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Top 10 Albums of Every Year Since 1960

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1978:

 

 

 

10. Blondie – Parallel Lines

 

Blondie turned to British pop producer Mike Chapman for their third album, on which they abandoned any pretensions to new wave legitimacy (just in time, given the decline of the new wave) and emerged as a pure pop band. But it wasn't just Chapman that made Parallel Lines Blondie's best album; it was the band's own songwriting, including Deborah Harry, Chris Stein, and James Destri's "Picture This," and Harry and Stein's "Heart of Glass," and Harry and new bass player Nigel Harrison's "One Way or Another," plus two contributions from non bandmember Jack Lee, "Will Anything Happen?" and "Hanging on the Telephone." That was enough to give Blondie a number one on both sides of the Atlantic with "Heart of Glass" and three more U.K. hits, but what impresses is the album's depth and consistency -- album tracks like "Fade Away and Radiate" and "Just Go Away" are as impressive as the songs pulled for singles. The result is state-of-the-art pop/rock circa 1978, with Harry's tough-girl glamour setting the pattern that would be exploited over the next decade by a host of successors led by Madonna.

 

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9. Nick Lowe – Jesus of Cool

 

This reckless rock and pop works not just because the tracks crackle with excitement -- not for nothing did Nick earn the name "Basher" in this period; he cut quickly and moved on, the performances sounding infectious and addictive -- but because it's written with the skill that Lowe developed in the Brinsleys. He knows how to twist words around, knows how to mine black humor in "Marie Provost," knows how to splice "Nutted by Reality" into a brilliant McCartney parody, knows how to pull off the old Chuck Berry trick of spinning a tune into two songs, as he turns "Shake and Pop" into the faster, wilder "They Called It Rock." That latter bit picks up a key bit about Jesus of Cool -- it's self-referential pop that loves the past but doesn't treat it as sacred. It is the first post-modern pop record in how it plays as it builds upon tradition and how it's all tied together by Lowe's irrepressible irreverence. It's hard to imagine any of the power pop of the next three decades without it, and while plenty have tried, nobody has made a better pure pop record than this...not even Nick (of course, he didn't really try to make another record like this, either).

 

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8. Devo – Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!

 

Produced by Brian Eno, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! was a seminal touchstone in the development of American new wave. It was one of the first pop albums to use synthesizers as an important textural element, and although they mostly play a supporting role in this guitar-driven set, the innovation began to lay the groundwork for the synth-pop explosion that would follow very shortly. Q: Are We Not Men also revived the absurdist social satire of the Mothers of Invention, claiming punk rock's outsider alienation as a home for freaks and geeks. While Devo's appeal was certainly broader, their sound was tailored well enough to that sensibility that it still resonates with a rabid cult following. It isn't just the dadaist pseudo-intellectual theories, or the critique of the American mindset as unthinkingly, submissively conformist. It was the way their music reflected that view, crafted to be as mechanical and robotic as their targets. Yet Devo hardly sounded like a machine that ran smoothly. There was an almost unbearable tension in the speed of their jerky, jumpy rhythms, outstripping Talking Heads, XTC, and other similarly nervy new wavers. And thanks to all the dissonant, angular melodies, odd-numbered time signatures, and yelping, sing-song vocals, the tension never finds release, which is key to the album's impact. It also doesn't hurt that this is arguably Devo's strongest set of material, though several brilliant peaks can overshadow the remainder. Of those peaks, the most definitive are the de-evolution manifesto "Jocko Homo" (one of the extremely few rock anthems written in 7/8 time) and a wicked deconstruction of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," which reworks the original's alienation into a spastic freak-out that's nearly unrecognizable. But Q: Are We Not Men? also had a conceptual unity that bolstered the consistent songwriting, making it an essential document of one of new wave's most influential bands.

 

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7. Wire – Chairs Missing

 

Chairs Missing marks a partial retreat from Pink Flag's austere, bare-bones minimalism, although it still takes concentrated listening to dig out some of the melodies. Producer Mike Thorne's synth adds a Brian Eno-esque layer of atmospherics, and Wire itself seems more concerned with the sonic textures it can coax from its instruments; the tempos are slower, the arrangements employ more detail and sound effects, and the band allows itself to stretch out on a few songs. The results are a bit variable -- "Mercy," in particular, meanders for too long -- but compelling much more often than not. The album's clear high point is the statement of purpose "I Am the Fly," which employs an emphasis-shifting melody and guitar sounds that actually evoke the sound of the title insect. But that's not all by any means -- "Outdoor Miner" and "Used To" have a gentle lilt, while "Sand in My Joints" is a brief anthem worthy of Pink Flag, and the four-minute "Practice Makes Perfect" is the best result of the album's incorporation of odd electronic flavors. In general, the lyrics are darker than those on Pink Flag, even morbid at times; images of cold, drowning, pain, and suicide haunt the record, and the title itself is a reference to mental instability. The arty darkness of Chairs Missing, combined with the often icy-sounding synth/guitar arrangements, helps make the record a crucial landmark in the evolution of punk into post-punk and goth, as well as a testament to Wire's rapid development and inventiveness.

 

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6. Klaus Schulze – X

 

Still captivating and alluring with his multi- keyboard entourage, the tracks each exhibit a personality all their own. "Friedrich Nietzsche" is the most vibrant of all six, harboring a complex but attractive aura. The 24 minutes of this synthesized voyage involve imaginative sculpturing using both the Moog and Mellotron. Extreme washes of sturdy tones and pulses make up this wonderfully crafted track, one of Schulze's best. In the same manner, the rest of the album is pure electronic bombardment. With 12 different types of sequencers and synthesizers molded, merged, and fused together, the musical landscape created is overwhelming. On both the 29-minute "Ludwig II Von Bayern" and the equally lengthy "Heinrich Von Kleist," a foreign atmosphere is bred through the multitude of variable electronics, both of the guitar and keyboard type. As each track begins to take shape, the music is dissected and laid out, but not before it forms lasting images and intricately conveys mood. A true pioneer at his craft, Schulze's X is one of the more definitive albums of his career, since it's length and instrumental combinations make for a multifaceted electronic piece.

 

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5. Magazine – Real Life

 

Howard Devoto had the foresight to promote two infamous Sex Pistols concerts in Manchester, and his vision was no less acute when he left Buzzcocks after recording Spiral Scratch. Possibly sensing the festering of punk's clichés and limitations, and unquestionably not taken by the movement's beginnings, he bailed -- effectively skipping out on most of 1977 -- and resurfaced with Magazine. Initially, the departure from punk was not complete. "Shot by Both Sides," the band's first single, was based off an old riff given by Devoto's Buzzcocks partner Pete Shelley, and the guts of follow-up single "Touch and Go" were rather basic rev-and-vroom. And, like many punk bands, Magazine would likely cite David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Roxy Music. However -- this point is crucial -- instead of playing mindlessly sloppy variants of "Hang on to Yourself," "Search and Destroy," and "Virginia Plain," the band was inspired by the much more adventurous Low, The Idiot, and "For Your Pleasure." That is the driving force behind Real Life's status as one of the post-punk era's major jump-off points. Punk's untethered energy is rigidly controlled, run through arrangements that are tightly wound, herky-jerky, unpredictable, proficiently dynamic. The rapidly careening "Shot by Both Sides" (up there with PiL's "Public Image" as an indelible post-punk single) and the slowly unfolding "Parade" (the closest thing to a ballad, its hook is "Sometimes I forget that we're supposed to be in love") are equally ill-at-ease. The dynamism is all the more perceptible when Dave Formula's alternately flighty and assaultive keyboards are present: the opening "Definitive Gaze," for instance, switches between a sci-fi love theme and the score for a chase scene. As close as the band comes to upstaging Devoto, the singer is central, with his live wire tendencies typically enhanced, rather than truly outshined, by his mates. The interplay is at its best in "The Light Pours out of Me," a song that defines Magazine more than "Shot by Both Sides," while also functioning as the closest the band got to making an anthem. Various aspects of Devoto's personality and legacy, truly brought forth throughout this album, have been transferred and blown up throughout the careers of Momus (the restless, unapologetic intellectual), Thom Yorke (the pensive outsider), and maybe even Luke Haines (the nonchalantly acidic crank).

 

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4. Kraftwerk – Die Mensch-Maschine

 

Die Mensch-Maschine is closer to the sound and style that would define early new wave electro-pop -- less minimalistic in its arrangements and more complex and danceable in its underlying rhythms. Like its predecessor, Trans-Europe Express, there is the feel of a divided concept album, with some songs devoted to science fiction-esque links between humans and technology, often with electronically processed vocals ("The Robots," "Spacelab," and the title track); others take the glamour of urbanization as their subject ("Neon Lights" and "Metropolis"). Plus, there's "The Model," a character sketch that falls under the latter category but takes a more cynical view of the title character's glamorous lifestyle. More pop-oriented than any of their previous work, the sound of Die Mensch-Maschine -- in particular among Kraftwerk's oeuvre -- had a tremendous impact on the cold, robotic synth pop of artists like Gary Numan, as well as Britain's later new romantic movement.

 

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3. Pere Ubu – The Modern Dance

 

There isn't a Pere Ubu recording you can imagine living without. The Modern Dance remains the essential Ubu purchase (as does the follow-up, Dub Housing). For sure, Mercury had no idea what they had on their hands when they released this as part of their punk rock offshoot label Blank, but it remains a classic slice of art-punk. It announces itself quite boldly: the first sound you hear is a painfully high-pitched whine of feedback, but then Tom Herman's postmodern Chuck Berry riffing kicks off the brilliant "Non-Alignment Pact," and you soon realize that this is punk rock unlike any you've ever heard.David Thomas' caterwauling is funny and moving, Scott Krauss (drums) and Tony Maimone (bass) are one of the great unheralded rhythm sections in all of rock, and the "difficult" tracks like "Street Waves," "Chinese Radiation," and the terrifying "Humor Me" are revelatory, and way ahead of their time. The Modern Dance is the signature sound of the avant-garage: art rock, punk rock, and garage rock mixing together joyously and fearlessly.

 

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2. Elvis Costello & the Attractions – This Year’s Model

 

Where My Aim Is True implied punk rock with its lyrics and stripped-down production, This Year's Model sounds like punk. Not that Elvis Costello's songwriting has changed -- This Year's Model is comprised largely of leftovers from My Aim Is True and songs written on the road. It's the music that changed. After releasing My Aim Is True, Costello assembled a backing band called the Attractions, which were considerably tougher and wilder than Clover, who played on his debut. the Attractions were a rock & roll band, which gives This Year's Model a reckless, careening feel. It's nervous, amphetamine-fueled, nearly paranoid music -- the group sounds like they're spinning out of control as soon as they crash in on the brief opener, "No Action," and they never get completely back on track, even on the slower numbers. Costello and the Attractions speed through This Year's Model at a blinding pace, which gives his songs -- which were already meaner than the set on My Aim Is True -- a nastier edge. "Lipstick Vogue," "Pump It Up," and "(I Don't Want to Go To) Chelsea" are all underscored with sexual menace, while "Night Rally" touches on a bizarre fascination with fascism that would blossom on his next album, Armed Forces. Even the songs that sound relatively lighthearted -- "Hand in Hand," "Little Triggers," "Lip Service," "Living in Paradise" -- are all edgy, thanks to Costello's breathless vocals, Steve Nieve's carnival-esque organ riffs, and Nick Lowe's bare-bones production. Of course, the songs on This Year's Model are typically catchy and help the vicious sentiments sink into your skin, but the most remarkable thing about the album is the sound -- Costello and the Attractions never rocked this hard, or this vengefully, ever again.

 

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1. Steve Reich – Music for 18 Musicians

 

If Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians is simply described in terms of its materials and organization -- 11 chords followed by 11 pieces built on those chords -- then it might seem utterly dry and monotonous. The actual music, though, is far from lackluster. When this recording was released in 1978, the impact on the new music scene was immediate and overwhelming. Anyone who saw potential in minimalism and had hoped for a major breakthrough piece found it here. The beauty of its pulsing added-note harmonies and the sustained power and precision of the performance were the music's salient features; and instead of the sterile, electronic sound usually associated with minimalism, the music's warm resonance was a welcome change. Yet repeated listening brought out a subtle and important shift in Reich's conception: the patterns were no longer static repetitions moving in and out of phase with each other, but were now flexible units that grew organically and changed incrementally over the course of the work. This discovery indicated a promising new direction for Reich, one that put him ahead of his peers by giving his music greater interest and adaptability and led to the more elaborate works of the next two decades.

 

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Honorable Mentions:

 

 

 

The Adverts – Crossing the Red Sea With the Adverts

 

A devastating debut, one of the finest albums not only of the punk era, but of the 1970s as a whole, Crossing the Red Sea With the Adverts was the summation of a year's worth of gigging, honing a repertoire that -- jagged, jarring, and frequently underplayed though it was -- nevertheless bristled with hits, both commercial and cultural. "No Time to Be 21," "One Chord Wonders," and "Bored Teenagers" were already established among the most potent rallying cries of the entire new wave, catch phrases for a generation that had no time for anthems; "Bombsite Boy," "Safety in Numbers," and "Great British Mistake" offered salvation to the movement's disaffected hordes; and the whole thing was cut with such numbingly widescreen energy that, even with the volume down, it still shakes the foundations

 

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Big Star – 3rd

 

After Big Star released Radio City, they fell apart, leaving Alex Chilton to record in 1975 what was later released as 3rd (aka Sister Lovers). The album is strikingly different from everything Chilton created before or after. With pained outpourings such as the haunting "Holocaust," it holds its own against rock's greatest monuments to existential angst, from Tonight's the Night to Bryter Layter.

 

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Funkadelic – One Nation Under a Groove

 

One Nation Under a Groove was not only Funkadelic's greatest moment, it was their most popular album, bringing them an unprecedented commercial breakthrough by going platinum and spawning a number one R&B smash in the title track. It was a landmark LP for the so-called "black rock" movement, best-typified in the statement of purpose "Who Says a Funk Band Can't Play Rock?!"; more than that, though, the whole album is full of fuzzed-out, Hendrix-style guitar licks, even when the music is clearly meant for the dancefloor. This may not have been a new concept for Funkadelic, but it's executed here with the greatest clarity and accessibility in their catalog. Furthermore, out of George Clinton's many conceptual albums (serious and otherwise), One Nation Under a Groove is the pinnacle of his political consciousness. It's unified by a refusal to acknowledge boundaries -- social, sexual, or musical -- and, by extension, the uptight society that created them. The tone is positive, not militant -- this funk is about community, freedom, and independence, and you can hear it in every cut (even the bizarre, outrageously scatological "P.E. Squad"). The title cut is one of funk's greatest anthems, and "Groovallegiance" and the terrific "Cholly" both dovetail nicely with its concerns. The aforementioned "Who Says a Funk Band Can't Play Rock?!" is a seamless hybrid that perfectly encapsulates the band's musical agenda, while "Into You" is one of their few truly successful slow numbers.

 

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Talking Heads – More Songs About Buildings and Food

 

 

The title of Talking Heads' second album, More Songs About Buildings and Food, slyly addressed the sophomore record syndrome, in which songs not used on a first LP are mixed with hastily written new material. If the band's sound seems more conventional, the reason simply may be that one had encountered the odd song structures, staccato rhythms, strained vocals, and impressionistic lyrics once before. Another was that new co-producer Brian Eno brought a musical unity that tied the album together, especially in terms of the rhythm section, the sequencing, the pacing, and the mixing. Where Talking Heads had largely been about David Byrne's voice and words, Eno moved the emphasis to the bass-and-drums team of Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz; all the songs were danceable, and there were only short breaks between them. Byrne held his own, however, and he continued to explore the eccentric, if not demented persona first heard on 77, whether he was adding to his observations on boys and girls or turning his "Psycho Killer" into an artist in "Artists Only." Through the first nine tracks, More Songs was the successor to 77, which would not have earned it landmark status or made it the commercial breakthrough it became. It was the last two songs that pushed the album over those hurdles. First there was an inspired cover of Al Green's "Take Me to the River"; released as a single, it made the Top 40 and pushed the album to gold-record status. Second was the album closer, "The Big Country, "Byrne's country-tinged reflection on flying over middle America; it crystallized his artist-vs.-ordinary people perspective in unusually direct and dismissive terms, turning the old Chuck Berry patriotic travelogue theme of rock & roll on its head and employing a great hook in the process.

 

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X-Ray Spex – Germfree Adolescents

 

 

Perhaps the most utopian aspect of the U.K. punk scene was that it offered creative, articulate young people the opportunity to express themselves, and to kick up an exuberantly noisy racket in the process. X-Ray Spex certainly came from this wing of the movement, the brainchild of two female schoolmates who re-christened themselves Poly Styrene and Lora Logic. X-Ray Spex was far from the only female-centered British punk act, but they were arguably the best, combining exuberant energy with a cohesive worldview courtesy of singer and songwriter Poly Styrene. As her nom de punk hinted, Styrene was obsessed with the artificiality she saw permeating Britain's consumer society, linking synthetic goods with a sort of processed, manufactured humanity. Styrene's frantic claustrophobia permeates the record, as she rails in her distinctively quavering yowl against the alienation she feels preventing her from discovering her true self. Germ Free Adolescents is tied together by Styrene's yearning to be free not only from demands for consumption, but from the insecurity corporate advertisers used to exploit their targets (especially in women) -- in other words, to enjoy being real, imperfect, non-sterile humans living in a real, imperfect, non-Day-Glo world. Fortunately, the record is just as effective musically as it is conceptually. It's full of kick-out-the-jams rockers, with a few up-tempo thrashers and surprisingly atmospheric pieces mixed in; the raw, wailing saxophone of Rudi Thomson (who replaced Lora Logic early on) gives the band its true sonic signature.

 

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1978:[/size][/b]

 

 

 

10. Blondie – Parallel Lines

 

Blondie turned to British pop producer Mike Chapman for their third album, on which they abandoned any pretensions to new wave legitimacy (just in time, given the decline of the new wave) and emerged as a pure pop band. But it wasn't just Chapman that made Parallel Lines Blondie's best album; it was the band's own songwriting, including Deborah Harry, Chris Stein, and James Destri's "Picture This," and Harry and Stein's "Heart of Glass," and Harry and new bass player Nigel Harrison's "One Way or Another," plus two contributions from non bandmember Jack Lee, "Will Anything Happen?" and "Hanging on the Telephone." That was enough to give Blondie a number one on both sides of the Atlantic with "Heart of Glass" and three more U.K. hits, but what impresses is the album's depth and consistency -- album tracks like "Fade Away and Radiate" and "Just Go Away" are as impressive as the songs pulled for singles. The result is state-of-the-art pop/rock circa 1978, with Harry's tough-girl glamour setting the pattern that would be exploited over the next decade by a host of successors led by Madonna.

 

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9. Nick Lowe – Jesus of Cool

 

This reckless rock and pop works not just because the tracks crackle with excitement -- not for nothing did Nick earn the name "Basher" in this period; he cut quickly and moved on, the performances sounding infectious and addictive -- but because it's written with the skill that Lowe developed in the Brinsleys. He knows how to twist words around, knows how to mine black humor in "Marie Provost," knows how to splice "Nutted by Reality" into a brilliant McCartney parody, knows how to pull off the old Chuck Berry trick of spinning a tune into two songs, as he turns "Shake and Pop" into the faster, wilder "They Called It Rock." That latter bit picks up a key bit about Jesus of Cool -- it's self-referential pop that loves the past but doesn't treat it as sacred. It is the first post-modern pop record in how it plays as it builds upon tradition and how it's all tied together by Lowe's irrepressible irreverence. It's hard to imagine any of the power pop of the next three decades without it, and while plenty have tried, nobody has made a better pure pop record than this...not even Nick (of course, he didn't really try to make another record like this, either).

 

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8. Devo – Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!

 

Produced by Brian Eno, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! was a seminal touchstone in the development of American new wave. It was one of the first pop albums to use synthesizers as an important textural element, and although they mostly play a supporting role in this guitar-driven set, the innovation began to lay the groundwork for the synth-pop explosion that would follow very shortly. Q: Are We Not Men also revived the absurdist social satire of the Mothers of Invention, claiming punk rock's outsider alienation as a home for freaks and geeks. While Devo's appeal was certainly broader, their sound was tailored well enough to that sensibility that it still resonates with a rabid cult following. It isn't just the dadaist pseudo-intellectual theories, or the critique of the American mindset as unthinkingly, submissively conformist. It was the way their music reflected that view, crafted to be as mechanical and robotic as their targets. Yet Devo hardly sounded like a machine that ran smoothly. There was an almost unbearable tension in the speed of their jerky, jumpy rhythms, outstripping Talking Heads, XTC, and other similarly nervy new wavers. And thanks to all the dissonant, angular melodies, odd-numbered time signatures, and yelping, sing-song vocals, the tension never finds release, which is key to the album's impact. It also doesn't hurt that this is arguably Devo's strongest set of material, though several brilliant peaks can overshadow the remainder. Of those peaks, the most definitive are the de-evolution manifesto "Jocko Homo" (one of the extremely few rock anthems written in 7/8 time) and a wicked deconstruction of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," which reworks the original's alienation into a spastic freak-out that's nearly unrecognizable. But Q: Are We Not Men? also had a conceptual unity that bolstered the consistent songwriting, making it an essential document of one of new wave's most influential bands.

 

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7. Wire – Chairs Missing

 

Chairs Missing marks a partial retreat from Pink Flag's austere, bare-bones minimalism, although it still takes concentrated listening to dig out some of the melodies. Producer Mike Thorne's synth adds a Brian Eno-esque layer of atmospherics, and Wire itself seems more concerned with the sonic textures it can coax from its instruments; the tempos are slower, the arrangements employ more detail and sound effects, and the band allows itself to stretch out on a few songs. The results are a bit variable -- "Mercy," in particular, meanders for too long -- but compelling much more often than not. The album's clear high point is the statement of purpose "I Am the Fly," which employs an emphasis-shifting melody and guitar sounds that actually evoke the sound of the title insect. But that's not all by any means -- "Outdoor Miner" and "Used To" have a gentle lilt, while "Sand in My Joints" is a brief anthem worthy of Pink Flag, and the four-minute "Practice Makes Perfect" is the best result of the album's incorporation of odd electronic flavors. In general, the lyrics are darker than those on Pink Flag, even morbid at times; images of cold, drowning, pain, and suicide haunt the record, and the title itself is a reference to mental instability. The arty darkness of Chairs Missing, combined with the often icy-sounding synth/guitar arrangements, helps make the record a crucial landmark in the evolution of punk into post-punk and goth, as well as a testament to Wire's rapid development and inventiveness.

 

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6. Klaus Schulze – X

 

Still captivating and alluring with his multi- keyboard entourage, the tracks each exhibit a personality all their own. "Friedrich Nietzsche" is the most vibrant of all six, harboring a complex but attractive aura. The 24 minutes of this synthesized voyage involve imaginative sculpturing using both the Moog and Mellotron. Extreme washes of sturdy tones and pulses make up this wonderfully crafted track, one of Schulze's best. In the same manner, the rest of the album is pure electronic bombardment. With 12 different types of sequencers and synthesizers molded, merged, and fused together, the musical landscape created is overwhelming. On both the 29-minute "Ludwig II Von Bayern" and the equally lengthy "Heinrich Von Kleist," a foreign atmosphere is bred through the multitude of variable electronics, both of the guitar and keyboard type. As each track begins to take shape, the music is dissected and laid out, but not before it forms lasting images and intricately conveys mood. A true pioneer at his craft, Schulze's X is one of the more definitive albums of his career, since it's length and instrumental combinations make for a multifaceted electronic piece.

 

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5. Magazine – Real Life

 

Howard Devoto had the foresight to promote two infamous Sex Pistols concerts in Manchester, and his vision was no less acute when he left Buzzcocks after recording Spiral Scratch. Possibly sensing the festering of punk's clichés and limitations, and unquestionably not taken by the movement's beginnings, he bailed -- effectively skipping out on most of 1977 -- and resurfaced with Magazine. Initially, the departure from punk was not complete. "Shot by Both Sides," the band's first single, was based off an old riff given by Devoto's Buzzcocks partner Pete Shelley, and the guts of follow-up single "Touch and Go" were rather basic rev-and-vroom. And, like many punk bands, Magazine would likely cite David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Roxy Music. However -- this point is crucial -- instead of playing mindlessly sloppy variants of "Hang on to Yourself," "Search and Destroy," and "Virginia Plain," the band was inspired by the much more adventurous Low, The Idiot, and "For Your Pleasure." That is the driving force behind Real Life's status as one of the post-punk era's major jump-off points. Punk's untethered energy is rigidly controlled, run through arrangements that are tightly wound, herky-jerky, unpredictable, proficiently dynamic. The rapidly careening "Shot by Both Sides" (up there with PiL's "Public Image" as an indelible post-punk single) and the slowly unfolding "Parade" (the closest thing to a ballad, its hook is "Sometimes I forget that we're supposed to be in love") are equally ill-at-ease. The dynamism is all the more perceptible when Dave Formula's alternately flighty and assaultive keyboards are present: the opening "Definitive Gaze," for instance, switches between a sci-fi love theme and the score for a chase scene. As close as the band comes to upstaging Devoto, the singer is central, with his live wire tendencies typically enhanced, rather than truly outshined, by his mates. The interplay is at its best in "The Light Pours out of Me," a song that defines Magazine more than "Shot by Both Sides," while also functioning as the closest the band got to making an anthem. Various aspects of Devoto's personality and legacy, truly brought forth throughout this album, have been transferred and blown up throughout the careers of Momus (the restless, unapologetic intellectual), Thom Yorke (the pensive outsider), and maybe even Luke Haines (the nonchalantly acidic crank).

 

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4. Kraftwerk – Die Mensch-Maschine

 

Die Mensch-Maschine is closer to the sound and style that would define early new wave electro-pop -- less minimalistic in its arrangements and more complex and danceable in its underlying rhythms. Like its predecessor, Trans-Europe Express, there is the feel of a divided concept album, with some songs devoted to science fiction-esque links between humans and technology, often with electronically processed vocals ("The Robots," "Spacelab," and the title track); others take the glamour of urbanization as their subject ("Neon Lights" and "Metropolis"). Plus, there's "The Model," a character sketch that falls under the latter category but takes a more cynical view of the title character's glamorous lifestyle. More pop-oriented than any of their previous work, the sound of Die Mensch-Maschine -- in particular among Kraftwerk's oeuvre -- had a tremendous impact on the cold, robotic synth pop of artists like Gary Numan, as well as Britain's later new romantic movement.

 

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3. Pere Ubu – The Modern Dance

 

There isn't a Pere Ubu recording you can imagine living without. The Modern Dance remains the essential Ubu purchase (as does the follow-up, Dub Housing). For sure, Mercury had no idea what they had on their hands when they released this as part of their punk rock offshoot label Blank, but it remains a classic slice of art-punk. It announces itself quite boldly: the first sound you hear is a painfully high-pitched whine of feedback, but then Tom Herman's postmodern Chuck Berry riffing kicks off the brilliant "Non-Alignment Pact," and you soon realize that this is punk rock unlike any you've ever heard.David Thomas' caterwauling is funny and moving, Scott Krauss (drums) and Tony Maimone (bass) are one of the great unheralded rhythm sections in all of rock, and the "difficult" tracks like "Street Waves," "Chinese Radiation," and the terrifying "Humor Me" are revelatory, and way ahead of their time. The Modern Dance is the signature sound of the avant-garage: art rock, punk rock, and garage rock mixing together joyously and fearlessly.

