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Best Joy Division Songs: 20 Unknown Pleasures You Need To Hear
List & Guides

Best Joy Division Songs: 20 Unknown Pleasures You Need To Hear

Transcending the very notion of “post-punk”, the best Joy Division songs are sublime works from a visionary group.

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Arguably the most important band to emerge from the late 70s post-punk maelstrom, Joy Division recorded just two official albums, Unknown Pleasures and Closer, and a trio of classic singles before their story abruptly ended with vocalist Ian Curtis’ tragic suicide in May 1980. At the time of Curtis’ death, the singular Mancunian quartet were on the very cusp of the international success they would later attain when they regrouped as New Order. Yet, while it’s hard not to speculate what Joy Division might have achieved had their charismatic vocalist lived, they had already gifted us a spectacular body of work, as the best Joy Division songs attest.

Listen to the best of Joy Division or check out 20 best Joy Division songs, below.

20: Glass

Recorded at their first studio session with producer Martin Hannett, Glass revealed that Joy Division had already jettisoned the punk-by-numbers thrashing of their self-released debut EP, An Ideal For Living, and were crafting some of the starkest and most mesmeric rock music of their era. Coupled with the more accessible Digital, the song appeared on Factory Records’ first-ever release, the various artists A Factory Sample EP, in January 1979. The strength of the two tracks bagged Joy Division their first NME front cover, but their new music’s inherent power surprised the band more than anyone. Drummer Stephen Morris confessed in his memoir, Record Play Pause, “I thought [the music] sounded fantastic in a way I never thought it could. It sounded like the sort of record I would buy!”

19: Autosuggestion

With the mercurial Martin Hannett again manning the console, Joy Division recorded their seminal debut album, Unknown Pleasures, at Strawberry Studios, in Stockport, across three brief but highly productive weekend sessions in April 1979. With their creativity at a high the band cut the album’s ten tracks, but also worked up several formidable new songs from spontaneous studio jams. Arguably the best of these, Autosuggestion was a hypnotic, six-minute slow burner with a nocturnal, neo-dub vibe. While it didn’t feature on Unknown Pleasures, it later saw official release on Fast Product’s (now highly collectable) various-artists EP, Earcom 2.

18: Exercise One

First recorded for the band’s debut John Peel BBC Radio session, in January 1979, Exercise One was revisited at the Unknown Pleasures sessions but remained on the shelf until it appeared on Joy Division’s posthumous collection, Still, in 1981. That’s a testament to the strength of the band’s catalogue rather than the track’s weakness, as Exercise One would have stood as one of the best Joy Division songs on either Unknown Pleasures or Closer. Drifting in on ominous sheets of distortion and anchored by one of Peter Hook’s most brooding bass pulses, it’s one of Joy Division’s most relentlessly dark and claustrophobic set pieces, with the air of doom all too palpable as Ian Curtis sings, “There’s time for one last ride before the end of it all.”

17: These Days

The tragedy of Ian Curtis’ suicide tends to obscure the fact that some of Joy Division’s best songs are truly life-affirming tracks that work commendably hard. Constructed around Bernard Sumner’s infectious guitar riffs and a sinewy rhythm track, robust live favourite These Days definitely falls into this category. While Martin Hannett’s production took a little of the heat out of the song when it appeared as the B-side to Love Will Tear Us Apart, it could easily have been a single in its own right.

16: Colony

Closer’s most direct and dramatic rocker, Colony captured Joy Division at the absolute top of their game. Morris’ staccato beats, Sumner’s harsh riffs, Hook’s cyclical basslines and Curtis’ vivid, Franz Kafka-inspired lyric and urgent vocal delivery are all crucial to the plot, yet there’s an intensity about the performance and an overarching feeling that the sum is so much greater than the parts. Colony never threatens to age.

15: Insight

Aside from being one of music’s most gifted lyricists, Ian Curtis used language astutely: while some of the best Joy Division tracks have no discernibly obvious chorus, the singer harnessed repetition decisively and to devastating effect. Unknown Pleasures highlight Insight is a case in point, wherein Curtis’ repeated refrain (“I’m not afraid anymore”) added a tangible air of world-weariness which significantly ramped up the song’s emotional impact. Already hypnotic, Insight’s sci-fi feel was enhanced by Stephen Morris attacking his Synare 3 drum synth during the song’s dropdowns and Martin Hannett adding further atmosphere by recording the sound of Strawberry’s creaky old freight lift to act as the song’s enigmatic intro.

