In the week that Polly Harvey turns 50, what better time to look back over 50 gems from her back catalogue – and sort them in order of greatness
50. Who the Fuck? (2004)
A rare moment of levity in the Harvey oeuvre: all the mad-eyed, vengeful, shrieking fury of Rid of Me brought to bear upon a hairdresser who has made the mistake of messing up the singer’s cut and blow dry: “Get your comb out of there! You can’t straighten my curls! Fuck you! Fuck you!”
49. Harder (1995)
Harvey’s B-sides can provide rich pickings: if you can understand why Harder didn’t make the cut for To Bring You My Love – there’s no getting around the fact that it’s essentially a song about an erect penis – the sheer lascivious relish and the twisting guitar riff are irresistible.
48. Water (1992)
You could hear the influence of US alt-rock on Dry, but its contents seemed to have a different kind of intensity to anything else around at the time, as shown by Water’s mysterious depiction of a suicide that could be driven by love or by religious mania: gripping, punishing listening.
47. Guilty (2016)
Recorded for The Hope Six Demolition Project, but left off the album and subsequently released as a single, Guilty is far darker than the album that preceeded it: no mean feat, but with its barrage of percussion, discordant brass and synths and a lyric about drone strikes, it pulls it off with grim aplomb.
46. The Crowded Cell (2019)
Harvey has recently shifted into scoring films and plays. As the closing theme from Shane Meadows’s TV drama The Virtues demonstrates, that hasn’t occasioned any letup in the intensity of her work: bleak, repetitive and powerful, The Crowded Cell unflinchingly details a litany of physical and mental abuse.
45. Is That All There Is? (1996)
Harvey seldom records cover versions. Her fierce, Rid of Me-era take on Willie Dixon’s Wang Dang Doodle is pretty spectacular, but the best of them may be this agonisingly slow, utterly disconsolate version of the Peggy Lee standard: breaking out the booze and having a ball never sounded such a miserable prospect.
44. Taut (1996)
Harvey’s first collaboration with John Parish, Dance Hall at Louse Point, at its most strange and unpredictable: a gabbled, whispered vocal over a chaotic backing that occasionally resolves into something like an alt-rock chorus. Out-there, but bizarrely captivating.
43. Easy (1993)
A song that only appeared on the 4-Track Demos collection, Easy is as taut and livid as anything on Rid of Me: lyrics dealing with a topic that would later be called slut-shaming, scourging guitars, a rhythm track provided by Harvey barking.
42. This Mess We’re In (2000)
This Mess We’re In is a fabulous song – beautifully muted, the music evokes dusk settling on a city – but even if it wasn’t, it would make it on to this list by dint of requiring guest vocalist Thom Yorke to sing the line “Night and day I dream of makin’ love to you now, baby”.
41 Send His Love to Me (1995)
Never big on lyrical explication, Harvey has always complained that people tend to project her personal life on to songs that she approaches like a short story writer, something evident from Send His Love to Me’s saga of an abandoned wife going slowly nuts in her remote desert home.
40. The Wind (1998)
Is This Desire? at its most haunting. The music is muted, faintly trip-hoppy – syncopated funk drums, a relentless guitar loop, cinematic strings – but flecked with shards of disjointed noise. The vocal is part-whispered, the lyrics contemplate the torture and martyrdom of St Catherine: lowkey, but The Wind really gets under the listener’s skin. [ . . . ]
Continue 39 – 1 at THE GUARDIAN: PJ Harvey’s 50 greatest songs – ranked!