Monday, November 5, 2012

Psychobabble’s Ten Greatest Non-Thriller Albums of 1982

1982 is Thriller. Although Michael Jackson’s pop monolith was not released until the very end of the year, and it’s only single released that year is not its most fondly remembered (“The Girl is Mine”), the fact that 1982 is the number printed on our LPs, CDs, and cassettes means that year and Thriller will remain inseparably linked for all time to come. It will also be understood as fact that Thriller is the indisputably best album of 1982 in the same way that Sgt. Pepper’s is the king of ’67 and Nevermind rules ’91. Personally, none of those records are my picks for the best of their years.

Without question, Thriller is an iconic, and pretty terrific, pop record with plenty of great singles. However, there’s no denying that some tracks have not aged well (“The Girl Is Mine” and “The Lady in My Life” now sound out of place anywhere but the dentist’s office) and some are relatively weak (“P.Y.T.” is a Rock With You retread; the title track is an amazing video but fairly slight as a song). Still, Thriller is an indisputably important record, and its mega success would cast a shadow over ’80s pop. Artists from Prince to The Police would quickly follow it with their own extroverted packages of wall-to-wall, radio-ready singles, but the months preceding it saw the release of some of the most introverted and artistically satisfying albums of the ’80s. Without a doubt Thriller earns a place among Psychobabbles Great Albums, but ranking it in this company seems somehow incorrect, like entering Star Wars in a German Expressionism film festival. That’s why Psychobabble can only proceed by presenting the Ten Greatest Non-Thriller albums of 1982…

10. Third Degree by Nine Below Zero

In the late 70s, Nine Below Zero drummed up much local interest as one of London’s finest pub bands. They drew sweat like their punk peers while channeling the attitudinal blues of the early Stones and Yardbirds. Mark Feltham did things to his harp Jagger never dared. By their third album, they had transferred the wild energy they put into the Motown covers that made up their legendary stage sets (captured on their debut LP, Live at the Marquee) to a serrated line-up of all-original material. It’s no hollow gesture that the band chose Swinging London-icon David Bailey to shoot the cover of Third Degree. The album finds Nine Below Zero tight, taut, modish. With only the thinnest 1982 sheen, the album stirs memories of circa-’65 Small Faces and Who. The tough, bluesy power pop contained inside never betrays the listener’s demand for a killer chorus. “Wipe Away Your Kiss” is an infectious homage to The Jam playing homage to The Beatles. “Why Can’t We Be What We Want to Be” slows the pace without letting up on the intensity. “Egg on My Face” is a vain attempt to temper the band’s fire by swapping acoustics for the usual electric attack. “Sugarbeat (And Rhythm Sweet)” is freaky soul spotlighting Brian Bethell’s wiry bass, and the pile driving lead-off track, “Eleven Plus Eleven”, would deserve classic-single status even if it hadn’t helped launch “The Young Ones”. Though they never had much impact in the U.S. beyond their sitcom debut, Nine Below Zero are well worthy of discovery by anyone who digs their ties as skinny as their drainpipe trousers, realizes Pete Townshend was always at his best when thrashing a Rickenbacker, and understands that Elvis Costello would have been a lot better off had he never met Langer and Winstanley.

9. Under the Big Black Sun by X

After two thrashing workouts on Slash Records, X took their enterprise (including producer Ray Manzarek) to the sympathetic major label Elektra. During the move, X lost some of their punk baggage, which allowed their ‘50s influences to really shine through on Under the Big Black Sun. There’s a lot of Bo Diddley rolling in “The Hungry Wolf” and “Motel Room in My Bed” and “Come Back to Me” is lush, Flamingoes-style balladry. The psycho rumba “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes” and the surfy title track extend the retro vibe. X still makes room to jet back to their high-velocity roots on “Because I Do” and “Real Child of Hell”, but Under the Big Black Sun is powerful less for its aggression and more for its maturity. And though the record is not as rabid as the ones it followed, the emotions are rawer than ever. Exene addresses the death of her sister Mirielle in the stunning “Riding with Mary”, which unflinchingly recreates the moment she died in a car accident. “Come Back to Me” painfully recounts the funeral and the aching need to see Mirielle one last time. Always iffy when it came to pitch, Exene sounds particularly close to cracking on this track, betraying the polish of X’s bid for mainstream success.