14: Sound Of Music

Sound Of Music suffered a similar fate to Exercise One. A staple of Joy Division’s live set, it was chosen for a Peel Session performance, yet the official studio version – overseen by Martin Hannett at Pennine Sound Studios in January 1980 – remained unreleased until Still. As with Exercise One, though, it’s a colossal track, propelled by Morris’ off-kilter, tom-heavy drums and metallic guitar riffs – played by Hook as he swapped instruments with Sumner on this track. Curtis’ melancholic lyric (“Systematically degraded, emotionally a scapegoat/I can’t see it getting better”) all too sadly reflected his tortured state of mind during the last few months of his life.

13: Shadowplay

Joy Division performed Shadowplay for their first TV appearance, for Manchester’s Granada Reports, in September 1978. Reputedly inspired by widescreen sweep of The Velvet Underground’s Ocean, the song was one of the group’s most brooding rockers and it remained a live favourite throughout their career. Initially dividing opinion within the band, Martin Hannett’s atmospheric production of Unknown Pleasures blunted the harsher edges of some of the songs, but Shadowplay emerged largely unscathed, with Sumner’s metallic guitar figures illuminating this memorable slice of muscular, motorik-noir.

12: Isolation

With assistance from Martin Hannett, Joy Division successfully assimilated keyboards into their sound circa Closer, broadening their palette with several ARP synths as well as the Transcendent 2000 Bernard Sumner had previously constructed himself. Along with Peter Hook’s propulsive bassline, Sumner’s synths played a key role on Isolation, wherein the song’s relatively jaunty melody contrasted beautifully with Curtis’ bittersweet lyric and resigned vocal delivery. Had Joy Division not already earmarked Love Will Tear Us Apart for a single release, Isolation could easily have fit the bill, though, as Hook says in his book Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division, “We were far too bloody-minded to put the singles on albums.”

11: Disorder

Propelled by Morris’ Neu!-esque drumming and Hook’s killer bassline, Unknown Pleasures’ lead cut, Disorder, was as danceable a track as any Joy Division would record. Live, it was often fast and edgy, but on record it sounded lush and spacious, with Hannett adding subtle ambience where required. Curtis’ oblique lyrics (“Lights are flashing, cars are crashing/Getting frequent now”) may or may not have referred to his epilepsy, but he delivered them with confidence and charisma to spare, and they added further layers of intrigue to a creation that easily ranks among the best of Joy Division’s work.

10: Digital

Glass was long on atmosphere, but its A Factory Sample partner, Digital, was Joy Division’s most promising early song. Its genesis came from a suggestion that Stephen Morris should try playing a four-to-the-floor disco beat akin to the one driving Donna Summer’s I Feel Love. Morris gave it a try, but performed it in a deliberately jerky, stilted way that provided the perfect backdrop for this driving, metronomic pop song also featuring a corker of a bassline from Peter Hook.

9: She’s Lost Control

Before turning professional, Ian Curtis worked at Macclesfield’s Employment Exchange. He helped find work for people with disabilities and was reputedly moved to write the lyric for She’s Lost Control after discovering that one young lady he’d met through work had died after suffering an epileptic fit. Eerily, Curtis himself was diagnosed with epilepsy after Joy Division performed their traumatic first gig in London, in December 1978, and the illness dogged him for the rest of his short life. Regardless of the backstory, She’s Lost Control – built around Morris’ robotic, Syndrum-enhanced beat and Hook’s signature, high-end bassline – is a post-punk classic.

8: Dead Souls

A masterclass of dynamics, with its build-ups, dropdowns and sense of anticipation, Dead Souls remains one of Joy Division’s most majestic, guitar-driven tracks. The band’s three musicians locked in with verve and intuition, while Ian Curtis’ decision to hold off making his entry until after the song’s two-minute mark only added to the tension and release. With hindsight, it seems almost perverse that Joy Division originally released it on the limited-edition, French-only Licht Und Blindheit EP, though Factory later confirmed Dead Souls’ status as one of the best Joy Division songs when they reclaimed it for Still.

