Genesis Albums From Worst To Best
Genesis’ loyal fans and outspoken critics love and hate the band for the exact same reasons. During their prime-era prog-rock run in the early ’70s, with Peter Gabriel as frontman, Genesis either represented the genre at its peak of bloat or expressiveness; during the ’80s, with Phil Collins on vocals, they were selling out stadiums — and labeled as creative sell-outs — with their polished, streamlined pop-rock.
But Genesis managed to persevere for three decades — partly due to their immense virtuosity and melodic craftsmanship, but also because of their musical breadth. Very few prog bands outlived the arrival of punk and new-wave — or at least not with their dignity intact. Not only did Genesis survive these cultural changes, they actually thrived because of them — constantly discovering new ways to restructure their sound. There’s a graceful arc to the band’s discography, with each album bringing on subtle shifts in their production and songwriting. It’s a bizarre thought, but we wouldn’t have the buttery-smooth “Hold On My Heart” without the devilish “Supper’s Ready.”
And every member, regardless of longevity, left a mark on the Genesis name. Gabriel’s influence on the band’s early sound is impossible to overstate — with his soulful voice, surreal lyrics, and outlandish stage presence (see: the Bat Wings, the Fox Head), that invaluable charisma guided the band toward stardom. Meanwhile, founding member Anthony Phillips (who quit following 1970’s Trespass) helped define the Genesis DNA with his ornate 12-string sound. Steve Hackett, Phillips’ replacement, redefined the physical capabilities of the electric guitar, using effects pedals and finger-tapping to summon mystic textures. Collins saw both sides of the Genesis spectacle: His propulsive, tom-driven drumming is unrivaled in its blend of jazziness and funkiness and all-out bombast; and few singers have the physical and emotion range to pull off both the shriek of “Mama” and the gentle croon of “Follow You Follow Me.”
And then there were two: Keyboardist Tony Banks and guitarist-bassist Mike Rutherford helped co-found Genesis in 1967, as students at the prestigious Charterhouse School in Surrey, England. And their innovative songwriting drove the band throughout all its varying incarnations. Banks, in particular, is the band’s unsung hero: Straight-faced stage performer and camera-shy, he rarely gets proper credit, but he’s the one band member Genesis could never afford to lose. From ambitious, multi-part epics (“One For The Vine”) to stripped-back soul-pop (“Anything She Does”), he wrote from the mindset of a classical composer. And, most importantly, there’s always a melodic heart running through the complex chord changes and winding time-signatures. (What other prog-rock keyboardist wrote melodies that actually stuck in your head? Every zany arpeggio is tempered with a strong, hummable theme.)
Even though a reunion is never going to happen according to Collins, it’s a fitting time to reflect on the Genesis catalogue. The band got together earlier this year for the documentary Sum Of The Parts, and the career-spanning R-Kive box-set hit shelves in September. So slip on your finest fox head and red dress: Let’s explore all of the band’s studio and live LPs, from worst to best.
Calling All Stations (1997)
When Phil Collins left Genesis in 1996, most fans (and probably the frontman himself) assumed the band was finished. Their 14th album, 1991's We Can't Dance, functioned as a perfect swan-song, summarizing the band's disparate strengths -- and the subsequent five-year silence suggested retirement was nigh. But Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford were determined to carry on, recruiting Scottish alt-rock vocalist Ray Wilson and a pair of studio percussionists to fill that massive void. The concept was promising: Armed with the fresh mystery of Wilson's smoky voice, and without needing to bend toward Collins' pop-minded input, Genesis seemed primed to re-examine their prog roots. But the resulting LP, 1997's Calling All Stations, is neither here nor there: heavy on texture but light on virtuosity, sonically accessible but melodically flat. Select moments cut through the tedium: the expansive art-rock of "The Dividing Line," buoyant lead single "Congo." But on the whole, the overlong, underwhelming Stations is an anti-climactic end to a legendary career.
From Genesis To Revelation (1969)
Genesis members were boarding school teenagers when they recorded their debut LP, 1968's From Genesis To Revelation, and the lack of experience is apparent throughout these 13 tentative tracks. Producer Jonathan King guided the quintet toward faceless psychedelic-folk, saturating these pseudo-Biblical narratives with syrupy orchestrations and wimpy backing vocal choirs. Still, the album is illuminating in retrospect as a period piece, teasing the band's blooming musicianship -- from Peter Gabriel's throaty croak to Tony Banks' Romantic piano flourishes.
