Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Greatest Rock Albums of the 1980s, Part I

I have gone on record stating that the 1980s was a black hole from which everything musically-speaking was sucked out into space and never returned, save in some secondary, shadowy, half-life sense. In other words, alien zombies ate my music! This was perhaps a bit too hyperbolic, and I am prone to harsh rhetoric on occasion. I apologize in advance if anyone's knickers get twisted. However, if you consider that nearly every big-named rock band from Zeppelin to Floyd to the Stones had tanked by the 80s, went commercial (Genesis and Yes), or were just plain miserable (StyxJourneyForeignerREOSpeedwagon), and that the messianic punk rock movement blew its wad in a relatively short time span in the late 70s, the vibrancy of music was put to the test and failed miserably. Hell, even disco disappeared...which was actually a godsend, but I digress.

I am not going to denigrate emo, bad hair, sterile synthesizers, drum machines, whiny, off-kilter vocals or new-wave style over substance, because that would be too easy: like proclaiming Hitler was a bad man. Instead, I will sift through the flotsam and jetsam of a decadently dumb decade and offer up the diamonds rummaged from dust bins and coal scuttles. And I am not merely casting pearls before swine here, the albums listed below are genuinely great and stylistically important; there are just far fewer than preceding decades, in my very subjective opinion (humbleness not being in my nature).

As with all the articles on The Dark Elf File, there are a few caveats for The Greatest Rock Albums of the 1980s, Part I. These, I will keep simple: only rock releases, no live albums, and no greatest hits packages. I have chosen 24 superlative albums on the first go-round (2x4=8, repeat 10 times, or some similar silly equation), and a future installment will add to the list. Of the albums listed below, the first six or seven have some semblance of order, but afterwards I just filtered through my collection and placed the releases haphazardly as I listened to them. As you may recall if you've read previous articles, I am not a big stickler on enumerating greatness. These are all excellent albums.

Peter Gabriel - Melt
The first thing you notice is that there are no cymbals... throughout the entire album. There are other percussion instruments, but the lack of cymbals creates tension - a totemic, animistic thrum and rumble - that permeates the album with an unrelieved edginess bordering on hysteria. The purposeful mania instilled by Gabriel is amplified further with the "gated drum" sound, a dramatic reverb effect that produces a booming but highly-compressed punch to the drums created specifically for this album and employed with gusto by drummer Phil Collins (who appears on four tracks). Collins would memorably re-use the gated drum effect on his hit "In the Air Tonight", but perfected it on Peter Gabriel's stunning third self-titled solo album, known as Melt (for the distinctive cover photo). And Melt (1980), even more so than Gabriel's mega-hit So (1986), is the best album of the 1980s. Aside from distinctive vocals, studio techniques and musical innovations, Melt is, for all intents and purposes, a "psychological treatise” on the human condition: compulsion, obsession, isolation, schizophrenia, amnesia, prejudice, bigotry, anger institutionalization, and murder. Herein lie the darker dimensions of thought and action, delivered with an actor’s flair by Gabriel.

“Intruder”, a flesh-crawling ode to home invasion, begins the mind games with the grating, metallic grind of clippers on twisted wire, discordant keyboards, and Collin’s strident drumbeat, and ends with a bit of whistling-with-criminal-intent made famous by Peter Lorre in the movie M (1931). “No Self Control” mirrors the troubled tendencies of “Intruder”, but amps up the mania, as well as the volume, with Gabriel’s recurring avant-garde partners-in-crime Robert Fripp on guitar and Kate Bush on backing vocals, along with a vicious turn on drums by Collins. “I Don’t Remember” (amnesia), "And Through the Wire" (communication overload) and “Lead a Normal Life” (asylums) are each excellent tunes, but the truly stellar songs are the allegoric satire on nationalism "Games Without Frontiers" (again with Kate Bush singing “jeux sans frontières” or "games without frontiers"), and "Not One of Us", which cleverly attacks hatred and prejudice born out of fear and ignorance.

