We’re in the home stretch!!!
First, though, let’s backtrack!!
#30. Janet Jackson | Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814
Released: 9/19/89 | RIAA certification: 6X Platinum
Fun Fact: 1814? “R” is the 18th letter of the alphabet, “N” is the 14th.
Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 is the only album to have seven top five Billboard hits. ‘Nuff said.
Okay, I’ll expand a bit. What makes Rhythm Nation so interesting is that Janet could’ve very well done “Control II”, and it probably would’ve been excellent. She, Jimmy Jam, and Terry Lewis could’ve come back a few years later and built off a similar theme; a growing young woman with an edge. Instead, showing true growth, Jackson went a little left. Though the sounds aren’t all that different, the theme is. Janet is thinking socially consciously and while not every song has a socially conscious theme, because of the strong title track as well as “State Of The World”, the album takes on a serious feel. But there are still catchy pop songs like “Escapade”, “Alright”, and “Miss You Much” which make sure that we remember Miss Jackson.
She also foreshadowed her next record with the ”Love Will Never Do (Without You)” video. Holy cow, Janet. We all wanted to marry you. (GG)
#29. Bruce Springsteen | Tunnel Of Love
Released: 10/2/87 | RIAA certification: 3X Platinum
Fun Fact: The video for “Brilliant Disguise,” which contained no edits and was shot in a continuous take, won an MTV Video Music Award for Best Editing.
Because I’m lazy, and because I don’t think I’ll ever say it better than I already did on this site, here’s what I had to say about Tunnel of Love a couple of months ago during a rundown of Bruce’s studio recordings: “Never content with making the same album twice, Bruce has reminded us time and again that after the good times comes the hangover; written and recorded in the final year of a turbulent marriage, Bruce once again narrows his focus, this time excavating romantic love for all the insecurities and peccadilloes contained therein. It’s a courageous follow-up to a blockbuster record, something this inward and probing – and sad, so unbearably sad at times that it’s hard to take, as on “One Step Up”, a work of devastating beauty that sifts through the wreckage of a loveless marriage. Grudging acceptance is reached on “When You’re Alone”, and the devious, often-barbed machinations of deceptive lovers are starkly examined on “Brilliant Disguise” and “Two Faces”. Frustration and stubbornness raise their heads early on (the ferocious “Spare Parts”, for example) and slip, like dueling hydra heads, around the album’s narrative; musically, Tunnel of Love is rooted in its time, but never imprisoned by it, late-’80s production tactics never choking the life out of one of Bruce’s most incisive sets to date. It’s such a personal, desperate record that it never misses the E Street Band; in fact, it functions better without it, its bruised restraint benefiting from the minimalist approach. Euphoria is never the name of the game on Tunnel of Love, and the result is one of the greatest break-up records ever recorded.” Yeah, that’s about right. – Drew
#28. Bruce Springsteen | Nebraska
Released: 9/30/82 | RIAA certification: Platinum
Fun Fact: CBS Records president Walter Yetnikoff derisively referred to Nebraska as Omaha, and thought the album would kill Springsteen’s career.
The making of this, Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 sixth release, is fairly well-known. Springsteen recorded a set of acoustic demos for the follow-up to The River, couldn’t get the right sound with the full E Street Band, and decided to essentially release the demos as a solo record. What he delivered was a harrowing, yet riveting, view of America in the early years of Reagan’s first term – a period marked by a deep recession, high unemployment, the dismantling of entire industries, tax cuts for high wage earners and the weakening of the social safety net.
Unlike the characters in The River, who faced tough times as in the title track but could still find momentary relief and escape a la “Out in the Street”, there was no such respite for the characters in Nebraska. From the true life tale of the young lovers shooting their way across Nebraska in the title track to the namesake character Johnny 99 asking the judge to put him on death row, to the “Highway Patrolman” chasing his brother across Michigan, there are no easy answers for the most of the characters on the album. Even in the closing track, “Reason to Believe”, the narrator can’t fathom how the song’s characters somehow find the strength to go on, even if their loved one has run off or left them at the altar.
There are stories of shame a child feels while a family test drives a used car it can’t afford (“Used Cars”) to other kids looking up longingly at the houses of the rich in “Mansion on the Hill”. The album’s sparse instrumentation adds to the overall sobering tone of the record, but tracks like “Open All Night” with it’s “hey ho rock and roll deliver me from nowhere” rocks as much as any full E Street song, as does the relentlessly pulsating “State Trooper”. Only on these tracks do the characters have some chance of solace in the desperate hope of reaching a lover.
