January 7, 2019

Zen and the Art of Mark Harmon

If Mark Harmon did not exist, man would have to invent him — out of necessity or desire for someone so good and true that he seems too good to be true.

Harmon has played many roles on television and in life. Quarterback at UCLA. Dr. Bobby Caldwell on St. Elsewhere. Special agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs on NCIS. And one that is more obscure: the greatest athlete in the history of Battle of the Network Stars.

But make no mistake. Every part of this story — from the obstacle course to the Tug of War to the time he saved a young man’s life by pulling him from a burning automobile — is true. That’s the way Thomas Mark Harmon would want it.

Like some sort of half-athlete, half-actor mythological creature, Harmon was born in Burbank, Calif., the son of Heisman Trophy winner Tom Harmon and Vogue model and B-movie actress Elyse Knox. Which meant he was perfectly cast in Battle of the Network Stars (1976-1985, 1989), a biannual made-for-television special in which stars from the three broadcast networks competed in various sporting events.

Harmon was not allowed to play quarterback in the 3-on-3 football event, because that’s the position he played at UCLA, where he led the Bruins to an upset of No. 1 Nebraska in his first game.

Instead he did everything else. In four Battles over four years, Harmon won the obstacle course four times, the running relay three times, the swimming relay twice and the kayak and tandem bike relays, and he was the lead man in two Tug of War victories.

Harmon’s finest Battle might have been Battle XI, back when he played Fielding Carlyle on Flamingo Road, helping his team win five events, including the an epic Tug of War in a record 12:53. Or maybe the following spring, when he broke the obstacle course record in 17.50 seconds. But it was probably Battle XVII in December 1984, when he led NBC to six wins — including an interception in the football game — and dunked future love interest Heather Locklear twice in the baseball dunk.

As Battle of the Network Stars ended, Harmon’s run as the most reliable television actor of the past three decades was just beginning. He closed his three-season stint on St. Elsewhere by playing the first television character with AIDS, then played an astronaut in four episodes of Moonlighting (1987), a police detective in Reasonable Doubts (1991-93), a private detective in Charlie Grace (1995-96), a doctor again in Chicago Hope (1996-2000) and a secret service agent in The West Wing (2002) for which he received an Emmy nomination. Since 2003, he has played Leroy Jethro Gibbs in NCIS, television’s highest-rated drama for nearly a decade.

But that’s the resume of a mythological creature. Not the measure of a man.

It was said of James Bond: Women want to be with him. Men want to be him.

James Bond couldn’t carry Mark Harmon’s luggage.

Women want to be with him because he was the Sexiest Man Alive and he has been married to the same woman for 30 years. Men want to be him because he restored a 1972 Vintage Airstream and found the rugged poetry in Coors beer in the 1980s.

Mark Harmon makes the Most Interesting Man in the World seem banal.

He was accepted to law school but became a carpenter instead.

He used to run 60 miles a week and now does Pilates.

He knows sign language. He plays guitar.

But this is the showstopper. On Jan. 4, 1996, a car crashed into a tree, flipped over and burst into flames next door to Harmon’s home in Los Angeles. Harmon broke the passenger window with a sledgehammer and pulled Colin Specht, then 16, to safety. The driver escaped on his own.

“I won’t take credit for it,” he told CBS in 2013. “Because if the card explodes and I’m there next to the car, then you’re talking about two young boys who don’t have a father. And you’d be doing this interview with my wife and talking about how stupid it was.”

That’s the essence of Mark Harmon. In the Tug of War, on television’s highest-rated drama, when saving someone’s life, he does the heavy lifting but won’t take any credit.

On NCIS, Harmon’s character has these rules, pieces of advice he dispenses to those around him, a code by which he lives. He keeps them at home in a small tin.

Rule 11: When the job is done, walk away.
— Kevin Brewer

December 11, 2018

My favorite television, 2018: Cobra Kai

There’s a scene in episode six of the YouTube series Cobra Kai in which Johnny Lawrence sits on the curb outside his strip mall dojo and explains his backstory to one of his students. “Then Daniel LaRusso came to town,” he says. In this version, Daniel is the new kid in school who steals Johnny’s girlfriend, sucker-punches him at the beach and beats him in the All Valley Under-18 Karate Championships with an illegal kick.

Johnny is the Karate Kid. He is the protagonist. Everyone is the star of their own movie or television series, and everyone else is just a supporting player. A wingman, love interest, antagonist or sensei. Only the truly selfless — Mr. Miyagi or Mister Rogers — are immune from this self-satisfying worldview.

It is an ingenious premise: The Karate Kid — 34 years later, from Johnny’s point of view. Johnny is working class. He lives in a one-bedroom apartment. He becomes the sensei of the new kid in town. Daniel owns a chain of successful car dealerships. Beautiful wife, two kids, stunning home. Well-executed 1980s nostalgia in reverse would be good enough, but this series is so much more.