 

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2. Elvis Costello & the Attractions – This Year’s Model

 

Where My Aim Is True implied punk rock with its lyrics and stripped-down production, This Year's Model sounds like punk. Not that Elvis Costello's songwriting has changed -- This Year's Model is comprised largely of leftovers from My Aim Is True and songs written on the road. It's the music that changed. After releasing My Aim Is True, Costello assembled a backing band called the Attractions, which were considerably tougher and wilder than Clover, who played on his debut. the Attractions were a rock & roll band, which gives This Year's Model a reckless, careening feel. It's nervous, amphetamine-fueled, nearly paranoid music -- the group sounds like they're spinning out of control as soon as they crash in on the brief opener, "No Action," and they never get completely back on track, even on the slower numbers. Costello and the Attractions speed through This Year's Model at a blinding pace, which gives his songs -- which were already meaner than the set on My Aim Is True -- a nastier edge. "Lipstick Vogue," "Pump It Up," and "(I Don't Want to Go To) Chelsea" are all underscored with sexual menace, while "Night Rally" touches on a bizarre fascination with fascism that would blossom on his next album, Armed Forces. Even the songs that sound relatively lighthearted -- "Hand in Hand," "Little Triggers," "Lip Service," "Living in Paradise" -- are all edgy, thanks to Costello's breathless vocals, Steve Nieve's carnival-esque organ riffs, and Nick Lowe's bare-bones production. Of course, the songs on This Year's Model are typically catchy and help the vicious sentiments sink into your skin, but the most remarkable thing about the album is the sound -- Costello and the Attractions never rocked this hard, or this vengefully, ever again.

 

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1. Steve Reich – Music for 18 Musicians

 

If Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians is simply described in terms of its materials and organization -- 11 chords followed by 11 pieces built on those chords -- then it might seem utterly dry and monotonous. The actual music, though, is far from lackluster. When this recording was released in 1978, the impact on the new music scene was immediate and overwhelming. Anyone who saw potential in minimalism and had hoped for a major breakthrough piece found it here. The beauty of its pulsing added-note harmonies and the sustained power and precision of the performance were the music's salient features; and instead of the sterile, electronic sound usually associated with minimalism, the music's warm resonance was a welcome change. Yet repeated listening brought out a subtle and important shift in Reich's conception: the patterns were no longer static repetitions moving in and out of phase with each other, but were now flexible units that grew organically and changed incrementally over the course of the work. This discovery indicated a promising new direction for Reich, one that put him ahead of his peers by giving his music greater interest and adaptability and led to the more elaborate works of the next two decades.

 

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Honorable Mentions:

 

 

 

The Adverts – Crossing the Red Sea With the Adverts

 

A devastating debut, one of the finest albums not only of the punk era, but of the 1970s as a whole, Crossing the Red Sea With the Adverts was the summation of a year's worth of gigging, honing a repertoire that -- jagged, jarring, and frequently underplayed though it was -- nevertheless bristled with hits, both commercial and cultural. "No Time to Be 21," "One Chord Wonders," and "Bored Teenagers" were already established among the most potent rallying cries of the entire new wave, catch phrases for a generation that had no time for anthems; "Bombsite Boy," "Safety in Numbers," and "Great British Mistake" offered salvation to the movement's disaffected hordes; and the whole thing was cut with such numbingly widescreen energy that, even with the volume down, it still shakes the foundations

 

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Big Star – 3rd

 

After Big Star released Radio City, they fell apart, leaving Alex Chilton to record in 1975 what was later released as 3rd (aka Sister Lovers). The album is strikingly different from everything Chilton created before or after. With pained outpourings such as the haunting "Holocaust," it holds its own against rock's greatest monuments to existential angst, from Tonight's the Night to Bryter Layter.

 

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Funkadelic – One Nation Under a Groove

 

One Nation Under a Groove was not only Funkadelic's greatest moment, it was their most popular album, bringing them an unprecedented commercial breakthrough by going platinum and spawning a number one R&B smash in the title track. It was a landmark LP for the so-called "black rock" movement, best-typified in the statement of purpose "Who Says a Funk Band Can't Play Rock?!"; more than that, though, the whole album is full of fuzzed-out, Hendrix-style guitar licks, even when the music is clearly meant for the dancefloor. This may not have been a new concept for Funkadelic, but it's executed here with the greatest clarity and accessibility in their catalog. Furthermore, out of George Clinton's many conceptual albums (serious and otherwise), One Nation Under a Groove is the pinnacle of his political consciousness. It's unified by a refusal to acknowledge boundaries -- social, sexual, or musical -- and, by extension, the uptight society that created them. The tone is positive, not militant -- this funk is about community, freedom, and independence, and you can hear it in every cut (even the bizarre, outrageously scatological "P.E. Squad"). The title cut is one of funk's greatest anthems, and "Groovallegiance" and the terrific "Cholly" both dovetail nicely with its concerns. The aforementioned "Who Says a Funk Band Can't Play Rock?!" is a seamless hybrid that perfectly encapsulates the band's musical agenda, while "Into You" is one of their few truly successful slow numbers.

 

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Talking Heads – More Songs About Buildings and Food

 

 

The title of Talking Heads' second album, More Songs About Buildings and Food, slyly addressed the sophomore record syndrome, in which songs not used on a first LP are mixed with hastily written new material. If the band's sound seems more conventional, the reason simply may be that one had encountered the odd song structures, staccato rhythms, strained vocals, and impressionistic lyrics once before. Another was that new co-producer Brian Eno brought a musical unity that tied the album together, especially in terms of the rhythm section, the sequencing, the pacing, and the mixing. Where Talking Heads had largely been about David Byrne's voice and words, Eno moved the emphasis to the bass-and-drums team of Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz; all the songs were danceable, and there were only short breaks between them. Byrne held his own, however, and he continued to explore the eccentric, if not demented persona first heard on 77, whether he was adding to his observations on boys and girls or turning his "Psycho Killer" into an artist in "Artists Only." Through the first nine tracks, More Songs was the successor to 77, which would not have earned it landmark status or made it the commercial breakthrough it became. It was the last two songs that pushed the album over those hurdles. First there was an inspired cover of Al Green's "Take Me to the River"; released as a single, it made the Top 40 and pushed the album to gold-record status. Second was the album closer, "The Big Country, "Byrne's country-tinged reflection on flying over middle America; it crystallized his artist-vs.-ordinary people perspective in unusually direct and dismissive terms, turning the old Chuck Berry patriotic travelogue theme of rock & roll on its head and employing a great hook in the process.

 

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X-Ray Spex – Germfree Adolescents

 

 

Perhaps the most utopian aspect of the U.K. punk scene was that it offered creative, articulate young people the opportunity to express themselves, and to kick up an exuberantly noisy racket in the process. X-Ray Spex certainly came from this wing of the movement, the brainchild of two female schoolmates who re-christened themselves Poly Styrene and Lora Logic. X-Ray Spex was far from the only female-centered British punk act, but they were arguably the best, combining exuberant energy with a cohesive worldview courtesy of singer and songwriter Poly Styrene. As her nom de punk hinted, Styrene was obsessed with the artificiality she saw permeating Britain's consumer society, linking synthetic goods with a sort of processed, manufactured humanity. Styrene's frantic claustrophobia permeates the record, as she rails in her distinctively quavering yowl against the alienation she feels preventing her from discovering her true self. Germ Free Adolescents is tied together by Styrene's yearning to be free not only from demands for consumption, but from the insecurity corporate advertisers used to exploit their targets (especially in women) -- in other words, to enjoy being real, imperfect, non-sterile humans living in a real, imperfect, non-Day-Glo world. Fortunately, the record is just as effective musically as it is conceptually. It's full of kick-out-the-jams rockers, with a few up-tempo thrashers and surprisingly atmospheric pieces mixed in; the raw, wailing saxophone of Rudi Thomson (who replaced Lora Logic early on) gives the band its true sonic signature.

 

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Blondie would be my number one and Talking Heads at number two.

 

Not to do with an album but I would like to mention this was the year we lost the legend that was, is and always will be: Keith Moon. Possibly the greatest drummer ever to have lived. RIP.

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10. The Residents – Eskimo

 

The most rewarding, the most difficult, and the most accomplished of all the Residents' albums, this was their departure into the field of imaginary ethno-musicography that they had begun on "Six Things to a Cycle" on Fingerprince. Ostensibly a musical documentary on the Eskimo, this is an album of icy atmospheres, poetic electronics, and imaginary landscapes, concocted around a loose narrative told in the liner notes. There's also a subtheme of indigenous populations overrun by western commercialism (is that native chant actually "Coca Cola is Life"?). Ex-Henry Cow member Chris Cutler plays a lot of the percussion on the album, especially on the finale, "Festival of Death," the only real piece of rhythmic music here, which shines out as anything but dark or sinister. In any other group's hands this would have been a pretentious disaster, but the Residents pull it off through spirit, humor, and sheer bravado.

 

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9. Public Image Ltd. – Metal Box

 

PiL managed to avoid boundaries for the first four years of their existence, and Metal Box is undoubtedly the apex. It's a hallmark of uncompromising, challenging post-punk, hardly sounding like anything of the past, present, or future. Sure, there were touchstones that got their imaginations running -- the bizarreness of Captain Beefheart, the open and rhythmic spaces of Can, and the dense pulses of Lee Perry's productions fueled their creative fires -- but what they achieved with their second record is a completely unique hour of avant-garde noise. Originally packaged in a film canister as a trio of 12" records played at 45 rpm, the bass and treble are pegged at 11 throughout, with nary a tinge of midrange to be found. It's all scrapes and throbs (dubscrapes?), supplanted by John Lydon's caterwauling about such subjects as his dying mother, resentment, and murder. Guitarist Keith Levene splatters silvery, violent, percussive shards of metallic scrapes onto the canvas, much like a one-armed Jackson Pollock.Jah Wobble and Richard Dudanski lay down a molasses-thick rhythmic foundation throughout that's just as funky as Can's Czukay/Leibezeit and Chic's Edwards/Rodgers. It's alien dance music. Metal Box might not be recognized as a groundbreaking record with the same reverence as Never Mind the Bollocks, and you certainly can't trace numerous waves of bands who wouldn't have existed without it like the Sex Pistols record. But like a virus, its tones have sent miasmic reverberations through a much broader scope of artists and genres.

 

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8. Elvis Costello & the Attractions – Armed Forces

 

After releasing and touring the intense This Year's Model, Elvis Costello quickly returned to the studio with the Attractions to record his third album, Armed Forces. In contrast to the stripped-down pop and rock of his first two albums, Armed Forces boasted a detailed and textured pop production, but it was hardly lavish. However, the more spacious arrangements -- complete with ringing pianos, echoing reverb, layered guitars, and harmonies -- accent Costello's melodies, making the record more accessible than his first two albums. Perversely, while the sound of Costello's music was becoming more open and welcoming, his songs became more insular and paranoid, even though he cloaked his emotions well. Many of the songs on Armed Forces use politics as a metaphor for personal relationships, particularly fascism, which explains its working title, Emotional Fascism. Occasionally, the lyrics are forced, but the music never is -- the album demonstrates the depth of Costello's compositional talents and how he can move from the hook-laden pop of "Accidents Will Happen" to the paranoid "Goon Squad" with ease. Some of the songs, like the light reggae of "Two Little Hitlers" and the impassioned "Party Girl," build on his strengths, while others like the layered "Oliver's Army" take Costello into new territories. It's a dense but accessible pop record and ranks as his third masterpiece in a row.

 

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7. Stiff Little Fingers – Inflammable Material

 

Originally released in 1979, Stiff Little Fingers were Ireland's answer to both the Clash and the Sex Pistols. They had the personal and political stance of the former, and the noisy, pissed off, slash-and-burn musical aesthetic as the latter. Fronted by guitarist and songwriter Jake Burns (he collaborated with journalist Gordon Ogilvie), SLF took off with their two singles "Alternative Ulster," and, for that time, the utterly out of control screaming that was "Suspect Device." These two singles make the purchase price of the album a priority. They represent barely contained youthful anger at social and political mores as righteous, utterly devoid of posturing or falsity and raging to break out. "Alternative Ulster" decries the Irish political sides in the Northern Ireland controversy -- the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Irish Republican Army -- holding them both accountable for bloodshed and social and economic stasis furthering nothing but their own interests. "Suspect Device" which opens the set, screams at the heart of the conflict, that neither side can be believed as both reduce freedom to a buzzword while wielding guns. Both tracks are calls to arms, but of a different sort -- the arms of dialogue and intelligence in the midst of idiocy and murder. Punk rock never sounded so brutal or positive in one band. There are other fine cuts here as well, such as the Bob Marley cover "Johnny Was," reinvented for the times in Northern Ireland; "Wasted Life," another paean to drop out of a society that breeds death and acquiescence for its own sake, and the scathing indictment of the record company that released the album, "Rough Trade."

 

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6. Wire – 154

 

Named for the number of live gigs Wire had played to that point, 154 refines and expands the innovations of Chairs Missing, with producer Mike Thorne's synthesizer effects playing an even more integral role; little of Pink Flag's rawness remains. If Chairs Missing was a transitional album between punk and post-punk, 154 is squarely in the latter camp, devoting itself to experimental soundscapes that can sound cold and forbidding at times. However, the best tracks retain their humanity thanks to the arrangements' smooth, seamless blend of electronic and guitar textures and the beauty of the group's melodies. Where previously some of Wire's hooks could find themselves buried or not properly brought out, the fully fleshed-out production of 154 lends a sweeping splendor to "The 15th," the epic "A Touching Display," "A Mutual Friend," and the gorgeous (if obscurely titled) "Map Ref. 41°N 93°W." Not every track is a gem, as the group's artier tendencies occasionally get the better of them, but 154's best moments help make it at least the equal of Chairs Missing. It's difficult to believe that a band that evolved as quickly and altered its sound as restlessly as Wire did could be out of ideas after only three years and three albums, but such was the case according to its members, and with their (temporary, as it turned out) disbandment following this album, Wire's most fertile and influential period came to a close.

 

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5. Talking Heads – Fear of Music

 

By titling their third album Fear of Music and opening it with the African rhythmic experiment "I Zimbra," complete with nonsense lyrics by poet Hugo Ball, Talking Heads make the record seem more of a departure than it is. Though Fear of Music is musically distinct from its predecessors, it's mostly because of the use of minor keys that give the music a more ominous sound. Previously, David Byrne's offbeat observations had been set off by an overtly humorous tone; on Fear of Music, he is still odd, but no longer so funny. At the same time, however, the music has become even more compelling. Worked up from jams (though Byrne received sole songwriter's credit), the music is becoming denser and more driving, notably on the album's standout track, "Life During Wartime," with lyrics that match the music's power. "This ain't no party," declares Byrne, "this ain't no disco, this ain't no fooling around." The other key song, "Heaven," extends the dismissal Byrne had expressed for the U.S. in "The Big Country" to paradise itself: "Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens." It's also the album's most melodic song.

 

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4. Buzzcocks – Singles Going Steady

 

If Never Mind the Bollocks and London Calling are held up as punk masterpieces, then there's no question that Singles Going Steady belongs alongside them. In fact, the slew of astonishing seven-inches collected on Steady and their influence on future musicians - punk or otherwise -- sometimes even betters more famous efforts. The title and artwork alone (the latter itself partially inspired by the Beatles' Let it Be) have been parodied or referred to by Halo of Flies and Don Caballero, which titled its own singles comp Singles Breaking Up. As for the music, anybody who ever combined full-blast rock, catchy melodies and romantic and social anxieties owes something to what the classic quartet did here. The deservedly well-known masterpiece "Ever Fallen in Love" appears along with Love Bites' "Just Lust," but the remaining tracks originally appeared only as individual A and B-sides, making this collection all the more essential. The earlier numbers showcase a band bursting with energy and wicked humor - the tongue-in-cheek "Orgasm Addict," details the adventures of a sex freak with a ridiculous fake orgasm vocal break to boot. However, the slightly more serious but no less frenetic singles are equally enthralling. "What Do I Get?" with its pained cry about lacking love, the deeply cynical "Everybody's Happy Nowadays" and Diggle's roaring "Harmony in My Head" are just three highlights on an album made of them. The final songs show the band incorporating their more adventuresome side into their singles, as with the slower, very Can-inspired "Why Can't I Touch It?," the semi-jokey stop-start thrash "Noise Annoys," and the Murphy's Law worries of "Something's Gone Wrong Again."

 

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3. The Clash – London Calling

 

Give 'Em Enough Rope, for all of its many attributes, was essentially a holding pattern for the Clash, but the double-album London Calling is a remarkable leap forward, incorporating the punk aesthetic into rock & roll mythology and roots music. Before, the Clash had experimented with reggae, but that was no preparation for the dizzying array of styles on London Calling. There's punk and reggae, but there's also rockabilly, ska, New Orleans R&B, pop, lounge jazz, and hard rock; and while the record isn't tied together by a specific theme, its eclecticism and anthemic punk function as a rallying call. While many of the songs -- particularly "London Calling," "Spanish Bombs," and "The Guns of Brixton" -- are explicitly political, by acknowledging no boundaries the music itself is political and revolutionary. But it is also invigorating, rocking harder and with more purpose than most albums, let alone double albums. Over the course of the record, Joe Strummer and Mick Jones (and Paul Simonon, who wrote "The Guns of Brixton") explore their familiar themes of working-class rebellion and antiestablishment rants, but they also tie them in to old rock & roll traditions and myths, whether it's rockabilly greasers or "Stagger Lee," as well as mavericks like doomed actor Montgomery Clift. The result is a stunning statement of purpose and one of the greatest rock & roll albums ever recorded.

 

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2. Gang of Four – Entertainment!

 

Entertainment! is one of those records where germs of influence can be traced through many genres and countless bands, both favorably and unfavorably. From groups whose awareness of genealogy spreads wide enough to openly acknowledge Gang of Four's influence (Fugazi, Rage Against the Machine), to those not in touch with their ancestry enough to realize it (rap-metal, some indie rock) -- all have appropriated elements of their forefathers' trailblazing contribution. Its vaguely funky rhythmic twitch, its pungent, pointillistic guitar stoccados, and its spoken/shouted vocals have all been picked up by many. Lyrically, the album was apart from many of the day, and it still is. The band rants at revisionist history in "Not Great Men" ("No weak men in the books at home"), self-serving media and politicians in "I Found That Essence Rare" ("The last thing they'll ever do?/Act in your interest"), and sexual politics in "Damaged Goods" ("You said you're cheap but you're too much"). Though the brilliance of the record thrives on the faster material -- especially the febrile first side -- a true highlight amongst highlights is the closing "Anthrax," full of barely controlled feedback squalls and moans. It's nearly psychedelic, something post-punk and new wave were never known for. With a slight death rattle and plodding bass rumble, Jon King equates love with disease and admits to feeling "like a beetle on its back." In the background, Andy Gill speaks in monotone of why Gang of Four doesn't do love songs. Subversive records of any ilk don't get any stronger, influential, or exciting than this.

 

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1. Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures

 

It even looks like something classic, beyond its time or place of origin even as it was a clear product of both -- one of Peter Saville's earliest and best designs, a transcription of a signal showing a star going nova, on a black embossed sleeve. If that were all Unknown Pleasures was, it wouldn't be discussed so much, but the ten songs inside, quite simply, are stone-cold landmarks, the whole album a monument to passion, energy, and cathartic despair. The quantum leap from the earliest thrashy singles to Unknown Pleasures can be heard through every note, with Martin Hannett's deservedly famous production -- emphasizing space in the most revelatory way since the dawn of dub -- as much a hallmark as the music itself. Songs fade in behind furtive noises of motion and activity, glass breaks with the force and clarity of doom, minimal keyboard lines add to an air of looming disaster -- something, somehow, seems to wait or lurk beyond the edge of hearing. But even though this is Hannett's album as much as anyone's, the songs and performances are the true key. Bernard Sumner redefined heavy metal sludge as chilling feedback fear and explosive energy, Peter Hook's instantly recognizable bass work at once warm and forbidding, Stephen Morris' drumming smacking through the speakers above all else. Ian Curtis synthesizes and purifies every last impulse, his voice shot through with the desire first and foremost to connect, only connect -- as "Candidate" plaintively states, "I tried to get to you/You treat me like this." Pick any song: the nervous death dance of "She's Lost Control"; the harrowing call for release "New Dawn Fades," all four members in perfect sync; the romance in hell of "Shadowplay"; "Insight" and its nervous drive toward some sort of apocalypse. All visceral, all emotional, all theatrical, all perfect -- one of the best albums ever.

 

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Honorable Mentions:

 

 

 

The B-52’s – The B-52’s

 

Even in the weird, quirky world of new wave and post-punk in the late '70s, the B-52's' eponymous debut stood out as an original. Unabashed kitsch mavens at a time when their peers were either vulgar or stylish, the Athens quintet celebrated all the silliest aspects of pre-Beatles pop culture -- bad hairdos, sci-fi nightmares, dance crazes, pastels, and anything else that sprung into their minds -- to a skewed fusion of pop, surf, avant-garde, amateurish punk, and white funk. On paper, it sounds like a cerebral exercise, but it played like a party. The jerky, angular funk was irresistibly danceable, winning over listeners dubious of Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson's high-pitched, shrill close harmonies and Fred Schneider's campy, flamboyant vocalizing, pitched halfway between singing and speaking. It's all great fun, but it wouldn't have resonated throughout the years if the group hadn't written such incredibly infectious, memorable tunes as "Planet Claire," "Dance This Mess Around," and, of course, their signature tune, "Rock Lobster." These songs illustrated that the B-52's' adoration of camp culture wasn't simply affectation -- it was a world view capable of turning out brilliant pop singles and, in turn, influencing mainstream pop culture. It's difficult to imagine the endless kitschy retro fads of the '80s and '90s without the B-52's pointing the way, but The B-52's isn't simply an historic artifact -- it's a hell of a good time.

 

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Chrome – Half Machine Lip Moves

 

With Lambdin out and Spain barely there at all, everything rapidly became an Edge/Creed show in the realm of Chrome by the time of Half Machine Lip Moves. The basic tropes having been established -- aggressive but cryptic performance and production, jump cuts between and in songs, judicious use of sampling and production craziness, and an overall air of looming science fiction apocalypse and doom -- all Edge and Creed had to do was perfect it. Starting with the fragmented assault of "TV as Eyes," which rapidly descends into heavily treated, conversational snippets from TV and deep, droning keyboards, Half Machine sounds like a weird broadcast from thousands of miles away where rock is treated as an exotic musical form. Creed fully gets to shine here, his pitched-up/pitched-down guitars as good an example of psychedelic assault as anything. Sprawled all over the beeps and murmurs of the songs, not to mention Edge's still self-created drumming and Iggy-ish vocal interjections, the guitars make everything sound utterly disturbed. If not as obsessed with tempo shifts and oddity as, say, Faust, Half Machine is still pretty close to that band's level of Krautrock playfulness and explosion. Two of the relative saner numbers are practically power pop, at least in Chrome terms. "March of the Chrome Police (A Cold Clamey Bombing)" has Edge sneering an actual vocal hook over a brisk beat, even while Creed gets progressively more fried on the guitar, and rumbling echoed laughter and barks erupt in the mix. "You've Been Duplicated," meanwhile, also has something of a vocal hook, only buried under so many levels of distortion that it might as well be a malfunctioning keyboard being played among the clattering percussion and other sounds. A suitably strange cover shot of a fully head-bandaged mannequin seemingly floating in space completes the package

 

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The Slits – Cut

 

Almost as well-known for its cover (the three Slits are half-naked and covered in mud) as for its music, Cut is an ebullient piece of post-punk mastery that finds the Slits' interest in Caribbean and African rhythms smoothly incorporated into their harsher punk rock stylings. Ari Up's wandering voice (a touch like Yoko Ono) might be initially off-putting, but not so much so that it makes listening to the record difficult. Six tracks are revamped from earlier Peel Sessions and sound better for the extra effort (especially "New Town" and "Love und Romance"). With its goofy charm, gleeful swing and sway, and subtle yet compelling libertarian feminism, this is one of the best records of the era.

 

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The Specials – The Specials

 

 

It was an utter revelation -- except for anyone who had seen the band on-stage, for the album was at its core a studio recording of their live set, and at times even masquerades as a gig. There were some notable omissions: "Gangsters," for one, but that had already spun on 45, as well as the quartet of covers that would appear on their live Too Much Too Young EP in the new year. But the rest are all here, 14 songs' strong, mostly originals with a few covers of classics thrown in for good measure. That includes their fabulous take on Dandy Livingstone's "A Message to You Rudy," an equally stellar version of the Maytals' "Monkey Man," and the sizzling take on Prince Buster's "Too Hot." If those were fabulous, their own compositions were magnificent. the Specials managed to distill all the anger, disenchantment, and bitterness of the day straight into their music. The vicious "Nite Klub" -- with its unforgettable line, "All the girls are slags and the beer tastes just like piss" -- perfectly skewered every bad night the members had ever spent out on the town; "Blank Expression" extended the misery into unwelcoming pubs, while "Concrete Jungle" moved the action onto the streets, capturing the fear and violence that stalked the inner cities. And then it gets personal. "It's Up to You" throws down the gauntlets to those who disliked the group, its music, and its stance, while simultaneously acting as a rallying cry for supporters. "Too Much Too Young" shows the Specials' disdain for teen pregnancy and marriage; "Stupid Marriage" drags two such offenders before a Judge Dread-esque magistrate, with Terry Hall playing the outraged and sniping prosecutor; while "Little Bitch" is downright nasty. Those were polemics; "It Doesn't Make It Alright" reaches a hand out to listeners and, with conviction, delivers up a heartfelt plea against racism, but even this number contains a sharp sting in its tail. It's a bitter brew, aggressively delivered, with even the slower numbers sharply edged, and therefore the band wisely scattered sparkling covers across the album to help lift its mood. The set appropriately ends with the rocksteady-esque yearning of "You're Wondering Now," the song that invariably closed their live shows. Even though producer Elvis Costello gave the record a bright sound, it doesn't lighten the dark currents that run through the group's songs; if anything, his production heightens them. It's left to guests Rico Rodriguez and Dick Cuthell to provide a little Caribbean sun to the Specials' sound, their brass sweetening the flashes of anger and disaffection that sweep across the record.

 

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The Undertones – The Undertones

 

 

What is a perfect album? One could make an argument that a perfect album is one that sets out a specific set of artistic criteria and then fulfills them flawlessly. In that respect, and many others, the Undertones' 1979 debut is a perfect album. The Northern Ireland quintet's brief story is no different than that of literally dozens of other bands to form in the wake of the Clash and, more importantly, the Buzzcocks, but the group infuses so much unabashed joy in their two-minute three-chord pop songs, and there's so little pretension in their unapologetically teenage worldview, that even the darker hints of life in songs like the suicide-themed "Jimmy Jimmy" are delivered with a sense of optimism at odds with so many of their contemporaries. There's no fewer than three all-time punk-pop classics here; besides that song, the singles "Teenage Kicks" and "Get Over You" are simple declarations of teenage hormonal lust that somehow manage to be cute instead of Neanderthal; perhaps it's Feargal Sharkey's endearingly adenoidal whine, or the chipper way the O'Neill brothers pitch in on schoolboy harmonies, like a teenage Irish Kinks. All of the other 13 songs, even the 47-second blip "Casbah Rock," are nearly to that level of brilliance, with the frenetic "Girls Don't Like It" a particular standout.

