Ah yes, Placebo. Of all the bands to emerge from the British rock scene in the 1990s, they’re one of the most unique and indeed long lasting. Their sound was unlike the Blur and Oasis acolytes surrounding them, combining the abrasion of the American underground with a European sophistication. The secret ingredient is a gritty, darkly sexual touch that had a long and storied history in British music, from glam rock to Soft Cell and Depeche Mode, but was almost forgotten at that stage. They’ve seven studio albums recorded, covering a variety of sounds and styles, but still unmistakably them. Though their influence is widely observable, from the dramatics of the goth leaning punk of AFI and My Chemical Romance to a number of the post punk revival acts, there is still no band out there quite like them.
Their debut album is their scrappiest album, and it’s very much a case of three men in a room bashing out some of the finest slabs of alternative rock that year. Genre wise it’s quite hard to place. It has the quiet-loud dynamics of grunge but the guitars are more spiky than sludgy; it has the intricacy of indie rock but it’s not nice enough to be indie and it’s not horrible enough to fit in with the noise bands. There’s also somewhat of a prog influence with all the weird instrumental breaks -- ideas that aren’t fully fleshed out, but still work so well in the context of the song. The layers they would go on to expand upon so masterfully in later albums are present, toy instruments and a didgeridoo. As the sound is less fleshed out and more frantic than their later work, the guitars spin off into some quite interesting directions: the squealing chorus of “36 Degrees”, the ascending bridge of “I Know”, the blaring yet oddly industrial thrust of “Bruise Pristine”. Lyrically it is perhaps their most immature, but that lack of sophistication alongside Brian’s emotional performance ties them close to punk and serves them quite well in terms of a direct impact. You’re too lost in singing along to be all “decay and way is too obvious a rhyme, fuck you doing Brian”. It’s draped in filthy sex, angst, drugs and alienation, the instrumental flights of fancy such as those jazzy breakdowns with toy instruments in “Come Home” and “Bruise Pristine” alongside Without You I’m Nothing. This is the generally accepted fan favourite, as it definitely lays out everything they’d go on to do. Given just how much the snot, bile and semen stains are what really make this band special, this is a truly great album.
Standout Tracks: The whole thing really, but “Come Home” is probably my favourite Placebo track, “Nancy Boy” is what made their name at the start of their career, “Bruise Pristine” has got quite a kick to it, and I do have a soft spot for that dildo ballad post-rock-grunge-whatever number that is “Bionic”.
Whether you’d consider this Placebo properly hitting their stride or just tightening up their sound, it can’t be denied that they’ve stepped up in terms of making a more refined record. Here, those ideas are more developed rather than having a lot of things flung at the wall. The harder numbers hit considerably harder -- the doomy, stoned over thump of “Pure Morning”, the voyeuristic noisepop of “Brick Shithouse” and the juddering stop-start “Scared Of Girls”. The huge singles are here too, the driving, punchy “Every You Every Me”, the crushing wall of sorrow that is the title track, and of course my personal favourite song, “You Don’t Care About Us”. It’s got such a lovely soft to vicious mix, one of Stefan’s best basslines, delivered with such potent urgency. The slower tracks do bring the record down on first listen, however, taking longer to set in. This is a record where even if it doesn’t top the debut, it comes damn close.
This album pretty much follows in the footsteps of Without You I’m Nothing, with a darker take on that sound and more in the way of electronic experimentation. At the same time though, though the songs are quite good, there is an eerie mirror effect on the two tracklists: “Taste In Men” being a gloomier “Pure Morning”, “Days Before You Came” being a longing take on “Brick Shithouse”, you get the picture. It’s not so much Placebo running out of ideas so much as them not stretching themselves, and there are some surprises here. “Spite And Malice” is Placebo doing rap rock, a sentence I never thought I’d type out, which is somewhat good. The electronic layering really does enhance the likes of “Black Eyed” and “Slave To The Wage”, but the quiet songs this time do drag quite a bit. On the heavier end, “Haemoglobin” fails to make much of an impact, almost a parody of their strange lyricism and ear bleeding static. Overall, while not a complete failure and indeed quite good to brilliant in places, it does have some quite weak moments on it.
This album is the point where the grungy elements took a step back and the electronics came to the fore. “Bulletproof Cupid”, a two minute instrumental almost acts as a final send off to that style before we get into the record properly. There’s a lot on here that could fit onto radio if it wasn’t a strange as it is, “English Summer Rain” a deliciously dirty slice of dance rock. “The Bitter End” was the big single off this album, and it is a massive tune, a departure for Placebo with a quite post punk, stabbing, angular riff and its almost apocalyptic ending. The slower tracks are helped out with the increased electronics focus, most notably “Special Needs”. However, the lyrics are somewhat at their weakest. Brian’s love of rhymes can result in some clunky lines at times, most notably in “This Picture”, which is still a lovely wee tune. It’s most definitely a step in the right direction after Black Market Music, laying out what would be Placebo 2.0.
