1987 in Music

My list of reviews for the music of 1987, the year I turned 6.

1. Guns ‘n Roses: Appetite for Destruction (10/10)

I wrote this a while ago:

Though I wasn’t really aware at the time, this is certainly a big departure from everything else that was popular at the time. It actually sounds like rock music. It actually sounds somewhat threatening. Imagine one of those “hair “metal”” (yes, it deserves double quotation marks) sounding threatening. It is as close to perfect a hard-rock album as you can get, despite some shitty lyrics (“That’s when your troubles exceed”), which may be par for the course, anyway.

I mostly agree. I don’t quite know if it really deserves 10/10. I sit on that fence a lot.

2. Dinosaur Jr.: You’re Living All Over Me (9/10)

Alternative Rock existed in 1987 and had existed for years, perhaps as many as 6. But it was still vaguely defined and probably more associated with “College Rock” and “Sweater Rock” than what it would come to symbolize in the 1990s.

This record had a lot to do with that change.

Dinosaur Jr. take the basic Dream Syndicate template of catchy melodies with laconic vocals and noisy guitars and up the noise tenfold (hundredfold? thousandfold?). It is the volume and murk of this record that makes it sound far more modern than the Dream Syndicate, making what is mostly quite similar music half a decade earlier. (But then hardcore changed a lot.)

It helps a lot that Mascis is a better songwriter than Wynn and a better guitar player than Precoda.

Sure, this isn’t the template for every alternative rock band, but it sure is for a lot of them, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Also, it’s good.

(There’s the added bonus of the weird proto-Sebadoh song at the end.)

3. Sonic Youth: Sister (9/10)

Sonic Youth steps ever further towards accessibility with this record, finding a near perfect marriage of their no wave guitar noise and songs that you actually remember when the record is over. Honestly the accomplishment is borderline miraculous, given how unbelievably inaccessible their tunings and playings should be and I would acclaim it as a masterpiece except that I know, with the benefit of hindsight, that they made an even better record after this one.

It’s still one of the great moments of the 80s when something really arty was made accessible to a whole bunch of people who likely missed out on the no wave thing due to that movement’s deliberate difficult sound.

One of the better rock albums from the late 80s.

4. Prince: Sign O the Times (9/10)

Someone described this record as Prince’s White Album. This is only the second Prince album I’ve ever heard (I know, I know) but I still think that’s pretty apt. There’s a range of music here that is kind of incredible, especially given how much of the record he made himself.

This is such an immense amount of music and ideas that it’s hard to digest completely after just my typical three listens, but it feels like there are a lot of different genres here (or a lot of different spins on a few genres) and the songs are pretty catchy despite how many there are.

The one thing that might be a drawback is that the production has dated it a lot (though far less than a lot of ’80s records).

5. R.E.M.: Document (9/10)

I was a massive REM fan as a teen and it is hard, even all these years later, to properly assess their records. As a teen and even as a young adult, this was one of multiple masterpieces (well, at least three) that the band had released. I certainly do not believe that any more, but I am still inclined to like this music more than someone who didn’t grow up with it.

It’s worth noting that this is a rather big record for REM: not only was it their first real hit it also features the clearest singing from Stipe to date, finally his lyrics can be completely understood. And if Stipe ever seemed like he wasn’t the person to write about politics and society in the past (if we thought we could understand him) that is clearly not the case now (nor was it on Life’s Rich Pageant but these are more forceful). Stipe’s lyrics are fierce and angry and passionate. It’s hard for me to think of an album from the 80s this angry that wasn’t made by a hardcore or thrash band.

And REM backs Stipe with the loudest, most aggressive and most difficult music of its career to date. (They wouldn’t get this difficult again until Monster.) This record manages to be both REM’s least accessible record musically to date and their most popular. It’s a rare feat.

Is it a masterpiece? I’m not so sure about that any more. But the songs are strong, despite some of those difficult riffs and melodies, and the lyrics are among Stipe’s very best.

If there is one essential REM album from 1980s, this is probably it.

6. Death: Scream Bloody Gore (9/10)

Apparently there is some debate as to whether or not this is the first death metal album. I haven’t head the other contender myself, and cannot speak to that. I also don’t know mid ’80s Thrash enough to speak to it. Also, I’m no genre purist, so I’m not sure I care for anything other than assessing this record as a historical document.

Whether or not it’s the very first death metal album, it absolutely establishes all of the genre conventions and for that it is extremely important. The genre may be named after this band, after all. (Whether or not it’s the most important death metal album is another story, and I don’t know the answer.) As metal, it’s fairly unparalleled in its extremity (for its era) and makes some of the more famous Thrash metal bands sound rather tame in comparison.

