1988 in Music

A list of my music reviews for music originally released in 1988.

1. Talk Talk: Spirit of Eden (10/10)

Ever since I became a fan of the horribly named genre ‘post rock’ in the early ’00s, I always wondered where it came from. It has long seemed to me to have emerged from nowhere. What music from the ’80s could have possibly told us we would be listening to “rock” bands trying their hardest to make non-rock music or rock and non-rock music? It just seemed to me that something like Hex just came out of nowhere.

Now I know better. I only wish I had known sooner. I sort of wish I had someone to expose me to this when I was in my teens, instead of discovering it in my 30s.

That’s not to say that this is actually post-rock. Any attempt by us to dub it ‘post rock’ is erroneous: it’s too close to traditional rock music for one thing but, moreover, the genre wasn’t even named until the early ’90s. But the signs are all here: influences from multiple non-rock genres (cool jazz is the most obvious) and a definite attempt to break away from what was considered rock music at the time. And in addition to its clear path-breaking quality, the songs are also pretty damn great and the arrangements are near-perfect.

In short, all this is to say that this is one of the great rock albums of the 1980s. I wish I had known that sooner.

2. Pixies: Surfer Rosa (10/10)

It’s kind of hard to overstate the importance of the Pixies’ debut album, for both alternative rock and indie rock, and that’s rather crazy given how frequently those genres are defined in opposition to each other. Where is Nirvana without this record and this band? Where are all the Nirvana-copping bands without it? But where is “northwest” Emo without this record and this band? (Well, it’s considerably more emo, that’s for sure.) Putting aside everything but influence, this is one of the most important records of the 1980s – it greatly defined 1990s rock. (1990s rock is like Dinosaur Jr + Pixies plus more charismatic singers and cleaner production.)

But the other thing is that not only did this record crystallize their unique and hugely influential sound, but it also fun and goofy in a way that so much post-punk rock music is not. This is not a serious band and Black Francis/Frank Black has a playful eccentricity to his songs that helps endear you to what is otherwise a potentially inaccessible sound. I do think his songwriting improved as he aged, but there are still some pretty classic songs of his on this record.

An absolute classic.

3. Cowboy Junkies: The Trinity Session (10/10)

If it weren’t so clearly rooted in roots music (I crack myself up) this would seem to be the birth of slowcore.

It’s alt country not in the sense that it is mixed with alternative rock (though obviously there is some influence, given the Velvets cover) but in the sense that the approach is so alternative: one night, one mic, in a church, and played at an absolute crawl.

The result is unlike any other country album (I’ve heard) from the ’80s, or perhaps from the ’90s either. It is utterly unique and classic.

One of the great live albums of the 1980s and certainly a candidate for best country album of the ’80s. Fantastic.

4. Sonic Youth: Daydream Nation (10/10)

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

This was the first Pogues record I ever heard – likely the first one you heard too – and so, for a long time, it was the one that I cherished most. I have since come to prefer Rum Sodomy & the Lash but this is still a great record: it combines everything that is great about the band: reinvigorating Irish music with the spirit of punk but also a musical diversity that you wouldn’t necessarily expect if, say, your only exposure to this kind of thing was the Dropkick Murphys or what have you.

Listening to this record is just non-stop joy for me, even when the songs are not about happy subjects (are they ever?). This is the kind of music I can listen to over and over again and never really get bored of. In addition, the original songs are nearly uniformly great and the covers are performed with way more energy than those Celtic rock bands of the ’70s would have done.
A borderline-classic.

Also: best Christmas song ever. Though you knew that.

6. Public Enemy: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (9/10)

I have stupid reasons for thinking this isn’t quite a classic. Read the review of Public Enemy’s second album.

7. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: Tender Prey (10/10)

It’s funny that Nick Cave dislikes this record because I’ve long thought of it as the pinnacle of the earlier, punkier, more dangerous version of the Bad Seeds. Records before this always strayed too far away from melody, and the first records after this leaned to far into caricature, later albums lost the edge.