Meds was the last album Placebo did with long-time drummer Steve Hewitt, right at a point in time where their drug and drinking habits were at bad points, and that darkness and medicated haze hangs over this record. It is confidently their finest record since the first two, with a far more balanced reconciliation between their heavier past and their more textured present. You’ve got some driving, strange yet still powerful alt-rock with the title track, you’ve the alcohol stained revenge anthem of “Infra-Red”, and the Kerrangesque punch of “Because I Want You To” if you want rock. For their more subtle moments, there’s the glacial “Follow The Cops Back Home”, the sweeping “Song To Say Goodbye, the tenderness of “Pierrot The Clown”. Lyrically Brian’s quite sharp here, with some truly heart-breaking parts, especially on “Song To Say Goodbye”. Definitely a hard listen, but one of their best efforts, and certainly a quite focused effort on their part.
This was their first album with ex Evaline drummer Steve Forrest, recorded with David Bottril of Tool production fame, and it is most certainly their most American sounding record to date, with a lot more in the way of strings and brass and bigger, hulkier riifs. “Kitty Litter” in particular has an almost nu metal quality to the way that intro riff just grinds out of the speakers. The light is embraced on this album, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. “Bright Lights” and “Ashtray Heart” are wonderful melodic numbers, “For What It’s Worth” being far more Moulin Rouge than Poison. They’ve shed the darkness somewhat, yet there are reflections back to it, with the record’s best song, “Kings Of Medicine”. There’s a lot less of the character and substance of the past on this album, but it is still an enjoyable listen all the same. It just doesn’t have the same replay value.You can pretty much peg this as Placebo 3.0, a consolidation of the layers and the riffs but a far lighter tone with their music.
Coming four years after Battle For The Sun, it continued on in that lighter path, even taking on the topic of love where it wasn’t frayed, or damaged, or emotionally destructive. This is easily their weakest release, with songs like “Too Many Friends” and being quite clumsy. However there are things to like in their more restrained numbers, “Exit Wounds” taking the cake here. They can still drop some great alternative rock bangers, with “Rob The Bank” and “Purify” being absolutely massive, but at the same time, the aforementioned bodily fluids that have coloured their sound over the years aren’t present here. It’s not a complete failure, but considering the gap between releases it is a bit of a letdown.
This is a collection of covers Placebo had recorded over the years, many of them being B-sides to their other singles back when bands made B-sides or recorded for soundtracks. It’s a quite good compilation, the sources of inspiration ranging from the obvious (Depeche Mode, The Smiths) to the more offbeat (Boney M). The best moments here would have to be their infamous bleak take on Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill”, the glorious snarky “Bigmouth Strikes Again” and their instrumental prowess is showed off best when they wile out on the guitar on Robert Palmer’s “Johnny And Mary”. This is more for hardcore fans than an essential purchase, but fire up Spotify for some great music.
Once More With Feeling (2004)
This is pretty much a singles collection that came out that year. Honestly, we live in an era of streaming so this isn’t really essential. I will give notice to the new songs on it though. “Protégé Moi” is “Protect Me From What I Want” in French and works all the better for it. “I Do” is a murky electronic ballad of sorts, somewhat more wholesome than what you’d expect from this band, but still quite good. “Twenty Years” is a sorrowful meditation on mortality and one of their best moments.
This album is pretty much an expanded, updated version of Once More With Feeling, taking on all their singles, some album tracks, and revised/acoustic versions of other tracks. Though I wouldn’t be as fond of some of the revised cuts, it is a very worthy compilation of one of the best bands this planet has spawned. The new material from this compilation includes recent single “Jesus' Son”, a surprisingly lovely slice of anthemic alt rock, and “Lazarus”, light yet still with that dark touch and some delicious strings.
The B-Sides Collections
On Spotify there are B-Sides collections for all their albums up to Meds. It’d take quite a while to go through them all, the later ones especially being dominated by covers, remixes and tracks that are essentially strange instrumental experiments that are worth a listen, but not quite essential. The most essential one in this writer’s opinion would be the Placebo: B-Sides collection. It’s the longest out of all of them, and it also has the most in terms of actual songs. There’s the damaged funk rock of “Drowning By Numbers”, one of their earliest demos in “Flesh Machine” and the absolutely furious “Slackerbitch”, a true hidden gem in their catalogue.
B3 EP (2012)
This is an EP they released prior to Loud Like Love, it recaptures a lot of that dark, minor chord driven feeling that their earlier work encapsulated, and is almost a bloodletting of the darkness before the comparative light of the following album. It’s pretty decent, “I Know Where You Live” is quite sinister, the title track's riff is quite nice and “Time Is Money” is one of their better songs from this period. I'd be lying if I said a full length that kinda sat in that territory wouldn't be amiss.
So there y’all have it, a guide to the discography of a truly singular band in the world of alternative rock, hopefully you can find something to delve into here at least.