It’s difficult to grab the intense fandom, immeasurable impact and widespread influenced Joy Division had and put it into a list of their 20 best songs – but, that’s exactly what we’ve done as we bring you the greatest moments of a band who sadly left us too soon.
Tragically cut short by the saddening suicide of lead singer Ian Curtis at the tender age of 23, Joy Division remain one of the most widely-adored bands of all time not because they were flashy or they got attention with their attitude but because, musically, they connected with their audience unlike anyone else had done before or, perhaps, even since.
There’s no doubt that Joy Division exists outside of Curtis’ iconography, but the lead singer did provide a refuge for those who felt alienated by the world around them. Using his lyrics to paint visceral images of the society that he deemed to be failing, Curtis created a haven for swathes of a generation who didn’t want to be swallowed up by mundane modernity. Musically, the band were world’s apart from anything else too.
Whether it was Peter Hook’s bone-shaking basslines, Bernard Sumner’s unique guitar playing or Stephen Morris’ metronomic rhythm, or indeed, Martin Hannett’s idiosyncratic production, the group found favour with a sub-section of society that had grown tired of punk’s flashy behaviour and wreckless messaging. Now they desired something a little more designed. The intensity of that movement died out only a few months after it was born, and now the world needed something new. Enter Joy Divison.
As Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins once said of the band: “When they finally write the real book on rock and roll, when all the dust settles, and the truth is finally told and they get it right. One of the bands at the top of the mountain along with the David Bowies and The Rolling Stones will be Joy Division because they are easily as great as any band that has ever existed.”
Providing a (comparative) handful of songs in their back catalogue, it isn’t easy turning them into a list of the 20 best tracks of their canon. That’s because, like no other band, they offered a respite from the world, and, because of that, each song likely holds importance for one person or another in a completely different way to the next person. Nevertheless, we’ve picked out our favourites.
The 20 greatest Joy Division songs:
There isn’t a lot on the mythical An Ideal For Living that is actually worth breaking down walls to find. The band’s first EP achieved its legendary status by remaining unheard for ten years after Curtis’ death. However, there is one cracking song on the EP, and that is the brilliant ‘Warsaw’.
The original name for the band, the song is steeped in the same mire of Manchester punk that so many other acts found themselves battling against. The group would evolve and refine their sound in years to come, but ‘Warsaw’ provides a fitting reminder of their salad days.
19. ‘Atrocity Exhibition’
Joy Divison can give you chills. As well as their albums being masterpieces of performance, they were equally gifted pieces of production. That’s where ‘Atrocity Exhibition’ perhaps excels best of all. The stark spaces left behind by Martin Hannett provide nooks and crannies for us to get lost in.
Inspired by JG Ballard’s novel of the same name – a writer who Ian Curtis adored – the song relies on the constant run of heinous human behaviour as its backbone. It’s easily one of Curtis’ rawest examples of his life in lyrics as he noted the push and pull of living two lives.
Ian Curtis’ short time on this planet was divided between two real loves: music and literature. The Joy Division singer, who sadly took his own life in 1980, was an avid reader and made it a point to include literary references throughout his work. It means, searching through their canon, you will find references to J.G. Ballard, ‘Nikolai Gogol and this the great Franz Kafka.
The latter is represented in this track from the band’s final album Closer. Titled ‘Colony’ the song is a direct reference to Kafka’s 1914 short story by the name of In The Penal Colony. The song is naturally dark and filled with menace, something both Kafka and Curtis were able to pull from their souls at a moment’s notice.
17. ‘A Means to an End’
Despite what you may think, not all of the band’s songs and lyrics were entirely drenched in the morbid, and the first few verses of ‘Means to an End’ from the 1980 album Closer is some of their brightest work.
The track may feel like a brief moment of reprieve when considered within their larger canon, but underneath the message of hope was the sense of resignation that ultimately contributed to Curtis’ death. If you needed further proof that the lines above were delivered with a sense of dread, then listen out for the dry-heave wailing Curtis provides later on in the effort.
16. ‘Twenty Four Hours’
On the 1980’s effort Closer, Joy Division were showing the world that there was far more to their sound than the imposing gloom of their Mancunian heritage. They were keen to provide both the light and dark on the record and, just before the blackness sets in on the final two songs of the album, ‘Twenty Four Hours’ burst through with supreme energy.
“Look beyond the day in hand, there’s nothing there at all,” sings Curtis atop the double-time rhythm that keeps the train rolling at 100mph. Curtis’ vocals have always been unique but on this song, he transcends that style to achieve a new level of idiosyncrasy.
If there’s one producer that everyone is aware of, it has to be Martin Hannett. The acclaimed man behind the mixing desk for Unknown Pleasures was such a meticulous tyrant that he would have the band delivering snare sounds for hours on end. But you can’t argue with the results he delivered.
