Pick any number of Peter Gabriel songs and you’ll certainly hear an eclectic variety of sounds.
Former frontman of Genesis, Peter Gabriel is possibly one of the most innovative musicians of this era.
He’s released nine solo albums, four soundtracks, and sang on the first five Genesis records.
We scoured the catalog to bring you the seven greatest songs.
Let’s check out our list!
Peter Gabriel’s Story
Peter Gabriel was born on February 13, 1950, in Surrey, England. His mother came from a musical family and his early influences were hymns and soul music. He was playing the drums by age ten and was in a band by 1965.
In 1967 Gabriel and his bandmates shifted gears and formed Genesis. By their second album in 1970, Genesis was touring full time and developed a following. Always a forward-thinking creative, Gabriel brought theatrical elements and elaborate props to their performances.
Although his aesthetic became too much for his bandmates, Gabriel made Genesis one of the most epic bands in progressive rock.
Leaving Genesis in 1975, Gabriel then pursued his growing interest in world music. His first four solo albums were thick with diverse and layered musicianship. Some songs focused on politics, others bordered on new wave. His singles started to chart in the top 40s by the early 80s.
He began composing movie soundtracks such as Birdy and The Passion of Christ.
Gabriel’s fifth album, So, became his commercial breakthrough record in 1986. It remains his best-selling record to date. The album took on a more personal tone, with pop treasures like Big Time and Sledgehammer. Don’t Give Up features Gabriel singing a soft duet with wave star Kate Bush.
Gabriel continued to write and perform for the next two decades but never matched the success of So. Mainstream success never mattered much to Gabriel, as his passion for activism became a leading force in his life. He received the Ambassador of Conscience award from Amnesty International in 2008. He was married twice and has four children.
As of 2022, Peter Gabriel is working on songs for his tenth studio record. His political activism remains the most active part of his creative life today. His work with Amnesty International and Witness, are just two examples of his ongoing work for human rights.
#7 Shock the Monkey
About the Song: Don’t let the title fool you. This song is about our primal, volatile nature. With erratic instrumentation atop a melodic hook, it’s no wonder this was Gabriel’s first top 40 hit in the U.S. and U.K.
Something knocked me out the trees Now I'm on my knees Cover me, darling please
First Appearance: This new wave dance hit was released on Gabriel’s fourth album in 1982.
About the Song: Biko is a protest song and eulogy in honor of anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko. Steve was a prominent anti-racism activist in South Africa during the late ’60s and 70s. He was arrested and murdered by police in 1977. Gabriel often ends his concerts with Biko, leaving the crowd to carry on the chant of the fallen hero’s name.
You can blow out a candle But you can't blow out a fire Once the flames begin to catch The wind will blow it higher
First Appearance: Biko was released on August 18th, 1980. It’s the last track on Gabriel’s eponymous third album
#5 Red Rain
About the Song: Peter Gabriel’s Red rain is a cinematic song, both lyrically and in inspiration. Its origins came from a movie he wanted to produce, as well as from a reoccurring dream. The composition’s strength is due in part to the percussion, performed by Stewart Copeland of The Police.
Let the rain fall on your skin (Red rain) I come to you, defenses down (Oh, oh, oh) With the trust of a child
First Appearance: Red Rain is the first track and the fifth single from Gabriel’s 1986 album, So. The song was not released as a single until July of 1987.
#4 In Your Eyes
About the Song: Remember that scene with the boombox in the movie Say Anything? This one’s a real crooner. Soft, gentle, but based in minor chords. In Your Eyes is certainly Gabriel’s greatest love song.
Love, I don't like to see so much pain So much wasted and this moment keeps slipping away I get so tired working so hard for our survival I look to the time with you to keep me awake and alive
First Appearance: This tearjerker was the second single from Peter Gabriel’s 1986 album, So. This was his fifth and most accessible record.
About the Song: Sledgehammer is a sharp departure from most of Gabriel’s catalog. Some argued that it was created for the sole purpose of breaking into mainstream rock. But that doesn’t jive with Gabriel’s personality.
This breakthrough hit was the result of his love for soul and a funk bass line. The easily digestible song arrangement, along with an innovative music video, took Gabriel into sold-out arena shows.
Show me round your fruitcage 'Cos I will be your honey bee Open up your fruitcage Where the fruit is as sweet as can be
First Appearance: Sledgehammer was released as a single on April 21st, 1986, a few weeks before its host album, So, was released.
#2 Games Without Frontiers
About the Song: This post-punk masterpiece came very close to being our number one. Nothing says 1980 better than icy synths with lyrics about war games. What if international strife could be solved by silly competitions on TV, instead of war?
Taking a spin-off from a 60s television show called Jeux Sans Frontiers, Gabriel’s haunting progressive-goth, the anti-war song soared in the U.K. charts. Games Without Frontiers remains tied with Sledgehammer as his longest charting single to date.
Whistling tunes, we hide in the dunes by the seaside Whistling tunes, we're kissing baboons in the jungle It's a knockout If looks could kill they probably will In games without frontiers-wars without tears
First Appearance: Games Without Frontiers was Gabriel’s first of four singles released in 1980. It was the first song on side two of his third album, Peter Gabriel (Melt.)
#1 Solsbury Hill
About the Song: Solsbury Hill is simply brilliant. For one thing, it’s written in 7/4 time. Most songs are written in 4/4, or 8/4, as in your basic, five six seven eight kinda thing. The next most common is a waltz – think Piano Man by Billy Joel. But a 7/4 time is rare and really hard to pull off. Gabriel pulls it off seamlessly, with a flute carrying us to each lyric.
Written after Gabriel made the big decision to part from Genesis, the lyrics describe his state of mind. But it’s also about something bigger, something we can all relate to. It’s about letting go to make room for something new. The tone is understated and serene. That is, at least until it builds to a brilliant crescendo of zooming guitars.
Climbing up on Solsbury Hill I could see the city light Wind was blowing, time stood still Eagle flew out of the night
First Appearance: This liberating song was first released in 1977, on Peter Gabriel’s first solo album Peter Gabriel (Car.)
Peter Gabriel’s Honorable Mention
We couldn’t let this list go without talking about Mercy Street. Another great track from his 1986 album, So, this ballad is a reflective piece about mental health.
Peter Gabriel had recently read a book by poet Anne Sexton, who committed suicide in 1974. Plagued with depression, Sexton had written about Mercy Street, not as an actual street, but as a metaphor.
In the list of the greatest Peter Gabriel songs, Mercy Street may not be a chart-topper. But it doesn’t need to be. Listen to this one when you have some time on the road and need a song to remind you that we all go through it sometimes.
From the Muse: Dive deeper into Peter Gabriel’s Mercy Street.
Which Peter Gabriel Song is Your Favorite?
Peter Gabriel is a multi-faceted musician with a heart as big as the ocean. His commitment to political causes is an inspiration. He’s been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for both his solo work and his time with Genesis. Which Peter Gabriel song is your number one? Did we miss any you feel should be on the list?
Monday 31st of January 2022
Peter Gabriel is an incredible person on top of being a brilliant musician. His WOMAD festivals have been highlighting global music for decades. It's really sad they aren't in North America anymore.