8. 1999 by Prince
Just one month before Michael Jackson made his checkmate grab for the King of Pop’s crown, another member of the funky royal family took pop a lot further out. On Controvery, Prince had ironed out the weird, homemade wrinkles of Dirty Mind with a polished, radio-ready production. On 1999, he refunkifies his sound for a series of extended experiments. This is one of the weirdest hit albums of the ’80s (which could probably be said of most of Prince’s hits). While the sexy “Little Red Corvette” and the catchy, Rock-a-Billy soul of “Delirious” hooked 1999 for radio listeners, Prince spends the rest of this ambitious double album rooting through his quirkier impulses. The title track was chopped down for radio and MTV, but on the LP, it’s a restless, relentless rumination on nuclear apocalypse beginning with a demon’s creepy— and rather unconvincing— reassurance and ending with a child’s creepier query, “Mommy, why does everybody have a bomb?” And who but Prince (and Stevie Wonder) had the nerve to begin a major statement with other singers? These singers are Dez Dickerson, Lisa Coleman, and Jill Jones, all but Jones being members of Prince’s new group the Revolution. Despite Prince inviting these folks to his party, and secreting the words “and the Revolution” on the album cover, 1999 feels like an even more insular project than Controversy. “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)”, “All the Critics Love You in New York”, and the magnificent, orgiastic “Automatic” are like projections from the darkest corners of Prince’s brain. The constant jamming can get monotonous, and that’s something Prince would scale back on his masterful next album, but for immersion into the most unfiltered recesses of a genius’ mind, 1999 cannot be equaled.

7. Walk Among Us by The Misfits

After five years of putting out singles and EPs—those punkest of punk media—The Misfits finally got around to cutting an LP in 1982. Clocking in at under 25 minutes, Walk Among Us feels no more longwinded than the group’s previous releases. The Misfits almost sound like they’re trying to outrun the listener in an attempt to slip their abundant hooks past the most dogmatically anti-pop punks. On that account, they fail. It takes no more than one listen to catch all the catchy melody that billows behind these 13 (!) tracks like exhaust from the Munster Mobile. And for all The Misfits' fealty to evil, there is a Munstery charm to Glenn Danzig’s nostalgic odes to horror hosts (“Vampira”), retro sci-fi (“I Turned into a Martian”), grade-A horror classics (“Night of the Living Dead”), and grade-Z horror classics (“Astro Zombies”). The Misfits were highly inspired by the U.K.’s most loveable horror punks, The Damned, and Dave Vanian’s influence is obvious in the “dark croon” Danzig employs to convey his Halloween carols. Not that The Misfits can’t be legitimately scary. The album’s centerpiece, “Mommy, Can I Go Out and Kill Tonight?”, is as psychotic as that title sounds. “Rip the veins from human necks until they’re wet with life,” Danzig bellows… and with muscles like his, you know he can do it.

6. The Dreaming by Kate Bush

Like Prince, Kate Bush is an artist whose vision is so singular, so peculiar, that the only person capable of fully realizing that vision is the artist, herself. After a debut full of interesting songs captured with unsympathetic ‘70s pop clichés (did “The Saxophone Song” really need that saxophone solo? Ugh) Bush got more involved in the productions of Lionheart and Never for Ever. But it still wasn’t enough, and she took total control on her fourth LP. The Dreaming is Kate Bush coming into her own completely with remarkably strong songs and creative, thoughtful— even mad— production to match. Each song is like a little film; not only telling a story but setting the mood with music and sonic touches that fully support the theme. So “Sat in Your Lap”, which deals with humankind’s impatient quest for knowledge, spools out with the freneticism of a computer spewing data. She brings “There Goes a Tenner”— a funny portrait of thieves getting cold feet in the middle of a big heist—to life as a Cockney oompah worthy of The Threepenny Opera. The title track, a look at the plight of indigenous Australians, is all didgeridoos and chanted choruses. Elsewhere, Bush tackles topics as varied as the Vietnam War (“Pull out the Pin”, featuring mentor David Gilmour), Bess Houdini’s attempt to contact her dead husband via séance (“Houdini”), and The Shining (“Get Out of My House”). Most miraculous of all may be the absolutely fearless vocal chances she takes (her desperate screams of “I love life!” in “Pull out the Pin”; her insane “hee-hawing” in “Get Out of My House”) and her ability to use the limitations of ‘80s production to the advantage of her songs. She’s similar to Prince in that way too.

