Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Psychobabble’s Ten Greatest Albums of 1981

Greatness was in short order in the increasingly shallow pop scene of 1981. Punk faded, MTV entered the picture. Style started trumping substance and would continue to do so throughout the rest of the decade. That does not mean ’81 was a wash by any means. After more than a decade of the L.P.’s reign, singles started reclaiming their role as the ideal pop vehicle, and the year saw some great ones. “Under Pressure”! “Genius of Love”! “Kids in America”! “We Got the Beat”! “Electric Avenue”! Yes! There were also some genuinely great albums to be heard. Here’s a selection of ten.

10. AHS 1005 by Lyres

Glossy, soulless pop production had barely begun ruining many an ‘80s album when Boston-based Lyres were already in revolt. AHS 1005 is impossible to place as a record released in 1981. The snarling attitude and raw production are pure ’65. Jeff Conolly put together Lyres after his even more brutish group, DMZ, went extinct in the late ‘70s. The new combo allowed more breathing space for his throaty grunt and squealing Farfisa, but he’d hardly been tamed. Neo-Nuggets such as “Buried Alive” and “100 CC’s (Pure Thrust)” burn with all the cro-mag fury of The Sonics, The Shadows of Knight, Question Mark and the Mysterians, and the rest of the mop-topped, one-hit wondering horde. “High on Yourself”, “She Pays the Rent”, and “Help You Ann” are garage rock masterpieces with all the catchiness and pure thrust of the oldies that inspired them. Released as a 45 RPM 12” L.P., AHS 1005 shreds by in under 25 minutes. Another minute may have caused listeners’ heads to cave in.

9. Pleasant Dreams by The Ramones

The Ramones’ formula—a few words shouted over a couple of power chords all brought in under two minutes—resulted in a lot of amazing music, but it was also limiting. After four great records they recruited Phil Spector to expand their sound on End of the Cenutry with unspectacular results. Instead of accepting that minor failure and retreating to raw simplicity, The Ramones gave progress another shot by having Graham Gouldman produce Pleasant Dreams. Gouldman may be best known as a member of mock-poppers 10cc, but The Ramones were likely more impressed by the songs he wrote for The Yardbirds, The Hollies, Herman’s Hermits, and other ‘60s favorites. Not surprisingly, the band was again disappointed by the overly slick product of their efforts. Graham’s compressed, smooth production doesn’t have the raw power of Tommy Ramone’s work on those first four records, yet Pleasant Dreams is a lot better than its reputation suggests. The indifference of End of the Century is replaced by a sort of bitter rejuvenation in Joey’s writing after Johnny “stole” his girlfriend, Linda. Joey’s pain over losing the woman he loved, and anger about being stuck in a band with the guy who was now groping her in the back of the van, rips through “Don’t Go” and “The KKK Took My Baby Away”. Despite Gouldman’s attempts to domesticate them, the band sounds fierce on “All’s Quiet on the Eastern Front”, which features one of Dee Dee’s best vocal counterpoints, “You Sound Like You’re Sick”, and “You Didn’t Mean Anything to Me”. Joey and Dee Dee’s songs are as catchy as ever, often favoring a more jangle-pop sound than the speedy punk of their earlier work. If not for Gouldman’s polished production, Pleasant Dreams could have easily rated alongside The Ramone’s best records.

8. Beauty and the Beat by The Go Gos

The Go-Go’s rose from the same L.A. punk scene that spawned hardcore groups like The Germs (for whom Belinda Carlisle briefly drummed) and Fear, but their earliest recordings indicate that their punk predecessors were The Shangri-La’s rather than, say, The Sonics. When they made their debut album for I.R.S. in 1981, producers Richard Gotteherer and Rob Freeman had basically shaved off the stubbly rawness of those demos, while the label packaged Beauty and the Beat condescendingly with a title that emphasized their physical attractiveness and in an LP sleeve that depicted them doing such “girly” things as posing in mud masks, blabbing on the phone, and sniffing flowers. All of that bullshit still could not tame the five women whom VH-1 documentaries remind us were completely out of control. Tracks like “Lust to Love”, “This Town”, “Tonight”, “We Got the Beat”, and “Can’t Stop the World” are desperately passionate, the slick and poppy production failing to reign in Gina Schock’s tom-tom clobbering and Belinda Carlisle’s over-the-edge yowling completely. Not that pop was the wrong direction for The Go-Go’s, and they made some utterly perfect pop classics with “Our Lips Our Sealed” and “How Much More”, while attitudinal lyrics about lust, love, and roaming and ruling the streets like panthers prove that no idiotic bathtub photo shoot could sanitize the very dirty spirit of The Go-Go’s.

