Joy Division: all of their songs, ranked!

47. Failures (1978)

Failures has a very Joy Division title, but the sound is sub-Raw Power-era Stooges. Meanwhile, the fact that Ian Curtis sounds about 13 years old underlines the slightly amateur air. With the best will in the world, you would have needed powers of clairvoyance to work out that its authors would turn out to be epochal.

46. Warsaw (1978)

Unavailable for a decade after Ian Curtis’s suicide, Joy Division’s debut EP An Ideal for Living developed a mythic aura that its contents don’t warrant. Warsaw sounds like the band they were – a primitive Mancunian response to punk – rather than the band they would become.

45. At a Later Date (1978)

Better remembered for Bernard Sumner’s ill-advised opening shout of “You all forgot Rudolph Hess” than the song itself, Joy Division’s contribution to the Short Circuit: Live at the Electric Circus compilation has a certain power – the band had taken the stage shortly after a fight with members of the Drones – but it’s not a great song: note Curtis’s raw, unformed vocals.

44. No Love Lost (1978)

Also from An Ideal for Living, No Love Lost took inspiration from a novella about brothels in Nazi concentration camps that also give Joy Division their name: it’s got a certain dark, schlocky power, but little spark.

43. Leaders Of Men (1978)

The solitary track on An Ideal for Living that points towards the future, Leaders of Men is not a great song – you can hear a faint echo of Bowie’s Queen Bitch in its bridge – but the echoing drums and jagged guitar presage the sound Joy Division would subsequently pursue.

42. Something Must Break (1979)

As with a number of outtakes posthumously released on the compilation Still, you can see why Joy Division abandoned Something Must Break. Recorded at the same session as Transmission, it is off-key and strangely tinny, features a reedy garage rock organ, and is notable mainly for Stephen Morris’s hyperactive drumming.

41. The Drawback (1978)

In May 1978, Joy Division recorded an album’s worth of material, ostensibly for RCA. Most of it was subsequently re-recorded, save for The Drawback, and you can see why: its stop-start punkiness feels lightweight and indebted to Buzzcocks.

Ian Curtis
Ian Curtis onstage at the Lyceum, 1980. Photograph: Chris Mills/Redferns

40. Glass (1978)

The weaker of the two songs Joy Division contributed to A Factory Sample, Glass feels transitional. The ghost of punk is still lurking, with a Rotten-ish keen to Curtis’s vocals, and Martin Hannett’s production adds a weird sense of space to the sound, but it’s one of their less memorable songs.

39. Walked in Line (1979)

Another Unknown Pleasures outtake that turned up on Still, Walked in Line has a very Transmission-esque guitar solo and heavily compressed Hannett production but still sounds unfinished, with something distinctly tentative about Curtis’s vocal. Perhaps they abandoned it on account of the lyrics: a depiction of goose-stepping soldiers ambiguous enough to cause trouble.

38. As You Said (1980)

Released on a flexidisc alongside Komakino, the influence of Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express hangs heavy over this electronic instrumental. Essentially improvised synthesizer over a rhythm track, it is interesting rather than essential.

37. Incubation (1980)

You can see how Incubation worked as a powerful set-opening instrumental onstage, its role during Joy Division gigs in 1980, but the studio version reveals it as basically a Transmission redux – similar bassline and guitar – albeit with stompier, glam-inspired drums.

36. Ice Age (1979)

Proof that Joy Division never entirely left their roots behind: at the same session that produced the peerless Atmosphere, they recorded Ice Age, which would have sounded like a straightforward punky thrash were it not for the bizarre drum track, which lends an unsettling off-kilter feel.

35. The Kill (1979)

A good-quality leftover from their debut album that eventually turned up on Still, The Kill suggests the version of Unknown Pleasures that Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner initially said they would have rather released: more visceral and punky than producer Hannett’s futuristic vision.

