The Best Albums of 1986
1986 was a real mixed bag overall. There was plenty of bad news, including the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, the continued proliferation of the AIDS virus, the Iran-Contra affair coming to light, and racial tensions made worse at Howard Beach. Icons appeared for the first time, including Oprah Winfery’s show entering syndication, the video game Legend of Zelda being released, and Pixar Animation Studios opening. Oddities such as “Hands Across America” and Geraldo Rivera’s embarrassing live opening of Al Capone’s “vaults” helped inject curiosity and bemusement. Platoon, Aliens, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off were among the top box office hits of the year, but so were Karate Kid Part II and The Golden Child.
The Billboard singles charts were pretty uneven too. The well-meaning, but saccharine remake of Burt Bacharach’s “That’s What Friends are For” was the biggest hit of the year and bizarre recordings like Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus” and Madonna’s pean to unwed teen mothers “Papa Don’t Preach” also hit the top spot. Despite the steadily mediocre quality of much mainstream music as the ’80s progressed, I have steadfastly believed 1986 to be one of the greatest years in my lifetime for pop and rock albums. For this reason, this year’s look back of thirty years will include twice as many honorees as last year’s look at the best of 1985.
Join me, won’t you?
10. “London 0 Hull 4” The Housemartins
Just take the good times/bad times Britain up-tempo approach of Madness and set it to guitars instead of horns, then gift it with P. D. Heaton’s endearing falsetto and you’ve got The Housemartins. If you’ve listened to the song linked above you’ll have an idea of the kind of frenetically cheery energy that populates most of the group’s ’86 debut. It’s the musical equivalent of drinking seven shots of espresso and hanging out with Mr. Toad–in a good way. The album boasts sixteen very singable songs, but is just over thirty-six minutes in length, and even though the tempo slows a bit in its last half, the deluge of catchy tunes doesn’t slow at all. As the record sleeve exclaims, “16 Songs- 17 Hits!” London 0 Hull 4 is one of the great debuts of the decade, making the group’s short shelf life a little disappointing. They would return the next year with the controversially named album “The People Who Grinned Themselves to Death” (a reference to the royal family), but would split up in 1988. Lead singer/songwriter Heaton and drummer Dave Hemingway went on to start a new band called The Beautiful South which was even more successful, releasing eight top 10 albums and twenty-two top 40 singles in their native Britain. Favorite songs from Beautiful South included “Song For Whoever” and “We Are Each other.” Bassist Norman Cook would first start up the group Beats International, but then go on to his greatest success as Fatboy Slim, known best in the U.S. for the top 40 hit “Praise You.” Nothing any of these guys has done in long album form has stuck with me quite like London 0 Hull 4, though.
9. “Especially For You” The Smithereens
This is a band I’ve been tempted to write up as a part of my “Nope, Not a 1-Hit Wonder” series, but I figured most readers wouldn’t be familiar with them to begin with. Besides, having two songs that barely made the top 40 isn’t especially dramatic. Pat DiNizio and company provided another of the great rock debuts of the ’80s with their mix of classic rock, punk, and Mod aesthetics making them a favorite on the college circuit. “Especially For You” was the group’s first full-length album, with two separate four song EPs appearing in 1980 and 1983. Clearly The Smithereens had been around a while already, and it showed in the strong group of well-crafted pop rock songs they offered up. In addition to “Blood and Roses” (above), fan favorites like “Behind the Wall of Sleep,” “cigarette,” and the lovely smokey duet with Suzanne Vega “In a Lonely Place” made the album an uncommonly sharp and versatile record, and although the band wore its influences on their sleeves, thanks to DiNizio’s uniquely casual, but knowing vocals, they manage to have their own sound. They never really hit it big, managing the minor hits “A Girl Like You” (1989) and “Too Much Passion” (1992) and acquiring a reputation as the definitive working band of its time, but if you’re looking for some smart power pop, you can’t do much better than The Smithereens.
8. They Might be Giants (1st album)
In December of 1986, my brother and I were visiting my grandparents house where they happened to have MTV as a part of their cable package, something we did not enjoy in our own home. This resulted in my brother and I spending quite a lot of time in a secluded den drinking every moment of ’80s pop culture the cable music station could offer. At some point I had wandered out of that room and my brother came running out to tell me about something he’d seen. At least he tried to describe it. It had something to do with giants and it was clearly one of the best things my brother had ever experienced. We decided to camp out in front of MTV in hopes that they would play it again…and a couple of hours later they did. It turns out my brother was right. This was one of the most unexpected and wonderful things I’d ever seen. Even at the age of sixteen I was pretty savvy to the standard pop music forms that I could expect to run into on radio and the primary music video programs, but this was nothing like I’d ever heard or seen before. Clearly it was kind of funny and satirical, but there was something serious going on here too, and while Weird Al also featured both guitars and accordion, this was not that musically either. We agreed to wait until they played it again, and a couple of hours later they did. For the rest of our travels that holiday, my brother and I sat in the back of my parents’ car and sang the refrain from They Might be Giants’ “Don’t Let’s Start” repeatedly…and then the rest of the album was almost as good as the single.
