Monday, February 13, 2017

Psychobabble's Ten Greatest Albums of 1987


By 1987, much of the fun of eighties music had been effectively crushed under the studded boots of hair metal and big-haired pop, which weren’t nearly as fun as Bon Jovi and Taylor Dane would have you believe. But what that year lacked in the kinds of wonderful one-hit wonders we most associate with the decade (Til Tuesday was probably the only one-hit wonder worth a damn), new and old crops of artists brought some serious art to the table that year. To toss a highlight on that fact, two of the very, very best albums of 1987 use art-rock’s favorite format: the double album. However, art and fun don’t have to be mutually exclusive, and some of the decade’s most serious artists actually seem to be loosening up in bids for big eighties success. Actually, if there’s one thing that binds most of the eclectic albums that follow together, it’s their danceability. So put on your studded dancing boots and blast another layer of Aqua Net at your head. Here comes Psychobabble’s Ten Best Albums of 1987!

10. Kick by INXS

Kick is a prime example of how 1987 tried to oppress traditional bands and how certain bands didn’t fight their era one iota. INXS was clearly taking its core cues from the sixties. With his leather pants, wild tresses, perpetual pout, perpetually bare chest, and “Touch me, I’m Jesus” stage moves, Michael Hutchence couldn’t have patterned himself on Jim Morrison more if he’d crowned himself Lizard King of Australia. “Mediate” apes Dylan both musically and videoly. “New Sensation” and “Need You Tonight” try some James Brown moves, the genuinely atmospheric “Never Tear Us Apart” draws from the more pleading and elegant real of sixties soul, and so on. Yet, the gated-drum/farty-sax/swaths-of-synth production is so eighties I expect a packet of Garbage Pail Kids stickers to plop out of the speakers whenever I spin Kick. Yet, it somehow still works. “Mediate” and the strident opening track “Guns in the Sky” have hardly aged well, but the other aforementioned tracks, “Devil Inside”, “Wild Life”, and “Calling All Nations” are as catchy and fun as any pop music of an era in which most artists seemed to be having a lot more fun than their audiences.

9. Sandbox by Guided by Voices

After a super-polished debut mini album that cast them as Dayton’s answer to R.E.M., Guided by Voices moved from the apparently lush confines of Group Effort Studios in Kentucky to Steve Wilbur’s 8-Track Garage in their hometown. The full-length debut that resulted, Devil Between My Toes, gave the first real taste of the band’s lo-fi ethos, even if the song selection was a bit uneven. Also recorded at Steve’s, Sandbox sounds slicker than Devil and the song selection is stronger without the disposable instrumentals that occupied space on the first disc. Perhaps nothing on the band’s second LP was as exhilarating as all-out “Captain’s Dead” or as playground-hummable as “Hank’s Little Fingers” on their first, but Sandbox was definitely the band’s first album that proved Bob Pollard could dish up a consistent set of distinctive pop and—perhaps most importantly of all—that he and Guided by Voices could do it with relative hi-fidelity without sounding naff. “Serious” (trans: “tiresome”) fans would fall out of their garages to argue against that point a dozen years later when the band moved to TVT, but even those dogmatic types should have no beef with the awesome riffing of “A Visit from the Creep Doctor”, the lovely “Everyday”, the can-hoisting/Beatle-quoting “Barricade”, the rumbling “Can’t Stop”, the band’s first perfect miniature “Long Distance Man”, and the lurching jangle “I Certainly Hope Not”. As most of those relatively ordinary titles indicate, GBV had yet to fully embrace their wonderful weirdness on Sandbox, but they’d correct that too on their next album.

8. Document by R.E.M.

A lot of critics rate Document as one of R.E.M.’s very best, if not their very best. It was certainly a commercial breakthrough being the band’s first album to crack Billboard’s top ten and a vessel for two of their best known songs. To my ears, Document sounds a bit transitional, caught between the magically murky Byrdsy jangle of R.E.M.’s first phase and the radio-song success of their second. Producer Scott Litt gave the band a bigger sound that unfortunately muted the muted mystery of their earlier albums a bit. The previous albums all carried a timeless organic texture that bucked the worst tendencies of mid-eighties production. This is not so with much of Document. “Finest Worksong” is downright overbearing. From a compositional standpoint, several of the songs on Side B are a bit underwhelming. Still, this is the album with the irresistible verbal avalanche “It’s the End of the World as We Know It”, the impassioned (and serially misunderstood) “The One I Love”, the classically moody “Welcome to the Occupation”, the classically power-poppy “Disturbance at the Heron House”, and the gleeful, almost Motown-esque “Exhuming McCarthy”. Fortunately, the quality of those tracks would carry over to R.E.M.’s superb next album.

