Swindon band XTC formed in the early 1970s, initially playing glam rock. The original band featured singer/guitarist Andy Partridge, singer/bassist Colin Moulding, and drummer Terry Chambers. The band’s early work was nervy new wave – they transitioned towards more mainstream pop/rock after keyboardist Barry Andrews was replaced by multi-instrumentalist Dave Gregory. Moulding wrote the band’s first hit, 1979’s ‘Making Plans for Nigel’.
There are effectively two different eras of XTC. They stopped touring in 1982 and Chambers quit, leaving the band as a studio-based entity with Partridge, Moulding, and Gregory. The band struggled initially in their new guise, but enjoyed success on college rock radio with songs like ‘The Mayor of Simpleton’. XTC quietly broke up in 2006 after 2000’s Wasp Star failed to meet the standards of their previous work.
Andy Partridge has recently released his first pop material for years, while I’ve been enjoying digging into his extensive Fuzzy Warbles collection of outtakes. It’s a good time to revisit XTC’s stellar catalogue. More than any other band, their best work comes closest to emulating iconic Beatles’ albums like Revolver and Sgt. Peppers.
#13 Go 2
XTC’s first two albums sound like the work of an entirely different band. With keyboardist Barry Andrews in the band, they play quirky and frantic zolo music. Go2 was the group’s second album of 1978, and Partridge and Moulding’s material isn’t up to their usual standards. It is better than the two songs written by Barry Andrews – ‘My Weapon’ is the group’s career low-point.
XTC’s first album as a three-piece is often tentative and low on energy. But even on a weaker XTC album, there are gems. Partridge’s ‘Love on a Farmboy’s Wages’ is a gorgeous pastoral song, and ‘In Loving Memory of a Name’ is a terrific Moulding song with its bouncy, McCartneyesque piano.
#11 Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2)
XTC’s final album collects more of the songs written during their recording hiatus in the 1990s. It’s much weaker than the first volume. Without Dave Gregory the arrangements sound thin – promising songs like ‘Stupidly Happy’ and ‘I’m The Man Who Murdered Love’ don’t reach their potential. There is, however, a great stretch at the end of the record – in particular, closer ‘The Wheel and the Maypole’ is one of the finest moments in the XTC catalogue.
#10 White Music
XTC’s debut was recorded in two weeks – Andy Partridge describes it as “Captain Beefheart meets The Archies”. Partridge and Moulding would both hone their writing skills with subsequent releases, but their debut has its own charm. Partridge is the stronger writer at this point with songs like ‘Radios in Motion’ and ‘Statue of Liberty’, while there’s also a bizarre cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘All Along The Watchtower’.
#9 Drums and Wires
XTC’s third album is their first to feature guitarist Dave Gregory and moves into more conventional new wave territory – the album title refers to the 2 guitars, bass, and drums lineup. The record boasts XTC’s first hit – Moulding’s ‘Making Plans for Nigel’, with its distinctive beat from Chambers. Drums and Wires sounds thin in places, and Moulding’s songs like ‘Ten Feet Tall’ and ‘Life Begins at the Hop’ outshine Partridge’s.
#8 Oranges & Lemons
Oranges & Lemons covers some interesting territory, bringing the psychedelic 1960s sounds of side-project Dukes of Stratosphear to XTC. But after the succinct perfection of Skylarking, the hour-long Oranges & Lemons feels a little self-indulgent. There’s great stuff – Moulding’s ‘King for a Day’ is arguably a bit close to Tears For Fears’ ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’ but it’s enjoyable anyway. Partridge’s best material is tucked away at the end – ‘Miniature Sun’ and the Beach Boys pastiche ‘Chalkhills and Children’, while the single ‘Mayor of Simpleton’ boasts a terrific Moulding bassline.
#7 English Settlement
This double-LP was XTC’s most successful record and XTC’s last as a four-piece band. It reached the top 5 on the UK charts. With more emphasis on acoustic instruments, it’s often brilliant – songs like ‘Runaways’, ‘Senses Working Overtime’, and the 5/4 ‘English Roundabout’ are terrific. But it probably should have been trimmed to a single album, as Partridge songs like ‘Down in the Cockpit’, ‘Melt The Guns’, and ‘Leisure’ outstay their welcome.