With years of relection and way too many listens, I still think it’s probably the best record they put out in the 1980s, but it’s more flawed than I used to think. It’s the best set of songs, but a few of them, including the most famous one, hang around too long. That’s sort of the point, live, I think, but on a studio recording, where they’re a little neutered, it’s a little too much.

There’s still nothing like this blend of melody and menace, and some of the more interesting arrangements of their career (necessitated by members of the band regularly missing in action).

If you don’t know the earlier Bad Seeds, before Cave became a different kind of songwriter, this is the record to start with.

8. Living Colour: Vivid (9/10)

A pretty astounding debut, more memorable for its lyrics than even its inventive musical fusion. Read the review of Living Colour’s debut album.

9. N.W.A: Straight Outta Compton (9/10)

It’s hard for me to figure out what to do with this. But it has been incredibly influential. Read the review of Straight Outta Compton.

10. The Lounge Lizards: Voice of Chunk (9/10)

11. Dinosaur Jr.: Bug (9/10)

12. Metallica: …And Justice for All (9/10)

Metallica’s best material, produced horribly.

13. Queensryche: Operation: Mindcrime (8/10)

Sometime in the past I wrote this:

Yes, it’s cheesy, but it’s good cheesy.

Plus, the big thing for me is that, despite the sometimes silly story, the moral is right on the money. Few if any rock acts understand the pratfalls of these ideas, but these guys do. That in itself is very impressive.

They also did well to hire Kamen. That was basically pulling a Floyd: as the Floyd tapped Ezrin to make the Wall after Berlin, so did Queensryche get Kamen for this after the Wall. Makes sense.

Imagine a hair metal band performing a shorter version of The Wall with lyrics more in line with a punk band’s (i.e. more Animals than The Wall) and the plot more in line with a political thriller, and you get some vague idea of what Operation: Mindcrime sounds like. Some.

14. Jane’s Addiction: Nothing’s Shocking (810)

Read the review.

15. My Bloody Valentine: Isn’t Anything (8/10)

16. Slayer: South of Heaven (8/10)

So it’s slower, so what? Read the review of South of Heaven.

17. Galaxie 500: Today (8?/10)

This is likely more important than I know. Read the review of Today.

18. Lucinda Williams (8/10)

19. Sabbat: History of a Time to Come (8/10)

A theatrical spin on thrash. Read the review of History of a Time to Come.

20. 808 State: Newbuild (7?/10)

Basically every time I sit down and listen to a seminal electronic album from the ’80s or ’90s, I’m at a bit of a loss, as there’s so much out there and I’ve heard so little of it. But that’s exacerbated here because nearly all electronic music I listen to is not dance music. I read that this is the seminal acid house record and all I heard is dated ’80s dance music.

I have no idea what to do with this.

21. Siouxsie and the Banshees: Peepshow (7/10)

I like this a lot, but they are sort of repeating themselves. Read the review of Peepshow.

22. Wire: A Bell Is a Cup Until It Is Struck (7/10)

Well this is a surprise. Read the review of A Bell Is a Cup.

23. Tracy Chapman (7/10)

A little too ’80s but otherwise not bad. Read the review of Tracy Chapman’s debut album.

24. Cocteau Twins: Blue Bell Knoll (7/10)

Surprised how much I like this. Read the review of Blue Bell Knoll.

25. Suicidal Tendencies: How Will I Laugh Tomorrow If I Can’t Even Smile Today? (7/10)

This isn’t bad. Read the review of How Will I Laugh Tomorrow If I Can’t Even Smile Today.

26. Ice-T: Power (7???/10)

Good? I guess? Read the review of Power.

27. Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man (7/10)

Great set of songs. Terrible production. Read the review of I’m Your Man.

28. Prince: Lovesexy (7/10)

Less ambitious than earlier records, so less appealing to me. Read the review of Lovesexy.