It’s also impressive that this was made by essentially one man (two men, really, but one did most of the work).

It’s certainly one of the essential metal albums of the ’80s, though I don’t know how much I will listen to it in the future, given that it is one genre.

7. Blind Idiot God (9/10)

First: one of the best band names ever.

This record gets off to a pounding start. Essentially it’s instrumental thrash, so it seems, and you’d have to think that this is an absolutely key step in the development of math rock. I mean, it’s not far from Don Caballero.

But there’s more variety than you’d imagine. The tracks in the middle are considerably more traditionally “hard rock” than metal – and there’s that funk metal track thrown in for good measure – and then, out of the blue, comes the dub. What the fuck? Seriously.

Certainly one of the most bonkers instrumental rock records of the ’80s and more hugely influential than I think anyone could have guessed when it came out.

A few years later, I think I still agree.

8. fIREHOSE: If’n (9/10)

A really unique take on this whole underground thing. I don’t really know the Minutemen, but this seems like it’s much bigger than its origins. Whatever that means.

9. The Pogues: If I Should Fall from Grace with God (9/10)

Punk just rejuvenated everything. Including, apparently, Celtic folk music. Not that this is totally Celtic folk music. I regard this along with Hallowed Ground as one of the great examples of how to rejuvenate roots music in the ’80s. Best Christmas song ever?

10. Big Black: Songs About Fucking (9/10)

What probably sounded unbelievably loud (not to mention offensive) has mellowed considerably nearly thirty years later. So much of this record (or the oeuvre, perhaps) has integrated into alternative rock and even some indie rock. Hell, it doesn’t even sound noisy compared to what’s being made these days. But I am not trying to sell this short, not for a moment.

Read the review.

11. Husker Du: Warehouse: Songs and Stories (9/10)

If Zen Arcade is the White Album of Hardcore, this record is the hardcore equivalent of what it would have been like if Plastic Ono Band and McCartney had been released as a double album, with their sequencing mixed together.

The production is kind of awful and they’ve stopped being their innovative selves, but I still really love this song selection (even if it’s the birth of emo…ugh). Probably my favourite album of theirs even if it is far from their best.

Listen to me talk about Warehouse.

12. Tom Waits: Frank’s Wild Years (9/10)

I have never seen the play but, from the sounds of this album, I’m not sure how much it stands together as a narrative work. Certainly the album doesn’t seem like any kind of opera (if it was ever meant to be that) or even a coherent song-cycle (as some of the songs don’t appear to be related to the theme. (Maybe they are, but I can’t hear it.)

But despite the narrative flaws of this work, there are lot of strong songs here, including some of Waits’ very best songs.

The arrangements remain distinctively waitsian, excepting the alternate versions of a few tracks, which sound just slightly less waitisan. But that does feel a little repetitive at this point, as this is the third album in his distinctive style. Yes, he invented the style (or his wife did), but isn’t there just the faintest sense of treading water artistically when you create an ostensibly narrative work ostensibly based upon the narratives of one of your earlier songs? (I say ostensibly because I don’t see an actual connection.)

The only other criticism I have is that I’m not sure the two versions of two songs are really necessary on an already fairly long album.

It’s still a pretty good record, it just has flaws that the first two records of his career renaissance did not possess.

13. Pete Townshend: Another Scoop  (8/10)

This is what you want from those you idolize (I idolized Townshend for a time back in High School). I think he could teach classes on the process because his demos are always so good.

14. R.E.M.: Dead Letter Office (8/10*)

A good rarities collection. The inclusion of the debut EP is a definite highlight, as that’s up there with Murmur.

15. Ladsymith Black Mobazo: Shaka Zulu (8*/10)

A very popular record exposing us to music that had existed for ages and a group that had been recording for nearly two decades (perhaps more) but that we were given permission to like because Paul Simon produced it. I’m conflicted, as you can tell.

16. U2: The Joshua Tree (7/10)

I will say one thing about this record, it’s iconic. The first three songs on it are all incredibly famous and as U2 as U2 gets – you could say the first three songs are the definitive statement from the band.

The rest of the album really isn’t up to that standard. And given that I don’t love ’80s U2 to start with (not like I used to, anyway), If ind it particularly middling compared not only to the first three tracks but to the album’s ridiculous, out-sized reputation as one of the best records of the ’80s.

When U2 embraces American roots music – to the mild extent that they actually do that on this record – they seem to me like tourists: imagine a guy walking down the street in a cowboy hat and boots, with some rhinestone studded clothes and you meet him and he speaks to you in an Irish accent. Worse yet, he makes some bizarre, pseudo-poetic statements about the United States. That’s how I feel about U2 on this record.