#6 The Big Express
The Big Express is one of XTC’s odder records, with an industrial edge to tracks like ‘Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her’. It’s a concept album, about the band’s hometown of Swindon and its railway heritage. A couple of tracks on the back half don’t work, but most of it is terrific – ‘Wake Up’, with its stereo guitars, is a terrific opener, and there are quirky pop songs like ‘You’re The Wish You Are I Had’ and ‘I Remember The Sun’. Partridge’s sea shanty ‘All You Pretty Girls’ is an effective single, and ‘Train Running Low on Soul Coal’ is the best of Partridge’s lengthy album closers.
#5 Black Sea
XTC’s fourth album is the strongest from their early era. The band opted for simple arrangements that they could play live, and it’s closer to The Beatles and power-pop than ever before. Moulding’s ‘Generals and Majors’ and Partridge’s ‘Towers of London’ sound like they should have been hits in a just world. Deep cuts like ‘Burning with Optimism’s Flames’ and ‘Living Through Another Cuba’ are memorable and full of personality.
Andy Partridge wrote most of his compositions on piano for Nonsuch, resulting in an album of sombre and sophisticated songs. Nonsuch is seventeen tracks long and probably could have used a trim, but most of it’s great – the silly ‘Omnibus’, the elegant ‘Wrapped in Grey’, and ‘Books are Burning’ with its fading guitar duel between Partridge and Gregory. Colin Moulding’s efforts on Nonsuch are less endearing, although ‘My Bird Performs’ is excellent. Nonsuch was the band’s last album for seven years, but that’s not a reflection on its quality.
#3 Apple Venus Volume 1
After a seven-year gap in recording, caused by label disputes, XTC returned to the studio. Dave Gregory quit XTC during the sessions, which Partridge describes as “orchoustic”- largely acoustic songs with orchestral arrangements. Partridge is a sophisticated enough writer to pull the project off with aplomb, with magnificent orchestrations on songs like ‘Green Man’ and ‘Easter Theater’.
#2 Chips from the Chocolate Fireball (the Dukes of Stratosphear)
XTC released two discs at their psychedelic alter-egos The Dukes of Stratosphear – the 1985 EP 25 O’Clock and the 1987 album Psonic Psunspot. They were released together on CD as Chips from the Chocolate Fireball. 25 O’Clock outsold the group’s previous two albums, Mummer and The Big Express, even though the band didn’t admit their alternate identity until later. Joined by Gregory’s brother on drums, the band record their original compilations in the style of 1967-era Pink Floyd and The Beatles on 25 OÇlock.’The band expand their reach on Psonic Psunspot, taking on The Hollies on ‘Vanishing Girl’ and Brian Wilson on ‘Pale and Precious’.
Everything came together at once for XTC on Skylarking – their most fertile period of songwriting coincided with working with drummer Prairie Prince and producer Todd Rundgren. Rundgren butted heads with Partridge in the studio, but the results were terrific. He organised Partridge and Moulding’s songs into a concept album about the passing of time. He emphasised the gorgeous pastoral elements of XTC’s music, such as the brilliant opening pair of ‘Summer’s Cauldron’ and ‘Grass’. It’s full of great tracks – the piano pop of ‘Ballet for a Rainy Day’, the power pop of ‘That’s Really Super, Supergirl’, and the jazz of ‘The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul’ are just three standouts.
What did I get wrong in my ranking? Write in and let me know.
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I like their middle period albums best. But mostly with XTC I just like scattered random songs from all over the place. One of the good Best-of’s would be my favorite but otherwise I would do it like this:
Drums and Wires
Oranges and Lemons
No Skylarking or Dukes? I started with the Fossil Fuel collection – most of it’s good, but it didn’t really go deep enough for my liking.