Cobra Kai is my favorite television series of 2018, because it’s about everything: life, redemption, estrangement, bullying and the inability of these two men to leave their high school rivalry behind. The first episode positions Johnny as the face and Daniel as the heel, and the second is Daniel’s story. From there, as Johnny’s rebooted Cobra Kai dojo gains momentum, there are so many twists — particularly with the high school kids — that there is no right or wrong. Just point of view. The morality in The Karate Kid was black and white. Cobra Kai unfolds in the gray areas.

Ralph Macchio, 57, and William Zabka, 53, are back as Daniel and Johnny, and it really helps that they are in fighting shape and look about 10 years younger than they are. Xolo Mariduena (Miguel), Mary Mouser (Daniel’s daughter) and Robby Keene (Johnny’s estranged son) lead a talented group of young actors. Jacob Bertrand’s transformation is noteworthy.

There’s a scene in episode nine where Johnny and Daniel have a few drinks at a bar in the middle of the day. They reminisce about the girl who got away and their seneis, you know, life. It’s their Pacino-De Niro coffee shop scene in Heat, their Chevy Chase-Bill Murray moment in Caddyshack. Just two regular guys trying to walk a mile in another man’s karate gi. But ultimately, each of them will always try to beat the other.

Zabka has put together a real layered performance. He plays Johnny with a sort of spiky charm like late era Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby, Gran Torino) or Dennis Franz on NYPD Blue, with a banquet bottle of Coors in one hand and an outdated flip phone in the other. During their first lesson, he tells Miguel to “leave your asthma and your peanut allergies and all that other made-up bullshit outside.” For Johnny, there is honor in that, living life on his own terms, living in the past, because things were better then.

Cobra Kai is about the redemption of Johnny Lawrence. He is empowering a bunch of “wang-less dorks” to stand up for themselves, even if that means turning the bullied into bullies. He isn’t necessarily a good guy, but he is trying. Zabka, on the other hand, has fully evolved ideas about bullying.

The series is created and produced by Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg (the Harold & Kumar movies) and Josh Heald (Hot Tub Time Machine), and they hold the Karate Kid callbacks mostly in check, but there is some waxing on and off and a trip to Golf N’ Stuff — enough to satisfy hardcore fans. In an era of prestige dramas full of anti-heroes and dark lighting, the Cobra producers have made something more authentic, aiming middle-high, closer to a mid-90s broadcast drama than an HBO series. They are not filmmakers, but they are storytellers.

There’s a scene in the final episode of Cobra Kai — and this is a spoiler alert — when Johnny sits at the desk in his dojo, washing down regret with Jim Beam after the latest All Valley Karate Championships. He has exorcised the ghosts of his past, but also invited them back into his life.
— Kevin Brewer


After exploring the cold war of marriage and the nuclear threat of raising children for six seasons, The Americans delivered one of the best finales of all time. No series mixed music and images better, especially U2’s “With or Without You” and that final train sequence.


There was a sadness in the moral devolution of Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) and Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), but plenty of glee in Jimmy and Kim’s elaborate con that freed Huell. Funny, heartbreaking, better than Breaking Bad. Oh, and those montages.

4. ONE DAY AT A TIME (Netflix)

The best live audience sitcom since, I don’t know, sometime in the 90s. It’s also one of Norman Lear’s best, but Gloria Calderon Kellett and Mike Royce run this timely reboot. Justin Machado’s performance honors mothers, veterans and all those who suffer from depression.

5. GLOW (Netflix)

Written by Nick Jones and Rachel Shukert and directed by Meera Menon, “The Good Twin” was my favorite episode of any series this year — an episode of the fictional G.L.O.W. wrapped inside an episode of GLOW that serviced the entire cast. WTF, Marc Maron is good.


Bill Hader replaced Louis C.K. as comedy’s preeminent polymath — writing, directing, producing and starring as a recovering hitman / wannabe actor and deftly walking the comedy-drama tightrope. Best moment: Henry Winkler finally got that Emmy.

7. BLACK MIRROR (Netflix)

The fourth season was released in the last few days of 2017. At its best, this sci-fi anthology set in the near-future is as good as The Twilight Zone. Its warnings against the dangers of technology feel both timely and eerily prescient. “USS Callister” was the highlight.

8. Pop culture documentaries

The year’s best documentaries focused on some of my favorite subjects: Garry Shandling (directed by Judd Apatow), Robin Williams, Andre the Giant, Johnny Cash (vs. Richard Nixon), Freaks and Geeks and Chris Rock’s Bring the Pain. Hidden gem: “Mork & Mindy” outtakes.

9. Don Giller’s YouTube channel (YouTube)

An archive of Late Night with David Letterman (1982-93) full of essentials, deep cuts and exhaustive collections. From Phil Hartman to “The Chris Elliott Jr. Show” to every time Dave called his mom, Giller’s digitized library kept me from my original programming to-do list.

One note | Atlanta was probably the best reviewed series of the year. It didn’t make my list, because I didn’t see it. Maybe next year.