7. “King of America” Elvis Costello
It should be no surprise to find Elvis Costello on this list. Considering that he released two albums in 1986 you should count yourselves lucky that they aren’t both here. That’s how strong 1986 was. It’s also how great Costello is; In my estimation, the finest songwriter of the last forty years. Just listen to the gorgeous simplicity of “Indoor Fireworks” and consider that it’s not even my favorite song on the album. In fact, it’s probably just my fifth favorite song on the album. When Costello recorded a full disc of cover versions of country and western songs (“Almost Blue”) in 1981, most fans considered it a puzzling departure that he would hopefully bounce back from. These fans had not really been paying close attention, had they? Costello had been genre-hopping from the beginning, dishing out pub rock, blues, rockabilly, organ-fueled power pop, straight forward punk, and R & B and soul tributes in what was at that time just a five year span. Every album had sounded significantly different. But when he composed his own album full of songs written in traditional American styles people continued to act surprised. Thankfully, this time what he’d given us was an undisputed masterpiece. Even People Magazine listed “King of America” among its favorites of the year.
6. “Skylarking” XTC
I thought long and hard before choosing “Dear God” to represent this wonderful album. There are plenty of reasons to make another choice. Firstly, the song was not originally included in producer Todd Rundgren’s final sequence for “Skylarking,” appearing only as a B-side to the first single, “Grass.” After the song garnered a lot of attention, it was included in a re-pressing of the album and became the lead single in the United States, resulting in the very interesting video included above. Secondly, for obvious reasons, the song is a little controversial in some quarters. Admit to some people that you’re an atheist and you might as well be admitting you’re a murderer or a child molester. It’s something you’re supposed to keep to yourself. You certainly shouldn’t be promoting such a belief. A lot of this was certainly communicated to XTC after they released the song. Many stores and radio stations refused to sell the album or play the song. One radio station that did play it was threatened with firebombing. But I figure since it was the lead single here in the U.S. and the only song on the album with a proper video, why not let you see it up front? The best other choice would have been the power pop tune “Earn Enough For Us,” but that song’s bright, electric sound is not as representative of “Skylarking.” Rundgren’s daughter recorded the child’s voice that opens and ends the song which is incorporated into the album’s connected track sequence, representing the cycle of the year’s seasons.
5. “Life’s Rich Pageant” R.E.M.
1985’s “Fables of the Reconstruction” had been a murky, transitional record that had nonetheless delivered due to some strong songwriting and some thrilling musicianship, but “Life’s Rich Pageant is where R.E.M. truly found a consistent sound that would both allow them to experiment and to allow in a mainstream audience. This meant maintaining hints of their pastoral origins while also delivering a powerful electric sound on which to hang strong song structures. This approach largely remained intact for R.E.M. through 1992’s “Automatic For the People” before the band decided to take a swing at full rock star swagger, quickly tired of that and went back to being an indie band. The album starts off strong with an eastern-inspired Peter Buck guitar lick and then the large crunch of drums and fuzz. Michael Stipe’s vocals come forward in the mix, but continue to be largely difficult to explain, evoking ideas and stories through broken phrases and shards of images. The band sounds confident and driven, as if they made exactly the album they intended to and without over-thinking it. The cover of the Clique song “Superman” that closes the album grabbed a lot of attention and was a minor hit for the band, ironically the first time bassist Mike Mills sang lead on a recording because Michael Stipe was not enthusiastic about the song. A pull-string Godzilla toy from Japan also makes an appearance.
4. “So” Peter Gabriel
Peter Gabriel was always an artist who seemed to revel in his iconoclastic status, whether that meant appearing on stage dressed as a flower or refusing to put a title on his albums. His 1982 album notoriously went out in the U.S. and Canada with a sticker with the word “Security” on it, suggesting that that was the name of the album, but once you peeled the plastic off your album the title was gone. This same aversion to album titles resulted in the very non-comittal “So” for his 1986 release. It was pretty surprising then, when Gabriel’s new album was easily the catchiest and most commercial thing he’d ever produced. And boy did it pay off. “So” spawned three top 40 hit singles, including the #1 smash hit “Sledgehammer” which incorporated big drums, horns, and gospel backing vocals. The stop motion video for “Sledgehammer” helped push the song on MTV and make the album a mainstream commodity. The satire of modern ego “Big Time” also hit the top 10, but perhaps the most famous of the songs on “So” is the love song “In Your Eyes,” which hit just #26 on the singles chart, but became central to the plot of the 1989 John Cusack film …Say Anything. These are the best known songs, but some of my favorites are the haunting album tracks that give those singles a foundation to stand on, including the gorgeous duet with Kate Bush “Don’t Give Up” and the fantastic night driving piece “Mercy Street” that is a tribute to poet Anne Sexton. The tonal shifts could have easily made “So” feel disjointed, but Gabriel and producer Daniel Lanois managed to make the whole affair hang together marvelously and “So” became one of those albums that is easy to dance to, easy to sing along to, but never comes across as shallow. Close to perfect.
