1986 in Music

A list of reviews of music originally released in 1986.

1. Metallica: Master of Puppets (10/10)

In 2009, I wrote this rather bizarre “review”:

I’m sitting here trying to think why I like Apocalyptica more than Metallica. There are two obvious reasons: I am more familiar with Apocalyptica than I am with Metallica (I didn’t care for metal when I was younger) and Apocalyptica is a cello quartet, the cello being one of my favourite instruments. But I think the real reason is that Hetfield can’t write lyrics. This isn’t mean to be an attack against Hetfield or Metallic. I think few metal bands have good lyricists. In most bands, the vocalist is the lyricist. In most metal bands, the vocalists are not what you would call “literary types.” Most metal bands are about other things than the lyrics, and most guys who grow up to be in metal bands aren’t bookish types. Of course, at this point Hetfield’s vocal stylings are so familiar as to be almost cliche, and it makes it hard for me to put those two things aside when listening to the old, important Metallica. That being said, this one is clearly an improvement on the debut (I haven’t heard the one in between) and perhaps stands are their crowning achievement. Too bad the lyrics blow.

So, uh, that was stupid. I have since heard Ride the Lightning and it is also awesome, by the way.

Is this the best Metallica album ever? Probably. Is it the best metal album of the 1980s? Probably. (Though I say that without knowing enough non-Metallica from the ’80s…) The compositions are even more ambitious than Ride the Lightning and, though I clearly don’t like Hetfield’s lyrics, there is at least some depth to these lyrics compared to, say, Megadeth’s. Everything here works perfectly and, in addition to that, this influenced literally everyone in the metal scene. Whether or not it’s best metal album of the ’80s, it’s got to be a strong candidate for most influential.

If you listen to one Metallica album – or if you listen to one ’80s metal album – it should be this one.

2. Slayer: Reign in Blood (10/10)

Slayer has been on my list to listen to for years. But after listening to Megadeth and discovering I really don’t like them, I got worried that maybe the same thing would happen with Slayer.

No chance of that happening.

This is everything Thrash Metal should be in less than a half an hour. It’s loud, fast, brutal and well-played. I’m glad that they took a different approach than Metallica. This may not be as ambitious but it’s almost more effective.

I can imagine that people listening to this for the first time 30 years ago would have been inspired to go out and try to make something even heavier. So I suspect it’s been pretty influential, even though I don’t know metal well enough to know for sure.

Anyway, this is a classic. A near-perfect record and the epitome of the genre.

3. Ennio Morricone: The Mission Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (10/10)

4. Saccharine Trust: We Became Snakes (9/10)

Yes. YES!

A lot has been made of the latent jazz influences on hardcore and post hardcore bands – Black Falg is supposed to have listened to Free Jazz for example.

But never was I expecting a hardcore band to make music you might actually confuse with jazz. There are times on this bizarre, crazy record that you could possibly mistake these guys for one of the “Downtown” NYC jazz combos trying to incorporate punk and metal into their music in the ’80s. But then, the lyrics come back, and you are reminded that this is indeed rock music.

This is a crazy, bonkers, eye-opening record that embodies everything great about the artistic freedoms opened up by post-hardcore. Great stuff.

5. Mauricio Kagel: String Quartet III (9/10)

The third quartet starts off with an actual melody! Written two decades after the first two, it’s clear age has mellowed Kagel somewhat. This is not necessarily a bad thing because the first two quartets were basically just brief demonstrations of how out there he was. This feels like a much more serious attempt at writing a quartet that would be included in the canon. And from listening to it, it has to be my favourite so far, incorporating lots of relatively radical techniques but still recognizable as a string quartet to the listener (instead of four string instruments making weird noises to piss off the establishment). I’m on the fence as to where it sits, but I think it’s probably one of the better string quartets of the 80s, anyway.

6. Bad Brains: I Against I (9/10)

This is a bonkers combination of 80s metal, hardcore punk, soul and reggae that is unlike so much other music of its era. Only Bad Brains could have made this record.

It’s hard to imagine bands like Fisbhone existing without Bad Brains, even if they were already making music by the time this record came out.

No other hardcore band (if these guys could even be called hardcore) was this musically diverse, there’s really nothing else like it.

