Ranking all songs from Joy Division's 'Unknown Pleasures'

It’s the album that spawned a thousand graphic tee-shirts, sure, but Joy Division’s 'Unknown Pleasures' clearly belongs in the pantheon of greatest albums of all time.
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Still sounding as fresh and inventive as it did when it was released in 1979, Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division is a startling record that delivers classic song after classic song throughout its 39:28 runtime.

To honor the album’s 45th anniversary, let’s explore each song on the album, ranked from “worst” to best – “worst” being a highly subjective term here, as this album’s nadir is still far better than many songs released in pop music’s history.

Delivering dark, cryptic lyrics set to gloomy, ominous musical accompaniment, Joy Division encapsulated the feeling of hopelessness found within the urban centers of northern England in the late 1970s. Influenced heavily by punk’s ethos (as some songs on this album illustrate), Joy Division sharpened punk’s violent methodology into a sharply observed artistic weapon – thanks in large part to frontman Ian Curtis’s cerebral lyrics.

Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures has it all

10. "Wilderness"

Even classic albums have to have a “worst song,” and in this case it’s this side two number. Note that this atmospheric track is still far better than what many bands can produce across an entire career, and it is still an intriguing track.

Still though, it doesn’t quite reach the heights of the rest of the tracks and lacks some of the melodic verve found elsewhere on the album.

9. "I Remember Nothing"

The sparse, spacey intro of this song features the sound of glass breaking, which sounds pretentious, but actually works quite well on the closing track of Unknown Pleasures. A bit plodding at times, the darkly mesmerizing bass part and scratchy guitar stabs – as well as Curtis’s more or less uniformly great lyrics and vocals – elevate this from being the album’s nadir.

8. "Interzone"

Joy Division started out as a punk band, and that lineage comes through loud and clear on this raucous rocker. What could come across as sneering sloganeering is actually quite effective in the hands of the band and, in particular, Curtis’s lead vocal.

The album features very few overdubs and double-tracking of instruments, which makes the two disparate vocal parts from Curtis on this song even more striking. A personal favorite of mine, but definitely a bit slighter than the rest of the album.

7. "Day of the Lords"

A doomy, gloomy, minor-key masterpiece with an absolutely killer guitar part from guitarist Bernard Sumner.  A languid sluggishness fits this song perfectly and the way it seemingly collapses in on itself by the end is perfectly fitting. Curtis’s yelled vocals at the end are spine-tingling.

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6. "Shadowplay"

Another cracking guitar part from Sumner, which the band wisely chose to place by itself after each verse save for a throbbing bassline from stalwart bassist Peter Hook and a simple, steady backbeat from drummer Stephen Morris. The band was clearly fond of this song, as this was the track they played on their first television appearance on Factory Records founder Tony Wilson’s So It Goes television program.

5. "Insight"

“I remember when we were young,” sings Curtis on the fourth track of Unknown Pleasures, which showcases the gifted frontman’s fractured point of view, as he was only 22 when this song was recorded. Featuring ample use of early electronic drum noises to the point that it sounds like caterwauling mice getting squashed underfoot, this is yet another strong track from side one of the group’s first album.

4. "She’s Lost Control"

Another showcase for the burgeoning e-drum technology, this one plays an important role in the mythos of Ian Curtis (as portrayed in 2007's biopic Control), as its lyrics depict a woman with epilepsy (which Curtis himself had and played a pivotal role in his life and lyrics) that went to an occupational rehabilitation center in Macclesfield, where Curtis worked for a time.

Suddenly, he didn’t see her around anymore and he thought she must have found steady employment. It was then revealed that she had died. This surely had a major impact on Curtis himself, and he and the band are able to convey the terror and pain associated with her story (and with epilepsy itself at that time) thanks to inventive usage of electronic drums and, of course, Hannett’s staggering production work, which serves as the artistic throughline of the entire album.

3. "Candidate"

This side one track features bare-bones instrumentation and ample amounts of empty space, thanks to Martin Hannett’s production, all underscored by an extremely strong melody as well as the band’s trademark “lead bass guitar part.” Unsettling lyrics, alien synthesizer whooshes, and metallic guitar strings scraping in place of chords or a lead guitar line make this sparse, haunting number an early classic in the group’s canon.

2. "Disorder"

Truly great albums should have an opening track that both sets the stage for what’s to follow as well as stands on its own as a terrific song. The opener for Unknown Pleasures certainly meets those criteria.

An up-tempo, nervy rocker, this track (perhaps the catchiest number on the entire album) delivers all the trademark elements one would expect from Joy Division: stentorian vocals and inscrutable lyrics from Ian Curtis, a melodic, high-fretted bass part from the iconoclastic Peter Hook, spiky guitar work from Bernard Sumner and strong, steady and often inventive drumming from Stephen Morris. All of that is tied together through maverick producer Martin Hannett’s distinctive production work.

1. "New Dawn Fades"

At the end of the day, Unknown Pleasures is an album by a rock band, even if they were labeled as “post-punk” at the time (a tag that still gets placed upon them). Track five, “New Dawn Fades”, is a rock song before it is anything else.

One of Bernard Sumner’s finest guitar moments in Joy Division’s fleeting history, the intro guitar riff is strikingly hypnotic and brings listeners in further as it gives way to thin, spidery, and heavily reverbed guitar arpeggios in the verses as Curtis delivers one of his most powerful vocal performances up to this point in the group’s oeuvre.

At the 3:08 mark, when Curtis sings “it was me, waiting for me; hoping for something more” and Sumner’s iconic intro riff returns alongside some thrashing drum work from Morris, you’ll be hard-pressed not to get goosebumps. The high-water mark of one of the greatest albums of all time and one reason that it still sounds fresh, frightening, and important 45 years later.

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