angle of its groundbreaking lyrics, this time around, we’ve given marks to that album, plus the 11 that followed it, based on overall musical merit and absolute PSB-ness.
Read on to have a Pet Shop Boys history lesson ahead of tomorrow’s arrival of Super!
Precocious new students Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe went straight to the head of the class with Please, their impressive debut album, on the heels of their monster single, “West End Girls.” In an epic whoosh of Italo synths, city noise and that now-iconic bassline, “Girls” simultaneously christened the new songwriting force of Tennant-Lowe and introduced a fresh sound to the world of dance-pop. That blockbuster first single hit the Top 5 in no less than a dozen countries — including the States, where it topped the Billboard Hot 100 in May 1986 — and earned instant-classic status. Not bad for a couple of upstarts!
Despite the seemingly overnight success of “Girls,” the song had actually gone back to the drawing board a couple of times, just as most of Please had been demoed years earlier in New York with underground dance producer Bobby O. Album opener “Two Divided By Zero” was the least changed of those tracks, while “I Want a Lover,” “Opportunities,” and “Later Tonight” found new life with producer Stephen Hague. Still, the PSB penchant for emotionally detached, utterly danceable observations of modern life was already in full effect, making Please an early triumph…albeit one they’d have no trouble besting in short order. Grade: B
Key cuts: “West End Girls,” “Love Comes Quickly,” “Tonight Is Forever” “Suburbia”
Extra credit: If only to disrupt the rock purists still in abundance circa ’86, the Boys’ remix album released later that year was titled simply Disco and featured non-album club classics “Paninaro” and “In the Night” alongside extended versions of their recent pop hits. — JOHN HAMILTON
Neil and Chris earned high marks for their successful debut LP Please, but their follow-up would cement the pair’s status as masterful pupils of pop. Actually, with its infamous cover art featuring a scowling Lowe and a yawning Tennant, found the duo standing in the eye of the tornado that was their chart-ruling “imperial phase” — a self-referential term coined by Tennant in the 1990 book on the Boys, Literally. Themes such as Thatcherism, AIDS, urban decline, the darker side of love and Tennant’s overall arch observations on London life were mixed with what was becoming the Pet Shop Boys’ unmistakable signature sound. It was an intoxicating combination, as hit after hit like “It’s A Sin” and “What Have I Done To Deserve This,” a duet with the pair’s musical hero Dusty Springfield, followed. Never let it be said that Neil and Chris aren’t above playing the class clowns, though. With “Rent,” well, let’s just say the Pet Shop Boys handily proved that when you’re on a winning streak, you can sneak a dark synth-pop tune about a, um, “kept woman” (suuuure) to the upper reaches of the charts.
Always the sign of an exemplary album, even Actually‘s non-singles wound up becoming classics within the PSB canon, including disco stomper “Hit Music,” with its nod at the growing AIDS crisis, “It Couldn’t Happen Here,” an epic ballad about the demise of Tennant’s best friend featuring an orchestral arrangement by Ennio Morricone and gloriously forlorn closing number “King’s Cross.” Grade: A-
Key cuts: “What Have I Done To Deserve This,” “It’s A Sin,” “Rent,” “King’s Cross”
Extra credit: The Boys’ longstanding penchant for releasing non-album singles kicked off in the midst of their Actually campaign, when Neil and Chris recorded an unrivaled Hi-NRG version of “Always On My Mind” after appearing on a British television special celebrating Elvis Presley. — ROBBIE DAW
Having already chosen their major in Pop Hits 101, the Pet Shop Boys weren’t interested in playing it safe, hence Introspective. With only six tracks making up its 48-minute running time, it’s an album that, format-wise, has more in common with remix EP Disco than one of their previous long-players, but manages to be no less epic than Please or Actually. In fact, with its extended track lengths, unflinchingly personal lyricism and OTT production flourishes, Introspective frequently proves itself to be more complex and fascinating than its color-blocked cover art might imply.
Most of the album’s tracks are now PSB standards: the Exposé-worshipping “Domino Dancing” and anthemic “It’s Alright” kept the Boys riding high on the UK and international dance charts, whereas “Left To My Own Devices” and the twisted “Always On My Mind/In My House” indicated that the duo were ready to advance beyond the remedial confines of mainstream pop. Grade: B
Key cuts: “Domino Dancing,” “I’m Not Scared,” “It’s Alright”
Extra credit: Pet project Results, written and produced by Neil and Chris for showbiz legend Liza Minnelli, is pretty much the duo’s unofficial fourth album. Stompers abound (“Losing My Mind” should not be missed), but if Minnelli’s orchestral take on “Tonight Is Forever” doesn’t make you a Liza stan forever, then you might not know what love is. — JOHN HAMILTON
More than any Pet Shop Boys record before it, the ultra-sophisticated Behaviour signaled Neil and Chris’ graduation from pupils to Platos of pop. Trading in their usual state of the art sounds for the warmer sheen of analog synths, it’s a record whose staccato beats, hushed melodies and bubbling sonic textures perfectly match its dissertations on love, loss and desire. It also represented a bolder step forward visually, if Bruce Weber’s homoerotic video for “Being Boring” was anything to go by.
