Son of '80s music didn't suck

>> Wednesday, February 24, 2010

I meant, I really meant to take a break from this "nascent feature." But (a) I feel uninspired and (b) I could list a few hundred records, probably. I hope I'm not beating something to death--unfortunately, those Mount Vernon people seem to have gone home and aren't doing anything funny I heard about. So, anyway, what the Hell--here's five more awesome albums released 1980-1989.

Peter Gabriel, Peter Gabriel (a.k.a. Security) (1982): This album is one of the most intense musical experiences I can think of--on his fourth eponymous/first titled solo album, and first record for Geffen, Gabriel's chosen theme seemed to be human contact or connectedness--which perhaps doesn't seem like much of a theme, except this was a man who spent much of his term as frontman for Genesis wearing various disguises and costumes, and who didn't appear on the covers of his own albums undistorted or unmangled until 1986; on the cover of the 1982 album Gabriel appears on a phosphor-speckled television monitor, swaddled like a mummy or a burn victim.

The disturbing image is only a hint. The opening track, "The Rhythm Of The Heat," a song about losing one's Western identity based on a dream Carl Jung once related, begins with a tribal pulsing and ends with a fusillade of footfalls performed by an African dance troupe. The next track, "San Jacinto," reverses the meme--a Native American losing his cultural identity to Westernization ends the song moaning "Hold the line" in a way that, thanks to Gabriel's tortured delivery, could be defiant or pleading. A political prisoner is told he's not isolated on "Wallflower," but it's not clear whether this is a truth or a dream. And then there's the album single: "Shock The Monkey," a Motown soul track by way of epileptic seizure.

Some albums, like this one, are meant to be played in total darkness.

The Police, Ghost In The Machine (1981): This was, actually, the first Police album I owned, but I think it would be my favorite even if it wasn't.

At some basic level, I have to confess I sort of kind of almost want to hate The Police. Part of that is that Sting has turned into... Sting (what the fuck, man? what the fucking fuck? dude.), although that's more than offset by Stewart Copeland being, maybe, my all-time-favorite percussionist. The man can lay down a rhythm. The thing about The Police was that there was a certain level of contrivance in the whole project--basically, these guys were jazz musicians who decided punk was more salable but somehow ended up playing this super-white reggae half the time instead. The problem with hating them for this is that, fucking hell, they were and are unbelievably talented, beyond talented.

It's possible that part of why I love Ghost is that it's maybe the first Police album where they dropped the contrivance of being "punk" or "sorta reggae" and just played like the unbelievably-talented sons-of-bitches they were, performing something that was too rock and too jazz to really be "fusion." Well, maybe that's not quite true, either--"Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" has sort of that paleface reggae thing going, but it's such a perfect piece of pop music that calling it "contrived" seems horribly unfair.

It's also the band's darkest record, which works too. The synth-drenched "Invisible Sun" paints the Irish troubles as a trap between darkness and desperation, an impossible choice between being shot at or being a shooter. And "Rehumanize Yourself" is probably the most giddily scathing lyric Sting's ever penned, and in the noble service of taking the piss out of ultra-right-wing shitheads ("Billy's joined the National Front / He always was a little runt / Got his hands in the air with the other cunts / You gotta humanize yourself.") Hell, even the self-pitying "pity the poor rockstar" track, Copeland's "Darkness" works somehow.

Guns N' Roses, Appetite For Destruction (1987): They could be boorish and vile, but goddamn they were so much fucking fun there's something wrong with you if you can't get into the spirit of a little misogyny or suicidal fixations on boozing, whoring and getting high. The Guns were what the Stones would've been if they'd been born about twenty years later, may the God Of Sex, Drugs And Rock'N'Roll love 'em.

