By 1986, the eighties seemed like they couldn’t get any more eighties. Naturally, there was a pushback, and fighting against the tide of Reagan-era conservatism, MTV’s superficial image mongering, synthesizers, and sterile production techniques came the wave of sixties nostalgia that manifested in the year’s big Monkees revival and the Vietnam-era smash Platoon. Within a year or two, there’d be a host of new TV shows (“The Wonder Years”, “China Beach”, “Tour of Duty”) and movies (Full Metal Jacket, 1969, Hamburger Hill, even Batman) indebted to or focused on the sixties, but the decade’s influence was already in full force on wax as touches of Byrdsy jangle and psychedelia could be heard in the grooves of new records by everyone from The Bangles to Prince to XTC to R.E.M. to The Smiths to Love & Rockets. Even the decade’s freshest new music form, rap, started looking back by working some old-fashioned rock guitar into the mix. Sure, Lionel Richie, Peter Cetera, and Mr. Mister still ruled the charts with their pop pap fit for Ronnie and Nancy, but if our look back on the eighties’ great albums has taught us one thing, it’s that the charts were rarely the place to find great albums in the eighties. Here are ten from on and off the charts.
10. They Might Be Giants by They Might Be Giants
There’d been nerdy rockers before They Might Be Giants, but as intellectual or inclined to eat-paste as people like Elvis Costello or Devo seemed, you probably wouldn’t be advised to steal their lunch money or cheat off their math exams. John Flansburgh and John Linnell, two totally geeky Brooklyn Matheletes, however, were the real deal. You know you weren’t going to catch the jock or the glue-sniffing punk in your class toting around their eponymous first album, which abounds in bespectacled cleverness like the tooty hoedown “Number Three” or the Poindexter weirdness of “Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head”. Too bad for those jocks and punks, because they were missing out on some wonderful songs, eclectic synthy arrangements, genre-dabblings, and mad humor.
While They Might Be Giants were playing to a very, very, very specific niche in 1986, Run-D.M.C. and producer Rick Rubin were building bridges. There probably wasn’t a ton of crossover between the kids who dug rap and the burn outs who banged their heads before Rubin mashed Joseph Simmons and Darryl McDaniels lyrics and Jam Master Jay’s turntable skills with grinding guitars cribbed from “My Sharona” or provided live by classic rock hero Joe Perry. Tackling “Walk This Way” was a move ripe to happen since Aerosmith’s original was already a proto-rap, but who knew that the remake would smash the original in terms of success and single-handedly make rap ready for prime time. Just as good were monsters like “Peter Piper”, “It’s Tricky”, and “My Adidas”, all heavier than the heaviest metal but a shitload funkier.
8. Throwing Muses by Throwing Muses
Far removed from Run-D.M.C.’s mainstreaming of rap and They Might Be Giants’ family-friendly quirk was the terrifying insanity of Throwing Muses, which has never been more unfiltered than on their debut. On later records, Kristin Hersh started playing with more recognizable pop forms, but here she is scratching at walls in a dark room, making the kind of sounds you’d expect from someone who’s never even heard pop music. The structures are unpredictable and bizarre. The lyrics are disjointed and disturbing. The band interplay is unlike anything else, as Hersh and Tanya Donnelly’s guitars jangle against Leslie Langston’s dazzling jazz/funk bass and Dave Narcizo’s precise drumming. Hersh’s voice is a constant dare, as she unleashes goat bleats and banshee shrieks. Yet there are ways into this challenging music, and even the most frightening pieces, such as “Hate My Way”, have passages of extraordinary beauty. The rock-a-billy rave up “Rabbit’s Dying” is full-on infectious (and has the best use of cowbell ever…sorry, Blue Oyster Cult). Throwing Muses isn’t exactly the most listenable Throwing Muses but it is a debut that announces the band’s intentions to follow their own muse completely.