Live Over Europe (2007)
After a thwarted attempt at reuniting the classic Gabriel-Hackett line-up, the trio version of Genesis set out for a "selection of shows" in 2007, playing setlists that spanned the band's entire career -- from the blistering prog of "In The Cage" to the yacht-pop of "Hold On My Heart." Despite massive fan turnout -- including a free Rome show played to a half-million fans -- the jaunt wasn't without its issues: in addition to storms and technical glitches, the band also struggled to reignite their old musical chemistry. As evidenced by rehearsal footage from the "Rain Or Shine" documentary DVD, Collins was completely disinterested in playing the old material. (At one point, he even whines about having to sing the words "sheets of double-glazing" on the Invisible Touch epic "Domino.") Perhaps as a result, Live Over Europe feels professional, but also perfunctory. Longtime touring members Daryl Stuermer and Chester Thompson are the MVPs here: see Stuermer's fusion guitar wizardry on the opening "Duke's Intro" or the spirited Collins-Thompson drum duet, partly performed on a pair of bar stools. But overall, the lack of spark makes Live Over Europe a tough sell -- even for die-hards.
The Way We Walk, Volume One: The Shorts (1992)
The first part of two live releases documenting the We Can't Dance tour, 1992's The Shorts focuses on the more accessible, pop-oriented material from the band's previous four LPs. Nick Davis' booming production gives muscle and sheen to every instrument, so on a purely sonic level, most of these tunes (like a full-throttle "Mama" and a tense "Tonight Tonight Tonight") equal their studio counterparts. But that strength is also a weakness, as these live versions do little to set themselves apart. (Why spin the straight-ahead live take of ballad "No Son of Mine" if you can check out the album version?) These are the shortest, most tightly arranged songs in the band's repertoire, and by extension, there's little wiggle room for added stage finesse -- all of which was saved, naturally, for the second installment, The Longs.
With each successive trio album, Genesis inched closer and closer toward the pop-rock mainstream. On 1981's underrated Abacab, the band struck a perfect balance of glossy hooks ("Man On The Corner") and instrumental virtuosity ("Dodo/Lurker"), proving they could simultaneously satisfy both diehards and bandwagon-jumpers. But on the band's self-titled 1983 LP, the pendulum swung a beat too far. Working again with gated-drum mastermind Hugh Padgham, Genesis cut every ounce of fat from their arrangements, streamlining their sound for maximum commercial appeal. That approach works wonders on the darkly soulful "That's All" and funky "Just A Job To Do," but for every career highlight (the masterful textural climb of "Mama"), there's a slice of face-palm filler (the borderline-racist border-crossing sing-along "Illegal Alien," the mopey ballad "Taking It All Too Hard"). "It's Gonna Get Better," Collins belted on the closer -- and he was right: the altogether more assured Invisible Touch was waiting three years down the road. But on its own merits, Genesis marks the faceless low-point of the Collins era.
Genesis Live (1973)
Given the thunder of Seconds Out and the breathtaking scope of Three Sides Live, it's easy to forget about Genesis' first live album -- a five-track set originally released as a record company stopgap in 1973. But Genesis Live remains an essential stage document -- the sound of a band realizing its massive potential. The two tracks from 1971's Nursery Cryme (the eerie "Musical Box" and shape-shifting "Return Of The Giant Hogweed,") improve vastly on the poorly recorded originals: Here, Gabriel's theatrical stage presence is magnetic, even without the visual benefit of old man masks. (Hackett's menacing guitars, meanwhile, are finally audible.) The Foxtrot material falls a bit short -- the jittery counterpoint of "Watcher of the Skies" is notoriously tricky to translate on-stage. But it's worth the admission price solely for the climactic "The Knife." This show-stopping take, led by Collins' manic cymbals and whistle, makes the original sound downright limp.
The Way We Walk, Volume Two: The Longs (1993)
The Longs, as they generally do in Genesis world, trump The Shorts. The prog-oriented second chapter of the Way We Walk live set is a vast upgrade from the pop-centric first installment. The songs themselves are more varied, spanning the band's whole career; and the performances -- from start to finish -- are infinitely more engaging. Late-era long-form epics like "Domino" and "Driving The Last Spike" hit harder than their studio brethren, allowing Collins to stretch his voice past its breaking point. But the clear highlight is an updated "Old Medley," which seamlessly stitches together modernized versions of classic anthems. Collins adds soulful melodic twists to a surging, funkier "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway," while the fade-out of "I Know What I Like" cleverly teases everything from "That's All" to "Follow You Follow Me" to Trespass treasure "Stagnation." Essential listening.