34. The Sound of Music (1980)

As harrowing and oppressive as anything off Closer, The Sound of Music was debuted on a 1979 John Peel session then recorded again during the sessions for the Love Will Tear Us Apart single. It is tough going – the lyrics are utterly hopeless; the voice singing them sounds authentically desperate – but as a portrait of a mind at the end of its tether, it is horribly compelling.

33. Novelty (1979)

In one of the weirder twists in their career, Joy Division once attempted to record a cover of NF Porter’s northern soul stomper Keep On Keepin’ On. They eventually reworked it into Interzone, but there is a distinct northern backbeat to Novelty, too. Tucked away on the B-side of Transmission, it also boasted one of the band’s sweetest melodies.

32. Interzone (1979)

On which Joy Division improbably transform the aforementioned soul stomper Keep On Keepin’ On into a ragged homage to William Burroughs, sung by Peter Hook, with Curtis providing impenetrable backing vocals.

31. These Days (1980)

The flipside of Love Will Tear Us Apart in every sense, These Days reflects on a collapsing relationship not with sorrow, but cynicism and anger (“Took threats and abuse until I learnt the part”). It tempers its poppy lushness with starker, harder music, although the burbling synth that runs throughout seems to prefigure New Order’s later direction.

Ian Curtis Peter Hook
Ian Curtis and Peter Hook, captured at the Electric Ballroom, London, 1979. Photograph: Chris Mills/Redferns

30. From Safety to Where …? (1979)

Remarkably sparse – its bass and drums intermittently streaked with densely effected guitar – From Safety to Where …? has a lyric that could be about smalltown claustrophobia, or Joy Division’s decision to step beyond the increasingly codified confines of punk: “Just passing through until we reach the next stage / Should we move on or stay safely away?”

29. Exercise One (1979)

You get the feeling Exercise One might have been intended as an atmospheric opening track for Unknown Pleasures before being usurped by the more direct Disorder. Either way, it still sounds amazing: a brooding storm of guitar noise and thumping drums with Curtis’s voice distant and swathed in cavernous echo.

28. The Only Mistake (1979)

Arguably the best of the previously unreleased songs on Still, it seems faintly surprising that Joy Division chose to leave The Only Mistake off Unknown Pleasures. It would have fitted perfectly: the sound of Curtis’s vocal fighting for space with its sheets of guitar noise – and occasionally losing – is potent, and fits with the lyrical depiction of suffocating relationship woe.

27. I Remember Nothing (1979)

You can hear the influence of Pere Ubu’s Sentimental Journey – with its smashed crockery sound effects – on the final track of Unknown Pleasures. It is a bold choice of closer: no melody, the song barely there at all, and everything resting on Curtis’s pained vocal delivery and the obliquely disturbing imagery.

26. Komakino (1980)

Blessed with an oddly funky riff, Komakino feels distinctly like a relative of Closer’s opening track Atrocity Exhibition, in both its title – which translates as “coma cinema” – and the intense, thundering rhythm of Morris’s drums. The lyrics, meanwhile, cover similar emotional territory to that found on Closer: “How can I find the right way to control all the conflicts inside, all the problems beside?”

25. In a Lonely Place (1980)

Finally released in 2011, Joy Division’s rough rehearsal version of a song subsequently recorded by New Order is, as Peter Hook noted, “too much”. The muffled sound heightens the mood of oppressive darkness until it is intolerable, and the final verse – which literally depicts a hanging – suggests that however tempting it is to envisage a different, happier outcome to Joy Division’s story, it was never on the cards.

24. Wilderness (1979)

It is the mark of what a great album Unknown Pleasures is that even its lesser tracks sound spectacular, Wilderness among them. It takes a simple garage rock riff into an entirely unexpected space – enveloped by cavernous echo – and ends by ratcheting up the emotional temperature, repeating the line “they had tears in their eyes” with a mounting sense of alarm.

23. Colony (1980)

Inspired by Franz Kafka’s short story In the Penal Colony – about a machine that tortures and executes condemned men, but grants them a religious epiphany in the process – Colony’s music takes a Stooges-esque riff and disrupts it with an unsettlingly jerky stop-start rhythm.