29. Melissa Etheridge (7/10)

The production is not amazing, and the songs could be a little better, but on the whole this is both important and good. Read the review of Melissa Etheridge’s debut album.

30. The Sugarcubes: Life’s Too Good (7/10)

Not bad. Read the review of Life’s Too Good.

31. Mr. Bungle: “Goddammit I Love America” (7/10)

For me, this is the first Bungle demo that really sounds like Bungle, rather than a bunch of guys who would turn into Bungle later. A lot of that has to do with the presence of songs that make the debut, but they sound a lot better – more coherent, more obviously themselves instead of a Metallica- or Camper van Beethoven-wannabes, and just way more like the band I fell in love with.

This is still pretty rough – they were still a ways from refining their very unique sound (and you could argue the debut was still very unrefined) but most of the elements of early ’90s Bungle are here in some way or other, albeit in a very early, scatter-shot form.

32. Bad Religion: Suffer (7/10)

People tell me this is their best record. Read the review of Suffer.

33. Eazy-E: Eazy-Duz-It (6?/10)

I have no idea what to do with this. Read the review of Eazy-Duz-It.

34. They Might Be Giants: Lincoln (6/10)

I think I just wasn’t in the right mood. Read the review of Lincoln.

35. Camper Van Beethoven: Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart (6/10)

In the switch to major label, something has been lost. Read the review of Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart.

36. The Smithereens: Green Thoughts (6/10)

Meh. But at least it’s not Morrissey. Read the review of Green Thoughts.

37. Morrissey: Viva Hate (6/10)

Morrissey is an asshole. But the music is more interesting than I was expecting. Read the review of Viva Hate.

38. Crowded House: Temple of Low Men (6/10)

Not my thing at all. Read the review of Temple of Low Men.

39. Rapemen: Two Nuns and a Pack Mule (6/10)

Feels like Big Black with a drummer to me. Read the review of Two Nuns and Pack Mule.

40. Danzig (6/10)

Sounds like the ’70s recorded in the ’80s. Read the review of Danzig’s debut.

41. The Proclaimers: Sunshine on Leith (6/10)

A little too sedate for me. Read the review of Sunshine on Leith.

42. Enya: Watermark (6/10)

Well, it’s much better than I thought it would be. Read the review of Watermark.

43. Randy Newman: Land of Dreams (5/10)

One embarrassing hip hop parody away from being a poorly produced set of good songs. Read the review of Land of Dreams.

44. Ozzy Osbourne: No Rest for the Wicked (5/10)

Meh. Read the review of No Rest for the Wicked.

45. Was (Not Was): What Up, Dog? (4/10)

I don’t know what this is, but I know I don’t like it. Read the review of What Up, Dog?

46. New Kids on the Block: Hangin’ Tough (3/10)

However bad I imagined boy bands to be, I can’t imagine them much worse than this. Read the review of Hangin’ Tough.

Not ranked: Willie Dixon: The Chess Box (9/10)

So Dixon is unlike pretty much all the other major figures in post-war blues in that he rarely led groups. He was more of a songwriter and producer (and, of course, bassist). He’s only the frontman on something like 5 or 6 of these songs. But he’s behind all the rest of them in the other ways. And that’s the really crazy and impressive thing about him: he had this huge impact on the blues and rock and roll, but he rarely took up that role that we would expect someone like him should have. There’s an argument to be made that he’s as important or more important than the Wolf or Muddy, in part because he had more stylistic range but also because he was so responsible for so much of what became iconic blues of the period. Fascinating.

Not Ranked: Les Arts Florissants: Madrigaux a 5 voix by Carlo Gesualdo (9/10)

How we remember the past is always fascinating. They say the winners write history and that’s fine when it comes to political violence, but how relevant is that to art? Why exactly was Gesualdo forgotten for a couple centuries?

