1983 in Music

The reviews I’ve written about music originally released in 1983.

1. Metallica: Kill’em All (10/10)

When I was young and dumb, I wrote the following:

This is clearly an extremely important document. Even though the New Wave of British Heavy Metal might have established all the different trends in metal, it’s hard to imagine metal today without American thrash metal. Even the more elaborate, more prog- or classically-oriented subgenres owe a debt to this kind of music.

Though this album sounds too much like Motorhead on occasion, it’s clearly one of the most important metal albums in history. The lyrics are typical of metal, they’re pretty bad. What’s with announcing the take for the bass solo? That stuff would come out anyway because the fans would be so interested in a good performance like that. When Emerson did that crazy Moog first-take Moog solo on “Lucky Man,” Lake didn’t include the announcement of the take in mid-song. I guess Metallica wasn’t confident enough at this point. They sure fixed that later.

Regardless of some debut-album flaws, this is one of the most important albums of the last quarter of the 20th century, as it spawned thrash metal which spawned so many different things (and made palm-muting ubiquitous).

2. Tom Waits: Swordfishtrombones (10/10)

Waits’ drastic, mid-career transformation from barroom drunkard balladeer to avant garde cabaret blues singer is a testament to how important performance and arrangement (and, to a lesser extent, production) are in recordings. Waits the songwriter didn’t change all that much, but Waits the performer did, and so did Waits the arranger and band leader. And Waits the producer let it happen and found a way to make it sound, well, not ’80s.

Sure, Waits’ songs have changed somewhat. He’s arguably embraced song fragments more (and instrumentals); he’s less determined to present his songs within the tradition he was writing in during the 1970s. And his lyrics have, at times, grown to encompass topics they never had before, and when he does cover topics he has covered previously, he often leans into the weirdness and idiosyncrasy more than he ever did previously. But these songs really aren’t that different from the songs he was writing in the 1970s. (“Johnsburg, Illinois” could fit on any previous Waits record.)

What’s changed, of course, is everything else. Waits has fully embraced his unique voice, doing more with it than he used to, such as the scatting on “Shore Leave.” More importantly, though, is the bizarre “junkyard” sound around the songs, featuring all sorts of weird production and other effects, as well as Tackett’s rough guitar playing. Nothing about this sound was common in 1983.

Waits and his engineers have managed to capture these clanks and clacks and drones with clarity and space that make the record sound like it could have been recorded whenever. There’s nothing about this sound that dates it to 1983. While just about everyone else of his generation was trying to find the newest technology or hopping on the gated drum bandwagon, Waits made a record that sounds timeless.

This is the Tom Waits record, because it’s where his career truly began. It may not be his absolute best set of songs, but it is the seminal record that gave us the Waitsian sound that has been forever identified him since, and hugely influential on later musicians (particularly of the indie rock persuasion).

3. Minor Threat: Out of Step (10/10)

In 2005, or so, I wrote the following:

I am tempted to call this the perfect hardcore album. It’s exactly what it should be. I couldn’t give a shit about the “straight edge” stuff, as that matters little to anyone outside of “punk” music. But the music itself is near-perfect and the lyrics are consistently awesome (especially for a guy this young). Is this the pinnacle of hardcore?

This is the shortest LP on this list (it’s EP-length) but I think it is the purest distillation of hardcore: louder, angry and principled.

Yes, Minor Threat do not have the distinctive sound of the Kennedys, and they are less musically interesting than Black Flag, or any of the hardcore bands that grew into other things (i.e. the Minneapolis scene). But if I wanted someone to know what hardcore punk was, I’d play them this record.

The only thing that makes me think it isn’t essential is that you can go out and get Complete Discography and hear their entire oeuvre instead.

4. R.E.M.: Murmur (9/10)

I used to have this bizarre idea about Murmur, one I thought about pretty much only when I wasn’t listening to it; I decided that the songs here sounded as if they came from the “ether,” as if they had always existed.

Then, when I’d listen to the record, I’d realize I was completely utterly wrong – if this record could have come at a different time than the early ’80s in the US, I don’t know what time that is – but I would pretend it wasn’t true for some reason.

Many years later, I’m not sure Murmur is even my favourite ’80s REM record but it was irst. And though REM didn’t invent this sound, they sure perfected it (and created their own unique spin that made it perhaps more lasting than it would have been otherwise) and this is the record that started that – that started the jangle pop fad, that started the “college rock” fad, that gave another path to alternative rock, which didn’t involve distortion.

5. Violent Femmes (9/10)

This is just a fantastic combination:

Gano’s songs combine classicist songwriting formulas with one of the best articulations of teen angst ever put to record. If that was it, it would be a pretty great record.

But the Femmes combine these songs with the energy and attitude punk, something that had been done before, but not that frequently.

But they present this with a fresh conceit: an almost entirely acoustic record, with an incredibly busy bass player.

The combination of the songs and attitude with the unique presentation has rarely been equaled on a debut of the era.

Basically a classic.