 

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Okay, got my internet back, now time to catch up on this thread. :lol:

 

So far, nice calls on Talking Heads. :P

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#1 Albums from 1970s at a Glance:

 

1970: Miles Davis – Bitches Brew

 

1971: Can – Tago Mago

 

1972: The Rolling Stones – Exile on Main St.

 

1973: Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon

 

1974: Neil Young - On the Beach

 

1975: Bob Dylan – Blood on the Tracks

 

1976: The Modern Lovers – The Modern Lovers

 

1977: David Bowie – Low

 

1978: Steve Reich – Music for 18 Musicians

 

1979: Joy Division - Unknown Pleasures

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1980:

 

 

 

10. Pretenders – Pretenders

 

Few rock & roll records rock as hard or with as much originality as the Pretenders' eponymous debut album. A sleek, stylish fusion of Stonesy rock & roll, new wave pop, and pure punk aggression, Pretenders is teeming with sharp hooks and a viciously cool attitude. Although Chrissie Hynde establishes herself as a forceful and distinctively feminine songwriter, the record isn't a singer/songwriter's tour de force -- it's a rock & roll album, powered by a unique and aggressive band. Guitarist James Honeyman-Scott never plays conventional riffs or leads, and his phased, treated guitar gives new dimension to the pounding rhythms of "Precious," "Tattooed Love Boys," "Up the Neck," and "The Wait," as well as the more measured pop of "Kid," "Brass in Pocket," and "Mystery Achievement." He provides the perfect backing for Hynde and her tough, sexy swagger. Hynde doesn't fit into any conventional female rock stereotype, and neither do her songs, alternately displaying a steely exterior or a disarming emotional vulnerability. It's a deep, rewarding record, whose primary virtue is its sheer energy. Pretenders moves faster and harder than most rock records, delivering an endless series of melodies, hooks, and infectious rhythms in its 12 songs. Few albums, let alone debuts, are ever this astonishingly addictive.

 

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9. Bauhaus – In the Flat Field

 

Few debut albums ever arrived so nearly perfectly formed; that In the Flat Field practically single-handedly invented what remains for many as the stereotype of goth music -- wracked, at times spindly vocals about despair and desolation of many kinds, sung over mysterious and moody music -- demonstrates the sui generis power of both the band and its work. This said, perhaps the best thing about the album isn't what it's supposed to sound like, but what it actually does -- an awesomely powerful, glam-inspired rock band firing on all fours, capable of restraint and complete overdrive both, fronted by a charismatic, storming frontman. Starting with the challenging angst of "Double Dare," with shattering guitar over a curious but fierce stop-start rhythm while Murphy rages ever more strongly over the top, In the Flat Field contains a wide variety of inspirations and ideas. The astonishingly precise rhythm section of David J and Haskins pulls off a variety of jaw-dropping performances, including the high-paced tension of the title track and the brooding crawl from "Spy in the Cab." Ash, much like his longtime hero Mick Ronson, turns out to be a master of turning relatively simple guitar parts into apocalyptic explosions, from the background fills on "St. Vitus Dance" to the brutal descending chords of "Stigmata Martyr." Murphy, meanwhile, channels as much Iggy Pop as he does Bowie, proving to be no simple copyist of either, able to both maniacally sing-shout and take a somewhat lighter touch throughout. Concluding with the seven-minute "Nerves," an aptly titled piece that alternates between understated energy and unleashed power toward a dramatic ending, In the Flat Field started off Bauhaus' album career with a near-perfect bang.

 

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8. The Cramps – Songs the Lord Taught Us

 

Continuing the spooked-out and raging snarls of their Gravest Hits EP, the Cramps once again worked with Alex Chilton on the group's full-album debut, Songs the Lord Taught Us. The jacket reads "file under: sacred music," but only if one's definition includes the holy love of rockabilly sex-stomp, something which the Cramps fulfill in spades. Having spent Gravest Hits mostly doing revamps of older material, the foursome tackled a slew of originals like "The Mad Daddy" and "TV Set" this time around, creating one of the few neo-rockabilly records worthy of the name. Years later Songs still drips with threat and desire both, testament to both the band's worth and Chilton's just-right production. "Garbageman" surfaced as a single in some areas, a wise choice given the at-once catchy roll of the song and downright frightening guitar snarls, especially on the solo. The covers of the Sonics' "Strychnine" and Billy Burnette's "Tear It Up" -- not to mention the concluding riff on "Fever" -- all challenge the originals. Interior has the wailing, hiccuping, and more down pat, but transformed into his own breathless howl, while Ivy and Gregory keep up the electric fuzz through more layers of echo than legality should allow. Knox helms the drums relentlessly; instead of punching through arena rock style, Chilton keeps the rushed rhythm running along in the back, increasing the sheer psychosis of it all.

 

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7. Bruce Springsteen – The River

 

In these songs, which include the title track, "Independence Day," and "Point Blank," Bruce Springsteen's world-view is just as dire as it had become on Darkness, but less judgmental. "Independence Day," for example, is a father-and-son ballad that has little of the anger of its hard rock counterpart on Darkness, "Adam Raised a Cain. "Springsteen's heroes again seek to overcome their crushing troubles through defiance and by driving around, and though "The River" repeats the soured love theme of "Racing in the Street," he also posits romance as a possible escape, sometimes combining it with one of the other solutions, as on the eight-plus-minute "Drive All Night." But there is also another album lurking within The River, and it is a more lighthearted pop/rock collection of short, sometimes humorous songs like "Sherry Darling" and "I'm a Rocker." At times Springsteen combines elements of the two, as on "Out in the Street," perhaps the album's quintessential song, a catchy, uptempo number that sounds like something from the early '60s and echoes the theme of the Vogues' 1966 hit "Five O'Clock World." "Hungry Heart," which became Springsteen's first Top Ten hit, combines a rollicking musical track with a more sober lyrical theme that emphasizes longing over disappointment. But a better guide to Springsteen's development are the songs "Stolen Car" and the album-closing "Wreck on the Highway," gentle, moody ballads imbued with a sense of hopelessness that anticipate his next record, Nebraska.

 

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6. Wipers – Is This Real?

 

Guitarist/vocalist Greg Sage writes fairly simplistic songs with power chords, but each melody infects your brain like a fever. Even though Sage is from Oregon, he sings in a New York-style slur not dissimilar to Joey Ramone. Throughout the album, there is a very dark and ominous feel to the material (e.g., "D-7"), but it's made interesting on tracks like "Alien Boy," which changes from 4/4 time to 2/4 time. Sage also has a unique guitar style where he strums chords and lets them sustain into feedback, which creates rich textures in the songs (e.g., "Potential Suicide" and "Don't Know What I Am").

 

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5. Dead Kennedys – Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables

 

A hyper-speed blast of ultra-polemical, left-wing hardcore punk, and bitingly funny sarcasm, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables stands as the Dead Kennedys' signature statement. As one of the first hardcore albums, it was a galvanizing influence on the musical and attitudinal development of the genre, also helping to kickstart the fertile California scene. The record's tactics are not subtle in the least; Jello Biafra's odd warble and spat-out lyrics leave no doubt as to what he thinks, baiting his targets of conservatism, violence, overbearing authority, and capitalist greed with a viciously satirical sarcasm that keeps his unflinchingly political outlook from becoming too didactic. The thin production dilutes some of the music's power, but the ragged speed-blur still packs a wallop, and the hooks cribbed from surf and rockabilly give it a gonzo edge. The songwriting isn't consistent all the way through the album, but classics like "Kill the Poor," "Let's Lynch the Landlord," "Chemical Warfare," "California Über Alles," and "Holiday In Cambodia" helped define the hardcore genre and, thus, must be heard.

 

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4. X – Los Angeles

 

By the late '70s, punk rock and hardcore were infiltrating the Los Angeles music scene. Such bands as Black Flag, the Germs, and, especially, X were the leaders of the pack, prompting an avalanche of copycat bands and eventually signing record contracts themselves. X's debut, Los Angeles, is considered by many to be one of punk's all-time finest recordings, and with good reason. Most punk bands used their musical inability to create their own style, but X actually consisted of some truly gifted musicians, including rockabilly guitarist Billy Zoom, bassist John Doe, and frontwoman Exene Cervenka, who, with Doe, penned poetic lyrics and perfected sweet yet biting vocal harmonies. Los Angeles is prime X, offering such all-time classics as the venomous "Your Phone's Off the Hook, but You're Not," a tale of date rape called "Johnny Hit and Run Paulene," and two of their best anthems (and enduring concert favorites), "Nausea" and the title track. While they were tagged as a punk rock act from the get-go (many felt that this eventually proved a hindrance), X are not easily categorized. Although they utilize elements of punk's frenzy and electricity, they also add country, ballads, and rockabilly to the mix.

 

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3. The Feelies – Crazy Rhythms

 

Even the cover is a winner, with a washed-out look that screams new wave via horn-rimmed glasses, even more so than contemporaneous pictures of either Elvis Costello or the Embarrassment. But if it was all look and no brain, Crazy Rhythms would long ago have been dismissed as an early-'80s relic. That's exactly what this album is not, right from the soft, haunting hints of percussion that preface the suddenly energetic jump of the appropriately titled "The Boy With the Perpetual Nervousness." From there the band delivers seven more originals plus a striking cover of the Beatles' "Everybody's Got Something to Hide" that rips along even more quickly than the original. The guitar team of Mercer and Million smokes throughout, whether it's soft, rhythmic chiming with a mysterious, distanced air or blasting, angular solos. But Fier is the band's secret weapon, able to play straight-up beats but aiming at a rumbling, strange punch that updates Velvet Underground/Krautrock trance into giddier realms. Mercer's obvious Lou Reed vocal inflections make the VU roots even clearer, but even at this stage of the game there's something fresh about the work the quartet does, even 20 years on -- a good blend of past and present, rave-up and reflection.

 

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2. Joy Division – Closer

 

If Unknown Pleasures was Joy Division at their most obsessively, carefully focused, ten songs yet of a piece, Closer was the sprawl, the chaotic explosion that went every direction at once. Who knows what the next path would have been had Ian Curtis not chosen his end? But steer away from the rereading of his every lyric after that date; treat Closer as what everyone else thought it was at first -- simply the next album -- and Joy Division's power just seems to have grown. Martin Hannett was still producing, but seems to have taken as many chances as the band itself throughout -- differing mixes, differing atmospheres, new twists and turns define the entirety of Closer, songs suddenly returned in chopped-up, crumpled form, ending on hiss and random notes. Opener "Atrocity Exhibition" was arguably the most fractured thing the band had yet recorded, Bernard Sumner's teeth-grinding guitar and Stephen Morris' Can-on-speed drumming making for one heck of a strange start. Keyboards also took the fore more so than ever -- the drowned pianos underpinning Curtis' shadowy moan on "The Eternal," the squirrelly lead synth on the energetic but scared-out-of-its-wits "Isolation," and above all else "Decades," the album ender of album enders. A long slow crawl down and out, Curtis' portrait of lost youth inevitably applied to himself soon after, its sepulchral string-synths are practically a requiem. Songs like "Heart and Soul" and especially the jaw-dropping, wrenching "Twenty Four Hours," as perfect a demonstration of the tension/release or soft/loud approach as will ever be heard, simply intensify the experience. Joy Division were at the height of their powers on Closer, equaling and arguably bettering the astonishing Unknown Pleasures, that's how accomplished the four members were. Rock, however defined, rarely seems and sounds so important, so vital, and so impossible to resist or ignore as here.

 

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1. Talking Heads – Remain in Light

 

The musical transition that seemed to have just begun with Fear of Music came to fruition on Talking Heads' fourth album, Remain in Light. "I Zimbra" and "Life During Wartime" from the earlier album served as the blueprints for a disc on which the group explored African polyrhythms on a series of driving groove tracks, over which David Byrne chanted and sang his typically disconnected lyrics. Remain in Light had more words than any previous Heads record, but they counted for less than ever in the sweep of the music. The album's single, "Once in a Lifetime," flopped upon release, but over the years it became an audience favorite due to a striking video, its inclusion in the band's 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense, and its second single release (in the live version) because of its use in the 1986 movie Down and Out in Beverly Hills, when it became a minor chart entry. Byrne sounded typically uncomfortable in the verses ("And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife/And you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?"), which were undercut by the reassuring chorus ("Letting the days go by"). Even without a single, Remain in Light was a hit, indicating that Talking Heads were connecting with an audience ready to follow their musical evolution, and the album was so inventive and influential, it was no wonder.

 

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Honorable Mentions:

 

 

 

Japan – Gentleman Take Polaroids

 

The last album with Rob Dean, Gentlemen Take Polaroids was also unquestionably the album in which Japan truly found its own unique voice and aesthetic approach. The glam influences still hung heavy, particularly from Roxy Music, but now the band found itself starting to affect others in turn. Even the back cover photo says as much -- looking cool in glossy, elegant nightwear, the quintet had a clear impact on Duran Duran, to the point where Nick Rhodes obviously was trying to be Sylvian in appearance. Musically, meanwhile, the swooning, hyper elegant Euro-disco sheen of Quiet Life was polished to an even finer edge throughout, the title track and the obvious descendant of "Quiet Life" itself, "Methods of Dance," in particular sheer standouts. Sylvian's sighing, luscious croon is in full effect on both, and the arrangements are astonishing, Karn's fretless purring between Jansen's crisp, inventive, and varied drumming, Barbieri's icy keyboards filling out the corners. What makes Gentlemen Take Polaroids even more of a success is how the group, having reached such a polished peak, kept driving behind it, transforming their exquisite pop into something even more artistic and unique. "Swing," in particular, is an astounding showcase for the Karn/Jansen team; snaky funk at once dramatic and precisely chilled, brass section blasts adding just enough wry, precise sleaze, Sylvian delivering with focus and intensity while not raising his voice at all. "Nightporter," meanwhile, is a hyper ballad and then some; a slow-paced semi-waltz with Barbieri's piano taking the lead throughout with wonderful results. Further hints of the future come with the album closing "Taking Islands In Africa," which Sylvian co-wrote with future regular collaborator Ryuchi Sakamato, and which wraps up the whole experience with a gliding, supple grace.

 

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Killing Joke – Killing Joke

 

Since 1980, there have been a hundred bands who sound like this; but before Steve Albini and Al Jourgensen made it hip, the cold metallic throb of Killing Joke was exciting and fresh. The harshly sung vocals riding over the pulsating synth lines of the opener "Requiem" have a vigor and passion that few imitators have managed to match. The precise riffs and tight rhythms found in songs like "Wardance" would influence a generation of hardcore musicians; yet "The Wait," with its thrashing guitars and angry vocals, would find itself covered on a Metallica album only six years later. That such a bleak and furious album could have such a widespread influence is a testament to its importance. Certain parts of the album have not dated well; the vocals and drums are mixed in such a way that they lose some of their effectiveness, and the fact that so many other bands have used this same formula does take some of the visceral feeling away. But this is an underground classic and deserves better than its relative unknown status. Fans of most kinds of heavy music will probably find something they like about this band, and this is a good a place as any to start the collection.

 

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The Soft Boys – Underwater Moonlight

 

After recording the material that would later comprise the bulk of Invisible Hits, the Soft Boys recorded their masterpiece, the shimmering neo-psychedelic Underwater Moonlight. Essentially, the band didn't change their style for the record -- they merely perfected it. the Soft Boys don't hide their influences -- whether its the ringing guitars of the Beatles and Byrds or the surreal humor of John Lennon and Syd Barrett -- but they assimilate them, resulting in a fresh, edgy take on '60s guitar pop. Robyn Hitchcock's subject matter tends to be more explicitly weird and absurdist than his influences, as titles like "I Wanna Destroy You," "Old Pervert," and "Queen of Eyes" indicate -- even "Kingdom of Love" equates romance to bugs crawling under your skin. But the lyrics aren't the only thing that are edgy -- the music is too. the Soft Boys play pop hooks as if they were punk rock. "I Wanna Destroy You" isn't overtly threatening like their post-punk contemporaries, but with its layered guitar hooks and dissonant harmonies, it is equally menacing. Furthermore, the group can twist its songs inside out and then revert them to their original form, as evidenced by "Insanely Jealous." Although the neo-psychedelic flourishes are fascinating, the key to record's success is how each song is constructed around rock-solid hooks and melodies that instantly work their way into the subconscious. In fact, that's the most notable thing about Underwater Moonlight -- it updates jangling, melodic guitar pop for the post-punk world, which made it a touchstone for much of the underground pop of the mid-'80s, particularly R.E.M.

 

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Swell Maps - … In “Jane From Occupied Europe”

 

 

The band’s sonic assault and experimentalist leanings both ripened on Jane, with the brute power of tracks like “The Helicopter Spies” and “Whatever Happens Next” bringing on major neck whiplash, while the oddball tinkering on songs like “Robot Factory” and “Mining Villages” are more likely to induce squirming. Both sides of the band are well represented here, and the production — heavy as ever with reverb, delay, and needles usually in the red — is actually cleaner and tighter. “Secret Island” has a crisp, martial backbone, with a feel similar to Pink Flag-era Wire, but the basic, post-punk stylings of “Let’s Buy a Bridge” and “Border Country” are accessorized with weird piano flourishes and atonal sax squalling.

 

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Young Marble Giants – Colossal Youth

 

 

A great introduction to the band Young Marble Giants, this album was originally released in 1980 in what was likely an experimental moment of courage: punk had been birthed just a few years prior in a noisy, messy explosion of sound and image, and the new, post-punk movement was getting underway in the U.K. But was this too post-punk? Twee, sparse, airy, light … downright quiet, they were, this trio of bass, organ and detached, cool female vocals (the fourth member was a drum machine, largely responsible for the pervasive chill found throughout the proceedings). Considered a seminal record, this one and only full-length, studio recording from the band was released to much acclaim, allegedly contributing to the quick demise of the band. One listen to the perfect blend of irony and earnestness, fury and tenderness on just about any of these tracks should convince you of the band’s utterly unique standing (if you must shop around, try the galloping “Include Me Out,” the longing “Constantly Changing,” the cold and yet strangely emotional “Brand-New-Life”). YMG has influenced scores of bands in the Belle and Sebastian and Everything But the Girl schools of rock. Little did the band know – a quarter of a century ago – the mark they would leave on the musical map of pop culture.

 

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YES! I LOVE Remain in Light

 

Other albums I'd put in my list are Rush's Permanent Waves, David Bowie's Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), and The Police's Zenyattà Mondatta.

 

It'd be hard for me to arrange them in list of my own from least favorite to absolute favorite 'cause I just friggin' love 'em all.

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1981:

 

 

 

10. The Birthday Party – Prayers on Fire

 

It should come as no surprise that there is an album in Nick Cave's oeuvre called Prayers on Fire; a fascination with the dark, (self-)destructive side of religion is more than evident in his later work with the Bad Seeds. While there might not be any of the explicit Biblical imagery on Prayers on Fire that Cave would later ejaculate, the title of the album is apt, and its aptness is revealed almost immediately. Over the tribal thud of floor toms, shards of trebly guitar, the throb of an organ, and even a creepily out-of-place trumpet come the possessed, chant-like vocals -- not an incantation to any god, but to "Zoo-Music Girl." It's the religion of depraved sexuality, bestial urges, and sadomasochism. "We spend our lives in a box full of dirt/I murder her dress till it hurts/I murder her dress and she loves it," howls Cave, echoing Leonard Cohen and finally concluding with the berserk plea, "Oh! God! Please let me die beneath her fists." Meanwhile, Cave sounds like he's actually being assaulted by the music, emitting horrific gasps and primitive grunts. And this is only the first track. On the next two tracks, language itself is violated and found inadequate. Words collapse upon themselves in "Cry," with Cave tossing out self-annihilating binaries like "space/no space," "fish/no fish," "clothes/no clothes," and "flesh/no flesh." On "Capers," penned by Genevieve McGuckin, semantics are made into sausage -- words are chewed up and regurgitated as warped neologisms: "gloomloom," "clocklock," "paperparrent," "diehood."

 

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9. Wipers – Youth of America

 

A grizzly, furious beast of a 30-minute record, Youth of America saw Greg Sage and his Wipers lengthening some of their material to very unfashionable lengths; many a hardcore punk band of the time could tuck a dozen songs about Reagan and fisticuffs inside the title track alone. Opposed to the compromised Is This Real?, Youth of America was engineered and recorded in-house; Sage's time spent in a professional setup for the debut LP frustrated him, and the fact that he's gained complete control here makes it seem as if a cork has been pulled from a bottle. The shackles are off and the group's own personality hits full bloom. Vocally, Sage sounds like a sleepless outcast loaded on an unhealthy amount of caffeine, fraught with a magnified level of paranoia and angst that needs immediate purging -- often, his life seems to be depending on it. "Youth of America" itself is a nightmare locomotive, a ten-minute chug through a persistent rhythm, screeching/careening/wailing guitars, and jarring psychedelic effects. The remaining five songs, which don't lessen the intensity very much, are solid in their own right and are generally more tuneful than the title track.

 

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8. The Raincoats – Odyshape

 

There's an emotional directness about these songs that hooks you from the start. Mostly you hear about emotions and situations, sometimes indirectly, almost as if you are eavesdropping on a conversation. Then it hits you: it's almost like you're talking to old friends. That's the way the Raincoats' music works: it's deceptively simple, but extremely complicated. Also, as on this record, it makes demands of the listener. But songs like "Red Shoes" and "Dancing in My Head" say this far more eloquently.

 

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7. Kraftwerk – Computerwelt

 

The last great Kraftwerk album, Computerwelt captured the band right at the moment when its pioneering approach fully broke through in popular music, thanks to the rise of synth pop, hip-hop, and electro. As Arthur Baker sampled "Trans-Europe Express" for "Planet Rock" and disciples like Depeche Mode, OMD, and Gary Numan scored major hits, Computerwelt demonstrated that the old masters still had some last tricks up their collective sleeves. Compared to earlier albums, it fell readily in line with Die Mensch·Maschine, eschewing side-long efforts but with even more of an emphasis on shorter tracks mixed with longer but not epic compositions. While the well-established tropes of the band were used again -- electronically treated vocals, some provided by Speak and Spell toys; crisp rhythm blips; basslines and beats; haunting, quirky melodies -- there's a ready liveliness to the songs, like the addictive "Pocket Calculator," with its perfectly deadpan portrait of "the operator" and his favorite tool, and the almost winsome "Computer Love." Cannily, the lyrical focus on newly accessible technology instead of cryptic futurism and vanished pasts matched this new of-the-now stance, and the result was a perfect balance between the new world of the album title and a withdrawn, bemused consideration of that world. The title track itself, with its lists detailing major organizations presumably all wired up, echoes the flow of Trans-Europe Express, serene and pondering. "Pocket Calculator" itself is more outrageously fun, thanks to the technical observation that "by pressing down a special key it plays a little melody." Others would take the band's advances and run with them, but with Computerwelt, Kraftwerk -- over a decade on from their start -- demonstrated how they had stayed not merely relevant, but prescient, when nearly all their contemporaries had long since burned out.

 

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6. The Gun Club – Fire of Love

 

The Gun Club's debut is the watermark for all post-punk roots music. This features the late Jeffrey Lee Pierce's swamped-out brand of roiling rock, swaggerific hell-bound blues, and gothic country. With Pierce's wailing high lonesome slide guitar twinned with Ward Dotson's spine-shaking riffs and the solid yet off-the-rails rhythm section of bassist Rob Ritter and drummer Terry Graham, The Gun Club burst out of L.A. in the early '80s with a bone to pick and a mountain to move -- and they accomplished both on their debut album. With awesome, stripped to the frame production by the Flesh Eaters' Chris D., Fire of Love blew away all expectations -- and with good reason. Nobody has heard music like this before or since. Pierce's songs were rooted in his land of Texas. On "Sex Beat," a razor-sharp country one-two shuffle becomes a howling wind as Pierce's wasted, half-sung half-howled vocals relate a tale of voodoo, sex, dope, and death. The song choogles like a freight train coming undone in a twister. Here Black Flag, the Sex Pistols, Son House, and the coughing, hacking rambling ghost of Hank Williams all converge in a reckless mass of seething energy and nearly evil intent. As if the opener weren't enough of a jolt, The Gun Club follow this with a careening version of House's "Preachin the Blues," full of staccato phrasing and blazing slide. But it isn't until the anthemic, opiate-addled country of "She's Like Heroin to Me" and the truly frightening punk-blues of "Ghost on the Highway" that the listener comes to grip with the awesome terror that is The Gun Club. The songs become rock & roll ciphers, erasing themselves as soon as they speak, heading off into the whirlwind of a storm that is so big, so black, and so awful one cannot meditate on anything but its power.

 

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5. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – Architecture & Morality

 

If there was a clear high point for OMD in terms of balancing relentless experimentation and seemingly unstoppable mainstream success in the U.K., Architecture & Morality is it. Again combining everything from design and presentation to even the title into an overall artistic effort, this album showed that OMD was arguably the first Liverpool band since the later Beatles to make such a sweeping, all-bases-covered achievement -- more so because OMD owed nothing to the Fab Four. All it takes is a consideration of the three smash singles from the album to see the group in full flower. "Souvenir," featuring Paul Humphreys in a quiet but still warm and beautiful lead role, eases in on haunting semi-vocal sighs before settling into its gentle, sparkling melody. The mid-song instrumental break, with its shifted tempos and further wordless calls, is especially inspired. "Joan of Arc," meanwhile, takes the drama of "Enola Gay" to new heights; again, wordless vocals provide the intro and backing, while an initially quiet melody develops into a towering heartbreaker, with Andy McCluskey and band in full flight. If that wasn't enough, the scenario was continued and made even more epic with "Maid of Orleans," starting with a quick-cut series of melancholic drones and shades before a punchy, then rolling martial beat kicks in, with Malcolm Holmes and technology in perfect combination. With another bravura McCluskey lead and a mock-bagpipe lead that's easily more entrancing than the real thing, it's a wrenching ballad like no other before it and little since. Any number of other high points can be named, such as the opening, "The New Stone Age," with McCluskey's emotional fear palpable over a rough combination of nervous electronic pulses, piercing keyboard parts, and slightly distorted guitar. "She's Leaving" achieves its own polished pop perfection -- it would have made an inspired choice for a fourth single if one had been forthcoming -- while the heartbreaking "Sealand" and "Georgia" hint at where OMD would go next, with Dazzle Ships.

 

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4. This Heat – Deceit

 

Out of all the boundary breaking that occurred during the fertile era of post-punk, This Heat's Deceit is one of the most expansive, imaginative, and remarkably wild records to have been produced during the time -- and very possibly the last three decades. It's an impressive procession of tangential shards that encompass tape collages, Middle Eastern motifs, barbaric vocal clamoring, and occasional pointy-jagged-atonal guitar passages that alternate between hypnotizing and shooting clean through your spine. The typical structures of jazz, world music, and rock & roll are heaved into a blender, cooking up a post-punk paella that's about as relaxing as a crosstown walk through a hail storm. It ends up hardly resembling anything it takes cues from. As with a good number of the album's ten tracks, random peeks into "Paper Hats" at the minute markers will hardly sound like the same song. And that song hardly resembles any of the others on the record; yet, it encapsulates what makes the whole thing so exciting. The song in question trots along arrhythmically with some bass, drum, and spindly guitar interplay until sputtering into a wreck of those instruments and who knows what else -- this 20-second interruption, which resembles the Junkyard Gang's idea of warming up, abruptly gives way to a march down a Twilight Zone-themed corridor of snaky guitar, pulsing high hats, and creeped-out atmospherics. If you can make out any of the lyrics (the ones in "Independence" should ring a bell, though), you'll realize the mushroom clouds and political figures depicted in the sleeve aren't the only evidence that the record is about war and nukes. Know this -- if you really want to be thrown around a room, there's hardly a better source. No greater record has been made in an abandoned meat locker.

