Florence + the Machine’s 20 best songs – ranked!

As Florence Welch prepares new album Dance Fever and heads out on tour, we appraise the best of her torrid, maximalist songwriting

20 Moderation (2019)

“Do I look moderate to you?” asks the never-knowingly subtle Florence Welch rhetorically on this James Ford-produced one-off single. Opening with bar-room piano stabs, it soon blossoms into a galloping rocker, Welch battling an inner voice suggesting she perhaps rein it in. Needless to say she doesn’t listen.

19 Wish That You Were Here (2016)

Welch’s windswept wail and penchant for atmospheric harp flutters have made her catnip for fantastical film soundtracks. On this undulating, near seven-minute epic, taken from Tim Burton’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Welch mourns relationships fractured by constant touring. “I wanted to go home, to be where you are,” she roars as drums crash like angry waves.

18 Big God (2018)

On 2018’s fourth album High As Hope, Welch and her evolving studio cohorts (the more static ‘+ the Machine’ are for live shows) sought to dial down the bluster. On the experimental, relatively stripped back Big God – co-written by Jamie xx – Welch prowls around a loping piano figure, before a meandering sax solo from Kamasi Washington slowly takes over.

17 Never Let Me Go (2011)

After the ubiquitous success of debut album Lungs, Welch fast-tracked its follow-up Ceremonials, decamping to Abbey Road studios with producer Paul Epworth. While Lungs skipped around genres mischievously, the opulent Ceremonials focused more on widescreen chamber pop, with the Halo-esque Never Let Me Go a prime example of refined excess.

16 Sky Full of Song (2018)

High As Hope’s lead single feels like a soft caress in comparison to the usual cold, hard slap of a big chart-facing hit. Lyrically it ponders the paradox of performing live, exploring the huge highs that only temporarily pierce moments of strange isolation. “I thought I was flying but maybe I’m dying tonight,” Welch sings softly over distant harp flutters.

15 Drumming Song (2009)

While her early pop contemporaries Lily Allen and Adele turned relationships into soap operas and kitchen-sink dramas, Welch spun them into gothic fantasies. On Lungs’ propulsive fourth single, a new crush elicits the kind of high-wire emotions more akin to drowning, an exhausted Welch left “as empty as that beating drum”.

14 What the Water Gave Me (2011)

Named after Frida Kahlo’s 1938 painting, Ceremonials’ more rock-leaning promotional single (AKA the one before the proper single), finds Welch returning to a lyrical trope; trying to understand the vastness of something too enormous to understand. Here she is overwhelmed by bodies of water, a place both beautiful and deadly.

Welch on stage in Milan, 2019.
Welch on stage in Milan, 2019. Photograph: Sergione Infuso - Corbis/Corbis/Getty Images

13 South London Forever (2018)

Created at the start of her 30s, High As Hope excels when Welch looks back at her youth with misty-eyed clarity. Over airy production, here she half-remembers nights spent holding hands with strangers “high on E”, and relishes in the false certainty of “it doesn’t get better than this”. Later, as the song starts to wrestle with itself, Welch snaps: “Oh God, what do I know?”

12 King (2022)

Around the two-minute 45 seconds mark of this first single from next month’s Dance Fever, Welch unleashes an almighty, wordless roar, as if making it very clear that High As Hope’s sonic retreat was an anomaly. From there the song keeps building, like a raging fire fuelled by the opening verse’s slow burn anger at societal expectations placed on women.

11 Sweet Nothing (2012)

In 2012, Welch dipped her toe in EDM’s WKD-coloured waters not once but twice, with Calvin Harris first sending a remix of Ceremonials’ Spectrum to No 1. Three months later she was back with Harris at the top on this gloriously sugary confection, Welch sounding as if she’s having the time of her life while Harris unleashes a rapid-fire electronic blitzkrieg around her.