22. Passover (1980)

Sonically Closer’s starkest track, Passover stares unflinchingly at the chaos of Curtis’s personal life – his marriage, “brutally taking its time” to collapse completely, his relationship with girlfriend Annik Honoré – and the impact on his mental health: “Doubting, unsettling and turning around … disturbing and purging my mind.”

21. Day of the Lords (1979)

Evidence that the huge artistic leap that occurred between Joy Division’s contributions to A Factory Sample and Unknown Pleasures was not solely down to producer Hannett’s idiosyncratic vision: they simply hadn’t recorded material as majestic and controlled as Day of the Lords before.

20. Atrocity Exhibition (1980)

Some albums’ opening tracks lure you gently in: Closer’s smacks the listener in the face. Six minutes of twisted guitar noise, hypnotic bass and thundering drums, Atrocity Exhibition’s melody, such as it is, is entirely carried by the vocals, forcing your attention on the frankly horrifying lyrics: bedlam, genocide, the violence of the Colosseum.

19. Autosuggestion (1979)

“Joy Division sounded like ghosts,” offered Manchester writer Bob Dickinson in Jon Savage’s oral history This Searing Light, the Sun and Everything Else. Never more so than on Unknown Pleasures outtake Autosuggestion, six minutes of backwards guitar, echoing drums and a vocal reliant on long, mournful notes that slowly reaches a frenetic climax, topped by Curtis’s repeated invocation: “Lose some sleep and say you tried.”

18 A Means to an End (1980)

A perfect example of post-punk’s subversion of disco’s relentless four-to-the-floor beat – Joy Division’s manager Rob Gretton was apparently a great collector of US dance singles – A Means to an End’s lyrics seem to conflate Curtis’s personal situation with warfare, a subject he returned to again and again, as topic and metaphor.

17. Insight (1979)

The syndrum – the perky “bing-boo” noise voguish on disco records circa 1979 – was an unlikely addition to Joy Division’s sonic arsenal, but it works to striking effect on Insight. Bizarrely, it sounds as desolate during the verses as Curtis’s melancholy croon of “I remember when we were young”; elsewhere, it was manipulated until it sounded, in Morris’s memorable phrase, “like a flock of marauding pigeons”.

16. Digital (1978)

A mammoth leap forward from the Ideal for Living EP, Digital is the sound of Joy Division carving out their own unique space in the post-punk landscape: clipped and hypnotic, driven by Hook’s bass – the guitar colouring rather than driving the song – it keeps building to a series of stark, intense climaxes, during which the emotional mood shifts from claustrophobic to distressed

15. Twenty Four Hours (1980)

A last burst of nervous energy before the dark, enveloping calm of Closer’s final two tracks, Twenty Four Hours features Curtis’s voice floating over a ferocious double-time rhythm that keeps collapsing, as if it can’t carry the weight of the emotional desolation in the lyrics: “Look beyond the day in hand, there’s nothing there at all.”

14. Heart and Soul (1980)

A bold masterpiece of understatement, Heart and Soul’s cloudy sound – mists of electronics, a vocal swathed in echo, a listlessly strummed guitar – refuses to build to any kind of climax: it just drifts along, atmospheric and ghostly. If you want to make a claim for Joy Division’s influence on goth, this is the place to start.

13. Candidate (1979)

Joy Division were famously put through the wringer by producer Hannett during the making of Unknown Pleasures, but the results were startling, as evidenced by the becalmed but unsettling atmosphere he created on Candidate – the guitar chaotic and feedback-heavy, but low in the mix – that only serves to heighten the lyrical anxiety.

12. Ceremony (1980)

Slower and darker in tone than New Order’s re-recording, Joy Division’s version of Ceremony is still lighter and poppier than anything on Closer, although such things are obviously relative. Nevertheless, you can hear the makings of an epic single that might have followed Love Will Tear Us Apart in breaking the band to a wider audience.

