The Best Albums of 1988!
Because of the way the school year is split down the middle in December/January, the year of a person’s high school graduation can bring back contrasting memories. It’s a big transition time, and the confidence and security of a high school senior can give way to plenty of uncertainty for the following college freshman. This certainly was my experience in 1988, and most of the albums I’m about to recommend do reflect that surge of joy and tumult.
A quick glance at 1988’s singles charts leaves more of an impression of a pop culture world adrift in paper-thin sentimentality and low cartoonish sexuality. This general malaise was also evident as the nation responded to eight years of Reagan populism by shrugging and electing his Vice President, an eminently qualified man who somehow failed to inspire, or give off the impression that he actually wanted the job again after his initial four years were up. It was a world that was in dire need of something like Nirvana to shake itself out of its stupor, but was three years away from being ready. For the time being, individual spots of light on pop radio such as R.E.M., INXS, or U2 (“the Alphabet People” one of my friends used to say) had to suffice for those of us who hadn’t quite given up on top 40 yet. It’s instructive to note that one of the top hits of the year that has actually enjoyed a continued place in the spotlight, Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up,” has done so mostly as a joke due to its own clean-shaven cheesiness.
Yeah I was probably on the way to being pretty insufferable by the time 1988 was over – – but I had some excellent albums in my collection to show for it.
10. “Viva Hate” Morrissey
less than six months after the Smiths’ final studio album was released, their literate and witty miserablist lead singer stepped up with help from producer extraordinaire Stephen Street to fill what might have been considered to be the gap caused by the band’s end. While guitarist Johnny Marr basically turned into a gun for hire, appearing as a high profile guest performer over and over again, Morrissey gobbled up the group’s fan base for his own, capitalizing on the cult of personality that had grown up around him among certain alienated young people. His debut solo album is languid at points, but that’s par for the course for Morrissey, and “Viva Hate” also contains some of his catchiest and most iconic solo work. Despite his former band’s relative versatility, the more producer-driven quality of “Viva Hate” meant a more vivid and varied overall sound, including some stringed instrumentation that suited his dramatic image well. The album’s lead singles “Everyday is Like Sunday” and “Suedehead” both garnered top 10 status in the UK and Ireland and got fair rotation on MTV back when the channel was still showing lots of music videos. Moz would remain a prominent figure on the modern rock charts for several more years, scoring nine top 10 hits there between 1989 and 1994. He may be an acquired taste in the context of a full album, but it’s a taste I personally did acquire.
9. “Nothing’s Shocking” Jane’s Addiction
One of the great strengths of the ‘alternative’ scene prior to the grunge explosion of the early 90s was the way it rewarded idiosyncratic acts, a trend you’ll notice peppered throughout this list. Few performers were iconoclastic and proud of it as Perry Farrell and the rest of Jane’s Addiction. So much of what the band did seemed to run counter to popular knowledge about how to achieve success in the music business. Despite being all set to sign with a major label, they insisted on making their first recording a live performance released under a tiny independent label. When this failed to blunt their forward momentum, they created a video for their first major label single that was rejected by MTV due to it containing full frontal nudity. So they spent money on selling it themselves as part of a special home video package. A similar problem greeted the record store release of “Nothing’s Shocking” because the cover art featured a sculpture created by Farrell of naked conjoined female twins and necessitated it being sent wrapped in brown paper. Instead of derailing the group, these moves served to add to their street credibility and make them popular with both the glam-influenced party metal rockers of their home town Los Angeles and with critics and more sophisticated audiences who could identify the art-punk influences that were woven into their wailing, textured guitar attack. Within a few years the feuding band would be headlining Lollapalooza, Farrell’s brainchild, and one of the premiere concert series of the 1990s.
8. “Vivid” Living Colour
Like Jane’s Addiction, Living Colour benefitted from attracting both mainstream glam metal enthusiasts and more serious-minded audiences. Unlike Perry Farrell and company, Vernon Reid and his band appeared to be consummate professionals who fed on the pleasure of playing demanding live schedules, appearing repeatedly at the famous CBGB and touring alongside bands like the Rolling Stones and Guns & Roses. In the process, they pretty reliably won fans from the audiences that had shown up for the classic rockers or metal bands they were playing with. When the video for their second single, “Cult of Personality” began to get strong play on MTV, the band’s profile extended beyond live audiences nationwide and the song eventually became Living Colour’s best known song, reaching number 13 on the Billboard singles chart. Reid claims the song was created in a single short studio session, with the central riff arising from a practice session on a different song. Living Colour rose up at a time when political activism and content was just starting to become fashionable again on the fringes of the mainstream and most of their debut album’s central recordings are based on these ideals. In addition to their criticism of mass subservience to authority in “Cult of Personality,” the band sets its sights on materialism (“Glamour Boys”), inner city slum abuses (“Open Letter (to a Landlord)”), and everyday racial mistrust (“Funny Vibe”). The album as a whole is both hefty and fun in a way that makes the social commentary go down smoothly, and it’s no mistake that this is one of the albums that personifies its era.
