Late, late, late…but I’m gonna give JT 76.29% fault on this one. I harassed him for weeks to get me his list and just last week he did. Then I got lazy with it, partly because I did a 1983 post as part of another series awhile back and thought I could wing it. My bad.
At any rate, there was a lot of great music coming out 30 years ago, some amazing debuts by bands who would later prove to be hugely influential in more than one genre (REM, Metallica), some last hurrahs (The Police, Yazoo), others that shoulda-woulda-coulda been more (Echo and the Bunnymen, Tears for Fears) and some that just held a place in the progression of the artist’s catalog, still working up for that masterpiece (Depeche Mode, The Church).
Strangely enough, JT and I have two of the same albums in our top five of the year, which is more surprising than you’d think. He had asked me if he could include a tie, and I had assumed a two-way for fifth, but he had a three-way for first, so I had to shout him down from that. Though I can’t really argue his logic with two of them. Let’s see what he had to say first…
1. (Tie) Violent Femmes- S/T
If not THE greatest debut of all time, this album is certainly in the top five. This album was out of step with nearly everything else going on in 1983 and because of that it still sounds just as fresh and original today, nearly 30 years later, as it did the day it came out. From the distinct acoustic intro to “Blister in the Sun” to the melancholy of “Good Feeling” this album is a classic, and if you don’t own it and know it front to back then you’re missing out. Unfortunately, the band would never come close to the meteoric heights of this album again.
1. (Tie) REM-Murmur
If not THE greatest debut of all time, this album is certainly in the top five. Yeah, I know, I already said that, but seriously, how both this album and the Femmes debut came out in the same year is beyond me. Arguably the best album that REM ever recorded, and that’s saying a lot! Following the dreaminess of this album, REM would begin their slow crawl from underground heroes to international pop/rock superstars.
2. U2- War
William hates this album. He also hates The Joshua Tree. William is wrong.
***William’s note – Hate is a strong word. Wait, is loathe stronger?
3. The The- Soul Mining
Probably the most critically and commercially underrated band of all time (in my opinion), The The’s Soul Mining was a movement from their early dark and cerebral material into the land of synth pop. The The would go on to record three of my all-time favorite albums (Mind Bomb, Dusk, and the amazing Hank Williams Sr cover album, Hanky Panky) and while this album isn’t quite as good as those, it’s still an astonishingly great bit of music from an amazing band.
4. The Cure- Japanese Whispers
I know, I know, this isn’t a proper album but a compilation of a few singles and their b-sides, but I would put it up against anything the Cure ever did (with a few obvious exceptions). Robert was playful at times (“The Love Cats”), dark and brooding at times (“Just One Kiss”) and downright depressing at others (“Lament), but the amazing thing is that despite the fact that these songs were never written to be cohesive album, the songs (and moods) flow naturally from one to the next in a way that only Robert Smith is capable of doing.
(I’m actually ranking mine for reals this time)
REM – Murmur: This is my favorite album of all time and has been for years. If REM had never recorded another note, they wouldn’t have made any money, but they’d have made a musical statement that comes from nowhere and goes anywhere. Ethereal, bouncy, jangly and cryptic, the attack of this album is raw and sincere, conjuring images of what could (and would) be and creating an atmosphere and a vibe that is both inviting and haunting. These are songs you feel like you’ve known since birth and yet always offer something new. REM never achieved this again, and wisely they didn’t even try.
Violent Femmes – Violent Femmes: I agree with JT that this could easily be a tie, and if it were any album other than Murmur, I’d go with it. The Femmes took the melody of folk, the heartbreak of the blues and the angst of punk and melded them together into something that is definitely all three and yet distinctly its own sound. For most everyone into “alternative” music, this album was a rites of passage. If you could get on board here, everything else would make sense. Hearts have been conquered and lost and eased and put back together again while scream-singing to these brutally honest, charmingly messy and unbelievably catchy anthems to the forlorn. Buy your favorite preteen a copy today.
The Chameleons – Script of the Bridge: These guys should have been so much more, especially then. Theirs is the story of rock n roll woes that’s been heard countless times. But despite all the tensions both internal and external, Mark Burgess and company were able to craft beautiful and poignant post-punk songs that were equally delicate and muscular, with a deep introspection in the lyrics, which commented more than complained, and a melodic interplay both vocally and with the dueling guitars of Reg Smithies and Dave Fielding (two of the most gifted and overlooked players of the decade). Script of the Bridge is a debut that finds the Chameleons fully formed and providing all the lush dynamics that would make them vital and yet frustratingly ignored for two more albums.
Tom Waits – Swordfishtrombones: And then things just got weird. Really, for Tom, it’s not so much the song as the presentation. You run these tunes through a more conventional rock filter, and they’ll sell like hotcakes (er, well…). While 1980’s Heartattack and Vine was a transitional album from jazz-scat-ballad-crooner into an avant-garde a la Armstrong madman, Swordfishtrombones takes the latter and runs with it full tilt. Tom’s characters have gotten darker, weirder, more sinister, but his musical methods of bringing them to light are now following suit, and his throaty growling and howling over jerky rhythms, clanking percussion, demented horns and erratic musicianship will throw the casual listener for a loop. (“Turn this off. Now.” – my dad) But allow it to sink in and you’ll find structure and (gasp) even melody, because there’s no denying that 16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought-Six is an unconventional rocker and that In the Neighborhood is one of the most beautiful songs ever written. And this is Tom’s brilliance, take the simple, make it twisted and then turn it inside out.
The Police – Synchronicity: I had a hard time deciding on my fifth one, and it could have easily gone to Def Leppard’s Pyromania or New Order’s Power Corruption and Lies. The tiebreaker is how often I listen to these albums, and Synchronicity wins out – if by a hair. Anyway…a swansong like no other. The story of the Police is one of the classic rock n roll sagas, from rags to riches to oblivion, three diverse talents focused on creating the greatest music possible and succeeding not only critically, but commercially as well. And while Sting is certainly known now for his easily accessible power radio slag, even the biggest hits of the Police contained elements of unorthodox song structure and lyrical weightiness – and with this being their biggest album, all of that follows. No, Every Breath You Take is not a sweet ballad, nor is King of Pain an anguished one, but instead a (before it was cool) statement on the environment; while yes, Synchronicity II is about mental and emotional breakdown and Wrapped Around Your Finger references literature that the kids back then maybe should have gotten, but the ones today almost definitely won’t. And all of it you can sing along to with pleasure (unless you’re JT). The rest of the album is even more delightfully diverse, from quirky jazz (Murder by Numbers), to world music (Walking in Your Footsteps), to flat out crazy (Mother). Plus, Miss Gradenko has one of my favorite Any Summers solos, so choppy and concise, it’s like a miniature song within the song. Bottom line, Synchronicity is proof that 30 years ago an album could be relevant, eccentric and top the charts (take that, Thriller) all at the same time. Too bad Sting lost his vision, while Andy and Stewart lost their sting.