The Best Albums of 1987
What if I told you the two biggest hit songs of 1987 were by Gregory Abbot and Billy Vera & the Beaters?
Well they were. The songs in question are “Shake You Down” and “At This Moment,” two tunes I haven’t given a second thought to in the intervening thirty years. If you had asked me to name the top hits of the year without doing any research I never would have thought of these two. Go a little further down the list and you’ll start to find artists you may associate more with the era, like Madonna, Michael Jackson, U2, George Michael, Whitney Houston, and Bon Jovi. If you know me well, you probably know that not many of those folks are likely to make my list of the best albums of the year from thirty years ago. If you don’t know me well, check out last year’s article about the Best Albums of 1986 and the previous year’s highlight of the top long-form recordings of 1985. That should drive the point home. Since I turned 17 in 1987, I not only developed some intense attachment to the popular art forms of the time, but I also learned a bit of distaste for the stuff that I found less appealing. I’m sure most people who take art seriously go through this at some point in time and over the next few years it would develop for me pretty significantly.
Despite this, you should find some of my choices for the best of 1987 to be accessible enough.
Take a deep breath and dive in!
10. “Kick” INXS
INXS’ career-defining pop rock album “Kick” doesn’t really contain anything that is particularly earth shattering. But (minus its silly opener “Guns in the Sky”), there is just so much here that is fun, hummable, and danceable while also having a muscular and layered production, that it wins you over nonetheless. The core of this record, from “New Sensation” to “Mystify” is truly top-notch pop rock for a mainstream audience…and that’s a pretty nifty trick. The world needs records like “Kick” sometimes as much as it needs serious transformative stuff. The band had just become truly successful with its 1985 release “Listen Like Thieves” and went into the studio thinking they needed to raise the bar commercially and deliver an album full of hit singles. Surprisingly, their record company absolutely hated what they had made and suggested that it would never get mainstream radio play, even going so far as to offer INXS $1 million to go back into the studio. The band stuck to its guns though, and their confidence paid off with a multi-platinum blockbuster that spawned four consecutive top 10 hits, including “Need You Tonight” (#1), “Devil Inside” (#2), “New Sensation” (#3), and “Never Tear Us Apart” (#7). I might have placed “Kick” a little higher, but its October release date meant that most of its success actually occurred the following year.
9. “Sign o’ the Times” Prince
Prince was one of the signature musical artists on the scene for most of a decade, and he has one of the more impressive “splash reels” you’re going to hear. What that means is, you stack his greatest musical moments up against other artists and he absolutely looks like a giant. Maybe he is any way you stack it, and there is some evidence in his favor on “Sign o’ the Times,” but when you consider the album as a whole it falls into the same category of a lot of double albums. Cut the thing to half its length and then it would truly deserve its lofty reputation. Still, at its best, reflected by sterling recordings like “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” “Starfish and Coffee,” “The Cross,” and “U Got the Look” the album features Prince as we remember him most fondly. And oh my gosh, that opening title track just might be the best song of the whole decade! I first heard it on the analog clock radio in my grandparents’ house as I was trying to fall asleep, and it grabbed my ears immediately. The sparse, tension-filled instrumentals help to feature the content of the lyrics and sinew into the listener with real seedy dread. If I’d heard it a few years earlier I might not have understood its greatness so impulsively, but here we are thirty years later and its very timely message sounds utterly timeless.
8. “Frank’s Wild Years” Tom Waits
This is one of a few albums I’ll be covering here that doesn’t necessarily reflect the artist’s absolute peak. I’ll probably mention this again when these other examples crop up, but let me say that these artists are all such accomplished and unique writers and performers that it just doesn’t end up mattering. Tom Waits at 85% is still going to make the top 10 of pretty much any year. Such is the strength of his dichotomous recordings which keep on scoring with junkyard howlers and gin-soaked ballads. Waits has hooks. Waits has melodies. Waits has words. Tom Waits is one of the most brilliant and idiosyncratic creators of our lifetimes. His musical career not only had a second act, but has supported the sort of theatricality that many other performers just can’t live up to. One example of this is his 1987 album “Frank’s Wild Years,” which is full of music that was created for a production presented in Chicago by the famous Steppenwolf theatre company. The amazing Marc Ribot’s uniquely angular guitar work is featured memorably, as the central character from the song of the same name from Waits’ revelatory 1982 mid-career pivot “Swordfishtrombones” takes to the road, wandering through railway stations and ghosting on everyone he meets as he chases his demons.
