Tuesday, November 29, 2011

That Wonderful Year in Music... 1986

Some music critics argue that 1985 was the year new wave died. If that's the case, than 1986 was the funeral; synthesizers were so prominent in the mainstream that the old guard were clearly followers, left to their wits alone in a pool of inorganic sound. If the pop music of the time didn't whet your appetite, '86 was also the year college rock truly flowered; memorable albums by The Smiths, R.E.M. and Sonic Youth preceded and indirectly mentored the '90s alternative scene. This was also a strong year for metal, with several headbanging acts releasing their career- and genre-defining masterworks; it was also the advent of their goofy kid brother "hair metal," as hairspray-and-bourbon acts like Poison and Motley Crue first came to prominence. If that wasn't your jam, free jazz, rap, and roots country all had a strong year as well. In short 1986 was thoroughly eclectic, a bigger cornucopia of sound than most years in the "Greed is good" decade.

1. Graceland, Paul Simon. After the lackluster sales of 1983's underrated Hearts and Bones and a bitter divorce from Carrie Fisher, Rhymin' Simon yearned a fresh start. Finding inspiration in the little-heard mbaqanga music of South Africa, Simon not only got back on the saddle, he delivered an album that brought back old fans and introduced a new generation to his songcraft. Building upon a new lyrical approach first presaged on Bones, Simon's songs range from the satirical "I Know What I Know" to the highly poetic "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes." A well-deserved commercial success.
2. Master of Puppets, Metallica. The best, most influential heavy metal band of the '80s earned the accolades of critics and listeners far outside the metal spectrum with their third album. Everything about this disc comes from an epic mindset: longer songs, more thematic unity, and a greater sense of focus. The album is bookended by two of the finest thrash songs ever written ("Battery" and "Damage, Inc."), serving only to sandwich some beefy, juicy metal.
3. The Queen is Dead, The Smiths. Morrissey cemented his status as "the master of mope" on the British indie-rock stalwarts' third effort. If their previous album Meat is Murder was a holding pattern of sorts, than Queen is The Smiths' great leap forward; the backbeat is more pronounced, musical dimensions are explored, and of course the lyrics are just as morose yet introspective as ever. Narrowly avoiding his reputation as a big ol' sap, Morrissey sprinkles his words with wit and intelligence. And they say there is a light that never goes out...
4. Life's Rich Pageant, R.E.M.
5. Licensed to Ill, Beastie Boys

6. Raising Hell, Run-D.M.C.
7. Skylarking, XTC
8. King of America, Elvis Costello
9. EVOL, Sonic Youth
10. Guitar Town, Steve Earle. Arguably the most interesting debut of '86 was by a 31-year-old journeyman with a love of Waylon Jennings and Townes Van Zandt and a big chip on his shoulder. A veteran sideman, Earle's first album as a leader was a long time coming; when Town was finally released his Nashville-meets-Mellencamp sound was almost perfectly honed.

Honorable Mentions: Crowded House, Crowded House; Black Celebration, Depeche Mode; So, Peter Gabriel; Kool Moe Dee, Kool Moe Dee; Song X, Ornette Coleman and Pat Metheny; Brotherhood, New Order.

"Say You, Say Me," Lionel Richie
"Broken Wings," Mr. Mister
"Take My Breath Away," Berlin
"Rock Me Amadeus," Falco
"Papa Don't Preach," Madonna
"Desire (Come and Get It)," Gene Loves Jezebel
"Cattle Prod," Guadalcanal Diary
"The Future's So Bright (I Gotta Wear Shades)," Timbuk 3
"Keep Your Hands to Yourself," Georgia Satellites
"Eric B. is President" (original version), Eric B. & Rahim

1. "Sledgehammer," Peter Gabriel. If you hadn't figured it out in the first 30 seconds of the clip, the title of the song is a euphemism for the male appendage. Regardless, this all-time classic video fuses claymation, pixilation, and stop-motion photography in a non-stop barrage of sexual innuendos.
2. "Walk This Way," RUN-DMC feat. Aerosmith. The parallel lines of rock and rap finally met in '86 when the Hollis-based trio covered a '70s hard-rock treasure and invited Steven Tyler to sing the chorus. Rest assured, this video broke down walls in more ways than one.
3. "Addicted to Love," Robert Palmer. Palmer transformed himself from a middle-of-the-pack British soul singer to full-blown superstar with this sexy, hypnotic clip. I wonder if any of those girls played their own instruments... ;)
4. "Cry," Godley and Creme. Another innovation was begat in late '85/early '86 with the concept of analog cross-fading, which this forgotten '80s nugget demonstrates to the hilt.
5. "You Can Call Me Al" (version 2), Paul Simon. The better-known of the two "Al" videos finds Simon's longtime friend Chevy Chase mugging and goofing around while Paul just minds his business.

Honorable Mentions: "Something About You," Level 42; "Shake You Down," Gregory Abbott.

PS: there is some overlap between this and my 1987 list from last year, so if it's not here, it's probably there.

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