Yeah that’s the one I was thinking of too. But I thought there was a little bit TOO much on it. I like Skylarking but not as much as the other ones.
Such a great band in their heyday!! Most of my very, very favorite stuff from them is by Colin Moulding. (Similar to how I feel about Wire, where the Graham Lewis songs are usually my faves). My Top LP list is pretty radically different from yours, though . . . .
1. English Settlement
2. Black Sea
4. Drums and Wires
5. Big Express
6. Chips from the Chocolate Fireball
8. Oranges and Lemons
11. White Music
12. Apple Venus 1
13. Wasp Star
Looks like you’re much bigger on the early stuff than I am – your entire top 4 is live band era stuff, while mine is all studio stuff.
I’m a Terry Chambers man . . . while I certainly appreciate Phipps > Prince > Mastellotto for what they’ve done throughout their careers, and I love some of their work elsewhere, the group never had the same swing and snap for me as they did when Terry was on the drums . . .
Definitely a different feel. I always tend toward layered studio sound over raw live sounding stuff, so it’s totally predictable that I prefer studio XTC.
I like these guys a lot but only have a couple of albums. So I’d pass on ranking them. I read a book called ‘Complicated Game’ which Andy Partridge co-authored. Very interesting look at their inner workings. And I do remember reading about the clash with Rundgren.
I haven’t heard of that book but it looks interesting – Partridge is certainly never short of an opinion.
Yea, if you’re into them as much as you appear to be it’s pretty good. Talks about studio work, songwriting, etc.
What a lovely way to begin yet another day of miserable confinement: a courageous attempt to rank all the XTC albums! How any list can contain both White Music and Apple Venus is a mystery, but I approach with enthusiasm and goodwill (tempered by scepticism)!
I’ll certainly have a crack at sharing my ranking (though as you may recall, I really don’t subscribe to the Best/Worst dichotomy). In the meantime, great work Graham, and thanks for making me think of something other than COVID.
Thanks for reading! We’ve been in lockdown here for the last week. Luckily my kids are charming, intelligent, and well-behaved but it’s still tough to get things done sometimes.
Yes, we get detailed NZ reports on your delta incursion. Glad to hear the fam is sustaining. I’m lucky in that regard too.
I pulled out ‘Homegrown’ a while and really enjoyed it (for a few days)
Makes me think one could almost have a ‘Non-canon’ XTC list. Rag ‘n’ Bone Buffett, Homegrown, Chips from the Chocolate Fireball…
Now you have given me my weeks listening along with a bunch of jazz my neighbor laid on me along with our old favorite Flo Jenkins just to keep things real (whatever that means).
I really want you to know that Flo and I are not related.
(My XTC list on the way)
Sing a few verses of ‘Making Plans For Nigel”, record it then play back. You will get the DNA cleared up. Thanks for the other XTC. I was just on a listening jag with them recently.
I’ve never heard that – never saw it on CD back in the day. I’ve been digging into Partridge’s new EP and Fuzzy Warbles lately.
Thats what I mean , its just impossible to get into all the music I want to hear. I seem to pick it up along the way eventually.
I love XTC but would rather hear songs I haven’t heard before than alternate versions. Been enjoying Partridge’s Fuzzy Warbles.
1. Apple Venus (Perfect)
2. Skylarking (Sumptuous)
3. Nonesuch (Pageantry)
4. Oranges and Lemons (Effervescent)
5. Mummer (Pastoral)
6. English Settlement (Edgy)
7. Psonic Psunspot (Fun) (Chips is a compilation)
8. Black Sea (Emergent)
9. Wasp Star (Patchy)
10. The Big Express (Eccentric)
11. Drums and Wires (Electric)
12. White Music (Pogo-ish)
13. Go 2 (Forgettable)
Great fun. Thanks Graham.
Damn! Where did the line breaks go?
This is a cool list. I don’t know anything about them other than name so this is a good list of where i should start. Thanks.
I don’t know if they’re entirely your thing – you’re maybe most likely to dig the early new wave hits like ‘Making Plans for Nigel’?
