October 8, 2018

My favorite albums (1980s), vol. 2

Let me go ahead and admit something up front: This is about as white of a list as you will get. I fully recognize that. The “ask” was for my 10 favorite albums of the 1980s. As a suburban white kid growing up in the South with (at the time) minimal exposure to genres outside of college rock, alternative and a little metal, this is what you get. It is what it is and all that. I make no apologies. I loved these albums then, and I love them perhaps even more now. Let’s go on a journey while I explain why, shall we?
— Matt Lail

1. BOYLAN HEIGHTS (1987) The Connells

I know, I know. Can this album — named for a neighborhood in Raleigh, N.C. — really be at the top of someone’s list of favorite albums of the 1980s? Ahead of such giants as … oh, crap. Probably shouldn’t give anything away just yet. But Boylan Heights is a ridiculously complete album. From the Celtic-tinged opening of “Scotty’s Lament,” to the pace of “Try” and the horn fills in “Over There,” it holds up so incredibly well 30 years later. The fact that it was created by five guys from Raleigh doesn’t hurt. They were normal dudes like me! And only one of them (occasionally) even had long hair! If R.E.M. (more on them shortly) proved that you didn’t have to leave the South to be a successful rock band, The Connells took that sentiment to an even more micro level. But even beyond regionalism, there is a reason why The Connells were often spoken in the same sentence as R.E.M. and U2. This album shows why.

Producer | Mitch Easter  Label | TVT  Released | 1987

2a. THE JOSHUA TREE (1987) U2

Not many albums are good enough to warrant a tour three decades after its release, but The Joshua Tree is not just any album. Even people who aren’t U2 fans immediately recognize the first half of this album. This is a milestone record not just for a band but for an era. This was the album that served notice that U2 was the “biggest band in the world,” landing them on the cover of Time — and immediately turning them into everyone’s favorite band to make fun of. You can argue that this is a front-loaded album, thanks to “Where The Streets Have No Name,” “With Or Without You” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and even “Bullet the Blue Sky” and “Running To Stand Still,” but there are some definite gems in the latter half, notably “In God’s Country,” “One Tree Hill” and “Mothers of the Disappeared.” This is U2 at their peak — a loft that very few can touch even now.

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

2b. DOCUMENT (1987) R.E.M.

Damn, 1987 was a good year for music. But I digress. I must take a moment to thank my good friend, Chase Ferrell, for introducing me to this album. He gave me a double-cassette. One side was the Joshua Tree, while Document was on the flip side. Those two albums (and bands) have been intricately linked for me ever since. Quite honestly, aside from Boylan Heights, I could probably make an argument for the best albums of the ‘80s to ONLY come from U2 and R.E.M. Admittedly, it took more time to warm up to Document vs. Joshua Tree. Even the two “hits” from Document are not your typical mainstream radio singles. “The One I Love” is a minor-key ode diss track (before that was really a thing) — and a song that essentially repeats the same verse over and over AND has a one-word chorus. What “The One I Love” lacks in verbiage, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” makes up for it — in buckets. It’s almost a novelty song — but it is damn catchy. The rest of the album is kinda weird, but in true R.E.M. fashion, it gives us a world of oddfellows, laborers and Southern misfits. (Random note: I once realized that — save for the last track, “King of Birds” — every song on Document starts with percussion. Nice going, Bill Berry!)

Producer | Scott Litt, R.E.M.  Label | I.R.S.  Released | September 1, 1987

4. WAR (1983) U2

Before U2 could become the heavyweights, they had to be the young upstarts. War is the band shooting across the bow. Before the four boys from Ireland embraced America, they first had to educate Americans on all the crap that was going on in their homeland. Thanks to War, we paid attention — and still do. This album is the logical step up from the teenage anxiety and spiritual examinations of “Boy” and the Cold War gloom of “October.” There are few better album openers than “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” “New Year’s Day” was a radio and MTV staple, and “40” — based on a Bible verse — was the band’s standard concert closer for years. War made it to No. 12 in the States but knocked Michael Jackson’s Thriller off the top of the charts in the UK.

