10 Best Songs by The Waterboys

When Mike Scott formed The Waterboys he was the group’s only member, recording most of their self-titled 1983 debut alone in the studio. Since then, The Waterboys have churned through more than 85 members – Scott believes this is a record, beating out other fast-changing bands like The Fall and Santana. The Waterboys have featured many talented sidemen, including Karl Wallinger, who left after 1985’s This Is The Sea to form World Party, and long-serving fiddler Steve Wickham.

The Waterboys have changed styles dramatically over the years. They started their career pursuing “the big music”, anthemic rock that sounded like a combination of Van Morrison and U2. 1988’s Fisherman’s Blues marked a shift to Irish folk, while 1993’s Dream Harder featured an American mainstream rock sound. This list of ten songs is drawn from the band’s first decade before Scott split the band to pursue a solo career.

10 Best Waterboys Songs

#10 A Life Of Sundays

from Room to Roam, 1990
Room to Roam largely fails to live up to the success of Fisherman’s Blues, a bunch of lightweight folk tunes that lack the inspiration of their 1988 masterpiece. ‘A Life of Sundays’ breaks free from the album’s Irish folk template – there’s a lilt in Scott’s voice, but it sounds more akin to American college rock.

#9 This Is The Sea

from This Is The Sea, 1985
For most Waterboys fans, the question of their best album is a two-horse race between the grandiose Big Music of This Is The Sea and the simpler folk of Fisherman’s Blues. I’m in team Fisherman’s Blues, but the grandiose approach of This Is The Sea works beautifully on the closing title track. ‘This Is The Sea’ evokes Curtis Mayfield’s ‘People Get Ready’ at its climax, just as Van Morrison did at the conclusion of ‘Madame George’ on Astral Weeks.

#8 Love and Death

from Dream Harder, 1993
Scott embraced a more American sound on 1993’s Dream Harder. As on The Waterboys’ debut a decade earlier, Scott is the band’s only official member. The band is augmented by American session musicians. He retains another Waterboys mainstay, the poetry of W. B. Yeats. The riff that runs through ‘Love and Death’ is gorgeous.

#7 Fisherman’s Blues

from Fisherman’s Blues, 1988
The opening title track of Fisherman’s Blues serves as a metaphor for the album’s dramatic change in tone from The Waterboys’ previous work. Scott finds an escape by crossing the ocean to Ireland “far away from dry land/and its bitter memories.” Scott started writing the song on the back of his boarding pass during a flight, inspired by the declining relationship with the band’s manager.

#6 A Pagan Place

from A Pagan Place, 1984
As ‘This Is The Sea’ provides a grandiose closing to its parent record, ‘A Pagan Place’ fills the same role on the band’s 1984 record. According to Wikipedia, ‘A Pagan Place’ is “an ambiguous questioning of the process of Christianising a Pagan culture.” It’s lovely with its trumpet solos, while Scott generates most of the track’s intensity with his acoustic guitar strumming.

#5 When Ye Go Away

from Fisherman’s Blues, 1988
The simple, low-key ‘When Ye Go Away’ gets lost in the shuffle of great songs on Fisherman’s Blues, but it’s lovely. The thin, shimmering lead guitar is perfect for the song. Its elegant simplicity makes it come across like a traditional folk song – “I will rave and I will ramble/I’ll do everything but make you stay.”

#4 December

from The Waterboys, 1983
‘December’ opens the first Waterboys record and it encapsulates the band’s early sound, a hybrid of U2 and Van Morrison. Scott plays all the instruments on ‘December’, including three tracks on his Danelectro “Bellzouki” 12-string guitar. It’s haunting and epic – while later Waterboys albums embrace a pantheistic worldview, here Scott’s lyrics are Christian on the powerful last verse.

#3 We Will Not Be Lovers

from Fisherman’s Blues, 1988
Much of Fisherman’s Blues revolves around straightforward and charming Irish folk, but ‘We Will Not Be Lovers’ carries vestiges of the group’s former “Big Music”. Steve Wickham’s fiddle is frenzied, rasping through the track. Scott’s charismatic vocal performance is another key component – his whoops are infectiously joyful.

