Monday, April 23, 2018

Psychobabble's Ten Greatest Albums of 1988

The return to a more organic sound that would define the best nineties rock was still a distant pipe dream in 1988, yet there is a sense of new birth and rebirth in the best music of a generally stale year. Morrissey and Keith Richards stepped outside of bands either seemingly dead or most sincerely dead to make worthwhile solo debuts. Jane’s Addiction slithered out of the sleazy Sunset Strip scene that gave us the hair metal polluting the era and put a scary, junkie spin on the metal revival that felt far less mannered than Axl Rose’s whining. The Pixies and My Bloody Valentine— perhaps the two most influential bands on the coming decade— both released striking debuts too. Meanwhile two of the most influential bands of the waning eighties released L.P.’s that found them inching closer toward genuine superstardom (though only one would truly snatch the coveted ring). So for a year dominated by the likes of Def Leppard, Whitney Houston, Tiffany, Debbie Gibson, Rick Astley, and White Snake, 1988 still managed its share of great discs. Here are ten.

10. Viva Hate by Morrissey

Just days after the release of Strangeways, Here We Come, Morrissey was already at work on his solo debut, and Viva Hate is a different beast from the final Smiths record. While The Smiths sound was always distinct from contemporary trends, Viva Hate and its gated, glossy Stephen Street production is pure eighties and completely lacks the distinct musicianship Johnny Marr and Andy Rourke brought to every Smiths session. Viva Hate sounds like Morrissey’s bid for solo stardom, but his writhing discontent and all-around disagreeableness could never have put him in competition with Rick Astley. Take the utterly sweet sounding “Bengali in Platforms”, which can be interpreted as either an in-character snapshot of Thatcher-era racism or just an honest expression of Morrissey’s own shitty opinions about immigration and race, which he has become more comfortable expressing in recent years. Either way, it does not stir feelings of comfort. “Everyday Is Like Sunday”, Morrissey’s definitive solo number, is considerably less distasteful, though his wishes of seeing a dull seaside holiday town nuked into oblivion is hardly hit parade fare. His anger is most justified on “Margaret on the Guillotine”, though the lyric is devoid of insight (he wants her executed because she makes him feel old and tired…not because of her inhuman policies?) and the airy music never touches ground. Street and Morrissey grumpiness meet on common ground in “Angel, Angel Down We Go Together” in which Morrissey finally reveals a degree of humanity by offering some very Morrissey comfort to a suicidal friend and Street lays on a string arrangement owing more to “Eleanor Rigby” than “The Long and Winding Road”. “Suedehead” is the most-Smiths like number on the disc and arguably the finest. Now if only Morrissey would shut the fuck up so I could still enjoy listening to his music.

9. Talk Is Cheap by Keith Richards

Even the most loyal Stones fan had to admit that things were getting really embarrassing in the eighties. Releasing fairly undistinguished albums like Emotional Rescue and Undercover was one thing. Embracing the worst tendencies of eighties production while tossing off utterly worthless material was another thing. Strangely, Dirty Work, the unchallenged nadir of The Rolling Stones’ career, was more Keith Richards doing than Mick Jagger’s. Maybe Keith was trying to compete with Mick’s insipid solo album She’s the Boss. Who the fuck knows? The one clear thing in the mid-eighties mire is that the Stones had reached a dead end and needed to refresh. Keith cleared out the cobwebs by doing something he always promised he’d never do: go solo. This was more like it. The loose riffs, the layer of grit, the songs built more on grooves than bogus melodic, lyrical, or production concepts. Talk Is Cheap sounded a lot more like a Rolling Stones album than anything the Stones had done in years, and in light of middle-aged Jagger’s awful vocal mannerisms, Keith’s grungy growl was like a breath of air both fresh and stanking of Marlboros and screwdrivers. There was even a degree of diversity, as Keith dabbled with rubbery fifties boogie on “I Could Have Stood You Up”, funk (complete with Bootsy Collins and Maceo Parker) on “Big Enough”, luxurious Al Green soul on “Make No Mistake”, and earnest balladry on “Locked Away”, though much of the other material is somewhat indistinct, particularly on side B. No matter, because even that stuff sounds great.