My 2018 television diary …

January 1

Dave Chappelle: Equanimity

January 2

Todd Barry: Spicy Honey

January 3

Black Mirror [4.1]

Black Mirror [4.2]

January 4

Black Mirror [2.1]

Black Mirror [2.2]

Black Mirror [4.6]

January 5

Black Mirror [3.1]

Black Mirror [3.2]

Black Mirror [3.3]

Black Mirror [2014 special]

January 6


January 11

My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman [1.1] Barack Obama

January 12

Late Night with David Letterman [Jan. 5, 1993] Art Donovan, Al Franken, Carolyn Jabs

January 13

Saturday Night Live [43.10] Sam Rockwell

January 14

I, TONYA [2018]

January 15

Truth and Lies: The Tonya Harding Story [2018]

January 18

Crashing [2.1]

January 19


Real Time with Bill Maher [16.1]

January 20

Later with Bob Costas [April 4, 1989] Kevin Bacon

Later with Bob Costas [Feb. 5-6, 1992] Oliver Stone

Johnny Carson [Jan. 17, 1974] Robyn Hilton, Fernando Llamas, Richard Pryor, William Peter Blatty

January 21

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee [Norm Macdonald]

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee [Michael Richards]

January 25

Later with Bob Costas [May 24-25, 1989] Tom Snyder

Later with Bob Costas [Feb. 21, 1994] Tom Snyder

January 26

One Day at a Time [2.1]

One Day at a Time [2.2]

One Day at a Time [2.3]

One Day at a Time [2.4]

January 27

One Day at a Time [2.5]

One Day at a Time [2.6]

One Day at a Time [2.7]

One Day at a Time [2.8]

January 28

Real Time with Bill Maher [16.2]

Crashing [2.2]

One Day at a Time [2.9]

One Day at a Time [2.10]

One Day at a Time [2.11]

Crashing [2.3]

January 31

One Day at a Time [2.12]

One Day at a Time [2.13]

Doogie Howser, M.D. [3.24]

February 1

Barney Miller [2.11]

February 2

Johnny Carson [Feb. 1, 1989] Martin Short, Isabella Rosselini, Gene Fleming

February 3

Real Time with Bill Maher [16.3]


February 4

Crashing [2.4]

February 5

Nightline Up Close [July 2002] David Letterman

February 9

My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman [1.2] George Clooney

February 11

Crashing [2.4]

February 17


February 18

Later with Bob Costas [March 21, 1991] Howard Stern / guest host: Tom Snyder

February 20

Crashing [2.5]

February 24

Later with Bob Costas [July 10, 1990] Don Hewitt, Part 2

Everything Sucks [1.1]

Everything Sucks [1.2]

Dinner for Five [4.1] David Milch, Jay Mohr, Timothy Olyphant, Michael Rapaport

Dinner for Five [2.12] Judd Apatow, Peter Berg, Famke Janessen, Paul Rudd

Dinner for Five [3.10] Danny Aiello, Delroy Lindo, Colin Quinn, John Waters

Dinner for Five [1.7] Saffron Burrows, Faizon Love, Michael Rapaport, Sarah Silverman

Dinner for Five [3.9] Burt Reynolds, Dom DeLuise, Charles Durning, Charles Nelson Reilly

Dinner for Five [3.6] Ted Danson, Mary Steenburgen, Laura Dern, Ernie Hudson

February 25

Hiking with Kevin [2017] Bella Thorne

Cheers [1.5]

The Bob Newhart Show [2.7]

The Mary Tyler Moore Show [1.5]

Taxi [1.7]

February 27

Dinner for Five [3.14] Neve Campbell, Henry Winkler, Dave Foley, Jeff Garlin

Dinner for Five [4.10] Christina Ricci, Steven Drozd, Adam Goldberg, Giovanni Ribisi

February 28

Dinner for Five [3.11] Alan Cumming, Amy Irving, Faizon Love, Isaac Mizrahi

Dinner for Five [3.12] David Cross, Philip Baker Hall, George Hickenlooper, Molly Shannon

Dinner for Five [3.13] Richard Donner, Ron Eldard, Michael Madsen, Ray Romano

Dinner for Five [2.7] Vince Vaughn, Rory Cochrane, Brian Cox, Cole Hauser

March 1

Dinner for Five [1.6] Sean Astin, Bonnie Hunt, Kevin James, Ray Romano

Dinner for Five [1.9] David Cross, Famke Janssen, Denis Leary, Martha Plimpton

March 2

Later with Bob Costas [xx] Glen Charles, Les Charles and James Burrows, Part 1

Later with Bob Costas [xx] Glen Charles, Les Charles and James Burrows, Part 2

March 3

Wrestlemania X [March 20, 1994]

March 10

Late Late Show with Tom Snyder [Feb. 28, 1996] Garry Shandling

March 18

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon [2015]

The Monday Night War: WWE vs. WCW [1.19] The Fall of WCW

March 19

The Monday Night War: WWE vs. WCW [1.6] The Hart of War

March 22

Ricky Gervais meets … Garry Shandling [2006]

March 25

Barry [1.1]

Silicon Valley [5.1]

March 27

The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling, Part 1 [2018]

March 28

The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling, Part 1 [2018]

March 29

The Americans [6.1]

April 1

Roseanne [10.2]

NYPD Blue [1.1]

NYPD Blue [1.2]