Producer | Steve Lillywhite  Label | Island  Released | February 28, 1983

5. STRANGEWAYS, HERE WE COME (1987) The Smiths

When my sister, who is eight years older than me, came home from college one weekend in 1987, she brought me two cassettes that she had been exposed to and wanted to share with me. One was Poison’s Look What the Cat Dragged In. The other was the Smiths’ Strangeways, Here We Come. I was flummoxed at first. The music was captivating; the singer’s voice was … odd, as if someone was doing a mock Broadway voice. I wasn’t sure how to take it. But man, oh, man for a teenager (already) frustrated about love and loss (“Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me” was essentially my teenage torch song) and worried about “fitting in,” this album was a godsend. I remember thinking, “I can’t wait to see these guys in concert!” Sadly, this was the Smiths’ last album. The Queen is Dead is usually noted as their best album, but this one holds a special place in my heart, and I think it’s a more cohesive, complete album. There is not a single bad song on this album. It is darkly funny, introspective and cutting. It’s hard to get more vile than “Unhappy Birthday.” Check out these lyrics; what 13-year-old boy wouldn’t love this?

I’ve come to wish you an unhappy birthday
I’ve come to wish you an unhappy birthday
’Cause you’re evil
And you lie
And if you should die
I may feel slightly sad
(But I won’t cry)

Or take “Girlfriend in a Coma”:

Girlfriend in a coma, I know
I know, it’s serious
Girlfriend in a coma, I know
I know, it’s really serious
There were times when I could
Have murdered her
But you know, I would hate
Anything to happen to her

Lovely, isn’t it? And even the homage to (or warning of?) repackaging and reissuing music after the death of an artist was an ironic signal from a band about to breakup:

At the record company meeting
On their hands — a dead star
And oh, the plans they weave
And oh, the sickening greed …

Best of! Most of!
Satiate the need
Slip them into different sleeves!
Buy both, and feel deceived

Good times. Not surprising, the Smiths have not gone overboard with “greatest hits” or “best of …” compilations since they broke up. Nor have they succumbed to the pressures of reunion shows/tours. Which is too bad. I’d still like to see them in concert.

Producer | Johnny Marr, Morrissey, Stephen Street  Label | Sire  Released | September 28, 1987

6. … AND JUSTICE FOR ALL (1988) Metallica

What R.E.M. did for college radio, Metallica did for heavy metal. … And Justice for All exposed so many boys to thrash metal. (Let’s be honest: very few girls were into metal.) My friends and I would watch, rewind and re-watch the “One” video over and over and over. The song was epic. I also still remember spending hours trying to learn how to play it on guitar. That was a badge of honor. This album has been criticized in recent years because there is virtually no bass on it — for whatever nefarious reason, Jason Newsted’s bass work was mixed out and replaced by layer upon layer of guitars. No matter. It’s phenomenal. The only reason it’s probably not higher on this list is because of the length of some songs, namely the title track. But thanks to Metallica and to this album, I learned to appreciate bands like Anthrax, Megadeth, Testament and Pantera. Oh, and to this day I am still bummed that I didn’t get to go to the Cumberland County Civic Center to see Metallica on the “Damaged Justice” tour. I had to hear about it at school the next day or so from all my friends. Jerks.

Producer | James Hetfield, Flemming Rasmussen, Lars Ulrich  Label | Elektra  Released | August 25, 1988

