Pet Shop Boys’ 30 greatest songs


HomeHome / News / Pet Shop Boys’ 30 greatest songs

Nov 10, 2023

Pet Shop Boys’ 30 greatest songs

As pop’s greatest double act release a collection of all their singles, we pick

As pop's greatest double act release a collection of all their singles, we pick their best tracks – from yuppie satires to finely detailed portraits

Pet Shop Boys’ albums and B-sides are remarkably filler-free, which makes compiling this list hard, even if we exclude their cover versions (hence no Always on My Mind). Case in point: the homoerotic electro-glam stomp of the B-side to Before, as good as anything on Bilingual.

It certainly wasn't the first song written about the downside of touring, but Yesterday, When I Was Mad is definitely the wittiest. A protracted, waspish whinge about backstage visitors, critics and petty arguments over hotel rooms, restaurants and meet-and-greets, it's very funny and very aware of its privileged preposterousness.

"If you’ve done thing wrong / You’ve got nothing to fear / If you’ve something to hide / You shouldn't even be here." Integral is the best track from Fundamental, with the producer Trevor Horn constructing a dramatic, distinctly Frankie-ish dancefloor pulse. The lyrics about immigration and the right's quest for a "sterile, immaculate" Britain feel eternally pertinent.

Lyrically and musically ferocious – the sound is deliberately brash and trebley – Shameless gleefully blasts celebrity culture ("We have no integrity"). It is either weirdly prescient, or the work of people complaining with no idea how bad things are going to get; Shameless predates reality TV and the web.

Take your pick from the album version, the 12in, the Syndrum-infused disco mix, Shep Pettibone's jittery remix or a beatless, balladesque live reading – in a medley with Go West – on 2019's Inner Sanctum. Subsequently dismissed by Chris Lowe, Heart is slight in comparison with, say, Being Boring, but lovely nonetheless.

Like Discography's DJ Culture, this is a new track appended to a best-of that is far better than those tracks tend to be. Produced by the German duo Tomcraft – who give its electronics an impressively steely sound – it features lyrics that admire the "courage" of a glitzy celeb and rhyme "tacky" with "Issey Miyake".

In which the Aids crisis and the separation of Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales, are conflated with a dream in which Neil Tennant is presented to the princess naked, surrounded by autograph-seeking fans. Dreaming of the Queen is at turns funny and desperately sad, its melody and ambience haunting.

The opening track of Hotspot is punchy, muscular and rooted in big-room house. The lyrics are appealingly ambiguous: the narrator spots an old flame and veers between admiration – "You’re such a handsome thing" – and withering speculation that he has "gone respectable / With a wife and a job and all that".

House pianos and bassline, washes of synth, gorgeous melody, 3am mid-tempo disco atmosphere, complete with Johnny Marr unleashing his inner Nile Rodgers … and it's about a Soviet composer questioning the artistic validity of the music he composed in praise of the Communist party after the fall of communism. Fabulous.

Pandemonium is prime 00s Pet Shop Boys. A glam-facing rhythm, a pile-up of pop hooks, one killer line after another – "When you think about it, it's quite an achievement / That, after all, I still love you" – and a rare example of Xenomania's production living up to the standards they set working with Girls Aloud.

Inspired by Penelope Spheeris's bleak 1984 film of the same name, but relocating the action from Los Angeles to a Britain of graffitied bus stops and vandalised town halls, the definitive version of Suburbia is the Full Horror mix found on Disco. The soaring chorus contrasts with barking dogs, eerie spoken word and dissonant instrumental passages.

Pet Shop Boys’ Born in the USA: a satire of Thatcher-era greed misconstrued as a hearty endorsement. Despite umpteen patient explanations that its protagonists’ dreams and schemes are doomed, the titular opportunities nonexistent, it still turns up on TV documentary soundtracks whenever yuppies are mentioned.

Driven by a sample from Michael Nyman's soundtrack to 1982's The Draughtsman's Contract, there is a classic only-the-Pet-Shop-Boys-would-think-of-this conceit here. Failure in love has led its protagonist to turn to his radical "student paperbacks", Marx among them, for comfort; if his ex comes back, he implies, the class struggle is cancelled.

A former altar boy, Tennant complained that people took It's a Sin too seriously; its OTT arrangement certainly implies a jokey intent. But it emerged during a hideous religious backlash against gay people. That it lent its title to Russell T Davies’ 2020 drama underlines how reflective of the climate it inadvertently felt.

Pet Shop Boys’ oeuvre is held to have become more political in recent years, but in truth, it has just become more explicitly so, as evinced by The Theatre's depiction of London's inequality, inspired by a Conservative minister's callous remark about homelessness people. The chorus's crashing orchestration underscores the song's white-lipped rage.