Silicon Valley [5.2]

Later with Bob Costas [Dec. 12, 1989] Steven Bochco

Later with Greg Kinnear [1996] Steven Bochco

April 2

Barry [1.2]

April 5

The Americans [6.2]

April 6

My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman [1.4] Jay-Z

April 7

Real Time with Bill Maher [16.10] Geraldo Rivera, Louie Anderson

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee [Seth Meyers]

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee [Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks]

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee [Julia Louis-Dreyfus]

April 8


April 9

Silicon Valley [5.3]

Barry [1.3]

April 10

Andre the Giant [HBO, 2018]

April 12

The Americans [6.3]

April 13

Conan [April 11, 2014] Conan in Italy with Jordan Schlansky

BORG vs. McENROE [2018]

April 14

Real Time with Bill Maher [16.11] Andy Cohen

April 15

Silicon Valley [5.4]

Barry [1.4]

April 17

Harry Anderson collection on Late Night, 1982-87

April 18

The Americans [6.4]

April 19

Cheers [11.19] Guest star | Harry Anderson

April 21

Real Time with Bill Maher [16.12]

NYPD Blue [1.22]

NYPD Blue [6.6]

NYPD Blue [6.7]

April 22

NYPD Blue [6.8]

Silicon Valley [5.5]

Barry [1.5]

NYPD Blue [1.5]

NYPD Blue [1.8]

April 23

Sports Century: Jimmy Connors

April 24

Larry King Now [2015] Andy Richter

April 25

The Americans [6.5]

April 26

Larry King Now [2015] Mark Harmon

April 27

Real Time with Bill Maher [16.13]

April 28


April 28

Silicon Valley [5.6]

Barry [1.6]

May 2

The Americans [6.6]

Cobra Kai [1.1]

Cobra Kai [1.2]

Cobra Kai [1.3]

Cobra Kai [1.4]

Cobra Kai [1.5]

May 3

Cobra Kai [1.6]

Cobra Kai [1.7]

Cobra Kai [1.8]

Cobra Kai [1.9]

Cobra Kai [1.10]

My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman [1.5] Tina Fey

May 5

Real Time with Bill Maher [16.14]

May 6

Silicon Valley [5.7]

Barry [1.7]

May 8

Cobra Kai [1.1]

Cobra Kai [1.2]

Larry King Now [2014] Cast of Silicon Valley

May 9

Cobra Kai [1.3]

Cobra Kai [1.4]

The Americans [6.7]

May 10

Cobra Kai [1.5]

May 12

Cobra Kai [1.6]

May 13

Silicon Valley [5.8]

Barry [1.8]

May 16

Cobra Kai [1.7]

May 17

The Americans [6.8]

HOT FUZZ [2007]

May 19


MACHETE [2010]

May 21

Cobra Kai [1.9]

Cobra Kai [1.10]

May 24

The Americans [6.9]

May 28

DEADPOOL 2 [2018]

May 29

Sports Century: Jimmy Connors

May 30

The Americans [6.10]

My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman [1.6] Howard Stern

My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman [Bonus] Jerry Seinfeld

June 6

The Toys That Made Us [2.1] Star Trek

June 9


June 12

The Toys That Made Us [2.3] LEGO

The Toys That Made Us [2.4] Hello Kitty

June 15

Real Time with Bill Maher [16.19]

June 22

Real Time with Bill Maher [16.20]

June 23


June 29

GLOW [2.1]

GLOW [2.2]

GLOW [2.3]

GLOW [2.4]

GLOW [2.5]

GLOW [2.6]

GLOW [2.7]

June 30

GLOW [2.8]

GLOW [2.9]

GLOW [2.10]

July 1

Real Time with Bill Maher [16.21]

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee [Jim Gaffigan]

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee [Fred Armisen]

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee [Garry Shandling]

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee [Cedric the Entertainer]

July 6

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee [2018.10] Kate McKinnon

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee [2018.6] Dana Carvey

July 7

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee [2018.1] Zach Galifianakis

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee [2018.2] Dave Chappelle

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee [2018.3] Ellen DeGeneres

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee [2018.4] Tracy Morgan

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee [2018.5] Brian Regan

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee [2018.7] Hasan Minhaj

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee [2018.8] Neal Brennan

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee [2018.9] John Mulaney

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee [2018.11] Alec Baldwin

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee [2018.12] Jerry Lewis

July 8

Tom Snyder [Dec. 1, 1994] Bob Newhart, Calvert DeForest

July 10

Big Bucks: The Press Your Luck Scandal [2003]

July 14


July 15


July 16

Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind [2018]

Cultureshock: Freaks and Geeks: The Documentary [July 16, 2018]

August 4

Real Time with Bill Maher [16.22]

August 7

Better Call Saul [4.1]

August 10

Barney Miller [5.10] The Radical

August 11

Real Time with Bill Maher [16.23]

August 12


Barney Miller [6.9]

August 13


August 14


Better Call Saul [4.2]

August 18

Real Time with Bill Maher [16.24]

