PJ Harvey's 50 greatest songs – ranked!

In the week that Polly Harvey turns 50, what better time to look back over 50 gems from her back catalogue – and sort them in order of greatness

50. Who the Fuck? (2004)

A rare moment of levity in the Harvey oeuvre: all the mad-eyed, vengeful, shrieking fury of Rid of Me brought to bear upon a hairdresser who has made the mistake of messing up the singer’s cut and blow dry: “Get your comb out of there! You can’t straighten my curls! Fuck you! Fuck you!”

49. Harder (1995)

Harvey’s B-sides can provide rich pickings: if you can understand why Harder didn’t make the cut for To Bring You My Love – there’s no getting around the fact that it’s essentially a song about an erect penis – the sheer lascivious relish and the twisting guitar riff are irresistible.

48. Water (1992)

You could hear the influence of US alt-rock on Dry, but its contents seemed to have a different kind of intensity to anything else around at the time, as shown by Water’s mysterious depiction of a suicide that could be driven by love or by religious mania: gripping, punishing listening.

47. Guilty (2016)

Recorded for The Hope Six Demolition Project, but left off the album and subsequently released as a single, Guilty is far darker than the album that preceeded it: no mean feat, but with its barrage of percussion, discordant brass and synths and a lyric about drone strikes, it pulls it off with grim aplomb.

46. The Crowded Cell (2019)

Harvey has recently shifted into scoring films and plays. As the closing theme from Shane Meadows’s TV drama The Virtues demonstrates, that hasn’t occasioned any letup in the intensity of her work: bleak, repetitive and powerful, The Crowded Cell unflinchingly details a litany of physical and mental abuse.

45. Is That All There Is? (1996)

Harvey seldom records cover versions. Her fierce, Rid of Me-era take on Willie Dixon’s Wang Dang Doodle is pretty spectacular, but the best of them may be this agonisingly slow, utterly disconsolate version of the Peggy Lee standard: breaking out the booze and having a ball never sounded such a miserable prospect.

44. Taut (1996)

Harvey’s first collaboration with John Parish, Dance Hall at Louse Point, at its most strange and unpredictable: a gabbled, whispered vocal over a chaotic backing that occasionally resolves into something like an alt-rock chorus. Out-there, but bizarrely captivating.

43. Easy (1993)

A song that only appeared on the 4-Track Demos collection, Easy is as taut and livid as anything on Rid of Me: lyrics dealing with a topic that would later be called slut-shaming, scourging guitars, a rhythm track provided by Harvey barking.

42. This Mess We’re In (2000)

This Mess We’re In is a fabulous song – beautifully muted, the music evokes dusk settling on a city – but even if it wasn’t, it would make it on to this list by dint of requiring guest vocalist Thom Yorke to sing the line “Night and day I dream of makin’ love to you now, baby”.

41 Send His Love to Me (1995)

Never big on lyrical explication, Harvey has always complained that people tend to project her personal life on to songs that she approaches like a short story writer, something evident from Send His Love to Me’s saga of an abandoned wife going slowly nuts in her remote desert home.

40. The Wind (1998)

Is This Desire? at its most haunting. The music is muted, faintly trip-hoppy – syncopated funk drums, a relentless guitar loop, cinematic strings – but flecked with shards of disjointed noise. The vocal is part-whispered, the lyrics contemplate the torture and martyrdom of St Catherine: lowkey, but The Wind really gets under the listener’s skin.

39. We Float (2000)

“It’s only pop according to PJ Harvey,” the singer said of Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, “which is probably as un-pop as you can get by most people’s standards.” We Float bears that out: its melody is lovely, but its weightless, six-minute drift walks an odd, intoxicating line between blissed-out and sinister.

38. White Chalk (2007)

A deeply creepy mystery movie in song, sung in a childlike voice that occasionally veers off-key and set to tumbling piano and banjo. In the Dorset countryside, something terrible has clearly happened to the narrator, a pregnant woman, but exactly what – murder? Suicide? – is never revealed.