The album Release attempted to do the opposite of what Pet Shop Boys were known for, an idea most successfully realised on Home and Dry: live drums, guitar solos, a reference to the Beatles Let It Be era. A straightforward and sweetly touching love song.

Behaviour was an album thick with depictions of relationship trauma: Jealousy, To Face the Truth, The End of the World and So Hard. The irresistibly perky chorus of So Hard contrasts with the suspicion and heartbreak in the lyrics. An open relationship isn't working out; with neither partner willing to commit, it is probably doomed.

The unexpected sound of pedal steel guitar on a Pet Shop Boys track leads into a song that could pass for country and western, albeit with a sequenced synth line running through it. The effect is heartfelt and genuinely touching, the lush strings bolstering its romantic misery.

Inspired by the funeral of a friend who had died of Aids, this is packed with beautifully, sympathetically drawn details: the father who can't come to terms with his late son's sexuality, the military uncle greeting the deceased's friends with kindness. The music – equal parts show tune and 70s singer-songwriter ballad – is suitably heartbreaking.

The title is 80s Smash-Hits-ese – they regularly reappropriated the Sunday People's punk-era lament "must we fling this filth at our pop kids?" – but the lyrics are from the perspective of someone looking back to 90s London and breathlessly exciting twentysomething life. It's classic Pet Shop Boys, in that it's an electronic banger suffused with sadness: something has clearly gone terribly wrong in the interim, although we are never told what.

Pet Shop Boys’ early albums haven't dated – like New Order, their brand of then-cutting-edge pop has proved timeless – but their descriptions of a London long since vanished make them period pieces. Here, the grubby, ungentrified King's Cross is a metaphor for 80s Britain in a song that is careworn and atmospheric.

The duo have managed to grow older while remaining resolutely a pop band. This rich, startlingly beautiful ballad – an overlooked gem – bemoans the trickiness of ageing, professionally and personally. Tennant has said Invisible was inspired by reading a comment from a woman suggesting that she became invisible after turning 45. "Try being a gay man over 50," he noted.

Neither as striking as West End Girls nor as topical as Opportunities, Love Comes Quickly is the most straightforwardly beautiful of Pet Shop Boys’ early hits. The lyric takes a hackneyed topic and twists it into something original. The sound is breathy, luscious and twilit – pop music as luxury goods.

The best Pet Shop Boys album track of all? Quite possibly. Originally written as a potential James Bond theme, with placeholder lyrics – although a Bond film with a despondent theme song about the awfulness of school is an intriguingly peculiar idea – its hazy, exquisite sadness fits the autumnal mood of 1990's Behaviour.

Pet Shop Boys’ melodies frequently carry a hint of French chanson. On Jealousy – the first song they wrote, the first ballad they released as a single – that influence finds full flower. It's direct and heart-rending; for a band frequently described as arch, they can deliver an emotional punch.

Their label tried to discourage them from working with Dusty Springfield, hitless since 1970. But the duo were insistent – and the result is one of their greatest songs. The moment Springfield takes centre stage ("Since you went away …") is among the most glorious in their oeuvre.

Bleak but brilliant, Rent tells two stories at once. Its narrator is defiant about the transactional nature of their relationship: the couple are "in sympathy and sometimes ecstasy", after all. But their unrepentant cynicism is undercut by the music, which sounds subdued, sad and ineffably lonely.

"Awe-inspiring", suggested Tennant's former employers Smash Hits of Left to My Own Devices, a deliriously uplifting song about loneliness. The joyousness of its chorus, its lavish flurries of strings and its campness – "Should I take to the stage?" – are entirely at odds with the lyrics’ tone. Smash Hits was right.

Inspired by hip-hop, dance music and TS Eliot, its coolly observed vision of London dark but alluring, West End Girls was their breakthrough single and a statement of intent: we are intelligent, we are hip, we are different from anything else in the increasingly wan British pop landscape.

Not just one of the greatest songs about the Aids epidemic, but one of the greatest songs written about mortality and memory, Being Boring was a lightning bolt even amid Pet Shop Boys’ imperial phase (the imperial phase for which that phrase was coined). The lyrical evocations of impetuous youthful optimism and painful reflection are magnificent, the lines about bolting through a closing door a perfect example of their ability to turn something specific – the loss of innocence and carefree hedonism wreaked on the gay community by HIV – into something universal about youth. The music perfectly mirrors them, its melodic shift from melancholy to warmth, midway through the verses, understated but extraordinarily powerful.

Smash: The Singles 1985-2020 is released on 16 June on Parlophone