5 Essential XTC Albums

A short while ago, the folks at esteemed British music mag Mojo picked XTC as the focus of their monthly "How to Buy..." feature, in which they list 10 of an artist's albums in order of desirability and recommend which of the aforementioned artist's records to avoid. Always on point with their opinions and suggestions, on this occasion they scored a rare miss. This is what it should've looked like had they chosen 5 albums, of course. XTC For Dummies? A quick fix? Essentials, regardless.

5. Live at the BBC 1 [Windsong-1992]
Because XTC were only a touring act for a quarter of their 20+ years as a band and their live shows were so highly regarded, the hard-to-find 1980 Live at the BBC 1 concert is an important, worthwhile addition to any XTC collection. Which is why this rare document of the band’s mesmerizing live show is listed here in lieu of a worthy studio album like, say, Apple Venus Vol.1 [Cooking Vinyl-1999].

4. Drums and Wires [Virgin-1979]
With ├╝ber talented new guitarist/keyboardist Dave Gregory replacing the departed Barry Andrews, and Ultravox/Siouxie and the Banshees producer Steve Lillywhite ringleading the sessions, XTC blended the best aspects of their first two albums—namely the art-y new wave and pop sensibilities—on Drums and Wires, an impressive leap forward littered with great songs ("Helicopter", "When You're Near Me I Have Difficulty", "Ten Feet Tall", the often-covered "Scissor Man") and anchored by two stellar Colin Moulding compositions: “Life Begins at the Hop” and their first bonafide hit, “Making Plans for Nigel”.

3. Black Sea [Virgin-1980]
The ‘80s would bring 3 classic albums from XTC and so they started off the new decade in full swing and not wasting any time. Lillywhite returned to produce an album which is not only a timeless collection of songs but is considered by many to be the band’s best. Although Black Sea was not that dissimilar from their previous release, it packed more of a sonic wallop—much props to drummer Terry Chambers for his always inventive but rockin’ playing—and coincided with Partridge and Moulding being on a songwriting roll. Not a bad tune in the bunch on a record that includes the singles “Respectable Street”, “Generals and Majors”, “Towers of London” and “Sgt. Rock (Is Going to Help Me)”. If you are unfamiliar with XTC this is undoubtedly where you should start.

2. Oranges & Lemons [Virgin-1989]

This double album—possibly named after a line in Skylarking’s “Ballet for a Rainy Day”—is also the band’s most varied effort: stadium rock (“The Loving”), power pop (“The Mayor of Simpleton”), orchestrated ballads (“Chalkhills and Children”), touches of African highlife and other influences (“Merely a Man”, “Poor Skeleton Steps Out”, “Across this Antheap”) all inhabit Oranges & Lemons, alongside XTC’s classic songwriting (“King for a Day”, “Cynical Days”, “Pink Thing”).
Far-reaching but mostly on-point, Oranges & Lemons—along with Black Sea, and Skylarking—is one of XTC’s crowning achievements.

1. Skylarking [Virgin-1986]
Mostly recorded at his Woodstock, NY facilities and sequenced and arranged as a song cycle by the great Todd RundgrenSkylarking is arguably XTC’s finest moment. Lush sounding and chock full of wonderful tunes ("Summer's Cauldron", lead single "Grass", "That's Really Super, Supergirl", "Ballet for a Rainy Day", "1000 Umbrellas", "Earn Enough for Us", "The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul", "Dying", "Sacrificial Bonfire"), Skylarking is widely regarded as one of the top albums of the 1980s and for damn good reason. By the way, b-side “Dear God” was added to the album when it became an unexpected college radio hit in the US, also reaching no. 15 on the Billboard Rock Album Tracks chart. “Mermaid Smiled” was later jettisoned from subsequent pressings of the album to make room for XTC’s newest US hit. (Both are included on the 2001 remaster.)