PJ Harvey
PJ Harvey live in Rome, 2008. Photograph: Ernesto Ruscio/FilmMagic.com

37. Meet Ze Monsta (1995)

There is a distinct playfulness about Meet Ze Monsta, the track on To Bring You My Love that most recalls its predecessor Rid of Me. Harvey sounds as if she is having a thoroughly good time inhabiting the song’s menacing, darkly sexy protagonist: there’s a real relish about her vocal delivery, a raw, dirty power about the ultra-distorted sound.

36. The Sky Lit Up (1998)

Harvey has always been skilled at juxtaposing wildly different musical and lyrical moods. The Sky Lit Up’s power is derived from the way the lyric sounds punch-drunk with love, but the music and vocal tells a completely different story: relentless, repetitious, feedback-strafed, manic.

35. Man-Size (1993)

There is a sense in which Harvey was always ahead of the game: were Man-Size released today, it would be acclaimed as a powerful meditation on gender fluidity and sexual identity. Its lyrics somehow manage to be abstract and powerful: the unremitting one-note chug of its guitars is as formidable as the figure they depict.

34. That Was My Veil (1996)

Her record label apparently claimed that Harvey’s first collaborative album with John Parish, Dance Hall at Louse Point, was “commercial suicide”, but listening to That Was My Veil, it is hard to see what the problem was: it’s a fantastic song, Parish’s music so in tune with Harvey’s lyric you would never know two writers were involved.

33. The Sandman (2019)

Harvey’s score for a new stage adaptation of the 1950 film All About Eve “explores the more sombre and deeply psychological aspects of the story”: you don’t say. Sung by Gillian Anderson, The Sandman’s melody is exquisite, but its mood is pretty sepulchral. Put it this way: she doesn’t sound like she’s in for a good night’s sleep.

32. The Words That Maketh Murder (2011)

More bizarre juxtaposition. The jaunty, brass-assisted music somehow makes the battlefield testimony in the lyrics more harrowing: “I’ve seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat … arms and legs hanging in the trees”. Weirder still, it ends with a jokey paraphrase from Eddie Cochran’s Summertime Blues: “What if I take my problem to the United Nations?”

31. The Darker Days of Me & Him (2004)

A gem hidden among the uneven Uh Huh Her, an album on which Harvey played every instrument. Its lo-fi quality really works here. There is a mesmerising contrast between the sinister, foggy backing and Harvey’s plaintive vocal and acoustic guitar: “I long for a land with no neurosis, no psychosis, no psychoanalysis”.

30. Working for the Man (1995)

The main character in Working For the Man could, theoretically be a travelling salesman with religious leanings, but it seems considerably more likely he’s a serial killer: certainly, the murmured, close-mic’d vocal and skulking spookiness of the music – not to mention its abrupt ending – suggest something very unpleasant indeed.

29. Oh My Lover (1992)

The opening track of Harvey’s debut album loudly announced the arrival of a singer-songwriter operating in a space entirely her own. There is a hint of Pixies about the music, but the words shift uncomfortably, powerfully, from drowsily sexy to neurotic and fixated.

28. Crawl Home (2003)

Harvey’s contribution to Volume 9 of Josh Homme’s Desert Sessions are among the highlights of the series to date. Crawl Home’s lyrics are very much within her wheelhouse – sickly, obsessive love – and she sounds utterly imperious over the maelstrom of heavy riffs.

27. This Wicked Tongue (2000)

It says something about the quality of material on Stories From the City … that a song as good as This Wicked Tongue was relegated to hidden-track status. In fact, the earlier Peel Session version may be the definitive one. Tougher and noisier, it fits the lyric’s apocalyptic darkness: “Where’s the heart in the rubbish heap of man?”

26. Me-Jane (1993)

The swaggering machismo of the old Bo Diddley hambone beat chaotically, thrillingly pressed into the service of a song about the idiocy of swaggering machismo: “Oh damn your chest-beating,” offers the narrator, clearly thoroughly bored of life as Tarzan’s significant other, “just stop your screaming.”

