Joy Division

In the seemingly infinite discussion of influence, Joy Division’s place in the halls of music’s most revered is just as sure as the band’s equally esteemed mythos. Generations of fans old enough to have remembered the band’s breakthrough in 1979, and the countless more born well after the 1980 suicide of Ian Curtis, hold the mercurial vocalist in almost messianic esteem. The lenses of celebrity often blur the cruel and unforgiving nature of reality, though, giving us a retrospective that too often ignores the context that, however small, was largely responsible for the art and music we were enjoying in the first place. Though understandably seen as the unfortunate catalyst for what would become New Order, the death of Ian Curtis is no less tragic even when cast in the positive light of his unparalleled influence and courage. And while New Order’s acclaim and success is deserved and historic in its own right, the band’s clear distinction both in sound and in scope separate it from the overwhelming, albeit brief, presence of Joy Division.

Perhaps the most profound and uncanny part of Joy Division’s story is found in the band’s vapor-like existence, spanning only two full-lengths and an EP. It’s the kind of story the world of rock and roll readily mutates into lore, with the spectacle unfairly overshadowing the validity of the music itself. For Joy Division, the spectacle started even before the death of Curtis, with critics and fans alike taking immediate notice of the vocalist’s onstage antics and his singularly haunting baritone. Thankfully, Curtis’ immense vocal talent was accompanied by an equally talented band whose sense of atmosphere and damn near tangible dread made for the gloomiest of collaborations. While Peter Hook’s high bass lines lay out a kind of distorted lamentation for the cold staccato drumming of Stephen Morris, Bernard Sumner painted electric broad strokes with riffs as heavy as metal and just as commanding. These four unassuming friends from Manchester just at the cusp of their twenties set their punk sentiments to an eerie tune, inadvertently setting into motion one of the most inarguably dominant sounds of the last three decades.

For all the well-documented aural and thematic fragility of Joy Division, their greatest impact likely lies in the powerful catharsis of their music. Paired with the mournfully kinetic sounds created by Hook, Sumner, and Morris, the baleful tone from Curtis purges any semblance of superficiality with an emotional delivery that’s disturbingly believable. The two full-lengths (Unknown Pleasures and Closer) along with the 1978 EP and a handful of singles and posthumous releases speak to the understated bravery of Curtis, whose legacy is too often relegated to words like “misery” and “tragic.” The rarity of Joy Division’s uninhibited lyrical and musical vulnerability is nothing short of phenomenal given that its musicians were somehow able to match and complement the despair and energy emoting from the lyrics and delivery of Curtis. The issue of mental illness and its direct relationship with Joy Division’s music is one that has no need of being separated simply for the fact that its precisely that characteristic that breathes life into the few songs the band created.

These ten tracks in no way represent the whole of Joy Division’s catalog but rather attempt to reflect the gravity of the band’s fleeting but inimitable sway over the music that followed. Though the music of Joy Division readily gives way to a sorrowful texture and atmosphere, its power lies at those auditory verges when the music stops and the listener sits stunned by the experience. Perhaps most importantly, the music here provides a commonality even at its darkest corners, with Curtis treading the cruel and razor-thin brink that separates the human condition from the perpetually looming reality of psychosis. Along with Hook, Sumner, and Morris, the dark brilliance of that journey was one that Curtis perhaps felt compelled to walk and, thankfully, share its darkest shadows. Almost 34 years after his death, those wavelengths of powerful gloom resonate as strongly as ever, reverberating an ironic sense of hope for the limitlessness of music at its most beautifully troubling.

10. “Disorder” (from Unknown Pleasures, 1979)

The song that arguably started it all: The first track from Joy Division’s debut LP immediately kicks in the coldly subdued sound the band would inadvertently help pioneer. Beginning with Stephen Morris’ hiccuped drums and Bernard Sumner’s minimal but moving guitar work, the song’s pace is exacting, gradually unraveling both lyrically and musically, with Ian Curtis’ icy baritone punctuating the song’s staccato rhythm. The convenience of retrospect reveals that Curtis’ now well-documented struggle with epilepsy was apparent from the very beginning, and something the frontman perhaps unconsciously poured into songs like “Disorder.” The song’s gradual descent into sonic disarray is something that might have detracted from any other band whose vocalist wasn’t Ian Curtis. He reverberates the word “feeling” in a fevered, isolated haze to close the song and to essentially begin Joy Division’s tragic and influential story.