August 25


August 26

Remote Control [Dec. 10, 1987] LL Cool J, Weird Al Yankovic, Julie Brown

Remote Control [Dec. 14, 1987] Danny Bonaduce, Butch Patrick, Brandon Cruz

Remote Control [1988] Bob Eubanks

Remote Control [Sept. 23, 1989] Barry Williams, Susan Olsen, Eve Plumb

August 27

Better Call Saul [4.3]

August 28

Better Call Saul [4.4]

August 30

Don Rickles: One Night Only [2014]

September 1

DIE HARD [1988]

September 2

The Brady Bunch 35th Anniversary Reunion Special: Still Brady After All These Years [2004]

Brady: An American Chronicle [1995]

September 3

Ozark [2.1]

Ozark [2.2]

Ozark [2.3]

Ozark [2.4]

Ozark [2.5]

September 4

Better Call Saul [4.5]

Ozark [2.6]

Ozark [2.7]

Ozark [2.8]

Ozark [2.9]

Ozark [2.10]

September 8


Johnny Carson [Oct. 2, 1973] Dean Martin, Buddy Hackett, Burt Reynolds, Don Rickles, Carol Wayne

Dinner for Five [3.9] Burt Reynolds, Dom DeLuise, Charles Durning, Charles Nelson Reilly

September 9

Smokey and the Bandit [1977]

September 10

Better Call Saul [4.6]

September 15

Norm Macdonald Has a Show [1.1] David Chase

Norm Macdonald Has a Show [1.3] Judge Judy

Norm Macdonald Has a Show [1.4] David Letterman

Norm Macdonald Has a Show [1.6] Chevy Chase

Norm Macdonald Has a Show [1.8] Michael Keaton

Norm Macdonald Has a Show [1.10] Lorne Michaels

September 16

Norm Macdonald Has a Show [1.2] Drew Barrymore

September 17

Better Call Saul [4.7]

September 18

Public Enemy: Prophets of Rage [2011]

September 19

House of Strombo [Sept. 16, 2018] Beastie Boys

September 20

Johnny Cash vs. Music Row [Sept. 1, 2004]

September 22

Real Time with Bill Maher [16.28] Michael Moore

September 25

Better Call Saul [4.8]

September 27

Johnny Cash: American Rebel [2015]

September 29

Real Time with Bill Maher [16.29]

Tough Crowd [April 10, 2003] Jon Stewart, Nick DiPaolo, Jim Norton, Ellen Cleghorn


October 2

Better Call Saul [4.9]

October 6

Real Time with Bill Maher [16.30] Jeff Bridges

The Nineties [1.1] The One About TV: Part 1

The Nineties [1.2] The One About TV: Part 1

The Nineties [1.3] Isn’t It Ironic?

October 7

The Nineties [1.4] The Comeback Kid

October 9

Better Call Saul [4.10]

October 13

Real Time with Bill Maher [16.31]

October 14

The Seventies [1.8] What’s Going On

October 19

Real Time with Bill Maher: Anniversary Special

October 27

Real Time with Bill Maher [16.32]

October 30


November 1


November 2

Hip-Hop Evolution [1.3] The New Guard

Hip-Hop Evolution [1.4] The Birth of Gangsta Rap

November 3

Real Time with Bill Maher [16.33]

Barney Miller [6.17]

November 9

ReMastered Track 2: Tricky Dick and the Man in Black [2018]

November 10

Real Time with Bill Maher [16.34]

November 11

Later with Bob Costas [Dec. 23, 1991] Chris Elliott

November 14

Larry King Now [Feb. 15, 2018] Stan Lee

November 17

Real Time with Bill Maher [16.35]

November 18

Hiking with Kevin [2018] Kate Beckinsale

November 23

Growing Pains [5.13]

November 24

Hiking with Kevin [2018] David Spade

Hiking with Kevin [2018] Kumail Nanjiani

December 2

Bumping Mics [1.1]

December 6

Cultureshock: Chris Rock’s “Bring the Pain” [Oct. 15, 2018]

December 7

Hiking with Kevin [2018] “Weird Al” Yankovic

October 22, 2018

My favorite albums (1980s), vol. 3

Why am I writing this? I mean, Best 80s Albums. Who cares? Hell, it’s my list and even I don’t care.

The better question is why are you reading this? I mean, I don’t know if you know this, but there’s a whole lot of stuff on the internet. You could be looking at Impeachment Porn. I do that a lot. Or Food Porn. Or Regular Porn. Or Irregular Porn. How’s this for a new category: “Irregular Food Impeachment Porn.” Makes a list of Best 80s Albums seem pretty palatable, doesn’t it?

So, naturally, before coming up with my own list, I looked at a few lists that already exist. There must be 80 thousand lists of Best 80s Albums. And, needless to say, they all suck. Who would go to all the trouble of listening to every album made in the 1980s, then put them in the wrong order? But, as my list is about to prove, they all did.