And then there are the two epics. The first, “Family Snapshot”, is a suspenseful character study of a publicity-seeking loner who kills a public figure, in which Gabriel, through the use of internal monologue, grafts the memoirs of assassin Arthur Bremer onto scenes of JFK's assassination in Dallas. The effect is riveting. Finally, there is "Biko", about Stephen Biko, a South African civil rights leader murdered while in police custody. The horrid event gained worldwide attention due in part to Gabriel’s profound lament. "Biko" was the greatest protest song of the 80s, and the grand lyric “And the eyes of the world are watching now”, proved prophetic. Melt is fully realized and conceptually brilliant, a stark look at man’s inhumanity to man, and the madness that stirs in the minds of many.
Worth the price of admission: Games Without Frontiers, Not One of Us (poor quality version), I Don't Remember, Family Snapshot.


U2 - War
The starkest of all U2 albums, it is the rough edges of The Edge and the boys that, to my ears, makes War the best example of U2's songcraft. War is a harsh and politically charged statement that successfully presented the burgeoning social-conscience of the band without the preachiness found on later albums. On this release, The Edge dialed back the effects and echoes, and Larry Mullen pumped up the staccato percussion to create a bellicose and brash sound that echoed the themes of this most political of U2 albums: the traumatic emotional and physical effects of warfare. The music is angry, buzzing and at times brutally straightforward, free from the tendency to rely on allegory and much of the overt religiosity (some would say sanctimoniousness) that eventually became omnipresent with U2, as Bono tread the path ever closer to self-canonization.

The two songs that best exemplify the philosophical theme of the album are also at variance with their musical approach: "Sunday Bloody Sunday", driven by the drumming of Mullen, is a harsh and unrelenting call for sanity amidst the madness that defined 'The Troubles' of Northern Ireland (the civil strife between the Catholic Nationalists and the Protestant Unionists that started in the 1960s and continued through the 1990s, with sporadic violence still occurring currently); whereas, "On New Year's Day" (penned for the Polish Solidarity Movement) features the driving bass of Adam Clayton, and although it still contains some of the strident sounds of the rest of the album, the song is a more reflective and poetic composition. Other songs of note are "Two Hearts that Beat as One", "Drowning Man" (featuring the fiddling of Steve Wickham, later of The Waterboys), the Clash-stylings of "The Refugee", and "40", an adaptation of the biblical Psalm 40. There may have been greater successes to follow for U2, but War represents the album where such greatness was revealed in the harsh light of day.
Worth the price of admission: Sunday Bloody Sunday, New Year's Day, Two Hearts Beat as One, Drowning Man.

Prince - Purple Rain
Prince was in a musical genre all his own. The tuneful stew Prince brewed on the album Purple Rain contains Hendrixian guitar, funk bass, power pop percussion, soul singing, and new wave synths, with bits of James Brown, Little Richard, Mick Jagger and even Frank Zappa thrown into the savory mix. But the mix was so incendiary that the influences became secondary to the innovative synthesis of this, Prince's sixth album, on which the suave mighty mite from Minneapolis introduced his new band The Revolution, and the names 'Wendy and Lisa' were to become an indelible aspect of the 80s music scene. As far as Prince himself, I've never seen a man do the splits and slide back up to his feet while playing guitar, but that is merely one facet of one truly talented (or sore) fellow.

Prince's reverence of Hendrix is evident on the mercurial lead of the frenetic "Let's Go Crazy", and also the title song "Purple Rain", a bluesy, soulful nod to songs from Jimi's Axis Bold as Love album, such as "Little Wing" and "Castles Made of Sand". Elsewhere, "Little Nikki" took sexual innuendo to a level rarely heard in popular music (the line "I met her in a hotel lobby masturbating to a magazine", if I recall, gave parents seizures), and the memorable piano line of the beautiful and sad "When Doves Cry" reverberates in one's subconscious long after the song is over - an incredibly powerful song. Add to that, the unrequited love of "The Beautiful Ones", the duet with Appolonia "Take Me with U", the dance rave-up "Baby I'm a Star" (complete with Beatlesque backmasking), and the secondary hit "I would Die for U", and Prince offered up his funky magnum opus.
Worth the price of admission: Let's Go Crazy, Darling Nikki, Purple Rain, When Doves Cry.