All of that being said, it’s catchy, it has 3 classic tracks and it is more provocative than their earlier records (to my ears). But I’d much rather listen to any American alternative rock band’s take on roots instead.

17. The Sisters of Mercy: Floodland (7/10)

Well, it’s one thing. But it’s one thing done well. Read the review.

18. Candlemass: Nightfall (7/10)

I really don’t know how important this record is. Read the review.

19. Love and Rockets: Earth Sun Moon (7/10)

I like the arrangements more than I like the songs. Read the review.

20. Spacemen 3: The Perfect Prescription (7/10)

I think it’s a failed concept but I like the music. Read the review.

21. Depeche Mode: Music for the Masses (7/10)

I mean, it is all very good. It’s just not my thing. Read the review.

22. The Replacements: Pleased to Meet Me (7/10)

People just love the Replacements and I have been trying for what feels like 10 years to love them. But I don’t.

On some level I understand why people love them, but there are so many other bands from the ’80s that do more things I like. I don’t mean this as a criticism necessarily, even though it certainly sounds like it. I’ll try to explain what I mean:

  • I generally find Westerberg to be a strong songwriter; sometimes he’s downright fantastic (there are usually a few songs per album I love) but sometimes I don’t like his songs at all.
  • I also generally like the aesthetic, but I find that it doesn’t change much once they abandoned hardcore.

And to my ears, this basically sounds like more arranged/produced Replacements – Replacements with horns and percussion. And I’m just not sure that’s enough for me to think this is great.

I also so far don’t hear any classic Westerberg songs. Maybe I need to listen to it more. I don’t know.

It’s well done but it’s not interesting enough or varied enough for me to prefer over the previous two records.

23. Butthole Surfers: Locust Abortion Technician (7/10)

I was young enough when I first heard this record to be absolutely delighted by the humour (which one might call crude or sophomoric) and to have not listened to enough experimental music to think their experiments ground-breaking, or what have you.

Years later, this album isn’t as funny as I remember it (though the opening to “Sweet Loaf” remains amazing) and, despite its brief run-time, I found I get tired of the tape manipulation of Gibby’s voice pretty quickly.

Al that being said, this is a great gateway for experimental rock, as there are still lots of catchy riffs and melodies to entice anyone who would normally be put off something full of such deliberate unconventionality.

By the way, this is one of my favourite album titles of all time.

24. The Smiths: Strangeways, Here We Come (7/10)

I like this! Read the review.

25. Midnight Oil: Diesel and Dust (7/10)

Cultural Appropriation Alert! Read the review.

26. Robbie Robertson (7/10)

Much better than I thought it would be, given its classic 1987 production.

27. Sinnead O’Connor: The Lion and the Cobra (7/10)

Good for a debut. Read the review.

28. Townes Van Zandt: At My Window (7/10)

A decent set of songs, for sure. Not sure where it stands among his work, though. Read the review.

29. Napalm Death*: Scum (7?/10)

I have no idea what to make of this record, which possibly created one of the weirdest genres in music history. Read the review.

30. George Michael: Faith (6/10)

Not my thing. Fine. Read the review.

31. The Bats: Daddy’s Highway (6/10)

I like the aesthetic but I’m not sure I like it enough. Read the review.

32. The Cure: Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me (6/10)

This is a record with a couple of The Cure’s best singles and a few other decent songs and way too much other stuff. It’s crazy that Smith claims to have written another record worth of songs for this album. Isn’t it long enough already?

That’s my big complaint about this. I like some of it, but there’s just way too much here. It’s the kind of record that completely reinforces the old belief I used to have that The Cure were a singles band. There’s just not enough strong material here for me to want to listen to this all the way through. I get bored.

(Also, the bassline for “How Beautiful You Are” is so close to “Just Like Heaven” it makes it seem like they used the same bassline to write two different songs. I guess that’s cool…)

33. The Jesus and Mary Chain: Darklands (6/10)

With the noise just about gone, this record feels significantly less interesting or influential than its predecessor. Read the review.

34. The Pet Shop Boys: Actually (6/10)

So dated. I’m not sure I can get over it. Read the review.

35. Eurythmics: Savage (6/10)

Artier than the Pet Shop Boys, but with weaker songs. Read the review.

36. Mr. Bungle: Bowel of Chiley (6/10)

This second Bungle demo is a lot closer to their “mature” sound than the first – if you can call early ’90s Bungle “mature” – but they kind of sound like a metal-influenced Camper van Beethoven on crack here. I guess that doesn’t give full credit to their weirdness – even at this early stage they were significantly weirder than CVB, but if CVB really was an influence on Bungle (and I can’t help but think they were) this demo reeks of that influence more than anything else they ever recorded. It’s way crazier than CVB ever got, but it’s also a lot less tight. I guess I am trying to say that when CVB did their far less zany shtick, it sounded refined and polished in comparison to this stuff.