25. The Piano (2007)

Despite being unable to play the song’s titular instrument, Harvey nonetheless made it the centrepiece of White Chalk and sang in a higher register than usual for good measure. The results of this journey outside her comfort zone were eerie and spare, as beautifully demonstrated here.

24. The Dancer (1995)

In retrospect, it seems faintly amazing that To Bring You My Love was a commercial breakthrough: admittedly less confrontational than Rid of Me, it was still deeply uneasy listening, as evidenced by The Dancer, a stunning exercise in trembling tension, filled with dark religious imagery and references to opera. A love song, no less.

23. You Said Something (2000)

Harvey was at pains to suggest that Stories From the City … was not her “New York album”. For all its geographical references to Manhattan, You Said Something sounds weirdly British – there is a distinctly folky lilt to the guitars – making it the perfect summation of the album’s Englishwoman-abroad theme.

22. A Perfect Day Elise (1998)

Oppressive and claustrophobic, A Perfect Day Elise is packed with sound: flickering guitar, thick waves of synthesiser, hammering drums, growling bass. The chorus offers a ray of light among the gloom – it sounds oddly uplifting by comparison with the rest of the song – but the real power lies in its dense urgency.

21. April (2009)

Harvey sings April in a strange, thin, high voice, as if she is playing a character much older than herself, which adds an emotive punch to the song’s vision of the seasons passing. The music, meanwhile, is just beautiful: bare and melancholy.

20. Rub Til It Bleeds (1993)

As ferocious screw-you statements of unbiddable artistic independence go, Harvey’s major label debut takes some beating. Which brings us to Rub Til It Bleeds: five crawling, anxiety-inducing minutes during which Harvey offers to – and let us not mince words here – wank someone off so violently she draws blood. See you on Top of the Pops!

19. Reeling (1993)

Harvey’s 4-Track Demos album is more than a fans-only curio. It offers a different, but equally compelling, kind of intensity to the Steve Albini productions on Rid of Me, as evidenced by Reeling: a scourging blast of fizzing, trebly noise and vocals on the edge of mania.

17. On Battleship Hill (2011)

You would describe On Battleship Hill’s keening vocal and folk-inspired melody as pastoral, but it is hardly a hymn to bucolic serenity: a walk through a former battlefield, unable to shake its lingering sense of death, troubled by the thought that, this time, human nature has irrevocably ruined nature itself.

16. C’mon Billy (1995)

To Bring You My Love saw Harvey abandoning her original guitar-bass-drums trio and expanding her sound: certainly, C’Mon Billy’s luscious strings would have had no place on Rid of Me. But she didn’t diminish the potency of her music: the rawness of her voice snags on the silkiness of the arrangement, the desperation in the lyrics is almost tangible.

15. Dress (1991)

A striking exercise in simmering anger, Dress takes a straightforward indie rock topic – unrequited love – and pushes it somewhere darker: by the song’s end, you’re not entirely sure what’s happened to its protagonist (“a fallen woman in a dancing costume”), but it doesn’t sound good.

14. The Ministry of Defence (2016)

A super-heavy, super-simple, pounding garage riff and discordant free-blowing sax supporting a brilliant lyric. It starts out flatly describing a derelict building in Afghanistan – covered in graffiti, filled with litter and broken glass – that suddenly pans out to reveal the full horror: human bones and hair, the ghosts of children killed there.

13. Silence (2007)

For all its unsettling, uncanny atmosphere, White Chalk contains some of Harvey’s most lambent and straightforwardly beautiful tunes: there is almost nothing to Silence beyond a simple piano part and a harmonium, but the melody is so beautiful, it undercuts the obsessional, romantically devastated lyrics.

12. Black Hearted Love (2009)

Harvey has protested that her collaborative albums with John Parish have been unfairly overlooked, and Black Hearted Love ably proves her point with its simultaneously erotic and menacing lyrics, set to a gloriously unpredictable chord sequence and an addictive riff.

