'80s music didn't suck (part II)

>> Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Prince, Purple Rain (1984): There are a few records that maybe everybody heard too many times that could make a list like this. Springsteen's Born In The USA (1984) and Dire Straits' Brothers In Arms (1985) are albums that could make a list like this (especially the latter)but they almost wore out their welcome (especially the former). So there's a temptation to leave the Purple One out of this, or to go with Around The World In A Day (1985) or the underrated Parade (1986). (A string of albums, by the way, that almost makes the case in and of itself that the '80s didn't suck.)

But why deny the sublime? Purple Rain was an awesome record top to bottom, the peak of an era when Prince hadn't become the punchline to a joke nobody got and could put together a flawless record. What's the weak link on this album? "Baby I'm A Star," with its relentless groove? "Computer Blue"? Hey, no song that begins with Wendy and Lisa sounding like they're working a phone sex line is a bad song. As for the rest of the record, there's no "good" songs, there's only great stuff--"Let's Go Crazy," "When Doves Cry," and the title track, which I'd throw out there as an easy candidate for 10-best guitar solos of all time.


Talking Heads, Speaking In Tongues (1983): Speaking of strings of perfect albums: the Heads '80s studio output consisted of the brutalistic but beautiful Remain In Light (1980), the trippy Little Creatures (1985), the soundtrack from David Byrne's can't-explain-why-I-like-it-but-I-do directing debut True Stories (1986), and the for-the-sake-of-completeness-let's-mention Naked (1988). And, of course, this one. Only one misfire in the batch, and to be fair it was sporting of them to try to make it work one last time before calling it quits.

But enough about that. Speaking In Tongues may be the ass-shakingest disc in this set of ten, and that's on a list with Purple Rain. Here is how you tell if your ass is broken: if you can play "Pull Up The Roots" without causing a shimmy, it's busted, and you need a new ass. To see if your shoulders are working, try "Swamp" or "Girlfriend Is Better." As for the classic "Burning Down The House," the album's first track and the big track in the U.S.--you can argue it's the weakest track on the record. Still, that jittering acoustic guitar fade-in is kinda fucking awesome.


Pixies, Surfer Rosa (1988): Maybe this should've been first on the list--except how do you deny Bowie, who (by the way) faithfully covered "Cactus" on 2002's Heathen, which had to rock for Black Francis.

Surfer Rosa probably defined '90s alternative as much as anything that came out that decade, even Nevermind, which Kurt Cobain openly acknowledged was his attempt to record a Pixies album. It's also one of those '80s records, along with Meat Is Murder, that you hear indie stations playing alongside stuff that came out this year, and "Break My Body" and (of course) "Where Is My Mind?" sound like they might've come out this year. As for the ephemeral "Tony's Theme"... hey, everybody's entitled to a larf now and then.


U2, The Unforgettable Fire (1984): Time has been kind, which is why this one is making the list instead of my personal favorite, War (1983) or that ubiquitous classic, The Joshua Tree (1987). Unforgettable Fire was not a loved album when it came out, getting middling reviews from much of the press and baffling friends who were expecting something clamorous and strident after the Live At Red Rocks EP (1983).

That wasn't this album, with its subdued Anton Corbijn cover photo hinting at the record's wintry churchbell guitars. U2 wouldn't be U2 without anthems--"Bad" and "Pride (In The Name Of Love)" became staples of the band's live shows, but this was more of an atmospheric album, bookmarked by the spacey jangle of "A Sort Of Homecoming" and the nearly a cappella "MLK," with Bono's keening voice matched only by a haunting, buzzing drone. Even the urgent "Wire" and "Indian Summer Sky" were implosive, convulsive tracks.

But out of all the band's '80s records--and the '80s were inarguably U2's finest decade--this is the one that has aged the most gracefully, getting mellower and deeper like something kept in an oak cask. Whether it was just a special year for the band or whether it was some arcane spell cast by Brian Eno, I can't say.

On the downside, this album marked the beginning of U2's love affair with the concept of America, an obsession that turned into a sort of goofiness by the time it metastasized on Rattle And Hum (1988). Like Bowie, U2 would have to go to Berlin to recalibrate. Unlike Bowie, Bono hasn't seemed to possess the self-awareness to know when he's veered into self-parody; Bowie has stepped back from the brink more than once, but Bono, having fallen over the edge, no longer has that option.



R.E.M., Lifes Rich Pageant (1986): For the first few years, R.E.M. seemed to want to be an antirock rock band, much the same way Pavement eventually would be; the guitar player didn't play solos per se or even straight melodic lines, necessarily, the lead singer mumbled his way through everything, there was a country streak there that wouldn't pass in Nashville and more than a trace of The Velvet Underground's sensibilities without as much hipster artiness (or heroin addictions).