9. “The Eternal” (from Closer, 1980)

The penultimate track on what would be Joy Division’s second and final full-length, “The Eternal” begins with an electric curtain of noise interrupted by Hook’s bass line eerily thudding like a faint pulse. Sumner’s keyboard work provides grounding for the otherwise ethereal opening to the song while Curtis at his most subdued sings the line, “Procession moves on/ the shouting is over,” cutting through the ambient vapor like a knife. It comes as no surprise that the song readily translates to those darker, more extreme corners of the music world, with now-defunct American black metal pioneers Nachtmystium covering the song on a 7″ single released in 2012. The song finds Curtis exchanging his coldly punctuated vocal style for one that’s melodically fluid. The apparitional vocals float just inches above Sumner’s haunting piano chords echoing alongside unnervingly distanced drumming. The song’s spectral movement displays the core of what critics would label “gothic rock,” but even more importantly it offers a glimpse into the dark fragility behind the ghostliness of Curtis’ vocals.

8. “Atmosphere” (from Substance, 1988)

Initially released in France as an exclusive single in 1980, this song’s original title was “Light And Blindness.” Beginning with Morris’ drum work providing an abbreviated rhythm, the song quickly sets into its pattern for Curtis’ baritone croon. The synth orchestration provides a bleakly melodic ambiance against the lyrical theme of seclusion and self-disillusionment. Appropriately titled, the fluid pacing of the song constantly edges toward eruption but deliberately stops just short, letting the narrow space between notes serve as a kind of brooding ellipsis. A music video accompanied the song’s re-release on 1988′s singles compilation, Substance, showing hooded figures in a barren desert wasteland juxtaposed against candid photos of Curtis. Almost prayerful in its delivery, the song is at times both musically and lyrically hopeful, with Curtis pleading for emotional tangibility against the backdrop of the music’s specter-like movement. Widely considered one of the band’s finest songs, “Atmosphere” displays the kind of elegantly vulnerable songwriting that would define not just Joy Division’s music but provide the influence for countless musicians and bands after them.

7. “Shadowplay” (from Unknown Pleasures, 1979)

Even in the more operatively post-punk sound of their first release, Joy Division’s gothic rock tinges were unmistakable with songs like “Shadowplay.” Hook’s distinctive treble-flirting bass line and the metallic wail of Sumner’s guitar serve as a kind of ominous call-and-response underscoring Curtis at his most vocally forceful. “In the shadowplay/ acting out your own death/ knowing no more,” is a line likely to elicit groans if it weren’t entrenched in the subdued but strangely frantic movement of the music. Sumner’s minor-chord lead-out punctuates the song’s final minute as Morris’ drums provide a clipped yet echoing chill. The band’s subtle but marked shift from the punk tendencies on Unknown Pleasures to the gothic atmospherics of Closer is completely natural and unsurprising. Though decidedly muted, the dark fringes of “Shadowplay” are still nonetheless impactful and, more importantly, they offer a glimpse into the band’s brief but incomparably brilliant musical direction.

6. “Twenty Four Hours” (from Closer, 1980)

The normally understated rhythms of drummer Morris are briefly exchanged for a kinetic unpredictability on “Twenty Four Hours.” When paired against the rest of Closer’s largely melancholic pacing, the atypical dynamics of movement in “Twenty Four Hours” seem strange yet just as oddly appropriate. Joy Division’s dynamic of melodically wavering between the quietly frantic and eerily calm is at the forefront of the song’s four and a half minutes, with just the slightest suggestions of the dark electro-pop the album would spawn in numerous other bands, perhaps most notably in New Order. Curtis sings over the mournful yet frenetic melody: “Gotta find my destiny/ before it gets too late,” offering a moment, however brief, of hope. A large part of the song’s success lies in the fact that it sees Curtis detaching himself from the relentless dirge that thematically and musically shrouds the rest of the album in futility. By no means uplifting, the song simply allows for a fleeting moment of light on an otherwise overwhelmingly bleak album.

5. “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (from Substance, 1988)

Joy Division’s first chart hit (and the last single the band would record), “Love Will Tear Us Apart” didn’t even appear on either of the band’s two full-length releases. The song’s mid-tempo pulse runs parallel to the combination of Hook’s bass line and Sumner’s eerily well-timed bursts of synth, all coiled together in a dark synchronicity with Curtis sounding as vocally tenuous as ever. Given the upbeat pace and subdued but catchy refrain, it’s no surprise the song still stands as the band’s most recognizable track even more than thirty years after its release. Though its autobiographical implications regarding Curtis’ life are oftentimes a point of contention, the song’s merit transcends whatever context that may have inspired it. The song shows that Joy Division were more than capable of bridging their music to the notoriously fickle pop sensibilities of mainstream listeners without surrendering any of their experimental clout. A moment equally heartbreaking and historic for Joy Division, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” indirectly signaled the tragic end of its vocalist and the immediate beginning of the indelibly influential sound that resonates just as powerfully today.

