Digging through all of Brian Eno’s recorded history untangles a very specific segment of rock’s cerebral, messy, sometimes kooky history. He has famously called himself a “non-musician” because he considers music not in terms of melody and hooks, but in terms of competing ideas, textures and temperaments. After branching off from Roxy Music, his work in the mid-1970s took the day’s prominent rock music and developed new techniques of constructing entire atmospheres within and around it. But by the early-’80s, and not long into his solo career, Eno saw rock music losing its fearless spirit, declaring, “Rock isn’t dangerous any more.” He stopped touring and stepped behind the curtain to orchestrate albums (and sometimes careers) of bands like U2, Talking Heads and more.
In recognition of Eno’s remasters of his four rock albums (Here Come the Warm Jets, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), Another Green World and Before and After Science) that were reissued last week, we decided to dig deep into Eno’s versatility and legacy, especially through the lens of pop music. He’s been a band member, a solo artist and listed as the primary writer for other artists. Including all those roles, but focusing on the more structured, pop-leaning works he’s played a part in creating, here are the 15 best pop/rock moments featuring the brilliance of Brian Eno.
Album: James, Wah Wah
Helming five of the band’s albums, James was one of last groups Eno would champion through multiple releases. Although their runaway single “Laid” misrepresented the band Stateside, the band was known as overbearing studio perfectionists, a side Eno helped break them of when he challenged them to write an entire album based only around improvisations. “Tomorrow,” the most direct product of those sessions, is a scaled-down arena anthem that connects the thread between two of Eno’s co-produced pet bands, U2 and Coldplay.
14. “Burning Airlines Give You So Much More”
Album: Brian Eno, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)
Tiger Mountain was an anomaly in a small, already-unconventional catalogue. Eno crafted its plodding, androgynous sound by design, as an anti-rock, anti-political record meant to make fun of political rock records. “Burning Airlines” capitalizes on a sour riff, cog-like drums and caustically ironic lyrics about spying to make its point about the futility in trying to make a profound political statement through song.
13. “Muddy River”
Album: Laurie Anderson, Bright Red
1994’s Bright Red found Laurie Anderson, who was one of Eno’s long-term affiliates in the New York performance-art community, stepping further into a bizarre high-brow/low-brow combination. Skewering her beat-poet delivery with a buzzy, meditative take on pop, Anderson’s dignified, fluttering alto is accompanied here only by a hushed male harmony and Eno’s driving, skeletal drum set, a fact that almost passes by without notice given “Muddy River”’s melodic power.
Album: Slowdive, Souvlaki
Though Eno turned down the shoegaze band’s offer to produce what would become the genre’s seminal album, he eventually acquiesced to a few studio days with songwriter Neil Halstead. This visitation would propel the band into denser layering, stirring up in the band a dormant interest in the ambient IDM scene that was rising in their native England. Halstead and guitarist Rachel Goswell sound like they’re calling upward to space, their murmurs flickering inside a thick ether of spacious synthesizers.
11. “I’ll Come Running”
Album: Brian Eno, Another Green World
During the recording of Another Green World, Eno began developing the Oblique Strategies, a set of flashcards with prompts to stimulate creativity, which he used extensively throughout his ‘70s work as a solo artist and with David Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy. The galloping rhythm, splashy honky-tonk style piano and pathetically devotional lyrics of “I’ll Come Running” are sweet and humorously dutiful in their commitment to, as one card dictates, “embracing repetitions.”
10. “Digital Lion”
Album: James Blake, Overgrown
It’s hard to imagine creating such a hauntingly refined song by nonchalantly “hanging out,” as James Blake claims, but the pair’s natural musical chemistry cannot be discounted. “Digital Lion” maintains the air of surprise Blake’s early dubstep work had thrived in, working in suspenseful pauses and crescendoing layers of chilly keyboards. Eno’s swirling production balances out the dueling sides of Blake’s music: the hypnotic, Sam Cooke-inspired soul that brings the listener in, and the stabbing IDM rhythms that makes them feel unwelcome.
9. “King’s Lead Hat”
Album: Brian Eno, Before and After Science
By the time Before and After Science was released in 1977, Eno already seemed to be retreating from the frontman role and moving towards collaborator designation, as the album is covered with other musicians’ fingerprints. Eno’s charged vocals on this track are reminiscent of mind Devo (who he would go on to produce a few months later), but the song’s title is actually an anagram for another partner band, “Talking Heads.” Still, the energetic clash of robotic tones and crushed out-of-tune piano stabs makes for an artsy beer-hall take on punk.
