He continues to tour and make music, although he does both at a pace that’s agonizingly slow for fans — his last album of all-new original songs came out in 2002 — and yet he remains a presence. He’s part of our musical landscape no matter how infrequently he shows up, and his soulful rasp of a voice remains one of the most distinctive in pop music.
That’s what a legacy will do for you and Gabriel has that in spades. With Genesis, he became a boldly theatrical performer, fond of wearing homemade costumes that almost defied description and an inventive songwriter who contributed greatly to the development of progressive rock as an art form.
His solo career has been built on a tension between the ideas of art and commercial success. He has certainly lived up to both ideals, frequently combining the two in remarkable ways, and that alone has defined him as a singular artist. He’s also pushed the boundaries of music technology, becoming the first to use the Firelight CMI digital synthesizer to build tracks via samples.
Gabriel made six albums with Genesis and has released nine solo studio albums, four film soundtracks, and six live albums. All of his studio records have their charms, often considerable, but some are next level.
Let’s start with the obvious.
So, released in 1986, is an undeniable masterpiece. Few records released in the last 40 years have achieved such a perfect blend of mainstream appeal and art-rock cred, and it reached No. 1 or 2 on nearly every major chart in the world, turning Gabriel into the unlikeliest of pop stars.
So was the perfect next step for Gabriel, building on the modest success of his first four solo albums — all of which were named Peter Gabriel and all of which contained incredible songs. But So was a defining moment, a collection of songs so potent that it almost scans as a greatest-hits album.
The record starts with “Red Rain,” a perfect song in every conceivable way and among history’s greatest opening tracks. It’s followed by “Sledgehammer” — which still holds the record for winning the most MTV Music Video Awards (9) — and “Don’t Give Up,” featuring Kate Bush (fun fact: Gabriel’s first choice to sing Bush’s part was Dolly Parton).
That’s a formidable three-punch combination but the album just doesn’t stop. It goes on to include “In Your Eyes,” a pop culture milestone thanks to John Cusack and his boombox in Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything, another massive hit in “Big Time” and the haunting “Mercy Street,” later deemed by NME to be one of the 10 most depressing songs ever written.
But let’s back up a bit. While So remains Gabriel’s best-known and best-selling album, he is by no means defined solely by it. Some Gabriel fans prefer only his work with Genesis, for example, and all of his records have moments of objective bliss.
Here are a handful of highlights.
In 1974, Genesis released The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, a concept album spearheaded by Gabriel.
Despite its incomprehensible storyline, it was the best record released by the original version of the band and side two is absolutely flawless. It may be among the top five most flawless sides of a record ever recorded — your biases aside — and its peak is “Carpet Crawlers,” a song essential to every music collection, regardless of genre affiliation.
“Here Comes the Flood” has been revisited a couple of times by Gabriel, who was unhappy with the original version.
It’s a monumental and wholly prescient performance, mashing audio from a scientist warning about global warming — in 1979! — with Fripp’s groundbreaking Frippertronics loops and a spare, elegant effort from Gabriel that perfectly captures the song’s twin peaks of hope and hopelessness.
Biko, released in 1980 on his third solo album, is the rare political song that isn’t self-serving, condescending or pedantic.
Biko plainly lays out the tragic story of murdered South African activist Steve Biko and serves as an introduction to Gabriel the activist. It’s also an excellent example of how seamlessly he uses elements of music from other cultures, especially percussion, a neat trick he has been exploring his entire career.
“The Tower That Ate People,” from 2000’s odd concept album, OVO, is another example of Gabriel’s love of incorporating funk, pop, African music, and noise.
It’s as weird as anything he’s ever done, and that’s a pretty high bar.
Point being, Gabriel has never rested on his laurels; he has always strived for something better, or at least different. And while his recent output has either found him interpreting the music of others or reimagining his own work, he has repeatedly said that an album of all-new songs is planned for this year. At age 70, he’s still building on his legacy.