7. “Life’s Too Good” The Sugarcubes
I sympathized to some degree with the people around me in 1988 who thought I’d started to embrace weird music simply for the sake of it being weird. Something like The Sugarcubes had to sound entirely arbitrary and chaotic to audiences who were comfortable with the pop music tropes we had been sold on (and continue to be sold on). They didn’t adhere to simple verse chorus verse pop song structures with any consistency, appeared unconcerned with traditional romantic themes or balladry, and had very little in common with the approved rebellious postures of classic rock ‘n’ roll or over the top glam metal. And yet, to this day, I find their debut album “Life’s Too Good” to be eminently listenable and repeatable. In preparation for this article I had to go back and listen to albums which I probably had not heard in their entirety for over a decade, and I was genuinely nervous that beyond its memorable highlights, this one might not reconnect with me. I needn’t have been concerned. Although the cd version does go on perhaps a little too long after it has made its point so effectively, including alternate versions of a couple of its tracks, the core of the album remains filled with sonic interest, memorable hooks, and thrilling idiosyncrasies to the point that I found myself singing along again on my very first return listen. Icelandic pixie Bjork is, of course, the talent on who the rest of the affair is hung, and her howling, hiccupping, and wailing vocal delivery is both winsome and hair-raising in a way that is rather unlike any other singer. But the band as a whole is in fine avant-form here, providing both dense sonic landscapes for her to wander and quirky prickling jabs that you can almost think of dancing to. This is what “alternative” is. Difficult to effectively compare to other things.
6. “If I Should Fall from Grace with God” The Pogues
The Pogues were essentially an Irish/British punk band that just happened to love traditional celtic song structures and tropes, and were proficient with their instruments. If that all sounds like a contradiction, it kind of is, but it’s also what continues to make them so urgent and listenable thirty years later. It’s this push and pull and tension not just between seemingly conflicting musical styles, but between members of the band that helps bolster the concoction which is The Pogues. Lead singer Shane MacGowan had already headed up a genre-bending punk band called The Nips which had alternated between straight forward punk rock and styles that had included rockabilly, garage rock, and the beginnings of his preoccupation with the traditional Irish music of his heritage. The Pogues formed with MacGowan bringing in a constantly evolving lineup of musicians, first known as Pogue Mahone (which in Irish means “Kiss My Ass”). The group would eventually build acclaim amongst other British musicians, resulting in a number of collaborations, including with Elvis Costello (who would marry bassist Cait O’Riordan) as producer, and vocal appearances by Kirsty MacColl and Joe Strummer. Released in January of 1988, “If I Should Fall from Grace with God” would be the Pogues’ biggest album yet and helped launch a high profile tour of the U.S. that included an appearance on Saturday Night Live. The album rollicks and blubbers and sways from start to finish, containing some of the group’s most notable songs, including the title tune, “Thousands are Sailing,” “Fiesta,” “Turkish Song of the Damned,” and the holiday season standard “Fairytale of New York” which features MacColl and has been named several times as the best Christmas song of all time in British magazines.
5. “Green” R.E.M.
R.E.M. arrived on mainstream radio with 1987’s “Document” based primarily on the single “The One I Love,” but they didn’t really get huge until the following year with the release of “Green,” their first for Warner Brothers, and its associated world tour. While the band was on the road for eleven months, the album appeared to serve the audience in an unexpected way, through a scattershot offering of everything their different types of fans might want while also making purposeful moves away from the kind of music they had been producing previously. Although an edict was handed down by lead singer Michael Stipe to “not write any more R.E.M.-type songs” for the record, crunchier rock recordings such as “Orange Crush,” “Turn You Inside-Out,” and “Get Up” still managed to echo parts of “Document.” They also appeared to offer their new label a couple of concessions with their only mildly satirical pop songs “Stand” and “Pop Song 89,” leading some longtime fans to cry sellout, but perhaps welcoming in less ardent fans by placing them early in the album’s run time. The remainder of the album’s tracks are where the band truly struck off in a new direction, incorporating an increased reliance on acoustic instruments and abandoning the sounds and textures that had been their signatures over the previous decade. The result was something hard to pin down, possessing both very commercial and very experimental moments in large enough numbers to move forward without actually alienating their biggest fans. I personally remember becoming more and more entranced with “You Are the Everything” the more I listened to it and being truly impressed by the firmness with which Stipe and company stuck their landing with the very different “I Remember California” and untitled eleventh track as both a reflection of the darkness present in the album as a whole and as a hopeful note. “Green” somehow remains both very entertaining and very audacious for a band with both commercial and artistic aspirations.