Talking Heads - Remain in Light
Minimalist, polyrhythmic, African-influenced, experimental, esoteric, funkified punk dance music - how's that for a description? Remain in Light remains the Talking Head's greatest achievement, and a magnificent collaboration between David Byrne and producer Brian Eno. Once you've listened to this, all of the 80s post-punk, new wave spawn that followed (Culture Club, Howard Jones, Human League, ad nauseam) is utter drivel; but the Talking Heads were never really "new wave" in the first place, they were merely relegated to that dusty bin of bad hair and bad music merely to affix a genre to their musical method. Yet Byrne and Eno effortlessly integrated the concept of "World Music" into the mix without beating you over the head with a tribal drum. The idiosyncratic wit of Byrne is omnipresent, and even in the album's darker passages the sense of optimism and spirituality never stoops to maudlin, emo despair like on a Smiths or Cure release (and thank god for that!).

The first half of the album is unmitigated funk (ably aided in spots by the Funkadelic's Jerry Worrell, Ashford & Simpson's Steven Scales, and Parliament bassist Busta "Cherry" Jones), while the second half (which includes the quirky hit "Once in a Lifetime") puts the brakes on the soul train, slowing down the pacing of the songs while delving deeper into the human psyche, ending with the Eno-composed dirge "Overload" (which is perhaps the most incongruous song on the album). As I mentioned previously, the ideas and concepts on the album have a dark underbelly, but Byrne's sardonic delivery lightens the load, allowing us to laugh at our own confusion or, to quote David Byrne, "[We] operate half awake or on autopilot and end up, whatever, with a house and family and job and everything else, and we haven't really stopped to ask ourselves, 'How did I get here?'." On the contrary, Mr. Byrne, I believe most of us have reached that conclusion at one time or another.
Worth the price of admission: Once in a Lifetime, Houses in Motion, The Great Curve, Talking Wind.

Paul Simon - Graceland
Paul Simon's penchant for allegory, metaphor, clever phrasing, brilliant composition and the embrace of world music all combine on Graceland. In a decade drenched in deplorable drum machines, synths and melancholy faux-boys with bad hair, this album is a shining beacon of musical craftsmanship in an oily sea fouled by the flotsam and jetsam of power-pop, new wave, hair bands and rap crap. Simon takes us on an extraordinary journey through African-themed songs with the inestimable assistance of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, truly one of the unique vocal groups of the time. Listen to the stunning harmonies on a song like "I Know What I know", one can't help but appreciate the fundamental qualities of this album.

Featuring a stellar cast of musicians including Los Lobos, Linda Rondstadt, Adrian Belew, Youssou N'Dour, The Everley Brothers, and the aforementioned Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Simon's Graceland is fun ("You Can Call Me Al"), reflective ("Under African Skies"), wryly observant ("Crazy Love, Vol. II" or "The Boy in the Bubble"), and musically varied (the fascinating African a capella of "Homeless", as opposed to the creole vibe of "That Was Your Mother", for instance), and Simon's lyrical genius is readily apparent. Throw in the paean to Elvis "Graceland", and the beautiful "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes", and the compositional qualities of Paul Simon are readily apparent. Graceland is a mellow, moving and gratifying - an essential album - and one of the few reasons to listen to any music from the 80's, because the music transcends the decade.
Worth the price of admission: Homeless, Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes, The Boy in the Bubble, Graceland

R.E.M. - Document
Document was the last R.E.M. album I bought. Afterwards, Michael Stipe started singing about orange crush, shiny, happy people, checking Kenneth's frequency and losing his religion, and I lost my faith in the band. But that's okay. I often become enamored of bands and buy a few or several of their albums; yet like most relationships, things eventually go sour or we take divergent paths and then move on alone. There are relatively few bands I've managed to stand for the length of their recording careers, and most of those had the common sense to quit before becoming caricatures of themselves (The Beatles), or died young and retained their mystical quality (Hendrix and Morrison). But up until Document, I really enjoyed R.E.M., and I think this album is their best, particularly since you can actually understand what Stipe is singing for most of the album!

