Joy Division Unknown Pleasures

10 Best Joy Division Songs

Manchester post-punk band Joy Division appeared so ordinary – in their music videos they look like four young civil servants playing music in their work clothes. But the music that they created was unique and deeply unsettling. Steven Morris’ drumming was robotic, while Peter Hook’s bass was busy and melodic, at the centre of these ten tunes. Bernard Sumner’s guitar and synths played a supporting, textural role, but the focus was squarely on vocalist Ian Curtis. Curtis’ chilling baritone delivered gloom-laden lyrics that became bleaker and bleaker through the band’s brief tenure.

Despite these unique ingredients, the band’s early EP An Ideal for Living betrays their punk roots. By the time they recorded their 1979 debut album, they were working with producer Martin Hannett, who drenched their instruments in reverb and allowed space, helping to create post-punk. Joy Division’s tenure was short – they only recorded two studio albums and some crucial non-album singles before Ian Curtis committed suicide in June 1980.

Joy Division aren’t merely notable for Curtis’ unflinching lyrics – the band have memorable riffs and hummable tunes, something that would serve the remaining members well as they formed New Order.

10 Best Joy Division Songs

#10 Decades/The Eternal

from Closer, 1980
Joy Division recorded much of Closer during the second half of 1979. When they returned to the studio to finish the record in 1980, their new er songs were different in character. The two closing tracks of Closer have their own distinct identities, but share the same feel – slow tempos and dominated by keyboards. ‘The Eternal’ was written about a child with Down’s Syndrome while ‘Decades’ was written about soldiers suffering PTSD

#9 New Dawn Fades

from Unknown Pleasures, 1979
Joy Division sounded terrific when they blended driving rock with atmosphere, and ‘New Dawn Fades’ is a prime example. Hook and Sumner play off each other with lovely interlocking parts, while Curtis’ vocals drive the song’s ebbs and flows. ‘New Dawn Fades’ has been covered by Moby and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ guitarist John Frusciante.

#8 Transmission

non-album single, 1979
Joy Division’s first single features the chorus “dance, dance, dance to the radio”. On paper it sounds like a carefree 1960s oldie, but Curtis’ baritone makes it sound frightening rather than inviting. The song was originally recorded for an abandoned 1978 album – the eventual version is faster. ‘Transmission’ almost topped the New Zealand charts.

#7 I Remember Nothing

from Unknown Pleasures, 1979
Joy Division closed their debut album with the stark and unsettling ‘I Remember Nothing’. It’s a bare skeleton of a song, showcasing Hannett’s eerie production and Curtis’ vocals. Bernard Sumner employs a Powertran Transcendent 2000 synthesiser; Peter Hook told Jon Savage that the synth “vied with the sound of Rob Gretton smashing bottles with Steve and his Walther replica pistol.”

#6 Passover

from Closer, 1980
Other Joy Division songs are more musically intense, but the more measured sound of ‘Passover’ is one of their most affecting pieces. Peter Hook’s bass rises and swoops, but the song never wavers from its medium-paced plod. The repetitive music puts the focus on Curtis’ lyrics, and they’re typically both accomplished and frightening. The title refers to the Jewish tradition, as Curtis sings “left with a mark on the door”. Utter despair has never sounded so eloquent.

#5 She’s Lost Control

from Unknown Pleasures, 1979
During 1978 and 1979, Curtis worked as the Assistant Disablement Resettlement Officer at a Macclesfield occupational rehabilitation centre. A woman with epilepsy frequently came looking for work – when she stopped, he learned that she’d passed away. Curtis, who also suffered from epilepsy, was disturbed and inspired to write ‘She’s Lost Control’. There are two different versions of ‘She’s Lost Control’ – I prefer the rock-oriented version on Unknown Pleasures to the more electronic single version released in 1980.

#4 Love Will Tear Us Apart

non-album single, 1980
‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ is Joy Division’s best-known song – not surprising, as it’s the hookiest track they ever released. In particular, the introduction is magical – starting with a bass riff, dramatic strummed chords, and then drum fills before the signature synth riff arrives. Because Sumner plays synth on the song, the band taught Ian Curtis how to play a D chord on the guitar for live performances. NME declared that ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ was the most excellent single of all time in 2002, while the title was an ironic nod to Captain & Tennille’s ‘Love Will Keep Us Together’.

#3 Atmosphere

non-album single, 1980
The haunting ‘Atmosphere’ wasn’t released until a few months after Curtis’ death in the UK. In this context it sounds like an elegy for Curtis; celebrated DJ John Peel played the song when he announced Curtis’ death on air. ‘Atmosphere’ was a chart topping hit in New Zealand – capital city Wellington also boasts a long-standing “Ian Curtis Lives” wall.

