Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Those Wonderful Years in Music... 1988 and 1989

In honor of my big milestone last week, our monthly salute to a particular year in music is going to be a two-fer. I decided to clump 1988 and 1989 together because they were part of a distinctive transitional period; I'll even make the case that the late '80s is the gray zone in the musical generation gap, when rock purists gave up on the Top 40, hair metal was king, pop was synth-heavy piffle, and rap and alt-rock were inching into the mainstream. Twenty years on, it appears that college rock was the place to be, with on-the-cusp bands like R.E.M. and The Pixies leading the movement. That's not to say commerical radio in '88 and '89 was a massive black hole; there were a few good songs here and there but the then-current trends of the industry haven't aged that well. (Case in point: Will To Power.) As these records and singles suggest, it was a good time to dig deep.


1. Daydream Nation, Sonic Youth. Marking the culmination of their transition from abrasive noise-rock to post-punk art-rock, Thurston Moore and company cook up a potluck dinner of sound: sprawling, varying, and quite filling. The seven-minute anti-anthem "Teenage Riot" lures you in and there's no looking back.
2. Nothing's Shocking, Jane's Addiction. From my review on mp3.com: "(This) fusion of metal and prog-rock is as influental as it is something to behold, and almost every track has a distinct tension that makes you wonder if it'll fall apart or make a smooth landing... 'Summertime Rolls,' 'Mountain Song,' 'Idiots Rule,' and the hit 'Jane Says' combine for a formidable foursome."
3. Green, R.E.M. After five decade-defining LPs on the I.R.S. label, Michael Stipe and the boys lept to Geffen --and into the American mainstream-- with their sixth out-of-the-park home run in as many years. Their previous disc Document gave the quartet their first two Top 40 hits, but Green cemented their place in the higher echelons of rock. If you don't believe me, listen to "Stand," "Orange Crush," or "Pop Song '89."
4. Surfer Rosa, The Pixies
5. Isn't Anything, My Bloody Valentine
6. ...And Justice For All, Metallica
7. It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back, Public Enemy
8. Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, Camper Van Beethoven
9. Operation: Mindcrime, Queensryche
10. I'm Your Man, Leonard Cohen. I had a hard time finishing this top ten, so for my last selection of '88 I chose an album that was pretty good though not exactly essential. Cohen as an artist is hard to absorb quickly; he's a poet first and foremost, and his arrangements can be sparse and samey, but once you peel away the layers of his lyrics it's hard to back off. Man was his comeback album of sorts, 41 minutes of palpable angst and lovelorn ennui.

BEST SINGLES OF 1988 (in no particular order)

"Handle With Care," The Traveling Wilburys
"Under the Milky Way," The Church
"What's On Your Mind (Pure Energy)," Information Society
"Chains of Love," Erasure
"Desire," U2
"Finish What Ya Started," Van Halen
"Stigmata," Ministry
"Fast Car," Tracy Chapman
"Sweet Jane," Cowboy Junkies
"Apron Strings," Everything But the Girl


1. "Sweet Child O' Mine," Guns n' Roses. The biggest rock band on the planet in the flesh. It's not so much a showcase of Axl and Slash as it is for everyone involved. It doesn't hurt that it's an awesome song, either.
2. "New Sensation," INXS. Pretty, pretty lights...
3. "Every Rose Has Its Thorn," Poison. The Camembert of '80s metal cheese.


1. Paul's Boutique, Beastie Boys. On the heels of Licensed to Ill and an ugly breakup with their original label, the New York rap-rock trio wandered into their sophomore effort with both high expectations and nothing to lose. The end result was a record that ushered sampling as an art form; so loaded with random lyrics and beats from older, more familiar songs that an effort like this could never be equaled, mostly because it risks copyright infringement. Check out "Shake Your Rump" or "The Sounds of Science."
2. Doolittle, The Pixies. In the late '80s it was hard to find a band anywhere near as cool as The Pixies, and their second album finds them at the peak of their creative powers. Harnassing the noise of their first album for something a little more melodic, Doolittle is bolstered by the tight songwriting of frontman Black Francis and the punchy bass of Kim Deal.
3. Disintegration, The Cure. Another career-defining album, this time from goth forefather Robert Smith and his mopey band of minstrels. Gloom and doom rarely sounds this alluring.
4. Three Feet High and Rising, De La Soul
5. The Stone Roses, The Stone Roses
6. Full Moon Fever, Tom Petty
7. 13 Songs, Fugazi
8. Energy, Operation Ivy
9. Letter From Home, The Pat Metheny Group
10. Cosmic Thing, The B-52s. After the death of founding member Ricky Wilson in 1985, the remaining members of the Athens, GA-based new wave band were left for dead on the music scene. That's what makes their comeback album so curious to listen to. There's no bitterness or pride being swallowed; they dusted themselves off and went back to making fun, catchy pop music. "Love Shack" is filled with goofy, unbridled joy, while "Roam" could be interpreted as a vaguely defined allusion for the band's slow rise from oblivion.

BEST SINGLES OF 1989 (in no particular order)

"Like a Prayer," Madonna
"She Drives Me Crazy," Fine Young Cannibals
"Veronica," Elvis Costello
"Living in the Free World," Neil Young
"The Downeaster Alexa," Billy Joel
"The Living Years," Mike + The Mechanics
"The End of the Innocence," Don Henley
"Bust a Move," Young MC
"Knock Me Down," Red Hot Chili Peppers
"Head Like a Hole," Nine Inch Nails


1. "One," Metallica. It's tough to say at what point Metallica sold out. Was it The Black Album? When they cut their hair? When they released a live album with a symphony orchestra? The Napster flap? Some diehards would suggest Lars, James, et al. jumped the shark with this video, a somber and somewhat grotesque story of a man who just wants to feel something... anything...
2. "Janie's Got a Gun," Aerosmith. A brutal, realistic look at child abuse, and a precursor to a string of '90s videos that dealt with heavy social issues.
3. "If I Could Turn Back Time," Cher. Well, uh... um... just click on the link, okay?

Your thoughts?


  1. Dreadful years in music. I had a boombox by this time, and I just couldn't find anything I liked. This would be the era where I formed my love for AM Talk radio & radio baseball. Back in those days you had the biggest music stars doing commercials for soft drinks. This is also when "New Kids on the Block" was popular. Just awful. "Green" is alright. Ugh, Sammy Hagar.

  2. I don't even think I've heard most of those songs. But I don't listen to music very much.