Top 8 XTC Songs of the '80s

Few '80s artists representing any genre released music as ambitious and solidly built on songcraft as XTC, one of the decade's primary masters of quirky British post-punk. Taking a major cue from punk rock's energy and anger, leaders Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding concocted a brainy form of alternative rock that both defined and defied the general pattern of '80s music. Here's a look at some of XTC's best songs of the era, all of them sophisticated and offering up a unique blend of pop and rock.

This gem from 1979's may be a slight nod to the more melodic sounds to come on subsequent XTC albums. After all, that album's two other well-known songs, "Making Plans for Nigel" and "Life Begins at the Hop," project an angular, almost esoteric tone that at times overshadows the tight and accessible songwriting inherent in the songs. Of course, that could perhaps be said about almost every XTC track, but for listeners willing to peel through the layers, what's underneath tends to be quality pop music. All three of these Moulding tunes are essentials, but I select this one here because of the jarring contrast between the tasty, arpeggiated guitar opening and the droning, repetitive and yet effective nature of the chorus.

Anyone of the mind that XTC had entered the '80s with a declining interest in the punk energy that kicked off its career should go directly to this Partridge scorcher from the group's 1980 long player, . Built on driving guitar and drums and fueled by a wonderfully acerbic lead vocal performance from Partridge, the track somehow manages to mix a perfectly apparent pop sensibility with a consistently aggressive rock attack. XTC may have soon become a non-touring studio band, but this one had to have been a rousing highlight from the last couple of years of the group's touring days during the early '80s. XTC was probably at its best when it emphasized the band's contrasts without abandoning pop hooks, which is the case here.

I remember thinking as a kid that it was often difficult to tell the difference vocally between British and American singers, almost as if the act of singing somehow erased the boundaries of accent and national identity. Well, that's certainly not an issue with the proudly British delivery on this tune. This track remains a deserving staple of XTC's catalogue, brimming with Partridge's typically cerebral lyrical musings and featuring a great balance between clipped, punk-inspired vocals with attitude and the band's unique but wonderfully accessible melodies and ringing guitars. Here is a band that knows how to keep listeners off balance without alienating or intimidating them, and it's a nifty trick.
The songwriting give-and-take and exhilarating contrast between Partidge and Moulding as frontmen really raise the XTC experience to a new level entirely, and this intoxicating tune serves as an excellent example of the group's breadth and versatility. Moulding typically takes his lead vocals to a place of luxurious indulgence, opting away from Partridge's earlier tendency toward an angry-seeming if not outright aggressive approach. The result is an Eastern-flavored delight that benefits not only from the excellent harmonies of Partridge but also Moulding's often-overshadowed wit that is quite on par with the bite of Partridge's writing: "The way you slap my face just fills me with desire." Ah, so many things to do on grass.
I considered leaving this well-known and revered XTC tune off the list, but I thought twice when I assessed that my slight bias against it stems from a general distaste for pop songs featuring kids singing. Something about the sound of it creeps me out. I don't know if that goes back to some kind of evil-kid horror movie memory or what, but I'm pretty sure the feeling affects my attitude about this song. Anyway, back on topic, this is a scathing, heart-on-sleeve attack on what Partridge seems to see as the illusive, artificial influence of religious belief. In another songwriter's hands, the treatment of these core metaphysical issues could come off as too emotional or merely bitter, but Partridge is a master and turns in another stunner.

For me this is XTC's signature guitar romp and the band's most direct and punchy contribution to the fine if sometimes maligned genre of power pop. Partridge's gifts are certainly many, not the least of which is his passionate, earthy performance of grounded, Everyman lyrics here and in the similarly working-class-themed "Love on a Farmboy's Wages." Partridge exhibits a natural storyteller's eye for detail as well as an uncanny ability to inspire emotion and empathy within the confines of a three-minute pop song. What's more, his central melody here and the delicate choices he makes regarding the unpredictable but careful rise and fall of notes illustrate that rock music and art indeed at times completely belong in the same sentence.

It may be a bit ironic that Partridge's first-person narrators often speak of being uneducated or intellectually limited, as his own sophisticated intelligence shines through so clearly in XTC's music. But that's probably just another level of richness, carefully planned or not, that lends the group's catalogue a sense of ongoing wonder and complexity. I happen to favor the band's meticulously forged singles of the latter half of the '80s over its earlier, somewhat more jagged work, but this is likely a razor-thin matter of taste. The fact of the matter is that even when the band's selections are compact, they tend to stretch out and take on epic proportions in terms of accomplished songcraft. Wow, this music is delicious and nutritious!
Critics' charges that pop music, by its very nature, lacks substance ignore the important truth that ear candy not only can be but often is a very different entity from sonic bubblegum. The delightful instrumental arrangement of this track, combined with active harmony vocals, certainly evokes an endorphine rush of a singular musical variety, but there's always so much more going on in XTC's compositions than just simple pleasure that it can be a bit difficult to recognize this truth without many repeat listens. Like the best coffee, beer or wine, XTC's elixirs are a gift that keeps on giving, capable of providing far more than a Twinkie jolt of satisfaction. And no, I can't quite explain my current fixation on cordials and confections.