10. JANE’S ADDICTION- NOTHING’S SHOCKING (1988)
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If “Appetite for Destruction” shook up the stale hard rock/heavy metal landscape of the mid 80’s, then 1988’s “Nothing Shocking” drilled a hole right through it. Dave Navarro’s crunching guitar riffs and wild solos and Perry Farrell’s screaming banshee howl vocals left no listener in doubt that Jane’s Addiction was a heavy rock band, but the band’s far left of center style, it’s neo-hippie values & its general overall weirdness made them decidedly un-Metal. I think that “Nothing’s Shocking” did more than any other album of its time to lay the groundwork for “Nevermind” three years later. “Nothing’s Shocking” was certainly a bit before it’s time and likely would have been nearly as big as albums like “Nevermind” and “Ten” if it had come out a bit later. Along with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane’s was the consummate late 80’s Los Angeles alternative band and due to lack of national airplay, they were much larger commercially in their native L.A. than the rest of the country. Tracks like “Mountain Song”, “Had A Dad”, “Ocean Size” & “Pigs in Zen” are hard rock classics and it’s surprising to me that they aren’t played all over today’s hard rock/modern rock radio. Two tracks off of their next album, “Been Caught Stealin'” and “Stop” receive the bulk of airplay in modern radio today, along with ballad “Jane Says” which is the one track from “Shocking” that everyone seems to know despite it never being released as a single. As good as “Jane Says” is 6+ minute ballad “Summertime Rolls” is even better. There are no misses on “Nothing’s Shocking”. If you don’t have it pick it up.
“Let It Be” was a touchstone album for me. As memory serves I bought it on cassette in 1990 for probably $3.99 or something after seeing it ranked in Rolling Stone’s “Top 100 Albums of the 80’s’ issue. I had already heard of the band and was a fan of the track “I’ll Be You” off of 1989’s “Don’t Tell A Soul” album but I had no idea how great the band really was until I bought “Let It Be”. Aside from the review the album cover jumped out at me as well- the photograph of all four members sitting on the roof seemed to tell so much about the band and I wanted to know and hear more. The cover takes me back to my early twenties when it was you & your best friends against the world. “Let It Be” captures the moment between the Mats early hardcore days and their four album major label stint starting with 1985’s “Tim”. It is the Replacement’s best album, one of the best albums of the eighties, and one of the best albums in the history of indie rock. It is an unbelievably eclectic record- opening track “I Will Dare” is a jangle-pop shuffle with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck guesting on guitar that lays down the gauntlet for the rest of the album. “Sixteen Blue” is an incredibly sensitive ballad about teen angst, where “Androgynous” is a quirky ballad featuring lead singer Paul Westerberg solo with his piano the only instrumentation. Westerberg pours out his soul on “Unsatisfied”, and “Answering Machine”, his vocals expressing more than words ever could. “Let It Be” is rounded out with with some heavier rockers which touch back to their earlier days. songs “Gary’s Got a Boner” is a bit of a one note joke but “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” is ridiculous fun and quite a headshaker to boot. They even do a straight cover of KISS’s “Black Diamond”, showing their influences to be much more than cool indie bands.
8. U2- THE JOSHUA TREE (1987)
Buy The Joshua Tree (Deluxe Edition) [Remastered] – U2
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With the release of “The Joshua Tree”, U2’s fifth full length album, the band became the biggest rock band on the planet- heroes to both their longtime Generation X fans and now to the Baby Boomer generation as well. The Boomers had mostly missed out on the U2 bandwagon up to that point, but after the three pronged single attack of “With or Without You”, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and amazing opener “Where the Streets Have No Name” the band became inescapable to anyone with an even mild interest in current music. U2 had also stripped down their sound- still anthemic but decidedly less post-punk and more roots-rock/Americana. The new sound fit them well- so well that with all of the great releases in U2’s canon, particularly in the eighties, I would have to say that “The Joshua Tree” is their very best. The above mentioned singles are certainly great songs but they are not even my favorites on the album- album tracks “Running to Stand Still” and “Red Hill Mining Town” bare that stamp and I consider both among the best ten songs that U2 has done period. Though track “Bullet the Blue Sky” is somewhat polarizing I find it to be another album highlight as well as “One Tree Hill” and “In God’s Country”- both solid enough that I still hear them on the radio all these years later. After “Joshua Tree” U2 would delve further into American roots music with “Rattle and Hum” to varying degrees of success but in 1987 they had found a perfect blend.
The Smiths were a great band- a great singles band, a great albums band and the definitive British band of the eighties. All of their albums are worthwhile purchases including amazing compilations like “Hatful of Hollow” and “Louder than Bombs” that house many of their singles and b-sides. But the Smiths definitive statement is 1986’s “Queen is Dead” album. It’s their most musically diverse and hardest rocking album- particularly with the great and underrated title track. Guitarist Johnny Marr moves from upbeat acoustic pop to rockabilly, from to melancholy acoustic strumming to metallic crunch throughout the album. He is simply one of the most diverse and inventive guitarists in all of rock music And singer Morrissey is at his most satirical and lyrically witty on “Queen”. The singles on the album- “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side”, “There is a Light that Never Goes Out”, “The Bigmouth Strikes Again”- are pillars of the Smiths catalog, but the whole album is so solid that they fit right into the rest of the album. “Cemetery Gates” and the title track are the other standouts but there isn’t a bad song on the album. The Smiths would go on the record only one additional album- the lesser but still great “Strangeways, Here We Come”. Their entire recorded output was released between 1983-87. There are great bands who have been together twenty-five or thirty years who done less than what the Smiths did in those five short years. Amazing!