Actually, one of the people responsible for all this Listomania. (Wait, wasn’t that a Roger Daltrey album? No, I looked it up. It was a movie. And it’s Lisztomania. It wasn’t going to be on my list anyway.) That’s something you couldn’t do in the 80s, look something up on Google. You wanted to find out of if Listomania was an album or a movie and whether it had a Z in the middle, it might take you an hour. And once you finally found it, the pressure on your steam-powered computer had gone down, so you had to shovel in more coal, wash your hands. I’m telling you, it was a miracle anything ever got written.

What was I saying? Oh yeah, Listomania. One of the guys responsible for all this was legendary LA Times rock critic Robert Hilburn. He had a list for everything. I remember he once wrote this gigantic piece about how he decided to move Born in the U.S.A. to No.1 on his list for Best Albums of 1984 over Purple Rain. Wow. And it’s not impossible that I ran it The News & Observer. Seems dumb now, but as we used to say in the 80s, “It was the 80s.”

So, a friend of mine actually met Robert Hilburn. It was July, and Hilburn asked him what his top 10 albums of the year were so far. My friend explained that he usually waits till all the summer releases come out before painstakingly compiling such a list. Hilburn seemed to buy it. The details may be sketchy, but I’m not making that up.

So, what the hell. Here’s my list. And I’m not going to apologize for not putting Grandmaster Flash on it, I don’t care how furious all five of them get.
— Bob Langford

10. A FLOCK OF SEAGULLS (1982) A Flock of Seagulls

In addition to representing all the ridiculousness of the 80s, they’re on the list for a couple reasons. First, “I Ran” is a great song with a so-bad-it’s-great video that everyone in America saw 3 million times. And “Space Age Love Song” and “Telecommunication” are still fun to hear.

Oh, and Jules doesn’t mention The Cure in Pulp Fiction. What does he call that guy on the couch right before he blows his head off? That’s right, Flock of Seagulls.

And the Flock’s drummer, Ali Score, lives in the Triangle. Wake Forest, I think. He even has a LinkedIn page. The first listing is “Original Drummer, Flock of Seagulls,” and the next one is “Production Manager, Microtouch Systems.” This album ought to be on this list just because Alister (that’s his real name, I looked it up) Score convinced a hiring manager that being the drummer in Flock of Seagulls was perfect experience to be the production manager at some company.

There’s another reason. When I was just a young cable journalist, the Seagulls showed up in Chapel Hill. And my last question to Mike Score, the one with the hair, was about four guys from Liverpool and comparisons to … and before I could finish the question, he stopped me. Here’s what he said: “We’re not the Beatles. We’re just a Flock of Seagulls.”

I have gathered quotes in 38 states and 17 countries (you can look it up on LinkedIn) and that may have been the best quote I’ve ever gotten. Yup, Flock of Seagulls is on the list.

Producers | Mike Howlett, Bill Nelson  Label | Jive  Released | April 30, 1982

9. COSMIC THING (1989) B-52’s

So, the B-52’s were playing in Carmichael Auditorium, which, for the record, was one horrible place to see a concert. It had all the lousy acoustics of Dorton Arena, with none of the architectural significance. (That’s one reason it was an absolutely spectacular place to see a basketball game.)

So, it made sense to go over there with a camera and see if we could shoot the setup. You know, weird-looking B-52 fans streaming in (think opening scene of Spinal Tap but with bigger hair) maybe catch a bit of the sound check, start talking with Kate Pierson and then one thing would lead to another and I could quit my crappy cable news job and run off with the B-52’s.

I went there with my regular shooter, a guy called Beve, and we were approached by an official-looking dude with a clipboard. If we were carrying a bazooka that fired anthrax pellets he couldn’t have freaked out any worse. The conversation went something like this:

Clipboard Guy: “Hey motherbleepers, where the bleepingbleep do you think you’re going with that bleeping thing.”

Me: “Umm, hi, we’re from the local cable channel and we just thought.”

Clipboard Guy: “You just bleeping thought you’d shoot a bleeping video and show it on bleeped-up MTV. Get the bleep out of here. Bleepholes.”

And that’s the cleaned-up version.

Now, Beve was as good shooter, but the idea that the two of us were gonna crank out a music video that would get international play from a soundcheck shot in the place with the worst acoustics in the world is ridiculous. Besides, if he had just waited a couple weeks it wouldn’t have mattered. MTV was gonna stop showing music videos anyway.

Also, even though it isn’t on Cosmic Thing, Kate Pierson’s ending trill on “Rock Lobster” is about the greatest 20 seconds of non-word vocals ever recorded (Clare Torry on “Great Gig in the Sky” notwithstanding).

Producers | Nile Rodgers, Don Was  Label | Reprise  Released | June 27, 1989

8. AFOOT (1983) Let’s Active

OK, it’s only an EP, but any list of 80s albums should include an EP. First, it makes the person writing it seems so clever and insidey. “You want me to write about obscure albums from 35 years ago? That’s way too on-the-nose. I’m gonna write about things that weren’t even albums.” And EPs just seem so dumb. Come on, you couldn’t muster up a 9-minute cover of “Louie, Louie” to round things out?