4. “New Dawn Fades” (from Unknown Pleasures, 1979)

You’d be hard pressed to find a Joy Division song that displays the band’s incomparable proclivity for musical entropy better than “New Dawn Fades.” From the song’s backtracked and unsettlingly modified sample opening (taken from the preceding track, “Insight”) to the conversational push/pull of Hook and Sumner’s chord progression threaded throughout, “New Dawn Fades” surges toward the climax of Curtis’ vocals, soaring and yet becoming crippled by its lyrical context. The contrasting distorted and clean guitar/bass work from Sumner and Hook here evoke the album’s reoccurring theme of emotional decay, with Curtis at the very edge of the fray, singing, “It was me, waiting for me/ Hoping for something more” to lead in the guitar solo denouement. Though firmly in the post-punk camp, “New Dawn Fades” is one of a few undeniably heavy songs on Unknown Pleasures with Morris more exacting than erratic behind the drum kit. The frenzied but focused songwriting here speaks volumes to punk’s influence on Joy Division and the enormous value the band placed on melodic contrast.

3. “Passover” (from Closer, 1980)

An often overlooked track, “Passover” is Joy Division at their most introspective, both lyrically and musically. Hook and Morris provide a low, discordant rumble for the song’s ethereal movement, with Sumner’s guitar randomly puncturing the fog, while Curtis delivers lines more devotional than mournful, trading abbreviation for the space between the edges of his voice and the furthest echo from the instruments. For this song, Curtis briefly directs the lyrical focus away from the abstract sentiments of his depression to the far more specific reality that was the doubt and apprehension concerning the potential impact of the band’s music. Curtis’ vulnerability is cast under a new shadow on “Passover,” and in the track he questions perceptions of himself, not generated from his already existing dark consciousness but from the desire for “sanctuary from these feverish smiles.” Discussion of Joy Division’s thematic concern with the loss of innocence and youth is a well-worn path, but here those themes take on an almost meta quality, with the band’s despairing lyrics finding their root in the tangible context of their growing fame and the inadvertent effects of that fame on Curtis.

2. “Transmission” (from Substance, 1988)

Originally released in 1979, “Transmission” highlights Joy Division’s singular type of frenetic pop, a style at least partially influenced by Curtis’ struggles with epilepsy. While the disease’s direct impact on both Curtis’ lyrics and the band’s at times erratic melodies will never be fully known, songs like “Transmission” suggest that Joy Division were just as interested in songs that would allow for performance as well as playability. Hook’s distinctive bass threads a line just as rhythmically crucial to the song’s movement as Morris’s punctuated drumming. Curtis delivers lines like, “The things that we’ve learnt are no longer enough,” with an unbridled fervor, his voice edging right up against its limits, while the music comes to an electronic, rhythmic boil. Another Joy Division song that lends itself to compositional decay, every instrument, including the vocals, unravels from its coldly detached beginnings into a syncopated frenzy that, in spite of the song’s grimly dystopian lyrics, lends itself to the dance floor.

1. “Dead Souls” (from Substance, 1988)

Released in 1980 as the B-side to “Atmosphere,” “Dead Souls” begins with Morris’ drums rolling out a beat before the briefly disjointed guitar work of Sumner unknots into the anthemic riff that gives the otherwise unrelenting melancholy of this song its only hint of color. In the aftermath of Curtis’ suicide, “Dead Souls” has acquired a certain level of notoriety due to the unfortunate relevance of its lyrics, which directly confront the cruel realities of psychosis with a jarring vulnerability. Given the band had already established an inclination for creating songs both fragile and strangely powerful in their despondency, “Dead Souls” remains a singular track even now, with Curtis imploring his unnamed audience with the opening line, “Someone take these dreams away,” with a chilling authenticity. Equally unsettling is the distinctive crescendo of Hook, Sumner, and Morris playing yet again at the cusp of derailment, only stopping to let the listener peer with them over the edge and into the waiting void.

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Comments (64)
  1. I guess you didn’t have to put Love Will Tear Us Apart at number 1, though it’s still kind of weird that you didn’t.

    I will vouch for Transmission at number 2 though. Isolation should have been in there somewhere.