 

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3. Television Personalities - …And Don’t the Kids Just Love It

 

The first full album by Television Personalities, recorded after a four-year series of often brilliant D.I.Y. singles recorded under a variety of names, including the O-Level and the Teenage Filmstars, is probably the purest expression of Daniel Treacy's sweet-and-sour worldview. The songs, performed by Treacy, Ed Ball, and Mark Sheppard, predict both the C-86 aesthetic of simple songs played with a minimum of elaboration but a maximum of enthusiasm and earnestness and the later lo-fi aesthetic. The echoey, hissy production makes the songs sound as if the band were playing at the bottom of an empty swimming pool, recorded by a single microphone located two houses away, yet somehow that adds to the homemade charm of the record. Treacy's vocals are tremulous and shy, and his lyrics run from the playful "Jackanory Stories" to several rather dark songs that foreshadow the depressive cast of many of his later albums. "Diary of a Young Man," which consists of several spoken diary entries over a haunting, moody twang-guitar melody, is downright scary in its aura of helplessness and inertia. The mood is lightened a bit by some of the peppier songs, like the smashing "World of Pauline Lewis" and the "David Watts" rewrite "Geoffrey Ingram," and the re-recorded version of the earlier single "I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives," complete with deliberately intrusive prerecorded bird sounds, is one of the most charming things Television Personalities ever did.

 

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2. Brian Eno - David Byrne – My Life in the Bush of Ghosts

 

A pioneering work for countless styles connected to electronics, ambience, and Third World music, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts expands on the fourth-world concepts of Hassell/Eno work with a whirlwind 45 minutes of worldbeat/funk-rock (with the combined talents of several percussionists and bassists, including Bill Laswell, Tim Wright, David van Tieghem, and Talking Heads' Chris Frantz) that's also heavy on the samples -- from radio talk-show hosts, Lebanese mountain singers, preachers, exorcism ceremonies, Muslim chanting, and Egyptian pop, among others. It's also light years away from the respectful, preservationist angles of previous generations' field recorders and folk song gatherers. The songs on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts present myriad elements from around the world in the same jumbled stew, without regard for race, creed, or color. As such, it's a tremendously prescient record for the future development of music during the 1980s and '90s.

 

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1. Glenn Branca – The Ascension

 

If one chooses to categorize the music on this recording as "rock," this is surely one of the greatest rock albums ever made. But there's the rub. While sporting many of the trappings of the genre -- the instrumentation (electric guitars), the rhythms, the volume, and, most certainly, the attitude -- there is much about The Ascension that doesn't fit comfortably into the standard definition of the term. Not only does the structure of the compositions appear to owe more to certain classical traditions, including Romanticism, than the rock song form, but Branca's overarching concern is with the pure sound produced, particularly of the overtones created by massed, "out of tune," excited strings and the ecstatic quality that sound can engender in the listener. Though his prior performing experience was with post-punk, no-wave groups like the Static and Theoretical Girls, it could be argued that the true source of much of the music here lies in the sonic experimentation of deep-drone pioneers like La Monte Young and Phil Niblock.

 

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Honorable Mentions:

 

 

 

The dB’s – Stands for Decibels

 

On their debut, the dB's combined a reverence for British pop and arty, post-punk leanings that alternate between minimalism and a love of quirky embellishment, odd sounds, and unexpected twists; Stands for Decibels is clearly a collegiate pop experiment, but rarely is experimentation so enjoyable and irresistibly catchy. Singing and songwriting duties are shared equally by Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple --Stamey, more quirky and psychedelic-leaning with a winsome, pure-pop whine, is nicely balanced by Holsapple's more earthy drawl and straightforward approach. The album stands not only as a landmark power-pop album, but also as a prototype for much of the Southern jangle that would follow.

 

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The Human League – Dare!

 

Dare! captures a moment in time perfectly -- the moment post-punk's robotic fascination with synthesizers met a clinical Bowie-esque infatuation with fashion and modern art, including pop culture, plus a healthy love of songcraft. The Human League had shown much of this on their early singles, such as "Empire State Human," but on Dare! they simply gelled, as their style was supported by music and songs with emotional substance. That doesn't mean that the album isn't arty, since it certainly is, but that's part of its power -- the self-conscious detachment enhances the postmodern sense of emotional isolation, obsession with form over content, and love of modernity for its own sake. That's why Dare! struck a chord with listeners who didn't like synth pop or the new romantics in 1981, and why it still sounds startlingly original decades after its original release -- the technology may have dated, synths and drum machines may have become more advanced, but few have manipulated technology in such an emotionally effective way. Of course, that all wouldn't matter if the songs themselves didn't work smashingly, whether it's a mood piece as eerie as "Seconds," an anti-anthem like "The Things That Dreams Are Made Of," the dance club glow of "Love Action (I Believe in Love)," or the utter genius of "Don't You Want Me," a devastating chronicle of a frayed romance wrapped in the greatest pop hooks and production of its year. The latter was a huge hit, so much so that it overshadowed the album in the minds of most listeners, yet, for all of its shining brilliance, it wasn't a pop supernova -- it's simply the brightest star on this record, one of the defining records of its time.

 

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Scientist – Scientist Rids the World of the Evil Curse of the Vampires

 

After a stint learning the dub craft from innovator King Tubby in the late '70s, Scientist began mixing his own sessions, coming up with a more wide-ranging and effects-riddled sound than that of his mentor. One of a handful of choice Scientist albums on the Greensleeves label, Rids the World of the Curse of the Vampires (1981) not only ably displays the mix masters varied approach, but clocks in as one of his best outings. While Scientist heeds Tubby's minimalist call with "strictly drum and bass" cuts like "Night of the Living Dead" -- spotlighting tightly wound guitar and organ chords for body -- he also expands things with a sunny mix of horns and bubbly keyboards on "The Mummy's Shroud" (as hard as it is to imagine sunshine with a ghoulish title such as this). Even without horns, Scientist keeps things lively with plenty of reverb and echo-treated percussion, ghostly piano parts, video game sound effects, and other various wobbly interjections from the mixing board. Pointing to his originality, Scientist doesn't just apply a few tweaks here and there, but heavily reworks the basic tracks -- here laid down by the fine Roots Radics band and produced by Henry "Junjo" Lawes (Don Carlos, Frankie Paul) -- then deftly integrates his panoply of effects into the cut-up mix. And adding to the record's expert evocation of the Halloween spirit are some fiendishly voiced intros, the cover art's cartoon potpourri of horror film characters, and the dubious claim made in the liner notes that Scientist mixed it all at midnight on Friday the 13th (reach for the flashlights kids). Along with Keith Hundson's Pick a Dub and Lee Perry's Blackboard Jungle Dub, this excellent Scientist release is one of the essential dub albums available.

 

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Siouxsie and the Banshees – Juju

 

 

One of the band's masterworks, Juju sees Siouxsie and the Banshees operating in a squalid wall of sound dominated by tribal drums, swirling and piercing guitars, and Siouxsie Sioux's fractured art-attack vocals. If not for John McGeoch's marvelous high-pitched guitars, here as reminiscent of Joy Division as his own work in Magazine, the album would rank as the band's most gothic release. Siouxsie and company took things to an entirely new level of darkness on Juju, with the singer taking delight in sinister wordplay on the disturbing "Head Cut," creeping out listeners in the somewhat tongue-in-cheek "Halloween," and inspiring her bandmates to push their rhythmic witches brew to poisonous levels of toxicity. Album opener "Spellbound," one of the band's classics, ranks among their finest moments and bristles with storming energy. Siouxsie's mysterious voice emerges from dense guitar picking, Budgie lays into his drums as if calling soldiers to war, and things get more tense from there. "Into the Light" is perhaps the only track where a listener gets a breath of oxygen, as the remainder of the album screams claustrophobia, whether by creepy carnival waterfalls of guitar notes or Siouxsie's unsettling lyrics. "Arabian Nights" at least offers a gorgeously melodic chorus, but after that the band performs a symphony of bizarre wailings and freaky imagery. As ominous as the cacophony is on its own, close attention to Siouxsie's nearly subliminal chants paints a scarier picture. A passage such as "I saw you...a huge smiling central face with eyes and lips cut out but smiling and eating lots of other lips" doesn't exactly brighten one's day. Siouxsie is full of such quips throughout the album's running time, but her delivery packs as much punk as her message. Her attack-the-world dynamic range on "Voodoo Dolly" predates and out-weirds Björk's similar styling years later. McGeoch, Budgie, and bassist Steven Severin deserve just as much credit for crafting an original sound that would inspire a diverse group of future bands from Ministry to Placebo. All the while, producer Nigel Gray maintains the sense that the album is an immediate, edgy performance unfolding right in front of the listener. The upfront intensity of Juju probably isn't matched anywhere else in the catalog of Siouxsie and the Banshees. Thanks to its killer singles, unrelenting force, and invigorating dynamics, Juju is a post-punk classic.

 

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Soft Cell – Non-Stop Erotic Cabinet

 

 

At full album length, lyricist Almond's primary preoccupation, only suggested in "Tainted Love," was spelled out; this was a theme album about aberrant sexuality, a tour of a red-light district. The point was well made on "Sex Dwarf," with its oft-repeated chorus "Isn't it nice/Sugar and spice/Luring disco dollies to a life of vice?" Songs like "Seedy Films," "Entertain Me," and "Secret Life" expanded upon the subject. The insistent beats taken at steady dance tempos and the chilling electronic sounds conjured by Ball emphasized Almond's fascination with deviance; it almost seemed as though the album had been designed to be played in topless bars. British listeners saw through Almond's pretense or were amused by him, or both; more puritanical Americans tended to disapprove, which probably limited the group's long-term success stateside. But the music was undeniably influential.

 

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10. Wall of Voodoo – Call of the West

 

Wall of Voodoo's second full-length album, Call of the West, was a noticeably more approachable work than their debut, Dark Continent, and it even scored a fluke hit single, "Mexican Radio," a loopy little number about puzzled American tourists that's easily the catchiest thing on the album. But while Wall of Voodoo's textures had gotten a bit less abrasive with time, the band's oddball minor-key approach was still a long way from synth pop, and frontman Stan Ridgway's songs were Americana at it's darkest and least forgiving, full of tales of ordinary folks with little in the way of hopes or dreams, getting by on illusions that seem more like a willful denial of the truth the closer you get to them. There's a quiet tragedy in the ruined suburbanites of "Lost Weekend" and the emotionally stranded working stiff of "Factory," and the title song, which follows some Middle American sad sack as he chases a vague and hopeless dream in California, is as close as pop music has gotten to capturing the bitter chaos of the final chapter of Nathaniel West's The Day of the Locust. In other words, anyone who bought Call of the West figuring it would feature another nine off-kilter pop tunes like "Mexican Radio" probably recoiled in horror by the time they got to the end of side two. But there's an intelligence and wounded compassion in the album's gallery of lost souls, and there's enough bite in the music that it remains satisfying two decades on. Call of the West is that rare example of a new wave band scoring a fluke success with what was also their most satisfying album.

 

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9. Bruce Springsteen - Nebraska

 

There is an adage in the record business that a recording artist's demos of new songs often come off better than the more polished versions later worked up in a studio. But Bruce Springsteen was the first person to act on that theory, when he opted to release the demo versions of his latest songs, recorded with only acoustic or electric guitar, harmonica, and vocals, as his sixth album, Nebraska. It was really the content that dictated the approach, however. Nebraska's ten songs marked a departure for Springsteen, even as they took him farther down a road he had been traveling previously. Gradually, his songs had become darker and more pessimistic, and those on Nebraska marked a new low. They also found him branching out into better developed stories. The title track was a first-person account of the killing spree of mass murderer Charlie Starkweather. (It can't have been coincidental that the same story was told in director Terrence Malick's 1973 film Badlands, also used as a Springsteen song title.) That song set the tone for a series of portraits of small-time criminals, desperate people, and those who loved them. Just as the recordings were unpolished, the songs themselves didn't seem quite finished; sometimes the same line turned up in two songs. But that only served to unify the album. Within the difficult times, however, there was hope, especially as the album went on. "Open All Night" was a Chuck Berry-style rocker, and the album closed with "Reason to Believe," a song whose hard-luck verses were belied by the chorus -- even if the singer couldn't understand what it was, "people find some reason to believe." Still, Nebraska was one of the most challenging albums ever released by a major star on a major record label.

 

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8. Flipper – Album: Generic Flipper

 

If great rock & roll is supposed to be about breaking the rules, then Flipper's still-astonishing debut, Album -- Generic Flipper, confirms their status as one of the great rock bands of their day. Album captures a band who not only refused to obey the accepted guidelines of rock & roll, they didn't even bother to pay much attention to their own rules. On the opening cut, "Ever," the band displays a willful contempt for rhythm, playing in a sludgy mid-tempo that wavers back and forth -- and then they add a snappy (if casually executed) clap track over the top, making the sloppy mess seem almost catchy. Flipper slogs along through a slow, noisy swamp through most of the album, only to snap-to with a dose of up-tempo hardcore near the end on "Living for the Depression," and then close out with the brilliant "Sex Bomb," the closest thing '80s punk ever created to the beer-fueled genius of the Kingsmen's "Louie Louie," and a song with a great beat that you just can't dance to. And while Flipper seemed sincere about their utter lack of faith in mankind, on "Life" they dared to express a tres-unhip benevolence, declaring "Life is the only thing worth living for." (Not to mention the angry but deeply committed finale to "Living for the Depression," in which Bruce Lose declares, "I'm not living my life to be/A real cheap f*cker like you, copout!") About the only accepted rule of rock that seems to mean anything to Flipper is that music isn't worth playing if it doesn't have passion; every noisy moment of Album -- Generic Flipper sounds like Flipper was willing to live and die for this music (and in a sense, that's just what Will Shatter did). On Album -- Generic Flipper, Flipper plays noise rock with none of the pretension that later bands brought to the form, proving that music doesn't have to be fast to be punk (a lesson that gave the Melvins a reason to live), and creating a funny, harrowing, and surprisingly engaging masterwork that profoundly influenced dozens of later bands without sounding any less individual two decades later.

 

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7. Prince - 1999

 

With Dirty Mind, Prince had established a wild fusion of funk, rock, new wave, and soul that signaled he was an original, maverick talent, but it failed to win him a large audience. After delivering the sound-alike album, Controversy, Prince revamped his sound and delivered the double album 1999. Where his earlier albums had been a fusion of organic and electronic sounds, 1999 was constructed almost entirely on synthesizers by Prince himself. Naturally, the effect was slightly more mechanical and robotic than his previous work and strongly recalled the electro-funk experiments of several underground funk and hip-hop artists at the time. Prince had also constructed an album dominated by computer funk, but he didn't simply rely on the extended instrumental grooves to carry the album -- he didn't have to when his songwriting was improving by leaps and bounds. The first side of the record contained all of the hit singles, and, unsurprisingly, they were the ones that contained the least amount of electronics. "1999" parties to the apocalypse with a P-Funk groove much tighter than anything George Clinton ever did, "Little Red Corvette" is pure pop, and "Delirious" takes rockabilly riffs into the computer age. After that opening salvo, all the rules go out the window -- "Let's Pretend We're Married" is a salacious extended lust letter, "Free" is an elegiac anthem, "All the Critics Love U in New York" is a vicious attack at hipsters, and "Lady Cab Driver," with its notorious bridge, is the culmination of all of his sexual fantasies. Sure, Prince stretches out a bit too much over the course of 1999, but the result is a stunning display of raw talent, not wallowing indulgence.

 

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6. Mission of Burma – Vs.

 

The EP Signals, Calls and Marches suggested that Mission of Burma had the talent and vision to become one of America's great rock bands; the subsequent album Vs. proved beyond a doubt that the group had arrived and was fully realizing its potential. MOB's blend of punk rock fury and post-collegiate musical smarts had been honed to a razor-sharp point by the time Vs. was recorded, and they had fully worked through the British influences that occasionally surfaced on Signals, Calls and Marches, maturing into a band whose sound was as distinctive as anyone of its generation. Roger Miller's guitar work had gained greater depth and confidence in the year since Signals, the rhythm section of Clint Conley and Peter Prescott epitomized both strength and intelligence, and MOB were exploring trickier structures and more dramatic use of dynamics this time out; the subtle tension of "Trem Two" and the powerful midtempo angst of "Einstein's Day" were a genuine step forward in the group's development, while "The Ballad of Johnny Burma," "Fun World," and "That's How I Escaped My Certain Fate" made it clear that the band had lost none of its rib-cracking impact along the way. It's daunting to imagine just how far Mission of Burma could have taken its music had Roger Miller's hearing problems not caused the band to break up the following year, but regardless of lost potential, very few American bands from the 1980s released an album as ambitious or as powerful as Vs., and it still sounds like a classic.

 

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5. The Cure – Pornography

 

Later hailed as one of the key goth rock albums of the '80s and considered by many hardcore Cure fans to be the band's best album, Pornography was largely dismissed upon its 1982 release, witheringly reviewed as a leaden slab of whining and moping. The truth, as usual, is somewhere in between: Pornography is much better than most mainstream critics of the time thought, but in retrospect, it's not the masterpiece some fans have claimed it to be. The overall sound is thick and murky, but too muddy to be effectively atmospheric in the way that the more dynamic Disintegration managed a few years later. For every powerful track like the doomy opener "One Hundred Years" and the clattering, desolate single "The Hanging Garden," there's a sound-over-substance piece of filler like "The Figurehead," which sounds suitably bleak but doesn't have the musical or emotional heft this sort of music requires.

 

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4. The Gun Club - Miami

 

The sophomore record by the Gun Club bore the curse of having to follow a monolith of their own making. Fire of Love sold extremely well for an independent; it was a favorite of virtually every critic who heard it in 1981. Miami showcased a different lineup as well. Ward Dotson replaced Congo Powers (temporarily, at least) on guitar, and there were a ton of guest performances, including Debbie Harry and Chris Stein. Stein produced the album. Off the bat the disc suffers from a thin mix. Going for a rougher sound, Stein left the instruments at one level and boosted Pierce's vocal. There is plenty of guitar here, screaming and moping like a drunken orphan from the Texas flatlands, but next to its predecessor it sounds drier and reedier. Ultimately it hardly matters. Going for a higher, more desolate sound, frontman and slide player Jeffrey Lee Pierce and his band were literally on fire. The songs here, from "Carry Home," "Like Calling Up Thunder," "Devil in the Woods," "Watermelon Man," "Bad Indian," and "Texas Serenade," among others, centered themselves on a mutant form of country music that met the post-punk ethos in the desert, fought and bloodied each other, and decided to stay together. This is hardcore snake-charming music (as in water moccasins not cobras), evil, smoky, brash, and libidinally uttered. Their spooky version of an already creepy tune by Creedence Clearwater Revival, "Run Through the Jungle" runs the gamut from sexual nightmare to voodoo ritual gone awry. Finally, Pierce and company pull out all the roots and reveal them for what they are: "John Hardy," is a squalling punk-blues, with the heart of the country in cardiac arrest. Dotson proved to be a fine replacement for Congo Powers, in that his style was pure Telecaster country (à la James Burton) revved by the Rolling Stones and Johnny Thunders. Miami was given a rough go when it was issued for its production. But in the bird's-eye view of history its songs stack up, track for track, with Fire of Love and continue to echo well into this long good night.

 

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3. Michael Jackson - Thriller

 

Off the Wall was a massive success, spawning four Top Ten hits (two of them number ones), but nothing could have prepared Michael Jackson for Thriller. Nobody could have prepared anybody for the success of Thriller, since the magnitude of its success was simply unimaginable -- an album that sold 40 million copies in its initial chart run, with seven of its nine tracks reaching the Top Ten (for the record, the terrific "Baby Be Mine" and the pretty good ballad "The Lady in My Life" are not like the others). This was a record that had something for everybody, building on the basic blueprint of Off the Wall by adding harder funk, hard rock, softer ballads, and smoother soul -- expanding the approach to have something for every audience. That alone would have given the album a good shot at a huge audience, but it also arrived precisely when MTV was reaching its ascendancy, and Jackson helped the network by being not just its first superstar, but first black star as much as the network helped him. This all would have made it a success (and its success, in turn, served as a new standard for success), but it stayed on the charts, turning out singles, for nearly two years because it was really, really good. True, it wasn't as tight as Off the Wall -- and the ridiculous, late-night house-of-horrors title track is the prime culprit, arriving in the middle of the record and sucking out its momentum -- but those one or two cuts don't detract from a phenomenal set of music. It's calculated, to be sure, but the chutzpah of those calculations (before this, nobody would even have thought to bring in metal virtuoso Eddie Van Halen to play on a disco cut) is outdone by their success. This is where a song as gentle and lovely as "Human Nature" coexists comfortably with the tough, scared "Beat It," the sweet schmaltz of the Paul McCartney duet "The Girl Is Mine," and the frizzy funk of "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)." And, although this is an undeniably fun record, the paranoia is already creeping in, manifesting itself in the record's two best songs: "Billie Jean," where a woman claims Michael is the father of her child, and the delirious "Wanna Be Startin' Something," the freshest funk on the album, but the most claustrophobic, scariest track Jackson ever recorded. These give the record its anchor and are part of the reason why the record is more than just a phenomenon. The other reason, of course, is that much of this is just simply great music.

 

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2. Talking Heads – The Name of This Band is Talking Heads

 

Although most people probably think the only Talking Heads live release is Stop Making Sense, the fact is that there's an earlier, better live album called The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads. Originally released in 1982 on LP and cassette, the album chronicles the growth of the band, both stylistically and personnel-wise. The first LP is the original quartet version of the band, recorded between 1977 and 1979, performing excellent versions of tunes (mostly) off 77 and More Songs About Buildings and Food. Also included were the previously unavailable "A Clean Break" and "Love Goes to a Building on Fire," as well as early versions of "Memories Can't Wait" and "Air." The second LP comes from the Remain in Light tour, recorded in 1980 and 1981. In order to present something close to the music on that album, the original quartet lineup was greatly expanded. Added were two percussionists (Steven Stanley, Jose Rossy), two backup singers (Nona Hendryx, Dollette McDonald), Busta Cherry Joneson bass, Bernie Worrell (!) on keys, and a young Adrian Belew on lead guitar. The excitement of this material is palpable, and the muscular band rips into these tunes with more power than the originals in most cases. "Drugs" gets revamped for live performance, and "Houses in Motion kicks into high gear with a great art-funk coda. Belew is absolutely on fire throughout, especially on "The Great Curve" and "Crosseyed and Painless," where his deranged feedback soloing has never sounded better. At this point in their career, Talking Heads were still basically an underground band; it was "Burning Down the House" that really thrust them into the mainstream, and Stop Making Sense documents their arrival as a more or less mainstream act. The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads captures a hungry band on its way up, performing with a fire that was never matched on later tours.

 

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1. The Fall – Hex Enduction Hour

 

The Fall already had a slew of brilliant records under their belt by the time Hex Enduction Hour emerged, but when it did, the result was a bona fide classic on all fronts. Honing the vicious edge of his lyrics to a new level of ability, Smith led his by-now seasoned band -- at this time sporting the double-drumming lineup of Paul Hanley and Karl Burns -- to create a literal hour's worth of entertaining bile. The Marc Riley/Craig Scanlon team had even more of a clattering, industrial edge than before, now inventing its own style of riff and melody that any number of later groups would borrow, with varying degrees of success. "Iceland" itself tips its hat toward where part of the album was recorded, and it's little surprise that the Sugarcubes and any number of contemporaneous bands from that country ended up with a deep Fall fetish. Of the many song highlights, perhaps the most notorious was the opening "The Classical," an art rock groove like no other, racketing around with heavy-duty beats and stabbing bass from Steve Hanley. Apparently, the band was on the verge of signing with Motown, at least until they heard Smith delivering the poisonous line, "Where are the obligatory ******s?/Hey there, f*ckface!" Politically correct or not, it set the tone for the misanthropic assault of the entire album, including the hilarious dressing down of "misunderstood" rock critics, "Hip Priest" ("He...is...not...ap-PRE-ciated!") and the targeting-everyone attack "Who Makes the Nazis?" Musically, all kinds of approaches are assayed and the results are a triumph throughout, from "Hip Priest" and its tense exchange between slow, dark mood and sudden guitar bursts to the motorik drone touch of "Fortress/Deer Park." As a concluding anti-anthem, "And This Day" ranks up with "The N.W.R.A.," ten minutes of ramalama genius.

 

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Honorable Mentions:

 

 

 

Duran Duran - Rio

 

From its Nagel cover to the haircuts and overall design -- and first and foremost the music -- Rio is as representative of the '80s at its best as it gets. The original Duran Duran's high point, and just as likely the band's as a whole, its fusion of style and substance ensures that even two decades after its release it remains as listenable and danceable as ever. The quintet integrates its sound near-perfectly throughout, the John and Roger Taylor rhythm section providing both driving propulsion and subtle pacing. For the latter, consider the lush, semi-tropical sway of "Save a Prayer," or the closing paranoid creep of "The Chauffeur," a descendant of Roxy Music's equally affecting dark groover "The Bogus Man." Andy Taylor's muscular riffs provide fine rock crunch throughout, Rhodes' synth wash adds perfect sheen, and Le Bon tops it off with sometimes overly cryptic lyrics that still always sound just fine in context, courtesy of his strong delivery. Rio's two biggest smashes burst open the door in America for the New Romantic/synth rock crossover. "Hungry Like the Wolf" blended a tight, guitar-heavy groove with electronic production and a series of instant hooks, while the title track was even more anthemic, with a great sax break from guest Andy Hamilton adding to the soaring atmosphere. Lesser known cuts like "Lonely in Your Nightmare" and "Last Chance on the Stairway" still have pop thrills a-plenty, while "Hold Back the Rain" is the sleeper hit on Rio, an invigorating blast of feedback, keyboards and beat that doesn't let up. From start to finish, a great album that has outlasted its era.

 

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Laurie Anderson - Big Science

 

There was a backlash against Laurie Anderson in "serious" musical and artistic circles after the completely unexpected mainstream commercial success of her debut album, Big Science. (The eight-plus-minute single "O Superman" was a chart hit in England, unbelievably enough.) A fair listen to Big Science leaves the impression that jealousy must have been at the root of the reception because Big Science is in no way a commercial sellout. A thoughtful and often hilariously funny collection of songs from Anderson's work in progress, United States I-IV, Big Science works both as a preview of the larger work and on its own merits. Opening with the hypnotic art rock of "From the Air," in which an airline pilot casually mentions that he's a caveman to a cyclical melody played in unison by a three-part reeds section, and the strangely beautiful title track, which must feature the most deadpan yodeling ever, the album dispenses witty one-liners, perceptive social commentary (the subtext of the album concerns Anderson's own suburban upbringing, which she views with more of a bemused fondness than the tiresome irony that many brought to the subject), and a surprisingly impressive sense of melody for someone who was until recently a strictly visual artist. For example, the marimba and handclap-led closer, "It Tango," is downright pretty in the way the minimalistic tune interacts with Anderson's voice, which is softer and more intimate (almost sexy, in a downtown-cool sort of way) than on the rest of the album. Not everything works -- "Walking and Falling" is negligible, and the way Rufus Harley's bagpipes intentionally clash with Anderson's harsh, nasal singing and mannered phrasing in "Sweaters" will annoy those listeners who can't take either Yoko Ono or Meredith Monk -- but Big Science is a landmark release in the New York art scene of the '80s, and quite possibly the best art rock album of the decade.