While beat ballads like “To Face the Truth” and “Only the Wind” impressed the class with the usual Pet Shop panache, this time there was a distinct air of tragedy behind the scenes. The Boys were growing up, yes, but certain lyrics remind us now that the AIDS epidemic had irreversibly made an impression on the pair: “It’s only the wind, they say it’s getting worse/ The trouble that it brings haunts us like a curse,” Neil opines wistfully at one point. But they weren’t completely out of the schoolyard, as the salty “How Can You Expect to Be Taken Seriously?” lays out a self-serving pop star (Sting? Bono?) with Tennant’s famous acid tongue, as well as a mutually unfaithful lover in “So Hard.” Elsewhere, the pair are confessional, candid and jealous, ably proving themselves the masters of singer-songwriter feels in the post-disco era. Grade: B+
Key cuts: “Being Boring,” “My October Symphony,” “So Hard,” “The End of the World”
Extra credit: On the heels of their most acclaimed release came Discography: The Complete Singles Collection, which included two new tracks that perfectly enhanced the PSB body of work: “DJ Culture” and “Was It Worth It?”, the latter of which resulting in the best PSB single cover art, ever. — JOHN HAMILTON
The Pet Shop Boys’ rebellious nature reared its head with the album that followed the release of Discography, the pair’s first greatest hits collection. By 1993, Britpop was gearing up in England, while grunge and alt rock was surging on the airwaves in America. Bands from Pearl Jam to Nirvana to Blur were carving out solid careers by dressing down in ripped jeans and sweaters and coming off as the completely “ordinary,” down-to-earth gents of raw, organic rock. Naturally, Neil and Chris opted for the non-conformist route by slipping into orange body suits and pointy dunce caps, and recording an all-out dance-pop album full of blips and bleeps and video game noises — one that sounded so very, very Pet Shop Boys.
A few highlights: To start with, the iconic CD case, with its orange Lego-like design by Daniel Weil, is now on display in New York’s Museum Of Modern Art. Gold star for that one, Boys. But more importantly, the music is perfectly executed; it is commercially viable pop at its slickest on the surface, but plum the depths and you’ll find heart, despair and Tennant’s brilliant social commentary. The singles off this album are legendary, from Gay ’90s staples like “Can You Forgive Her” and “Go West’ to the self-deprecating “Yesterday When I Was Mad.” But don’t get caught up on the hits, for Very is a project best digested a whole — an absolute staple of its decade that propels the listener on a journey through love and loss and hope.
To put it in simpler terms, Neil Tennant and and Chris Lowe’s fifth album is that rare musical specimen that most acts never accomplish: It’s a pop masterpiece. Grade: A
Key cuts: “I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind Of Thing,” “Liberation,” “Young Offender,” “Go West”
Extra credit: A limited number of copies of Very were packaged with sublimely ravey six-track dance album Relentless. Also from the Very era was one-off charity single “Absolutely Fabulous,” a tie-in with the global hit series starring Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley. — ROBBIE DAW
While traveling around Central America on their 1994 DiscoVery tour, studious Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe clearly took a shine to the music of their surroundings. The stylized rhythms and grooves of 1996 LP Bilingual, which played in a way like an extension of the pair’s Lewis Martineé-produced 1988 single “Domino Dancing,” proved that the duo were often ahead of the curve. (The album pre-dated pop’s then-forthcoming Latin Explosion by about three years.) Somewhat of an uneven record, perhaps Bilingual‘s biggest flaw, unavoidable though it may have been, is that it followed bar-raiser Very.
That said, innovative, if not unconventional, singles “Before” and “Se a Vida é” kept the Boys entrenched in the Top 10 throughout Europe’s charts as well as on the American dance scene, while album tracks “Discoteca,” “Saturday Night Forever” and the beautiful “The Survivors” kept the conversation going on AIDS, long a topic within the PSB ouevre. Notably, penultimate album track “To Step Aside” found Tennant giving the pair’s fans quite a scare by contemplating retiring altogether from the pop scene: “I look at my short life and think of all the champagne that I drink / With all the faces that I know, and how much further can one go?” Thankfully, the answer to that question is 20 years and counting. Grade: B-
Key cuts: “Discoteca,” “Up Against It,” “A Red Letter Day,” “To Step Aside”
Extra credit: A year prior to the release of Bilingual, Pet Shop Boys’ vast number of B-sides up through 1994 were collected on two-disc compilation Alternative, a generous chunk of pop perfection in its own right. — ROBBIE DAW
Three years had passed since their previous studio album, but that doesn’t mean it was pencils-down at PSB HQ. As with Bilingual before it, Nightlife had the tendencies of a concept album from the jump, and for very good reason: Much of the record had been written for the Boys’ first foray into musical theater, Closer To Heaven. Opening track “For Your Own Good” puts the pair amidst the frantic, handbag-house sound of collaborator Rollo (Faithless, Dido, Kristine W), setting a mood of late-night paranoia, jealousy and deep, dark drama.
