I've never really questioned the artistic merit of Peter Gabriel as a performer, singer, songwriter and all-around musical genius. However, I have always felt somewhat distanced from his work, perhaps because his precision can create the illusion of coldness. Having revisited his rich '80s catalogue, I can say I'm over that impression now. Here's a chronological look at what I feel are Gabriel's finest solo offerings, a list whose process was both illuminating and uniquely challenging.
In his solo career, former Genesis frontman Peter Gabriel typically traded in his outlandish costumes and theatrical approach for sonic precision and biting lyrics about often specific ills of the world. Such is the case here, on Gabriel's first single of the '80s from his third eponymously titled solo release. The combination of talent as one of progressive and eclectic rock's most moving vocalists with his propensity for sneering, occasionally esoteric critiques of modern life made Gabriel a powerful if somewhat unlikely solo force on the pop charts, especially in the U.K. and later even in the U.S. "Whistling tunes, we hide in the dunes by the seaside" works exquisitely as a melodic high point but also skillfully treads ominous ground.
Phil Collins, former bandmate and Gabriel's successor as Genesis frontman.
3. "Intruder"This 1980 creep-out classic has many distinctive elements going for it, not the least of which is Collins' contribution of his "gated" drum sound that became so omnipresent as part of the all-around big drums music of the era often later sported. Additionally, Gabriel's spare songwriting both musically and lyrically registers a noticeably Gothic yet also genuinely menacing impact on the listener. Gabriel has never ranged too close to warm and fuzzy sentiment, often exploring dark corners of humanity in one way or another. However, this track exceeds some of his preachier political protest songs ("Biko," for example) precisely because it's so mysteriously personal instead of righteously distant.
"I Don't Like Mondays," Gabriel here takes documentary information about actual criminal behavior and spins an arresting yarn of loneliness and senseless violence. Gabriel's assassin persona of "Family Snapshot" - not unlike his "Intruder" point of view - resonates all the more because of its first-person perspective, but Gabriel marries narrative so well with epic musicianship that it's difficult to isolate the source of the song's success. In consummate singer-songwriter fashion, Gabriel maximizes the efforts of his collaborators without ever relinquishing confident control of the direction in which his work so smoothly progresses.
"Sledgehammer" and "Big Time," but offbeat tunes like this one open the door for hearing all of the artist's music in a new way.
Whenever Gabriel delves into guitar rock, I tend to find the results far more intoxicating than his many forays into world music. The fact of the matter is that Gabriel can just as easily showcase his utterly distinctive sound in a straight-ahead pop/rock song as he can when he embraces the strange for strange's sake or attempts to jump on a soapbox. Certainly "Shock the Monkey," a far more well-known track from Gabriel's fourth solo album from 1982, has attracted its share of attention among pop music audiences. However, radio's focus over the years on just this artist's hits has left me (and other music fans, I'm sure) bereft of a full picture of Gabriel's various talents.
7. "Red Rain"
Gabriel's biggest hits ("Sledgehammer" and "Big Time," of course) from his biggest album aside, this sweeping track registers as one of Gabriel's handful of flawless moments as a songwriter and performer. Even flirting with perfection is a delicate business, but here Gabriel and producer Daniel Lanois take up residence in the highest rafters of rock music brilliance. Emotionally gripping and dramatic in its scope, the tune communicates longing and exhilaration through every tiny sound committed to record, even as it explores nightmare imagery of tremendous intensity. Moreover, it simply cannot be stated often enough that as a vocalist, Gabriel will always stand as one of rock's most distinctly expressive.
8. "That Voice Again"Eclectic instrumentation has always been one of Gabriel's favorite weapons as an artist, but here's another occasion on which his remarkably confident songwriting deserves most of the credit. "I wanna be with you, I wanna be clear, but each time I try it's the voice I hear. I hear that voice again." This is mesmerizing stuff, not so much because of the specific stories the lyrics tell as the convincing passion with which they're shared. Many master songwriters embrace vagueness in their work to varying degrees of success, but only the best (Bob Dylan and Neil Young among them) can make the most out of mystery like this.
Say Anything. Unfortunately, the tune needed that particular boost, having stalled somewhat - inexplicably enough - on the Billboard pop charts at No. 26 upon initial release. If there's ever been a composition more tailor-made for hit single status, I'm not sure I've heard it. On the other hand, quality like this does not always find what feels like an equivocal amount of favor among the masses, for whatever reason. Regardless, Gabriel's verse melody here can transport the hardest hearts to a place of peace and selflessness each and every listen.