7. Sonic Youth: EVOL (9/10)

Having never heard Sonic Youth at their most inaccessible, I can’t attest to whether or not this is really the moment when the band made concessions to the mainstream (or, conversely, wrote actual songs).

But, though our ears are much more used to this kind of dissonance now than they would have been at the time, this is still pretty jarring. What’s particularly jarring is that such harsh music is almost entirely free from distortion, which is something that I think very few other bands were doing at this time. And there’s ambition to the compositions that isn’t present in most music where the aim is just to be difficult and noisy.

This is not my favourite record of theirs I’ve heard, but it’s still a unique beast (for its era) and it’s an important step in making yet another form of inaccessible music (No Wave) not only accessible but, eventually, part of the mainstream.

8. The Beastie Boys: Licensed To Ill (8/10)

I don’t know anything about hip hop, and even less about ’80s hip hop. I have no idea whether or not this was a big deal.

But I can guess, and I would guess that the sort of hardcore punk aesthetic was pretty revolutionary (and helped sell records). I can imagine that there wasn’t a lot of hip hop like this out there before this record. So I think this record is probably important.

I don’t love it though; not only do I not like hip hop but I often find young bands like this obnoxious. No different here: they are obnoxious and misogynist and whiny. Not people I’d want to know. And yes, I realize I’m talking about a cultural institution. I’m guessing they matured.

I appreciate they did their own samples (I believe they did) and maybe even played some instruments, and I appreciate musical fusion. And I get that this was really important. But I don’t like it and will likely never listen to it again.

9. Big Black: Atomizer (8/10)

It may seem like a weird topic to bring up, given what Big Black does and sounds like, but I find their first album to be a little less impressive than Songs About Fucking. It feels, to me, as if there are stronger songs on Songs, even though that’s an odd thing to say about a band whose sole reason for existence is to pummel/offend. I guess I feel like the second album is the more “mature” statement (an odd thing to say, I know).

But this is still unrelentingly aggressive and metallic (for the time) and I think we have to not only admire the commitment to being so willfully ugly, but we have to recognize the moment – this is music that forms a crucial bridge between post-punk and both ’90s industrial music and “noise” music.
It’s good stuff, but I do like the sequel better.

10. Die Kreuzen: October File (8/10)

Harcore punk slowed down – but not Flipper slow, and much more competent – and played as if it was metal. As many others have noted, this is like the missing link between hardcore and Soundgarden and Alice in Chains, albeit without the strong songs of the latter.

Still, it’s cool, unique stuff. Who knew grunge came from Wisconsin?

11. R.E.M..: Life’s Rich Pageant (8/10)

I have a hard time judging this after so many years, after listening to it way too many times. Alas.

It feels, in some ways, like the first latter REM record – there’s distortion where there wasn’t before, it’s often more alternative rock than jangle pop, you can understand what Stipe is saying, and the whole thing sounds more like Document than it sounds like Murmur.

I like most of the songs and so I have a really hard time trying to be objective and look at it as something less than good. It’s just too damn familiar to me at this point.

12. Megadeth: Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying? (7/10)

Megadeth have been on my list of essential ’80s bands to listen to for years, possibly a decade or more. And now that I’m finally getting to them I’m so, so disappointed I don’t really know what to say.

This is some pretty damn heavy music for 1986, and that part is good and cool. But I don’t like Mustaine – I don’t like the guy personally, which is probably obvious, but I don’t like his lyrics, they’re worse than regular metal lyrics. And the mix forces his vocals way up front which makes everything less heavy.

Having come at this backwards (I’ve heard Rust in Peace first), it also is less impressive. They got better later, it seems.

Also, this is a pretty short record.It’s hard to listen to something this slight and get super excited about it.

But all of this is to say merely that this isn’t a classic. It’s still probably pretty important, and I sure don’t hate it. I was just expecting something a little different.

13. The Costello Show featuring the Attractions and Confederates: King of America (7/10)

Costello embraces American roots music and it mostly works. Costello’s songs are strong – though the cover of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” is entirely unnecessary – stronger, in fact, than most of the bands embracing roots at the same time.

