Every The Pogues album ranked from worst to best

The Pogues
(Image credit: Steve Rapport/Getty Images)

In Julien Temple’s 2020 documentary Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan, the co-founder and frontman of The Pogues says of his childhood holidays in Tipperary, “God looked down on this little cottage in Ireland and said, ‘That little boy there, he’s the little boy that I’m going to use to save Irish music’.” 

MacGowan is only ever half joking. But if Our Lord meant that by filtering the Irish folk tradition popularised by The Clancy Brothers, The Dubliners and The Chieftains through punk rock, adding highly talented musicians and truly gifted songwriting, then, here at least, the Big Fella was bang on the money. 

But these Pogues albums only tell half the story. Squatting in Kings Cross, the post-punk misfits began their wildly popular live career in 1982 by playing tiny venues around central London. By the end of the same decade, they were headlining Reading Festival in an utterly joyous albeit ramshackle Saturday night performance – the perfectly analogous career summit.

The accelerated growth of accomplished musicianship and songwriting in that same brief period is indicative of a pure talent that put Irish folk rock back into the charts. But the wheels started coming off when MacGowan was dismissed by the band in 1991 while on tour in Japan for unprofessionalism, stemming from his unquenchable thirst.

The final two Pogues albums recorded without their totemic frontman – as well his own two solo efforts – showed that never was there a better example of a band being no greater than the sum of its parts. Because while Shane MacGowan was at the peak of his songwriting career from the mid '80s to mid '90s, it’s a mistake to assume he was the band’s sole virtuoso. 

Here's our deep dive into The Pogues' catalogue, worst to best.

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7. Pogue Mahone (1996)

The Pogues' seventh and final studio album was titled after the band’s original name,  one tweaked after someone pointed out that naming a group after the anglicised Irish Gaelic for ‘Kiss my arse’ might be ill-advised: Shane MacGowan had past form here, his punk band abbreviating their original name The Nipple Erectors to the slightly less puerile The Nips. 

With band personnel reduced to just a core of the classic Pogues line-up, Pogue Mahone is a disappointing swansong for a great band, a caricature of their best work which too often sounds like derivative landfill Celtic punk. Bright Lights and Oretown especially could be the cartoonish punk-by-numbers peddled by any Hellcat Records group. 

The Pogues co-founder and banjoist Jem Finer quit following the album’s release and the remaining band members finally called it day. From 2001 onwards they sporadically reunited as a live act, with MacGowan back in the fold, but they would never record again. Lead guitarist Philip Chevron sadly passed away in 2013. 

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6. Waiting For Herb (1993)

Following the 1991 sacking of Shane MacGowan, Joe Strummer took over on vocals for live dates, but by the time work commenced on the group's sixth album, tin whistle player and backing vocalist Spider Stacy became permanent lead vocalist. Written by Stacy, album opener Tuesday Morning is the set's highlight but the menace/maudlin quality of MacGowan’s vocals is conspicuous by its absence.

Determined to exorcise their former leader's long shadow, all band members weighed in on songwriting. But an impressive myriad of styles and influences meant that Waiting for Herb – unlike If I Should Fall From Grace with God – lacked a single unifying vision. When the band really needed to rein in and rediscover their roots, they ran away with ambition. Jem Finer’s Once Upon a Time and Pachinko didn’t match either the glory of his previous compositions or his collaborations with You Know Who. 

Lacking the input of the talismanic MacGowan, the album was poorly received, and the crucial musical triumvirate of James Fearnley, Philip Chevron and Terry Woods all bailed out following its release. 

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5. Hell's Ditch (1990)

By the start of the 90s, Joe Strummer was the only producer that the internally-fractured Pogues could all agree upon to corral their obvious talents into a high-functioning musical unit. Insisting on recording in the open air of the Wye Valley’s Rockfield Studios with a gruffer, slurred, and sometimes bored-sounding MacGowan, The Clash's always-committed commanding officer poured his love of world music into the band’s last album with the mercurial vocalist.

Upon release, Hell’s Ditch was met with reviews that were, at best, lukewarm. But hindsight has proven those notices unfair; The Pogues continued to further evolve their mastery of their talent, with the drinkin’ ‘n’ carousin’ song template of their Celtic punk past long discarded. It’s a mature affair with the songwriting duo of Jem Finer and MacGowan displaying their influences from literature and history. 