It’s interesting to hear for Bungle fans, and it’s interesting to hear the genesis of at least one track to make the debut, but otherwise this is pretty rough. The talent is there, the discipline and Zappa-esque assault on contemporary rock is not really there yet.

37. Michael Jackson: Bad (6/10)

What a horribly produced record. Oh my science… Read the review.

38. The Triffids: Calenture (5/10)

Meh. Read the review.

39. Warren Zevon: Sentimental Hygiene (5/10)

Despite the presence of most of REM (who sound like they’re already ready to make Green), and despite Zevon’s somewhat wacky take on things, this doesn’t work. I don’t know whether it’s the production, or maybe I just don’t like Zevon, even though I thought I would. I don’t know.

40. Whitney Houston: Whitney (5/10)

If you’ve heard the singles, you’ve heard this record. Read the review.

41. Def Leppard: Hysteria (4/10)

Not metal enough to be “hair metal,” so it’s arguably something worse. Read the review.


Pixies: “Come On Pilgrim” (8?/10)

Going back through an artist’s discography backwards is always a bad idea if you hope to have any ability to appreciate their early work. Almost inevitably, the early music made by a band or performer sounds primitive and not fully formed compared to a band’s later (“mature”) work.

So it is with this EP which sounds like a not entirely mature Pixies to my ears but would have likely sounded revelatory in 1987, had I been old enough to listen to it.

I want to tell you that Black’s songs aren’t quite as accomplished as later and yet I hear all the familiar tropes of his unique songwriting style. I want to tell you that the band got better but their dynamics are pretty intact here (although maybe note quite as perfectly captured as later). Really, the only thing from keeping me from liking this more is myself and the fact that I’ve listened to all the later stuff so much.

Not ranked:

Compilations, archival releases and new performances of old music.

Margaret Marshall, Carolyn Watkinson, Keith Lewis, Robert Holl, Rundfnkchor Leipzig, Staatskapelle Dresden, Neville Mariner: Missa in Angustiis ‘Nelson Mass’ (8/10)

This is widely considered to be the greatest of Haydn’s masses and, according to some people, the greatest of Haydn’s compositions.

Read the full review.

Philip Glass: Akhnaten (8/10)

This is a significantly more traditional piece of music than Einstein on the Beach. Read the rest of the review.

Philippe Herreweghe, La Chapelle Royale, Les Petits Chanteurs de Saint-Louis, Ensemble Musique Oblique: Requiem [1893];Messe des pêcheurs de Villerville by Gabriel Faure (8/10)

I don’t, as yet, listen to a lot of Requiems. So I can’t necessarily say how it fits in to history. But I can say that I wouldn’t be offended if someone played this at funeral. (Of course I couldn’t be offended, and hopefully there won’t be that kind of funeral…) As I have said elsewhere Faure is someone who has a lightness to much of his music which I might normally detest – or at least get occasionally annoyed by – but for some reason I don’t. I can’t really explain it. I doubt it’s rational, but in his hands a lot of things I might otherwise get annoyed sound good.

The second mass on here seems to have been somewhat forgotten and I can sort of understand why. It’s not on par with the requiem.

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Robert Shaw: When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d: A Requiem for Those We Love by Paul Hindemith (7/10)

There is a tendency among us humans to celebrate things which in turn celebrate the things we think are important. I guess it’s only natural.

This requiem is a Walt Whitman poem set to music for the death of Roosevelt. It’s conducted here by its commissioner so, in theory, this is how it’s supposed to sound.

I appreciate the sentiments and I appreciate taste. Though I have never mourned a world leader – and cannot imagine doing so – I understand why many would mourn FDR. And I recognize the merit in commissioning music for his death, especially in commissioning music from a German expat.

But this is more of Hindemith’s strict neo-classicism – though you could call this a more “American” version of that neo-classicism – that I struggle with so much. And though it’s undoubtedly very pretty, it’s conservative and I like my music mourning loss to be very different than that.

Michael Tilson Thomas, Mormon Tabernacle Choir et al.: Old American Songs, Canticle of Freedom, Four Motets by Aaron Copland (6/10)

I know what I like and I don’t like this.

Campfire songs? Really?

And then a fucking thing about freedom?

Don’t get me wrong. It’s all very professional, but this isn’t great music.

Anyone who thinks this is great music… well, I hopefully don’t know them.