But the album is hampered a bit by the ’80s production which occasionally intrudes – and which is in direct contrast to his performance at times. And, much like U2 – though, needless to say, this sounds nothing like U2 – Costello’s embrace of American roots music feels a little bit like a suit of clothes he’s put on.

That being said, it’s a good album and, to my knowledge, a bit of a departure (at the time).

14. Siouxsie and the Bashees: Tinderbox (7/10)

The Banshees strike this weird balance where they pair a (relatively) bright sound with lyrics that wouldn’t necessarily fit with that sound. It’s not that the sound is particularly bright, it’s just bright for the genre, and I always find it a little disorienting when I first hear one of their records.

The songs are pretty good and the sound is appealing dense – even though, if you listen closely, there aren’t that many overdubs, it just feels like there are.

I guess the only thing that’s keeping me from liking this more is a sense of deja vu, that it’s maybe just a little more accessible version of what they were doing in the early ’80s.

15. Camper Van Beethoven (7/10)

I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the least inaccessible of Camper Van Beethoven’s albums – full of weird experiments and significantly longer than what I was expecting. It’s the same thing you would expect – silly lyrics, wild stylistic variations and a laconic attitude towards life – but it took me a lot longer to get into this one than the last one I heard.

It’s the sheer scope of this that I find ineffective, I guess. There’s just so much here and some of it isn’t necessary. I guess what I’m saying is I preferred them when they were less ambitious.

If you’re a fan, it’s still pretty good stuff. There’s just too damn much of it, in my mind.

16. Peter Gabriel: So (7/10)

I haven’t gotten into solo Gabriel yet really, this is only the third album of his that I’ve heard. But back when I was a Gabriel-era Genesis obsessive I listened to a lot of Gabriel-fronted music. I have always been a little wary of his solo music in part because it is so clearly different from his music with Genesis, even the earlier albums. That being said, I don’t mind his late ’70s stuff, at least that which I’ve heard. But I have some real qualms about this album: it is a very clear attempt to sell more records. That isn’t always a bad thing – though it often is – and I think in this case it is executed reasonably well, for the time, but it just doesn’t float my boat.

Even though I was a little young, I think “In Your Eyes” has a real resonance for people slightly older than myself but much of the rest album doesn’t have that resonance. It’s also pretty scatter-shot stylistically which, in this case, does not feel like a virtue.

But the worst thing of all is the “It’s 1986!!!” production. I know that’s a fault of the vast majority of pop music from this era, but there are few things I hate more than mid- and late-’80s mainstream pop rock production. At least Gabriel brings in his token world music touches – and I have always felt this influence has been overstated – so they make it a little less horrible. But I would love to hear what this album would sound like had it been recorded in, say, 1979, not 1986.

That being said it’s all quite catchy, competent and way more creative than the average pop rock record. But it’s just not my thing.

17. Steve Earle: Guitar Town (7/10)

This is what I wrote in 2010:

If this is gritty ’80s country I don’t want to hear mainstream ’80s country. It amazes me the extent to which “country music” is determined by an accent or a twang, and some pedal steel. But that is beside the point. Earle’s songs are decent, though hardly great. For the most part, the album avoids the terrible’ 80s production but there are some annoying aspects, such as the synthesizer that occasionally pops up, or the effect on the guitar which sounds awfully ’80s. I have a feeling I’d prefer his later music, music made in the light of alt-country and the like.

I can’t say that I disagree much. Earle has become an icon of American roots music but 30 years ago he was just another Alternative Country artist (though it’s hard to hear it here). You can see Earle’s budding songwriting but some of it is really hampered by the production particularly “Little Rock ‘n’ Roller,” which might be acceptable if it weren’t for that awful ’80s production, but the production turns it into nauseating schmaltz.

18. Paul Simon: Graceland (7/10)

I wrote this in 2010:

It’s extremely hard to separate something like this from the hype so I must admit that slight disappointment has something to do with the out-of-proportion expectations. The innovation has been exaggerated to extremes. Talking Heads had been doing this for years when Simon made this album, and David Bowie and Peter Gabriel before them (and Kaleidoscope a decade before them). Yes, Simon did it with vocals but still: in 1986 this wasn’t new, it was only new to fans of Paul Simon, and artists like him, who didn’t listen to the more culturally experimental musical acts of the 80s. The Cajun stuff is a little more brazen for a mainstream act of the 80s, if you think about it. When is Zideco ever cool, really?