3. Crowded House (1st album)
Wow, that is a little piece of pop rock perfection there. If it wasn’t so beautifully crafted and infectious, I might criticize the boys for being a little cheesy in their video, but the work will win out. Yet another debut record, this one which rose from the ashes of the band Split Enz, as vocalist Neil Finn and new drummer Paul Hester hooked up to create Crowded House. The album’s first single “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” made an impression, hitting #11 on the U.S. singles charts and critics quickly took notice of this band from New Zealand. At a time when people were still looking for the “next Beatles,” this expectation got thrown around a lot, and it landed on Crowded House. This was never very fair to young performers, but when you listen to “Crowded House” from the grabbing open of “Mean to Me” to the angry wail of heartbreak that is “That’s What I Call Love” it’s easy to see why people were so enthusiastic. There are no real missteps and nothing that strike of filler either. The sound is big and deep, the band gallops and side steps effortlessly, and Finn sings with abandon while still hitting the notes he needs to. This is an album I forget about too often, only remembering how crystalline the whole venture remains after I return to it–like an old friend I don’t see for years but who I’m laughing along with immediately.
2. “Talking with the Taxman About Poetry” Billy Bragg
This album nearly nabbed the top spot on my little list here. I’ve lived with it for a long time and the songs just continue to knock me out. Bragg achieves the perfect balance of passion and proficiency, writing carefully worded lyrics, but delivering them with the earnest emotion of a punch drunk school boy. The stark guitars of his early EPs make way for a more complete band sound on most tracks, but the production work never gets too clever or precious, allowing for the intensity and ideas to shine through naturally. Bragg flip flops effectively between his primary passions: love and politics, even mixing the two where it suits him, as in “The Warmest Room,” enumerating his new lover’s clever political jibes as one reason he loves her. “Greetings to the New Brunette” (the song in the link above) was the first song of Bragg’s I ever heard, and I immediately fell for his clever wordplay, his working class dialect, and his jangling guitar. I took a chance on the album, and lo and behold it was virtually packed with more of the same. It’s been decades, and still the simple act of a lonely wife removing a cassette from her stereo in “Levi Stubbs’ Tears” manages to choke me up.
1. “The Queen is Dead” The Smiths
This is an album that I love beyond reason. Yes, I see its warts. I love its warts. Morrissey, Johnny Marr, Mike Joyce, and Andy Rourke were The Smiths from just 1982 through 1987, but inspired and enlightened a huge number of disaffected and marginalized fans along the way. Lead singer Morrissey’s literary obsessions and willingness to both reveal and conceal himself, to bare his emotions and parody himself won him devoted fans who thought they might just feel the way he did. Meanwhile, Marr’s jagged-then-gentle guitar playing never settled firmly into what was expected and he always seemed to have another approach ready for Moz to lay his vocals over.
The album opens on a borrowed recording of the traditional English song “Take Me Down to Dear Old Blighlty” as sung by actress Cicely Courtneidge in the film “The L-Shaped Room.” In typical Smiths fashion, this is both a tribute to the actress and her lesbian music hall character and a swipe at Britain’s worship of its own past. The clip is cut off rudely by one of Marr/Joyce/Rourke’s most thrilling instrumental bursts, with each member of the band operating in top form as Morrissey warbles on about the church, the monarchy, and castration. Even here, he is aware of his own comically ineffectual limitations, responding to the Queen’s imagined criticism of his singing with “…eh that’s nothing, you should hear me play piano.” Beyond its arresting opener, “The Queen is Dead” boasts cheeky jaunts (“Vicar in a Tutu” and “Frankly Mr Shankly”) and over-the-top wails of a wilted flower (“I Know it’s Over” and “Never Had No One Ever), but the heart of the album comes with a murderer’s row of classics that are alternately rocking (“Bigmouth Strikes Again”), rolicking (“Cemetery Gates”), and beautifully longing (“There is a Light that Never Goes Out”). For a lesser band, the lovely up-tempo pop ballad “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side” which most clearly defines the group’s central characterization would dominate proceedings, but here it merely feels like the natural extension of what we’ve been hearing. The entire album, after all, is largely about that push and pull between a person’s loathing of others and of themselves. When proceedings wrap up with the slight and jokey “Some Girls are Bigger than Others,” it can feel like a cop-out, but what it is really trying to do is to open its arms to all of us in all of our faults and our murderous desires for love.
Posted on January 1, 2016, in Music, Nostalgia, Top Ten and tagged 1986, Billy Bragg, Crowded House, Don't Let's Start, Elvis Costello, Especially for You, King of America, Life's Rich Pageant, London 0 Hull 4, Peter Gabriel, R.E.M., Skylarking, So, Something so Strong, Talking with the Taxman about Poetry, The Housemartins, The Queen is Dead, The Smithereens, The Smiths, They Might be Giants, XTC. Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.