 

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Philip Glass – Glassworks

 

The usual stuff is here: arpeggio versus ostinato, ostinato versus arpeggio. And as always, the Philip Glass Ensemble's synthesizers double their woodwinds. But Glassworks is the most pleasant craftwork ever from the great minimalist exploiter -- six warm pieces that approach the spirit of minimalist pioneer Erik Satie. Only instead of Satie's lyrical-to-antic jumps, Glass creates the ruminative-to-excitable kind. "Opening"'s softly rolled piano melody is music to fold your hands and muse by, and when Sharon Moe's French horn sets up "Floe," everything seems nice and level -- until the flailing woodwinds and synthesizers of the ensemble crash in. Glassworks is tuneful in the most pleasingly direct sense -- the arrangements define the melodies so cleanly they're instantly memorable. In addition, the album is programmed with a particular shape in mind. It's kind of a waveform, where every other relaxed melody is upset by a classic Glass rush -- "Floe" is even outpaced by "Rubric"'s honking saxophones and enough cascading counterpoint to give David Helfgoff a case of carpal tunnel syndrome. These two tunes are so disruptive, so complex, that it's easy to think that they dominate the whole project. But they're also the shortest tunes on the album. Most of the time, harmonies bob around in the strings and woodwinds, though Jon Gibson's soprano sax glides atop "Facades." "Closing," based on "Opening" (funny), contains his second prettiest orchestration after the finale of Satyagraha. In fact, it's probably the source of Glass' subsequent reputation in the new age music industry.

 

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Richard & Linda Thompson – Shoot Out the Lights

 

 

Richard & Linda Thompson's marriage was crumbling as they were recording Shoot Out the Lights in 1982, and many critics have read the album as a chronicle of the couple's divorce. In truth, most of the album's songs had been written two years earlier (when the Thompsons were getting along fine) for an abandoned project produced by Gerry Rafferty, and tales of busted relationships and domestic discord were always prominent in their songbook. But there is a palpable tension to Shoot Out the Lights which gives songs like "Don't Renege On Our Love" and "Did She Jump Or Was She Pushed" an edgy bite different from the Thompsons' other albums together; there's a subtle, unmistakable undertow of anger and dread in this music that cuts straight down to the bone. Joe Boyd's clean, uncluttered production was the ideal match for these songs and their Spartan arrangements, and Richard Thompson's wiry guitar work was remarkable, displaying a blazing technical skill that never interfered with his melodic sensibilities. Individually, all eight of the album's songs are striking (especially the sonic fireworks of the title cut, the beautiful drift of "Just The Motion," and the bitter reminiscence of "Did She Jump Or Was She Pushed"), and as a whole they were far more than the sum of their parts, a meditation on love and loss in which beauty, passion, and heady joy can still be found in defeat. It's ironic that Richard & Linda Thompson enjoyed their breakthrough in the United States with the album that ended their career together, but Shoot Out the Lights found them rallying their strengths to the bitter end; it's often been cited as Richard Thompson's greatest work, and it's difficult for anyone who has heard his body of work to argue the point.

 

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XTC – English Settlement

 

 

Andy Partridge's discovery of the 12-string guitar set the tone for English Settlement, an album that moved away from the pop gloss of Black Sea in favor of lighter, though still rhythmically heavy, acoustic numbers with more complex and intricate instrumentation. There are plenty of pop gems -- "Senses Working Overtime" stands as one of their finest songs -- but the main focus seems to be the more expansive sound; most of the songs are drawn out to near-epic length, ultimately taking some of the impact of the songs away. Despite several terrific tracks, English Settlement seems more a transitional album than anything else, although the textural sound of the album is quite remarkable, indicating the direction they would take in their post-touring incarnation.

 

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1983:

 

 

 

10. The Police - Synchronicity

 

Simultaneously more pop-oriented and experimental than either Ghost in the Machine or Zenyatta Mondatta, Synchronicity made the Police superstars, generating no less than five hit singles. With the exception of "Synchronicity II," which sounds disarmingly like a crappy Billy Idol song, every one of those singles is a classic. "Every Breath You Take" has a seductive, rolling beat masking its maliciousness, "King of Pain" and "Wrapped Around Your Finger" are devilishly infectious new wave singles, and "Tea in the Sahara" is hypnotic in its measured, melancholy choruses.

 

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9. Philip Glass – Koyannisqati

 

Parodied more than once, derided, blessed, hailed as a wonder, and decried as a travesty, this (abbreviated) soundtrack is capable of generating fascination and annoyance, often simultaneously. The truth is that this isn't merely minimalism — it's expressive minimalism, with some impressive nuances. Given the space to breathe, the music here is breathtaking, and becomes even more so when properly linked, in its full form, with the film's visuals.

 

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8. Wipers – Over the Edge

 

A distant cousin of the preceding Youth of America but undoubtedly no less excellent and no less venomous, Over the Edge is a return to the easily digestible song lengths of Is This Real?; however, it all but leaves that debut in its wake. On the strength of some brave/smart radio stations that decided to play this album's "Romeo" (a propulsive horn-flecked slammer in the vein of "Youth of America"), Wipers solidified their status as a certifiable force in the American underground of the early '80s. Songs like "Messenger" and "What Is" show Greg Sage's increasing skill as a pop songwriter. Despite the fusion of punk and pop, the record hardly mirrors the bands that would later be called punk-pop. In fact, this collision of the two elements makes what followed decades later seem twee. There's just too much blood and sweat, and there's too much tightly wound tension released. The overload is tempered somewhat on the album's second side. The arrangements are sparse (and there are less guitar fireworks) when compared to their first-side counterparts, but the level of intensity is hardly sacrificed. Over the Edge is a kind of classic; it might have been created with guitars and drums, and it might have verse-chorus-verse song structures, but it's doubtful that Wipers were allowing any influences to creep into the record.

 

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7. Glenn Branca – Symphony No. 1 (Tonal Plexus)

 

Branca's brilliance lies in his merger of rock and roll with 20th century classical, as well as his ability to create rumbling, careening crescendos into infinity. This 1983 recording shows the roots of everything from Sonic Youth to Godspeed You Black Emperor! and Mogwai, Merzbow and the Boredoms to Black Dice and Lightning Bolt - even post rock groups like Tortoise and Sigur Rós - just listen to the ambient, repetitive pulsing of the second movement. Always defiant, always challenging, Branca's Symphony No. 1 is one of the most raucous and inspiring compositions of the late 20th century.

 

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6. The Fall – Perverted by Language

 

Punk may have been the initial spark for the Fall, but by 1983 they had made it clear that whatever trend was next was not for them. Brix Smith made her debut with the band on Perverted by Language, helping to introduce the slightly more pop-friendly era of the group with another fine album. She takes lead vocals at various points throughout, notably "Hotel Bloedel," while her husband plays violin and adds extra spoken word thoughts along the way. The hints of strange beauty that the Fall can sometimes let into its world appear here more than once -- whether it's Brix's influence or not isn't clear, and why not? "Garden" still hits hard while using a softer chime at its heart, while "Hexen Definitive" is almost a country (and western) stroll. Even for all the slightly more accessible touches for a wider audience, the Fall remain the Fall. "Smile" shows the band's abilities at tense audio drama excellently, a relentless, steady build with the Steve and Paul Hanley and Karl Burns rhythm section leading the way, winding up to a total explosion that never comes. Smith's increasingly frenetic vocals match the looming dread of the track to a T. "Neighbourhood of Infinity," notable for its appearance on Palace of Swords Reversed, crops up here in a studio take, again a sequel of sorts to "The Man Whose Head Expanded." Musically it hits its own stride, another of the many motorik-tinged tunes that helped give the Fall its own particular edge ("I Feel Voxish" also fills that bill, and quite well at that). "Eat Y'Self Fitter," touching on everything from meeting heroes (maybe) to returning late rental videos, makes for a great start to things, an endlessly cycling rockabilly chug with extra keyboard oddities and sudden music-less exchanges for the chorus.

 

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5. New Order – Power, Corruption & Lies

 

A great leap forward from their funereal debut album, Power, Corruption & Lies cemented New Order's place as the most exciting dance-rock hybrid in music (and it didn't even include the massive "Blue Monday" single, released earlier that year). Confident and invigorating where Movement had sounded disconsolate and lost, the record simply pops with energy from the beginning "Age of Consent," an alternative pop song with only a smattering of synthesizers overlaying an assured Bernard Sumner, who took his best vocal turn yet. Unlike the hordes of synth pop acts then active, New Order experimented heavily with their synthesizers and sequencers. What's more, while most synth pop acts kept an eye on the charts when writing and recording, if New Order were looking anywhere (aside from within), it was the clubs -- "The Village" and "586" had most of the technological firepower of the mighty "Blue Monday." But whenever the electronics threatened to take over, Peter Hook's grubby basslines, Bernard Sumner's plaintive vocals, and Stephen Morris' point-perfect drum fills reintroduced the human element. Granted, they still had the will for moodiness; the second track was "We All Stand," over five minutes of dubbed-out melancholia. Aside from all the bright dance music and production on display, Power, Corruption & Lies also portrayed New Order's growing penchant for beauty: "Your Silent Face" is a sublime piece of electronic balladry.

 

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4. The Chameleons – Script of the Bridge

 

With two years, numerous radio sessions, and incessant gigging under their belts since their debut single, "In Shreds," the Chameleons came to the studio determined to make a great first album with Script of the Bridge. To say they succeeded would be like saying Shakespeare did pretty well with that one Hamlet play of his. Script remains a high-water mark of what can generally be called post-punk music, an hour's worth of one amazing song after another, practically a greatest-hits record on its own: the John Lennon tribute "Here Today," "Monkeyland," "Pleasure and Pain," "Paper Tigers," "As High as You Can Go," the breathtaking closer, "View From a Hill." Starting with the passionate fire of "Don't Fall," Script showcases how truly inventive, unique, and distinctly modern rock & roll could exist, instead of relentlessly rehashing the past to little effect. The scalpel-sharp interplay between the musicians is a sheer wonder to behold, the Dave Fielding/Reg Smithies guitar team provoke nothing but superlatives throughout, and John Lever and Mark Burgess make a perfect rhythm section -- while the crisp production of Colin Richardson and the band adds delicate synth lines and shadings, courtesy of early touring keyboardist Alistair Lewthwaite, and just the right amount of reverb and effects on the guitars. Add to that the words of Burgess, one of the few lyricists out there who can tackle Big Issues while retaining a human, personal touch, and it all just adds up perfectly. The best one-two punch comes from "Second Skin," a complex, beautifully arranged and played reflection on the meaning of music and fandom, and "Up the Down Escalator," an at once harrowing and thrilling antinuclear/mainstream politics slam.

 

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3. Tom Waits – Swordfishtrombones

 

Between the release of Heartattack and Vine in 1980 and Swordfishtrombones in 1983, Tom Waitsgot rid of his manager, his producer, and his record company. And he drastically altered a musical approach that had become as dependable as it was unexciting. Swordfishtrombones has none of the strings and much less of the piano work that Waits' previous albums had employed; instead, the dominant sounds on the record were low-pitched horns, bass instruments, and percussion, set in spare, close-miked arrangements (most of them by Waits) that sometimes were better described as "soundscapes." Lyrically, Waits' tales of the drunken and the lovelorn have been replaced by surreal accounts of people who burned down their homes and of Australian towns bypassed by the railroad -- a world (not just a neighborhood) of misfits now have his attention. The music can be primitive, moving to odd time signatures, while Waits alternately howls and wheezes in his gravelly bass voice. He seems to have moved on from Hoagy Carmichael and Louis Armstrong to Kurt Weill and Howlin' Wolf (as impersonated by Captain Beefheart). Waits seems to have had trouble interesting a record label in the album, which was cut 13 months before it was released, but when it appeared, rock critics predictably raved: after all, it sounded weird and it didn't have a chance of selling. Actually, it did make the bottom of the best-seller charts, like most of Waits' albums, and now that he was with a label based in Europe, even charted there. Artistically, Swordfishtrombones marked an evolution of which Waits had not seemed capable (though there were hints of this sound on his last two Asylum albums), and in career terms it reinvented him.

 

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2. Violent Femmes – Violent Femmes

 

One of the most distinctive records of the early alternative movement and an enduring cult classic, Violent Femmes weds the geeky, child-man persona of Jonathan Richman and the tense, jittery, hyperactive feel of new wave in an unlikely context: raw, amateurish acoustic folk-rock. The music also owes something to the Modern Lovers' minimalism, but powered by Brian Ritchie's busy acoustic bass riffing and the urgency and wild abandon of punk rock, the Femmes forged a sound all their own. Still, the main reason Violent Femmes became the preferred soundtrack for the lives of many an angst-ridden teenager is lead singer and songwriter Gordon Gano. Naive and childish one minute, bitterly frustrated and rebellious the next, Gano's vocals perfectly captured the contradictions of adolescence and the difficulties of making the transition to adulthood. Clever lyrical flourishes didn't hurt either; while "Blister In the Sun" has deservedly become a standard, "Kiss Off"'s chant-along "count-up" section, "Add It Up"'s escalating "Why can't I get just one..." couplets, and "Gimme the Car"'s profanity-obscuring guitar bends ensured that Gano's intensely vulnerable confessions of despair and maladjustment came off as catchy and humorous as well. Even if the songwriting slips a bit on occasion, Gano's personality keeps the music engaging and compelling without overindulging in his seemingly willful naiveté. For the remainder of their career, the group would only approach this level in isolated moments.

 

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1. R.E.M. – Murmur

 

Leaving behind the garagey jangle pop of their first recordings, R.E.M. developed a strangely subdued variation of their trademark sound for their full-length debut album, Murmur. Heightening the enigmatic tendencies of Chronic Town by de-emphasizing the backbeat and accentuating the ambience of the ringing guitar, R.E.M. created a distinctive sound for the album -- one that sounds eerily timeless. Even though it is firmly in the tradition of American folk-rock, post-punk, and garage rock, Murmur sounds as if it appeared out of nowhere, without any ties to the past, present, or future. Part of the distinctiveness lies in the atmospheric production, which exudes a detached sense of mystery, but it also comes from the remarkably accomplished songwriting. The songs on Murmur sound as if they've existed forever, yet they subvert folk and pop conventions by taking unpredictable twists and turns into melodic, evocative territory, whether it's the measured riffs of "Pilgrimage," the melancholic "Talk About the Passion," or the winding guitars and pianos of "Perfect Circle." R.E.M. may have made albums as good as Murmur in the years following its release, but they never again made anything that sounded quite like it.

 

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Honorable Mentions:

 

 

 

Aztec Camera – High Land, Hard Rain

 

Some performers never make a bigger splash than with their first record, a situation which the Ramones and De La Soul know all too well. If that's the case, though, said musicians had better make sure that debut is a doozy. Aztec Camera, or more specifically, Roddy Frame, falls squarely into this scenario, because while he has doggedly plugged away ever since with a series of what are, at times, not bad releases, High Land, Hard Rain remains the lovely touchstone of Frame's career. Very much the contemporaries of such well-scrubbed Scottish guitar-pop confectionaries as Orange Juice, but with the best gumption and star quality of them all, Aztec Camera led off the album with "Oblivious," a minimasterpiece of acoustic guitar hooks, lightly funky rhythms, and swooning backing vocals. If nothing tops that on High Land, Hard Rain, most of the remaining songs come very close, while they also carefully avoid coming across like a series of general soundalikes. Frame's wry way around words of love (as well as his slightly nasal singing) drew comparisons to Elvis Costello, but Frame sounds far less burdened by expectations and more freely fun. References from Keats to Joe Strummer crop up (not to mention an inspired steal from Iggy's "Lust for Life" on "Queen's Tattoos"), but never overwhelm Frame's ruminations on romance, which are both sweet and sour. Musically, his capable band backs him with gusto, from the solo-into-full-band showstopper "The Bugle Sounds Again" to the heartstopping guitar work on "Lost Outside the Tunnel." Whether listeners want to investigate further from here is up to them, but High Land, Hard Rain itself is a flat-out must-have.

 

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ESG – Come Away with ESG

 

It might have taken two decades, but the true genius of New York's early-'80s music scene is finally being acknowledged by a much younger generation of fans. And right in the middle of this revolutionary intersection of punk, disco, rap and soul were four sisters: Marie, Valerie, Renee, and Lorraine "Sweet L" Scroggins, and their seminal mini-funk outfit, ESG. Recorded live and raw in a small studio located above Radio City Music Hall, the band's debut album, Come Away With ESG is a lasting document of their unique brand of minimal funk that would influence subsequent post-punk, hip-hop, and dance music acts. Stripped down to the most basic of drum beats and rudimentary basslines, "Come Away" confirms the notion that the real rhythm is what happens between the beats. The staggering gait takes its cues from post-punk outfits P.I.L. and Gang of Four, while the repeated vocal chorus is reminiscent of doo wop's street corner soul. The more up-tempo "Dance" begins with a beat that could have been lifted from a Motown studio outtake, while "It's Alright" combines primitive single-note guitar lines with equally archaic beats and bongo fills. Most memorable is "Moody and Spaced Out," with its warped electronic sweeps and grooving sixteenth-note hi-hat that propels the beat still favored by well-informed dance music DJs. It is nearly impossible to understate the influence of ESG, who pave the way for acts as diverse as female hip-hop pioneers Salt-N-Pepa, to post-hardcore legends Fugazi. Much in the same way that Marvin Gaye captured the urban plight of Detroit at the turn of the '70s with What's Going On,Come Away With ESG is a musical snapshot of post-groovy, pre-fresh New York City at the beginning of the '80s.

 

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The Go-Betweens – Before Hollywood

 

The Go-Betweens were already a good band well before they made Before Hollywood, but this second album is what proved for many listeners that they were great. For good reason -- both Robert Forster's and Grant McLennan's singing sounds much more honestly theirs, finding their own voices, while collectively the trio create a series of intricate, surprising melodies and songs which balance past and present beautifully. Strange as it may sound, the band's peers at this point could and did range from the Cure (for both melancholic intensity and guitar -- check some of the electric work on "Ask") to more obvious cohorts such as Orange Juice, but The Go-Betweens already had their own identity firmly established. For many the album's reputation rests on the presence of one song alone, and understandably so: "Cattle and Cane." Arguably the band's absolute highlight of its earliest years and one of the early-'80s' utter classics, the combination of McLennan's nostalgia-laden but not soppy lyric, his flat-out lovely singing and overdubbed backing vocals, and the catchy, beautifully elegant acoustic/electric arrangement is simply to die for. There are plenty of other songs that demonstrate the threesome's collective strength. "Two Steps Step Out" is a prime example, with sudden tempo shifts, from a more straightforward beat on the chorus to the sudden breakdown on the brisk chorus, and McLennan's lovelorn lyric and quietly impassioned singing making it an instant winner. Another McLennan winner is "Dusty in Here," soft piano from Bernard Clarke adding just enough to the spare but warm arrangement. Forster gets his own share of memorable moments, not least of which is the title track, not to mention the edgy, desperate "By Chance" and slightly calmer "On My Block." Lindy Morrison's abilities as a drummer are similarly improved, the at-times strident work of Send Me a Lullaby here replaced with a good balance between impact and steady swing.

 

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Rain Parade – Emergency Third Rail Power Trip

 

 

Rain Parade fashioned traditional, gentle psychedelic pop on Emergency Third Rail Power Trip, including the dreamy "What's She Done to Your Mind" and the Byrds-ish "This Can't Be Today" (with the Dream Syndicate's Kendra Smith). They were clearly way ahead of their time, and it would take years before sleepy music (à la founding Rain Parade member David Roback's Mazzy Star) would catch on. This record sounds no more made in the '80s than in the '60s or '90s.

 

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Tears for Fears – The Hurting

 

 

The Hurting would have been a daring debut for a pop-oriented band in any era, but it was an unexpected success in England in 1983, mostly by virtue of its makers' ability to package an unpleasant subject -- the psychologically wretched family histories of Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith -- in an attractive and sellable musical format. Not that there weren't a few predecessors, most obviously John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band album -- which was also, not coincidentally, inspired by the work of primal scream pioneer Arthur Janov. (But Lennon had the advantage of being an ex-Beatle when that meant the equivalent to having a box next to God's in the great arena of life, where Tears for Fears were just starting out.) Decades later, "Pale Shelter," "Ideas as Opiates," "Memories Fade," "Suffer the Children," "Watch Me Bleed," "Change," and "Start of the Breakdown" are powerful pieces of music, beautifully executed in an almost minimalist style. "Memories Fade" offers emotional resonances reminiscent of "Working Class Hero," while "Pale Shelter" functions on a wholly different level, an exquisite sonic painting sweeping the listener up in layers of pulsing synthesizers, acoustic guitar arpeggios, and sheets of electronic sound (and anticipating the sonic texture, if not the precise sound of their international breakthrough pop hit "Everybody Wants to Rule the World"). The work is sometimes uncomfortably personal, but musically compelling enough to bring it back across the decades.

 

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I'm surprised there is no mentions of Electric Light Orchestra (Time, Out of the Blue), Adam Ant (solo or the Adam and the Ants releases), Buckner & Garcia (creating the first album with video game effects), Aphrodite's Child (their 666 album), Oingo Boingo, nor any Rainbow for that matter. Where did that go?

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Yeah it should be clear by now that I'm a huge fan of The Fall and The Talking Heads :)

 

The Talking Heads' music has grown quickly on me since I started listening to them last month. :P

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1984:

 

 

 

10. Sade – Diamond Life

 

Former model Sade made an immediate and huge impact with her 1984 debut album, Diamond Life. Her sound and approach were deliberately icy, her delivery and voice aloof, deadpan, and cold, and yet she became an instant sensation through such songs as "Smooth Operator" and "Your Love Is King," where the slick production and quasi-jazz backing seemed to register with audiences thinking they were hearing a jazz vocalist.

 

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9. Harold Budd / Brian Eno with Daniel Lanois - The Pearl

 

Hearing Budd's piano slowly fade in with the start of "Late October" is just one of those perfect moments -- it's something very distinctly him, made even more so with Eno's touches and slight echo, and it signals the start of a fine album indeed. Acting in some respects as the understandable counterpart to Ambient 2, with the same sense of hushed, ethereal beauty the partnership brought forth on that album, The Pearl is so ridiculously good it instantly shows up much of the mainstream new age as the gloopy schlock that it often is. Eno himself is sensed as a performer on the album, if not by his absence then by his very understated presence. The merest hints of synth and whisper play around Budd's performances, ensuring the latter takes center stage. Eno and Daniel Lanois handle the production side of things, their teamwork once again overseeing a winner. When they bring themselves a little more to the fore, it still always is in the subtlest of ways, as with the artificially higher-pitched notes from Budd on "Lost in the Humming Air." Part of the distinct charm of the album is how the song titles perfectly capture what the music sounds like -- "A Stream With Bright Fish" is almost self-defining. Another key point is how Budd truly captures what ambience in general can and does mean. "Against the Sky" is a strong example -- it can be totally concentrated upon or left to play as atmospherics and is also at once both truly beautiful and not a little haunting in a disturbing sense. Other highlight tracks include the deceptively simple title track, as serene a piece of music as was ever recorded, and the closing "Still Return," bringing The Pearl to a last peak of beauty.

 

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8. Steve Roach – Structures From Silence

 

Heralded by many as one of the finest ambient works of all time, Steve Roach's Structures From Silence is right up there with Brian Eno's "Music for Airports," and deservedly so. Originally released in 1984, Structures From Silence was deemed a classic almost immediately, but the contrast grew greater as Roach's output did, and the sheer beauty and clarity of this recording became more clear with time.

 

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7. Echo & the Bunnymen – Ocean Rain

 

Channeling the lessons of the experimental Porcupine into more conventional and simple structural parameters, Ocean Rain emerges as Echo & the Bunnymen's most beautiful and memorable effort. Ornamenting Ian McCulloch's most consistently strong collection of songs to date with subdued guitar textures, sweeping string arrangements, and hauntingly evocative production, the album is dramatic and majestic; "The Killing Moon," Ocean Rain's emotional centerpiece, remains the group's unrivalled pinnacle.

 

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6. Arvo Pärt: - Tabula Rasa

 

The three instrumental pieces recorded here (one of which appears in two versions) were among the first Pärt wrote in his newly developed style, which came to be known popularly as holy minimalism. (The composer prefers the term tintinnabulation, because in his words, "The three notes of the triad are like bells.") Fratres, originally for chamber orchestra, is undeniably Pärt's most popular work and exists in well over a dozen versions, two of which are included here. Gidon Kremer and Keith Jarrett bring great nuance and sensitivity to the version for violin and piano. They play somewhat loosely with details of the score, but they are entirely in sync with the spirit of the piece, and it's a gripping performance. The violin part is hugely virtuosic and Kremer is breathtaking, particularly in the crystalline purity of the outrageously high harmonics that end the piece. The arrangement of Fratres for 12 cellos is an altogether more lyrical and meditative version, and the cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra play it with gorgeous tone and depth. Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten for string orchestra and bell is at once one of the composer's most brilliantly simple and profound pieces. The first violins repeat a mournful descending figure, and each of the other sections then doubles the length of the note values of the part above it so that the note that opens the piece is held two beats by the first violins, but it is sustained for 32 beats by the double basses. There's nothing mechanical sounding about the piece, though, and by its ending, it has created a mood of devastating loss and grief. The first movement of Tabula Rasa, for two violins, prepared piano, and chamber orchestra, is the most enigmatic selection, full of unexpected long silences and flurries of frenzied activity, while the lovely, meditative second movement is more characteristic of the composer. Kremer is joined by violinist Tatjana Grindenko and composer/pianist Alfred Schnittke in a beautifully expressive performance, accompanied by Saulius Sondeckis leading the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra. Produced by Manfred Eicher, the visionary who "discovered" Pärt and made it his mission to introduce him to Western audiences, the sound of the album is admirably clear and clean, except that there are some room noises in Tabula Rasa.

 

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5. Prince & the Revolution – Purple Rain

 

Prince designed Purple Rain as the project that would make him a superstar, and, surprisingly, that is exactly what happened. Simultaneously more focused and ambitious than any of his previous records,Purple Rain finds Prince consolidating his funk and R&B roots while moving boldly into pop, rock, and heavy metal with nine superbly crafted songs. Even its best-known songs don't tread conventional territory: the bass-less "When Doves Cry" is an eerie, spare neo-psychedelic masterpiece; "Let's Go Crazy" is a furious blend of metallic guitars, Stonesy riffs, and a hard funk backbeat; the anthemic title track is a majestic ballad filled with brilliant guitar flourishes. Although Prince's songwriting is at a peak, the presence of the Revolution pulls the music into sharper focus, giving it a tougher, more aggressive edge. And, with the guidance of Wendy and Lisa, Prince pushed heavily into psychedelia, adding swirling strings to the dreamy "Take Me With U" and the hard rock of "Baby I'm a Star." Even with all of his new, but uncompromising, forays into pop, Prince hasn't abandoned funk, and the robotic jam of "Computer Blue" and the menacing grind of "Darling Nikki" are among his finest songs. Taken together, all of the stylistic experiments add up to a stunning statement of purpose that remains one of the most exciting rock & roll albums ever recorded.