Springsteen’s recently released Wrecking Ball revisits many of these same themes, complete with references to the parties going on up on Banker’s Hill. But while that Wrecking Ball offers some glimmers of hope, Nebraska provides no such relief. (Dennis)
#27. The Cure | Disintegration
Release Date: 5/1/89 | RIAA certification: 2X Platinum
Fun Fact: Kyle Brofslovski from “South Park” thinks Disintegration is the best album ever.
At the risk of sounding like an asshole, Robert Smith is always at his best when he’s experiencing some kind of crippling emotional crisis. Pornography was the moment that all the tensions and hostilities building up over Seventeen Seconds and Faith finally reached a breaking point. Bloodflowers was his midlife crisis album; Smith coming to the realization that two decades of continued fame and success hadn’t made him any happier than he was before—that his creative peak had reached its course and nothing would bring it back. If there’s one theme that ties every album in his personal “trilogy” together, it’s an acknowledgment of life’s impermanence—the acceptance thateverything has to end at some point.
Disintegration is part-breakup album, part-LSD vision quest, part-“fuck me, I’m thirty” meltdown. Smith pushed his songwriting abilities to their fullest, and nothing he’s done before or since has sounded as complex or detailed as his work here. “Fascination Street” is led by one of Simon Gallup’s most dominating basslines and has Smith going for an odd serial killer performance. “Lullaby” straddles the line between whimsical and creepy that the best fairy tales do. “Lovesong” is probably the most depressing paean to everlasting faith and devotion that’s ever been written. “Prayers for Rain” and “The Same Deep Water as You” sound like a rainstorm sledgehammer descending over England. Personally, I’m a bigger fan of Pornography‘s unrelenting miasma, but this isn’t a bad runner-up. (Greg)
#26. R.E.M. | Murmur
Released: 4/13/83 | RIAA certification: Gold
Fun Fact: In the year that saw Thriller and Synchronicity monopolize the top of the charts, the editorial staff of Rolling Stone voted Murmur the best album of 1983.
I have to admit I’ve struggled with this writeup more than any of the others I’ve done for this series. It’s been a struggle to find the words to try and describe how I’ve loved this record since the first time I heard it 28 years ago when I was a newly minted college freshman. And that’s probably the main thing to say about this record, it was college rock in the early/mid-80’s. R.E.M. managed to at once blend what had come before (everything to the Velvet Underground to, as guitarist Pete Buck would later write, Aerosmith) and go on to influence a good chunk of what would come later. After Murmur was released in 1983, jangly guitars became a college rock staple. The Replacements would try and recruit Buck to produce their breakthrough album Let It Be (he only ended up playing on the album’s opening track), and in bit of turn about, the Feelies got him to produce their comeback album in ’86 in which they drew from R.E.M.’s sound just as R.E.M. had drawn from them.
Instrumentally, R.E.M. were a basic trio (with Buck joined by bassist Mike Mills, drummer Bill Berry), but the fourth member of the band, lead vocalist Michael Stipe might have attracted the most attention, mainly because nobody could figure out what the hell he was singing (thus the common joke that the album should have been called Mumble). One of my buddies and I used to come to class and tell each other when we figured out some new snippet of lyric. Even when we could figure out what Stipe was singing, we still couldn’t figure what he meant. “Your luck two headed cow”? Why’s he singing “how long” in French?
In the end, it didn’t matter. Murmur’s melodies, riffs and hooks, driven by Buck’s chiming guitar, Berry’s straight-ahead drums combined with Mill’s bass and harmony vocals, were all you needed. I could listen to songs like “Talk About the Passion”, “Laughing”, “Catapult” and “Shaking Through” a zillion times, and, frankly, have. It’s honestly the most played album I own. What was once something so new and fresh to me when I was 18 is now my best pair of well-worn middle-aged jeans, only not so faded. (Dennis)
#25. AC/DC | Back In Black
Released: 7/25/80 | RIAA certification: 22X Platinum
Fun Fact: Back In Black has sold over 22 million copies in the U.S.-but never hit #1 on the Billboard charts.
The morning Bon Scott woke up in Hell, Brian Johnson was visited by two ghosts. The Ghost of Rock Past took him to a show by his old band Geordie, one right before he left the band. Johnson was in the crowd, and saw himself onstage, singing Geordie’s UK hit “All Because of You”—a song he could no longer stand—and he looked around at the crowd, a club packed with punters there to see Slade, or Sweet, or another glam or pub rock headliner. He saw their expressions, the bright wide whites of their eyes, their hands raised in the air, their mouths forming some approximation of the lyrics he himself (or an apparition of himself) was singing onstage. It was probably the only song of Geordie’s most of the crowd knew, unless the band wheeled out their cover of “House of the Rising Sun.”