Nothing they ever did after quite compared to the miracle of this first album. Use Your Illusion I & II (1991) could be slammed together into one really great disc if you left off all the shoulda-been-b-sides and, sure, Lies (1988) has "Patience" and "Used To Love Her" (and I don't care what anybody says--that song is funny) but is otherwise pretty inessential; Appetite remains the one and only record where the Guns got into a groove and stuck to it. Part of the reason, of course, is that this was the one record where G'n'R's secret songwriting weapon, Izzy Stradlin, is fully utilized and unleashed (the only track Stradlin didn't write or cowrite is "It's So Easy," and guess what--yeah, it's alright, but it's the one you could hit the "skip" button and not be missing a helluva lot).

Eleven perfect maximum rock'n'roll tracks (and "Easy"), one of which is "Sweet Child O' Mine," and how many rock ballads get better than that one, folks? I could've and maybe should've included this in the first five instead of this batch--I mean, this is the kind of album to the '80s that's like Revolver to the '60s or Exile On Main Street to the '70s, the kind of album that sort of has to be on your shelf if you're a rock fan or said shelf will never, ever, ever be complete.

Camper Van Beethoven, Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart (1988): So, here's the thing about CVB: the album I should probably put on this list is Telephone Free Landslide Victory (1985), which includes seminal tracks like "The Day That Lassie Went to the Moon" and "Take The Skinheads Bowling," which are so wonderfully literal and abstract at the same time (e.g. you should take skinheads bowling because their heads are just like bowling balls, which is something you either instantly grokked or my "explanation" really didn't help explain why the song is so sublime--notice how, either way, my "explanation" is completely superfluous, like a third nipple, especially if it happened to be on your forehead). In the '80s, if you knew a pretty eclectic record store you could maybe get TFLV if they had a copy in with the bootlegs and local labels, these days your best bet is to see if the Cigarettes & Carrot Juice boxed set is still in print (it's one of the greatest compilations ever, consisting of all of CVB's pre-Sweetheart albums and EPs, along with a really awesome live album, Greatest Hits Played Faster).

That's not to say that Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, the first really easily available CVB record, and probably their most accessible effort, isn't perfect. Because it is. Perfect and strange, with those Roger McGuinn-ish guitars, with Jonathan Segel's sweet violin set against David Lowery's nasal snarkiness as it should be when all is right in the universe. "She Divines Water" is gorgeous and possibly incomprehensible, "Tania" (the cut that gives the album it's title) may be the catchiest song ever written about a brainwashed bankrobbing terrorist, and "Life Is Grand" just goes to prove that even a hardened, bitter cynic can write a cheerful, upbeat, optimistic song solely for the purpose of fucking with people. Also, telling somebody they "look like Grace Slick" has never seemed as appallingly insulting as it does in "Turquoise Jewelry" and probably never will again. Sorry, Ms. Slick.

Cowboy Junkies, The Trinity Session (1988): Remember that old Volkswagen ad where people are driving around in a VW convertible to a party listening to Nick Drake, and then they get to the party and it's a beautiful night and Pink Moon is a beautiful album, so they don't even get out of the car, they just pull out of the parking area and keep driving? Yeah, no offense to the late Mr. Drake, but the album was supposed to be The Trinity Session. Also, we weren't in a convertible, it was an old VW microbus.

Trinity is as much about its ambiance as anything, which isn't a slam; the Junkies recorded the record with a single mike in an old church (hence the album title), and never has so much open mike noise sounded better--the low hiss and natural reverb and sounds up in the church rafters give Trinity a special, hard-to-describe natural presence that most engineers try to get rid of on most records. It's a presence that's well-suited to Margo Timmins' husky vocal deliveries of songs written by the likes of Hank Williams ("I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry") and Lou Reed ("Sweet Jane") or made famous by performers like Patsy Cline (it's an enormous compliment to Timmins that the Junkies' take on "Walking After Midnight" holds its own against Cline's version). It's also well-worth noting and high praise, too, that the band's original numbers, such as "To Love Is To Bury" (mostly written by Margo Timmins and her brother, Michael, the band's guitarist) fall into place nicely with the classic covers.