7: Decades

One of Joy Division’s most hauntingly beautiful songs, Closer’s final track, Decades, again found the band incorporating new technology into their sound with spectacular results. Sumner layered his keyboard parts with richness and depth, Hook performed one of two bass parts on his newly-acquired six-string Shergold bass and the entrance of Morris’ acoustic kit is delayed for maximum effect. Further enhanced by Curtis’ affecting vocal and Hannett’s sophisticated production, Decades is simply timeless.

6: New Dawn Fades

Building slowly and embellished by Bernard Sumner’s dramatic guitar motifs, New Dawn Fades was both Unknown Pleasures’ most haunting track, and arguably its greatest. A truly unforgettable ballad, and leagues ahead of what usually passed for “post-punk” in 1979, it was also a showcase for one of Ian Curtis’ most commanding vocal performances. In the light of events to come, however, it’s still difficult to hear him sing “A loaded gun won’t set you free/So you say” without feeling a significant chill.

5: Heart And Soul

Another monumental track from Closer, Heart And Soul found Ian Curtis laying his soul bare (“Existence, well what does it matter?/I exist on the best terms I can”). However, the song’s downbeat lyrical content and the sepulchral vocal contrasted beautifully with the dancefloor-friendly throb of the music, driven by Morris’ insistent, disco-tinged drums and Hook playing counterpoint melodies against the pulsing of the Sumner’s bass synth. Further enhanced by Hannett’s subtle production, Heart And Soul remains utterly sublime.

4: Transmission

In Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division, Peter Hook reveals that when the band finished performing Transmission at a soundcheck at a Manchester gig in May 1978, they discovered everyone in the club had forgotten what they were doing and were transfixed by the quality of Joy Division’s first truly great song. With its memorable “Dance, dance, dance to the radio!” chorus, this cathartic rocker, driven by an instantly memorable Hook bassline, had a similar effect on audiences throughout the band’s career. One of Joy Division’s best songs from this early period, it was an obvious choice for the group’s first standalone single, in October 1979. As the Something Else TV performance shows, Transmission could be considerably more manic live, but the official single version is still a widescreen triumph on its own terms.

3: The Eternal

Arguably Joy Division’s most sombre and haunting song, The Eternal’s lyric (“Procession moves on, the shouting is over/Praise to the glory of loved ones now gone”) reads like the aftermath of a funeral, but its subject matter was actually a mentally-impaired boy who lived close to Ian Curtis when he was growing up. As a child, the boy wasn’t able to travel beyond his family’s garden, meaning that the small patch of land remained the extent of his world as he grew to be a man. Sung with both resignation and tenderness by Curtis (“My view stretches out from the fence to the wall”), The Eternal is an incredibly moving entry among the best Joy Division songs, and the band’s admirably restrained performance further enhances its dreamy otherworldliness.

2: Atmosphere

If you check out Joy Division’s Manchester Piccadilly Radio session from June 1979, you’ll hear an early version of Atmosphere. It was initially called Chance, and Bernard Sumner played the keyboard part on an old Woolworth’s organ. By the time they officially came to record it, in October 1979, the song had been transformed. The band tightened the arrangement, Ian Curtis added new lyrics and – with the help of Hannett’s pristine production – they emerged with a towering ballad that was little short of transcendent. Remarkably, Joy Division then gifted Atmosphere to the limited edition Licht Und Blindheit EP, before Factory issued it as an official 12” single with an extended She’s Lost Control on the flip.

1: Love Will Tear Us Apart

Realising it was a potential classic, Martin Hannett drove Joy Division to the brink of distraction recording Love Will Tear Us Apart. The result of several fraught recording sessions and equally fractious nocturnal mixdowns, the producer agonised over the song in his quest for sonic perfection. Ultimately, though, there was method in his Phil Spector-esque madness. Topping out list of the best Joy Division songs, Love Will Tear Us Apart became a bona fide Top 20 hit. With shimmering keyboards, seductive basslines and Curtis’ Sinatra-esque vocals, its melancholic beauty remains immune to the ravages of time.

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