Johnson surveyed the scene and nodded, even smiled a bit. This was a good crowd, a crowd he could make his crowd, a show he remembered as a good show, until the gig was over, and the band had to deal with each other, minus the audience and the noise and the peculiar sonics of the venue. It wasn’t that the guys in the band hated each other; there simply wasn’t the camaraderie there once was, and he knew they were on the downswing artistically, certainly commercially, and there was no way he could continue to do this without bankrupting himself. He’d hedged his bet a bit, started a business repairing windshields on sports cars belonging to people richer than he’d ever imagined he’d be.
The Ghost of Rock Future escorted Johnson to another show, but this time his vantage point was onstage, in front of thousands upon thousands of people—not a club or even a theater crowd; bigger than an arena crowd, even. It was a stadium crowd—seventy, eighty thousand people in front of him. He looked around and saw Cliff Williams and the Young brothers. Somehow the Ghost of Rock Future had deposited him onstage at an AC/DC show—a big fuckin’ AC/DC show. And he was watching the thing from the vantage point of Bon Scott. Great bloke, that Bon. Stories about him abounded; he was always up for a pint or ten, always a threat to steal a feel on the closest lass, regardless of whether she was taken, of whether she was married. If she had knockers and a nice ass, she’d get the ol’ wolf-eye from Bon.
And now here he was, inside Bon’s head, the Youngs playing behind him, and the mic being raised up by what looked like his own hand, and then—
The sound that came out wasn’t Bon’s. It wasn’t really Johnson’s, either, but it was close. It was louder, rougher, more of a scream, a throat-shredding howl. The words coming out were tremendous gutter poetry: “She had the sightless eyes, telling me no lies / Knockin’ me out with those American thighs.” A wave of power, of electricity, washed over him, and suddenly he was in the middle of another song, screaming about too many women and too many pills. He saw women in the audience, willing women; he wondered if he was screaming to scare them into giving him pussy. Another song, extolling the virtues of rock and roll; another song, about drinking a lot; another song, where he smacked an enormous bell with a mallet.
The bell clanged, hard, and Brian Johnson woke up, just as Bon Scott was waking up in some netherworld. The sun was coming up. Johnson shook his head and chuckled, then got up to get going to work; there were two cars in his garage he had to work on.
Later in the day, he heard about Bon.
A couple weeks after that, he got a call from the Ghost of Rock Present, a guy he’d last seen in his dream, wearing a schoolboy uniform. (Rob Smith)
#24. George Michael | Faith
Released: 10/30/87 | RIAA certification: Diamond
Fun Fact: Faith was the first album by a white solo artist to hit #1 on Billboard’s R&B album chart (then called the Black Albums chart).
I’m not the type of guy who props people up at the expense of others, but I’ve gotta do it this one time. When Justin Timberlake released Futuresex/Lovesounds in 2006, many people compared it to favorably to the genius works of Michael Jackson and Prince. It was probably most compared to iconic Eighties album that came from a man who, like Timberlake, was a soulful boy-band refugee searching for adult respect: George Michael’s Faith. No disrespect to JT-I dig the guy, but comparing any of his solo work to Faith (to say nothing of the MJ and Prince comparisons) is completely laughable. All of 24 years old when this album was recorded and released, George Michael put out an unassailable collection of pop, rock, soul and funk. The songwriting (all by Michael) was top notch. The production (again, by Michael) was excellent. The instrumentation (much of which was performed by Michael) was fantastic, and as for the vocals? Give a listen to the gospel-flavored “One More Try” and tell me if Justin could match that if you gave him an extra set of lungs.
George sequestered himself in Denmark (of all places) to record his solo debut, but he certainly had his eye on American music at the time-specifically Prince, who released his magnum opus, Sign O’ the Times, earlier in 1987. “Hard Day” and “I Want Your Sex” certainly echo with purple funk. However, George was no mere copycat. The mysterious “Father Figure” pulses with a sound all George’s own, and the singer/songwriter had the creative balls to tackle issues like drug addiction (“Monkey,”) domestic abuse (“Look At Your Hands,”) and Reagan/Thatcher politics (“Hand To Mouth.”) Let’s not forget that the album opened with a swinging slice of neo-rockabilly and closed with a jazz ballad. For pure eclecticism, there are very few albums that beat Faith. Of course, none of that eclecticism would be worth shit if the person making it wasn’t some kind of talent. Teenage girls loved George, but so did their parents, so did the quiet storm and hip-hop crowds and GM even won the respect of a segment of the rockist elite. It would be a hard feat to top, and George (somewhat wisely), in a quarter-century that has included enough personal folly to fill 5 memoirs, has barely tried to. (Big Money)
#23. Paul Simon | Graceland
Released: 8/12/86 | RIAA certification: 5X Platinum
Fun Fact: Paul Simon considers Graceland‘s title track the best song he’s ever written.