For instance, a great song comparable to Document's "The One I Love", "Fall on Me" from Life's Rich Pageant, is nearly one long series of mumbles interspersed with a comprehensible refrain (it goes something like "Rezzer-rez-brrr-bazzer-borrzeer-rezzer-ree-zeray-rezzer-righ-rozzer-righ-Fall on me!"). I suppose college crowd basking in reflected alternative glory found this "deep", but with this newfound intelligibility, the band could actually make political statements that made sense and connect with listeners who were equally disenchanted with the Reagan-era White House (the songs "Exhuming McCarthy" and "Welcome to the Occupation", for instance). And then, of course, there is the anthem for learning to enjoy the apocalypse, "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)", which references everything and the kitchen sink, including Greek mythology, college debates, the Book of Revelation, several world figures (Bruce, Bangs, Bernstein, Brezhnev, etc.), Ronald Reagan's jellybeans, and the Iran Hostage Crisis, all rattled off with a stream-of-consciousness delivery inspired by Dylan's "Subterranenan Homesick Blues". And along with understandable lyrics is a meatier blast or rock to sink your teeth into, as opposed to whispier music from previous albums.
Worth the price of admission: The One I Love, It's the End of the World as We Know It, Welcome to the Occupation, Finest Worksong.

Peter Gabriel - So
Gabriel's output in the 1980s represents the greatest contribution of any single artist in that misbegotten, androgynous, hair-teased, drum-machined, musical era: the last was the riveting Passion: Music For The Last Temptation Of Christ (1989), previous to that So (1986), following the excellent 1982 album Peter Gabriel (titled Security in the U.S.), and preceded by the stellar 1980 release Peter Gabriel (otherwise known as Melt). I know, it's confusing: after leaving the band Genesis in 1975, Gabriel released four consecutive albums simply titled "Peter Gabriel". But So is more accessible and radio-friendly than the previous four self-titled albums, and was a commercial success that spawned some really well-made videos for MTV (back when MTV actually meant 'Music TV', and was not some inane 24 hour reality-TV network).

The songs on So are superb, and the album is cohesive and melancholy (but then Gabriel would never sing something like "Shiny, Happy People" anyway). Besides video hits like "Sledgehammer" and "Big Time", the real highlights are Gabriel's more heartfelt and contemplative tunes: "Don't Give Up", an achingly beautiful duet with Kate Bush (a regular collaborator on Gabriel albums), the haunting "Mercy Street", the evocative "Red Rain" (about acid-rain or nuclear holocaust, take your pick), and "In Your Eyes" (a 'Brat Pack' movie anthem for the 80s). So is a great album and, in my opinion, the third best release of Gabriel's solo material, behind his eccentric 1976 self-titled debut (or Car, again referencing the album photo), and Melt from 1980.
Worth the price of admission: In Your Eyes, Mercy Street, Don't Give Up, Red Rain.

U2 - The Joshua Tree
Yes, The Joshua Tree is a great and important album; but because U2 purposely set out to make a great and important album, a grand statement, a glorious testament, I don't rank it as highly as their more straightforward and gritty album War. I mean, did you really need two heavyweight producers, Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, to make this epic-that-tries-to-be-understated? I suppose so. In any case, The Joshua Tree is undeniably strong and touching, without a blemish in the bunch. The album is a mythological travelogue of American institutions and icons, where the ideal does not necessarily mesh with reality. The band's spirituality, always evident on previous albums, is brought to the forefront here, and worn like a merit badge over their beating hearts. U2 released other very good albums afterwards, like Rattle and Hum and Achtung Baby, but it would seem The Joshua Tree was their defining moment, and they have spent the rest of their careers trying to escape its legacy, but the shadow cast by this album stretches too far to outrun. Love Brian Eno's synth work and The Edge's jangling guitar.
Worth the price of admission: Where the Streets Have No Name, I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For, With or Without You, Bullet the Blue Sky.

Tracy Chapman - Tracy Chapman
A remarkable acoustic rock debut and one of the best albums of the 80s, winning two Grammys and going multi-platinum in sales. Not bad for one Tracy Chapman, a recent graduate of Tufts University (she earned a B.A. in Anthropology), who began busking around Harvard to make ends meet. "Fast Car" is the biggest hit from the album, but I prefer "Talkin' Bout a Revolution", "Across the Lines", "For My Lover" and "Mountains O' Things". Then there is the thoroughly chilling a capella song "Behind the Wall", one of the most moving protests against domestic violence I have ever heard. Entertaining, thoughtful and provocative, Chapman's first album helped begin a renaissance of female composers in the late 80s and early 90s. There is a full-throated sincerity in Ms. Chapman's voice and an impeccable earnestness in her lyrics that cannot be artificially duplicated in studio, which is why you will not see a Madonna album listed herein.
Worth the price of admission: Talkin' Bout a Revolution, Mountains O' Things, Across the Lines, For My Lover, Behind the Wall.

