The electronic pop group Saint Etienne were formed in 1990, just a year before they released their first album. The group currently has three members, including Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs. With an impressive ten studio albums to their name, the band are firmly ingrained in the electro-pop music scene. Their first album, Foxbase Alpha, was released in 1991, and their most recent, I’ve Been Trying To Tell You, was released just last year. Saint Etienne are the gift that really do keep giving—in the music industry for 30 years, the band are not slowing down.
Sarah Cracknell, Saint Etienne’s lead vocalist, joined the group in time to voice the latter songs of their debut album. Before this, Moira Lambert and Donna Savage had lent their voices to Saint Etienne’s earliest work.
Originally a band member of The Worried Parachutes, Cracknell moved into solo territory, releasing a single in 1987, before joining Saint Etienne. Saint Etienne originally intended to feature various vocalists, but after Cracknell sang the majority of the group’s debut album, she became a permanent member. Cracknell also continued releasing work as a solo artist.
‘DJ’ (Words and Music by Saint Etienne, 2012)
My favourite Saint Etienne track, ‘DJ’ is my go-to dance tune. From the very beginning it is upbeat, energetic, and full of the life of the party. The perfect way to begin a Saint Etienne playlist, this track will pull you in straight away.
One of the group’s more modern tracks, this song encompasses all the best parts of a night out. It elicits a mosaic of all your favourite memories, and gives you that party feeling. I cannot hear it without re-living fun and freedom in my mind’s eye.
To this day I cannot understand why this was not one of its albums singles. A perfect example of an electronic dance anthem, where better to begin this list?
‘Western Wind’ (Tiger Bay, 1994)
A slightly cheat entry at number two, Tiger Bay features two tracks with the same name, tracklisted at number 9 and number 11. This listing refers specifically to the first, but both are beautiful tracks.
‘Western Wind’ is a psychedelic instrumental with a different vibe to the rest of the Saint Etienne repertoire. I love its gentleness and its ethereal quality. Throughout the song there are interesting countermelodies but a steady central melody that tickles my brain in just the right way.
This is also a great breather track between two very vocally strong ones. It fits into this playlist perfectly as a demonstration of the breadth of the group’s talent, as well as an interlude between two powerful songs.
‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ (Foxbase Alpha, 1991)
A cover of the original track by Neil Young (1970), Saint Etienne re-worked this to fit their sound. Moving away from the gritty, country-style nature of the original, this cover is sophisticated, elegant, and haunting.
Lambert sings exquisitely and the backing instrumental is complementary and perfectly formed. It is one of the best versions of this song. Although it can be challenging for musical artists to get covers right, but there is a lot of love for this one. A fan of Neil Young myself, I have to admit that this goes above and beyond doing justice to the original track.
The silky smooth vocals and a classic take on romance work together to create something magical. Encouraging us to “be sure right from the start”, this song reminds us of the dangers of falling in love, and of the depth of heartbreak.
However, I would not call this a sad song. Despite its subject matter, ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ remains relatively upbeat.
‘He’s On The Phone’ (Continental, 1997)
Released as a single in 1995, this track channels all of my relationship angst, indulges my moments of insecurity, and gives me something to leap about to.
It fits perfectly after the emotional notes of ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’, and encourages a fresh release of negative emotion. The relatable lines about calling somebody anyway even though you know you shouldn’t, and the hints of possibility, “he’s trying to find the words to say someday”, display quality song-writing that hits just enough of your emotions for you to enjoy it without it becoming a sad song.
With a catchy chorus and an eclectic video, what more could you want?
Originally included in the group’s compilation album Too Young To Die: Singles 1990-1995, this track was subsequently given a place on the 1997 album Continental.
‘I’ve Got Your Music’ (Words and Music by Saint Etienne, 2012)
Another strong entry from Words and Music, ‘I’ve Got Your Music’ is a classic track.
Perhaps the catchiest of all, I dare you to listen to this and not find yourself humming it for the remainder of your day.
Coming down from the almost frantic themes in the previous track, this song is reassuring and calming, “everywhere you go, I’ve got your music”. A slower tempo in the verses creates more drama around the choruses, and, again, the band have created a track with great energy.
The community spirit in the music video emphasises that this is a song about love and connection. Not only is the song beautiful, but its spirit is as well.
‘He Is Cola’ (1991)
Released under the band name Cola Boy in 1991, this single is without the intensity that comes with many Saint Etienne tracks. It is light, fun, and has a variable and funky beat to it.
I love the upbeat tempo and the quirkiness of this song. It makes me feel happy and content, and is a great background track for lowkey parties or summer evenings.
The track is also somewhat of a mosaic. With sampled drums from Suzi Quatro’s ‘Can The Can’, a sample beat from Van McCoy’s ‘The Shuffle’, and vocals from Janey Lee Grace, the group combined several different ideas and created a cheeky, fun track.
‘Soft Like Me’ (Finisterre, 2002)
A cool, upbeat track, ‘Soft Like Me’ is a great song.
Repeatedly asking us, “don’t you want to be soft like me?”, Cracknell sings sweetly and with elegance, in contrast to the rap sections that feature on this track.
Regarded by some as a weaker Saint Etienne song, I can see why. The track does lack some of the power and the funk that many of them do have. But, in its place, there is a glimmer of something new. I think this track is experimental in that it is outside the usual style of the group. It shows a different side to their sound, and explores lighter and simpler vocals, allowing the pace and the instruments to be the focal point.
I enjoy the mood of the track, and it’s a great transition from ‘Cola Boy’ to ‘Method Of Modern Love’.
‘Method Of Modern Love’ (Conversations: The Best Of Saint Etienne, 2009)
Back into more familiar style territory with this one. Saint Etienne’s 2009 single was the only brand new track to feature on the 2009 album. The synth-pop song is brilliant and brings us back into their usual genre.
Lively, bold, fierce, this song combines modern ideas and themes with their staple and classic beats and synthesised sound. With the same smoothness as we get from ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’, this track takes a different take on romance. It is incredibly catchy and feel-good. A well-deserved addition to the compilation album.
One of the best songs from their 2009 album, ‘Method Of Modern Love’ has become a staple in the Saint Etienne diet. Almost every playlist I stumble upon of theirs features this track, and with good reason!
‘Tonight’ (Words and Music by Saint Etienne, 2012)
If ever there was a song to get you into the mood for a night out it is this one. I always find the opening lines to it a little bit slow, but as soon as it picks up it’s hard to get it out of your head.
Written about the experience of becoming successful in the music industry, this metaphor becomes synonymous with success in general, and is a great feel-good track.
The line, “they say that they’re in love with synthesisers” seems to refer to the fans, and this song sounds like a joyful thank you to the group’s supporters.
‘Pond House’ (I’ve Been Trying To Tell You, 2021)
The perfect ending to this playlist, a track from Saint Etienne’s newest album: ‘Pond House’.
I love everything about this song. A very electronic, very carefully thought out track, ‘Pond House’ brings us a subdued take on dance music and a very aesthetic, old-style music video.
This song is a great ending to this playlist. It encompasses the electronic themes and repetitions that are synonymous with Saint Etienne, but it is also a slow and smooth track, with no real crescendos or abrupt rhythms. It is also one of my favourite Saint Etienne tracks of all.
It is a beautiful note to end on.