Three Sides Live (1982)
A slightly inaccurate title: In its original UK form, this live 1982 double-LP featured four full sides of material, the last of which randomly compiled skippable stage recordings from the late '70s. (North Americans were issued the definitive version, which concludes with the entirety of the 3X3 EP and two stunning B-sides, "Evidence Of Autumn" and "Open Door.") But those first three sides are the true selling point: The songs, culled largely from the band's 1981 Abacab tour, bristle with enthusiasm and energy -- from the dizzying drum duel at the climax of "Abacab" to the art-funk mania of "Dodo/Lurker."
We Can't Dance (1991)
We Can't Dance is Collins' final LP with Genesis, and it would have been a fitting goodbye for the band itself. Like most '90s rock albums, it's a few tracks too long (at 71 total minutes) and a bit dated, production-wise (dig those ultra-breezy drum machines and lukewarm guitar crunch on "Dreaming While You Sleep"), but it's also the most eclectic Genesis album -- a summary of everything the trio line-up did so well. "Driving The Last Spike" continues in the dramatic long-form prog vein of Invisible Touch's "Domino," while the blues-rock of "I Can't Dance" finds the band at their absolute dorkiest. Even the obvious singles (the yearning "No Son Of Mine," the TV evangelist takedown "Jesus He Knows Me") hit with a surprising amount of force. Lop off the lightweight filler ("Tell Me Why," "Since I Lost You," "Way Of The World"), and this plays like a Best-Of.
...And Then There Were Three (1978)
When Steve Hackett left Genesis in 1977, following the Wind Wuthering tour, the band's "classic era" officially perished. Breaking up altogether would have made sense -- prog-rock was hopefully out of fashion this late in the decade, and losing Hackett's ethereal guitar work was a massive blow. But this was familiar territory for Genesis, who'd already weathered the loss of founding members Phillips and Gabriel. So they used the trio formation as an excuse to re-tool their musical chemistry on 1978's ...And Then There Were Three: reining in the extended solos and complicated song structures, weaving in more pop-friendly choruses. The trio hadn't abandoned prog altogether, as evidenced by the rhythmic gymnastics of "Down And Out" and the jazzy mysticism of "The Lady Lies." But the album's best song is a complete deviation: "Follow You, Follow Me," their first Top 40 US single, finds Collins belting about life-long love over a dreamy soft-rock groove. It ain't "Invisible Touch," but it opened the door for it.
Nursery Cryme (1971)
It's best to regard 1971's Nursery Cryme as a crucial pivot point, planting the seeds for the following year's Foxtrot. The band's third LP, Cryme marks the recorded debut of both Hackett and Collins -- and the upgrade in musicianship is apparent straight away. "The Musical Box" (co-written by original guitarist Anthony Phillips before his departure) opens the album with 10 minutes of lunatic genius, building from feathery 12-strings to a propulsive, proggy climax; both "The Fountain Of Salmacis" and "The Return Of The Giant Hogweed" mine similarly expansive territory, pointing toward the long-form majesty of Foxtrot's "Supper's Ready." Elsewhere, though, the songs are either tentative (Banks' by-numbers ballad "Seven Stones") or quirky for the sake of quirk ("Harold The Barrel"). Worst of all, the muted production keeps even the best songs at arm's length.
Invisible Touch (1986)
Many old-school Genesis fans had already jumped ship by 1986, and the neon-tinted Invisible Touch pushed even their most loyal die-hards toward the plank. Even the album's brushes with art-rock ("Domino," "Tonight Tonight Tonight") are unapologetically slick and scaled-back, with Collins' confident belting chased by blinding synth pads and digi-drum fills that punch with the impact of whoopee cushions. And the full-on pop moments -- the ebullient title-track, the gooey "In Too Deep" -- could easy function as Collins solo tracks, with Banks and Rutherford using their instruments only to decorate the chorus hooks. But even if Genesis sold out, they did so in expert style: Despite their eye-rolling, period-specific production chuckles, these are still well-crafted songs that have stood the test of time.
Seconds Out (1977)
Seconds Out is the band's definitive live album, documenting the iconic '76 and '77 tours, with Bill Bruford and Chester Thompson, respectively, behind the kit. The former percussionist -- the only human to serve stints in Yes, King Crimson, and Genesis -- was only a temporary member, filling in while Collins made his frightening transition to frontman. But Bruford's experimental playing injected vitality into their stage show, best evidenced by his manic playing on "The Cinema Show." Each track on the double-LP offers a new twist: A more graceful take on "The Carpet Crawlers" runs circles around the muddy-sounding Lamb original, with the band drawing out hidden layers of soulfulness.