The Police - Synchronicity
According to Wikipedia, the lazy scholar's primary research tool, "Synchronicity is the experience of two or more events that are apparently causally unrelated or unlikely to occur together by chance and that are observed to occur together in a meaningful manner." Jungian concepts are quite rare in a successful rock album, but Sting and the boys were feeling quite pschologically full of themselves when they released the aptly titled Synchronicity. I've always wondered if the egos of Sting and Bono could fit in one room. Scratch that, let's talk about the album, and a great one it is. I will admit that I miss much of the reggae so prevalent on previous albums, but The Police felt they needed to step out of the box, and although the trio recorded the entire album individually in three separate rooms, they still got into fist fights when they came together (which makes the title of the album quite ironic). There is, of course, the anthem of all anthems for stalkers, the unintentionally creepy "Every Breath You Take", and Andy Summer's disturbing ode to his "Mother", but the songs "Synchronicity I & II", "Wrapped Around Your Finger", "King of Pain" and "Tea in the Sahara" are all excellent, and Sychronicity is indeed The Police's magnum opus.
Worth the price of admission: Synchronicity I, Synchronicity II, King of Pain, Wrapped Around Your Finger.

The Pogues - If I Should Fall From Grace With God
Thank god Shane McGowan has better songwriting skills than dental hygiene! If I Should Fall From Grace With God (1988) is what sometimes happens when you mix whiskey, heroin, punk rock, and traditional Irish music. Such a volatile mixture rarely succeeds, but on this album the Pogues stumbled into their magnum opus, and in the process created an entirely new subgenre of music (influencing Flogging Molly, Dropkick Murphys and The Young Dubliners). The Pogues used this lethal concoction previously on the great Rum Sodomy and the Lash (1985), but the band and their infamous leader, Irish poet of the gutter MacGowan, crested a creative peak they would never reach again. Highlights are "Bottle of Smoke" (with more F-bombs dropped per verse than nearly any song), "Turkish Song of the Damned", "Metropolis", "Lullaby of London", "The Broad Majestic Shannon", and one of the greatest Christmas song ever penned "Fairytale of New York" (reminiscences of an addict in a drunk tank on Christmas Eve) featuring the late Kirsty MacColl. Also of note are two songs by Terry Woods, the Northern Irish lament "Streets of Sorrow" and the rousing "South Australia".
Worth the price of admission: Lullaby of London, Fairytale of New York, Metropolis, Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six, Bottle of Smoke.

King Crimson - Discipline
The Talking Heads release a progressive rock album! I'm only kidding, but after a several year hiatus (the landmark album Red in 1974 being their last release), Robert Fripp resurrected King Crimson in 1981 with the album Discipline and turned New Wave on its spiky-haired head. With guru guitarist Fripp and drummer Bill Bruford as returning members, Crimson added Zappa sideman Adrian Belew on guitar and Chapman stick/bass master Tony Levin on this adventure over to the dark side of modern 80s music. The compositions are as knotty and difficult as the Celtic knot adorning the album cover, and the improvisational lyrics and vocals of Belew are indeed reminiscent of David Byrne, minus any pop sensiblities (Belew played guitar on Talking Head's Remain in Light, which explains the similarities). The intricate, repeating chord phrases are mesmerizing and their everchanging color and intonations reflect the motto of the album: "Discipline is never an end in itself, only a means to an end". I imagine that the band Tool wore out the grooves on this album, replaying it several hundred times. Useless Crimson trivia: the song title "Thela Hun Ginjeet" is an anagram of "heat in the jungle".
Worth the price of admission: Elephant Talk, Discipline, Thela Hun Ginjeet, Frame by Frame, Indiscipline.