 

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4. Minutemen – Double Nickels on the Dime

 

If What Makes a Man Start Fires? was a remarkable step forward from the Minutemen's promising debut album, The Punch Line, then Double Nickels on the Dime was a quantum leap into greatness, a sprawling 44-song set that was as impressive as it was ambitious. While punk rock was obviously the starting point for the Minutemen's musical journey (which they celebrated on the funny and moving "History Lesson Part II"), by this point the group seemed up for almost anything -- D. Boon's guitar work suggested the adventurous melodic sense of jazz tempered with the bite and concision of punk rock, while Mike Watt's full-bodied bass was the perfect foil for Boon's leads and drummer George Hurley possessed a snap and swing that would be the envy of nearly any band. In the course of Double Nickels on the Dime's four sides, the band tackles leftist punk ("Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing"), Spanish guitar workouts ("Cohesion"), neo-Nortena polka ("Corona"), blues-based laments ("Jesus and Tequila"), avant-garde exercises ("Mr. Robot's Holy Orders"), and even a stripped-to-the-frame Van Halen cover ("Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love"). From start to finish, the Minutemen play and sing with an estimable intelligence and unshakable conviction, and the album is full of striking moments that cohere into a truly remarkable whole; all three members write with smarts, good humor, and an eye for the adventurous, and they hit pay dirt with startling frequency. And if Ethan James' production is a bit Spartan, it's also efficient, cleaner than their work with Spot, and captures the performances with clarity (and without intruding upon the band's ideas). Simply put, Double Nickels on the Dime was the finest album of the Minutemen's career, and one of the very best American rock albums of the 1980s.

 

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3. The Replacements – Let It Be

 

Let It Be looms large among '80s rock albums, generally regarded as one of the greatest records of the decade. So large is its legend and so universal its acclaim that all the praise tends to give the impression that the Replacements' fourth album was designed as a major statement, intended to be something important when its genius, like so many things involving the 'Mats, feels accidental. Compared to other underground landmarks from 1984, Let It Be feels small scale, as it lacks the grand, sprawling ambition of the Minutemen's Double Nickels on the Dime or the dramatic intensity of Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade, or if the other side of the Atlantic is taken into equation, the clean sense of purpose of The Smiths. Nothing about Let It Be is clean; it's all a ragged mess, careening wildly from dirty jokes to wounded ballads, from utter throwaways to songs haunting in their power. Unlike other classics, Let It Be needs those throwaways -- that Kiss cover, those songs about Tommy getting his tonsils out and Gary's boner, that rant about phony rock & roll -- to lighten the mood and give the album its breathless pacing, but also because without these asides, the album wouldn't be true to the Replacements, who never separated high and low culture, who celebrated pure junk and reluctantly bared their soul. This blend of bluster and vulnerability is why the Replacements were perhaps the most beloved band of their era, as they captured all the chaos and confusion of coming of age in the midst of Reaganomics, and Let It Be is nothing if not a coming-of-age album, perched precisely between adolescence and adulthood. There's just enough angst and tastelessness to have the album speak to teenagers of all generations and just enough complicated emotion to make this music resonate with listeners long past those awkward years, whether they grew up with this album or not.

 

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2. Manuel Göttsching – E2-E4

 

E2-E4, one of the few records Göttsching released under his own name, has earned its place as one of the most important, influential electronic records ever released. It's also the earliest album to set the tone for electronic dance music; simply put, it just sounds like the mainstream house produced during the next two decades. Similar to previous Ashra albums like New Age of Earth and Blackouts, it does so with a short list of instruments -- just the nominal drum machine and a pulsing guitar line in the background plus some light synthesizer work. What sets it apart from music that came before is a steadfast refusal to follow the popular notions of development in melody and harmony. Instead, E2-E4 continues working through similar territory for close to an hour with an application to trance-state electronics missing from most of the music that preceded it. Though the various components repeat themselves incessantly, it's how they interact and build that determines the sound -- and that's the essence of most electronic dance music, that complex interplay between several repetitive elements.

 

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1. Cocteau Twins – Treasure

 

The opening two numbers of Treasure are simply flawless, starting with "Ivo," where gently strummed guitar and low bass support Fraser's singing; then suddenly added, astonishing chimes and steady percussion build up to a jaw-dropping Guthrie guitar solo. Topping that would be hard for anyone, but in "Lorelei," the Twins do it, with an introductory, breathtaking guitar surge leading into one of Fraser's best vocals, compelling in both its heavenly and earthly tones and rolls. Not a word may be understandable, but it isn't necessary, while the music, driven on by a pounding rhythm, is as perfect a justification of digital delay pedals and the like as can be found. As Treasure continues, the accomplished variety is what stands out the most, whether it be the gentle, futuristic-medieval pluckings on "Beatrix," the understated moody washes and Fraser whispers on "Otterley," the upbeat guitar lines of "Aloysius," or the slightly jazzy touches on "Pandora." The concluding number ends the record on the peak with which it began. "Donimo" starts with a mysterious mix of mock choir sounds, ambient echoes and noises, and Fraser's careful singing before finally exploding into one last heavenly wash of powerful sound; Guthrie's guitar, Raymonde's steady bass, and drum machine smashes provide the perfect bed for Fraser's final, exultant vocals. Treasure lives up to its title and then some as a thorough and complete triumph.

 

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Honorable Mentions:

 

 

 

Hüsker Dü - Zen Arcade

 

In many ways, it's impossible to overestimate the impact of Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade on the American rock underground in the '80s. It's the record that exploded the limits of hardcore and what it could achieve. Hüsker Dü broke all of the rules with Zen Arcade. First and foremost, it's a sprawling concept album, even if the concept isn't immediately clear or comprehensible. More important are the individual songs. Both Bob Mould and Grant Hart abandoned the strict "fast, hard, loud" rules of hardcore punk with their songs for Zen Arcade. Without turning down the volume, Hüsker Dü try everything -- pop songs, tape experiments, acoustic songs, pianos, noisy psychedelia. Hüsker Dü willed themselves to make such a sprawling record -- as the liner notes state, the album was recorded and mixed within 85 hours and consists almost entirely of first takes. That reckless, ridiculously single-minded approach does result in some weak moments -- the sound is thin and the instrumentals drag on a bit too long -- but it's also the key to the success of Zen Arcade. Hüsker Dü sound phenomenally strong and possessed, as if they could do anything. The sonic experimentation is bolstered by Mould and Hart's increased sense of songcraft. Neither writer is afraid to let his pop influences show on Zen Arcade, which gives the songs -- from the unrestrained rage of "Something I Learned Today" and the bitter, acoustic "Never Talking to You Again" to the eerie "Pink Turns to Blue" and anthemic "Turn On the News" -- their weight. It's music that is informed by hardcore punk and indie rock ideals without being limited by them.

 

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Lloyd Cole and The Commotions – Rattlesnakes

 

One of the finest debuts of the '80s, and possibly the defining album of the whole U.K. indie jangle scene that also included Prefab Sprout, Aztec Camera, and dozens of other bands, Lloyd Cole and the Commotions' Rattlesnakes is a college rock masterpiece of smart, ironic lyrics and sympathetic folk-rock-based melodies. The Glasgow-based band (Lloyd Cole on guitar and vocals, Neil Clark on lead guitar, Blair Cowan on keyboards, Lawrence Donegan on bass, and Stephen Irvine on drums) has a level of interplay remarkable in a group that had been playing for less than two years, and for all the attention given to Cole's hyper-literate lyrics, the album's finest moments are things like the slinky interludes between the wry verses on the Renata Adler-inspired "Speedboat" and Clark's glorious extended solo at the end of the album's finest song, "Forest Fire." Originally released in the U.S. by Geffen but reissued on CD as part of Capitol's acquisition of the Commotions in 1988 (with the original cover, which had been changed for the Geffen release), Rattlesnakes consists of ten perfect, or close to it, pop songs in just a hair under 36 minutes. Kicking off with the group's first U.K. single, the impossibly wordy, stream-of-consciousness "Perfect Skin," the album is basically a series of verbal snapshots of love gone wrong among the overeducated and underemployed. Cole's low-pitched and surprisingly soulful -- for a philosophy student from the University of Glasgow, anyway -- voice flits between earnestness, compassion, and arch derision ("Must you tell me all your secrets when it's hard enough to love you knowing nothing?"), while his lyrics sketch incisive character studies filled with smart and funny one-liners, near-obsessive name-dropping, and references to enough novels and movies for a semester-long pop culture class. The title track, for example, is based on a key image from Joan Didion's stark Hollywood novel Play It as It Lays, and its chorus compares the song's heroine to Eva Marie Saint's character in the film On the Waterfront. In less skilled hands, this would all be unbearably pretentious, but Cole's sly sense of humor and self-mocking wit keep things on the right side of ambitious.

 

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Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – From Her to Eternity

 

Nick Cave launched his solo career in style with From Her to Eternity, an accomplished album mixing the frenzy and power of his Birthday Party days with a dank, moody atmosphere that showed he was not interested in simply continuing what the older group had done. To be sure, Mick Harvey joined him from the Party days, as ever playing a variety of instruments, while one-time Party guest Blixa Bargeld now became a permanent Cave partner, splitting his time between the Bad Seeds and Einsturzende Neubaten ever since. The group took wing with a harrowing version of Leonard Cohen's "Avalanche," Cave's wracked, buried tones suiting the Canadian legend's words perfectly, and never looked back. From Her to Eternity is crammed with any number of doom-laden songs, with Cave the understandable center of attention, his commanding vocals turning the blues and rural music into theatrical exhibitionism unmatched since Jim Morrison stalked stages. Songs like "Cabin Fever," with its steadily paced drumming and relentless piano line, and the more restrained and moody "The Moon Is in the Gutter" sound like cabarets in hell. "In the Ghetto," already perfectly suited to such a treatment, shows the underlying sense of beauty that defines the Seeds as much as drama. Even though it's a Presley cover, the sense of Scott Walker's influence isn't far away at all. The title track is and remains a Bad Seeds classic, played at shows up through the present, a tense piano/organ beginning then accompanied by the edgy build of the band, pounding drums, stabbing feedback and keyboard parts and more.

 

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Robyn Hitchcock – I Often Dream of Trains

 

 

After the debacle that was the making of 1982's Groovy Decay, Robyn Hitchcock briefly retired from music, and when he returned it was with an album that offered a thoroughly uncompromised vision of Hitchcock's imagination. Released in 1984, I Often Dream of Trains was a primarily acoustic set with Hitchcock handling nearly all the instruments and vocals by himself; the tone is spare compared to the full-on rock & roll of his recordings with the Soft Boys or his solo debut, Black Snake Diamond Role, but the curious beauty of Hitchcock's melodies is every bit as striking in these stripped-down sessions, and the surreal imagery of "Flavour of Night," "Trams of Old London," and the title song comes to vivid and enchanting life. Hitchcock's off-kilter wit has rarely been as effective as it is on this album; the jaunty harmonies of "Uncorrected Personality Traits" are the ideal complement for the song's psychobabble, "Sounds Great When You're Dead" manages to be funny and a bit disturbing at once, and the drunken campfire singalong of "Ye Sleeping Knights of Jesus" was joyously sloppy enough to inspire a cover by the Replacements. There's a slightly ramshackle quality to these recordings, but Hitchcock was rarely in more uniformly fine form as a songwriter, and there is a consistency of tone to the disc that makes it all the more effective, drawing listeners into a curious world of its own and allowing them to explore the surroundings and their quiet splendor. And Hitchcock has rarely recorded a song as luminously gorgeous as "Autumn Is Your Last Chance." Hitchcock would pick up his electric guitar and reunite with his band the Egyptians in 1985, releasing two fine albums in one year, but I Often Dream of Trains was a simple and marvelously effective return to action that's all the more winning for its subdued, tentative tone.

 

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The Smiths – The Smiths

 

 

Arriving in an era dominated by synth pop and gloomy post-punk, the Smiths' eponymous debut was the bracing beginning of a new era. On the surface, the Smiths' sound wasn't radically different from traditional British guitar pop -- Johnny Marr's ringing, layered guitars were catchy and melodic -- but it was actually an astonishing subversion of the form, turning the structure inside out. Very few of the songs followed conventional verse-chorus structure, yet they were quite melodic within their own right. Marr's inventive songwriting was made all the more original and innovative by Morrissey's crooning and lyrics. Writing about unconventional topics, from homosexuality ("Hand in Glove") to child molestation and murder, Morrissey had a distinctively ironic, witty, and literate viewpoint whose strangeness was accentuated by his off-kilter voice, which would move from a croon to a yelp in a matter of seconds. While the production of The Smiths is a little pristine, the songs are vital and alive, developing a new, unique voice within pop music. Though the Smiths continued to improve over the course of their career, their debut remains startling and exciting.

 

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1985:

 

 

 

10. Meat Puppets - Up on the Sun

 

On their second album, the Meat Puppets staggered away from the attempts at punk formalism that hobbled their debut, and with their third LP, 1985's Up on the Sun, they well and truly came out of the musical closet -- not only weren't they punks, they could easily pass for hippies and didn't feel the least bit self-conscious about it. The country influences that played such a big part on Meat Puppets II had faded a bit on Up on the Sun, as a sunburned psychedelia took center stage and the band allowed themselves to get good and trippy. However, Up on the Sun revealed the Puppets had learned one very valuable lesson from punk, and that was to get to the point. The album has an air of carefree drift, but it doesn't meander, and the performances are remarkably tight, full of energy and purpose even when the songs are redolent of goofing off. The title cut churns as Curt Kirkwood's precise but languid guitar figures dance with his brother Cris' insistent basslines and the percussive color of Derrick Bostrom's drumming. "Maiden's Milk" is playful as the abstract jangle of the opening section gives way to a tie-dyed jig, complete with whistling. The swirly phase-shifting and circular melody on "Swimming Ground" sounds as comfortable as a cool dip on a hot day. And the speedy attack of "Buckethead" and "Enchanted Forest" testifies to how strikingly well this band had learned to work as a unit.

 

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9. The Mekons – Fear and Whiskey

 

Musically Fear and Whiskey is awash in the delirium of the Reagan and Thatcher '80s. Country melodies collide into reggae rhythms and drones to create a forlorn tale in "Trouble Down South"; the title track is pure Hank hillbilly with lyrics that may not be as simple and poetic but do the job, as the tune creates a base from which to pick up the bottle or dance. But it's not all country and roots, unless those roots still include the dynamic of shambolic punk rock, which is the core of "Hard to Be Human Again." Despite its country melody line, which falls apart constantly, the guitars blare and falter, the drums pound on needlessly, and the band cavorts the tune like it's the end of the gig and it only track three. Seriously, there isn't a song on this disc that Langford and Greenhalgh don't turn into some epic repudiation of capitalism, depersonalization, greed, and social engineering. The fact is, these serious topics are dealt with in a piss-take way to music that carries everything from honky tonk, hillbilly, rockabilly, reggae, punk rock, and folk melodies all entwined with each other in a myriad of ways so complex, so drunkenly passionate, you just have to laugh -- as you dance, that is. A bona fide classic.

 

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8. New Order – Low-Life

 

New Order's third LP, Low-life, was, in every way, the artistic equal of their breakout, 1983's Power, Corruption & Lies. The point where the band's fusion of rock and electronics became seamless, it showed the bandmembers having it every way they wanted: heavily sequenced and synthesized, but with bravura work from Bernard Sumner's guitar and Peter Hook's plaintive, melodic bass; filled with hummable pop songs, but still experimental as far as how the productions were achieved. The melodica-led pop song "Love Vigilantes" was the opener, nearly identical as a standout first track to "Age of Consent" from Power, Corruption & Lies. Next was "The Perfect Kiss," one of the first major New Order singles to appear on an album. (The band being newly signed to Warner Bros. in the United States, it made perfect sense to include such a sublime piece of dance-pop on the LP.) Even as more and more synth-heavy groups like Eurythmics and Pet Shop Boys began approaching New Order's expertise with the proper care of electronics in pop music, the band still sounded like none other. "This Time of Night" and "Elegia" evoked the dark, nocturnal mood of the album's title and artwork, but none could call them mopey when they pushed as hard as they did on "Sunrise." Only "Sub-Culture," tucked in at the end, has the feel of a lost opportunity; remixed for a single release, it became much better. But there was no mistaking that New Order had reached a peak, experimenting with their sound and their style, but keeping every moment wrapped in an unmistakable humanness.

 

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7. The Smiths – Meat is Murder

 

With their second proper album Meat Is Murder, the Smiths begin to branch out and diversify, while refining the jangling guitar pop of their debut. In other words, it catches the group at a crossroads, unsure quite how to proceed. Taking the epic, layered "How Soon Is Now?" as a starting point (the single, which is darker and more dance-oriented than the remainder of the album, was haphazardly inserted into the middle of the album for its American release), the group crafts more sweeping, mid-tempo numbers, whether it's the melancholy "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore" or the failed, self-absorbed protest of the title track. While the production is more detailed than before, the Smiths are at their best when they stick to their strengths -- "The Headmaster Ritual" and "I Want the One I Can't Have" are fine elaborations of the formula they laid out on the debut, while "Rusholme Ruffians" is an infectious stab at rockabilly.

 

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6. The Replacements – Tim

 

Compared to Let It Be, Tim is polished, but compared to many American underground rock records of the mid-'80s (including those by the Ramones), it's loose and kinetic. The production -- guitars that gained muscle, drums and vocals that gained reverb -- is the biggest surface difference, but there aren't just changes in how the Replacements sound; what they're playing is different too, as Paul Westerberg begins to turn into a self-aware songwriter. A large part of the charm of Let It Be was how it split almost evenly between ragged vulgarity and open-hearted rockers, with Westerberg's best songs betraying a startling, beguiling lack of affect. That's not quite the case with Tim, as Westerberg consciously writes alienation anthems: the rallying cry of "Bastards of Young" and the college radio love letter "Left of the Dial," songs written with a larger audience in mind -- not a popular audience, but a collection of misfits across the nation, who huddled around Westerberg's raw, twitchy loneliness on "Swingin Party" and "Here Comes a Regular," or the urgent and directionless "Hold My Life."

 

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5. The Fall – This Nation’s Saving Grace

 

"Feel the wrath of my Bombast!" exhorts Smith on this follow-up to their groundbreaking Wonderful and Frightening World of... the Fall, and this collection is ample proof of the pure confidence the group had at this time. Stompers like "Barmy," "What You Need," and the mighty "Gut of the Quantifier" are all led by Brix Smith's twanging lead hooks, filled by distorted guitars and bludgeoning drums, on top of which Smith rants with conviction. But it's the departures from this sound that mark the real interest here: The synth-driven "L.A." looks ahead to the Fall's experiments with electronica; "Paint Work" is an impressionist piece interrupted by Smith accidentally erasing over some of the track at home; and "I Am Damo Suzuki," a tribute to Can's lead singer, which borrows its arrangement from several of that group's songs. the Fall sound mysterious, down-to-earth, and hilarious all at the same time.

 

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4. Kate Bush – Hounds of Love

 

Kate Bush's strongest album to date also marked her breakthrough into the American charts, and yielded a set of dazzling videos as well as an enviable body of hits, spearheaded by "Running Up That Hill," her biggest single since "Wuthering Heights." Strangely enough, Hounds of Love was no less complicated in its structure, imagery, and extra-musical references (even lifting a line of dialogue from Jacques Tourneur's Curse of the Demon for the intro of the title song) than The Dreaming, which had been roundly criticized for being too ambitious and complex. But Hounds of Love was more carefully crafted as a pop record, and it abounded in memorable melodies and arrangements, the latter reflecting idioms ranging from orchestrated progressive pop to high-wattage traditional folk; and at the center of it all was Bush in the best album-length vocal performance of her career, extending her range and also drawing expressiveness from deep inside of herself, so much so that one almost feels as though he's eavesdropping at moments during "Running Up That Hill."

 

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3. The Jesus and Mary Chain – Psychocandy

 

Arguably Psychocandy is an album with one trick and one trick alone -- Beach Boys melodies meet Velvet Underground feedback and beats, all cranked up to ten and beyond, along with plenty of echo. However, what a trick it is. Following up on the promise of the earliest singles, the Jesus and Mary Chain with Psychocandy arguably created a movement without meaning to, one that itself caused echoes in everything from bliss-out shoegaze to snotty Britpop and back again. The best tracks were without question those singles, anti-pop yet pure pop at the same time: "Just Like Honey," starting off like the Ronettes heard in a canyon and weirdly beautiful with its bells, "You Trip Me Up" and its slinking sense of cool, and most especially "Never Understand." Storming down like a rumble of bricks wrapped in cotton candy and getting more and more frenetic at the end, when there's nothing but howls and screaming noise, it's one hell of a track. However, at least in terms of sheer sonic violence and mayhem, most of the other cuts were pretty hard to beat, as sprawling, amped-up messes like "The Living End" (which later inspired both a band and a movie title) and "In a Hole." "My Little Underground" is actually the secret gem on the album, with a great snarling guitar start, an almost easygoing melody and a great stuttering chorus -- not quite the Who but not quite anything else. What the Reids sing about -- entirely interchangeable combinations regarding girls, sex, drugs, speed, and boredom in more or less equal measure -- is nothing compared to the perfectly disaffected way those sentiments are delivered. Bobby Gillespie's "hit the drums and then hit them again" style makes Moe Tucker seem like Neil Peart, but arguably in terms of sheer economy he doesn't need to do any more.

 

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2. Sam Cooke – Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963

 

Not only is this one of the greatest live soul albums ever released, it also reveals a rougher, rawer, and more immediate side to Sam Cooke that his singles only hinted at, good as they were. Working with a merged band that included guitarist Cliff White and drummer Albert "June" Gardner from Cooke's regular touring outfit and saxophonist King Curtis and his band, Cooke brings a gospel fervor to these whirlwind versions, which are fiery, emotionally direct, and hit with uncommon power. Every track burns with an insistent, urgent feel, and although Cooke practically defines melisma on his single releases, here he reaches past that into deeper territory that finds him almost literally shoving and pushing each song forward with shouts, asides, and spoken interactions with the audience, which becomes as much a part of this set as any bandmember. "Chain Gang" is stripped down to a raw nerve, "Twistin' the Night Away" explodes out of the gate like a runaway rocket, and Curtis' sax breaks on "Somebody Have Mercy" make it sound like the saxophone was invented for this one song alone. Throughout Cooke's voice is a raspy laser that makes it obvious what Rod Stewart picked up from this recording, and it is impossible not to hear Cooke's voice looming behind Stewart's once you've heard this amazing live set.

 

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1. Tom Waits – Rain Dogs

 

With its jarring rhythms and unusual instrumentation -- marimba, accordion, various percussion -- as well as its frequently surreal lyrics, Rain Dogs is very much a follow-up to Swordfishtrombones, which is to say that it sounds for the most part like The Threepenny Opera being sung by Howlin' Wolf. The chief musical difference is the introduction of guitarist Marc Ribot, who adds his noisy leads to the general cacophony. But Rain Dogs is sprawling where its predecessor had been focused: Tom Waits' lyrics here sometimes are imaginative to the point of obscurity, seemingly chosen to fit the rhythms rather than for sense. In the course of 19 tracks and 54 minutes, Waits sometimes goes back to the more conventional music of his earlier records, which seems like a retreat, though such tracks as the catchy "Hang Down Your Head," "Time," and especially "Downtown Train" (frequently covered and finally turned into a Top Ten hit by Rod Stewart five years later) provide some relief as well as variety. Rain Dogs can't surprise as Swordfishtrombones had, and in his attempt to continue in the direction suggested by that album, Waits occasionally borders on the chaotic (which may only be to say that, like most of his records, this one is uneven). But much of the music matches the earlier album, and there is so much of it that that is enough to qualify Rain Dogs as one of Waits' better albums.

 

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Honorable Mentions:

 

 

 

The Legendary Pink Dots – Asylum

 

Albums like The Tower or Any Day Now are melodically richer and more focused, but Asylum is the album that brings together the group's songwriting and experimental leanings with the most gusto. It also captures the band coming out of its stark, cold sound of the early '80s and evolving toward relatively lusher arrangements. The opening song "Echo Police" is a typically alienating LPD new wave song, strongly reminiscent of the material found on The Tower, but soon things take a bizarre twist with "Gorgon Zola's Baby."

 

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The Pogues – Rum, Sodomy and the Lash

 

"I saw my task... was to capture them in their delapidated glory before some more professional producer f--ked them up," Elvis Costello wrote of his role behind the controls for the Pogues' second album, Rum Sodomy & the Lash. One spin of the album proves that Costello accomplished his mission; this album captures all the sweat, fire, and angry joy that was lost in the thin, disembodied recording of the band's debut, and the Pogues sound stronger and tighter without losing a bit of their edge in the process. Rum Sodomy & the Lash also found Shane MacGowan growing steadily as a songwriter; while the debut had its moments, the blazing and bitter roar of the opening track, "The Sick Bed Of Cuchulainn," made it clear MacGowan had fused the intelligent anger of punk and the sly storytelling of Irish folk as no one had before, and the rent boys' serenade of "The Old Main Drag" and the dazzling, drunken character sketch of "A Pair of Brown Eyes" proved there were plenty of directions where he could take his gifts. And like any good folk group, the Pogues also had a great ear for other people's songs. Bassist Cait O'Riordan's haunting performance of "I'm a Man You Don't Meet Every Day" is simply superb (it must have especially impressed Costello, who would later marry her), and while Shane MacGowan may not have written "Dirty Old Town" or "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda," his wrought, emotionally compelling vocals made them his from then on. Rum Sodomy & the Lash falls just a bit short of being the Pogues best album, but was the first one to prove that they were a great band, and not just a great idea for a band.

 

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Prefab Sprout – Steve McQueen

 

Smart, sophisticated, and timelessly stylish, Steve McQueen (titled Two Wheels Good in the U.S. after threats of a lawsuit from the actor's estate) is a minor classic, a shimmering jazz-pop masterpiece sparked by Paddy McAloon's witty and inventive songwriting. McAloon is a wickedly cavalier composer, his songs exploring human weaknesses like regret ("Bonny"), lust ("Appetite"), and infidelity ("Horsin' Around") with cynical insight and sarcastic flair; he's also remarkably adaptable, easily switching gears from the faux country of "Faron Young" to the stately pop grace of "Moving the River." At times, perhaps, his pretensions get the better of him (as on "Desire As"), while at other times his lyrics are perhaps too trenchant for their own good; at those moments, however, what keeps Steve McQueen afloat is Thomas Dolby's lush production, which makes even the loftiest and most biting moments as easily palatable as the airiest adult contemporary confection.