7. Parade by Prince and the Revolution
Despite the fact that it was kind of a mess, Prince’s first movie was a huge success, both commercially and because Purple Rain yielded one of the great and iconic albums of the eighties. You can’t blame the little dude for trying to capture another bit of purple lightning in a bottle, but Under the Cherry Moon was a disaster, at least in cinematic terms. Fortunately, Prince’s unparalleled musical artistry was still in effect. Though Parade isn’t nearly the vinyl masterpiece Purple Rain is, Prince’s second soundtrack LP was still a grand statement. Parade is Prince’s most romantic record, and though there’s still his signature horny toad funk behind “New Position”, “I Wonder U”, “Girls & Boys”, and the massive hit “Kiss”, this mostly sounds like music for a hand-in-hand swoon under a June moon. “Under the Cherry Moon”, “Do U Lie?”, “Venus de Milo”, and “Sometimes It Snows in April” are Valentine’s Day mood music. Prince has also retained traces of his previous record’s Magical Mystery Tour swirl on intoxicating psych like “Christopher Tracy’s Parade” and “Life Can Be So Nice”, while “Mountains” and “Anotherloverholeinyohead” are anthemic shoulda-been hits. Warner Brother’s pictures may disagree, but Warner Brother’s music has to admit that Parade made Prince’s twelve million dollar-turkey well worth the twelve mill.
6. Tinderbox by Siouxsie and the Banshees
Siouxsie and the Banshees had gone through a couple of radical shifts in their first eight years, transitioning from nightmarish grind rock to synthesizer-soaked fever dreams, but the band’s most surprising change happened on their seventh album. For the first time, Siouxsie and the Banshees sounded like they were lightening up and looking for a hit. Sure, they’d already done catchy singles like “Hong Kong Garden”, “Slow Dive” and a surprisingly sincere and very sweet version of “Dear Prudence”, but they’d never done so with the big polish flaunted on Tinderbox. Although this was a much poppier Banshees than ever before, they continued to mine dark stuff in their lyrics, but themes of a pedophiliac predator (“Candy Man”), natural disasters (the dance-club classic “Cities in Dust”), and everyday discomfort (“92 Degrees”) can’t tamp down the big sounds and big hooks of these tracks. Things only get discordant on “This Unrest”. Otherwise, Tinderbox is an incredibly accessible record and one that shows what expert pop craftspeople Siouxsie and the Banshees had become since they first assaulted ears with twenty appalling minutes of “The Lord’s Prayer”.
5. Express by Love and Rockets
After splitting from Peter Murphy, the rest of Bauhaus blew the cobwebs out of their systems by forming Love & Rockets. Express, their second album, reflects only passing vestiges of the defining Bauhaus sound. There is a dark shadow hovering over the proceedings, but those proceedings are psychedelic, often jolly, and wildly heavy. Dig the album’s most famous track, “Kundalini Express”, a nutty gob of trippy, bubblegummy pseudo-metal fit for college radio with a chorus fit for a “Sesame Street” sing-along. Or maybe you can dig a little deeper for “It Could Be Sunshine”, which somehow layers sixties-style backwards loops over eighties-style synth marimba as jazz sax bellows in the distance. “All in My Mind” would be a piece of jangle-pop refreshment if it weren’t so fuzzy and murky. Yet even as all the influences and arrangement elements are intent on clashing each track into oblivion, the unmissable melodiousness of them all never gets buried in the muck. Express is a big stick of bubblegum than never loses grip on its cool.
4. Skylarking by XTC
Skylarking is sort of cut from the same cloth as Express, but whereas Love & Rockets drag their swatch through inches of February mud, XTC toss theirs into the wash with a couple of summer-scented fabric softener sheets. Skylarking exudes the sunnier sides of sixties pop in composition, production, and outlook. It’s basically Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding, and David Gregory committing to their Dukes of Stratosphear alter egos without the jokiness. And instead of drawing on the weirder strains of mid-sixties psych (Piper at the Gates of Dawn, “I Am the Walrus”, etc.) as the Dukes did, our psychedelicized XTC is clearly under the sway of the era’s cleanest productions, namely Sgt. Pepper’s and Pet Sounds. It’s all intoxicating, full of details and joy, but smart enough to make room for the year’s most pointed, courageous, and confrontational single, “Dear God”. Todd Rundgren’s production is a work of George Martin-worshipping art as the tracks swirl into a kaleidoscopic whole while each maintains its own distinct persona: the folky slam of “Dear God”, the chugging strings of “1000 Umbrellas”, the lush “Grass”, the airy “Summer’s Cauldron”, the stately “Sacrificial Bonfire”, the jazzy “Man Who Sailed Around His Soul”, and so on into the sun.