7. Juju by Siouxsie and the Banshees

Beginning as a ramshackle, abrasive excuse for terrorizing audiences with bizarre improvisations and Siouxsie Sioux’s forward fashion sense, Siouxsie and the Banshees rapidly developed into a superior Goth-pop combo. Much progress was evident on 1980’s Kaleidoscope, but the band’s first truly great album was its fourth. The group compositions are startlingly strong. “Spellbound” and “Arabian Nights” were U.K. hit singles that still incorporated a good deal of the icy exoticism of The Banshees’ earlier records. These tracks, along with “Into the Light” and “Monitor”, also bear a strong whiff of mid-‘60s psychedelia. Were Siouxsie and her Banshees compulsively spinning Their Satanic Majesties Request while composing these tracks? Perhaps, perhaps. Meanwhile “Halloween” marries the discordance of the band’s first two albums to a propulsive dark pop song. “Sin in My Heart”, “Night Shift”, and “Voodoo Dolly” are scary mood pieces. Throughout the record Siouxsie remains in masterful control of a croon that could sometimes veer off course in the past. The record’s most bracing contributions may come from guitarist John McGeoch, who keeps the songs from straying too far into conventional new wave with his flickering fireballs of heavily effected noise. Siouxsie and the Banshees would perfect their sound on the following year’s A Kiss in the Dream House, and continue to develop it in varying directions from there, but Juju marks the moment that the band first harnessed its dark powers.

6. Hard Promises by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers solidified their reputation as the best neo-classic rockers of their day with 1979’s Damn the Torpedoes. That album’s success instilled the band with a cool confidence that found them goofing off a bit on their next album. Hard Promises doesn’t have the urgency of the record that preceded it. “Nightwatchman”, a funky little toss-off about a nightwatchman, never would have made the cut on Damn the Torpedoes, but its lighthearted tone is what makes Hard Promises such a pleasure. “Something Big” and “The Criminal Kind” are slight by Torpedoes standards, but they still smolder and their ornery southwestern tang is a nice new ingredient in the Heartbreakers’ retro gumbo. The rest of the album requires no buts or howevers. “The Waiting” is the band’s most convincing Byrds homage and one of the great jangle-pop songs of the ‘80s. The Heartbreakers let it rip on the exhilarating rockers “King’s Road” and “A Thing About You”, and settle into moody angst on “A Woman in Love”. Stevie Nicks repays Tom and the guys for their work on her “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” by lending her strangled pipes to the bitter “Insider” and the delicate “You Can Still Change Your Mind”. Throughout it all Petty uses his distinctive nasal yowl to incredible effect, whether screaming his way down “King’s Road” or hovering over “You Can Still Change Your Mind”. Real Rock & Roll in an era of synthesized posturing…

5. Controversy by Prince

…not that synthesized posturing is always a bad thing! From the croak of digital keyboard that kicks off its title cut, Controversy never lets up and Prince never breaks character. Funk royalty, sexual messiah, tiny dancer in platform kicks, preacher of peace and love— the Prince persona coalesces on his fourth record and it is awesome to behold. He’d already shed all shades of soul convention on the experimental Dirty Mind. Controversy is the “professional” realization of Prince’s newfound individuality. The record sounds big, polished, and perfectly realized, less lo-fi and demo-like than Dirty Mind. While that album sounded like the work of a one-man band holed up in his basement studio, Controversy sounds as though it was recorded by a unified group even though Prince personally handles most of the parts again. The material hits new highs too. “Controversy” is a magnificent mission statement in which Prince gets the ball rolling on his own mythology. Was anyone really debating whether he was “straight or gay” before he’d even released a major hit record? No matter, because they certainly were now. He continues to freak out the straights and stir controversy with the hopped up, hilarious “Jack U Off”, but there’s less shock value here than on Dirty Mind. Prince even dabbles in above-the-waist issues on “Ronnie, Talk to Russia”, a zippy plea for Cold War resolution, and the more muddled, headline-snatching “Annie Christian”. Of course, Prince does most of his thinking with Little Prince, and there’s plenty of unambiguous hip grinding on “Sexuality”, “Do Me Baby”, and “Private Joy”. Party record, orgy soundtrack, and compendium of current affairs, Controversy heralded the coming of the new decade’s resident pop genius.

4. Wild Gift by X

Wild Gift picked up right where Los Angeles left off, with Ray Manzarek once again taking the producer’s chair and X bolting through another set of corrosive social commentary and ruminations on sex and death, though not always in high society. The band sounds tighter this time, and Manzarek’s work is a bit smoother, yet X was still an album away from settling into a more sedate sound. “We’re Desperate”, “I’m Coming Over”, and “It’s Who You Know” are totally unhinged punk rock. There is still greater diversity here than on Los Angeles. An undercurrent of ‘50s rock and roll swims throughout Wild Gift, really boogying to the surface via guitarist Billy Zoom’s muted arpeggios and Bigsby-bending on “Adult Books”, the sock hop-gone-wild vibe of “In This House That I Call Home”, the souped-up Rockabilly rhythms of “Beyond and Back”, and the Chuck Berry jive of “Year 1”. Exene and John Doe’s tales of smut and street life aren’t quite as potent as they were on the first album. Nothing here is as unflinching as “Johnny Hit and Run Pauline” or “Los Angeles”, but their weaving howls make even relatively slight lyrics like “I’m Coming Over” feel harrowing. Wild Gift strikes a perfect balance between the rabid ferocity of the record that came before it and the polish of the one that followed, and for that it might be X’s best.