 

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R.E.M. – Fables of the Reconstruction

 

 

For their third album, R.E.M. made a conscious effort to break from the traditions Murmur and Reckoning established, electing to record in England with legendary folk-rock producer Joe Boyd. For a variety of reasons, the sessions were difficult, and that tension is apparent throughout Fables of the Reconstruction. A dark, moody rumination on American folk -- not only the music, but its myths --Fables is creepy, rustic psychedelic folk, filled with eerie sonic textures. Some light breaks through occasionally, such as the ridiculous collegiate blue-eyed soul of "Can't Get There From Here," but the group's trademark ringing guitars and cryptic lyrics have grown sinister, giving even sing-alongs like "Driver 8" an ominous edge. Fables is more inconsistent than its two predecessors, but the group does demonstrate considerable musical growth, particularly in how perfectly it evokes the strange rural legends of the South. And many of the songs on the record -- including "Feeling Gravitys Pull," "Maps and Legends," "Green Grow the Rushes," "Auctioneer (Another Engine)," and the previously mentioned pair -- rank among the group's best.

 

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The Wake – Here Comes Everybody

 

Every bit as fragile and sweet as their contemporaries the Field Mice, the band sparkle on these singles. Three of the songs could easily qualify as career highlights. "Of the Matter" bristles with energy, as breathy vocals and a keyboard motif that wouldn't seem out of place in an Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark joyride mingle politely. "Gruesome Castle" blends fluffy electronic notes with an irresistible chorus of "I was born in prison/Without a penny to my name." "Furious Sea" might be the Wake's finest hour, as acoustic guitars and haunted sound washes create waves of sad emotions.

 

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1986:

 

 

 

10. Paul Simon – Graceland

 

With Graceland, Paul Simon hit on the idea of combining his always perceptive songwriting with the little-heard mbaqanga music of South Africa, creating a fascinating hybrid that re-enchanted his old audience and earned him a new one. It is true that the South African angle (including its controversial aspect during the apartheid days) was a powerful marketing tool and that the catchy music succeeded in presenting listeners with that magical combination: something they'd never heard before that nevertheless sounded familiar. As eclectic as any record Simon had made, it also delved into zydeco and conjunto-flavored rock & roll while marking a surprising new lyrical approach (presaged on some songs on Hearts and Bones); for the most part, Simon abandoned a linear, narrative approach to his words, instead drawing highly poetic ("Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes"), abstract ("The Boy in the Bubble"), and satiric ("I Know What I Know") portraits of modern life, often charged by striking images and turns of phrase torn from the headlines or overheard in contemporary speech. An enormously successful record, Graceland became the standard against which subsequent musical experiments by major artists were measured.

 

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9. XTC – Skylarking

 

Working with producer Todd Rundgren didn't necessarily bring XTC a sense of sonic cohesion -- after all, every record since English Settlement followed its own interior logic -- but it did help the group sharpen its focus, making Skylarking its tightest record since Drums and Wires. Ironically, Skylarking had little to do with new wave and everything to do with the lush, post-psychedelic pop of the Beatles and Beach Boys. Combining the charming pastoral feel of Mummer with the classicist English pop of The Big Express, XTC expand their signature sound by enhancing their intelligently melodic pop with graceful, lyrical arrangements and sweeping, detailed instrumentation. Rundgren may have devised the sequencing, helping the record feel like a song cycle even if it doesn't play like one, but what really impresses is the consistency and depth of Andy Partridge's and Colin Moulding's songs. Each song is a small gem, marrying sweet, catchy melodies to decidedly adult lyrical themes, from celebrations of love ("Grass") and marriage ("Big Day") to skepticism about maturation ("Earn Enough for Us") and religion ("Dear God"). Moulding's songs complement Partridge's songs better than before, and each writer is at a melodic and lyrical peak, which Rundgren helps convey with his supple production. The result is a pop masterpiece -- an album that has great ambitions and fulfills them with ease.

 

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8. R.E.M. – Lifes Rich Pageant

 

Fables of the Reconstruction was intentionally murky, and Lifes Rich Pageant was constructed as its polar opposite. Teaming with producer Don Gehman, who previously worked with John Mellencamp, R.E.M. developed their most forceful record to date. Where previous records kept the rhythm section in the background, Pageant emphasizes the beat, and the band turns in its hardest rockers to date, including the anthemic "Begin the Begin" and the punky "Just a Touch." But the cleaner production also benefits the ballads and the mid-tempo janglers, particularly since it helps reveal Michael Stipe's growing political obsessions, especially on the environmental anthems "Fall on Me" and "Cuyahoga." The group hasn't entirely left myths behind -- witness the Civil War ballad "Swan Swan H" -- but the band sound more contemporary both musically and lyrically than they did on either Fables or Murmur, which helps give the record an extra kick. And even with excellent songs like "I Believe," "Flowers of Guatemala," "These Days," and "What if We Give It Away," it's ironic that the most memorable moment comes from the garage rock obscurity "Superman," which is sung with glee by Mike Mills.

 

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7. Beastie Boys – Licensed to Ill

 

At the time, it wasn't immediately apparent that their obnoxious patter was part of a persona (a fate that would later plague Eminem), but the years have clarified that this was a joke -- although, listening to the cajoling rhymes, filled with clear parodies and absurdities, it's hard to imagine the offense that some took at the time. Which, naturally, is the credit of not just the music -- they don't call it the devil's music for nothing -- but the wild imagination of the Beasties, whose rhymes sear into consciousness through their gonzo humor and gleeful delivery. There hasn't been a funnier, more infectious record in pop music than this, and it's not because the group is mocking rappers (in all honesty, the truly twisted barbs are hurled at frat boys and lager lads), but because they've already created their own universe and points of reference, where it's as funny to spit out absurdist rhymes and pound out "Fight for Your Right (To Party)" as it is to send up street corner doo wop with "Girls." Then, there is the overpowering loudness of the record -- operating from the axis of where metal, punk, and rap meet, there never has been a record this heavy and nimble, drunk on its own power yet giddy with what they're getting away with. There is a sense of genuine discovery, of creating new music, that remains years later, after countless plays, countless misinterpretations, countless rip-off acts, even countless apologies from the Beasties, who seemed guilty by how intoxicating the sound of it is, how it makes beer-soaked hedonism sound like the apogee of human experience. And maybe it is, maybe it isn't, but in either case, Licensed to Ill reigns tall among the greatest records of its time.

 

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6. The Chameleons – Strange Times

 

If there was a should-have-been year in the Chameleons' history, 1986 would clearly be it, and Strange Times demonstrates that on every track, practically in every note. Signed to a huge label, with production help from the Dave Allen/Mark Saunders team who worked on the Cure's brilliant series of late-'80s records (here providing a more balanced sound between guitar effects and direct punch than appeared on What), the Chameleons delivered an album that should have been the step to a more above-board existence on radio and beyond. Right from the start, a stunning upward spiral of a guitar riff begins the unnerving character study "Mad Jack," the bandmembers mix their skills, experience, and songwriting ability perfectly and take everything to an even higher level. The first half continues with three more stunners: "Caution," a semi-waltz that moves well, pulls back, and then slams home, "Tears," a crushingly sad, acoustic ode to personal loss, and "Soul in Isolation," combining a huge majestic wallop with Mark Burgess' anguished study of alienation. And just when you think it couldn't get any better -- "Swamp Thing," the definitive Chameleons song, complex, building, tense, epic, perfectly played (John Lever's drumming is simply jaw-dropping, the Reg Smithies/Dave Fielding guitar pairing totally spot on), and with one of Burgess' most poetic, personal lyrics. It just keeps going from there, the second half covering everything from more sweeping tunes ("Time," "In Answer") to bare-bones melancholy ("In Answer," "I'll Remember"). Bonus tracks: an alternate and equally striking "Tears," the driving "Paradiso" and "Inside Out," and two covers. The take on Bowie's "John, I'm Only Dancing" is a quick fun goof, but the version of "Tomorrow Never Knows" (Burgess especially has been and remains a massive John Lennon fanatic, quoting songs by him liberally throughout his career) surges and soars, beating out by a mile all the times others have covered it. From back to front, Strange Times could never have enough praise.

 

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5. Run-D.M.C. – Raising Hell

 

By their third album, Run-D.M.C. were primed for a breakthrough into the mainstream, but nobody was prepared for a blockbuster on the level of Raising Hell. Run-D.M.C. and King of Rock had established the crew's fusion of hip-hop and hard rock, but that sound didn't blossom until Raising Hell, partially due to the presence of Rick Rubin as producer. Rubin loved metal and rap in equal measures and he knew how to play to the strengths of both, while slipping in commercial concessions that seemed sly even when they borrowed from songs as familiar as "My Sharona" (heard on "It's Tricky"). Along with longtime Run-D.M.C. producer Russell Simmons, Rubin blew down the doors of what hip-hop could do with Raising Hell because it reached beyond rap-rock and found all sorts of sounds outside of it. Sonically, there is simply more going on in this album than any previous rap record -- more hooks, more drum loops (courtesy of ace drum programmer Sam Sever), more scratching, more riffs, more of everything. Where other rap records, including Run-D.M.C.'s, were all about the rhythm, this is layered with sounds and ideas, giving the music a tangible flow. But the brilliance of this record is that even with this increased musical depth, it still rocks as hard as hell, and in a manner that brought in a new audience. Of course, the cover of Aerosmith's "Walk This Way," complete with that band's Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, helped matters considerably, since it gave an audience unfamiliar with rap an entry point, but if it were just a novelty record, a one-shot fusion of rap and rock, Raising Hell would never have sold three million copies. No, the music was fully realized and thoroughly invigorating, rocking harder and better than any of its rock or rap peers in 1986, and years later, that sense of excitement is still palpable on this towering success story for rap in general and Run-D.M.C. in specific.

 

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4. Talk Talk – The Colour of Spring

 

With It's My Life, Talk Talk proved that they could pull off an entire album of strong material. With The Colour of Spring, they took it one step further, moving to a near-concept song cycle, following the emotional ups and downs of relationships and pondering life in general. Musically, they built on the experimental direction of the previous album with interesting rhythms, sweeping orchestration, complex arrangements, and even a children's chorus to create an evocative, hypnotic groove. Though the songs were catchier on the earlier efforts and the ambient experimentation was more fully achieved later on, The Colour of Spring succeeded in marrying the two ideas into one unique sound for their most thoroughly satisfying album.

 

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3. The Smiths – The Queen is Dead

 

Meat Is Murder may have been a holding pattern, but The Queen Is Dead is the Smiths' great leap forward, taking the band to new musical and lyrical heights. Opening with the storming title track, The Queen Is Dead is a harder-rocking record than anything the Smiths had attempted before, but that's only on a relative scale -- although the backbeat is more pronounced, the group certainly doesn't rock in a conventional sense. Instead, Johnny Marr has created a dense web of guitars, alternating from the minor-key rush of "Bigmouth Strikes Again" and the faux rockabilly of "Vicar in a Tutu" to the bouncy acoustic pop of "Cemetry Gates" and "The Boy With the Thorn in His Side," as well as the lovely melancholy of "I Know It's Over" and "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out." And the rich musical bed provides Morrissey with the support for his finest set of lyrics. Shattering the myth that he is a self-pitying sap, Morrissey delivers a devastating set of clever, witty satires of British social mores, intellectualism, class, and even himself. He also crafts some of his finest, most affecting songs, particularly in the wistful "The Boy With the Thorn in His Side" and the epic "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out," two masterpieces that provide the foundation for a remarkable album.

 

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2. Sonic Youth - EVOL

 

Sonic Youth made their first moves toward rock with EVOL, a stunningly fluent mixture of avant-garde instrumentation and subversions of rock & roll. The band benefits greatly from the addition of structure, which gives its aural experiments a firm grounding, but the addition of drummer Steve Shelley is essential to the group's new, dangerous edge. With the added propulsion, the fearless rush of "Expressway to Yr Skull" (aka "Madonna, Sean and Me") and the near-pop of "Green Light" are undeniably powerful as are the eerie textures of "Shadow of a Doubt."

 

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1. Arthur Russell – World of Echo

 

An incredible assemblage of solo versions of this influential and unique downtown musician. Arthur Russell's World of Echo contains the songs and instrumentals written from 1980-1986: "Soon-To-Be Innocent Fun/Let's See," "Tower of Meaning/Rabbit's Ear/Home Away from Home," "Tone Bone Kone," "Answers Me," "Being It," "Place I Know/Kid Like You," "She's the Star/I Take This Time," "Tree House," "See-Through," "Hiding Your Present from You," "Wax the Van," "All-Boy All-Girl," "Lucky Cloud," and "Let's Go Swimming." Subtle, transcendental with gentle rock beats and new music influences in patternings and textures.

 

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Honorable Mentions:

 

 

 

Big Black – Atomizer

 

After countless rock and neo-industrial outfits attempted to one-up each other's levels of extremity over the years, Atomizer holds up extremely well. It's not every day that one hears a song considering self-immolation as "just something to do" or another that tackles the case of an alleged parent-child molestation ring from the viewpoint of the offender. Instrumentally, Atomizer is a wailing behemoth of assaultive Roland beats, Steve Albini and Santiago Durango's clanging and whirring guitars, and new member Dave Riley's lumberjack bass. Their musical invention went a couple steps further, most obviously on the warped-beyond-recognition guitars of "Passing Complexion" and "Kerosene." The latter is undeniably Big Black's brightest/bleakest moment, an epically roaming track that features an instantly memorable guitar intro, completely incapable of being accurately described by vocal imitation or physical gesture. It's also Albini at his most plainspoken and bleak: "Stare at the wall/Stare at each other and wait 'til we die." It's Big Black's "Light My Fire," literally. "Bad Houses" tops Killing Joke in affecting moodiness, serving as a perhaps unintentional reply to John Mellencamp's "Pink Houses." Both Albini and Mellencamp were commenting on the Midwest, so why not? Other points of interest include the demented, storming menace of "Fists of Love" and a live version of "Cables" that features an extended guitar wobbly from Albini. The record remains as horrifying as the day it was recorded.

 

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Coil – Horse Rotorvator

 

On the group's second full album, Coil continue the refinement of brute noise and creepily serene arrangements into a truly modern psychedelia, from tribal drumming and death march guitars to disturbing samples and marching band samples and back. Balance shares the same haggard, mystic vocal delivery common to fellow explorers of the edge like David Tibet and Edward Ka-Spel, but he has his own blasted and burnt touch to it all. His lyrical subjects range from emotional extremism of many kinds to blunt, often homoerotic imagery (matched at points in the artwork and packaging) and meditations on death. As a result the cover of Leonard Cohen's "Who by Fire" isn't as surprising as one might think. Past guest Marc Almond appears again on the track with backing vocals, as well as adding them to "Slur," which is composed of an unsettling mix of harmonica, bells, percussion and whatever else can be imagined. Other guests include Almond's then-musical partner Billy McGee, adding a haunting, sometimes grating, string arrangement to "Ostia," which is about the murder of radical Italian filmmaker Pasolini, and Clint Ruin, aka Foetus, adding his typically warped brass touches to "Circles of Mania." Paul Vaughan narrates the lyrics on "The Golden Section," creating a stunning piece that in its combination of demonic imagery and sweeping, cinematic arrangements holds a common ground with In the Nursery. All the guests help contribute to the album's overall effect, but this is Coil's own vision above all else, eschewing easy cliches on all fronts to create unnerving, never easily digested invocations of musical power.

 

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Elvis Costello – King of America

 

Stripping away much of the excess that cluttered Punch the Clock and Goodbye Cruel World, Elvis Costello returned to his folk-rock and pub rock roots with King of America, creating one of his most affecting and personal records. Costello literally took on the album as a return to roots, billing himself by his given name Declan MacManus and replacing the Attractions with a bunch of L.A. session men (although his old band appears on one cut), who give the album a rootsy but sleek veneer that sounds remarkably charged after the polished affectations of his Langer/Winstanley productions. And not only does the music sound alive, but so do his songs, arguably his best overall set since Trust. Working inside the limits of country, folk, and blues, Costello writes literate, introspective tales of loss, heartbreak, and America that are surprisingly moving -- he rarely got better than "Brilliant Mistake," "Glitter Gulch," "American Without Tears," "Big Light," and "Indoor Fireworks." What separates King of America from the underrated Almost Blue is that Costello's country now sounds lived-in and worn, bringing a new emotional depth to the music, and that helps make it one of his masterpieces.

 

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Felt – Forever Breathes the Lonely Word

 

 

Words like "shimmering" and "jangling" seem like such rock clichés, but if any guitars ever deserved the term, those on Forever Breathes the Lonely Word certainly do. The album is almost too perfect a pop masterpiece -- upbeat, succinct, and wildly catchy -- with the only out-of-place element being Lawrence Hayward's Tom Verlaine-esque vocals. That's not a drawback, though -- the imperfect vocals give the album just the kick it needs to stand apart from the rest of the flock (much like their contemporaries, the Smiths, come to think of it). It may be overstating the case to say that the album laid the groundwork for a lot of pop music that followed, but the sound was certainly influential in certain quarters, and considering the success of some of those followers, the fact that this album wasn't a hit may be all the proof you need of the injustices of the music industry.

 

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Spaceman 3 – Sound of Confusion

 

As was the case throughout the band's early days, Pierce handled all the vocals with the right amount of diffidence and low-key intensity, while he and Sonic cranked up the amps for minimal, bluntly entrancing riffs and the Brooker/Bain rhythm section chugged along. Of the originals, leadoff cut "Losing Touch With My Mind" is the strongest of the bunch, a perfect fusion of the psych/proto-punk/drone influences of its creators sent into the outer void. Meanwhile, "Hey Man," the title audibly playing off the rhythm and sound of the word "amen," is the first of many overt references to gospel music that Pierce would incorporate for years to come.

 

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1987:

 

 

 

10. The Replacements – Pleased to Meet Me

 

This was the Replacements as professionals and, ever the contrarians, they strained against it -- albeit only sporadically and underneath the surface – with Westerberg's outsider stance calcifying into the invigorating bitterness of "I.O.U." and "I Don't Know." These two proto-slacker anti-anthems -- quite the inverse of the call to arms of "Bastards of Young" and "Left of the Dial" -- are the only times the group's self-sabotage surfaces here, as the bandmembers pretty much give themselves over to Dickinson's studio savvy, leading to the ominous pulse of "The Ledge" and the brilliant, shining power pop of "Never Mind," "Alex Chilton," and "Valentine," along with such left-field twists as the mock jazz of "Nightclub Jitters."

 

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9. The Smiths – Strangeways, Here We Come

 

With producer Stephen Street, the Smiths created a subtly shaded and skilled album, one boasting a fuller production than before. Morrissey and Marr also labored hard over the songs, working to expand the Smiths' sound within their very real boundaries. For the most part, they succeed. "I Started Something I Couldn't Finish," "Girlfriend in a Coma," "Stop Me if You Think You've Heard This One Before," and "I Won't Share You" are classics, while "A Rush and a Push and the Land Is Ours," "Death of a Disco Dancer," and "Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me" aren't far behind. However, the songs also have a tendency to be glib and forced, particularly on "Unhappy Birthday" and the anti-record company "Paint a Vulgar Picture," which has grown increasingly ironic in the wake of the Smiths' and Morrissey's love of repackaging the same material in new compilations. Still, Strangeways is a graceful way to bow out.

 

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8. Prince – Sign ‘O’ the Times

 

Fearless, eclectic, and defiantly messy, Prince's Sign 'O' the Times falls into the tradition of tremendous, chaotic double albums like The Beatles, Exile on Main St., and London Calling -- albums that are fantastic because of their overreach, their great sprawl. Prince shows nearly all of his cards here, from bare-bones electro-funk and smooth soul to pseudo-psychedelic pop and crunching hard rock, touching on gospel, blues, and folk along the way. This was the first album Prince recorded without the Revolution since 1982's 1999 (the band does appear on the in-concert rave-up, "It's Gonna Be a Beautiful Night"), and he sounds liberated, diving into territory merely suggested on Around the World in a Day and Parade. While the music overflows with generous spirit, these are among the most cryptic, insular songs he's ever written. Many songs are left over from the aborted triple album Crystal Ball and the abandoned Camille project, a Prince alter ego personified by scarily sped-up tapes on "If I Was Your Girlfriend," the most disarming and bleak psycho-sexual song Prince ever wrote, as well as the equally chilling "Strange Relationship." These fraying relationships echo in the social chaos Prince writes about throughout the album. Apocalyptic imagery of drugs, bombs, empty sex, abandoned babies and mothers, and AIDS pop up again and again, yet he balances the despair with hope, whether it's God, love, or just having a good time. In its own roundabout way, Sign 'O' the Times is the sound of the late '80s -- it's the sound of the good times collapsing and how all that doubt and fear can be ignored if you just dance those problems away.

 

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7. R.E.M. – Document

 

R.E.M. began to move toward mainstream record production on Lifes Rich Pageant, but they didn't have a commercial breakthrough until the following year's Document. Ironically, Document is a stranger, more varied album than its predecessor, but co-producer Scott Litt -- who would go on to produce every R.E.M. album in the following decade -- is a better conduit for the band than Don Gehman, giving the group a clean sound without sacrificing their enigmatic tendencies. "Finest Worksong," the stream-of-conscious rant "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)," and the surprise Top Ten single "The One I Love" all crackle with muscular rhythms and guitar riffs, but the real surprise is how political the mid-tempo jangle pop of "Welcome to the Occupation," "Disturbance at the Heron House," and "King of Birds" is. Where Lifes Rich Pageant sounded a bit like a party record, Document is a fiery statement, and its memorable melodies and riffs are made all the more indelible by its righteous anger. In other words, it's not only a commercial breakthrough, but a creative breakthrough as well, offering evidence of R.E.M.'s growing depth and maturity, and helping usher in the P.C. era in the process.

 

 

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6. Eric B. & Rakim – Paid In Full

 

One of the most influential rap albums of all time, Eric B. & Rakim's Paid in Full only continues to grow in stature as the record that ushered in hip-hop's modern era. The stripped-down production might seem a little bare to modern ears, but Rakim's technique on the mic still sounds utterly contemporary, even state-of-the-art -- and that from a record released in 1987, just one year after Run-D.M.C. hit the mainstream. Rakim basically invents modern lyrical technique over the course of Paid in Full, with his complex internal rhymes, literate imagery, velvet-smooth flow, and unpredictable, off-the-beat rhythms. The key cuts here are some of the most legendary rap singles ever released, starting with the duo's debut sides, "Eric B. Is President" and "My Melody." "I Know You Got Soul" single-handedly kicked off hip-hop's infatuation with James Brown samples, and Eric B. & Rakim topped it with the similarly inclined "I Ain't No Joke," a stunning display of lyrical virtuosity. The title cut, meanwhile, planted the seeds of hip-hop's material obsessions over a monumental beat. There are also three DJ showcases for Eric B., who like Rakim was among the technical leaders in his field. If sampling is the sincerest form of admiration in hip-hop, Paid in Full is positively worshipped. Just to name a few: Rakim's tossed-off "pump up the volume," from "I Know You Got Soul," became the basis for M/A/R/R/S' groundbreaking dance track; Eminem, a devoted Rakim student, lifted lines from "As the Rhyme Goes On" for the chorus of his own "The Way I Am"; and the percussion track of "Paid in Full" has been sampled so many times it's almost impossible to believe it had a point of origin. Paid in Full is essential listening for anyone even remotely interested in the basic musical foundations of hip-hop -- this is the form in its purest essence.

 

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5. U2 – The Joshua Tree

 

Using the textured sonics of The Unforgettable Fire as a basis, U2 expanded those innovations by scaling back the songs to a personal setting and adding a grittier attack for its follow-up, The Joshua Tree. It's a move that returns them to the sweeping, anthemic rock of War, but if War was an exploding political bomb, The Joshua Tree is a journey through its aftermath, trying to find sense and hope in the desperation. That means that even the anthems -- the epic opener "Where the Streets Have No Name," the yearning "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" -- have seeds of doubt within their soaring choruses, and those fears take root throughout the album, whether it's in the mournful sliding acoustic guitars of "Running to Stand Still," the surging "One Tree Hill," or the hypnotic elegy "Mothers of the Disappeared." So it might seem a little ironic that U2 became superstars on the back of such a dark record, but their focus has never been clearer, nor has their music been catchier, than on The Joshua Tree. Unexpectedly, U2 have also tempered their textural post-punk with American influences. Not only are Bono's lyrics obsessed with America, but country and blues influences are heard throughout the record, and instead of using these as roots, they're used as ways to add texture to the music. With the uniformly excellent songs -- only the clumsy, heavy rock and portentous lyrics of "Bullet the Blue Sky" fall flat -- the result is a powerful, uncompromising record that became a hit due to its vision and its melody. Never before have U2's big messages sounded so direct and personal.

 

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4. David Sylvian – Secrets of the Beehive

 

Streamlining the muted, organic atmospheres of the previous Gone to Earth to forge a more cohesive listening experience, Secrets of the Beehive is arguably David Sylvian's most accessible record, a delicate, jazz-inflected work boasting elegant string arrangements courtesy of Ryuichi Sakamoto. Impeccably produced by Steve Nye, the songs are stripped to their bare essentials, making judicious use of the synths, tape loops, and treated pianos which bring them to life; Sylvian's evocative vocals are instead front and center, rendering standouts like "The Boy With the Gun" and the near-hit "Orpheus" -- both among the most conventional yet penetrating songs he's ever written -- with soothing strength and assurance.

 

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3. Spaceman 3 – The Perfect Prescription

 

Drawing together some earlier material and a slew of new songs, Spacemen 3 tied everything together on the brilliant Perfect Prescription, the clear point of departure from tribute to psych inspirations and finding its own unique voice. Planned as a concept album, Perfect Prescription works where so many other similar efforts failed due to the strength of the individual songs, as well as the smart focus of the concept in question -- a vision of a drug trip from inception to its blasted conclusion, highs and lows fully intact. The bookending of the album makes that much clear -- "Take Me to the Other Side" is a brash, exultant charge into the joys of the experience, a sharp, tight performance. "Call the Doctor," meanwhile, is a pretty-but-wounded conclusion, husky singing and a drowsy mood detailing the final collapse. The many highlights in between beginning and end are so striking that the album is practically a best-of in all but name. Sonic's eventual work with Spectrum and E.A.R. gets clearly signaled via the majestic reprise of the Transparent Radiation single, here introduced by the swirling flange of an edited "Ecstasy Symphony," also originally from that release. Sonic's breathless delivery of the Red Krayola classic, combined with the elegant arrangement, is a marvel to hear. "Walkin' With Jesus," meanwhile, is practically the birth of Spiritualized, the much different earlier takes now become a reflective combination of acoustic guitar, two-note keyboard lines, and Pierce's yearning, aching desire. The intentionally nasty flip to that is the storming charge of "Things'll Never Be the Same," a call to arms (or injecting something into them) that's as disturbing as it is energetic, the compressed, violent rage of feedback and rhythmic charge a gripping listen. Guest performers from the Jazz Butcher family tree, including Alex Green on sax, help expand the record's sonic range even further.

 

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2. Sonic Youth – Sister

 

EVOL was a major leap forward for Sonic Youth, but Sister is a masterpiece, demonstrating the group's rapidly evolving musicality. More than ever before, Sonic Youth's songs sound like actual songs, and their collages of noise, distortion, and alternate tunings are now used to provide texture and depth to the music, which is original, complex, and rewarding. Not only is there the full-throttle roar of "Tuff Gnarl," but there are shimmering layers of ambient harmonics and dissonance that are as haunting and challenging as any of their barrages of feedback. Furthermore, Sister has a warm sound, which lures the listeners into music that's defiantly arty but never indulgent.