Midway through the concert-movie version of 1982's Three Sides Live, Collins talks to a radio interviewer about the decision to use Earth, Wind & Fire's funky horn section on the Abacab standout "No Reply At All." "It's just one little step toward taking people off automatic pilot," he says. "They like to think of you over there, and Earth, Wind & Fire over there, and Devo other there. But we're not any one particular thing." It's a nice summation of the entire Abacab's "try anything once" approach, which ventures from intimate synth-pop ("Man On The Corner") to shape-shifting art-rock ("Dodo/Lurker"). The experiments weren't always successful: The ham-fisted punk-funk of "Who Dunnit?" is, without a doubt, the band's weakest studio song. But in spite of the transitional speed-bumps, every second of Abacab is embedded with freewheeling creative freedom.
Critics and fans often overlook Genesis' second LP, 1970's Trespass, mainly because it predates the arrival of Collins and Hackett. Understandable, at least to an extent: This is a folkier, less explosive band than emerged on Nursery Cryme, and the weakest spots here ("Dusk") drift by sleepily in 12-string fogs. But Trespass, much more than its acclaimed sequel, rewards patient listening. Genesis were never more soulful than earthy epic "Looking For Someone," and the sweetly melodic climb of "Stagnation" is folk-prog in its most potent form. Founding member Anthony Phillips left Genesis soon after the album's release, primarily due to crippling stage fright, but his influence is so pivotal here it echoed throughout the band's entire '70s output.
Patrick Bateman, the iconic serial killer from American Psycho, had this to say about Genesis' masterful 10th LP, moments before filming two prostitutes have kinky sex: "Do you like Phil Collins? I've been a big Genesis fan ever since the release of their 1980 album, Duke. Before that, I really didn't understand any of their work. Too artsy, too intellectual. It was on Duke where Phil Collins' presence became more apparent."
That's one rock-smart psychopath. Indeed, Duke marks a new Genesis era, introducing Collins as a formidable pop songwriter. Following his 1979 divorce, the heartbroken frontman-drummer casually started work on a solo album (1981's Face Value), but bits of this material -- including the "ooh-ooh" anthem "Misunderstanding" -- slipped onto Duke. Collins sounds newly invigorated as a singer, especially singing words he'd written himself. But, much like Abcabab after it, this album is the work of a unified group, with many of the tracks (the groovy "Behind The Lines," the instrumental showcase "Duke's Travels") resulting from full-band jams. That spirit is contagious.
A Trick Of The Tail (1976)
It's difficult to separate Genesis' two quartet albums: A Trick Of The Tail and Wind & Wuthering were both recorded and released in 1976 (a pretty astonishing feat in itself), and they veer down the same sonic path: sweeping, fusion-tinged prog-rock driven by Banks' lush keyboards and Collins' A-bomb drumming. A Trick Of The Tail was Collins' debut as lead vocalist, following Gabriel's heavily publicized 1975 departure. But the drummer makes an effortless transition into the gig, whether he's personifying a deadly volcano ("Dance On A Volcano") or crooning gently about fading beauty ("Ripples"). Ironically, by losing Gabriel -- often inaccurately portrayed in the press as the band's driving creative force -- Genesis emerged with renewed confidence. Even Hackett, the group's most politely democratic member (who would exit the band the following year after creative disputes) found more space to exert his songwriting influence on the spidery hypnotist tale "Entangled."
Wind & Wuthering (1976)
It's almost a coin-toss, but Wind & Wuthering edges out its predecessor in a track-by-track comparison. This one's a behemoth from start to finish, offering two of most nutcase prog tracks ("Eleventh Earl Of Mar" and "One For The Vine"), Genesis' first true love song (Rutherford's shimmering "Your Own Special Away"), and multiple fusion-styled instrumental workouts ("Wot Gorilla?," "Unquiet Slumbers For The Sleepers," "...In That Quiet Earth"). Hackett, in particular, shines on Wuthering, co-writing four of the nine tracks and layering in a number of hypnotic guitar lines. But there were still too many cooks in the kitchen: Hackett quit the band during the mid-'77 mixing sessions for Seconds Out, armed with unused material that would inform his second solo album, 1978's Please Don't Touch.