8. Starfish by The Church

Is frizzy session guitarist Waddy Watchel the great, unsung MVP of 1988? He subbed for Ronnie Wood, dueling with Keith on Talk Is Cheap and coproduced Starfish for the brooding Church. Watchel and Greg Ladanyi draw from the more complimentary production nuances that went out of style after 1983 or so, so Starfish ends up sounding retro in ways the Australian neo-psychedelicists probably did not intend. At a time when similar artists such as The Cure and Echo and the Bunnymen were exploring the bigger sounds of the late eighties, The Church kept the embers alight for a more intimate sensibility fading into the recent past. That combination of alluring sound and sullen pop songwriting resulted in the year’s best single, though “Under the Milky Way” is just one of the fine tracks on Starfish. “Destination”, “Lost”, and all of Side B (which includes the excellent follow-up single “Reptile”) are proof that The Church did not expend all of their inspiration on their defining song.

7. Globe of Frogs by Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians

Robyn Hitchcock frankensteined insane songwriting, lugubrious singing, and pop hooks better than anyone since Syd Barrett, and his mad scientist skills reached a delectable head on Globe of Frogs. With guest spots for Glen Tilbrook’s dulcet voice and Peter Buck’s chiming Rickenbacker, Globe of Frogs certainly feels like Hitchcock’s own bid for the big time, and the success of “Balloon Man” (a song originally composed for The Bangles [!]) got him about as close as he’d ever come. Yet as ctachy and impeccably produced as “Balloon Man”, the glorious “Vibrating”, “Sleeping with Your Devil Mask”, “Unsettled”, “Flesh Number One (Beatles Dennis)”, and the concert staple “Chinese Bones” are, it’s tough feature what radio listeners would have made of such ghastly dementia as “Their rotting brains fell to the floor and crawled away towards the door” or “And her eyeballs had rolled up so her pupils had vanished.” Back in the cult closet with you, Mr. Hitchcock.

6. Nothing’s Shocking by Jane’s Addiction

In the late eighties, the hairspray-splattered Sunset Strip scene seemed less likely to produce anything remotely worth hearing than Phil Collins (at least Phil used to back Peter Gabriel). That’s why Jane’s Addiction came as such a surprise. In high contrast to the forced decadence of Guns ‘N Roses or Mötley Crüe, Jane’s Addiction wreaked of authenticity, stripping away all the cock rock posturing and tacky glamour of their neighbors. While Vince Neal and Axl Rose were screeching about fucking strippers, Perry Farrell was spitting bitterness about the non-existence of God and the idiocy of politicians, surveying the wasteland of televised terror, and meditating on the hollowness of masculinity while pissing down his leg and whacking off in the shower as Dave Navarro and Eric Avery discharged riffs reminiscent of Led Zeppelin at their funkiest. While the poseurs were branching out with power pap like “Sweet Child O’Mine” and “You’re All I Need”, Jane’s Addiction were shaping “Jane Says”, a sincerely touching pre-eulogy to a junkie girlfriend, and the gorgeous and nostalgic “Summertime Rolls”. No new band seemed either primed to achieve superstardom or immediately implode as Jane’s Addiction did in 1988. The fact that they didn’t quite do either further distinguished them from their bullshit peers.

5. Isn’t Anything by My Bloody Valentine

Encouraged by Creation Records’ Alan McGee to probe beyond the tuneful but relatively generic indie pop of their early singles, My Bloody Valentine flooded their still tuneful songs with dissonant seepage on their first album. The resulting record is not as legendary as Loveless, but Isn’t Anything is a better entry to My Bloody Valentine’s work. You older old timers can think of it as MBV’s Safe As Milk to Loveless’ Trout Mask Replica. Or you could just think of it as Isn’t Anything, because as all great albums do, it stands up beautifully without putting it into any glib context. For a listener like me who most frequently returns to strong pop songwriting, it is the best My Bloody Valentine record because the noise has yet to get so dense that you sometimes have to grope blindly for the hooks. The stop-starting “Soft as Snow”, the ominous acoustics of “Lose My Breath”, the sneering strut of “Cupid Come”, the cosmic-debris trailing rush of (When You Wake) You’re Still in a Dream”, and nearly everything else would hold up as great songs regardless of the art production. About halfway through the album, Kevin Shields starts dropping in more songs that are as dramatic, demanding, and delirious as anything on Loveless, though when tracks such as “No More Sorry” and “All I Need” share space with somewhat more conventional productions such as “Feed Me with Your Kiss”, they stand out more than they would if they’d been buried on Loveless.