The Pixies “Doolittle”, their second album, was (along with “Badmotorfinger” by Soundgarden) the first cd I ever got- this would have been Christmas of 1991 (yeah I know I was late to the party) and at the time I was only asking for music on cd that I didn’t already have on cassette. I took a chance on the Pixies as I saw the video for “Here Comes Your Man” and really liked the song. I really had no idea what I was in for- the Pixies (at the time at least) were a much tougher sell to late teens/early twenty-somethings who were busy gobbling up music by Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins etc… They certainly rocked out like those bands but they were just so much weirder and non radio/MTV ready. I quickly fell in love with the band in the first few listens and set out to collect their whole discography. All these years later I can say that they are my favorite band of that time period- even over Nirvana, the Pumpkins or Sonic Youth. And it seems like the rest of the public has now caught up to them as well- teens and twenty-somethings today revere the Pixies more than many other grunge/alternative bands at the time.. Though all of their albums are great, “Doolittle” is still my favorite- the album is sequenced amazingly well with a great ebb and flow between the rockers and the quieter tunes- and there are highlights throughout- “Here Comes Your Man”, “Monkey Gone to Heaven” and “Wave of Mutilation” are about as accessible as the band gets. “Gouge Away” and “Debaser” are my favorites and two of their loudest screamers- rivaling just about anything Nirvana did. Bassist Kim Deal stars on “La La Love You” and deep tracks like “Tame” and “I Bleed” are phenomenal if unappreciated. While all of the Pixies studio albums are a must “Doolittle” is the best place to start.
5. THE BEASTIE BOYS- PAUL’S BOUTIQUE (1989)
Buy Paul’s Boutique (20th Anniversary Remastered Edition) – Beastie Boys
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There were three long years between the release of “License to Ill” and the Beastie Boys follow up album “Paul’s Boutique”. The anticipation for “Paul’s” was at a fever pitch by 1989 and it did sell well out of the gate but but many listeners were left disappointed after “Paul’s” proved to quite a departure. Fans wanted more rap rock anthems ala “Fight for Your Right”, and “No Sleep Til Brooklyn”, but what they got to them sounded like an incoherent mess. Album sales quickly grinded to a halt, and “Paul’s Boutique” was deemed a commercial flop. What more can I say other than “Paul’s” and the Beasties were never really made for the frat boys- they are urban, ultra hip and open minded and by shedding much of their former fan base they were able to grow exponentially as artists. “Paul’s” was built on dense, multi-layered samples and beats as opposed to the spare heavy metal guitar riffs and Led Zeppelin drum beat samples of “Ill”- some of the samples were so heavily layered that they were difficult to distinguish- a far cry from the pandering of popular tracks at the time like MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” and Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby”. The Beasties and producers the Dust Brothers sampled from all different genres- hip hop, classic rock, country, pop, early rock n’ roll and especially funk. The result is a drugged out, psychedelic sound much like later music by artists like DJ Shadow, the Chemical Brothers- the Beasties and Dust Brothers were a huge influence on both artists. The Beastie Boys, all from the greater New York City area, moved to L.A. for the recording of “Paul’s Boutique”. The album is a love letter to New York City. I get as much pleasure from this album now as I did in 1989 as there are new discoveries with each listen. It’s the Beastie’s best and most important release in their long, illustrious career.
“Murmur” is my favorite album by R.E.M., one of my very favorite bands. It was R.E.M.’s full length debut coming after the well received earlier “Chronic Town” EP and “Radio Free Europe” single. They re-recorded “Radio Free Europe” for “Murmur” and the new version is emblematic of the rest of the album, which is more atmospheric, enigmatic and folky than their previous music. R.E.M. is a true southern band and “Murmur” may be their most southern album. The music on “Murmur” sounds nothing like country music or Skynyrd-esque southern rock, but ever song on it evokes the history, mysrtery and mythology of the region. Like Missisippi delta blues Murmur could have come out of no other region but the south. Singer Michael Stipe’s slurred and garbled vocals and abstract lyrics add to the mysterious vibe. Highlights on the album include “Radio Free Europe”, “Pilgrimage”, “Perfect Circle”, “Catapult” and one of the band’s early defining songs “Talk About the Passion”, but every song on the album gets an ‘A’ from me. “Murmur” is an album worth getting into even if you think you don’t like R.E.M. Though the album sounds like no other band and it is unmistakably R.E.M. it is a singular album that stands by itself in their discography.