10 Dog Days Are Over (2008)

Like most songs on Lungs, this single’s appeal has been dampened slightly by its ubiquity. There was a time in 2010 where you couldn’t shop, watch TV or wander around a festival field without hearing its opening harp trills, or that thumping chorus. Still, taken at a distance, it remains a glorious head-rush of emotions, Welch barely keeping up with its galloping ecstasy.

9 No Light, No Light (2011)

A lot of second album Ceremonials teeters on the brink of self-parody, with everything turned up to 11. On the sky-scraping No Light, No Light, Welch revels in the OTT, swishing around cascading choirs and harps before ditching her highfalutin lyrical tropes in favour of direct emotion: “Would you leave me if I told you what I’d done?” she asks during the song’s majestic bridge.

Taking it to the maximalist … Welch in concert, 2015.
Taking it to the maximalist … Welch in concert, 2015. Photograph: Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images

8 My Love (2022)

New album Dance Fever’s latest single finds Welch trying to find inspiration in a world locked down (“my arms emptied, the skies emptied” she panics in the song’s finale). What started as an acoustic “sad little poem” has been buffed by Glass Animals’ Dave Bayley into a pensive banger, all propulsive dance rhythms and tentative exaltation.

7 What Kind of Man (2015)

By third album How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, Welch et al had reached festival headline status, a fact underlined months later at Glastonbury. On the album’s combative lead single, the pretty harp flourishes of old are swapped for rugged guitar riffs, with Welch utilising distinctly masculine rock tropes to admonish a useless man.

6 Shake It Out (2011)

In 2011, Florence + the Machine were big enough to be handed a coveted performance slot on The X Factor, a nod to Welch’s vocal influence on a plethora of “kooky” young hopefuls. They performed this maximalist baroque pop rager, which finds Welch trying to shake an almighty hangover by exorcising it from her body by sheer force alone.

5 Cosmic Love (2009)

Another song created on a hangover, Lungs’ sixth single takes a classic subject – being really really in love – and straps it to a rocket aimed at the moon. There is not an ounce of subtlety on display here (its firework-esque harp coda is joined by the sound of actual fireworks, for example), which only makes its youthful, cartwheeling exuberance all the more accurate.

4 St Jude (2015)

Across How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful’s 11 tracks, Welch invokes various characters, from Persephone to the Virgin Mary. On the delicate St Jude, which strips everything back to Welch’s pin-sharp voice and a distant electronic rumble, she references both the “patron saint of the lost causes” and the 2013 storm that shared her name. Somewhere in the middle sits perhaps her most genuinely affecting song.

3 Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up) (2009)

Written at the behest of her label, who asked Welch for something more upbeat to balance out Lungs’ darker fare, Rabbit Heart bristles with the fear that comes with reaching the point of no return. Aware she was about to dive into fame’s chasm, the song’s lyrics abound with sacrificial imagery (“Who is the lamb and who is the knife?”), all wrapped up in sprightly production that gave the band their first proper hit.

2 Hunger (2018)

Written initially as a private poem, High As Hope’s second single strips away any artifice and explores Welch’s relationship with drink and drugs (she’s been sober since 2014), and her teenage eating disorder. “At 17 I started to starve myself,” she sings, a bracing opening that’s soon warmed by the chorus’ light-footed melody and Welch’s sage reflections on the complex beauty of “vibrant youth”.

1 Ship to Wreck (2015)

While making How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, Welch has said producer Markus Dravs told her to stop writing songs about water. Thankfully, she ignored him, with the album’s lead single – a galloping mix of acoustic guitar, hammond organ and glockenspiel – likening a broken relationship to a battered ship being washed up on the shore. Throughout Welch conjures up images of great white sharks and killer whales to represent her demons, continuing her philosophy of never writing small songs about big emotions. By the glorious middle eight, Welch’s propensity for self-destruction has fully taken hold: “We are lost, and into the breach, we got tossed,” she sings, “And the water is coming in fast”. Ruin never sounded so wonderful.

• Dance Fever is released on 13 May.


Michael Cragg

The GuardianTramp

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