#2 And a Bang On the Ear

from Fisherman’s Blues, 1988
Scott recounts his romantic history on this lengthy track, and it’s surprisingly engrossing. ‘And a Bang On the Ear’ is simple and repetitive musically, but Scott’s mini-character studies are fascinating. Nora made chicken soup! It started out in Fife and ended up in tears…..

#1 The Whole Of The Moon

from This Is The Sea, 1985
‘The Whole Of The Moon’ is a predictable pick as Scott’s signature song, but it’s hard to go past as a distillation of Waterboys magic. A bouncy piano riff is a perfect backdrop for Scott’s mysticism and he delivers some great lines like “I saw the rain-dirty valley/You saw Brigadoon”, ‘The Whole of the Moon’ has endured – Fiona Apple recently covered it, with Phoebe Bridgers on backing vocals.

Did I omit your favourite Waterboys song? Their cover of Van Morrison’s ‘Sweet Thing’? Famous outtake ‘Too Close To Heaven’, which sounds a little too close to Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’ for my money. Are you going to vouch for any of their 21st-century work?

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  1. Except for “Whole of the Moon,” I only know “Fisherman’s Blues”. I really dug that album at the time it came out. Based on listening to the tunes you featured in your post, evidently, I still do – haven’t listened to it in a long time!

  2. Graham last week or so when we talked about this band… I listened to some of the Fisherman’s Blues album and I really liked it. I was struck by what a big sound they had and the blend was perfect.
    I even listened to some live things by them. Because of work and time restraints, I couldn’t listen too much. I’m going to use these 10 along with that album as my starting point…of course 4 of these are on the album.

  3. The title track was instantly persuasive for me – I hadn’t heard it before going through the 1001 list.
    But 12 seconds or so into the Fisherman’s Blues opener, I was convinced!

  4. The Waterboys. When I want to listen to exhilarating music this is who i turn to. I love the “Big Music”. I love shouting out the lyrics as i listen. When I play The Waterboys what follows is always World Party, another artist with whom I love to sing along.

    My favourites – I haven’t read yours or any other post yet – in no order. more or less chronological order.

    Ready for the Monkeyhouse (great sax)
    A Girl Called Johnny
    It Should Have Been You (reminiscent of early U2)
    All the Things She Gave Me
    The Big Music (every time I start to listen to this song it gives me chills and makes me wistful and a little teary-eyed. Was it almost forty years ago? Was I once so young and am I now so old? The backing vocals, the sax!)
    Don’t Bang the Drum (what a fantastic intro to a great song, Another song that makes the hairs on my arm stand. What other bands made such driving forceful music that has such melody and soul?)
    The Whole of the Moon (imagine buying the vinyl in ’85 and putting on side one, having heard nothing yet from the LP (I never listened to the radio. The days of good FM were long gone by then) and being attacked by these two relentless masterpieces? Then came two more fantastic songs.
    The Pan Within
    Fisherman’s Blues
    A Life of Sundays

    I appreciate that all of these songs predate Scott’s move to more traditionally based music. I do like both the album Fisherman’s Blues and the next, Room to Roam.

    • Thanks for writing in – definitely one of those situations where I feel like a dilettante compared to a more dedicated fan. I am planning to cover World Party sometime too.

  5. I have a soft spot for Glastonbury Song and Nearest Tbing To Hip and the Soul Singer on the new album and Medicine Bow is a monster live.

  6. Great list! Like Neil above, I have a soft spot for Glastonbury Song but I like pretty much everything from The Waterboys’ first bunch of albums. I noted that you seem to have a thing for the title tracks.

    • Thank you. I actually read an article on a music website recently, where the author reckoned the best three Waterboys songs were the three title tracks from the 1980s.

  7. Although I’ve heard of the Waterboys and know I’ve heard “The Whole of the Moon” before, I’m not very familiar with their music catalog. I’ve listened to several of the tracks you included, and they’re great.

  8. A playlist to get me started – I still haven’t really heard anything except Whole of the Moon (which I am very fond of). I worked with a guy who was a huge (HUGE) fan and he ran out of superlatives when the chat got to this band. I just never really got the chance to jump in.

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Aphoristic Album Reviews is almost entirely written by one person. It features album reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.

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Graham Fyfe has been writing this website since his late teens. Now in his forties, he's been obsessively listening to albums for years. He works as a web editor and plays the piano.

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