Quarantine has pushed us all to the edge of our mental capacity when it comes to boredom. Some people are thriving in this environment—establishing their blog, working on their fiction, learning an instrument, watching every episode of The Golden Girls on Hulu—while others have found themselves in a depressive creative slump fueled by fear and anxiety. Then there is me, who made a 32 song tournament to determine which PJ Harvey song from her 9 main albums is my favorite. It was difficult choice after difficult choice—but I guess that I am stronger for putting myself through it. In the end, what I found was that I love the song ranked 32nd almost as much as I love the song ranked 1st. With that in mind, I decided that I would break down the whole list for you, because yeah, PJ Harvey’s music really is that good. Seriously.
32. “A Dog Called Money,” From The Hope Six Demolition Project
On this entire list, I believe that this is the only track that is not part of an album’s standard release. According to the data that I have been gathering since 2017 this is my most played PJ Harvey track. It may seem like a weird choice, but I am sure that you will find this list full of those. This track marches forward with percussion rifts that remind me of being in band in high school, Harvey’s vocals are hardly featured on the track—never appearing on their own and turned down below the male vocalists through the chorus, but that is part of this song’s power. The chorus comes from a conversation Harvey had on the streets of Washington D.C. and just as the lyrics say, he tells them what is what. “Everything is staged, that’s how it is, people are just paid and bought and I’m tired of it. What are you going to do to change it? It’s all about money, that’s what’s going on.”
31. “Dollar, Dollar,” from The Hope Six Demolition Project
There is not another PJ Harvey track that I can think of that is as visceral and real as this one. The atmosphere is built around the sounds of the busy city streets of Kabul, Afghanistan, where Harvey had an encounter with a child through the window of a car that makes her feel powerless to elicit any change. Far from the minor keys and heavy guitars of her early work, this track is haunting in its own eerie way. Its approach is minimal, the chaotic city street is far noisier than anything in the song. When Harvey starts singing, after more than a minute of the street sounds playing, her voice is in stark contrast to the chaotic sounds of the city streets. She is accompanied by long notes played on an organ and minimalistic percussion that is eventually joined by back-up singers and saxophones played in a less than conventional manner. The song’s climax comes in the form of a saxophone solo that portrays the dejected tone of the song perfectly. Leaning more toward conceptual art, this is a track worth sitting down and giving your full attention to.
30. “The Letter,” from Uh Huh Her
This song is a perfect personification of the catchy pop-oriented rock music that Harvey is so adept at creating. This song is all addictive riffs and soaring vocals that make for a fun listen. This isn’t a track where Harvey reinvents the wheel, but it’s a track that shows the wide range of music Harvey is capable of creating while still casting whatever spell over the songs that make them feel so distinctly her. Once you know this song, it is hard to want to skip it.
29. “Broken Harp,” from White Chalk
One of the most emotional tracks on this whole list, and one that shows the depth of feeling that Harvey is able to portray through her voice. White Chalk is a hard departure from Harvey’s previous records and features a more folky and ethereal sound. It is yet another testament to Harvey’s prowess and versatility as a musician, and shows that she can create songs that are vicious and raw, and also vulnerable and impassioned. This track starts with one of the most devastating vocal lines that Harvey has delivered in her career. Fifteen seconds of acapella singing, “Please don’t reproach me/ For how empty my life has become.” Like so much of Harvey’s music, the instrumentation is simple—little more than strumming on the guitar—but her sense of rhythm along with the vocals that sound wounded make for a disquieting track. To me, this song is the sound of my personal demons, of the type of failure that seems impossible to recover from.
28. “The Devil,” from White Chalk
This track is so many things—a witchy invocation, a piano ballad, a brand new singing voice (and vocal range from Harvey), a harbinger of a whole new musical direction, and a catchy ass song to boot. The opening to 2004’s White Chalk is unlike any song on Harvey’s previous albums. The hard edge of the electric guitar has been replaced by a bouquet of new instruments. Her sound has evolved, it has remained simple, and yet has turned into something that is richly complex in texture and atmosphere. All the while it is a song that at its core still feels very much like it belongs among her catalog and that acts as a perfect bridge between the first and second half of Harvey’s career. This is another track that is just hard to skip when it comes on.
27. “The Ministry of Defense,” from The Hope Six Demolition Project
Simplistic, striking, and bombastic (yes both of those words are necessary), in this track Harvey revisits an old friend from the past, the distorted electric guitar, and it is cranked up to eleven. This track is a new heavy and artful side to Harvey’s music that is attention grabbing. This is the apocalypse through the eyes of PJ Harvey, except she is writing about the real places that inspire 2016’s The Hope Six Demolition Project. What I love about “The Ministry of Defense,” is how interesting and fresh it is. This is an aggressive hard hitting song that is unrelenting in its melody, a crunchy riff that punctuates Harvey’s singing, which ranges from haunted to enraged. With that said, this is one of the rare tracks from Harvey that feels a little underdeveloped. Still, all you have to do is listen to this track to exactly how it earned its spot here on the list.
26. “White Chalk,” from White Chalk
A campfire song sang by a ghost about being trapped in the place where you come from. The vocals, guitar melody, and pattering drums alone are enough to make this song great, but what pushes it over the edge for me is the imagery in the lyrics. “White Chalk hills will rot my bones,” is the only line I need to even type out for you to understand what I mean when I say that the White Chalk album features a poetic evolution in Harvey’s music. This is a song that simultaneously feels haunted by the past and that fears the future. It manages, somehow, to feel sparse and complex, busy and calm, soothing and haunted, artsy and catchy. It is a song that contradicts itself, but that only makes it more interesting.
25. “The Words that Maketh Murder,” from Let England Shake
If you listen to the accompanying playlist I’m sure this song will come as a relief after all of the tension in the previous tracks. Of all of PJ Harvey’s music this song has to be the catchiest song she has ever written. It is hard not to sing along even when you’re hearing it for the first time. But when you really listen to this track, you’ll find that it is weird as hell. That it is an entire world all of its own. It feels genius and unique and once in a lifetime. If I could only send one of PJ Harvey’s songs into space, this would probably be one of the songs that came to mind first. Simply put, it is amazing. It also does one of my favorite things ever at 1:46 when all of the music dies away and it is just Harvey singing accompanied by the drums and the back-up singers, and then at 2:06 the music comes rumbling back in. Harvey’s music is a lot of things, but you will find very few tracks that are as dancable as this one. Despite this track being Harvey’s best pop hit, however, there is more to the joy of this track than meets the eye.
Like cheese and wine, art can be best when consumed together. Why not try PJ Harvey’s Interview with The Guardian with this post.