But when they did decide to record what was basically a rock album--well, Pageant rocks. "Begin The Begin" is good guitar crunchiness and feedback and "Fall On Me" and "I Believe" as anthemic as you could ask for. "Swan Swan H" is too tender not to mention and "Cuyahoga," a memorial to one of the times the river of the same name caught fire again, too desolate to overlook. And they close with the band's cover of "Superman," which sounds like it was recorded in someone's garage--and that's a compliment.


And that's ten. I could keep doing this, and I might, though early feedback is suggesting I haven't quite made my case. I didn't mention The Police, or Peter Gabriel, or Kate Bush--which also means I haven't even mentioned some of my favorite artists of the era. And a few stalwarts of the '70s continued putting out good records, plus some opening shots from some people who would be titanic in the '90s.

But this was a start.


13 comments:

Leanright,  Tuesday, February 23, 2010 at 3:02:00 PM EST  

Eric,

My friend, how can you discuss great albums of the 80's, and not bring up these?

Depeche Mode: Some Great Reward
Tears for Fears: Songs from the
Big Chair
New Order: Power, Corruption &
Lies
Howard Jones: Human Lib

Eric Tuesday, February 23, 2010 at 3:30:00 PM EST  

Because I was confining myself to ten, five yesterday, five today.

Good calls, though I'm not a Howard Jones fan. And if I were confining myself to one DM album from the decade I might have to go with Black Celebration, though I think Reward and Music For The Masses are phenomenal albums.

Anybody else got some favorites they'd put in a list of great '80s records?

Jeri Tuesday, February 23, 2010 at 4:55:00 PM EST  

I do not get Prince. At all. He's widely regarded as a brilliant musician but I find his music, his lyrics and his his entertainment image to be annoying. (Well, the image crosses over into repulsive)

I may come back later with a constructive contribution - but wanted to share my Princely revulsion while I was thinking about it.

Eric Tuesday, February 23, 2010 at 5:18:00 PM EST  

Jeri, you are insufficiently funky. Go to Amazon or iTunes and download Purple Rain and/or 1999, stat, and try to raise your funk levels before hypofunklexia becomes life-threatening (listening to some P-Funk is also acceptable).

leanright,  Tuesday, February 23, 2010 at 5:24:00 PM EST  

This might be a good weekly addition to your blog.

Jeri Tuesday, February 23, 2010 at 7:09:00 PM EST  

Y'know, I have a fairly healthy self image. Nonetheless, when describing myself, the word "funky" doesn't appear anywhere in the top 1,000 words or so.

I'm ok with being insufficiently funky.

My 80s top picks would run more to:
AC/DC "Back in Black"
Judas Priest "Screaming for Vengeance"
Scorpions "Blackout" for the cover art alone
NIN "Pretty Hate Machine"

Hmm, I think my 80s preferences were pretty metallic. :)

Nathan Tuesday, February 23, 2010 at 10:50:00 PM EST  

I'm actually totally OK with your choices...including the ones you wish you could have included.

And Prince was pretty fucking cool.

Random Michelle K Wednesday, February 24, 2010 at 9:17:00 PM EST  

You've got two of my favorites there.

I love love love Prince. Purple Rain was the first album I ever purchased, and although Around the World in a Day and Parade may be better, Purple Rain is more accessible.

And Prince rocking out led to Living Colour rocking out, and I love Living Colour.

The other is The Unforgettable Fire, which I absolutely adore. Though I think that Joshua Tree may be a tad bit better, simply because when I hear a song from Joshua Tree, I want to hear the entire album.

Re Depeche Mode, Some Great Reward is very good, and has some of my favorite songs (ie Blasphemous Rumors), but I think Music for the Masses holds together a little better as an album--again, it's an album I want to hear all over, over a single song.

preeb = pretentious coed

rbird Thursday, February 25, 2010 at 8:23:00 PM EST  

I'm pretty sure I "borrowed" several of these records from your room when I was a sneaky little sister. Thanks for making me listen to cool music bro.

rbird Thursday, February 25, 2010 at 8:24:00 PM EST  

Addendum to my comment above: Appetite was definitely mine first.

Eric Thursday, February 25, 2010 at 8:28:00 PM EST  

Appetite was indeed yours first--as was Lies, if I remember correctly. :)

rbird Tuesday, March 2, 2010 at 11:24:00 PM EST  

you bought me lies...it might have been the same year that you got me Def Leppard's Paranoia, and told me that if I was going to listen to "bad music it might as well be the old stuff."

Eric Wednesday, March 3, 2010 at 9:29:00 AM EST  

I think what I meant re: the Def Leppard was that Paranoia was a great album and Hysteria wasn't. Or maybe I was just being a dick. :)

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