Thursday, August 16, 2012

Popblerd's bLISTerd Presents: The 100 Best Albums of the Eighties

Originally published by Popblerd in June 2012 in the series bLISTerd Presents: The 100 Best Albums of the Eighties

I was asked by my friend Big Money at Popblerd to contribute to a list of the best albums of the decade of my lean teen years, the '80s. If there's one thing us music nerds love it's making lists, discussing lists, obsessing over lists, and revising lists until we can scarcely remember what we were listing in the first place. After the votes were tallied, I was given the chance to write about five of the albums form the final cut. I'd included all five in my initial list, and below you'll find my blurbs as well as where the album fell when the votes were counted.

#58: The Stone Roses - The Stone Roses
Though its initial reach in the United States was largely contained to college dormitories, in the United Kingdom, the Stone Roses’ eponymous debut signaled a youth revolution. Masterfully weaving classic rock guitars with an acid house sensibility, The Stone Roses was about so much more than bellbottoms and bucket hats.
The Stone Roses is deceptively DIY; Ian Brown’s vocal range is indeed something of a musical liability in a live setting, though on album it works perfectly. But he’s also the coolest motherfucker on the planet. In John Squire, the Roses had their own guitar hero, and in Reni the greatest drummer since…well, since anyone, and with Mani’s soulful bass guitar, the band had a rhythm section for the ages.
But without the songs – those songs, my God… – The Stone Roses would have been a flash in the pan. The soaring chorus of “Made of Stone” (“Sometimes I fantasize when the streets are cold and lonely, and the cars they burn below me”) still sends shivers down the spine, and the 8-minute-plus closer, “I Am the Resurrection”, with its dismissive lyrics (“I don’t care where you’ve been or what you plan to do”) and churning instrumental section is an exhaustively perfect finish to one of rock’s few perfect albums.

#21: Sonic Youth - Daydream Nation

Having already established themselves as indie’s premiere downtown art-rockers, Sonic Youth’s fifth album,
Daydream Nation, saw the group consistently hit what for some has been their greatest strength: Superior songwriting buried under an avalanche of sound.
It’s fitting that on their first double album Sonic Youth would include a song called “The Sprawl,” a Kim Gordon-sung epic with lyrics (“Are you for sale? Does ‘fuck you’ sound simple enough?”) to match the fury of the guitars. “Teen Age Riot” opens the proceedings with more than a minute of gentle guitars and hypnotic singing from Gordon before everything explodes.
Bassist Gordon and guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo share vocal duties throughout, with the latter pair’s standout tracks “Teen Age Riot” and “Eric’s Trip” respectively. Even Mike Watt (Minutemen, fIREHOSE, the Stooges) gets in on the vocal action on “Providence” (though his contribution is through a pair of answering machine messages). The album closes with “Trilogy,” a three-part journey which predictably ends in measured chaos and unbridled energy.
Daydream Nation convinced the music industry that Sonic Youth was ready to destroy the world, and despite a subsequent move to a major label, they never shed their commitment to experimentation and sonic songwriting perfected here.

#19: Talking Heads - Speaking in Tongues

If not exactly famous, the Talking Heads were certainly well-known by 1983. With four terrific albums under their belt, the New York punk scene’s most artistically enduring act was about to enter the upper reaches of the pop charts. The album’s lead single, “Burning Down the House” hit #9 on Billboard’s Hot 100, and thanks to a quirky video that matched the band’s quirky sensibility, Talking Heads were everywhere.

Thanks to the hypnotic rhythms, a greater reliance on synthesizers, collaborators like Parliament-Funkadelic co-founder Bernie Worrell, David Byrne’s spazzy art school vocals, Jerry Harrison’s understated guitars and the criminally underrated bass guitar of Tina Weymouth and drums of Chris Frantz, everything seemed to come together at just the right time on Speaking in Tongues.
Songs like “Burning Down the House,” “Making Flippy Floppy” and “Girlfriend is Better” still move butts on the dance floor, but for truly lasting brilliance one must turn to “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)”. Byrne’s description of the album’s second single made it sound like something of a reluctant love song, though “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” certainly feels unabashedly and genuinely romantic. It’s a love song even a cynic could love.

#6: Public Enemy - It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back

Released in 1988, a year when the world was in thrall to the likes of Phil Collins’ “A Groovy Kind of Love” and Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven is a Place on Earth,” Public Enemy’s second album hit like an atom bomb-propelled freight train.

Socially-conscious hip-hop was nothing new by the late ‘80s thanks to pioneers of the form like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. But with the syncopated steps of the S1W and the bombastic beats of the Bomb Squad, the stage was set for the group’s celebrated vocalists to unfurl calls to action not heard since the early ‘70s heyday of Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets. Chuck D was Public Enemy’s intellectual center, a gruff storyteller balanced by his comedic foil, Flavor Flav. In 2012, with the reality shows and the failed business ventures in our collective consciousness, it might be difficult to believe there was a time when Flavor Flav was an absolute essential piece of the puzzle, but one listen to “Cold Lampin’ With Flavor” or any other track on which he emerges from the furor should help set the record straight.
Even its sleeve – with Chuck D and Flavor Flav behind bars – is provocative, and coupled with classic songs of anarchic angst like “Bring the Noise” and “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back isn’t just one of the finest hip-hop albums of the ‘80s, but is one of the best albums by anyone in any genre of any era. Public Enemy nearly matched it in quality with their next album, Fear of a Black Planet, but they never had so much shocking power as on It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.

#5: Beastie Boys - Paul's Boutique

If the Clash’s
 London Calling had the power to singlehandedly destroy everything lame from the entire decade that preceded it in 1979, then perhaps the same can be said of Paul’s Boutique. Released in the summer of 1989, the Beastie Boys’ sophomore album may not have fully abandoned the sophomoric wordplay of Licensed to Ill (“I stay up all night, I go to sleep watching Dragnet/Never sleep alone because jimmy is a magnet”), but there was an undeniable maturity in its meticulously constructed grooves.
Paul’s Boutique is as compelling a case for the art of the sample as anything ever recorded, with easily recognizable sounds (Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusherman” on “Egg Man”) effortlessly mixed with decidedly less so (the beat from “Egg Man” was lifted from Lightnin’ Rod’s “Sport”). Many of the album’s backing tracks had already been built by the Dust Brothers before the Beastie Boys found them, but together the collaboration – along with co-producer Mario Caldato, Jr. – created a masterpiece.
Though one might feel compelled to attach a sense of the maudlin to the music of the Beastie Boys with the recent passing of Adam “MCA” Yauch, all these years later it is impossible to listen to Paul’s Boutique without being overcome with joy. They would go on to record more classic material, but the Beastie Boys were never better than on Paul’s Boutique, an album which perfectly captures the curious comfort of the musical schizophrenia of city life.