  2. Epic Loud  |   Posted on Apr 1st +5

    No Isolation? hrmm :(

  3. I don’t know how much you can argue with here, though “Love Will Tear Us Apart” being at number 5 strains credulity a little bit.

  4. Should we begin the argument of: “Is Ceremony a Joy Division song?”.

  5. Great work! I love seeing 24 Hours & New Dawn Fades on here.

    Though a singles comp, Substance stands as tall and is as important as the 2 official full lengths. Essential listening.

    The 2007 biopic – Control – is a great intro for anyone looking to get into this band:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xUz6y6ANIgE

  6. For a band with so few releases, it’s a testament to their greatness that this list could still be debated.

    You have the Big Three: “Atmosphere” / “Transmission” / “Love Will Tear Us Apart” that pretty much have to be on a Top 10 Best Joy Division songs. Placements is debatable, inclusion is not.

    Which makes the list even tougher since that means you have to choose only 7 songs from two masterpiece albums. “Disorder” is a shoe-in and “Shadowplay” is so great that it even made The Killers sound super cool again when they covered it (sincerely, they did a great cover of it).

    Mad props for including “The Eternal” even though I personally can’t separate it from “Decades” as one of my favorite penultimate/last track combos I’ve ever heard (for reference, Portishead’s “Dummy” has an unforgettable 1-2 album closer). If I had to choose I’d go with “Decades” but part of its power comes from the set-up from “The Eternal” (just what a great penultimate track is supposed to do). So I’m just going to secretly slide “Decades” in with “The Eternal” on the list for my own unknown pleasure (except they’re on Closer… bad pun, sorry).

    Then you got the #1 track, which may cause some people to flip out. I think they’d be wrong. I’ve never seen Joy Division play live, but I have seen “Dead Souls” performed live. I first heard the song covered by NIN and originally fell in love with that version. I eventually heard the original and was already in love. It wasn’t until I was at the Wave Goodbye tour in NYC when Peter Murphy of Bauhaus came back out to perform the cover with NIN that it REALLY sunk in. Now earlier in the night, Peter had sort of botched the vocals on “Reptile” but his performance of “Dead Souls” not only redeemed himself, it made me completely forget about it. I’ve seen New Order perform Joy Division songs (coincidentally, right before NIN at Coachella ’05) and that was amazing. But NIN & Peter Murphy’s performance of “Dead Souls” beat them all out. It felt like that was the closest I’d ever come to seeing Joy Division live.

    What I’m trying to say is: great list. Definitely a daunting task, but as a big fan of Joy Division, you have my approval.

    • Nice summary. It’s brutally hard to whittle this down to 25, yet alone 10.
      And peeps need to remember, it’s just an opinion. Valid just like theirs.
      Control (the movie) ends with the Killer’s version of Shadowplay. It works. And it is good.
      I was @ that Coachella. New Order doing the Joy Division songs as the sun set was beautiful (and giving me goosebumps now remembering)

  7. Atmosphere is my number 1; that song saved my life.

  8. I absolutely agree with Dead Souls at 1, but no way would I put Love Will Tear Us Apart and Disorder so far back. I admit I’m pretty partial to their more pop infused stuff though. Maybe my favorite rhythm section of any band.

  9. how serious can i take a top 10 joy division list that doesn’t include “warsaw”? surely this is an elaborate april fool’s joke. right?

    • I was thinking the same thing, but it’s clear that they’re treating Warsaw as a separate project from Joy Division.

  10. Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

  11. Thanks. Canada remains a ‘Spotify-free zone”. tracks in soundcloud would be appreciated.

  12. To see Dead Souls or Atmosphere number one would have been fine for me. So, I’m quite happy with this list.
    Still, I have a soft spot for She’s Lost Control and Atrocity Exhibition. I’m surprised that, at least, She’s Lost Control didn’t make the top 10.

  13. Where is Heart and Soul?

  14. In the right moment I read “The 10 best Joy Division Songs”, I just smelled all the fight in the comments. But it’s impossible to argue what is the best song of this band when you make so few, but almost perfect records.

    Maybe “She’s Lost Control” is a personal favorite just because it was the one which introduced me to the band, and I still find it awesome and fun. It’s not on the list and I don’t have any problem with that.

    “Love Will Tear Us Apart” doesn’t need to be #1. Less if you listen the rest of songs here.

    I’ve always consider “Dead Souls” one of the best JD songs. It’s really special in the band’s catalogue. So, I’m fine with this #1. I miss “Day of the Lords”, “Atrocity Exhibition” and “Isolation” (specially “Isolation”!) here, but great work. Every chance to remember the amazing music of Joy Division is welcome.