It got voted the favourite rock song to be played at funerals, which was a very dubious honour! The other one was Robbie Williams, Angels, which was the song most likely to be played at weddings. I must admit, every time I go to a funeral and hear Atmosphere, I do wish we’d have written Angels, without a shadow of a doubt. 

Peter Hook, Louder Sound

#2 Twenty Four Hours

from Closer, 1980
‘Twenty Four Hours’ is an expertly arranged song, shifting gears from driving rocker to eerie resignation between stanzas. It’s held together by Hook’s bass riffs. In 2007, Bernard Sumner said that “While we were working on Closer, Ian said to me that doing this album felt very strange, because he felt that all his words were writing themselves. He also said that he had this terrible claustrophobic feeling that he was in a whirlpool and being pulled down, drowning.”

24 Hours was such an individual and unique bass riff, and funnily enough I’ve noticed that over the years that it’s a song that a lot of bass players quote as being their favourite bass riff…. But again it has the wonderful elements that you die for in a song – melodic drop downs and really rocky highs. And again, if I say so myself, the song is lead by the bass. It’s just an absolutely fantastic riff.”

Peter Hook, Louder Sound

#1 Dead Souls

b-side of ‘Atmosphere’, 1980
‘Dead Souls’ is named after the 19th-century Russian novel by Nikolai Gogol. Based on its title, you’d expect a dark novel, but it’s picaresque satire. The Joy Division song, on the other hand, is pure intensity. Like a bunch of Joy Division’s best work, ‘Dead Souls’ is both driving and atmospheric. Sumner and Hook take different roles than usual – Sumner’s guitar is more upfront than usual for Joy Division, while Hook’s bass sits back and holds the rhythm down. The long introduction is thrilling, but Curtis commands full attention when he finally arrives with the terrific opening line “someone take these dreams away”.



Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande. Aphoristic Album Reviews features reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.


  1. About half of these would be in my top 10 too. Especially your top three. And Passover and Transmission and Atmosphere. You don’t have my very favorite though Heart and Soul. That’s not one of your favorites?? That’s crazy. I like the ones best where he sounds like Jim Morrison. Ha.

    • You’re obviously a Closer fan! Heart + Soul is good – pretty similar in feel to Passover, which I’ve always preferred.

      I didn’t really think of Joy Division as being influenced by The Doors but apparently people brought it up a bit. Echo and the Bunnymen sounded even more like The Doors IMO.

      • No, I don’t think Joy Division are anything like the Doors-, but sometimes his singing sounds similar to Jim Morrison in a way that I really like. It’s hard to explain why I think that, but it has something to do with the way they both do this thing where they’re singing in a kind of low croon, and what happens is that they try to lower their voice to hit certain notes that are probably below their usual singing and their voice gets kind of shaky when they do that, and thats when they sound similar I think. And it’s just something that I really like for some reason.

        • I wonder if Curtis could have made a career as a crooner if he’d been born a generation earlier – probably could have been an accomplished singer with some training. He’s certainly attention drawing.

          • Yeah maybe he could have been an old style crooner at a different time. But he was also a good rock shouter too. My favorite singers were always the ones that could do both.

      • Their only album that I ever played a lot was the one compilation called Permanent cuz it’s the only one that has all the right songs on it. Unlike all the other compilations which never had all the ones that I like. And on Unknown Pleasures the only ones I like to hear besides New Dawn are Day of the Lords and Shadowplay.. I usually like the singles more than the albums but it was hard to find them all in one place before Permanent. I guess there’s been a few more comps since then that might be better. But I doubt it because they all look too long.

          • I suppose there’s always Substance, but the trouble with that one is that I don’t like half of the ones that are on it. Warsaw and all that stuff. Permanent is better.

          • Yeah, the best stuff on Substance is from their 1979-1980 prime. The earlier stuff is just formative.

          • It’s a very strong top ten for a list that only really spans 12 months – they recorded Unknown Pleasures in April 1979 and Closer in March 1980 (and I think the singles like Transmission and Love Will Tear Us Apart fall into that timeframe as well).

  2. 24 hours would be my choice for number 1. Your list is great. Missing options: Shadow Play, Disorder and (cheating here) Ceremony.

    • Thank you! Ceremony will show up on the New Order list. Shadow Play and Disorder are both great choices too – Unknown Pleasures comes in behind Closer and the best parts of Substance for me, but it’s still one heck of a debut.

    • Yeah, they did the English thing of having killer non-album singles. Pretty hard to leave Atmosphere and Love Will Tear Us Apart off any Joy Division best of list.

      • Yes it was a lot for only a two-year period. I wonder when the songs on Still were recorded. Some of them are marked 1981 but I don’t know if they’re really older or what. When did he die, in 1980 or 1981? I guess if he died in 80 they couldn’t very well have been recorded in 1981. Obviously. And also, whatever happened to your Jimi Hendrix top 10 that you said you were doing?

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