4. Peepshow by Siouxsie and the Banshees

Siouxsie and the Banshees abandoned the sustained abrasiveness that defined their early work for good with Tinderbox. Peepshow doubles down on that move toward a more marketable sound with out-and-out opulence. Mike Hedges and the bands’ production is like a satchel of jewels: rich, dazzling, multicolored, polished, and cold. And there’s as much variation between tracks as there is between an emerald and an amethyst. “Peek-a-Boo”, a big spew of disgust at the dubious entertainment name checked in the LP’s title, is serpentine psychedelic swing: all backward loops and automaton accordion. “The Killing Jar” is a race across verdant panoramas. “Scarecrow” is spindly, moonbeam-stabbed trees. “Carousel” is malevolent circus music. “Burn Up” is a demonic hoedown. “The Last Beat of My Heart” takes the deluxe production to extremes with palatial orchestrations. The stomach-churning “Rawhead and Bloodybones” is the closest Peepshow comes to revisiting the old avant gardism, though even this freak show has an underlying sweetness. With its beauty and use of shiny production to bring out the most in its eclectic tracks rather than court the charts— as the band would with their next and far less successful disc— Peepshow stands as the peak of Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “commercial” period.

3. Green by R.E.M.

Even when they put out “Kiss Them for Me”, Siouxsie and the Banshees remained too out there to truly cross over. With their clean tunefulness and traditionally structured songwriting, R.E.M. only had to want it to hit the big time. By Green, they clearly wanted it. The U2-like “Orange Crush” and the ear-worming “Stand” and “Pop Song 89” all went top twenty on one Billboard chart or another (somehow, the equally perfect “Get Up” didn’t manage to chart anywhere though). These are all slamming, extroverted tracks, yet the heart of Green lies in its smaller tracks. Reflecting the rusticity implied in the album title, Peter Buck sets aside his Rickenbacker to jangle his mandolin on “You Are the Everything”, “The Wrong Child”, and “Hairshirt”, creating a new R.E.M. sound as defining as the electric jangle still evident in “World Leader Pretend” and “Untitled”. Michael Stipe continues to focus and clarify his lyric writing. Sometimes this works, as when he plays a self-doubting politician stumbling into destruction on “World Leader Pretend”. Sometimes it doesn’t, as when he plays a little boy taunted for his mental disabilities on “The Wrong Child”. Nevertheless, Green is still the most consistent album of R.E.M.’s mandolin phase.

2. Surfer Rosa by The Pixies

Just 20 minutes long, Come on Pilgrim is almost an album. There is no question what Surfer Rosa is even as anything that dumps together all the shrieking, bopping, melodicizing, feed backing, surfing, and sloppy Spanish of The Pixies’ first truly long-playing long player is still indefinable. Actually, Surfer Rosa is just 13 minutes longer than Come on Pilgrim, but it definitely sounds huger than that, packing in nearly twice as many songs and thundering with Steve Albini’s production, which would make a flute solo sound like a herd of rampaging mastodons. Indeed, Surfer Rosa is a more powerful disc than Come on Pilgrim, though some slight songwriting makes it feel less substantial in some ways. Yet even the lesser songs like “Something Against You” and “Broken Face” leave stains. When Black Francis’s songwriting is sharp, it is a stiletto in the eyeball. “Bone Machine”, “Break My Body”, and “Where Is My Mind?” are absolute classics, as important to their era and the era around the bend as anything on Green or Nothing’s Shocking. So is “Gigantic”, the first taste of the songwriting powers that would give Kim Deal the serious case of the George Harrisons that eventually prodded her to breed with a kindred spirit from the next band on our list…

1. House Tornado by Throwing Muses

… The Pixies were scatological; Throwing Muses were literate. The Pixies made simplicity sound complex; Throwing Muses made intricacy sound effortless. The Pixies became a defining band of their era, influencing Nirvana and nearly every other nineties artist worth a damn; Throwing Muses remained an oblique obscurity. But when it comes down to it, the Muses had more treasures in their attic even if they never made an album as good as Doolittle (how many did?). Hunkpapa didn’t stand a chance against it in 1989, but in 1988, the Muses came out on top as far as I’m concerned. House Tornado is the greatest statement from their original line up, and though I personally prefer The Real Ramona, much was lost when Leslie Langston and her pirouetting bass left the fold. It dances all over House Tornado. The torrential strumming of Kristin Hersh and Tanya Donelly flood the ground beneath as Hersh’s gale wail rains above. The combined noise is vicious yet elegant, violent yet soothing, thoroughly modern yet as eerily antiqued as a torn sepia photo trapped under an eiderdown of cobwebs. While Doolittle became the album to name check, House Tornado hid in secret whispers of the chilly joy of “Colder”, the angularity of “Mexican Women”, the sunny break of “Juno”, the sugar rush of Donelly’s “The River”, the runaway shadows of “Saving Grace”, and the sheer magic of “Walking in the Dark”, the finest song of Throwing Muses’ career and 1988.
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