Much like Peace and Love, exploring the deep cuts is rewarding: the urgency of Terry Woods’ Rainbow Man picks up where his brilliant arrangement of the trad Young Ned of The Hill from Peace and Love left off. MacGowan and Finer’s collab on 5 Green Queens & Jean harks back to the melancholy of Rum Sodomy & The Lash, while MacGowan’s stunning pasodoble, the gorgeous but chilling Lorca’s Novena, details the grisly murder of gay poet Federico García Lorca during Franco’s purge of executions and disappearances during the Spanish Civil War.     

MacGowan has used multiple sexist, homophobic and racial slurs in his lyrics –usually in the third person, to illustrate a character or a prevailing attitude – throughout The Pogues' catalogue, notably on White City, Boat Train, and Lorca’s Novena. His use of the word “faggot”, as originally sung by Kirsty McColl on Fairytale of New York, has caused an annual debate around the use of homophobic language in song, a charged issue which MacGowan has acknowledged and addressed.  

Lorca’s Novena uses that same f-word, not to insult Frederico García Lorca, but to illustrate the murderous homophobia he faced in fascist Spain. MacGowan has taken issue with homophobic bigotry before – The Old Main Drag from Rum, Sodomy & The Lash tells of police brutality against young men on Piccadilly’s infamous chicken rack. MacGowan himself worked as a rent boy for a short time ("Just handjobs!" he jokes in the Crock of Gold documentary). All of which makes the accusations of homophobia against the band – in which guitarist Philip Chevron was openly gay – all the more inexplicable.

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4. Peace and Love (1989)

The follow-up to the commercially successful ...Grace with God perhaps didn’t contain the sheen of its predecessor, but the increased maturity of songwriting was apparent. So much so that accordionist James Fearnley took issue with the chaotic drunken bender of a journey that MacGowan imagined being told by 18th Century Republican insurrectionist Napper Tandy in the brilliantly frantic and unhinged Boat Train. To Fearnley, it seemed more akin to the old Pogues material they’d abandoned prior to ...Grace with God.

With themes of alienation, bigotry and victimisation, The Pogues’ love/hate relationship with their hometown has always figured highly throughout their catalogue and Peace and Love is an ode to London of sorts. MacGowan’s poignant White City charts the past of W12’s premier greyhound racing track, there’s the moving romance of Jem Finer’s beautiful ballad Misty Morning, Albert Bridge, and the capital reimagined as a woman in London You’re a Lady

Peace and Love shows a determination to build on the musical diversity of ...Grace with God. Finer and drummer Andrew Ranken’s jazz instrumental Gridlock, MacGowan’s touching biographical tribute to Irish writer and painter Christy Brown in Down All The Days, Finer’s haunting Tombstone, Chevron’s unapologetic pop of Lorelei plus Chevron and bassist Darryl Hunt’s incongruously bonkers tropical calypso Blue Heaven all achieved that aim. But beyond this artistry, the elephant in the room was the high maintenance of MacGowan as a touring colleague, and his now serious drug and alcohol use fuelled accusations that he was losing interest in the band. On Peace and Love he sings on just eight of 13 non-instrumental tracks.

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3. Red Roses for Me (1984)

Essentially a punk album removed from the punk era, the band’s 1984 debut features seven MacGowan compositions and six reworkings of traditional folk tracks. The latter includes a frenetic adaptation of Greenland Whale Fisheries, the comedic drunkathon of Waxie’s Dargle and a deadly reworking of Poor Paddy.

The fertile and diverse post-punk era of the early to mid '80s was the perfect seeding round for The Pogues but the unlikely if not surreal re-introduction of Irish folk was still hugely incongruous during the mid '80s. The same month that Red Roses for Me was released and the band were clattering themselves over the head with tin trays around London venues, the charts were a playground for Wham, Culture Club, Bronski Beat and Spandau Ballet. The Pogues were an aberration.

But with instant classic stone-cold drinking anthems like Boys from the County Hell, Streams of Whiskey and Transmetropolitan – the latter being the most uncompromising scene-setting debut album opener since Holidays In The Sun – the rough edges of the set were only diluted by the even rougher edges of the band members themselves.

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2. If I Should Fall from Grace with God (1988)

It was clear from the very outset that The Pogues had serious intentions with their third album. America was the open goal and even the iconic intrepid frontiers-destined cover photo suggested they were a band on the move. 

