Peter Gabriel is a pop enigma. For a guy with so many ubiquitous hits, he’s never even pretended to play ball with radio. And his occasional brushes with the mainstream? Mostly accidental: “Sledgehammer,” the British singer-songwriter-producer’s global smash single, was an Otis Redding homage recorded as a post-session afterthought; that track’s iconic stop-motion music video defined the entire MTV era, even though it’s one of the most surreal, subversive items in the American pop-culture time-capsule.
Unlike almost every other mega-star, Gabriel seems to be motivated solely by artistic passion, with no apparent willingness to compromise for the sake of commerce. He creates music constantly, but releases tangible proof at a snail’s pace. We Gabriel-heads know the drill: It isn’t unusual to wait an entire decade between studio albums. 1992′s Us arrived six painfully long years after his masterful commercial break-out, So; meanwhile, I/O, his long-awaited sequel to 2002′s Up, has been teased and postponed so many times, it’s something of an urban legend — the SMiLE (or perhaps the Chinese Democracy) of art-rock. Yes, being a fanatic of this man’s work is emotionally taxing. But even the man’s misfires (like 2010′s Scratch My Back) harness a radiant earnestness, daring us not to be dazzled by the sheer scope of his vision. When Peter Gabriel bothers to release a piece of music, it’s clear he’s maximizing every fiber of his artistic being.
“I was feeling part of the scenery,” Gabriel once sang on “Solsbury Hill,” a triumphant romp from his 1977 self-titled debut, “I walked right out of the machinery.” And he’s built his entire career on that principle, consistently reinventing his own creative wheel. No two Peter Gabriel albums sound alike — just compare the sinister minimalism of 1980′s Melt with the densely layered sprawl of Up.
During his early run as frontman for prog-rock legends Genesis, Gabriel was notorious for performing in outlandish costumes, using bizarre characters as a vehicle for his schizophrenic storytelling. And even though he doesn’t dress up as flowers or sexy foxes anymore, he hasn’t stopped chasing that same cinematic grandeur. Gabriel’s music thinks as big as it sounds.
Attempting to rank the maestro’s catalog comes with a host of hair-splitting conundrums. What’s a proper studio album in the first place? You can’t ignore Passion, Gabriel’s mind-blowing soundtrack to Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation Of Christ. But if film scores are in-bounds, then what about 2000′s scattershot OVO? What about Birdy and Long Walk Home? What about the often overlooked Big Blue Ball (technically a collaborative album that only feels like a proper Gabriel album)? These are tricky questions with debatable answers. (Even Gabriel’s B-sides are worth exploring — the funky, immersive “Don’t Break This Rhythm” should have been a hit single.)
Ultimately, we went with the 10 most essential Gabriel albums and ranked them — from least awesome to most awesome. It was a tedious and painful process. Tell us what we overhyped and underrated in the comments section. (And try not to break our Big Blue Balls.)
Start the Countdown here.