7. Pleased to Meet Me by The Replacements

’87 had its share of great albums, but there wasn’t much happening in that was as raw, as alive as Pleased to Meet Me, even as it does suffer a bit from the customary antiseptic mid-eighties production. The Replacements fight against that slickness like Rottweilers on the opening cut, “I.O.U.”, but when they give in on “Alex Chilton”, they actually manage a genuine eighties power-pop classic worthy of its namesake. The Replacements can’t even be sunk by the brass on “I Don’t Know” because they overpower the grungy sax with their drunkenly garbled backing vocals and herky-jerky rhythms. One might be a bit skeptical of the lounge jazz of “Nightclub Jitters” if it wasn’t so clearly a parody and so clearly a well-conceived little number that contributes to the anything-and-everything vibe of Pleased to Meet Me. The ’Mats then storm through cranky, R.E.M.-style jangle pop (“The Ledge”), Stonesy Rock & Roll (“Valentine”), sleazy cock rock (“Shooting Dirty Pool”), lovely folk rock (“Skyway”), and yet another decade classic only to be found left of the dial (“Can’t Hardly Wait”) before slumping out the door.

6. Echo & the Bunnymen by Echo and the Bunnymen

So what does a culty college rock band do after making their universally acclaimed masterpiece? Naturally, they attempt to seal the deal— they go for the big commercial gold; they follow up a moody, experimental album like Ocean Rain with a bright, bubbly one like Echo & the Bunnymen. If that sounds like a recipe for disaster, I either described this situation poorly or you’ve been listening to too many Liz Phair CDs. Actually, Echo & the Bunnyman’s self-titled fifth album is quite delightful despite the usual eighties production issues I’ve already dwelled on way too much in this post. As soon as ├╝ber-poppy opener “The Game” rips in, you know it’s not time to usher everyone out the door, turn off the lights, and slip on the headphones for some intense listening. Echo & the Bunnymen would actually be an acceptable party album—hell, it might get a party started on its own. That does not mean the album is devoid of atmosphere. With Ray Manzarek pressing the keys, “Bedbugs and Ballyhoo” recalls The Doors at their snakiest without skimping on the arms-raised catchy chorus (and Ian McCullough’s repetition of “That’s the way the bee bumbles” may make you crack your first mid-Bunnymen album smile). “Bombers Bay” is lyrically dark yet sonically uplifting. The glorious “Lips Like Sugar” is the band at their sexiest while still remaining utterly danceable. So are “All in Your Mind” and “New Direction”. Actually, the moodiest thing on here, closing track “All My Life”, is probably also the most musically mundane. But after the 40-something minutes of sexy partying that precede it, it cannot help but pale.

5. Solitude Standing by Suzanne Vega

Solitude Standing is another album that feels like the artist’s attempt to break big with bigger production values. But that may just be because that is precisely what happened when “Luka”, a catchy number sung from the pov of an abused boy, became an unexpected hit in the summer of 1987. As strong as that song is, it’s really the rest of Solitude Standing that makes the album hold up, and aside from the maternally-warm “Gypsy”, nothing else is quite so hooky as “Luka”. Even that “da-da-da-da” bit that DNA looped to make “Tom’s Diner” a massive 1990-dance hit barely makes an appearance at the end of Vega’s decidedly uncommercial a capella original. However, the mood is intoxicating and never trampled by the more electrified and synth-heavy arrangements. “Ironbound/Fancy Poultry” is a riveting character sketch. “In the Eye” is a clattering yet laser-focused pop tune far more danceable than anything on Vega’s debut. The title track is even more intense. Billy Altman once described Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” as “a masterpiece of controlled tension”; that phrase perfectly applies to “Solitude Standing” too. “Night Vision”, “Calypso” “Language”, and “Wooden Horse (Caspar Hauser’s Song)” are four more subtly restless yet masterfully controlled pieces. Vega’s finest work actually still lies before her at this point, but Solitude Standing clinched her commercially while also standing up as an uncompromising artistic statement.

4. Strangeways Here We Come by The Smiths

Final albums often find bands losing the plot or running low on ideas. This is clearly not the case with Strangeways Here We Come, even if it may not quite live up to Morrissey and Johnny Marr’s opinion that it is The Smiths’ finest album. It does find the band fattening their sound with horns, mallets, synth-strings, and other interesting bits that bring the production to life. However, the diamond-brilliant “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before” is the only single that really rises above and beyond. The album’s other “hits”—the glammy “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish”, the hilarious lite-reggae “Girlfriend in a Coma” —are minor compared to The Smiths’ earlier staples, while the listless, shapeless “Last Night I Dreamed That Somebody Loved Me” is arguably one of the weakest things in their catalogue and ample fodder for anyone who derides Morrissey as a humorless mope mop (a charge so many of his other songs blow away). Strangeways earns its place so high up on this list because of its wonderful obscurities. “Rush and a Push and the Land Is Ours” is a subtle yet infectious opener. “Death of a Disco Dancer” is a hunk of majestic, ’87-by-way-of-’67 psychedelia. “Death at One’s Elbow” is a classic piece of Smiths Manchester Rockabilly and “I Won’t Share You With Anybody” is a chilling, elegant finale that allegedly speaks volumes about why Morrissey and Marr parted strangeways. The relentlessly bitter “Paint a Vulgar Picture” may say even more.