The other issue I have is with the songs. I have never been blown away by Simon’s songs, he isn’t really my type of songwriter. I would not list him in my canon of the greats (Dylan, Young, Lennon, Mitchell, Waits, Cave, Oldham and others I am forgetting). I find his songs here to be fairly typical of his work (that I am familiar with): there are some great lines but the sum of each song is something hard to get a sense of and not really transcendent or universal. With these qualifications aside, the album is generally a pleasure to listen to. Unlike most mainstream music from 1986, most if it is free of the “Made in the 80s” production that kills so much 80s music (though one does have a typically 80s drum machine ruining an otherwise good arrangement). In that sense it has more in common with the “alternative” music of the era. The arrangements are interesting and vigorous. At the same time, he doesn’t really use his sidemen all that well (aside from the African volcalists). I mean, the man has Belew (!!!) and there are no great guitar solos. So that’s a little weird. All in all, it’s alright but it’s hardly the classic I have been told about.

I think I like it less now than I did then, but I mostly agree with what I said.

19. Billy Bragg: Talking with the Taxman About Poetry (7/10)

When I wrote the below brief review back in 2011, I think I had been listening to both this and its predecessor back to back and was maybe having trouble separating them:

A few more frills than the last time out and I’m not sure it’s stronger for it. He’s still got that whole “am I lovestruck or political?” thing going on which will probably always pick at me at least a little bit. I think I prefer him just banging on a guitar by himself, but I haven’t made up my mind yet.

I think my views have changed slightly, though I haven’t adjusted the rating. My issue isn’t just that Bragg cannot make up his mind whether he’s a protest singer or a love-balladeer (and, honestly, if he balances it right, I don’t think that I’d care). A big problem I have is the awful 80s production, where everything sounds fake. For example, the trumpet sounds like it was produced by a really high-end ’80s keyboard. Why the hell did they do that? Also, that faux-honky tonk piano sounds just awful, like it was played by a synthesizer too.

But the thing is, Bragg is a pretty good songwriter so even though I sometimes hate the arrangements and I hate the sound, there’s enough here for me to still like the record. I prefer his earlier music, but this still has enough to it.

20. The Smiths: The Queen is Dead (6/10)

I usually don’t have trouble liking rock I’m “supposed” to like (i.e. the generally accepted rock canon). I can’t say the same about pop I’m supposed to “like” (frankly, I just prefer inventiveness, grit, rhythm and other such things to melody, aesthetic angles to precision arrangements, appropriate to clean production and mixing, etc). I usually can at least bring myself to  respect most rock music that has become canonical. Hell, often I can put aside my gut feelings and and least say “this is a pretty impressive feat even though I don’t particularly like the style of music.” But I can’t really here.
And the thing is, I like so-called “Brit-pop” normally. I love the Beatles. I am in the process of writing a book about how great they are. I went through a period where the Who were pretty much my favourite band. I respect the Kinks and I’ve grown to quite like them. I like the Small Faces. I think Blur is pretty damn great (if slightly overrated).

I’m not saying this album is bad. It’s not bad. It’s better than a lot of what was on the radio in 1986 Britain, I’m sure.  It’s competent. It’s catchy enough. The lyrics are pretty great (and this is coming from someone who doesn’t like Morissey at all). But there’re two things this album isn’t, which Smiths boosters – and numerous rock critics – claim it is: great and important.

This album, and the other Smiths albums which I have yet to hear, is held up as some kind of landmark where British people rediscovered guitars. We are taught by the music press that the Smiths helped save guitar rock. I feel similarly about the Smiths and Springsteen: if this is guitar rock I don’t need more of it.

Why is that some critics must champion wussiness as upholding rock tradition when there are clear alternatives that are not wussy in the least? They did it with Springsteen, when scared boomers held him up over punk. And they did it with the Smiths, when critics – either wholly unfamiliar with the breadth of great American alternative rock in the ’80s, or put off by how “rock” it was – elevated a band like the Smiths to a status of champions of guitar-based rock music. Calling much of this “rock” isn’t exactly fair. Jangle pop is indeed appropriate. Guitar pop. Pop rock. Terms like that. There’s very little “rockness” (i.e. muscle) in this album, and its telling. It’s hard for me to understand the Marr worship from this one album, as well. He has maybe a moment or two, where he shows he’s a pretty good rhythm player.
The production dates it, like so many ’80s albums. Say what you want about American alternative rock of the ’80s, but most of it does not have horrible ’80s drums or synthesizers in it. Alas, TQID has a little.