8. “In Conflict”
Album: Owen Pallett, In Conflict
In a rare move so late in his career, Eno seated himself as a core member of the Polaris-winning composer’s band on In Conflict, adding serenity into the balance of a gorgeous, robustly distressed records. The pulsing whale-call of a synth that introduces the song wash Pallett’s cantor-like voice in a pale spotlight, enabling lyrics like “What are you but a drum and a tube and a wire, black heart?” to land with the proper force. Under Pallett’s auspices, Eno illustrates his knack as a team player throughout a record which claims its power through subtlety.
7. “I Zimbra”
Album: Talking Heads, Fear of Music
Talking Heads keyboardist/guitarist Jerry Harrison considered “I Zimbra” to be a hinging point for Talking Heads. The song is a collision of the band’s artsy beginnings (the lyrics are pulled from a Hugo Ball poem) and their nascent interest in sub-Saharan polyrhythms, which Eno and Byrne would privately take to an experimental peak on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Boasting a wiggling lead, chanting choruses and even a breakbeat towards the end, “I Zimbra” is a sign of things yet to be perfected on Remain in Light.
6. “Strange Overtones”
Album: David Byrne & Brian Eno, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today
Often overlooked, the suburban gospel on Everything That Happens is one of Brian Eno and David Byrne’s most accessible works. “Strange Overtones” is, in a literal reading, about breaking a bout of songwriter’s block, but the unassuming details Eno and Byrne relish in also seem to show them learning how best to support a partner. Byrne’s whimpering, family-man falsetto mingling with the panoramic drums and addictive dance guitars create a late-career confection that found the warmth and vulnerability missing in Eno’s work of this era.
5. “St. Elmo’s Fire”
Album: Brian Eno, Another Green World
As Eric Tamm noted in his book, Brian Eno: His Music And The Vertical Color Of Sound, Eno told a journalist in 1980 that “Any music worth anything is born in clumsiness and chaos.” Having entered the studios without any pre-written material, the sessions for Another Green World were just that. “St. Elmo’s Fire,” a heartrending vignette of wandering lovers, glows underneath Robert Fripp’s untouchably dynamic solo that consumes the latter half of the track, played to recreate the sensation of lightning tacking across the sky. Filled with the guts and stumbles that give Eno’s solo work personality, it is the album’s most extrasensory experience.
Album: David Bowie, Low
Low is considered David Bowie’s Another Green World, as the album is what prompted Bowie to recruit Eno and inspired them to switch between electronic instrumentals and to-the-point rock songs. Eno independently composed the bulk of the elaborate “Warszawa” suite, but it’s Bowie’s impressionistic vocals that activate the melody in Eno’s droning composition. The product is a menacing mixture of baroque, electronics and pop balladry.
3. “Needles in the Camel’s Eye”
Album: Brian Eno, Here Come the Warm Jets
Prior to the release of Warm Jets, Eno predicted he wouldn’t understand that his channeling of early rock was from its roots as “a product of incompetence” by people who “knew what the physical function of music was, but they weren’t virtuosi.” Case in point: “Needles in the Camel’s Eye,” the musical equivalent of kicking an old machine into function, a frayed rendition of rock. The berzerk, cloudy power-chords and imperfect, visceral harmonies reinforce the song’s theme of gleefully accepting the known unknowns.
2. “Crosseyed and Painless”
Album: Talking Heads, Remain in Light
For better or worse, Eno had transformed into Talking Heads’ resident George Martin by the time they decided to decamp in the Bahamas to write Remain in Light. The session was famously rife with power-struggles, and Eno would later say that though he wished he’d had “had carte blanche to write whatever he wanted” without “ursurping [his] compositional role.” Still, “Crosseyed and Painless” bears his marks, tonally minimal with sharp rhythms criss-crossing over each other, filling every subdivided beat with clanging percussion and the band’s tightly-grooving eccentricities.
Album: David Bowie, Heroes
“Heroes” is not only a summary judgment for two titanic artists at their peaks, but a feature of Eno’s fully enmeshed presence. Rather than hovering above it or selectively identifiable in certain parts, his strobing, grayscale synthesizer and guitar treatments serve as the platform for Bowie’s howling cries for humanity. “Heroes” (as well as the three Eno-powered tracks that end the album) is driving, atmospheric and one of the most brilliant straits of music in the Bowie and Eno catalogs.