First single “I Don’t Know What You Want But I Can’t Give It Anymore” continued the dark-night-of-the-soul theme, while follow-up “New York City Boy” took things in an opposite direction, recalling the camp glory of “Go West.” From there the proceedings delved into Bowie Studies (“Boy Strange”) and Advanced Kylie Minogue (“In Denial”), making Nightlife a playful, if sometimes jarring, affair. Still, its charms are hard to fault when evaluated individually: “You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk” wins both in terms of a quintessentially Pet Shop Boys title as well as a simply perfect pop song. Grade: B-
Key cuts: “Radiophonic,” “You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk,” “For Your Own Good”
Extra credit: “Break 4 Luv,” a one-off single with New York house DJ Peter Rauhofer (credited simply to The Collaboration) was a cover of Raze’s 1988 dance hit and released only in America. — JOHN HAMILTON
When you’ve mastered every rule in the the pop textbook, naturally there’s the tendency for artists to want to reinvent themselves. Such was the case when Neil and Chris set about recording their first album of the new millennium. Not interested in trendy producers or the best London sound facilities this time around, the pair decamped to Tennant’s home studio in the English countryside and made organic, down-tempo album Release. It was more guitars, introspection and Britpop than drum loops handclaps and euphoria. Release was also an album strangely out of step with the synthesizer renaissance that was happening in pop at the time via the electroclash movement — a genre that, we like to think, wouldn’t exist without the influence of the Pet Shop Boys!Release arrived in spring 2002, following now-classic lead single “Home And Dry.” Like with Behaviour 12 years prior, Johnny Marr laid down some handy guitar work on this album, and Tennant and Lowe produced the entire project themselves. (Do not miss the two rare electronic moments: the self-referential “The Samurai In Autumn” and the sincere, lovely “Here.”)
Alas, “stripped-down” just wasn’t what fans were looking for in a Pet Shop Boys album, and only one further single from the project, “I Get Along,” was issued in most territories. “A” for effort overall, lads, but we’re giving two strikes for Eminem send-up “The Night I Fell In Love” alone. Grade: C
Key cuts: “Home And Dry,” “The Samurai In Autumn,” “Here”
Extra credit: Was it coincidence that, after Release saw the PSBs going down a more low-key path, the all-inclusive (save for “Was It Worth It?”) singles collection PopArt was trotted out the following year? An essential set for fans and casual listeners alike, the double-disc compilation contained two back-in-fine-form singles, “Miracles” and “Flamboyant.” — ROBBIE DAW
If you look at back-to-back album eras throughout the history of the Pet Shop Boys, like Behaviour and Very, or Nightlife and Release, a pattern starts to emerge: These guys don’t give a toss about the old adage of sticking with what ain’t broke. In fact, Neil and Chris seem to almost have a compulsion to rebel against the sonic nature of each of their albums with every subsequent record. And so the only way for the duo to go after dialing down the synths with the self-produced Release was to hit the studio with the legendary Trevor Horn and craft an over the top pop manifesto, complete with a political twist.Fundamental gave the world a trio of pleasing Pet Shop Boys singles, including “I’m With Stupid,” a tongue-in-cheek number that re-purposes the quagmire that was George Bush and Tony Blair‘s political relationship in the midst of the Iraq War as a misunderstood love affair (“I have to ask myself like any lover might / Have you made a fool of me, are you not Mr. Right?”) and the Diane Warren-penned “Numb,” which was, of all things, originally offered to and rejected by Aerosmith. Neil and Chris also demonstrated that they still had the skills to whip up a haunting electro-ballad in the vein of “King’s Cross” and “It’s Only The Wind” with “I Made My Excuses And Left.”