Neil Young - Freedom
Every once in a while, Neil Young comes along and slaps you with a wall of distortion - just to let you know he's still there and relevant. Freedom can be seen as the bookend to Rust Never Sleeps in both playlist (starting with an acoustic version of "Rockin' in the Free World" and ending with an electric version, just like Rust's "Hey Hey My My"/"My My Hey Hey"), and offering up an eccentric and lyrically intriguing dichotomy of electric and acoustic tunes. "Rockin' in the Free World" is, of course, one of the great rock anthems of the 80s, but is far more politically volatile than the more ambiguous and often pastoral themes on Rust Never Sleeps, and the bitter "Crime in the City" echoes the mean streets references of "Free World". A few songs have a decidedly Hispanic flavor: "Eldorado","The Ways of Love" and "Hangin' on a Limb" (the last two duets with Linda Ronstadt). Elsewhere, there is "Too Far Gone", which would fit nicely on the Comes a Time album, the revenant "someday", and an incredibly distorted and disturbed version of "On Broadway". Excellent album and perhaps the last masterpiece of Young's career. Until he comes up with the next one.
Worth the price of admission: Rockin' the Free World (acoustic), Too Far Gone, Crime in the City, Someday, Rockin' in the Free World (electric).

The Waterboys - Fisherman's Blues
The Waterboys were a sadly underrated and underappreciated band in the sterile 80s. Mike Scott and The Waterboys divorced themselves from the 'Big Sound' of their splendid album This is the Sea, and crafted a homely, pastoral masterpiece on Fisherman's Blues, a heady concoction of rock, Irish folk and American country that is diverse in roots but cohesive in its delivery. Musically speaking, Fisherman’s Blues is carried on the bowstring of Steve Wickham, whose fiddling is used to great effect on nearly every song, particularly the incessant hornet’s nest buzz on the bitter “We Will Not Be Lovers”, and on “World Party”, where Wickham’s fierce fiddle matches Scott’s hissing, wiry guitar licks. “Has Anybody Here Seen Hank” is a twangy bit of lonesome ol’ country blues invoking the spirit of Hank Williams Sr., and Mike Scott is at his scatting best on Van Morrison’s “Sweet Thing” (with a surprise segue into The Beatles’ “Blackbird”). “And a Bang on the Ear” is perhaps the best song on the album (a tour-de-force of storytelling, with Scott reminiscing about his various relationships), but the stunning achievement on Fisherman's Blues is the musical adaptation of great Irish poet W. B. Yeat's "The Stolen Child". No finer interpretation of a poem is available on any rock album.
Worth the price of admission: World Party, Has Anybody Here Seen Hank, And a Bang on the Ear, When Ye Go Away

R.E.M. - Murmur
Murmur was one of those debut albums that catches you totally off guard. I recall hearing "Radio Free Europe" on a college radio station for the first times and I was immmediately struck by how very little R.E.M. sounded like the rank and file (and I stress "rank" here) new-wave stereotype band. They had the de rigueur Byrd-like jangling guitar, but the vocals were more ominous, and you really couldn't understand what the hell the singer was saying. Who knew at the time just what the term "alternative rock" meant? I don't recall hearing it back then (but then no one I know referred to Tull, Yes and King Crimson as "progressive rock" back in the 70s either). But I guess alternative meant an option to the crap on the radio and MTV at the time. Songs like "Talk about the Passion" and "Perfect Circle" had a homely appeal unaffected by British affectedness, and "Catapult" seemed to capture a newfound punk feel with an old Byrd's ethic, but my favorite tunes from the album may well have been "9-9" and "Pilgrimage", which really defined R.E.M's sound and didn't dwell on influences.
Worth the price of admission: Radio Free Europe, Talk About the Passion, Perfect Circle, 9-9.

Robbie Robertson - Robbie Robertson
A haunting and evocative album by Robbie Robertson that masterfully weaves The Band's penchant for epic rock Americana and Robertson's own American-Indian background into one of those rare gems that is seldom heard, but once embraced is unforgettable. Exquisitely produced by Daniel Lanois and Robbie Robertson after an extended break from the legendary group that backed-up Bob Dylan and named themselves simply "The Band", Robertson's first solo album borrows a few pages from the Band and also Tom Waits, but maintains a completely separate identity that Robertson never seemed to realize again on later solo efforts. "Fallen Angel", a duet with Peter Gabriel, is outstanding, as is "Broken Arrow", a song covered often afterwards (by Rod Stewart, for one).
Worth the price of admission: Fallen Angel, Broken Arrow, Showdown at Big Sky, American Roulette.