The other exaggerated thing about this album is its supposed importance. The Smiths wrought what exactly? To my ears many if not most of the decent Brit Pop bands of the ’90s owe more to the Who than they do to the Smiths. Maybe I’m not up enough on the lesser lights of ’90s Brit Pop or on guitar-based rock music in England in the late ’80s, but that’s okay with me.

After listening to this, I can’t say I’m particularly interested. I feel like what this album needs is a little – no, a lot – of Steve Wynn and Karl Precoda, or Baird Figig, or Joey Santiago, or anyone anywhere who knows what distortion is.

21. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: Kicking Against the Pricks (6/10)

This is a diverse album of covers, from blues songs to folk and country songs to more mainstream pop songs to a Velvet Underground cover. And the performances are equally diverse, including some really out there versions of some of these songs (see “Hey Joe.” for instance)

The problem for me is that sometimes they really alter the song and sometimes they do a fairly faithful version. It feels schizophrenic to my ears and I wish they had committed to radical versions of all of the songs, not just some of them.

This is the least essential Bad Seeds album I’ve yet heard.

22. Mr. Bungle: The Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny (5/10)

Bungle’s first demo shows very little of the signs of their late demos that they were something unique in music, reviving a sound that had been dead since the late ’60s. And that’s weird.

The demo is almost totally straight-up Metallica / Anthrax, albeit with a sense of humour that those bands never had. (Also, I hear Motorhead, but that comes through the Metallica influence. And there’s a death metal influence, I think.) Only two songs on the album suggest this is not your typical thrash metal band: “Hypocrites,” a sort of ska pop song that deviates back into metal, and “Evil Satan,” which is pretty much the only sign of what they would later become. It’s undeniable these guys were talented, but they sound pretty derivative here.

And that’s weird, because I’m pretty sure this concert was filmed prior to this demo. And that begs the question, why is this so derivative? I think it’s because Bungle were trying to sell themselves to thrash labels, hoping they would get a deal where they could then unleash their true craziness. At least I hope so.

Oh yeah: The production quality is terrible.

Not Ranked:

Compilations, archival releases and new performances of old material.

Domus: Piano Quartets by Gabriel Faure (8/10)

Faure’s first two piano quartets are very pleasing and enjoyable. I’m not sure whether they marked any kind of moment in Romantic music, but I don’t really care when I am listening to them. This is the kind of lighthearted “classical” music I can really get behind. Great stuff.

Orford Quartet, CBC Vancouver Orchestra, Simon Streetfeild: Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis et al. (6/10)

This is one of those nonsensical compilations of pieces of “classical” music that are put together because all the music is performed by a similar ensemble, in this case String Quartet with Orchestra. So you have two very late romantic British  composers (though Vaughan Williams music could be seen as something else, I guess) with two Canadian composers who don’t exactly fit. Only Canadian ensembles would do this.

I’m sure I’ve heard the “Fantasia” before but it still stirs me. It is one of the most magnificent things to come out of English high art music in the years of the 20th century prior to World War I. It might be the best.

Alexander Brott’s Ritual is a fine piece of music. I’m sure that it wasn’t notable in any way, given when it was likely written, but it is enjoyable if it is not exactly innovative.

Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for Strings is another thing I have heard somewhere. Like so much of his music, it is pleasant and well-done, but it pales in comparison to the work of his continental contemporaries, or even to Vaughan Williams at his best. The more I listen to Elgar, the more I become convinced, that he has a few works that we can deem canonical – Falstaff in particular – but that most of his music is good or very good, but not great.

Mercure’s Divertissement is much like Brott’s piece. I like both of them. They are my kind of music. But it remains obvious to me why Gould is the most celebrated Canadian figure in “high art” music. The Canadian composers of the 20th century that I have heard never really broke ground in a way that their most famous American counterparts (Carter for example) did.

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