7. “Diesel and Dust” Midnight Oil
Midnight Oil is one of those bands that started out with a punk sound before maturing musically and enjoying increased commercial success. While this might draw cries of “sellout” from some punk purists, the “Oils” managed the transition much in the same way as punk pioneers The Clash did, retaining the driving urgency of its sound and intense political content while also experimenting with the form of their work. The result is that Midnight Oil became perhaps the most respected rock act in the history of Australia. Their commercial breakthrough, 1987’s “Diesel and Dust” was, in fact, named the number one Australian album of all time in a 2010 book by a group of longtime music journalists. After spending time on a series of tour dates playing heavily to Aboriginal communities, the members of the band became galvanized by the injustices to this population that they’d become even more aware of, resulting in long-term activism on the issue and the following album containing multiple songs about it, including both their one Top40 hit the United States, “Beds are Burning” and the follow-up single “The Dead Heart.” It can be argued that this is a case of a band’s artistic strengths becoming their commercial weaknesses, with Midnight Oil’s very Australian and political concerns limiting their appeal with audiences worldwide. Their follow-up “Blue Sky Mining” contained lots of material that was at least as strong as the best of “Diesel and Dust,” but failed to find the same success, perhaps because some listeners mistakenly felt like they had already heard the group’s schtick.
6. “Boylan Heights” The Connells
Up next is a band I’ve seen live a few times and whose primary guitarist I once sold a large leather chair to. Both of these are entirely due to the fact that the Connells are a group from North Carolina, where I’ve lived for twenty-five of the last twenty-eight years of my life. Their second full-length album, 1987’s “Boylan Heights,” is named after a historical neighborhood in Raleigh where a few of my friends have lived over the years. The band was started by brothers Mike and David Connell in 1984, adding lead singer Doug MacMillan and eventually drummer Pelee Wimberley from another local band named Johnny Quest who were perhaps best known regionally for a song called “Irresponsibility” and for having another former drummer named Peyton Reed (yes, the guy who directed Ant-Man). The Connells themselves perfected an appealing sort of moody but tuneful jangling pop rock and would gradually build a place for themselves in the alternative music scene of the early 1990s, scoring plenty of MTV play with songs like “Stone Cold Yesterday” and “74-75. ” As far as a full album goes, though, nothing they did was as cohesive from front to back and offered as many hummable tunes as “Boylan Heights.”
5. “The Lion and the Cobra” Sinead O’Connor
For a while there, Sinead O’Connor was one of the most controversial musical performers out there. That’s going to happen when you attack nationalism and religion, which are some people’s very favorite things. The resulting backlash played a significant hand in making her time in the limelight relatively short (following up her huge hit album with a mostly disappointing collection of cover tunes didn’t help either), but if you’re wondering why she was ever famous to begin with, try giving a listen to her 1987 debut “The Lion and the Cobra.” Its mix of upbeat rockers, Celtic sounds, and Kate Bush-style epic howlers produces an album-length experience that is hard to turn away from. The instrumentation on the album features great variety, not in the instruments being used, but in how they are used, as the recording makes use of very effective dynamics, highlighting O’Connor’s impressive and emotional voice. Thematically, you’re getting the sound of a person tortured by romantic desires and betrayals, with the results elevated to the level of ancient wars and religious fervor. It’s the sort of thing STYX sometimes did to very poor effect, but O’Connor’s sheer talent and intensity as a performer turns what could be laughable to absolutely hair-raising.
4. “Document” R.E.M.
While my personal taste runs more to their previous effort, 1986’s “Life’s Rich Pageant,” this is another case in which the artists at work are at something so unique and compelling that it’s still better than most of the rest of what was available that year. The fact that “Document” turned out to be R.E.M.’s big commercial break into the mainstream with the widely misunderstood hit single “The One I Love” makes it an important marker in the popular music of the next several years, as the rising popularity of artists who had seemingly had little to no corporate or radio support led to…corporations and radio stations rushing out to try to find the “next” R.E.M. (or other well-liked group). Of course the band went right ahead and signed with Warner Brothers, leaving IRS Records immediately after making it big, so they certainly weren’t innocent in the overall state of things. But it’s not hard to trace the explosion of Alternative rock back to 1987 and R.E.M., especially considering that Kurt Cobain and Nirvana were very vocal in their admiration of Michael Stipe and company and listed them as a big influence. Although it didn’t make it into the Top40, the group’s next single, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” was perhaps even more influential in boosting their popularity, with the song becoming a staple at parties nationwide for at least a couple of years.