Dead Kennedys - Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables
The best punk album ever made. Imagine if the Sex Pistols could actually play their instruments and invited Captain Beefheart and Spike Jones over to jam - yeah, it's that demented . Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables is one of the most frantic and disturbing political manifestos of all time. One listen to "California Uber Alles" or "Kill the Poor", and one soon realizes that the quavering howls of Jello Biafra are not the ravings of a rabid lunatic, but actually very sly bits of social commentary with exaggerated hyperbole that strikes like rhetorical lightning. And for an album released in 1980, the songs are still topical and germane. It is not an album for the sensitive or weak-of-heart; in fact, it's been known to cause strokes in small dogs and fundamentalists. Jello Biafra and the Dead Kennedys never went beyond the limited frame of reference found on this album, but for one brief, shining moment they unleashed bloody hell before releasing the same album four more times with different titles.
Worth the price of admission: California Uber Alles, Let's Lynch the Landlord,Chemical Warfare, Kill the Poor.

Los Lobos - How Will the Wolf Survive?
One damn fine album full of mariachi, Tex-Mex, zydeco, blues and good ol' time rock and roll. It was like a breath of fresh air in 1984, for there was nothing else like it - unless, of course, you have more Los Lobos albums around the house! Undoubtedly one of the best party albums I can think of (whether you're Mexican, Polish or Japanese!), How will the Wolf Survive? features the hard-edged growl of Cesar Rosas (singing "Don't Worry Baby", for instance) and the velvety crooning of David Hidalgo (notable on "A Matter of Time"), and the disparate vocal qualities of the two make for an excellent change-up in tenor and tempo as the album progresses. Not a clinker in the bunch, and a feel-good album by excellent musicians who know their chops. Muchos gracias, amigos!
Worth the price of admission: Don't Worry Baby, How Will the Wolf Survive?, Evangeline, A Matter of Time.

Pixies - Doolittle
One of the most influential bands of the 80s (revered by Nirvana, Radiohead, Weezer and Smashing Pumpkins, among others), Black Francis and Pixies defined the alternative rock genre that in turn was the defining rock music of the 90s. This isn't a sprawling rock epic, but more of a touchstone album. As if a rabid butterfly flitted from flower to flower and pissed on each passing bloom, the album Doolittle goes from song to song with varied influences the Pixies had accumulated like carbuncles on the underside of a ship: from the warped Appalachian folk plaint "Silver" to the bright 60s pop of "Here Comes Your Man" to the ska-punk "Mr. Grieves", there's a bit of insanity for every taste. What is truly remarkable about the album Doolittle is that you can basically hear the bits and pieces lifted from the Pixies by 90s bands (again, Nirvana, Radiohead, Weezer, Smashing Pumpkins, etc.). I don't know if the Pixies should be flattered or sue.
Worth the price of admission: Here Comes Your Man, Monkey Gone to Heaven, Mr. Grieves, Silver, Wave of Mutilation.

Bruce Springsteen - Nebraska
As American as politicians with broken promises and bad hair, driving a block to buy cigarettes at the party store, and buffalo shit on the great plains, Springsteen's Nebraska reeks of the heartland and a bygone era of folk music from the likes of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. Surprisingly, it succeeds on several levels and is perhaps one of Bruce's best 2 or 3 albums. It certainly is one of the darkest albums he released during his multi-platinum heyday. But, like Bob Dylan and James Taylor, two other musicians who obviously haven't made enough money in their careers, most of Bruce's studio material is unavailable on YouTube, but there are noteworthy live versions of songs from Nebraska. The best songs on the album are "Johnny 99" (Bruce plays harmonica like Dylan, meaning sloppily), "My Father's House", "Nebraska" (about Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate, and their murder spree across Nebraska in 1958), and "Mansion on the Hill". Stark and sad and moody, this is Springsteen's greatest lyrical effort.
Worth the price of admission: Nebraska, Johnny 99, Reason to Believe, My Father's House.