7. GREEN (1988) R.E.M.

Released (purposely) on Election Day 1988, Green was R.E.M.’s “sellout” album after signing a gargantuan contract with Warner Bros. Well, it was supposed to be their sellout album. Yes, it was a big commercial success thanks to the single “Stand,” and there was even the aptly-named “Pop Song ’89.” But it showed them continuing to stretch themselves musically. It’s almost like they said, “Everybody is expecting this to be a disaster. Let’s include lots of mandolin on some songs! And why not a song about a lonely, house-bound child?” This album mesmerized me to the point where, on a Peach Bowl trip from Dunn, N.C., to Atlanta, I listened to nothing but Green. (That was also when I noticed that, if you looked at the cassette cover just so, you could make out a “4” hidden behind the “Rs” in “GREEN” and “R.E.M.” WHAT DID THAT MEAN!???) A few months later, I went all DIY and wrote the lyrics to “World Leader Pretend” on a T-shirt. That seemed very Michael Stipe-ish to me. (I don’t think I ever wore the shirt — which is NOT very Michael Stipe-ish.) Brian Raynor and I had the pleasure of seeing the “Green” tour in Greensboro (later made into an album). My parents were nice enough to take us. My folks snuck in to the Greensboro Coliseum during the (second?) encore, just in time to see Stipe shirtless. “He should really have had a shirt on,” my mom said on the ride home.

Producer | Scott Litt, R.E.M.  Label | Warner Bros.  Released | November 7, 1988

8. MURMUR (1983) R.E.M.

Despite how HUGE Michael Jackson’s Thriller was in 1983, it was Murmur that earned Rolling Stone’s nod as Album of the Year. It’s really an unconventional album to earn such acclaim. The album cover is of kudzu, you can’t understand a single thing the singer says, the members of the band weren’t exactly the best-looking dudes in the world, and the song titles left you wondering what the songs were about. (All of these characteristics lent an air of mystery to the band, which did nothing but help increase interest in R.E.M.) But the songs. My God, the songs. “Radio Free Europe” had already been released as a single (though a different version), but every song is what R.E.M. super fan Adam Scott would call a “stone cold classic.” In the original album format, the first side closed with “Perfect Circle.” It was that song that Stipe later said made him realize that they were on to something. Beating Michael Jackson, U2 and the Police for album of the year would seem to support that.

Producer | Don Dixon, Mitch Easter  Label | I.R.S.  Released | April 12, 1983

9. MOVING PICTURES (1981) Rush

The oldest album on this list. And probably the one 1980s album on this list that I never listened to in the 80s. Like many people, I was introduced to Rush via “Tom Sawyer,” but it didn’t really affect me when I first heard it. I believe it took a youth group ski trip for me to finally be forced to listen to Moving Pictures. That was when I began to appreciate Rush and their strange concepts, odd timings, the high-pitched voice of Geddy Lee and more. In typical Rush fashion, Moving Pictures has just seven songs but still clocks in at 40 minutes. (Of course, one-fourth of the time is “The Camera Eye.”) There are no less than four classic Rush songs on the album: “Tom Sawyer,” “Red Barchetta,” “YYZ” and “Limelight.” That’s side one. Side two features the aforementioned “The Camera Eye,” along with the highly underrated “Witch Hunt” and “Vital Signs.” 2112 is regarded as their masterpiece, but Moving Pictures is the only other album that fans clamored for to be played in its entirety live.

Producer | Rush, Terry Brown  Label | Anthem  Released | February 12, 1981

10. APPETITE FOR DESTRUCTION (1987) Guns n’ Roses

Another nod to my friend Chase. He played “Welcome to the Jungle” for me on a Walkman not long after this album came out, and at that time it was the heaviest, most raw thing I had ever heard. And it was glorious. Again, as a teenager, it didn’t hurt that there more than a hint of rebellion with G’nR. Even the artwork on the inside of the album made you want to hide it from your parents. Appetite is a rare combination of gritty and polished. These guys were pros, at least musically. Unfortunately, the antics of Axl Rose would eventually be their demise. But for the remainder of the 1980s and the early 90s, there was no one better. They should have been the next Led Zeppelin.

Producer | Mike Clink  Label | Geffen  Released | July 21, 1987


Diesel and Dust (1987) Midnight Oil

The Unforgettable Fire (1984) U2

Fun & Games (1989) The Connells

Master of Puppets (1986) Metallica

Rattle and Hum (1988) U2

The Queen is Dead (1986) The Smiths

Matt Lail writes and produces the Raleigh Philosophical Society and Dare Society blogs.

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