11. This Is Love (2000)

This Is Love is relatively straightforward by Harvey’s standards – a muscular garage rock strut with a lyric that seems to play with her Queen of Darkness image. There is something hugely appealing about hearing a woman who has previously threatened to do all sorts of appalling things in song suddenly turning into Benny Hill: “I want to chase you round the table!”

10. 50ft Queenie (1993)

“I’ll tell you my name: F-U-C-K!” If her debut album was frequently concerned with women suffering at the hands of men, Rid of Me’s 50ft Queenie was its negative image, a raw, messy, defiant subversion of the blues’ masculine strut that celebrates vengeful female power: “Bend over, Casanova”.

9. The Wheel (2016)

The warped garage rock sound that defined The Hope Six Demolition Project in full effect. Thumping drums; Bad Seeds-y massed vocals; sleazy saxophone to the fore; a lyric that contemplates the mass-murder of “disappeared” children. No U2-ish hectoring, just observation, and all the more potent and affecting for that.

8. Angelene (1998)

Is This Desire? was a thorny, troubled album, made at a time when worrying rumours circulated about Harvey’s mental health. Angelene doesn’t sound like the work of someone in a good place, but there’s a hint of optimism – “I’ve heard there’s joy untold” – mirrored by a chorus delightfully at odds with the mood of brooding weariness.

7. The Desperate Kingdom of Love (2004)

Uh Huh Her is Harvey’s messiest, most difficult album – in places, it sounds bafflingly half-finished – but amid the chaos, she hid one of her greatest songs, a simple, vaguely country-ish acoustic guitar ballad so timelessly beautiful it sounds like it might have existed for decades: remembered, rather than freshly written.

Harvey in 1995.
Harvey in 1995. Photograph: Brian Rasic/Brian Rasic/Getty Images

6. Written on the Forehead (2011)

There is a compelling argument that Let England Shake is Harvey’s masterpiece: its richness and breadth are clear here, an implausibly pretty, echo-drenched song about rioting cities and drowning in sewage, bolstered by a sample from Niney the Observer’s 1970 reggae hit Blood and Fire.

5. Sheela Na Gig (1992)

No wonder Harvey’s debut album had such an impact: no one else in 1992 was writing songs quite like Sheela Na Gig, a ferociously eloquent assault on the male gaze and misogyny with the image of a grotesque medieval architectural depiction of female genitalia at its centre.

4. Good Fortune (2000)

It is rare that Harvey pays obvious tribute to her musical inspirations, but Stories From the City’s standout track is self-evidently a loving homage to Horses-era Patti Smith, from the churning guitar to her vocal intonation: the lyrics, meanwhile, perfectly depict a sudden flush of optimism.

3. When Under Ether (2007)

An astonishing choice for a single – if nothing else, it demonstrated how far outside the mainstream Harvey works – but also an astonishing song: a solo piano track that seemingly, but not definitely, depicts a termination from the mother’s point of view. Sung in a fragile, dreamy voice, it’s extraordinarily beautiful and utterly chilling.

2. Down By the Water (1995)

The PJ Harvey song that even people who find PJ Harvey too much seem to love, Down By the Water is still remarkably strong stuff: a song about a mother murdering her daughter, apparently for some sexual transgression, set to abrasive distorted organ, ending with a whispered, spine-chilling nursery rhyme.

1. Rid of Me (1993)

It is hard to pick a definitive favourite from PJ Harvey’s catalogue because she has maintained a remarkably high standard for nearly 30 years: even her least successful albums are still a cut above. But Rid of Me’s title track is as strong a contender as any: a brutally powerful song that homes in on the moment when the aftermath of a breakup turns desperate and nasty, it comes packed with distressing imagery – “I’ll make you lick my injuries” – as it switches from teary pleading to threats of violence. The music stretches the Pixies/Nirvana quiet-loud dynamic to its elastic limit and the song is half over before the cathartic explosion comes. It is thrilling and perturbing: search YouTube to see her performing it solo live, without losing any of the visceral power.


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