Noted U2 and Big Country producer Steve Lillywhite was tasked with helming an enormous cast, with the band’s line-up expanded to an eight-piece. Bassist Cait O’Riordan was replaced by Darryl Hunt. Guitarist Phillip Chevron became a permanent member. Folk rock elder statesmen and ex-Steeleye Span multi-instrumentalist Terry Woods was recruited on cittern (et al) for a fuller, richer orchestration. The album’s lush string arrangements were handled by Irish composer Fiachra Trench, the late, great Kirsty McColl duetted with MacGowan on Fairytale of New York and a whole host of session musicians contributed. Inevitably, ...Grace with God was The Pogues’ greatest commercial success and their most critically acclaimed album in the States.

If the subsequent Peace and Love was an ode to London, If I Should Fall from Grace with God was a love letter to New York. NYC is namechecked several times in both Fairytale of New York (titled after a novel of the same name by American-Irish novelist JP Donleavy) and Philip Chevron’s Thousands Are Sailing, an enormously popular live track about the emigration of Irish to America “to break the chains of poverty” that was played at his funeral.

But there’s so more than just sepia-tinted overtures to The Land Of The Free. The riotous Spanish-flavoured Fiesta, the middle-Eastern-tinged Turkish Song of The Damned, the folkish Medley, the harrowing Streets of Sorrow and glorious The Broad Majestic Shannon all heralded a significant, and magnificent, step forward. 

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1. Rum, Sodomy & The Lash (1985)

It would be utterly remiss to not mention the four-track EP Poguetry In Motion released in between Rum, Sodomy & The Lash and ...Grace with God, now included within the expanded edition of this album. It pointed the way towards the confident and timeless songwriting on ...Grace with God.

If you had to choose just one song to prove Shane MacGowan’s undeniable genius, it’ll always be the perfection of A Rainy Night in Soho. Perhaps his best work and certainly The Pogues’ finest love song, if not one of the finest ever love songs, to rank alongside anything by Lennon & McCartney and other 20th century greats. It’s backed with the filmic Body of An American, the sunny London Girl, and Jem Finer’s Planxty Noel Hill. Which, as the song title’s backstory goes, somehow does an impressive job of taking down a pompous critic of The Pogues, despite being a lyric-less instrumental.

Like Poguetry In Motion, Rum, Sodomy & The Lash was produced by Elvis Costello. It’s testament to the band’s wealth of musical talent that their most outstanding album’s tracklisting contains only half original compositions with the other half covers or arrangements of traditional folk songs. He may not have been a key songwriter of the band, but along with Jem Finer, multi-instrumentalist James ‘Maestro’ Fearnley (who recorded the piano intro on Fairytale of New York even though MacGowan is always shown playing it) was instrumental to the band’s musical arrangements.

The Sick Bed of Cuchúlainn is the perfect opener: it doesn’t fuck about. A typical MacGowan story for the ages about self-destructive drinking that also fuses Irish folklore mythology with historical Irish republican activists, anti-fascism, and figures from the literary and arts history. 

From there, like a Pogues gig in the studio, the tracklisting is perfectly sequenced for pitch to the anguished The Old Main Drag, the screaming pandemonium of Wild Cats of Kilkenny, and beyond. Cait O’Riordan’s sublime and bewitching vocals on I’m A Man You Don’t Meet Every Day demonstrate that it was downright criminal that her vocals didn’t appear on more Pogues' tracks. It was originally planned that the long-gestating Fairytale of New York would be released as a duet between O’Riordan and MacGowan, but she left the band after becoming romantically involved with Costello.

While joyful and exuberant, from the cover sleeve image to the very end of its tracklist, Rum, Sodomy & The Lash is a dark album of loss and death that lets in little light. But that is precisely where The Pogues excelled. Even the celebratory jig of Sally MacLennane is tinged with melancholy against Spider’s yelling and otherwise ebullient table-banging cadence. As an album, it’s the perfect summation of The Pogues: eat, drink and be merry – for tomorrow we die. 

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Alex Burrows

A regular contributor to Louder/Classic Rock and The Quietus, Burrows began his career in 1979 with a joke published in Whizzer & Chips. In the early 1990s he self-published a punk/comics zine, then later worked for Cycling Plus, Redline, MXUK, MP3, Computer Music, Metal Hammer and Classic Rock magazines. He co-wrote Anarchy In the UK: The Stories Behind the Anthems of Punk with the late, great Steven Wells and adapted gothic era literature into graphic novels. He also had a joke published in Viz. He currently works in creative solutions, lives in rural Oxfordshire and plays the drums badly.