6. Minutemen: What Makes a Man Start Fires? (9/10)

The invention of Post Hardcore? Probably. Read the review of What Makes a Man Start Fires?

7. The Police: Synchronicity (9/10)

The best thing about The Police was their ability to create short, catchy, vaguely punky pop rock songs with a reggae tinge, full of interesting musical ideas stolen from jazz and other forms of art music. This makes them a great band, in my mind. But if I had one criticism of the band when it was more democratic and less ambitious, it’s that they were a singles band. They would manage a few classic songs (“Can’t Stand Losing You” is my favourite) with catchy melodies and literary lyrics but then you get the album and the quality kind of plummets from the hits. It is only with time that I’ve been able to really like some of their earlier albums, because their songwriting just isn’t there.

Well, this is the album where that ends. For the first and only time in their career every song is good to great. This comes at a sacrifice, however, as this band is now very much a Sting dictatorship and some of the excitement and energy of the earlier records is gone. (Given how much they fought, it’s amazing this sounds so good.)

But all bands (save AC/DC) evolve. And, for the most part, I think this is their best record despite and because of the change. Also, it’s far better than any Sting solo album.

8. Talking Heads: Speaking in Togues (9/10)

In 2010, I wrote the following:

I can’t help but see this as a lack of progress. Yes, it’s hard to follow up one of the best albums of the 80s. I understand that. But it still seems almost like a step back. That’s not to say that it’s bad in anyway. Obviously it’s pretty good (given my rating). But it feels somewhat slight after Remain in Light. I can’t really place the “why” just yet.

I can’t really agree with that exactly. What I will say is that this is the point when Talking Heads went from danceable art music to arty dance music; the focus is significantly more towards getting people to dance.

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing and there are still a number of all time classic songs here, including the simplest ballad they maybe ever did. It’s still a great record. But it is not Remain in Light, which, as I noted in 2010, is one of the best albums of the decade.

9. Philip Glass: Koyaanisqatsi (8/10)

I guess if there is such a thing as accessible Glass, this is the beginning of it. If I’m not mistaken, this was his first film score, before it became a regular thing for him.

It’s been close to a decade since I saw Koyaanisqatsi and off the top of my head I do not remember what I thought of the music at the time. Listening to the score while listening to two Glass operas is a very different experience. But that being said, this is the relatively rare score that works as a piece of music apart from the film. With little memory of the film I can still admire this piece of music. But it does almost seem like “pop” Glass (not that this is a bad thing).

The score is haunting and full of Glass’ trademarks. Though I barely remember the movie, it feels very appropriate to such a film. (The film is non-narrative and full of time-lapse photography.) It’s a good place to start, if you’re not such if you’re into minimalism.

10. Echo & the Bunnymen: Porcupine (8/10)

I like this. Not as much as other records of theirs, but I like it a fair amount. Read the review of Porcupine.

11. Oliver Knussen: Where the Wild Things Are (8/10)

This is the earlier of the two famous “children’s operas,” the briefer and the seemingly slighter. Its material is far more famous, however, and that might appeal more in actual performance.

On record, I think I prefer the later opera. In any case, it’s apparently filled with all sorts of quotes and sly references for adults, most of which my listening history has not prepared me for.

So to me it just sounds like a friendlier operatic version of Knussen’s entertaining music.

12. Tears for Fears: The Hurting (8/10)

Synth pop with real instruments. Read the review of The Hurting.

13. New Order: Power, Corruption & Lies (8/10)

Out from under Joy Division’s shadow. Read the review of Power, Corruption & Lies.

14. Suicidal Tendencies (8/10)

“All I wanted was a Pepsi!” Read the review of Suicidal Tendencies’ debut album.

15. Thompson Twins: Quick Step & Side Kick (8/10)

I think I have enjoyed this record more than any other synthpop album I’ve yet heard. Read the review of Quick Step & Side Kick.

16. Herbie Hancock: Future Shock (8/10)

This isn’t jazz!!!! Read the review of Future Shock.

17. The Waterboys (7/10)

It could well be the birth of alternative rock in the UK. Because I don’t know that for sure, I can’t necessarily rank it higher, as it’s maybe not as good as all that. Read the review of the Waterboys’ debut.

18. Iron Maiden: Piece of Mind (7/10)

Maiden doing Maiden. Read the review of Piece of Mind.

19. Philip Glass: “String Quartet No. 2 ‘ Company'” (7/10)

The second quartet feels a lot more Glassian – though it’s still not blatantly so compared to some of his work – and is even shorter. Though it’s pretty, it’s the most incidental of these works and the most obviously in line with the tradition of quartets, and so I am inclined to say it is the most derivative. And it just sort of peters out at the end, rather oddly.

20. U2: War (7/10)

For some reason, the first time I gave this my three listens, I never wrote down my thoughts nor rated it here. Either I forgot or it was a really really long time ago.

My general issues with u2 are that they play poppy version of a style of music I quite like the original version of, and that they’re a singles band. (Also, they’re extremely self-righteous, but that was less of a problem in 1983.)