3. “In My Tribe” 10,000 Maniacs
If you want a pretty full history of this excellent band, go take a look at my “Nope, Not 1-Hit Wonder” article about them. Founding member Steven Gustafson dropped by and thanked us for the mention not long after it was posted, so there must be something there worth a little time (not quite at the level of Sean Young commenting on Lebeau’s article about her, but still pretty cool). The material on “In My Tribe” continued to be written primarily as collaborations between lead singer Natalie Merchant and individual members of the band. Often this meant Robert Buck, and with band founder John Lombardo leaving the group after the release of their previous album “The Wishing Chair,” drummer Jerry Augustyniak also took on increased songwriting chores. The resulting series of songs succeeds in creating a sonically consistent experience while still presenting distinctive tunes that are easy to sing and have individualized subjects. This last point might be a negative if you don’t like hearing about social issues like child abuse, alcoholism, and illiteracy, but to my ears none of this content is presented in a way that sounds like preaching, and the real quality in the lyrics is in their ability to tell understandable stories through simple images and observations with a common touch. This one sat in my tape player for long periods over a few years.
2. “Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me” The Cure
Okay, so here’s another one where there is a better example of a great album by this band. To my ears, The Cure’s 1985 effort “Head on the Door” is preferable due to its efficiency in presenting its language and musical ideas. It’s the album I would hand to a friend if they had never heard of The Cure (but seriously, why would I be friends with someone who had never heard of The Cure?). By comparison, 1987’s “Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me” is a big unwieldy sprawling mess of a double album…and yet, somehow it still works. Unlike the case with most double albums, there doesn’t seem to be any filler material on “Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me.” What you get instead is a sort of greatest hits of the types of songs the group is capable of producing. I’m not saying the album is a virtual “Best of the Cure,” but that it might just be the second Cure album I would hand to that unfortunate friend who didn’t know them. This is because it is a good representation of the type of music you could expect to hear if you went back and listened to their entire discography from beginning to end. From the gentle, whimsical pop of “Catch” to the sonically stacked creep of “The Snakepit” to the nervy humorous angular groove of “Hot Hot Hot!!!” the aggressive take down of “Shiver and Shake” the giddy party freak-out of “Why Can’t I Be You?” and the perfect shimmering pop of the hit “Just Like Heaven” this album throws just about everything in the Cure’s arsenal at you and doesn’t wait for it to sink in before it pivots and hits you with something new. Just hang on and enjoy the ride.
1. “The Joshua Tree” U2
Remember when U2 was widely considered the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world? They managed to get themselves effectively inducted into the Hall of Fame long before they would have even been qualified with an impressive series of records. Yes, I know you say you like 1983’s “War” better, and I’m not here to argue with that point of view, but let’s stop a second and ask ourselves how U2 got labeled as rock saviors. It was “The Joshua Tree,” wasn’t it? Yes, I’m hearing you over there too, mister oppositional hipster. U2 is really uncool you say? They’ve made some really boneheaded missteps over the last twenty years, haven’t they? But that’s not what we’re talking about here. What we’re talking about here is the best album of 1987, and that’s exactly what “The Joshua Tree” is. The urgency that is a part of all of the best U2 records is combined with the sonic landscapes they had begun developing in 1984’s “The Unforgettable Fire” with producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois and applied to an excellent set of songs that travel into the American west and invite the listeners to consider the victories and regrets of a complicated world at large. It is both oversized and intimate, cynical and optimistic, challenging and accessible. How many works of art pull off all of that? Bono and company grabbed hold of a huge audience, scoring three hits from the album, including back to back number one smashes “With or Without You” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” dominating the core of the year from April through October and helping to set the stage for the alternative revolution that would come just a few years later.
So that’s it. Try not to act surprised. 1987 was stacked pretty deep with very good records, but there was really only one all-time great album to be had. Below, you’ll find some additional albums as “Honorary Mentions.” Chime in in the comments section and let me know your own favorite full albums from 1987.
Honorary Mentions: “Pleased to Meet Me” – The Replacements, “Music for the Masses” – Depeche Mode, “Introducing the Hardline According to…” Terence Trent D’Arby, “Nothing Like the Sun” – Sting, “Strangeways Here We Come” – The Smiths, “Actually” – Pet Shop Boys, “Earth Sun Moon” – Love & Rockets
Posted on January 1, 2017, in Music, reviews, Top Ten and tagged 10000 Maniacs, Document, Frank's Wild Years, In My Tribe, INXS, Kick, Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, prince, R.E.M., Sign o' the Times, Sinead O'Connor, The Cure, The Joshua Tree, The Lion and the Cobra, Tom Waits, U2. Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.