On ‘Candidate’, we get the finest reminder of those results. Removed from the big hitters of the record, ‘Candidate’ provides an encompassing atmosphere that few bands could achieve and even fewer producers could capture.
14. ‘Heart and Soul’
Joy Division had an extremely potent output. Their music was capable of grabbing you by the neck and submerging you in post-punk rhythms and decade-defining gloom. However, they were also capable of providing understated joys too.
Another hint toward the future of the rest of the band, Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris back Curtis’ echoey vocals with some electro-inspired sounds that drift with a senseless purpose. This is likely the song that would go on to influence countless acts under the banner of goth.
One song that does have a habit of submerging the listener in all its doom-laden glory is the album closer for Closer, ‘Decades’. Rich and thick as a pitch-black pint of double cream, musically, the song is some of Joy Division’s most comprehensive work, providing the perfect dessert to the LP. But, it is within Curtis’ lyrics that things get a little darker.
“We knocked on the doors of hell’s darker chamber / Pushed to the limit we dragged ourselves in,” sings Curtis, accurately depicting what would become known as soldier’s PTSD. The singer has never been one to turn away from human atrocity, and he delivers one of the most arresting moments in the band’s canon with this piece.
12. ‘The Eternal’
Inspired by a child who lived next door to Curtis in Macclesfield who had Down’s Syndrome, ‘The Eternal’ isn’t just one of the band’s most beautiful poignant songs, but it also happens to be Rober Smith of The Cure’s favourite. In fact, it would be pretty difficult not to see the similarities in The Cure’s output following the track.
Synth-driven and completely dripping in sentiment, Hook’s bassline provides grounding to the mournful moment of human connection. It captures the child in question’s difficulty accessing the world around him and the frustration it sparks. Beautiful and moving in every aspect.
Give Peter Hook the opportunity at a crunchy bassline as you hear on ‘Digital’, and he will always come up trumps. The song is brimming with rhythm, and the intent of a band determined never to sound the same twice. Pulsating and still packing the punch that the band’s punk roots had in spades, the song acts as a perfect transitional moment.
Having ditched the chaotic moments of An Ideal For Living, ‘Digital’ shows a band finding themselves on the big stage. Hypnotic in its delivery and refusing to ever back down, this was the sound of Joy Division that captured the hearts and minds of all who witnessed them perform.
Though written and recorded by Joy Division before Curtis’ death, the song was released by New Order in 1980 as the group’s debut single. However, it was reimagined and re-recorded for this purpose as the band swore not to use any Joy Division song.
It may also have something to do with the fact that the band needed some space for new singer Bernard Sumner to find his feet. Naturally, the material Curtis had written wasn’t the best example of doing so. But this song still reeks of everything that made Joy Division such a compelling act and what would ensure New Order had the same impact. Clearly sharing this one with a view on the charts, the song is still smattered by Curtis’ searing intelligence and is a far slower more menacing version of New Order’s repro.
One of Joy Division’s most beloved songs, ‘Isolation’, suddenly feels more relatable than it ever has done. But while we can all now understand the feeling of isolation on a physical level, Curtis was adept at sharing his alienation with the masses.
Perhaps more self-imposed than Curtis would have admitted, the isolation he experienced was put down on paper alongside his darkest fear and worries. While that is all par for the course, Curtis also highlights a yearning for the beautiful side of life to be recognised, especially as he sings: “But if you could just see the beauty, these things I could never describe.”
It’s a breathtaking piece from Closer that suddenly feels more relevant than ever.
8. ‘New Dawn Fades’
Arguably one of the most arresting numbers of Joy Division’s back catalogue is another showing of Peter Hook’s methodical control. It is a dark and scary riff that rumbles on as the buzzsaw guitar begins to enter the fray. It is one of Hook’s most unrelenting riffs too, as he menacingly provides the backdrop for Curtis’ lyrical musings.
Simple but brilliant, the song has long since separated the reem of posers from the band’s diehard fans. “A loaded gun won’t set you free,” sings Curtis, “So you say.” It’s one of the best songs from Unknown Pleasures as it perfectly captures the band’s potency and their ability to drop shocks of unbridled power among seemingly subdued songs.
It’s a masterpiece.
Given their first opportunity to perform on TV as part of So It Goes, the magazine show of Tony Wilson, the band’s soon-to-be manager and head of Factory Records, Joy Division turned to ‘Shadowplay’ as their introduction to the airwaves. While the country was still reeling from punk rock, trying to grasp onto the tail of the kite as it caught the wind and went into the cloudy abyss, Joy Division arrived with something entirely different.
Though there is a pulsating beat to the song, it relies heavily on that most archetypal of Joy Division facets — atmosphere. The track is brimming with moody intent, and it helped the country realise that, as Tony Wilson said on the show: “Joy Division is the most interesting new sound we’ve come across.”