I think it is the new wave stuff I know them from.
XTC cracks my Top 5 bands of all time even on a bad day. Since I got into the band during my first year of college I have such deeply ingrained feelings about some of these albums that it’s hard to look at the a lot of these with an unbiased perspective. Here are my rankings in order of least to most cherished, but I’d say I unconditionally love everything ranked 9 and above, and I love at least two or three songs from everything 10 and below:
13: Go 2
11: Wasp Star
9: Apple Venus
8: White Music
7: Black Sea
6: Drums & Wires
5: The Big Express
4: Chips from the Chocolate Fireball
3: Oranges & Lemons
1: English Settlement
I haven’t made a formal list, but I’m pretty sure they’re top ten for me. You certainly like English Settlement more than I do – a lot of it’s great, but a few tracks just drag for me (Leisure, Melt the Guns).
The only reason I don’t like Skylarking better is because I miss all the frantic and anxious new wave stuff that ended with English Settlement and only really popped up again on Big Express. It’s a tough choice, though, but the only songs I could take or leave off of English Settlement are “Leisure” and “Knuckle Down”. It’s probably the most bloated album where I don’t mind the bloat.
I know Apple Venus, and Drums and Wires…and recently Chips from the Chocolate Fireball … The latter wowed me…Vanishing Girl is my favorite song find of the year. As I listen to the album…they pull a little of everyone in…including the Monkees.
I’d recommend Skylarking for sure – Earn Enough For Us and That’s Really Super, Supergirl are both ace power pop tunes in my book.
Thanks…they made that around the time of the Duke album I believe…I have no trouble giving them more time.
Yup it’s right in between the two Dukes albums. Although Oranges and Lemons from 1989 has more of the psychedelic sound.
As a result of this post I have dipped into Skylarking and Nonsuch (neither of which I had heard) and have quite enjoyed them, particularly the latter.
Thanks for listening. Nonsuch seems to be a divisive record – it’s near the top or bottom of most of the lists in this thread.
It is my job in life to get more people to listen to XTC. My favourite band. Top 3 for me would be English Settlement, Skylarking and Apple Venus Volume 1.
Lots of English Settlement fans out there! Moulding’s stuff is super strong on that album, Blame the Weather is a really good outtake.
I have a Hits here, and when I find their albums in the wild, I will be using this post as a shopping list. 😉
Hope you find some – their studio discography is pretty strong, no real duds. Look out for Dukes of Stratosphear too.
I haven’t seen any in my recent travels (which have only just re-started, thatnks to Covid) but anything is possible. Made a note of that title, thanks!
Shows how much I know about XTC…I sold my CD copy of Nonsuch and only have a few songs on a HD. Was jammin “Generals and Majors” in the car the other day. And I like “The Man Who Murdered Love” 😁
The Man Who Murdered Love is fine – just felt like it could have been even better with the extra guitarist on it.
From where things come from? After the post punk and new wave explosion (including early XTC) these guys rediscovered The Beatles and The Beach Boys. If you like the psychedelic and baroque pop from the summer of love, you will love XTC. Especially the 85 – 87 period. I totally agree with you, with #1 and #2 positions. Great review!
Thank you! I guess there are a ton of bands who jumped on the new wave bandwagon then eventually went a different direction – Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson are other good examples.
Respectable Street is a banger, from ‘Black Sea’. Brilliant lyrics which skewer the lower middle class phenomena of suburbia: those endless tracts as Chisel would have it.
Great website by the way. Just came across it at random whilst trying to create the perfect Abba playlist. Will book-mark it!
Thanks for the compliments. Respectable Street is a good one – it’s similar in feel to ‘No Thugs in Our House’ from English Settlement, one of the only songs I know with my first name in it.
I think Wasp Star deserves a lot more love…I have it near the top behind Skylarking and Oranges and Lemons…
You hit the nail on the head as far as Terry Chambers is concerned. They lost a big part of their musical identity when he left.
They changed from a band to a studio entity really. It is interesting having a new drummer shape their sound for each album.