3. Sign O’ the Times by Prince

Strangeways Here We Come marked the end of one of the eighties most important bands. Sign O’ the Times marks a new phase for what may be the decade’s most important overall artist. After several albums with The Revolution, Prince was once again occupying his palace alone. While Prince and the Revolution’s previous two albums often sounded like slightly stilted formal exercises, Sign O’ the Times sounds as elastic as Bootsy Collins’s bass strings, possibly because the material is sourced from several aborted projects with and without the Revolution. Prince’s experimentalism can get really goofy, but that’s not a bad thing—there’s certainly nothing as unintentionally goofy as “Temptation” here. Rather, you have him committing acts of aural female impersonation on the deliciously filthy “If I Was Your Girlfriend”, the highly disfunktional “Strange Relationship”, and the party anthem “Housequake”. You have him dabbling with children’s music on the charming “Starfish and Coffee”, dealing with social issues (albeit it in an outrageously alarmist way) on the ghostly title track, and jamming for the long haul on “It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night”, a live track that displays the presence of a working band more explicitly than anything on the Revolution albums. In perhaps his most insane, most far out, most “what was he thinking?” stroke, Prince took the absurdly white-bread Sheena Easton under his purple wing and showcased her on the hit “U Got the Look”. More importantly, like all great double albums, Sign O’ the Times is an eclectic, glorious mess housing buried gems just waiting to be uncovered upon repeated listens. Spin Side A again to really appreciate the wall-rattling “Play in the Sunshine” and the intoxicating “Ballad of Dorothy Parker”. Revisit Side B for the crazy-making “It” and Side D for the enthralling, slow-burn psychedelics of “The Cross”. Sign O’ the Times is a big, jam-packed gift to fans and a beacon that things were going to be alright even without the Revolution.

2. Come on Pilgrim by The Pixies

Sign O’ the Times is arguably too much album. Come on Pilgrim may not be enough. I actually considered leaving it off this list of great albums because I wasn’t sure if its 20-minutes of eight tracks really qualifies it as an album. It’s certainly too long for an EP. What is it? Its unconventional length may not be the only thing that gets you asking that particular question while taking in Come on Pilgrim. Is this pop? Is it punk? Is it thrash? Is it some loony’s idea of Mexican folk music? Yes, yes, and yes. It is The Pixies’ debut, which means it is a new form of music without which great nineties Rock would not exist. Yeah, so, Come on Pilgrim has historic value. That wouldn’t mean a thing if it didn’t also have the songs, and it has eight magnificent, primal-scream splattered ones: the psycho dirge “Caribou”, the screeching throb “Vamos”, the blinding “Isla De Encanta”, the asymmetrical pure poppers “Ed Is Dead” and “The Holiday Song”, the manically catchy and just plain maniacal “Nimrod’s Son”, the new-wavey pogo fest “I’ve Been Tired”, and the rumbling, horny “Levitate Me”. It also has words; words like “You are the son of incestuous union”, “losing my penis to a whore with disease”, “she’s just rotting in stupid bliss”, etc. Is this nightmare or guffaw fuel? There’s another big question to ponder while bashing your skull along with Come on Pilgrim.

1. Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me by The Cure

And now we’re back in epic country. Like Sign O’ the Times, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me is an artist-baring double album. Like Come on Pilgrim, it can also be some disturbing vinyl. Like both of those albums, it also shows off some of the featured artists’ most effective pop impulses. In essence, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me really just shows off everything that is a fabulous about its band, which is something else a great double album must do. The gloomy crawl of The Cure’s first major phase is apparent in “If Only We Could Sleep Tonight” and “The Snakepit”, even if those tracks’ raga sparkles sprinkle them with more color than the grey Seventeen Seconds and Faith displayed. For the poppier, more romantic side The Cure uncovered on The Top and The Head on the Door, you’d do no better than the smash “Just Like Heaven”, the love-drunk “Catch”, and the ecstatic “Perfect Girl”. For the hardcore side the band chiseled out on Pornography, there are the somewhat more controlled variations in “The Kiss”, “Torture”, “All I Want”, and “Shiver and Shake”.  The thing is, all of those classic styles are not merely paraded out one more time on Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me; they are perfected. More perfection awaits in the self-contained dance party “Why Can’t I Be You?”, the bracingly gusty “How Beautiful You Are”, the gorgeous “One More Time”, the tense and towering “Like Cockatoos”, and the graceful yet impassioned “A Thousand Hours”. Two years later, Disintegration would be heralded as The Cure’s masterpiece, but that album simply does not host the sheer versatility, beauty, and mastery of Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, an album that is also the very best of 1987 as far as I’m, concerned.
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