3. Tattoo You by The Rolling Stones

Including Tattoo You on this list is a bit of a cheat since it isn’t actually a new recording circa 1981. The Stones gathered up leftover tracks cut since the Goat’s Head Soup sessions way back in ’72, gave them a fresh coat of grease, and slipped them out as their “newest” record. Ironically, Tattoo You wound up sounding fresher than anything The Stones had released in nearly ten years. The minimalistic “Start Me Up” has probably aged poorer than any of the band’s other “classics,” but most of the record remains a treat. There’s none of the forced cynicism of Some Girls or the laziness of Black and Blue and Emotional Rescue. How did the charming, uncharacteristically sincere “Waiting on a Friend” take nearly a decade to see release? Why did the guys sit on the hypnotic groove “Slave” and the breath-taking soul ballad “Worried About You” for so long? None of that matters in the end, because these superior cuts landed on a superior album that also included the cream of the band’s more recent material: “Hang Fire”, an ode to unemployment that works better as party-starter than social-criticism, “Little T&A”, Keith’s white hot, politically incorrect love song, and “No Use in Crying”, another wonderful soul number. The album’s categorized structure—rockers on Side A; make-out ballads on B—draws attention to its function as a clearing-house, yet it makes for a very pleasing listening experience. That function also indicated that The World’s Greatest Rock & Roll Band might be winding down. Though they weren’t even half way through their record-making history in 1981, the band’s most inspiring moments were undeniably in the past. So Tattoo You feels like a parting gift from The Rolling Stones when they were still great.

2. Trust by Elvis Costello and the Attractions

After four concentrated albums, the meandering Trust suggested that Elvis Costello was either prepping a major career shift or reaching an impasse. The album is a summation of much of what he and The Attractions had already explored. “You’ll Never Be a Man”, “Pretty Words”, and “Watch Your Step” recall the pure-pop of Armed Forces, while “Clubland” and “Strict Time” pound with Get Happy!! soul power. “Luxembourg” is a rockabilly number with some of the punk fury of This Year’s Model that also portends the less energetic country spoofs to come on Almost Blue. Because Trust wanders where those earlier records maintained laser-focus— a possible side effect of Elvis’s prodigious chemical consumption while making the record—it feels like a lesser album, yet the songs listed above all bear the stamp of quality fans had come to expect from Elvis Costello compositions. He also takes great chances by presenting a scary account of domestic abuse (“White Knuckles”), attempting a sort of mock-Russian ballad (“Shot With His Own Gun”), and tacking a strange, one-man-band experiment (“Big Sister’s Clothes”) to the end of the record. The Attractions play with their usual precision, though not always with their usual fire. A jumble of styles and sounds realized with varying levels of intensity, Trust may have seemed like a bit of a misstep in 1981. In light of similarly eclectic records, such as Spike, All This Useless Beauty, and National Ransom, it now sounds like the first installment in an ongoing series that houses some of his very best material.

1. Ghost in the Machine by The Police

The Police had the world’s ear after the break though smash Zenyatta Mondatta, and they used that newfound power to develop their sound and delve deeper into world politics on Ghost in the Machine. Sting almost singlehandedly transformed the band by dubbing huge saxophone sections and various keyboards over Stewart Copeland’s ever-intricate drumming, Andy Summers’s squalling guitar, and his own rubbery bass lines. A clutch of exceptionally ominous songs set the tone for The Police’s darkest record. “Spirits in the Material World”, “Secret Journey”, and “Darkness” are intoxicating fusions of reggae and near-Gothic spookiness. The hopeful refrain “There has to be an invisible sun” does little to lift that song above its grim descriptions of surviving amidst the twin blights of war and poverty. “Demolition Man”, “Rehumanize Yourself”, and “Too Much Information” are nerve-wracking in their emotional and physical violence and jittery performances. “Ωmegaman" is a discordant tale of technological and urban isolation and Andy Summers’s best song. These tracks swath shadows over some of The Police’s lightest work. With its steel drums, swirling Pete Townshend-esque synthesizers, Caribbean flavor, and message of elated awe, “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” is one of the ‘80s’ most infectious love songs. The ska “Hungry for You (J'aurais Toujours Faim de Toi)” certainly didn’t have that track’s commercial impact, yet it’s nearly as enthralling. “One World (Not Three)” is a sweet plea for global unity. Lovely as those numbers are, Ghost in the Machine leaves the listener with a lingering taste of anxiety more affecting than anything on any other Police record. Powerful stuff.

Six More Great Albums from 1981
Faith by The Cure
Bad Reputation by Joan Jett
Give the People What They Want by The Kinks
Moving Pictures by Rush
Pretenders II by The Pretenders
Face Dances by The Who
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