To try a different kind of list, let me annotate twenty of my favorite Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe tracks as the mood strikes me.
1. Why Don’t We Live Together (Please)
Its genius revealed itself to me on my twenty-ninth birthday — the age at which Tennant-Lowe recoded. What sounds like precosity at twenty-nine sounds like life at forty: compromise, making do, accepting what can’t be changed. The rhythm lets us know these are not bad things. The racket of the last forty seconds is the most euphoric moemnt of their career — and it had just begun.
2. Paninaro (b/w “Suburbia”)
Armani Armani A-ah-ah-Armani. Another list song. This one has a soccer chant, big drums, and an octave-skipping synth line. If you don’t dance to this, you’re Neil Tennant.
3. Young Offender (Very)
4. What Have I Done to Deserve This? (Actually)
5. Two Divided by Zero (Please)
What cruising (down) your city’s main drag sounds like. The sleaziness is so wanton it’s endearing, like a nerd trying to impress the cool kids with how well he can hold his liquor. Sometimes I think this is the only Pet Shop Boys song you need own, so well does it encapsulate their approach.
6. Being Boring (Behaviour)
7. You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk (Nightlife)
The Merle Haggard of “Footlights” and “How Did You Find Me Here” could have covered this: drop the g’s and it’s Nashville.
8. The End of the World (Behaviour)
This deep Behaviour track epitomized “sophistication” as a high school junior: regarding high school coupledom with the detachment of an older man who understands its silliness but missed out on all of it at the time. For reasons unsaid. The sequencer line is among their deepest. Also note: Tennant’s electric guitar picking.
9. I Get Excited (You Get Excited Too) (b/w “Heart”)
Truth in advertising!
10. Suburbia (New version)
11. Shopping (Actually)
As responsible as “Opportunities” for solidifying the Pet’s reputation as what AllMusic calls with all sincerity “post-modern ironists,” it indicts and it celebrates. Imagine the loser in “Two Divided By Zero” as a wealthy arriviste.
12. Always On My Mind (single)
What struck me most about Willie Nelson’s version, which I heard years after the PSB’s, was its guilelessness, humility. Nelson’s courtly delivery evoked the parable of the prodigal son — a rake who’d wandered the word from sin to sin and returned chastened, ready for the rest of his life. I hear little humility in Tennant and Lowe’s version; the hi-NRG beats and orchestral synths thrust Tennant’s thoughtlessness in listeners’ faces. It’s the character in “It’s a Sin” months later, having decided that decadence was awesome. But he wants it all: he wants his partner to forgive him when he (inevitably) wanders off the reservation again. Tennant’s vocal is extraordinary considering that anyone else would have gotten swamped by the arrangement. First he’s going nyah-nyah-nyah in his partner’s ear by switching from ascending to descending flat notes on the verses (“Maybe I-I-I-I didn’t treat y-o-u-u-u/Quite as G-O-O-D as I sh-ou-ou-ould…), then he rises to the challenge of those celestial synths on the chorus. He’s going to keep trying to become worthy of the attention lavished on him.
13. Se a Vida E (Bilingual)
14. Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money) (Please)
Of course I prefer this to “West End Girls.”
15. Rent (Actually)
Greil Marcus’ question remains: did Tennant-Lowe write a melody for those lyrics or lyrics for that melody?
16. This Must Be The Place I Waited Years to Leave (Behaviour)
The marvel of Behaviour is how Tennant hovers in and out of his characters’ dramas. The intermingling of elements here — the orchestral synths, Johnny Marr’s echoing guitar, the nervous percussive loop, Tennant’s gingerly vocal — produces a narrative rich in suggestion.
17. I’m Not Scared (Introspective or Eighth Wonder)
Pick which one you prefer: Eighth Wonder’s perky version, voiced by a kittenish Patsy Kensit, singing the French parts like a James Bond diva; or the epic one on the Boys’ own Introspective. Tennant, crooning over the rising and falling sequencer line, sounds plenty scared.
18. A Man Could Get Arrested (b/w of “West End Girls”)
I mentioned upthread that Alternative presented, well, an alternative history of the Boys’ career. The seven-inch version, recorded with a full band (“real bass and drums,” avers Chris Lowe), is as close as they got to sounding like 1985, but with a lyric so bizarre and a chord change so unexpected that the Boys could only have triumphed as a Scritti Politti-esque fluke.
19. Can You Forgive Her? (Very)
An indictment of the closet, and it needed a horn section and the most ebullient arrangement of the Boys’ career to register. Perhaps an instance of the Boys’ purported sense of irony is that Tennant sounds mildly envious off the closet.
20. Do I Have To? (b/w “Always On My Mind”)
Immersive romantic melancholy, in which Tennant turns the title question into a mantra.
21. Thursday (Electric)
Good art reminds us of what we overlook, often staring us in the face. Of course Thursday is better than Friday or the weekend: the anticipation, to quote an early song, is a stimulation.
22. You Choose (Release)
Another example of adult dance-inflected pop, “You Choose” lands with a soft thud at the end of Tennant-Lowe’s dullest studio album to date. But Johnny Marr’s guitar line hugs Tennant close as he sings, in a whisper faint with embarrassment, about making decisions that he knows will cost him.
23. Kings Cross (Actually)
One of their best early album tracks limns dread without getting concrete: our protagonist wanders the London station looking at dead and wounded, worried that AIDS will get him next.
24. It’s Alright (Introspective)
“I’m a lousy optimist. I’m not sure it’s gonna be alright, and it certainly isn’t alright now. I turn to music to experience the divine, but I also turn to it to escape, and although my heart’s fixed on the tragedies of my beloved former city, I know my soul wants to flee and find refuge in little things, like the soothing, soft, North England way Tennant sings Afghanistan. It’s so beautiful” — Barry Walters in 2001. A cavil: for me music isn’t an escape, it’s an immersion, often unwelcome.
25. Burn (Super)
The Boys have recorded disco infernos (think 1996’s wan “Saturday Night Forever”); “Burn” is the first time when something feels at stake. The revival of all things ’80s sequencers and synth pads gives this 2016 number its poignancy. Thirty years after “West End Girls,” how remarkable that Tennant can still hit those high notes..