For decades, British art-rock chameleons XTC occupied an awkward space in the musical landscape; underappreciated songwriting geniuses too quirky for mainstream success but not edgy enough for alternative acceptance. Slowly, over the years, this opinion changed. Dozens of artists began to list them among their songwriting inspirations, and their music became accepted as some of the most influential and innovative in rock’s history. Now, thanks to a glut of glorious sounding remasters courtesy of prog posterboy Steven Wilson, along with recent Sky documentary XTC: This Is Pop, XTC and their catalogue of incredible music have been propelled back into the public eye.
Let’s get one thing straight before we begin: there is no such thing as a bad XTC album. Even on their less consistent records, there are frequent moments of sparkling genius. Every album warrants constant rotation, revealing more and more with every subsequent listen. While Go 2 might struggle to match the beauty and subtlety of an album like Skylarking, there’s no denying it contains more than a handful of captivating tunes.
To mark the 40th anniversary of their debut album White Music this month, we revisit their expansive, innovative back catalogue and rank their 13 studio albums in order of greatness.
13) Go 2 (Virgin Records, 1978)
After the herky jerky adrenaline rush of their 1978 debut White Music, XTC wasted little time in knocking out a follow up – and it showed. In typical second album fashion, Go 2 is more rushed and less considered than their assured debut and all that followed. Album tracks Beatown and Jumping In Gommorah attempt to mimic the energy harnessed on their debut, but ultimately lack the power of what came before.
The album’s greatest downfall comes in the form of the two songs contributed by then keyboardist Barry Andrews – the cod reggae of Super Tuff and the frankly terrible My Weapon – who was attempting to assert himself as a songwriting talent alongside bandleader Andy Partridge and bassist Colin Moulding. It was a power struggle he would ultimately lose, and resulted in him leaving the band shortly after Go 2’s release. Non-album single Are You Receiving Me? – added to subsequent reissues – provides the album’s standout, and nods to the direction they would take on Drums & Wires.
12) Apple Venus Volume 1 (Cooking Vinyl, 1999)
Following their legal wranglings with Virgin Records, it would be seven long years between Apple Venus and its predecessor Nonsuch. During this time, Partridge and Moulding stockpiled swathes of music which would eventually be whittled down and split over two albums. Apple Venus explores the more expansive, less immediate side of XTC – an approach Partridge at the time dubbed “orchustic”. Forget the pounding drums and crashing guitars; here, strings and horns embellish largely acoustic arrangements. The classic XTC hooks are still there, you just have to listen a little harder to find them, such as on album highlights Easter Theatre, Your Dictionary and Greenman (a song which could’ve found its way onto 1986 classic Skylarking). This album signifies Partridge and Moulding using studio techniques to their fullest extent, but never to the detriment of the song itself.
11) Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2) (Cooking Vinyl, 2000)
Originally intended to be released as a double album with the Apple Venus material, the songs on Wasp Star are decidedly more aggressive and guitar-driven than those on its more whimsical predecessor. Guitarist Dave Gregory had left the band during the Apple Venus sessions, and his absence is felt here, particularly on the album’s most bristling, muscular tracks. That said, guitar-led rockers Playground and Wounded Horse show Partridge and Moulding sounding as energised as they had in years. These final two XTC albums aren’t readily available on streaming services, and have become largely overlooked as a result. However, there’s plenty to get your teeth into if you do manage to find them. The Apple Box collects all this material, alongside various demos and outtakes, and is well worth tracking down if you get the chance.
10) The Big Express (Virgin Records, 1984)
The giant train wheel on the front cover, alongside the back cover image of greased up band members crouching in front of a blazing coal engine, points towards the direction this album takes. This is not the rural whimsy of Mummer; this is its grimy, urban cousin. Maligned for its almost industrial approach to production, this album steeps its gems – Everyday Story Of A Small Town, Train Running Low on Soul Coal and Wake Up – in a sheen of industrial noise. Rhythms bang hard and lurch towards the listener, its cold sound at odds with the warmth of its predecessors. The bluesy twang of a song like Shake Your Donkey Up, with its crashing percussion, would stand out a mile on follow up Skylarking, but typifies the ‘subtle as a brick’ approach taken on this album.
9) Chips From The Chocolate Fireball (recorded as Dukes Of Stratosphere) (Virgin Records, 1987)
No list would be complete without mention of XTC’s mid-80s alter-ego. After the relative misstep of The Big Express, XTC retreated and resurrected an old idea to record a psychedelic album. Thus, The Dukes Of Stratosphere were born. Adopting pseudonyms – including Sir John Johns and Lord Cornelius Plum – XTC plundered their record collection and nailed pitch-perfect pastiches of Pink Floyd, The Byrds and The Kinks. Chips From The Chocolate Fireball collects the two Dukes’ releases – 25 O’Clock and Psonic Psunspot – that bookended, and, ironically, outsold their Skylarking album.
8) Nonsuch (Virgin Records, 1992)
The third double album in XTC’s career nearly didn’t happen – only a reshuffle at their record label would finally get it off the ground. In retrospect, this was perhaps the writing on the wall for their relationship with Virgin Records, and after this album the band would go on a creative strike which lasted another seven years. Nonsuch is packed with ideas and, as such, it lacks the immediacy of some of their previous albums, but it does reward repeated listening. Kicking off with the excellent single The Ballad Of Peter Pumpkinhead, the band are easy and comfortable in their own skin. All the classic XTC touchstones are there, from the poppy magnificence of The Disappointed and Omnibus to the piano led beauty of Rook (a song which Partridge singles out as one of his favourites). The album doesn’t rank as highly as it could due, in part, to its daunting length and sprawling, sometimes overwhelming exploration. However, if you’ve got an hour to spare and your full attention to give, Nonsuch pays dividends.