5. All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes by Pete Townshend

Another artist who took wild chances in 1982 was Pete Townshend. Unlike Prince or Kate Bush, he had a lot more baggage to deal with as the leader of one of Rock’s biggest and brashest bands. What did the thugs and punks who adored The Who think of this very synthesized, very sensitive, very—according to numerous irritated/irritating critics—pretentious ’80s pop record? Townshend had developed a love of “streamed poetry”, which informs his half-spoken deliveries of “Stop Hurting People”, “Communication”, and “Uniforms” (which are all a lot more listenable than “Body Language”, a track mercifully left off the record). The most devoted Pete worshipper may feel uncomfortable listening to him confess his sexual failures and suicidal thoughts on “Somebody Saved Me”. But these issues are what make All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyessuch a fascinating listen. Pete is giving us access to his personal flaws and his flawed ideas, making for the kind of intimate experience one almost never gets from such a big star. And the difficulty of Pete’s ideas are never let down by difficult music. “Face Dances Part Two”, delivered in jerky 5/4 time, is as catchy as Pete’s songs get; “The Sea Refuses No River” and “Somebody Saves Me” as beautiful. “Slit Skirts” is an invigorating triumph of not going gently into that dark night. Even the record’s most surface pretentious numbers are full of energy and emotion and sincerity (particularly the lovely “Stop Hurting People”)—all things that contradict those charges of pretentiousness.

4. English Settlement by XTC

The insularity of ’82 was already evident in one of the year’s earliest releases. XTC had never exactly been a crowd-pleasing hit machine, but there is a sense of chin-to-the-chest inwardness on English Settlement not present on the group’s previous records. While the other albums opened with big, brisk pop numbers like “Making Plans for Nigel” and “Respectable Street”, English Settlement starts with the moody, misty “Runaway”. XTC get dreamy on “All of a Sudden (It’s Too Late)” and disorienting on “Jason and the Argonauts”. Even the more traditionally poppy tracks like “Ball and Chain” and “Senses Working Overtime” sound mildly fatigued, but rather than sapping the listener’s interest, they draw us in closer. English Settlement is an intellectual experience rather than a visceral one, even as the material is as hooky as ever. Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding maintain deeper interest with a cerebral yet creative selection of lyrics. “Snowman” uses seasonal imagery as a simile for romantic frustration. “Jason and the Argonauts” uses mythology as a metaphor for the downside of western ideology. There are anti-war statements (“Melt the Guns”), sketches of familial discord (“Runaways”, “No Thugs in Our House”), and a look at the injustice of unfettered consumption (“Sense Working Overtime”). At double-LP length and loaded with unusually lengthy songs, the album intends to suck the listener into its murky depths and it accomplishes this powerfully. English Settlement is sort of the pure pop equivalent of Exile on Main Street: it’s dense and sprawling and difficult to absorb on first listen, but with a little effort, it becomes an intoxicating world worth getting lost in.  

3. A Kiss in the Dream House by Siouxsie and the Banshees

Siouxsie and the Banshees got their start as a ramshackle live act mangling “The Lord’s Prayer” for twenty minutes for lack of anything else to do on stage. When the band transitioned to the recording studio, they continued to lean on some of that abrasive experimentalism to fill out their early LPs. By their fifth album, A Kiss in the Dreamhouse, Siouxsie and the Banshees had fully worked that stuff out of their system. More significantly, they’d matured in every way a group should. The band was more confident and on target than ever before; Siouxsie Sioux’s voice was strong throughout, eliminating any need to mask its limitations with over-the-top stridency; and everyone’s writing was simply spectacular. A Kiss in the Dreamhouse is a tight collection of varied, imaginative songs drawing inspiration from such unlikely sources as Rod Serling’s “Night Gallery” and Jerzy Kosinski. Finally giving in to their latent pop tendencies, the Banshees whip out a series of numbers that could—dare I say—get some play. Forceful, exhilarating tracks such as “She’s a Carnival”, “Cascade”, and “The Painted Bird”, and the dance-floor magnet “Slowdive” (the record’s first single) are as ear catching as anything else on early ’80s new wave radio. The eerie psychedelic loops “Circle” and “Obsession”, the jazzy “Cocoon”, and the S&M Latin swirl “Melt!” (the second single!) reveal an experimentalism more musical and focused than anything the group tried in the past. All this adds up to an accessible yet still challenging record that may very well be Siouxsie and the Banshees’ finest.