Like the Replacements “Let It Be”, “Daydream Nation” was another album I first heard of through Rolling Stone’s Top 100 Albums of the eighties. And once again I was captivated by the cover. I got to this album a tad bit earlier- senior year of high school rather than college. I spotted a music loving friend of mine with the cassette tape in class and I had to listen to it. He nicely loaned it to me (thanks Todd). I’ll admit the album took a few listens to sink it- to me it sounded so unique- all of the dissonance and distortion made the melodies in the songs impenetrable to me at first. I was no stranger to loud music and had listened to thrash and speed metal all through high school but “Daydream Nation” was a different animal. But once the album sunk with me it became quite the mind blower, opening me up to a world of new music. Opener “Teenage Riot” is one of the all-time greatest rock anthems. It never received any radio or MTV airplay but is still generation defining and is my pick for the ultimate Sonic Youth song in a catalog of many truly great ones. Listening to bands like Sonic Youth and the Pixies in 1989 and ’90 made the 1991/1992 alternative rock explosion seem nearly inevitable to me. Music this good just had to break out into a wider audience Though “Daydream Nation” still sounds avant-garde compared to Sonic Youth’s more mainstream (and still great) follow-up albums “Goo” and “Dirty”, it was the group’s fifth full-length album and at the time by far their most accessible. They had built their sound in the early eighties around the New York City downtown No-Wave and experimental music scene. “Daydream Nation” is the the perfect melding of the art rock scene with more in your face, anthemic alternative rock. It’s a double album, filled with lengthy songs. It’s noisy as hell yet hypnotic and sexy. It’s one of the all-time great guitar albums. Guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Renaldo, and bassist Kim Gordon all share lead vocal duties adding more variety to the album tracks. The album doesn’t have a weak moment. It ends with a blast in a three part 14 minute long suite called “Trilogy” which leaves you physically and mentally exhausted by the end.
2. PRINCE- PURPLE RAIN (1984)
Buy Purple Rain (Soundtrack from the Motion Picture) – Prince & The Revolution
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Since the late 70’s Prince’s popularity had grown slowly but steadily, first on the R&B charts and then the “1999” album broke him through to the pop and rock crowds as well. Along with Michael Jackson, Prince helped break down the color barrier at MTV as videos for “1999” and “Little Red Corvette” came into regular rotation on the channel. 1984’s album “Purple Rain” was designed to make him a megastar and it, along with its semi-autobiographical “Purple Rain” movie release, did exactly that. The album was a full on blockbuster- it spent a ridiculous 24 weeks at the #1 album spot and was the biggest pop phenomenon since “Thriller”. The album generated five top forty singles (four of them top 10) including two #1 hits in “Let’s Go Crazy” and “When Doves Cry”, and a #2 hit in the title track. Aside from those tracks, I remember hearing 3 out of the 4 album tracks on the radio as well- even the sexually uncompromising “Darling Nikki” got radio play as well much to the chagrin of the PMRC. Every track on the album was able to stand on its own but complimented the full album. Some people like to look at the eclectic “Sign o’ the Times” album as Prince’s best work and some other even prefer the stripped down funk of “Dirty Mind”. To me “Purple Rain” is by far his best and the highlight of his great career.
*It’s absolutely torturous for me to narrow the album down to it’s best two tracks- seven out of nine could have that distinction
1. PUBLIC ENEMY- IT TAKES A NATION OF MILLIONS TO HOLD US BACK (1988)
Buy It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back – Public Enemy
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“It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” is not only my choice for best album of the eighties, it’s also my pick for best rap album of all time. It exemplifies the reasons why I love rap music. 1. The relentlessly aggressive sound of producers The Bomb Squad who extended the boundaries of what was then possible in hip hop production. The album somehow sounds both atonal and funky at the same time- as noisy as a thrash metal band but as danceable as the heaviest funk. Nearly all previous rap and hip hop was simple and spare, where the Bomb Squad’s production on “Millions” is intricate and complicated. It’s very difficult to imagine a “Paul’s Boutique” or a “3 Feet High and Rising” without it. 2. The use of samples. There is a huge difference between rapping over a single string of beats in a song and calling it your own ala MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, Will Smith etc.. and sampling in an artful way. PE & the Bomb Squad uses countless samples of “Millions” often layered one sample on top of each other. Discovering the original songs- often old soul & funk music opened my ears up to so much more music exploration than simply rap. 3. PE’s provocative & controversial lyrics. PE’s main rapper and mouthpiece, Chuck D, has called rap music “CNN for black people”. Well I’m a white guy from the suburbs and the lyrics blew my head right open as well. Chuck D was unafraid to attack institutionalized racism but also point the finger at his own race for its own failings. I don’t always agree with everything he says or stands for but he never fails to make me think. “Millions” absolutely pummels with rap classic after rap classic- “Bring the Noise”, the media bashing “Don’t Believe the Hype”, “Louder than a Bomb”, the anti-crack “Night of the Living Baseheads”, “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” and maybe the best of all “Rebel Without a Pause”- some of the best tracks in rap and music history. It is a relentless and challenging album not for the faints of heart or eardrum. The album still sounds revolutionary almost twenty-five years later.