 

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1. Dinosaur Jr. – You’re Living All Over Me

 

A blitzkrieg fusion of hardcore punk, Sonic Youth-style noise freak-outs, heavy metal, and melodic hard rock in the vein of Neil Young, You're Living All Over Me was a turning point in American underground rock & roll. With its thin, unbalanced mix, the album sounds positively menacing and edgy -- Lou Barlow's bass barrels forward over Murph's clanking drums, with J Mascis' guitar twisting pummeling riffs and careening, occasionally atonal solos. It established guitar heroics as a part of indie rock, bringing the noise of Sonic Youth into more conventional song structures. Also, Mascis' laconic, self-absorbed whine was a distinct departure from the furious post-hardcore rants, or the mumbling Michael Stipe imitations, that dominated indie rock.

 

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Honorable Mentions:

 

 

 

The Bats – Daddy’s Highway

 

The Bats' first full album continues the early promise of their EPs and, with only the slightest deviations and changes since, established their sound for just about everything that followed. Scott and company may not be the most willfully experimental of musicians, but when they're on -- more often the case than not -- their lovely, melancholic songs simply hit the spot. Woodward forms the perfect singing partner for Scott, while guest violinist Alastair Galbraith brings his talent to the fore as he has for so many other New Zealand bands. "Treason" makes for a good start to the album, but the real standout on Daddy's Highway is the surging "North by North." Featuring a fantastic Galbraith violin solo, it gives the band the opportunity to show its sometime hidden strengths for more energetic, nervous material. Scott's vocal performance is one of his best, and the quick, on-edge pace seems to get even more so as the song continues. Quieter songs unsurprisingly abound as well, from the understated sweetness of "Sir Queen" to the gentle keyboard-touched "Candidate." "Tragedy" is one of the best in this vein, ending in a disturbing low drone (or at least as much of a drone as the generally quick-length songs by the Bats allow for).

 

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Big Black – Songs About Fucking

 

Ever notice how rock bands tend to keep things interesting for themselves by pointlessly dragging out their songs and introducing awkward conceptual threads? Also, how many bands veil their subject matter in euphemisms to avoid being taken literally, to stay safe, or -- better yet -- to be "mysterious?" Big Black's final LP does the diametric opposite of both. Not only do the 14 songs here whip by with only one exceeding the three-minute mark, but each one is incisive enough to render a razor as effective as a butter knife. In sum: yowl, ching, thump-thump-screech. And, how could a title be more direct? The only band that had courage enough to be this direct was Spinal Tap, and that was for a song, not an album title. Songs About Fucking brought about a definite sharpening of the band's sound. Steve Albini's mangled screaming is at its most bileful, his and Santiago Durango's guitars don't meander, and the rhythm section of Dave Riley and Roland is more taut than at any point prior. Ugly characters line up in the songs like early arrivals at a monster truck rally. Most significantly, there's the murderer in "Fish Fry"; who else but Steve Albini could paint the picture of a man hosing out his truck after chucking a dead body from it into a nearby pond? The band left with more of a kling klang than a bang, bowing out with a reverent cover of Kraftwerk's "The Model."

 

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Boogie Down Productions – Criminal Minded

 

Criminal Minded is widely considered the foundation of hardcore rap, announcing its intentions with a cover photo of KRS-One and Scott La Rock (on his only album with Boogie Down Productions) posing with weapons -- an unheard-of gesture in 1987. BDP weren't the first to rap about inner-city violence and drugs, and there's no explicit mention of gangs on Criminal Minded, but it greatly expanded the range of subject matter that could be put on a rap record, and its grittiest moments are still unsettling today. Actually, that part of its reputation rests on just a handful of songs. Overall, the record made its impact through sheer force -- not only KRS-One's unvarnished depictions of his harsh urban environment, but also his booming delivery and La Rock's lean, hard backing tracks (which sound a little skeletal today, but were excellent for the time). It's important to note that KRS-One hadn't yet adopted his role as the Teacher, and while there are a few hints of an emerging social consciousness, Criminal Minded doesn't try to deliver messages, make judgments, or offer solutions. That's clear on "South Bronx" and "The Bridge Is Over," two of the most cutting -- even threatening -- dis records of the '80s, which were products of a beef with Queens-based MC Shan. They set the tone for the album, which reaches its apex on the influential, oft-sampled "9mm Goes Bang." It's startlingly violent, even if KRS-One's gunplay is all in self-defense, and it's made all the more unsettling by his singsong ragga delivery. Another seminal hardcore moment is "Remix for P Is Free," which details an encounter with a crack whore for perhaps the first time on record. Elsewhere, there are a few showcases for KRS-One's pure rhyming skill, most notably "Poetry" and the title track. Overall it's very consistent, so even if the meat of Criminal Minded is the material that lives up to the title, the raw talent on display is what cements the album's status as an all-time classic.

 

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The Jesus and Mary Chain – Darklands

 

 

Feeling no doubt burdened by the various claims of being the new Sex Pistols, and likely fed up with accusations that the walls of feedback were their own trick, the Reid brothers underwent a bit of a rethink with Darklands. The end result must have fallen squarely between two camps -- hardly eligible for sunny commercial airplay, not quite as flailing as the earliest efforts -- but, from a distance, this is an appealing, enjoyable record. Songs were often longer while the album itself was shorter than Psychocandy, walls of sound were often stripped away in favor of calmer classic rock twang and groove, while William Reid took the lead vocal at points, showing he had a slightly sweeter, wistful tone in comparison to his brother. However, the changes on Darklands can be overstated -- the basic formula at the heart of the band (inspired plagiarism of melodies and lyrics alike, plenty of reverb, etc.) stayed pretty much the same, even if the mixes were cleaned up -- compare "Down on Me" to any Psychocandy cut for a good example of the difference. The use of drum machines in place of Bobby Gillespie's rumble tended to enforce the newer focus, but at the album's best, such a seeming dichotomy didn't cause too much worry. "April Skies" made for a great single, while the soaring-in-spite-of-itself "Happy When It Rains" was another winner, one that Garbage more or less made its own some years later for its own similarly titled hit. William's singing turns made for other highlights as well, notably "Nine Million Rainy Days," the overt misery of the title suiting the dark crawl of the song, and the lengthy lament "On the Wall."

 

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Tom Waits – Frank Wild Years

 

Tom Waits wrote a song called "Frank's Wild Years" for his 1983 Swordfishtrombones album, then used the title (minus its apostrophe) for a musical play he wrote with his wife, Kathleen Brennan, and toured with in 1986. The Franks Wild Years album, drawn from the show, is subtitled, "un operachi romantico in two acts," though the songs themselves do not carry the plot. Rather, this is just the third installment in Waits' eccentric series of Island Records albums in which he seems most inspired by German art song and carnival music, presenting songs in spare, stripped-down arrangements consisting of instruments like marimba, baritone horn, and pump organ and singing in a strained voice that has been artificially compressed and distorted. The songs themselves often are conventional romantic vignettes, or would be minus the oddities of instrumentation, arrangement, and performance. For example, "Innocent When You Dream," a song of disappointment in love and friendship, has a winning melody, but it is played in a seesaw arrangement of pump organ, bass, violin, and piano, and Waits sings it like an enraged drunk.

 

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1988:

 

 

 

10. EPMD – Strictly Business

 

EPMD's blueprint for East Coast rap wasn't startlingly different from many others in rap's golden age, but the results were simply amazing, a killer blend of good groove and laid-back flow, plus a populist sense of sampling that had heads nodding from the first listen (and revealed tastes that, like Prince Paul's, tended toward AOR as much as classic soul and funk). A pair from Long Island, EPMD weren't real-life hardcore rappers -- it's hard to believe the same voice who talks of spraying a crowd on one track could be name-checking the Hardy Boys later on -- but their no-nonsense, monotoned delivery brooked no arguments. With their album debut, Strictly Business, Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith really turned rapping on its head; instead of simple lyrics delivered with a hyped, theatrical tone, they dropped the dopest rhymes as though they spoke them all the time. Their debut single, "You Gots to Chill," was a perfect example of the EPMD revolution; two obvious samples, Zapp's "More Bounce to the Ounce" and Kool & the Gang's "Jungle Boogie," doing battle over a high-rolling beat, with the fluid, collaborative raps of Sermon and Smith tying everything together with a mastery that made it all seem deceptively simple. There was really only one theme at work here -- the brilliancy of EPMD, or the worthlessness of sucker MCs -- but every note of Strictly Business proved their claims.

 

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9. Camper Van Beethoven – Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart

 

With Lowery's by-now more sharply sung words up front and Segel's multi-instrumental abilities helping to lead the way, the quintet came up trumps more often than not. "Eye of Fatima (pt. 2)," for instance, could have easily fit in on most of the group's earlier records at the start. Even so, the addition of some screaming Lisher guitar solos on top of the measured reggae/hard rock/folk stew cooked up didn't feel anything like, say, Eddie Van Halen's drop-in on "Beat It." Distinctly nonrock tempos and touches run merrily rampant as always, as a listen to the fiddle, dub and brass revamp of the traditional number "O Death" demonstrates. However, the fivesome can pump it up when needed -- the group's appreciation of Led Zeppelin certainly hasn't dimmed any, based on the majestic stomp of "Waka." When CVB aim to create something possibly more radio-friendly, the members pull it off in their own way rather than anyone else's. Thus, the almost anthemic "She Divines Water," with some great Segel violin work, or the gentler groove of "One of These Days." Add in multitudes of other joys like the fun romp "My Path Belated" and Bruce Licher's clever cover art -- at one point you see Bob Dylan looking towards a Turkish music combo in another photo with resignation -- and once again CVB create an enjoyable, not-easily-pegged down listening experience.

 

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8. Ultramagnetic MC’s – Critical Beatdown

 

Besides being an undeniable hip-hop classic, the first album by the cult crew Ultramagnetic MC's introduced to the world the larger-than-life, one-of-a-kind personality of Kool Keith. That alone would make this some sort of landmark recording, but it also happens to be one of the finest rap albums from the mid- to late-'80s "new school" in hip-hop that numbered among its contributors Run-D.M.C., Public Enemy, and Boogie Down Productions. Critical Beatdown easily stands with the classic recordings made by those giants, and it is, in some ways, more intriguing because of how short-lived Ultramagnetic turned out to be. It would be wrong to assume that the finest thing about the album is its lyrical invention. Lyrically the group is inspired, to be sure, but the production is equally forward-looking. Critical Beatdown is full of the sort of gritty cuts that would define hip-hop's underground scene, with almost every song sounding like an instant classic. Although he turns in a brilliant performance, Kool Keith had not yet taken completely off into the stratosphere at this early point. He still has at least one foot planted on the street and gives the album a viscerally real feel and accessibility that his later work sometimes lacks. His viewpoint is still uniquely and oddly individual, though, and he already shows signs of the freakish conceptualizing persona that would eventually surface fully under the guise of Dr. Octagon. If Kool Keith gives the album its progressive mentality and adrenaline rush, Ced-Gee gives it its street-level heft and is, in many ways, the album's core. Somewhere in the nexus between the two stylistic extremes, brilliant music emanated. Critical Beatdown maintains all its sharpness and every ounce of its power, and it has not aged one second since 1988.

 

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7. The Go-Betweens – 16 Lovers Lane

 

Arguably Australia's greatest pop group ever, The Go-Betweens seemed to save the best for last when they split in 1989. (They reunited in 1999, and have issued two more studio recordings since that time).16 Lovers Lane is simply breathtaking; it is a deeply moving, aurally sensual collection of songs about relationships and the broken side of love that never lapses into cheap sentimentality or cynicism. Songwriters Robert Forster and Grant McLennan had always been visionary when it came to charting personal and relational melancholy and heartbreak, but here, their resolve focused on charting the depths of the romantic's soul when it has been disillusioned or crestfallen, is simply and convincingly taut. While it's true that the group was going through its own version of a soap opera-styled romantic saga, that emotional quagmire seemingly fueled its energies and focus, resulting in an album so texturally rich, lyrically sharp, and musically honest, its effect is nothing less than searing on an any listener who doesn't have sawdust instead of blood in his or her veins.

 

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6. Talk Talk – Spirit of Eden

 

Compare Spirit of Eden with any other previous release in the Talk Talk catalog, and it's almost impossible to believe it's the work of the same band -- exchanging electronics for live, organic sounds and rejecting structure in favor of mood and atmosphere, the album is an unprecedented breakthrough, a musical and emotional catharsis of immense power. Mark Hollis' songs exist far outside of the pop idiom, drawing instead on ambient textures, jazz-like arrangements, and avant-garde accents; for all of their intricacy and delicate beauty, compositions like "Inheritance" and "I Believe in You" also possess an elemental strength -- Hollis' oblique lyrics speak to themes of loss and redemption with understated grace, and his hauntingly poignant vocals evoke wrenching spiritual turmoil tempered with unflagging hope. A singular musical experience.

 

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5. N.W.A. – Straight Outta Compton

 

Straight Outta Compton wasn't quite the first gangsta rap album, but it was the first one to find a popular audience, and its sensibility virtually defined the genre from its 1988 release on. It established gangsta rap -- and, moreover, West Coast rap in general -- as a commercial force, going platinum with no airplay and crossing over with shock-hungry white teenagers. Unlike Ice-T, there's little social criticism or reflection on the gangsta lifestyle; most of the record is about raising hell -- harassing women, driving drunk, shooting it out with cops and partygoers. All of that directionless rebellion and rage produces some of the most frightening, visceral moments in all of rap, especially the amazing opening trio of songs, which threaten to dwarf everything that follows. Given the album's sheer force, the production is surprisingly spare, even a little low-budget -- mostly DJ scratches and a drum machine, plus a few sampled horn blasts and bits of funk guitar. Although they were as much a reaction against pop-friendly rap, Straight Outta Compton's insistent claims of reality ring a little hollow today, since it hardly ever depicts consequences. But despite all the romanticized invincibility, the force and detail of Ice Cube's writing makes the exaggerations resonate. Although Cube wrote some of his bandmates' raps, including nearly all of Eazy-E's, each member has a distinct delivery and character, and the energy of their individual personalities puts their generic imitators to shame. But although Straight Outta Compton has its own share of posturing, it still sounds refreshingly uncalculated because of its irreverent, gonzo sense of humor, still unfortunately rare in hardcore rap. There are several undistinguished misfires during the second half, but they aren't nearly enough to detract from the overall magnitude. It's impossible to overstate the enduring impact of Straight Outta Compton; as polarizing as its outlook may be, it remains an essential landmark, one of hip-hop's all-time greatest.

 

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4. My Bloody Valentine – Isn’t Anything

 

Though it's often seen as just a precursor to their magnum opus Loveless, in its own way My Bloody Valentine's Isn't Anything is nearly as groundbreaking as their 1991 masterpiece. Not only was it the most lucid, expansive articulation yet of the group's sound, it virtually created the shoegazing scene and spawned legions of followers. The album's tightly structured songs still bore traces of My Bloody Valentine's previous incarnation as jangly indie popsters, but Kevin Shields and company crafted wide-ranging experiments within those confines. "Feed Me with Your Kiss"'s mix of bruising guitars, drums, and sensual boy-girl vocals define My Bloody Valentine's signature sound, while "All I Need"'s weightless guitars and vocal melodies melt into a heady haze. Shields' unique tunings, tremolo, and miking techniques stand out on "You Never Should" and "Nothing Much to Lose," but Deb Googe's surprisingly funky bassline on "Soft as Snow (But Warm Inside)" reaffirms that all of the Valentines contributed to their innovative sound. Indeed, many of Isn't Anything's disturbingly beautiful highlights come from Bilinda Butcher. On the wrenching "No More Sorry," she sings abstractly pained lyrics like "Your septic heart and deadly hand/Loved me black and blue," barely audible over a swarm of fragile yet menacing guitars, while on "Several Girls Galore" she's sexy, yet dazed and distant; it sounds like she's whispering in your ear outside of a blaring nightclub. the Valentines' dark side is especially prominent on the album, particularly on "Sueisfine," where the chorus slyly morphs from "Sue is fine" to "Suicide. "Isn't Anything captures My Bloody Valentine's revolutionary style in its infancy and points the way to Loveless, but it's far more than just a dress rehearsal for the band's moment of greatness.

 

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3. Pixies – Surfer Rosa

 

One of the most compulsively listenable college rock albums of the '80s, the Pixies' 1988 full-length debut Surfer Rosa fulfilled the promise of Come on Pilgrim and, thanks to Steve Albini's production, added a muscular edge that made their harshest moments seem even more menacing and perverse. On songs like "Something Against You," Black Francis' cryptic shrieks and non sequiturs are backed by David Lovering and Kim Deal's punchy rhythms, which are so visceral that they'd overwhelm any guitarist except Joey Santiago, who takes the spotlight on the epic "Vamos." Albini's high-contrast dynamics suit Surfer Rosa well, especially on the explosive opener "Bone Machine" and the kinky, T. Rex-inspired "Cactus." But, like the black-and-white photo of a flamenco dancer on its cover, Surfer Rosa is the Pixies' most polarized work. For each blazing piece of punk, there are softer, poppier moments such as "Where Is My Mind?," Francis' strangely poignant song inspired by scuba diving in the Caribbean, and the Kim Deal-penned "Gigantic," which almost outshines the rest of the album. But even Surfer Rosa's less iconic songs reflect how important the album was in the group's development. The "song about a superhero named Tony" ("Tony's Theme") was the most lighthearted song the Pixies had recorded, pointing the way to their more overtly playful, whimsical work on Doolittle. Francis' warped sense of humor is evident in lyrics like "Bone Machine"'s "He bought me a soda and tried to molest me in the parking lot/Yep yep yep!" In a year that included landmark albums from contemporaries like Throwing Muses, Sonic Youth, and My Bloody Valentine, the Pixies managed to turn in one of 1988's most striking, distinctive records. Surfer Rosa may not be the group's most accessible work, but it is one of their most compelling.

 

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2. Public Enemy – It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back

 

Yo! Bum Rush the Show was an invigorating record, but it looks like child's play compared to its monumental sequel, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, a record that rewrote the rules of what hip-hop could do. That's not to say the album is without precedent, since what's particularly ingenious about the album is how it reconfigures things that came before into a startling, fresh, modern sound. Public Enemy used the template Run-D.M.C. created of a rap crew as a rock band, then brought in elements of free jazz, hard funk, even musique concrète, via their producing team, the Bomb Squad, creating a dense, ferocious sound unlike anything that came before. This coincided with a breakthrough in Chuck D's writing, both in his themes and lyrics. It's not that Chuck D was smarter or more ambitious than his contemporaries -- certainly, KRS-One tackled many similar sociopolitical tracts, while Rakim had a greater flow -- but he marshaled considerable revolutionary force, clear vision, and a boundless vocabulary to create galvanizing, logical arguments that were undeniable in their strength. They only gained strength from Flavor Flav's frenzied jokes, which provided a needed contrast. What's amazing is how the words and music become intertwined, gaining strength from each other. Though this music is certainly a representation of its time, it hasn't dated at all. It set a standard that few could touch then, and even fewer have attempted to meet since.

 

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1. Sonic Youth – Daydream Nation

 

By refining the song-oriented breakthroughs of Sister and developing their fascination with noise and alternate tunings, Sonic Youth created a masterpiece of post-punk art rock with the double-album Daydream Nation. Though the self-conscious sprawl of the album might appear self-indulgent on the surface, Daydream Nation is powered by a sustained vision, one that encapsulates all of the group's quirks and strengths. Alternating between tense, hypnotic instrumental passages and furious noise explosions, the music demonstrates a range of emotions and textures, and in many ways, it's hard not to listen to the record as one long piece of shifting dynamics. But the songs themselves are remarkable, from the anti-anthem of "Teen Age Riot" and the punky "Silver Rocket" to the hazy drug dreams of "Providence" and the rolling waves of "Eric's Trip." Daydream Nation demonstrates the extent to which noise and self-conscious avant art can be incorporated into rock, and the results are nothing short of stunning.

 

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Honorable Mentions:

 

 

 

A.R. Kane – 69

 

With both early EPs and the M/A/R/R/S smash success behind them, A.R. Kane found themselves more than ready to go ahead with a full album in 1988, and did so wonderfully. It's safe to say that the start of the opening track alone, "Crazy Blue," resembles little else recorded that year or any other one -- a few plucked guitar notes, a sudden jazzy scat-vamp by singer Rudi with his truly unique voice, then a more direct poppish strum, the woozy line, "Ooooh...everything's gone crazy now," followed by a series of intense reverbed chime sounds and bongo-like percussion. From there on in, things take a turn for the strangely captivating in song after song. Never simply poppy nor completely arty, and definitely not just the Jesus and Mary Chain/Cocteau Twins fusion most claimed they were (admittedly song titles like "Spermwhale Trip Over" and "Baby Milk Snatcher" easily led to the description!), A.R. Kane here feels playful, mysterious, and inventive all at once, impossible to truly pin down. The best one-two punch on the record comes from "Sulliday," with buried, measured percussion and evocative drones, and "Dizzy," featuring a mesmerizing call-and-response by Rudi with himself, veering between more gentle, direct vocals and echoed shouts, eerily foretelling much of what Tricky would similarly do years later. An unfairly long-lost classic.

 

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Eric B. & Rakim – Follow the Leader

 

Having already revolutionized hip-hop, Eric B. & Rakim came up with a second straight classic in their sophomore album, Follow the Leader, which basically follows the same blueprint for greatness, albeit with subtle refinements. Most noticeably, Eric B.'s production is already moving beyond the minimalism of Paid in Full. Follow the Leader finds him changing things up more often: dropping in more samples, adding instruments from musician Stevie Blass Griffin, and generally creating a fuller sound over his rock-solid beats. It's still relatively spare, but the extra sonic weight helps keep things fresh. For his part, Rakim wasn't crowned the greatest MC of all time for the variety of his lyrical content, and Follow the Leader is no different. Yet even if he rarely deviates from boasting about his microphone prowess (and frankly, he's entitled), he employs uncommonly vivid and elaborate metaphors in doing so. A case in point is "Microphone Fiend," which weaves references to substance addiction throughout in explaining why Rakim can't keep away from the mic. The album-opening title cut is one of his most agile, up-tempo lyrical showcases, demonstrating why he's such a poetic inspiration for so many MCs even today. "Lyrics of Fury" manages to top it in terms of sheer force, using the break from James Brown's "Funky Drummer" before it saturated the airwaves. And, of course, there are several more turntable features for Eric B. Follow the Leader may not have broken much new ground, but it captures one of the greatest pure hip-hop acts at the top of its form, and that's enough to make the album a classic.

 

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Galaxie 500 – Today

 

Galaxie 500's debut doesn't merely live up to the sweet promise of the band's debut single "Tugboat," Today's final song, but almost without trying becomes its own gently powerful touchstone. While the influences are clear -- third album Velvet Underground, early non-dance New Order, psychedelic haze and fuzz thanks to the reverb Kramer piled on as producer -- the resulting brew easily stands on its own. By never feeling the need to conventionally rock out, the Krukowski/Yang rhythm section comes up with its own brand of intensity. Sometimes the two are persistently skipping along without Krukowski having to bash the hell out of the drums (the downright delightful "Oblivious" is a good example), other times they simply play it soft and slow. Meanwhile, Wareham's low-key chiming and slightly lost, forlorn singing, at places wry and whimsical, often achingly sad, forms the perfect counterpoint to the songs' paces, feeling like a gauzy dream. When he comes up with his own brand of electric guitar heroics, it's very much in the Lou Reed and such descendants vein of less being more, setting the moods via strumming and understated but strong soloing. One particular Descendant gets honored with a cover version: Jonathan Richman, whose "Don't Let Our Youth Go to Waste" is turned into a deceptively calm epic, with marvelous playing by all three members. It's easier to lose oneself in the flow of the sound rather than worry about any deep meaning, making the stronger images that come to the fore all that more entertaining, like "watching all the people fall to pieces" in "Parking Lot." "Tugboat" itself, meanwhile, remains as wonderful as ever, a cascading confession of love at the expense of everything else, somehow mournful and triumphant all at once.

 

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Jungle Brothers – Straight Out the Jungle

 

 

The landmark opening salvo from the Jungle Brothers, Straight out the Jungle was also the very first album from the Native Tongues posse, which would utterly transform hip-hop over the next few years. That alone would be enough to make it a groundbreaking release, but Straight out the Jungle also contains the musical seeds for a number of soon to be dominant trends. Their taste for jazzy horn samples helped kickstart the entire jazz-rap movement, and their concurrent James Brown fixation was one of the first to follow Eric B. & Rakim's lead. Plus, the group's groundbreaking collaboration with legendary house producer Todd Terry, "I'll House You," is also here; it paved the way for numerous hip-house hybrids that shot up the dance and pop charts over the next few years. The lyrics were often as cerebral as the music was adventurous and eclectic, appealing to the mind rather than the gut -- and the fact that rap didn't necessarily have to sound as though it were straight off the streets was fairly revelatory at the time. "Black Is Black" and the title cut are some of the first flowerings of Afrocentric hip-hop, but the group isn't always so serious; "I'm Gonna Do You," "Behind the Bush," and the sly, classic "Jimbrowski" are all playfully sexy without descending into misogyny. To modern ears, Straight out the Jungle will likely sound somewhat dated -- the raw, basement-level production is pretty rudimentary even compared to their second album, and makes the jazz-rap innovations a bit difficult to fully comprehend, plus the album ends on several throwaways. But it is possible to hear the roots of hip-hop's intellectual wing, not to mention a sense of fun and positivity that hearkened back to the music's earliest Sugar Hill days -- and that's why Straight out the Jungle ultimately holds up.

 

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Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Tender Prey

 

With guitarist/keyboardist Roland Wolf and Cramps/Gun Club veteran Kid Congo Powers on guitar added to the ranks, along with guest appearances from old member Hugo Race, the Seeds reached 1988 with their strongest album yet, the insanely powerful, gripping Tender Prey. Rather than simply redoing what they'd already done, Nick Cave and company took their striking musical fusions to deeper and higher levels all around, with fantastic consequences. The album boldly starts out with an undisputed Cave masterpiece -- "The Mercy Seat," a chilling self-portrait of a prisoner about to be executed that compares the electric chair with the throne of God. Queasy strings from a Gini Ball-led trio and Mick Harvey's spectral piano snake through a rising roar of electric sound -- a common musical approach from many earlier Seeds songs, but never so gut-wrenching as here. Cave's own performance is the perfect icing on the cake, commanding and powerful, excellently capturing the blend of crazed fear and righteousness in the lyrics. Matching that high point turns out to be impossible for anything else on Tender Prey, but more than enough highlights take a bow that demonstrates the album's general quality. "Deanna" is another great blast from the Seeds, a garage rock-style rave-up that lyrically is everything Natural Born Killers tried to be, but failed at -- killing sprees, Cadillacs, and carrying out the work of the Lord, however atypically. The echoing, gentle-yet-rough sonics on the Blind Willie Johnson-inspired "City of Refuge" and the gentler drama of "Sugar Sugar Sugar" also do well in keeping the energy level up. On the quieter side, Cave indulges his penchant for gloomy piano-led ballads throughout, and quite well at that, with such songs as "Watching Alice," "Mercy," and the end-of-the-evening singalong "New Morning." "Sunday's Slave" has a beautifully brooding feeling to it thanks to the combination of acoustic guitar and piano, making it a bit of a cousin of Scott Walker's "Seventh Seal."

 

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Just want to show my appreciation for this thread, I don't have much to contribute cause my music knowledge is not that great, but please continue posting cause I love discovering!

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