This record, which I don’t remember well, is very much exactly what I would expect: the most popular songs are the best songs – all these years later, after hearing it a million times “Sunday Bloody Sunday” still impresses (and manages to sound unlike anyone else), and “New Year’s Day” is one of their better singles from the decade. The remaining songs all sound like more accessible versions of bands I like more. They’re unmistakably U2 as well, of course, but U2 hadn’t quite found their wall-of-sound niche just yet.

All of that being said, I can’t deny it’s pretty consistent, outside of those singles. It’s not like some of the album tracks are awful, they’re all just not quite up to the standard of the singles. And everything else about the record is very well done. I can see why some people love it. I would just rather listen to bands who are more musically interesting and, the thing is, there were an absolute ton of them to choose from within the post punk world in the early 1980s, which is probably why I resent the success of U2.

21. Peter Tosh: Mama Africa (7/10)

Maybe too ’80s for me? Read the review of Mama Africa.

22. Eurythmics: Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) (7/10)

Much more interesting than your average synthpop. Read the review of Sweet Dreams.

23. Oliver Knussen: Music for a Puppet Court [revised] (7/10)

This is an earlier piece of Knussen’s that I think he overhauled a decade later. The opening movement lacks the vivid imagery of his later attempts at music like this, but that issue is solved by the second movement. I’m not sure this is as successful as his other music that conjures images, even with the rewrite, but it’s still interesting enough.

24. Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble: Texas Flood (7/10)

A classic blues guitar album released a time when the blues had stopped being important. Read the review of Texas Flood.

25. Yazoo: You and Me Both (7/10)

Still soulful synthpop. And I’d rather listen to soulful synthpop than sythpop without soul. Read the review of You and Me Both.

26. Madonna (7/10)

I admire the relative diversity. Read the review of Madonna’s debut album.

27. Mark Stewart + Maffia: Learning to Cope with Cowardice (6/10)

It’s probably novel, but it’s very, very repetitive. Read the review of Mark Stewart’s debut.

28. Mötley Crüe: Shout at the Devil (6/10)

At times they sound too much like AC/DC or Dio or Priest but the good news is that they don’t sound like Poison. Read the review of Shout at the Devil.

29. Billy Joel: An Innocent Man (6/10)

High concept nostalgia. Read the review of An Innocent Man.

30. Dio: Holy Diver (6/10)

Meh. Read the review of Dio’s debut album.

31. Randy Newman: Trouble in Paradise (6/10)

My problem with Newman is that he wants to jump back and forth between snide satire and sincerity, and that doesn’t work for me. Also, synthesizers. Read the review of Trouble in Paradise.

32. Killing Joke: Fire Dances (6/10)

Though I appreciate the aesthetic, the material isn’t there. Read the review of Fire Dances.

33. Hanoi Rocks: Back to Mystery City (6/10)

It’s nostalgia, but it’s campy, quirky nostalgia, which is something. Read the review of Back to Mystery City.

34. The Replacements: Hootenanny (5/10)

A mess. Read the review of Hootenanny.

35. Urban Dogs (5/10)

Well they missed the boat a little bit but it’s alright for what it is.

36. Pink Floyd: The Final Cut (5/10)

I like the lyrics, the music not so much. I might have been more disposed to like this had Waters released it as a solo album. This is not Pink Floyd. Yes, this criticism is unfair. Whatever.

37. Bryan Adams: Cuts Like a Knife (5/10)

Arena rock pablum. Read the review of Cuts Like a Knife.

38. Def Leppard: Pyromania (5/10)

Well, it’s better than Hysteria, which is…something. Read the review of Pyromania.

39. Malcolm McLaren*: Duck Rock (5/10)

*Barely created by Malcolm McLaren.

I don’t know what to do with this. Read the review of Duck Rock.

40. Huey Lewis and the News: Sports (4/10)

This is the sound of people in their ’40s saying “modern music sucks.” Read the review of Sports.

Not Ranked: Wiener Philharmoniker, Charles Mackerras et al.: Jenůfa by Leoš Janáček (9/10)

Read the review.

Not Ranked: Philharmonia, Simon Rattle: Sinfonietta, Taras Bulba by Leos Janacek (8/10)

Read the review.

Not Ranked: Orchestre symphonique de Montreal, Charles Dutoit: “El sombrero de tres picos / El amor brujo” by Manuel de Falla (8/10)


DRI: “Dirty Rotten EP” (9/10)

You can really hear the influence of UK hardcore (something I just learned existed) on this band but they’ve clearly added something, most noticeably in the vocals (which are no longer as screamy) and the drums (which are significantly more metal to my ears). And I can really hear why these guys were so influential on other American bands, given that they appeared a little too metal for Hardcore Punk and way too punk to be Thrash (metal). I don’t know, myself, what differentiates a thrashcore band from a crossover thrash band, and I think it’s probably semantic, but I can really hear the origins of metalcore in this music (whether it’s thrashcore or crossover).

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