And because of, shall we say, current events, there is this Let’s Active line that gets more airplay in my head than anything else. It’s this one from “Every Word Means No”:

It used to be no words could come between us
Any time was right for secret meetings

First, rhyming “between us” with “meetings” is either an inspired use of assonance, or the laziest lyric writing ever. No matter. It works great. Cut to 2018, and I can’t watch 10 minutes of Impeachment Porn without someone mentioning … wait for it … a secret meeting between a Trump stooge and some nefarious dude. If no one is around, I’ll just yell out: “Any time was right for secret meetings.” (And if someone is next to me, I’ll just yell it in my head.)

So, thanks, Mitch Easter. Your words give us hope in these difficult times.

Producer | Mitch Easter  Label | I.R.S. Records  Released | 1983


During my early days at the newspaper, it wasn’t very often that an album fell so far down the food chain that it landed on my desk. Somehow this one did.

So, our society writer (yes, we had one of those back then) walks by my desk and says real loud: “Ohhhhh, The Unforgettable Fiiiiiiiire.” And she said it in this snarky, rock-and-roll will be over in another two years and we can go back to listening to Perry Como, sort of way. Kind of like Bruno Kirby’s limo driver in Spinal Tap. That made me like this album more than I should have. Felt I owed it to U2. Besides, it was good then and it still is.

“A Sort of Homecoming” kicks it off with that great Adam Clayton bassline, and “Bad” at Live Aid is what turned U2 into U2.

Watch the clip. Bono still had eyeballs. Edge still had hair. Music still had the power to unite. And that little Stones/Lou Reed homage at the end was perfect for that day, and forever. Eat it, society columnist. We still have music, at least kind of, but we no longer have you.

So yes, “Ohhhhhh, The Unforgettable Fiiiiiiiire.”

Producers | Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois  Label | Island  Released | October 1, 1984

6. MAKING MOVIES (1980) Dire Straits

I wish I had a great, or an even decent story about Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits. I don’t. All I know is, this was the best Dire Straits album and it’s loaded with so many great songs that you can’t remember them all.

At a time when songs clocked in at a cool 2:25, this was loaded with epics. “Skateaway,” “Tunnel of Love,” “Romeo and Juliet.” Three great songs, one great first side. The entire first side.

And the best song on the album might be “Expresso Love.” If some coffee company were clever, they’d buy the rights, change it to “Espresso Love” and we could all complain about it but secretly think it’s cool and buy their espresso.

And it has some of the greatest keyboard work you’ll hear, because Roy Bittan stopped by from the E Street Band to balance out the great guitar and the, well, understated vocals. And I always liked that Dire Straits had a drummer named Pick.

I also still had that crappy job, and putting this album on the turntable (no, that’s really how we heard music back then) helped me through it.

And while we’re on the subject, one of the reasons Local Hero is one of the best movies of the 80s, is Mark Knopler’s music. Really, it’s wonderful. If you’ve seen the movie, it’ll make you weep. If you haven’t seen Local Hero, you should weep about your wasted life.

Producers | Jimmy Iovine, Mark Knopfler  Label | Warner Bros.  Released | October 17, 1980

5. PURPLE RAIN (1984) Prince

Ladies and gentlemen, The Revolution.

So, as I mentioned, I was looking at lists of 80s albums before compiling my own. And one guy had Purple Rain at No. 76. Seventy-freaking-six. Really? Prince couldn’t crack the top 75 for this guy?

Spin did a whole oral history for the 25th anniversary of Purple Rain, and it’s a great read.

This piece would have been done last week if I hadn’t wasted all that time reading it. (But it wasn’t a complete waste of time. I learned that Prince’s favorite thing to eat was spaghetti with orange juice.)

You don’t need me, or anyone else to list why Purple Rain is one of the best albums of any decade. Dig, if you will, the fifth-best album of the 80s.

Producer | Prince  Label | Warner Bros.  Released | June 25, 1984

4. BORN IN THE U.S.A. (1984) Bruce Springsteen

It has to be one better than Purple Rain. The guy who invented Listomania has so declareth.

I have to admit that the buffed-up, headband wearing Bruce was my least favorite. Too on-the-nose. That doesn’t mean the album isn’t great, even if it’s Bruce’s, maybe, fifth-best album. And, probably more importantly, this was the beginning of what we know as Bruce Springsteen. It all started when Bruce told Ronald Regan that he couldn’t steal his song.

And while the line from “Glory Days” “he could throw that speedball by ya” still sounds kind of clunky, it does have a great video. This was the 80s — the video was more important than the music. This was billed as Bruce’s first non-concert video, even though it’s mostly a concert video.

It opens with The Boss being an employee sitting in the cab of a bulldozer. Then, after work, he heads to the park, plops down a bucket of balls and starts pitching to this piece of wood with a strike zone painted on it. (Unfortunately, and there’s no good way to say this, Bruce went to the Tim Robbins School of Pitching. No wonder he wound up working construction.)

His kid asks him how he pitched, and Bruce says: “Nettles got me … bottom of the ninth.” And his first wife, Julianne Phillips (again, I had to look it up), pulls up in her beat-up station wagon and waves for him to come home. As we’ve all gotten older, we’ve had to own up to the fact that we’re not gonna pitch in the bigs. Just like Bruce.

