Peter Gabriel is a bit of an enigma. He creates an obscure type of music—”art rock,” “soul-pop,” however you want to label it—that sounds a lot like upbeat pop music but, on deeper analysis, is anything but. He writes about a wide range of topics and used his position to call attention to injustices and atrocities when many of his peers were still writing banal love songs.
His lyrics are also highly introspective, using his art as therapy and sharing his own inner demons in his writings. This window into his mind is really a window into our own minds, as we all have many of the same fears and insecurities (or is that just me).
His songs run the gamut of human emotion, and it’s not always pretty. But don’t be perturbed. As you’re about to find out, his music is some of the most uplifting ever written. Here’s our pick of the best Peter Gabriel songs from his incredible discography.
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12. Digging in the Dirt
Let’s start with the brilliant ‘Digging in the Dirt’ from Gabriel’s landmark 1992 album Us. Gabriel himself said the track was about “investigating the layers within yourself,” and, by all accounts, what’s inside many of us is pretty dark. At the time of writing, he was in therapy, trying to figure out what was wrong with him. He’d also been reading the book ‘Why We Kill,’ a psychological study into why people commit heinous crimes. A touch of light reading, then!
Arguably Peter Gabriel’s most famous song (who doesn’t know this song?!) was a monster hit for him in the ’80s. Of course, back in the 1980s, music videos (thanks to MTV) were all the rage, and this track had an incredible video that used stop motion. Gabriel’s website said it was the most-aired video in MTV’s history. In a 1987 Rolling Stone interview, he even said, “I’m not sure [‘Sledgehammer’] would have been as big a hit… without the video.” It’s a victim of its own success in many ways (similar to Van Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl) in that it’s been overplayed to death, but it’s a powerhouse of a tune.
10. Shock the Monkey
A lot of people think Peter Gabriel’s 1982 song, “Shock the Monkey,” is about animal rights because of the title and the fact that the music video features a frightened, caged primate. But jealousy is the real theme here, and the monkey stands for man’s baser nature, aka the green-eyed monster. It was Peter Gabriel’s first single to chart higher in America than in the UK.
9. Games Without Frontiers
This classic from the Gabriel oeuvre points out that war and international diplomacy are being played like children’s games (years later, the saber-rattling still hasn’t stopped). This track also features one of pop music’s most misheard lyrics. The term “jeux sans frontieres”, French for “games without borders,” is repeated in the song’s opening and closing lyrics by, as it happens, Kate Bush. The term is often misheard as “she’s so popular.”
The death of black South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko in police custody in 1977 inspired this anti-apartheid protest song. Some of the lyrics are written in Xhosa, a language spoken in South Africa and made famous by activist Nelson Mandela. They talk about Biko’s death and the violence that happened during the apartheid government. ‘Biko’ was a turning point in Gabriel’s career and the start of his human rights activism. Musically, it’s very unique too. In addition to a distorted guitar and digitally produced bagpipe sound, the song features a simple two-tone beat played on Brazilian drums and vocal percussion.
7. Mercy Street
‘Mercy Street’ is inspired by the works of Anne Sexton, an American poet and mental patient who wrote about her search for a father figure. Gabriel came across her works and felt a sort of kinship with Sexton, as he also grappled with depression and, as we’ve already mentioned, uses his art as a sort of therapy.
6. Red Rain
‘Red Rain’ is the opening song on Gabriel’s landmark album, So. It’s another introspective song that’s straight from the psychiatrist’s couch. Inspired by a surreal, bloody-curdling dream he had (that rightly freaked him out), the song is about looking inward and seeking to deal with the pain we bury deep inside. He warns us that the “red rain” will manifest itself in the external world if we don’t. It has a strong percussion sound, with Stewart Copeland’s hi-hat cymbals and Chris Hughes’ Linn drum machine making a rhythm that sounds like rain.
5. Don’t Give Up
One of the best duets of the 1980s, featuring frequent collaborator Kate Bush. Lyrically, as we’ve come to expect by now, it’s deep. Bush comforts and reassures Gabriel (and, therefore, the listener) that everything will be OK, despite the hard times. On a deeper level, it’s a song about handling (and accepting) failure. Gabriel’s marriage of 15 years was in trouble at the time of writing (he and his wife Jill eventually divorced in 1988), which played a role.
4. Washing of the Water
The song is about dealing with your past and moving forward (water represents purity or cleansing – like baptism in the Christian tradition, where one’s sins are washed away and a new life is started). When Coldplay’s Chris Martin inducted Peter Gabriel into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he cited this as his favorite Peter Gabriel song (Martin sings a pretty good version of it). Like a child’s lullaby—and much like purified water—the song is soothing, calm, and quite brilliant.
3. Blood of Eden
Here’s a song about making love in an effort to salvage a failing relationship. Gabriel uses the Garden of Eden as a metaphor for a time when man and woman were united in one body, a state they have been striving to achieve ever since. In his usual honest way, he’s quick to see where his own failings played a part: “I saw the signs of my undoing. They had been there from the start.” The band uses African polyrhythms and choral arrangements to make a soothing, rich piece of music tapestry. The addition of Sinead O’Connor is inspired, too.
2. Solsbury Hill
In the celebrated biography, Without Frontiers: The Life & Music of Peter Gabriel, he said the song is “about being prepared to lose what you have for what you might get.” When he wrote the song, he was afraid he’d ruined his career after splitting with Genesis, the prog-rock supergroup (understandable, they were huge at the time). In hindsight (always much easier), he made the right decision to strike out alone. Solsbury Hill is a folky, uplifting, acoustic song that immediately grabs you; it’s one of the most evocative songs ever written. The real hill, in Somerset, England, is a sort of Peter Gabriel pilgrimage site that any fan worth their salt will have been to. I really need to get there.
1. In Your Eyes
While many of the songs on this list could take the number one spot, we’re handing the honors to the mesmerizing ‘In Your Eyes.’ It has to be one of the best contemporary love songs ever written, and for many, takes on religious overtones (the “eyes of your creator”). It’s also one of the most joyful, optimistic songs you’ll hear and sees Gabriel at his existential, brilliant best. Of course, you may have heard the song in the 1989 movie Say Anything where a hapless John Cusack plays it from his boom box (UK audiences: ghetto blaster) to woo his girl. Check out the Rick Beato’s special on it here for a true appreciation of just how brilliant the song is from a compositional point of view.
Ok, that’s all we have, folks. Do you agree with my choice? What should I have included in your opinion?