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7) Mummer (Virgin Records, 1983)
The final record to feature drummer Terry Chambers, who departed due to the band’s decision to stop touring live, Mummer continues in the vein of predecessor English Settlement, evoking pastoral images of lush, rolling hills with its bird calls and brushed drums. The focal point is the largely acoustic single Love On A Farm Boy’s Wages, while Great Fire and Funk Pop A Roll add a touch of classic XTC with their soaring choruses and jerky verse structures. Elsewhere, Ladybird incorporates lounge piano and fretless bass grooves into the mix. Mummer suffers slightly from its mild approach when put up against closest relatives English Settlement and Skylarking, but there’s more than enough on this album to satisfy even the most discerning XTC fan.
6) Oranges & Lemons (Virgin Records, 1989)
Oranges & Lemons’ highpoint – the majestic Mayor Of Simpleton – is arguably not only one of XTC’s finest moments, but one of the best songs ever written. Bestowed with more hooks than an angler’s kit box, the band struggle to scale the heights they reach here elsewhere on the album. Moulding’s King For A Day, Scarecrow People and The Loving keep the album’s end up, but as a double offering, it runs out of steam towards the final side, only picking up with the other-wordly closer Chalkhills & Children. Pared down to 10 songs, this album would have been a masterpiece. As it stands, it proves the rule less is more.
5) English Settlement (Virgin Records, 1982)
This is XTC’s best-selling record, thanks in no small part to hit single Senses Working Overtime, a song which launched them into the top 10 of the UK Singles Chart for the first (and only) time. On their first double album, XTC are transitioning from the punk-adjacent material from their earlier years to the pastoral, lush pop they have now become a buzzword for. Alongside Runaways, the aforementioned Senses… and the classical, acoustic Yacht Rock, you have Fly On The Wall, Down In The Cockpit and No Thugs In Our House: all songs which would’ve slotted in nicely into Drums & Wires or White Music. Being a double album, there are a couple of more forgettable tunes in the middle – Leisure, Knuckle Down, we’re looking at you – but the album starts strongly and ends on a high, with the winding grooves of English Roundabout and Snowman.
4) White Music (Virgin Records, 1978)
Their early schooling as previous incarnation The Helium Kidz allowed XTC to burst onto the scene fully-formed and clutching a handful of incredible singles that fitted perfectly with the musical climate of the time. Though not a punk band by any stretch, the crashing guitars, manic keyboards, high energy and snotty delivery of songs like Science Friction and This Is Pop allowed them to align themselves with the movement, while also giving them a helping hand when it came to the record buying public. White Music is a debut album as assured and confident as they come, with each of its songs honed and refined. The band allow a peek into where their influences really lie with a frenetic cover of All Along The Watchtower, and while most of the album hurtles along at full-throttle, side B deep cut I’m Bugged points towards the dubby, experimental edge they would explore later in their career.
3) Skylarking (Virgin Records, 1986)
Despite the conflict between Partridge and producer Todd Rundgren which plagued its creation, Skylarking is possibly the most realised vision of the “XTC sound” cut to tape. Lush and panoramic, it takes a wide-angle view on the rolling, village green vibes of English Settlement and Mummer. It undulates and weaves stories around the listener, while retaining the trademark XTC edge and wit, both of which prevent the album from veering into the saccharine. Much attention has been given to US hit Dear God, a song which started off life as Grass’ B-side, until it was picked up by a DJ and added to the album proper. But Skylarking also contains lesser-known gems, including the piano-led club ditty The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul and the stomping, hook-filled rocker Earn Enough For Us. When people laud XTC as songwriting geniuses, many of them point to this record – and rightly so. It takes every trick the band had in their arsenal and amplifies them for a stunning, utterly essential album.
2) Black Sea (Virgin Records, 1980)
Kicking off with Respectable Street, a snarling slice of commentary on modern suburbia, Black Sea unleashes venom and beauty in equal measure. Partridge and Moulding take a rare detour into politics on the one-two punch of General & Majors and Living Through Another Cuba, seemingly using this album as a cathartic experiment in exorcising their demons (interestingly, one of the extra B-side songs added to later releases is called Don’t Lose Your Temper. Coincidence?). The whole album is the sound of a band both vital and energised.
1) Drums And Wires (Virgin Records, 1979)
Following the departure of Barry Andrews, XTC regrouped and recruited guitarist Dave Gregory to form what would become the classic XTC line up. The addition of Gregory tightened up the band’s sound and sharpened their focus, pushing them to new heights musically, with Gregory providing a precise, measured foil to Partridge’s scratchier, less technical guitar work. Storming out the blocks with XTC’s hugely successful single Making Plans For Nigel, Drums And Wires provides a masterclass in combining spiky new wave attitude with monster hooks and killer songs. Every song on this album is a potential single, from the punk-infused Helicopter to the perfect pop of When You’re Near Me, while the moody, build up to wall of noise of album closer Complicated Game caps off their finest hour in incredible fashion. Perfection.
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