Even though they never stormed the charts in the U.S. in the same way they did in their native U.K., oddball art rock purveyors Roxy Music were one of the most influential and groundbreaking bands of the '70s, second only to David Bowie in terms of impacting the next decade's explosion of synthpop and new wave. With Bryan Ferry's uncanny vibrato and scintillating keyboards, Andy Mackay's unhinged saxophone, Phil Manzanera's complex guitar tones, John Gustafson's inventive bass lines, Eddie Jobson's invaluable multifarious contributions, Paul Thompson's vigorous drumming, and (for the first two albums) Brian Eno's gonzo synthesizer work, Roxy sounded unlike anything else on the scene. In their first run, they delivered five peerless art rock classics between 1972-75, and upon reforming in 1978 following a brief hiatus, delivered three more albums, including one more stone-cold classic, the mature adult pop of Avalon.
In honor of their well-deserved Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2019, here are Roxy Music's 10 best songs.
10. "2HB" (Roxy Music, 1972)
Roxy Music’s 1972 self-titled debut album introduced the world to their stylistically restless, postmodern breed of art rock. Okay, it introduced Britain to the band -- the album was a hit in the U.K., but fizzled in the U.S., where it was too layered for the glam crowd and too satirical for the prog scene. One of the best debuts of the decade, a highlight is Bryan Ferry’s tribute to Golden Era Hollywood icon Humphrey Bogart with “2HB." Over a meditative, jazz fusion-y electric piano, Ferry quotes Bogie (“Here’s looking at you kid”) while singing in a strange affect – this one is weird even for him (at points it sounds like he’s trying to sing while holding his tongue). Doubling down on the Casablanca references, Andy Mackay plays a sax solo inspired by “As Time Goes By” that Brian Eno, naturally, manipulated with echo effects; the result is a distinct, unearthly homage that seems to reach the listener in soft focus.
9. "Avalon" (Avalon, 1982)
When Roxy Music reinvented itself as a vehicle for smooth, sophisticated pop with 1982’s Avalon, gone were the unusual song structures and abnormal vocal affectations. But this was no commercial sellout. Instead, the sonic switch emphasized the expert craftsmanship of their material, not to mention the inherit warmth in Ferry’s voice when he puts the irony on the backburner. With posh female backing vocals, a soothing sax, a gently insistent rhythm and enchanting, understated guitar, “Avalon” proves you can widen your appeal while expanding your palette -- and without catering to the lowest common denominator.
8. "Mother of Pearl" (Stranded, 1973)
Stranded, their first album following the departure of Eno, demonstrated that Roxy Music lost none of their avant ambition with his exit -- demonstrated admirably by the ferocious, two-part “Mother of Pearl.” Opening with a feral, askew guitar riff from Manzanera, Ferry’s near demonic voice bursts in, twice, with two jarring countermelodies weaving in and out of the mix (one of which finds him doing an unsettling approximation of the classic Little Richard “woooo!”). After a minute and a half, it segues into a comparatively comforting second composition, a declaration of adoration for the “lustrous lady” Mother of Pearl delivered with a sardonic streak. It ends with the chorus repeated a cappella -- a common enough trick in rock, but as if on a dare, Ferry sings it four times, which is just enough to be too much. Bonus points to Ferry for having the vision and moxie to force “Zarathustra” to rhyme with “loser.”
7. "All I Want Is You" (Country Life, 1974)
Positioned as a plea to a lover the singer just learned is planning on leaving him, “All I Want Is You” proves that brainy rock can still be brawny. The full, resonant guitar practically bowls you over at the start, and Ferry sounds similarly confident for a man about to get dumped; but by the time he’s showing a hint of sentimental weakness and throwing the ole “if you ever change your mind” line out there, Phil Manzanera’s guitar expertly switches from an expansive to a focused sound, crying out in brief, painful flashes. Ferry allows a slight tremble to enter his voice as he repeats “all I want” at the end, revealing the wounded uncertainty beneath the bravado.