11. Disorder (1979)

There is an oft-repeated line that Joy Division sounded like the decaying environment of late 70s Manchester. You can hear it on the superb opening track of Unknown Pleasures, its taut rhythm and streaks of electronic noise conjuring, as writer Savage put it, “endless sodium lights and hidden semis seen from a speeding car, vacant industrial sites”.

10. Isolation (1980)

On Unknown Pleasures, synthesizers ornamented Joy Division’s sound: on Closer, they started to become their sound. The chaotic live versions of Isolation and Decades included on Still showed the drawbacks to this approach, but the studio take is fantastic: a brutal machine-like beat, an icy hook, Curtis’s voice drenched in queasy effects.

9. New Dawn Fades (1979)

New Dawn Fades is among the greatest songs on Unknown Pleasures. Its thrilling surges of power – guitar slashing, Curtis’s voice becoming harder and more impassioned – carry a disturbing lyric: “A loaded gun won’t set you free,” he sings. “So you say.” Covered by Moby, it improbably turned up on the soundtrack to the 1995 Robert de Niro film Heat.

8. Decades (1980)

Decades appears to conclude Closer on a note of calm: it glides along, richly melodic, thick with synthesizer. The lyrics, however, offer a distressing depiction of soldiers suffering from what would now be called PTSD: “We knocked on the doors of hell’s darker chamber / Pushed to the limit we dragged ourselves in.”

7. Shadowplay (1979)

Shadowplay was the song Joy Division chose to play on their first TV appearance in 1978. You can see why. Its murky atmosphere, its vision of a car journey not as a means of escape, but an alienating experience, underscored presenter Tony Wilson’s assessment: “Joy Division is the most interesting new sound we’ve come across.”

6. The Eternal (1980)

Robert Smith’s favourite Joy Division song (its cloudy, synth and piano-led sound was clearly an influence on the Cure’s album Faith), The Eternal was inspired by a child with Down’s syndrome who lived near Curtis in Macclesfield. Both beautiful and deeply moving, it depicts his struggle to communicate with remarkable empathy.

5. She’s Lost Control (1979)

Opinion is divided as to whether the definitive version of She’s Lost Control lurks on Unknown Pleasures or the subsequent 12-inch single: either way, its shattering lyrical depiction of a woman in the throes of an epileptic seizure, its electronic rhythm and its unremitting bassline, are a spectacular achievement, the work of a rock band who sounded like no one else.

4. Dead Souls (1979)

“A duel of personalities that stretch all true realities, it seemed like he was two people,” noted Bono after meeting Curtis, an incisive depiction of his fractured character. Dead Souls is almost unbearably intense, its Stooges-y riff churning away behind an increasingly desperate-sounding vocal. Essential, difficult listening.

3. Transmission (1979)

Transmission has almost nothing to it – two chords, a three-note bassline, an icy synth drone – but the sheer power it builds up over the course of four minutes is extraordinary: a mounting wave of tension that is finally broken with Curtis’s anguished yell of “and we can dance!”

2. Love Will Tear Us Apart (1980)

The writer Paul Morley recalled his reaction to hearing Love Will Tear Us Apart live as one of shock: “Oh my God, this is a fucking great pop song.” But its unique power comes from the fact that it was pop warped to Joy Division’s specifications rather than vice-versa. Its catchiness concealed a strikingly blunt, agonising, inconsolable depiction of a crumbling marriage.

1. Atmosphere (1980)

It seems bizarre that Joy Division initially gave their greatest song away to what Curtis called “a French limited-edition magazine-cum-record thing”: Sordide Sentimental, that released only 1,578 copies of it. But then, incredible songs were coming in profusion to Joy Division at the time: Atmosphere marked the start of a remarkable burst of creativity that no one – except possibly their lead singer – realised would be their last. It is stately, emotive and epic. Moreover, there is an airiness to its beauty and a faint hint of optimism in its lyrics, both noticeably absent from their other later songs: a last, gorgeous flicker of light, before the darkness irrevocably descended.