Although he may not have been quite as prolific a songwriter as Andy Partridge, XTC’s Colin Moulding penned some of the great songs of the New Wave era and beyond. It would be rather easy, in fact, to put together a few unofficial Best of XTC volumes based using nothing more than songs he wrote. Picking just ten of his best, however, is no small feat.
But this being the internet, I feel compelled to chime in with my list. Spotify users can check out the accompanying playlist at the bottom of this article. Enjoy!
XTC’s first two studio albums got by more on sheer energy and nerve than on the strength of their songs, necessarily. This is especially true on their much-maligned sophomore effort, Go 2.
And while “Crowded Room” is certainly more primitive than the material Moulding would produce just one year later, it’s his best work from the band’s original lineup. I’m sure some will gripe with its inclusion, but I simply could not ignore Moulding’s and XTC’s angular, jittery post-punk origins.
#2. “Making Plans for Nigel” (from Drums and Wires, 1979)
While XTC’s first two albums certainly have their backers, it was on 1979′s Drums and Wires where the band truly became XTC — which is to say that the nervous energy was dialed back somewhat, the rough edges were smoothed a little, and the songwriting focus and melodicism were cranked up about 20 notches. That much is clear from the album’s opening salvo, “Making Plans for Nigel.” It’s prototypical New Wave and is the first truly great XTC track. Not surprisingly, it cracked the Top 20 of the U.K. singles chart.
#3. “Generals and Majors” (from Black Sea, 1980)
Anti-war songs are a tricky thing. While it’s easy to agree that, yeah, war sucks, it’s also really easy to ruin an otherwise good song with ham-fisted protest lyrics. “Generals and Majors” escapes that trap and is in fact one of the most insanely catchy songs in pop’s anti-war canon (get it?). Terry Chambers’ insistent drumming steals the instrumental show here, but don’t overlook Moulding’s strong melodies. I’ll bet a nickel you’ll be whistling it for days after listening.
The song is made even more fun with this rather cheeky video, featuring Virgin Records (XTC’s label until the 1990s) co-founder Richard Branson and the band clowning around.
I’ll just go ahead and tell you here that Mummer is my favorite XTC album, although I wouldn’t argue that it’s their best. Perhaps not coincidentally, it boasts three outstanding Moulding tunes, two of which appear on this list. (I do enjoy ”In Loving Memory of a Name” but not enough to make the cut.)
“Wonderland” introduces the more subdued, pastoral sound that dominated the record and was particularly effective for following the thumping, electric eccentricity of Partridge’s “Beating of Hearts.” In fact, Moulding’s bass — if it’s here it all — is largely jettisoned in favor of co-producer Steve Nye’s mini-korg.
This song is also the demarcation point between Moulding’s earlier, comparably primal songwriting efforts and the more meticulous, beautifully melodic work to follow. The video is worth seeking out on YouTube but beware the subpar audio quality you’ll likely encounter.
#5. “Deliver Us from the Elements” (from Mummer, 1983)
And then, on the completely opposite end of the spectrum, is this. While there are certainly harder rocking songs in XTC’s catalog than “Deliver Us from the Elements,” I’m not sure if there is a more sinister one. Moulding’s rather apocalyptic lyrics and the crashing, doom-laden choruses make a formidable pairing. The rather bleak, chaotic outro is legitimately unnerving and is a strange capper to a great song.
Moulding contributed just a pair of songs to The Big Express, but sometimes it’s quality over quantity, right? The arrangement is fairly straightforward, although the band’s increasing skill in the studio — they had retired from touring in ’82 due to Andy Partridge’s incapacitating stage fright — adds a layer of density that makes a great song even better. Most importantly, this may be Moulding’s finest lyrical effort — it’s a vivid and colorful jazz-tinged portrait of days gone by.
XTC devotees may be surprised that I only picked one of Colin’s songs from the Skylarking album. The fact is that I find a lot of that record a little too fussy, which may have more to do with Todd Rundgren’s production than anything else. But its lasting popularity can’t be denied, and Moulding must receive a lot of credit for that. He did compose nearly half of the album’s tracks after all.
“Sacrificial Bonfire,” which closed out the album originally (see Wikipedia for more on that), may just be the most English-sounding song XTC ever recorded. How strange, then, that it was produced by an American and recorded in the U.S. Either way, it makes me want to head to the nearest Renaissance Faire.
Actually no, it doesn’t. Those things are weird. But this is a great song.
Few bands have pulled off the neo-psychedelic sound as dexterously as XTC, who recorded two such albums in the ’80s as the Dukes of Stratosphear. The latter effort, Psonic Psunspot, explodes with the mid-’60s era Hollies psychedelic pop nugget “Vanishing Girl,” written by Moulding under the nom de guerre of The Red Curtain. This song and “Bike Ride to the Moon,” written by Sir John Johns (Partridge) are far and away the two best from the Dukes project. Turn on, tune in, and drop out, man!
#9. “King for a Day” (from Oranges & Lemons, 1989)
I really don’t have a lot to say about this one. It’s simply effortless and outstanding. This is how pop at its finest sounds.
As a super-special bonus, here’s an extremely rare clip of XTC performing the song live on The David Letterman Show. I’m sure Colin wishes he had a do-over on that haircut, but it was the late ’80s so he gets a pass.
Unfortunately, a dispute between XTC and Virgin Records meant that Nonsuch would be their last album for seven years. Luckily it was so strong it was almost enough to hold fans over the entire time. “My Bird Performs” is a deceptively simple slice of chamber pop that would’ve sounded shockingly out of step coming from any other band in the early ’90s but XTC.
I’ve heard it said that XTC was God’s attempt to make up for the Beatles breaking up, and on this song I believe it.