You could listen to Trinity Session anywhere, but may I suggest: driving through the country or perhaps in the mountains on a clear spring or summer night, windows down (or top, if you're in a convertible); there are ghosts on roads in the South, you know, and ghosts on this record.


Random Michelle K Wednesday, February 24, 2010 at 10:02:00 PM EST  

OK, Appetite for Destruction is good, but there were many better albums in 1987: INXS - Kick; U2 - Joshua Tree; New Order - Substance; The Cure - Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me; Depeche Mode - Music for the Masses. I think you're giving them a bit too much credit here.

I completely agree about The Trinity Sessions. Margo Timmons voice is simply ethereal.

What do I think you missed?

Red Hot Chili Peppers "Mother's Milk" I remember hearing that album for the first time and just being astounded by what I'd been missing for so long. And off that album, "Taste the Pain" is one of my all time favorite songs. The guitar, the bass, the lyrics. The version on the Say Anything soundtrack has a little extra riff--just a few seconds of extra guitar licks, but man...

You've also forgotten Nine Inch Nails "Pretty Hate Machine" which--with Jane's Addiction's "Nothing's Shocking"--ushered in changes to the punk/alternative scene. NIN is sort of the bastard child of Ministry and Depeche Mode, and both NIN and Jane's Addiction had the the angst and anger of punk--only with actual musical talent. (Don't get me wrong, I love punk, but it's not often big on musical skills and talent.)

And Aerosmith's Pump is a hell of an album. They produced the hell out of it, but it still knocks your socks off.

A lesser known but still amazing albums: Bob Mould's "Workbook" is one of my absolutely favorites. "Sunspots", the opening melody, transports me every time I listen to it. And it only gets better from there (though I admit the last track is weak in comparison to the rest of the album.) Wishing Well, Sinners and their Repentances, the whole thing is fabulous even though I've probably listened to it a million times.

Two other bands from that era I adore are Pet Shop Boys and Crowded House (I'm sure the fact I had a crush on Paul Hester had nothing to do with anything).

Enya - Watermark
Stevie Ray Vaughan - Couldn't Stand the Weather
Tom Petty - Southern Accents (that's more a personal favorite, I think technically earlier albums are better. I just love Southern Accents.)
Elvis Costello - Spike
XTC - Skylarking (though you could also make a good argument for English Settlement)
Michael Penn - March
They Might Be Giants - Lincoln

Great. I just spent an hour looking through my music, and I still don't have my own post for tomorrow.


Eric Wednesday, February 24, 2010 at 11:24:00 PM EST  

Heh--I hope I'm not forgetting things. I have a brainstorm list on the Blackberry that's already got at least thirty albums on it that were off the top of my head. The original plan was just to do ten, but that took longer than expected to write so I split it into a two-parter, then decided to add five more. And I did have one other informal rule for these first two/three entries--not to reuse a group no matter how much they deserved it. Hell, R.E.M.'s '80s output alone consisted of six solid-to-great records: Murmur, Reckoning, Fables Of The Reconstruction, Life's Rich Pageant, Document and Green, of which I think Document is the weakest (and Document is a damn good record), Murmur is the one that usually makes critics' best-of lists, and my own favoritest-pick is actually a tie between Pageant (which I included) and Fables. (Pixies also presented a tough choice for me, because while Surfer Rosa is maybe more important, I kinda like Doolittle more just for "Gouge Away".)

There was one more informal rule for this third entry: I love that folks have offered up their own examples, and I didn't want to repeat no matter how much I agreed with them--hence no Depeche these go arounds, just because I think Dave and you covered 'em nicely for now.

Which brings up something fun in this: keep mentioning the ones y'all love. I mean, notwithstanding the above, I might overlook some great records. (Hell, maybe entirely--as I recently wrote, I totally missed Dramarama in their day.) Plus it helps reinforce the point: the '80s was a solid decade for music. So keep the suggestions coming, y'all.

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