Although Paul Simon’s 1986 mega-smash album better known for its use of South African musicians and introducing African rhythms to mainstream U.S. audiences, I’ve always found it remarkable for being a celebration of the melting pot that is American popular music, a melting pot that owes a huge debt to the rhythms that came from the African continent.
It starts with the title track, a story of a journey on the Mississippi River, the great American Nile, to Memphis, the cradle of both delta blues and rock and roll. Waiting down the river, shining like a bluesman’s National steel guitar, is Elvis’ Graceland which Simon sees as an almost holy shrine that may offer some measure of redemption after a failed marriage (in this case to Princess Leia herself). While the musical tracks were recorded in South Africa with South African musicians, the backing vocals were added later in the U.S. by the Everly Brothers, another nod to early rock and roll as well as to to roots of Simon and Garfunkel.
While most of the middle tracks celebrates the music and musicians from South Africa, especially the stunningly beautiful a cappella “Homeless” featuring Ladysmith Black Mambazo, are touches of other bits of American musical styles throughout the album from the almost tejano accordion on “Gumboots”, to the R&B style horn section on “You Can Call Me Al” to a vocal another guest vocal appearance by Linda Ronstadt, who the following year would release an album of traditional Mexican songs.
On the final two tracks of the album, Simon returns to American roots music of the present. It starts with “That Was Your Mother” which finds the singer near the end of the Mississippi in Lafayette, Louisiana, the heart of Cajun country. While Simon name checks Clifton Chenier, the king of zydeco, the music is by Rockin’ Dopsie and the Zydeco Twisters, the heirs to Chenier’s throne, who provide a rollicking zydeco beat. The final track, “All Around the World or The Myth of Fingerprints,” features Mexican-American rockers Los Lobos (who would allege that Simon stole the song from them). The two tracks are notable for both how much they musically have in common with each rhythmically and instrumentally (notably the accordion) but with the preceding nine tracks.
This album’s getting the super deluxe treatment which is due to drop in early June. In addition to a remastered version of the original album, the box includes a disc of demos, a disc of live tracks and a DVD documentary on the making of the album and its impact entitled All Around the World. If you want to know more about the album and the controversy it caused at the time of its release (Simon was accused of violating the cultural boycott of the apartheid South African regime), I’d suggest heading on over to Amazon and pre-ordering the set. (Dennis)
#22. Duran Duran | Rio
Released: 5/10/82 | RIAA certification: 2X Platinum
Fun Fact: Three different versions of this LP have been released in the United States, not including the recent deluxe edition.
When it was first released in May of 1982, Rio did not garner much attention for Duran Duran in the U.S. Producer David Kershenbaum was brought in to remix a number of the album’s tracks, punching them up for the dance floor and the clubs in an effort to market their music better in the States. The album was then re-released here in November, and combined with the power of MTV and the amazing music videos that accompanied the singles from Rio, the rest is history.
Rio would go on to reach Number Six on the U.S. album charts and Duran Duran hysteria quickly set in, particularly among teenage girls. I attended a Duran Duran show in Detroit a few years later and literally could barely hear the music over the constant screams and shrieks from the Durannies. Unfortunately this image as teen-pop idols served to downplay Duran Duran’s music for years. It was easy for critics to dismiss than as all image and no substance, especially given the elaborate, expensive videos shot in exotic locations.
Thankfully, time has proven Duran Duran not only as a great band, but as one of the finest pop bands of their time. Their influence is obvious on so many of today’s synth based pop/rock bands. Rio will always be their masterpiece, from monster hits like “Hungry Like The Wolf” and the title track to dreamy ballads like “Save A Prayer” and “Lonely In Your Nightmare”, the album is flawless from start to finish. “The Chauffeur” still gives me shivers. Duran mixed rock, pop, disco and electronic music into their own unique sound and Rio still sounds fresh and contemporary to this day. (Mike A.)
#21. Sonic Youth | Daydream Nation
Released: October 1988 | RIAA certification: none
Fun Fact: Daydream Nation was almost called Tonight’s The Day.
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. (Crispin Kott)