Producers | Jon Landau, Chuck Plotkin, Bruce Springsteen, Steven Van Zandt  Label | Columbia  Released | June 4, 1984

3. PAUL WELLER, Different Incarnations

Don’t bother looking this up. There is no Paul Weller album called “Different Incarnation” (although that is a great name for an album, especially a Paul Weller album).

I almost put The Cure here. And then I was gonna put R.E.M. in the three-spot, but I didn’t want to type those stupid periods every time. Besides, Automatic for the People is their best album and it technically doesn’t qualify for Best Albums of the 80s. And The English Beat was here for a while because they represented all the ska bands like The Specials and The Selecter. And I was all set to include London Calling and tell my cool story of making a pilgrimage to Mick Jones’s London office, but it came out in 1979.

Then it hit me. There’s no Paul Weller on this list. What? How can you have a list of Best 80s Albums and leave off Paul Weller?

First there’s the Jam — kind of invented angry British youth music, dinnit? Listen to Sound Affects and you want to become a soccer hooligan, at least for 35 minutes. Then, Weller makes this 180 and forms The Style Council, a sort of dancy, bouncy, horn and keyboard band. Bruce Jenner didn’t make a bigger transition.

And I understand that hardcore Jam fans don’t care for the change (probably the same people who are still mad Dylan went electric) but I thought CafĂ© Bleu was great fun then and still do now.

“My Ever Changing Moods” is an all-time fave, and the slow, piano version that’s actually on the album might be even better. And find me a cooler opening lick than “You’re the Best Thing.” And if you watch the video, you’ll see Paul Weller pick this little piece of lint off his sweater around 50 seconds. So Modfather. And I still get chills at the end.

And since then he’s been cranking out interesting stuff, doing smaller tours and living the life that every musician from the 80s should be: Paying homage to the past but still looking forward.

Poor man’s Bowie? Maybe. But still pretty rich.

2. THE SMITHS, Strangely, Meat is Dead

The four real Smiths albums really are one giant an album. They all worked the same way: Johnny Marr would whip out a handful of super-cool, melodic licks a day, Morrissey would listen to them, explain how he used to be miserable, is miserable now, and probably will be miserable later. Throw in a George Eliot reference or two and there’s your album.

The beauty of the Smiths is how a song like “Girlfriend in a Coma” has the prettiest melody you’ve ever heard, the lyrics are about as distasteful a subject as you can think of, yet you can’t imagine changing anything. The sweet-and-sour pork of 80s music.

Besides, I came to the Smiths late. I dunno, I had a job. And kids. But once I figured out what I’d been missing, I was all in for all their stuff. So if it came from Meat is Murder or The Queen is Dead or some obscure EP, I didn’t care. I was ready to make a pilgrimage to the Salford Lads Club. (Yes, that’s Ryan Adams, who did just that.)

And a couple of Christmases ago, I got my wonderful daughter-in-law A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of The Smiths. Yes, if all your daughter-in-law wants for Christmas is a book about the Smiths that’s so big you can’t carry it with one hand, she automatically qualifies as wonderful. Just like the Smiths.

1. THE JOSHUA TREE (1987) U2

Remember when U2 was on the cover of Time after Joshua Tree came out? And there was this picture of The Edge with an ace of spades tucked into his hat band.

I remember my ex-father-in-law laughing about that. He was a funny guy, my ex-father-in-law. See, he went to State, but lived in Durham so he was always surrounded by Duke guys. And he used to tell this joke.

“I got tickets to the Duke football game, but they didn’t have the starting time on them. So I called the Duke football office and said, ‘what time is kickoff on Saturday?’ And the person on the phone didn’t say anything for a second. Umm, when does the game start on Saturday? Finally, she said, well, ‘what time can you be here’?”

The chance to tell that joke is not the only reason Joshua Tree is on the list. It’s also really great. And, most importantly, it got me through an ice storm where I had no power for three days. Somehow, I had this battery-powered CD player and must have listened to Joshua Tree 50 times. It was a semi-religious experience, just listening to that album over and over again in the cold and the dark and eating everything I had that didn’t need to be cooked.

Believe me, I knew what looking for: a forth pair of socks. Now, every time I hear something from Joshua Tree, the toes in my left foot go kind of numb.

And with any really good album — or movie or team, now that I think about it — it’s about the supporting cast. “Red Hill Mining Town,” “Trip Through Your Wires,” “One Tree Hill.” They’re just great. And that’s why it’s the Best Album of the 80s. At least it is right now. If I have to write this again in 10 years, it might not be.

That’s the beauty of writing about something from 35 years ago. I believe it was Faulkner, or maybe it was Michael Stipe who said: “The past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past. But it does tend to get a little blurry.”

Producer | Daniel Lanois, Brian Enoe  Label | Island  Released | March 9, 1987

Among Bob’s incarnations, he was entertainment editor, then TV critic at The Raleigh News & Observer and features reporter at WRAL-TV. He was also advisor to N.C. State’s student newspaper, where he first encountered the ne’er-do-well associated with this web site.