One of the greatest song of the entire decade.
6. ‘Dead Souls’
Sometimes Joy Division brought a little bit of light as well as the dark. While ‘Dead Souls’ may not be the most cheery of song titles, the track does contain some of singer Ian Curtis’ more uplifting moments, such as the one above, if you can call it that. In truth, it catches Curtis in the middle of a tug of war.
Clearly, Curtis was struggling to align his personal and professional life on this track. While he suggests that one is purer than the other, ‘Dead Souls’ allows the multitude of different personalities to flourish as the imagery of lost souls all vying for attention rises to the fore.
Musically, it is another masterclass of delicately constructing soundscapes that envelop you at a moments notice.
‘Disorder’ is one song that will always capture the hearts and minds of fans. A song that is simply brimming with the potential of the group’s success also pays homage to its ultimate downfall. Largely seen as a song from Curtis about his epilepsy, most notably explored on ‘She’s Lost Control’, the actual root of the song perhaps hangs on the line “I’ve got the spirit, losing feeling,” which suggests Curtis was already detaching himself from the world.
“Who is right, who can tell and who gives a damn right now,” sings Curtis with fervent energy that suggests it could well be him. However, throughout the song, the artist is becoming more and more unhinged and disconnected from his life. Joy Divison were beginning to take off, and this could be a song referring to this affliction of fame rather than epilepsy.
However you look at it, the track remains a stalwart in indie education and should be played at high volume whenever possible.
‘Atmosphere’ is widely regarded as one of Joy Division’s best songs. Previously released as a French-only import, the song rarely reached British shores. What a shame that would have been. Sonically, the song is full of arresting glacial moments but lyrically is where it lands most succinctly of all.
The music’s delicacy is mirrored in Curtis’ words as he opens up his rich and ready vocal cords to add some heavy cream to the song’s recipe. A series of lines are sung with the confidence of a seasoned poet, and, by this time, of course, that’s exactly what Curtis was.
Acclaimed DJ John Peel selected the song as the tribute track after announcing Curtis’ death and the effort will remain a part of the band’s iconography forever.
Hearing Ian Curtis scream out “Dance, dance, dance, dance, dance, to the radio” is still a sincere pleasure. The way the singer yelps and squirms is all part of what made him such an attractive proposition as a frontman. Finally, we had a performer and a shy singer like us, who was afraid of unadulterated fame like us, and who could be sad and ashamed like us. The opening lines of ‘Transmission’ said that right away.
The song was a wake-up call to those who blindly followed mainstream media and a reminder to those that didn’t follow, that there was a new voice to be listened to. As modernity seemed to promote obedience and subservience, Curtis was trying to sound the alarm bells.
It’s a song that reminds us of not only the band’s ability to craft songs for the dancefloor but also that they could crash and thrash like any punk rock act could.
2. ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’
Not many songs have been as ruthlessly pawed over as Joy Division’s seminal number ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart‘. The song is such a signature, not just of the band but the entire decade, that to champion it once more within our list feels a little frivolous. However, to ignore its beauty and power, over four decades since its release, is to ignore a huge part of why the band were so loved in the first place.
For many, the song reflects Curtis beginning to come to terms with the end of his marriage. Effortlessly depicting the difficulties within such a scenario, Curtis does the most poetic of things and allows his audience to feel both affected by the song but also allow enough space for it to be applauded.
Curtis always operated in the Venn diagram of real life and really great storytelling so, as Deborah Curtis said of the song, “I don’t know how much is fiction and how much is reality.”
1. ‘She’s Lost Control’
Without question, Joy Divison’s ‘She’s Lost Control’ is one of the most difficult songs to listen to. But, in a spate of twisted irony and incredulous talent, the track is arguably their greatest too, defining the band in so many ways it would be remiss to ignore it as their best, even if it is difficult to return to. Written before his diagnosis, the song looks back to when Curtis witnessed his colleague suffering from an epileptic seizure.
Before Curtis became the frontman of Joy Division and found fame with the band, he worked for the council. In his menial position, very little happened except one moment when he witnessed a lady endure an epileptic seizure and, in the immediate time that followed, Curtis later found out that she had passed away that day. It was a chastening experience for Curtis, who caught a glimpse of the fragility of life.
Lyrically, the song, once understanding its conception, is stark and cold. It handles the arresting fear of witnessing such a thing with clinical brutalism. It would sadly offer a shocking vision of Curtis’ future. Written before Curtis’ first epileptic seizure, the song is a hard reminder of the singer’s illness and what would contribute heavily to his tragic suicide.
In truth, picking a selection of Joy Division’s best songs is rather pointless. The band encouraged such fervent adoration both during Curtis’ lifetime and after, that every single fan would likely have a different rundown of tracks. However, if there was ever a song to define Joy Division then this is it.