6. "Love Is the Drug" (Siren, 1975)
With John Gustafson’s slinky bass line, a spiky guitar riff from Manzanera and Ferry’s vibrato in full effect, “Love Is the Drug” is one of the sexiest, most irresistible songs from the oft-challenging band -- and sure enough, the Siren single became their solo top 40 hit in the U.S., reaching No. 30 on the Billboard Hot 100. But even on one of their more digestible songs, Roxy Music remains restlessly innovative; the disco-leaning bass line is particularly influential, having inspired Nile Rodgers' bass line in Chic’s “Good Times” which, in turn, would help lay the foundation for hip-hop as the bones of Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.”
5. "Virginia Plain" (single, 1972)
The band’s debut single (eventually included on later pressings of their self-titled debut) introduced the world to Roxy Music’s core elements: Mackay’s avant-leaning sax, Eno’s wild synthesizer diversions and Ferry’s eerie, tremulous and utterly inimitable voice. Lyrically, “Virginia Plain” is full of Roxy hallmarks as well: Obscure references, a fixation with retro teen culture and a curiosity with commercial depictions of beauty (as opposed to in-the-flesh human beauty). It was a smash in the U.K. and utterly ignored in America, a pattern that would plague them throughout their career.
4. "More Than This" (Avalon, 1982)
For as weird as Roxy was in the ‘70s, they went full-on mainstream with 1982’s Avalon. But even as they sanded down the rough edges and left the strangeness behind, they didn’t lose an ounce of their sophistication. Lush lead single “More Than This” is an expertly crafted, gorgeously crooned slice of adult synthpop. Even though it missed the Hot 100, it’s one of their best-known songs in the U.S., thanks in part to Bill Murray karaoke-ing the tune in Lost In Translation.
3. "Three and Nine" (Country Life, 1974)
A lovely, gentle counterpoint to the song it immediately follows on Country Life (the visceral “The Thrill of It All”), “Three and Nine” is a beguiling, mellow rocker with shades of the open prairie ( some country-tinged harmonica support) and a late-night jazz club (thanks to some reflective sax soloing from Mackay). The oblique lyrics (“Decimal romance / If you've warmed to centigrade / You stand a sporting chance”) resist comprehension, but this textured, warm number is one of the unsung gems of their catalog.
2. "Do the Strand" (For Your Pleasure, 1972)
The opening track to For Your Pleasure, the band’s greatest album, wastes no time in announcing itself: before one full second has passed, the piano is furiously clanging and Ferry is off on his carnivalesque sales pitch about “a fabulous creation” that doubles as a “danceable solution to teenage revolution.” In 1972, they were still being unfairly lumped in with the blossoming glam rock scene in the U.K., but Roxy was far stranger than their counterparts, and “Do the Strand” is an exemplar of their slanted take on rock, drawing on everything from Kurt Weill to proto-punk to Ornette Coleman to create a tense, thrilling rocker.
1. "Editions of You" (For Your Pleasure, 1972)
There’s a barely suppressed energy simmering in the opening electric piano chords, and when Paul Thompson’s drum roll snowballs in at the 16-second mark, the entire band unleashes the weird and goes for the jugular on one of the most muscular art rock songs of all time. While Mackay lets loose on the sax and the Farfisa organ, Eno’s VCS3 synthesizer practically screams, working over an improvised melody that has almost nothing to do with the rest of the song. But Manzanera’s simmering guitar and Thompson’s relentless drumming keep the punishing rocker grounded, and Ferry turns in one of his all-time best vocals. On “Editions of You,” Roxy's lead singer sounds positively deranged, pining for the perfect pin-up while spitting out one aphorism after another. And when he imitates “the slinky sirens’ wail” with a chill-inducing, multi-tracked “woooo!”, Roxy does to the listener what the sirens do to them: “Their crazy music drives you insane." It's followed by an invitation to follow Roxy Music down their idiosyncratic wormhole ("this way…") that open-minded listeners eagerly submitted to.