Very briefly, the story with Gesualdo is that he was considered a minor Renaissance composer and then completely forgotten. When he was “rediscovered”, contemporary musicologists and composers were shocked to hear how adventurous his music was for the era; in fact little of the baroque and classical eras was this daring in terms of chord changes and the use of dissonance.

And I can confirm this with what little knowledge I have of both music theory and Renaissance music. To my ears, some of this stuff sounds like it could easily be early 20th century vocal music, written in tribute of the Renaissance, but aware of the romantic tradition and the crisis of tonality.

And that’s what’s so hard to get my head around: this sounds both really old and, at times, crazy progressive, and yet he was totally forgotten. It’s fascinating.

I’m not sure he’s the greatest Renaissance composer you’ll ever stumble across, but he sure was one of the nuttiest. I am going to keep looking into his work, as it’s really unique.

Not ranked: Philharmonia Orchestra, London Sinfonietta, The Nash Ensemble conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas and Oliver Knussen: Symphonies Nos 2-3; Trumpets; Ophelia Dances; Coursing; Cantata by Oliver Knussen (8/10)

This is a compilation. But despite that, I enjoy it. Read the review.

Not ranked: Philippe Herreweghe, et al.: Faure: Requiem (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.

Not ranked: Edith Piaf: The Voice of the Sparrow (7/10)

Not living in France at the time Piaf came on the scene, I have a hard time getting her voice as anything more than what it sounds like to me (something that is relatively unique, and obviously full of emotion). She certainly feels the songs but I cannot say one way or the other whether what impact she had, as I’m simply not familiar with French vocal music beyond Gainsbourg.

Not Ranked: Various Artists: Symphony No. 8; Ballade; Slavonic Festival by Alexander Glazunov (7/10)

I really don’t like these arbitrary compilations, where there’s one major work fleshed out with other smaller works, and when the performances are by different orchestras / performers, it’s all the more frustrating. But the 8th symphony is awesome – it’s everything I want in late Romantic ‘nationalist’ music. And the performance by the Ministry of Culture’s orchestra (what a Soviet idea!) is suitably bombastic, to my ears.

And surprisingly, I can see how the curator thought the ‘Ballade’ belonged with this symphony (though obviously I would prefer to listen to a complete set of the symphonies).

But frankly the ‘Slavonic Festival’ doesn’t belong at all. It’s of an entirely different mood and, unsurprisingly, from an entirely different time in Glazunov’s career. Frankly, it makes me not want to listen to his early works. It’s so ridiculously jovial.

Not ranked: Herbert von Karajan: Dvorak: Symphony No. 8 / Brahms: Symphony No. 3 (7/10)

At first this seemed to me like an arbitrary combination (something which I generally dislike) but for some reason the two works seem to mesh well together, and it’s not just because they were written within five years of each other. They seem (at least on my first listens) to strike similar tones and so the combination doesn’t appear so odd.

Not ranked: Various Artists: Grieg: Piano Concerto; Holberg Suite (6/10)

This is one of those extremely annoying compilations where there is virtually no information: we know the performers of the pieces but not when or where. Labels like Quintessence get their hands on recordings that don’t have copyright protection in North America and release these recordings to unsuspecting consumers (such as libraries). When someone like me listens to this music, it’s annoying to know so little. I don’t know the music and so I cannot really comment on the performances. (Though I can comment on the sound quality: it is shockingly good given the label.)

The Concerto is a definite crowd pleaser, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Apparently it has a lot in common with the Schumann, but I wouldn’t know about that. I like these kind of overwrought, “here’s how awesome I am at the solo instrument” Romantic concerti. I have a real soft spot for them. And so this really appeals to me even though it’s obviously intended for showboating (and not for the “advancement of the art” or what have you).

This “Holberg” is the orchestral version, so I just have to throw my music snobbery out and say “Gol, I wish it was the original.” That being said, and even though I am not really into classicism, I see a kind of bravery in making such unabashedly traditional music at the height of the romantic era.


James Brown: “Static” (??/10)

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