Now 20 years into their output, Fundamental remains an overall solid effort from Tennant and Lowe slightly hindered by half the tracks being ballads. Grade: B-
Key cuts: “I Made My Excuses And Left,” “Minimal,” “I’m With Stupid,’ “Integral”
Extra credit: Neil and Chris moonlighted in 2006 as producers and featured artists on two songs for Robbie Williams‘ Rudebox album — the My Robot Friend cover “We’re The Pet Shop Boys” and “She’s Madonna,” an unabashed moment of ’00s pop bliss. — ROBBIE DAW
The first half of 2009 brought a turning of the political page when Barack Obama entered the White House. Simultaneously, in Pet Shop Boys Land, there was a collision of pop heavyweights, as then-recent BRIT Outstanding Contribution To Music winners Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe released their milestone 10th album, produced by the UK hit factory known as Xenomania (Cher, Girls Aloud, Kylie Minogue). With Yes, Neil and Chris managed filter the public’s ecstatic sense of post-Bush/Blair era hope through the Xenomania machinery and record an LP that, within the Pet Shop Boys’ own catalog, was rivaled on the pop euphoria scale only by 1993’s Very.The upbeat Yes literally had everything one hopes for with a Pet Shop Boys album, including coy lyrics (“Love etc.”), wink-wink song titles (“Did You See Me Coming?”), political musings over a dance beat (“More Than A Dream”), a lush ballad featuring trademark PSBs chords (“King Of Rome”), guitar work by Johnny Marr (“Beautiful People”) and vocal contribution from Chris Lowe (“Building A Wall”). Add to it that the duo scored a Grammy nomination for the LP, and, well — watch and learn, young students of pop. Grade: B+
Key cuts: “All Over The World,” “King Of Rome,” “Pandemonium,” “The Way It Used To Be”
Extra credit: “The Loving Kind,” a Tennant/Lowe/Xenomania composition originally intended for Yes, was ultimately given to Girls Aloud, thus leading to what’s got to to be the only time a girl group uttered the word “disinclined” in song. — ROBBIE DAW
The Pet Shop Boys have never been shy about evaluating their own mortality (see: “Being Boring”), but the supple, subtle Elysium was perhaps their most personal presentation on the subject — as it pertained to their lives as well as to their time in the spotlight. Singles “Leaving” and “Memory of the Future” touched poignantly on what’s left behind when a loved one shuffles off this mortal coil, whereas the sparse “Invisible” and “Your Early Stuff” bore out the experience of shuffling off the charts. “Justified by the end of youth, the party’s over and I’m not much use” is pretty much the most heartbreaking thing a pop star can sing, no?
Elsewhere on the album they appeared hopeful (Olympic anthem “Winner”) and bitchy (“Ego Music”) as ever, but the overall mood seemed to be that of peaceful resignation. If Elysium’s shimmering sadness made fans worry about Neil and Chris dropping out of class all together, there was some hope to be found in the album’s retro-banger “A Face Like That,” not to mention a single remix of “Memory Of The Future” done by Madonna collaborator Stuart Price, who had previously produced the Boys’ BRIT Awards medley in 2009. Indeed, Elysium marked the Pet Shop Boys’ contract fulfillment and exit from Parlophone, leaving them the freedom to set up their own label, reignite their creative fires and thrill listeners all over again with the album that followed. Grade: B-
Key cuts: “Leaving,” “Memory of the Future,” “A Face Like That,” “Invisible”
Extra credit: Format, a companion to their previous B-side anthology Alternative, assembled their complete run of B-sides and soundtrack cuts from 1996 thru 2010, including the Bilingual-era kitsch masterpiece “The Boy Who Couldn’t Keep His Clothes On,” fan favorites “Between Two Islands” and “Always” and the hilarious grave-robber techno of “The Resurrectionist.” — JOHN HAMILTON
If fans feared the end of the Pet Shop Boys with Elysium (and who could blame them when that album’s final track was a literal requiem), Electric was a confirmation in every way that they weren’t going anywhere. From opening banger “Axis” to final track “Vocal,” the beats were bright and insistent, the songwriting as melodic and wry as ever, and even the artwork seemed to have taken on a fresh new spin. Neil and Chris were back to show the new class how it’s done.
Working with producer Stuart price, the Boys crafted a non-stop electronic opus, heavy on the synths and lasers with nary a ballad to slow down proceedings. Lead single “Vocal” was their statement of intent, echoing their classic take on Sterling Void’s “It’s Alright” and evoking the spirit of late 1980’s rave culture. Other jams like “Fluorescent” and “Inside A Dream” worked extended grooves, riding iconic synth bells and bumping basslines to clubland glory, perhaps a tongue in cheek nod to fans’ expectations but also a very real return to the world of Hi-NRG dance. Grade: A-
Key tracks: “Thursday,” “Inside A Dream,” “Vocal”
Extra credit: Never ones to take a vacation, in 2014, Neil and Chris presented A Man From The Future, a new work of music inspired by World War II code breaker Alan Turing, at the BBC Proms. — JOHN HAMILTON