4. “Surfer Rosa” The Pixies
Remember when I said above that the pop culture landscape of 1988 didn’t yet know how much it needed Nirvana? Well the Pixies knew. In fact, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain often dismissed his own band as a Pixies ripoff. The band’s first full-length effort Surfer Rosa is the clear connective tissue between traditional punk rock and the grunge of the early 90s while being at least as good as the best on either end. Despite having so many imitators, the group continues to sound like nobody else all these years later, with special mention for their unique use of harmonies, Joey Santiago’s amazing electric guitar work, and their willingness to traipse into whatever lyric topic or tone strikes their fancy in any moment. Surfer Rosa creeps and lunges and peeps and howls through its thirty-two minute running time, getting in, making an impression, and then getting out again. While some people might downgrade it for its short length, my attitude is that it is an amazing album as is and that there’s no guarantee that the addition of more material, even excellent material, wouldn’t be subtraction by addition. Plenty of double albums are too long. What did possibly cause me to dock Surfer Rosa a couple of spots was something purely autobiographical: It wasn’t actually part of my own 1988. Instead, I fully digested the following year’s amazing follow-up Doolittle before I tracked down Surfer Rosa, and well…sometimes there’s just something special about your first.
3. “Globe of Frogs” Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians
Let me emphasize again for those of you who weren’t there what the world of ‘alternative’ music was like prior to the grunge explosion. There was next to no money in it. Because of this, there was quite a lot of room for a wide variety of distinctive and even peculiar voices and they all tended to get tossed into the same bin because nobody knew what to do with them. Because of this, we got artists like Robyn Hitchcock and Jane’s Addiction rubbing elbows with They Might Be Giants and Billy Bragg. Variety is the spice of life, and we had it in droves. Consider former Soft Boys front man Robyn Hitchcock’s lyrical, jangly, and textured contributions on his sixth studio solo album “Globe of Frogs.” His output at times appears to be answering the question “what if Syd Barrett had joined the Beatles and asked them to write as many different takes on ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ and ‘I am the Walrus’ as they could?” Hitchcock clearly grasped the menace and sex in some of the psychedelic songs that the Fab Four had explained away as children’s nonsense tunes and decided to find out how far he could go with it. Well, as it turns out the answer is ‘pretty far.’ Hitchcock has released more than twenty albums of mostly original material with only mild derivations from his central artistic ideas. And yet somehow none of it ever becomes tiresome or predictable, which has to be considered a mighty mighty feat. More than any of his other fine records, 1988’s “Globe of Frogs” continues to make me lean forward in my seat to consider its charms each time I remember to put it on. And it’s not just because of “Balloon Man.”
2. “Workers Playtime” Billy Bragg
This guy. This guy consistently knocks me out. Even if “Workers Playtime” isn’t his very best record, it’s still stacked with both lovely and bracing creations for a voice and a guitar. While the album features only a few of the socialist singer-songwriter’s political pronouncements, focusing instead on the foibles and heartaches of romance, Bragg packaged it with his conscience, perhaps as a way of assuring his most ardent fans that he was still the hard-bitten lefty they loved. Aside from the title and cover art using communist propaganda paintings, the original release included an instruction printed on it that the record was not to be sold for more than eight English pounds (this admonition was later removed – it’s unclear by who). But what really stands out about “Workers Playtime” is the impressively strong set of varied love songs Bragg managed to pile into one album. At turns playful and mournful, the arrangements are mostly simple and the lyrics are made to fit the mood. Whether it’s the jaunty opener “She’s Got a New Spell” in which he compares his lover to a mischievous witch, the unadorned heartbreak of “Must I Paint You a Picture,” or the portrait of a lover who’s had enough in “Valentine’s Day is Over,” Bragg appears to have suffered enough of love’s indignities to know its torment and still be able to laugh at himself. The melodies are effortless, the words are by turns witty and affecting, and the final product is one of the very finest albums of the year.
1. Tracy Chapman
When it comes down to it, what I really value are songs. Melodies. Structure. Skillful lyrics. And delivered by a performer who understands what it’s all about. These preferences were in evidence with my number two selection and is at the heart of my choice for the best album of the year. Tracy Chapman never really delivered on the promise of her debut album, but oh my what a debut! Chapman was discovered playing a coffee house by a classmate at Tufts University who just happened to have family in the music publishing business. She didn’t initially take his enthusiasm very seriously, believing that the contemporary pop scene overrun with hair metal and synth dance acts would never consider her music to be commercial enough to give her the time of day. But her classmate persisted and she was eventually sent into the recording studio with David Kershenbaum who had previously had success producing acts like Joe Jackson, Duran Duran, and Laura Branigan. The critical and commercial reaction to her simple, heartfelt songs and soulful, stripped down delivery was immediate and very positive overall, with her first single “Fast Car” hitting the top 10 and the album being certified platinum six times over. By the following year, she was already a 3-time Grammy winner and one of the bright young stars among a new socially conscious movement in pop music. Like Bragg above, Chapman’s talents were not isolated to political pondering, and the personal nature of her love songs could also be felt through the speakers of your stereo. Kershenbaum could be partly credited for that, with his production successfully toeing a fine line, both presenting a unified and smooth as silk listening experience and making it all sound as intimate as the songs deserved. Search it out and throw it on. You won’t be disappointed.
Honorable Mentions: “Lincoln” They Might be Giants, “Straight Outta Compton” N.W.A., “The Trinity Sessions” Cowboy Junkies, “Naked” Talking Heads, and Melissa Etheridge’s debut.
Okay, so that’s my take on the strongest records of 1988, but I’m sure some of you have your own favorites that I did not even think of. Let me know about it in the comments section!