Tom Waits - Swordfishtrombones
Most folks swear by Rain Dogs as the best Tom Waits album; naturally, I disagree. Fishswordtrombones from 1983, the first of his 1980s "Frank Trilogy" (followed by Rain Dogs and Frank's Wild Years) is, musically speaking, the most brazen and raucous of the three. And perhaps because the music takes the forefront on this album, and Waits himself is more bluesy and belting, that I prefer it over the more subdued Rain Dogs. Fishswordtrombones also is the first album that breaks with the more conventional piano and strings compositional style he employed throughout the 1970s, opting for an odd assortment of percussion instruments and a more esoteric poeticism in his lyrics. Like Captain Beefheart before him, whatever you say about Tom Waits, you have to admit they broke the mold when he poured a shot of bourbon in a dirty glass and plunked the keys of that off-key upright piano for the first time. Truly original.
Worth the price of admission: Down, Down, Down, Gin-Soaked Boy, Soldier's Things, 16 Shells For a Thirty-Ought Six, Rainbirds.

Jane's Addiction - Nothing's Shocking
It's sad that, like David Lee Roth, Perry Farrell got more obnoxious with age. But hey, at least we got one great album out of him! From the arresting cover (that most U.S. national retailers refused to carry without a brown paper wrapper), the music video of "Mountain Song" that MTV refused to air because of nudity, and Farrell making egotistical and ludicrous demands of his other bandmates, it's surprising that Nothing's Shocking sold any albums at all, or that the original band stayed together long enough to record another album (Ritual de lo Habitual). But Nothing's Shocking got released and managed to sell 200,000 copies in its first release with limited airplay, lack of store presence, or MTV rotation. The album itself is listed in the "heavy metal" genre, but songs like "Jane Says" and "Summertime Rolls" hint at something beyond the generic metallic mundanity of the the late 80s. I've always loved "Pigs in Zen".
Worth the price of admission: Jane Says, Mountain Song, Summertime Rolls, Ted, Just Admit It, Pigs in Zen.

Dire Straits - Love Over Gold
Contrary to the blasé buying habits of the general listening public, Brothers in Arms is not, in any way, shape or form, Dire Strait's best album. It is commercially detestable, aurally indigestible and critically contestable. But hey, if you enjoy such annoyingly overplayed bits of MTV tripe like "Money for Nothing" or "Walk of Life", then avert your eyes, as this review aint for you. If, however, you enjoy moving songs played elegantly and some genuinely gorgeous riffs plucked by guitar-picker extraordinaire Mark Knopfler, then there's hope for you yet! Love Over Gold is an album that was very ambitious, but was successful in achieving an incredibly evocative sound and an impeccable clarity, even over the 14+ minute composition "Telegraph Road", the stellar centerpiece of the album. Then there is one of my favorite songs of the 80s, "Industrial Disease", one of the funniest takes on technology overload ever written (with a wonderfully infectious organ line and sly Dylanesque lyrics and rhyme scheme). There is also the dark "Private Investigations", and jazzy stylings of the title track. And Sting was not required to sing backup anywhere on the album.
Worth the price of admission: Industrial Disease, Telegraph Road, Private Investigations, Love Over Gold.

Black Sabbath - Heaven and Hell
You know, I was considering leaving Heaven and Hell off this initial list and place it further down the food chain in a later installment. After all, this was Black Sabbath without Ozzie, it has Ronnie James Dio writing lyrics (Dio rhymes like Dr. Seuss, except the good doctor is more subtle), and there were several other hard rock/heavy metal albums of consequence from the 80s (from AC/DC, Iron Maiden, Metallica, Van Halen, etc.). But this is really the only album of that genre and era I still give a damn about enough to listen to. Heaven and Hell has held up remarkably well through passing fads and fancies of metallic mayhem, and the powerful combination of Dio's devilish vocals and Tony Iommi's monstrous guitar are a guilty pleasure for an old fart like me (rather like the Dio/Blackmore combo on Rainbow's Rainbow Rising). There are no inane death growls mucking up Dio's booming delivery, no repetitive extended hammer-on leads are necessary in Iommi's exquisite and succinct guitar repertoire, and the percussively explosive tandem of drummer Bill Ward and bassist Geezer Butler have always been one of my favorite rhythm duos. Rest in peace Ronnie James!
Worth the price of admission: Heaven and Hell, Neon Knights, Children of the Sea, Lonely is the Word.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love you to death for including Tracy Chapman and Los Lobos in this list.