Let's start at the end: Side-two’s epic "Supper's Ready" ranks alongside King Crimson's "In The Court Of The Crimson King" and Yes' "Close To The Edge" as the pinnacle of the entire prog-rock movement. The 23-minute, Biblical-themed piece moves through nine individual movements, spanning tranquil 12-string folk ("Lover's Leap") and insanely complex symphonic rock ("Apocalypse in 9/8"), never once lapsing into tedium -- thanks to Gabriel's vivid imagery and the clever full-band arrangements.
It's the clear centerpiece on Foxtrot, but the other five tracks nearly rival its brilliance: The "Watcher Of The Skies" opens with an iconic mellotron wash and builds into a galactic rock workout; the more tightly constructed "Can-Utility and the Coastliners" features one of Gabriel's most dynamic vocal performances; and the blissful "Horizons" gives Hackett a much-needed solo spotlight for his talents on the classical guitar. Foxtrot improves upon Nursery Cryme in every way possible -- and the scary thing is that they'd continue that upward trajectory from here.
The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (1974)
Gabriel's final album with Genesis, the 1974 double-LP The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, was born during a time of pain and confusion. Following the tour for '73's Selling England By the Pound, the classic quintet retreated to the dilapidated rehearsal house Headley Grange, where they hoped to foster chemistry by writing and living together away from real-life distractions. Unfortunately, the distractions were endless: The rat- (and possibly ghost-) infested house did little to spark their creativity, and Gabriel was forced to leave and tend to his then-wife, Jill, who was dealing with problems related to her pregnancy. With their frontman sidelined, the remaining four members plunged forward by writing mountains of instrumental bits, most of which were worked out by the trio of Banks, Collins, and Rutherford. Upon returning, Gabriel stunned the band by demanding to write all the lyrics, which he hoped to fashion into a Pilgrim's Progress-styled concept focused on a spiritual journey; this ultimately became the surreal tale of Rael, a New York City delinquent who finds himself battling terrifying creatures in an alternate world, all while trying to rescue his brother John.
Just before the band started recording this ambitious concept album, Gabriel temporarily quit -- aiming to collaborate with The Exorcist director William Friedkin on a screenplay. But once that project fizzled out, the frontman sauntered back to his bandmates, who now realized Gabriel's days were probably numbered. They were, of course: The singer announced his departure in 1975, following their massive (and often disastrous) Lamb tour. But what a way to go out -- this 94-minute sprawl encompasses all of the quintet's idiosyncrasies and strengths: muscular, riff-based rock (the iconic title-track, the shape-shifting "Back in N.Y.C." and "In The Cage"), delicate balladry ("Cuckoo Cocoon," "The Carpet Crawlers"), and batshit crazy prog ("The Colony Of Slippermen"). Sonic adventurer Brian Eno even sprinkles some magic fairy dust (or "Enossification") on quirky linking bits like "Here Comes The Supernatural Anaesthetist." The Lamb is the least accessible of all the Gabriel-era albums -- and with its occasional lapses into ambient texture, it can be a chore to sit through all at once. But when it's good, it's goosebumps-down-the-spine good, change-your-fucking-life good -- and it's only bested by the definitive Genesis LP, Selling England By The Pound.
Selling England By The Pound (1973)
Could Genesis top the majesty of "Supper's Ready"? Was that even possible? Apparently so. With their fifth studio album, the Gabriel-led quintet hit a breathtaking peak from every possible angle: From the dynamic arrangements and production to the overall sense of collective harmony, 1973's Selling England By the Pound is the high point of the band's entire discography.
Unlike the following year's The Lamb, the seeds of Selling England weren't tainted with internal tension. Working with producer John Burns at London's Island Studios, the band simply carried on doing what they did best: blending their respective melodic and rhythmic fragments into songs they never could have cooked up individually. Of the long-form progressive pieces, it's a toss-up between "Dancing With The Moonlit Knight" and "Firth Of Fifth": The former offers an individual spotlight for every member, peaking with Hackett's blistering, finger-tapped guitar solo; the latter is the closest a rock band has ever come to a goddamn orchestra. Those combined 18 minutes are better than most albums released in 1973 -- and that's before mentioning Collins' tender lead vocal on "More Fool Me" or Banks' synthesizer showcase on "The Cinema Show" or the satirical sing-along magic of "I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)."
Selling England represents progressive-rock -- and even rock, period -- at its peak of imagination and ingenuity, expanding the possibilities of what could be accomplished with guitars and keyboards and bass and drums. It's an unrivaled masterpiece, in the Genesis catalogue and beyond.