  15. My list is better:

    10. Wilderness
    9. Dead Souls
    8. Disorder
    7. Transmission
    6. The Eternal
    5. She’s Lost Control
    4. Love Will Tear Us Apart
    3. Atmosphere
    2. Heart and Soul
    1. 24 Hours

  16. your #1 is my #1 so i endorse this list.

  17. Isolation, Digital, Warsaw would be my tops that are not on this list. Love Will Tear Us Apart is so them but it is also a tiny bit apart from the rest. I consider it a masterpiece. I love Dead Souls.

    Digital is just so phenomenal.

    So much quality in a small catalog.

  18. OH YEAH MY LIST IS BEST

    10. Ceremony
    9. Love Will Tear Us Apart
    8. Don’t You Forget About Me
    7. Bizarre Love Triangle
    6. Don’t You Want Me
    5. Mr. Brightside
    4. Enjoy The Silence
    3. True
    2. Shadowplay
    1. Blue Monday

  19. NO LOVE LOST

    • Upvotes forever.

      • upvotes you right the eff back.

        such simple and extremely effective dynamic build to launch into the verse and out the fucking window.

        when stephen morris first hits that ride and man the sound of that ride! it almost sounds double-tracked with a split-second delay between the two tracks.

        also, check out LCD Soundsystem’s killer cover of this tune.

  20. The live version of Transmission from The Factory on April 11 1980 is the single greatest drumming moment in rock and roll history.

    http://open.spotify.com/track/0wR3UaRfERGrFW7FLnAsTf

  21. Great list but missing one of favorites “Canidate”. That’s probably what got me hooked in the first place years ago when I first bough Unknown Pleasures. Such an influential band though cant go wrong with this list

  22. Great list. Joy Division’s catalogue is one of the most perfect. Atrocity Exhibition is one of my favourite album openers of all time and would for sure be on my list. So would She’s Lost Control and Isolation. They don’t have a bad song.

  23. Just the thought of having to do a 10 item list of Joy DIvision songs makes me stressed, so props to you for taking on the challenge. There’s so much good stuff, I really feel like every song they wrote deserves consideration (unless you consider the first Warsaw demo). A great tribute to a phenomenal band. Thanks.

  24. I really would’ve thought there would be more love on here for Decades. I actually can’t comprehend a top 10 Joy Division list without it.

  25. No Love Lost

  26. Not bad at all. I’d tweak a few things (like ‘Colony’ over ‘Passover’ #10, for example). I hear a lot of ‘She’s Lost Control” in the comments, and I would say yes to that if it was a list of top 10 Joy Division crowd pleasers. But IMO that song sucks by Joy Division standards.

  27. i was scared to look at this list, saying to myself “two word: dead souls” — and i would have been happy just to see it on the list at any #, — but number 1?!, yes, very nice list, even if i find the actual order irrelevant

  28. The slowed down Version of Ceremony from New Order is the best version of it I’ve ever heard. It just dawned on me that 90% of all my favorite artists musical, philosophy, writing, art, photograpy have killed themselves.

  29. No She’s Lost Control? You must be April Foolin’

  30. This list is intermediate.

  31. INTERZONE. Also, seconded to all the calls for Digital, Warsaw and No Love Lost. Also, Day of the Lords. Also, every other song they ever wrote. God, what a great band.

  32. CBN  |   Posted on Apr 2nd 0

    Shadowplay is my favorite Joy Division song. It’s stuck with me from the first time I heard it. I can still remember the exact time and place. Amazing song.

  33. Searched for Ceremony, didn’t see it on the list.

    Easily the best Joy Division song.

  34. I dig Digital and Ceremony.

  35. Digital is my fave. I’m sure I’ll get hate for this, but I always looked at JD as a singles band. I never thought anything they did on their full lengths was quite as good as the stellar singles they produced.

  36. 10. Disorder
    9. Disorder
    8. Disorder
    7. Disorder
    6. Disorder
    5. Disorder
    4. Disorder
    3. Disorder
    2. Disorder
    1. Disorder

  37. Again…….

    “Stop it. You’re embarrassing yourself”

  38. the past is now part of my future

    the present is well out of hand

  39. Sound Of Music… Nuff Said

  40. All these words and suggestions and not one mention of the Peel Sessions album.

    Was the first one I heard, so is still my favourite. Therefore I have to nominate ‘Exercise One’, as it was the first JD track I heard and so the first one that made me go ‘wow’…

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