3. Life’s Rich Pageant by R.E.M.
A year after releasing their moodiest record to date, R.E.M. put out their happiest, and though they have a renowned knack for brooding, they’re just as convincing when bouncing off the ceiling on sonic pogo sticks like “Hyaena”, “Just a Touch”, and “Begin the Begin”. They get downright silly on the mock tango “Underneath the Bunker” and the Mike Mill’s adrenaline-shot cover of The Clique’s “(I Am) Superman)”. Mills, Stipe, Buck, and Berry hadn’t mailed their brains to Krypton, though, as they expressed a strong environmental conscience on “Fall on Me” and “Cuyahoga” (without skimping on the tunefulness, of course) and mapped out the ominous acoustic folk-rock that would dominate their sound in the early nineties on the faux-Civil War ballad “Swan Swan H.” On “These Days” and “I Believe”, there is an implied threat that the guys are saying goodbye to the kinds of goofs they drop elsewhere on the record to devote themselves to pop activism permanently. Fortunately, they never did that completely, even if they never made a record as completely or sincerely fun as Life’s Rich Pageant again.
2. The Queen Is Dead by The Smiths
It’s clear The Smiths are out for blood even before the regicidal lyrics sink in. They rip out with the title track like Zeppelin pounding “Achilles Last Stand”, and we’re off with The Queen Is Dead. From there the moods change like the wind. A jolly yet withering look at long-term employment (“Frankly Mr. Shankly”). A zany cry of irritation at one’s own flapping jaw (“Bigmouth Strikes Again”). A cheeky portrait of a man of the cloth who likes to express himself by dressing like a ballerina (“Vicar in a Tutu”). An expression of stark romantic self-pity and self-annihilation (“I Know It’s Over”). A couple of hilarious shouts of romantic glee and self-annihilation (“Cemetery Gates” and “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out”). Morrissey’s barb for a music industry he felt didn’t have his back (“The Boy with the Thorn in his Side”). And whatever the hell “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others” is. Unlike the tracks on the first Smiths record, which created a consistent mood, there’s nothing to musically link those on The Queen Is Dead aside from their quality, which is as high as it gets.
1. Blood & Chocolate by Elvis Costello and the Attractions
After five years of formal experiments (Almost Blue, Imperial Bedroom) and unsympathetic, bloodless productions (Punch the Clock, Goodbye Cruel World), Elvis Costello and the Attractions finally got back to the raw record making that caused a lot of punters mistake Get Happy!!! and This Year’s Model for punk. The title suggests a dollop of sweetness to make the assault more palatable, and there are a few Hershey’s kisses sprinkled on Side B of Blood & Chocolate, but first you must endure the raging come on “Uncomplicated”, the poison-spitting kiss off “I Hope You’re Happy Now”, the Dylan-trapped-in-a-tornado chaos of “Tokyo Storm Warning”, the crazed desperation of “Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head”, and the creepy obsession of “I Want You”. Despite the clashing “Honey Are You Straight or Are you Blind” and the weary “Battered Old Bird”, the rest of Blood & Chocolate is poppier or prettier, but always superb pieces of songwriting and band interplay. However, it may be Costello’s lyricism that really makes this record special. He sometimes has the tendency to bury his intentions under blankets of clever word play and obscure imagery, but with the exception of “Tokyo Storm Warning” and “Crimes of Paris”, Blood & Chocolate is completely direct and utterly affecting. I’ve never heard a song that captures the mania of a man head over heels in unrequited love as perfectly as “Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head” does. The other tracks also deal with relationships from emotional (“I Want You”, “I Hope You’re Happy Now”) or novel (“Honey Are You Straight or Are You Blind?”, in which the singer wonders if his lust object shares his sexual preference a little too closely) angles. Blood & Chocolate really feels like we have the good, old Elvis and the Attractions back, though it was more of a last roll in the hay than a happy reunion. After this they basically split for good, only to make one more record on which, once again, their unique band identity would be muted by a producer’s personality (though All This Useless Beauty is a hell of a lot better than Goodbye Cruel World). For all intents and purposes, Blood & Chocolate is the last album by Elvis Costello and the Attractions. At least they went out making the best album of 1986.