2. Imperial Bedroom by Elvis Costello and the Attractions

After making five powerful albums with producer Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello decided to jump ship and put together a slick, borderline antiseptic, collection of country covers with Billy Sherill. It was a weird move no fan could have predicted, but it was momentous in that Almost Blue was the first real sign that Elvis Costello was an artist never content to stick with one thing for too long. Almost Blue doesn’t hold up very well, but it must have cleared out some cobwebs, because Elvis and the Attractions were back the very next year with top material and a fresh sound. The sound can be attributed to producer Geoff Emerick, the guy who engineered Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s, and Abbey Road. There is a noticeable Beatles influence on Imperial Bedroom, particularly in the brass and strings that add regality to “…And In Every Home” and “Town Cryer”. This most certainly is not some sort of Beatles rip, though. No one but Elvis Costello could write songs as dense with word-play and anxiety as “Man Out of Town”, and The Beatles never wrote anything as un-fancifully impenetrable as “Beyond Belief” or as adult as “The Long Honeymoon” or as consciously sophisticated as “Almost Blue” (a torch song that has no relation to the C&W LP of ’81). Imperial Bedroom does share the Fab’s predilection for extreme eclecticism, but the Attractions instantly identifiable playing makes the album sound much more unified than, say, Revolver or “The White Album”. And their playing is absolutely astounding through it all, whether bassist Bruce Thomas is strangling wiry riffs at the tail of “Shabby Doll”, Steve Nieve is rippling magical piano triplets throughout “The Loved Ones”, or the entire band is bashing the death-metal din that bookends “Man Out of Time”. Emerick’s clean production would soon lead the Attractions into the über-slick arms of top-forty production team Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley. The resulting collaboration was nearly disastrous for the band, leaving Imperial Bedroom as the closing chapter in The Attractions’ first fabulous phase.

1. Strawberries by The Damned

You probably haven’t heard it, you may not have even heard of it, you may even be a Damned fanatic who thinks its sub-par, but Strawberries is my selection for the best Damned album, the best album of 1982, and the best album of the 1980s. Each spin of this electrifying brew of punk, psych, goth, and pop raises the same baffling question: how is Strawberries not universally regarded as a classic? At a time when more and more bands were moving in the painfully polished direction Langer and Winstanley’s work exemplified, The Damned released one last mighty howl from a more organic age. As was the case with Costello’s work before he said “farewell” (temporarily) to tactile production, Strawberries’ touchstone is the ’60s. So there’s a bit of Stooges fury (“Ignite”), a bit of garage rock mania and Kinky character study (“Dozen Girls”), a bit of Motown stomp (“Stranger on the Town”), a bit of Doors brooding (“Gun Fury”, “The Dog”), a bit of Left Banke-style baroque pop (“The Pleasure and the Pain”), a bit of raga rock (“Under the Floor Again”), and a bit of political protest (“Generals”, “Bad Time for Bonzo”). All of this is filtered through the band’s punk roots and Goth worldview and crooned by the inimitable Dave Vanian, so it never sounds like anyone but The Damned. Their left wing politics, silly humor, iconoclasm (“Don’t Bother Me” skewers The Rolling Stones), and horror fixation (“The Dog” is based on Interview with the Vampire) are all accounted for too. Decidedly dark numbers sit alongside the light and colorful, sometimes blending together in anthems such as “Life Goes On” and “Under the Floor Again”. What a stellar songwriting showcase! What an endlessly interesting variety of styles! What brilliant musicianship (Rat Scabies really is one of our most astounding drummers)! The title refers to Captain Sensible’s feeling that putting out great records for an unappreciative audience was like “giving strawberries to pigs.” In light of this album’s magnificence and its almost nonexistent reputation, he has a point.
Five More Great Albums from 1982
The Gift by The Jam
Shoot Out the Lights by Richard and Linda Thompson
Signals by Rush
The Sound of Music by The Adicts
Spring Sessions M by Missing Persons

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