Sunday, September 6, 2009

Top Albums of the 1980s (Pt. 3)

Here it is. The moment you've all been waiting for: the final installment of my Top Albums of '80s list. (Don't worry, I know none of you have actually been waiting for this.) Anyways, this segment brings you my fifteen favorite albums from that gloriously weird and campy decade. If you want to know my opinions for #31-120, click here, and if you want to know #16-30, click here. If you've read the other segments, you might be able to guess what's in the top 15 based on process of elimination. But maybe not. There might be a surprise or two. Per usual, it's all indie rock and post-punk, except for one hip-hop album, an electronic album, and two avant-garde blues-rock albums. (Guess who those are by... I'll give you a hint: not Stevie Ray Vaughan.) So here it is. The top 15. Enjoy.

15. Sonic Youth--EVOL
Though it may be thought of as a stepping stone to the following two albums, Sister and Daydream Nation, EVOL is a stand alone masterpiece. It takes the sound that Sonic Youth had been developing (messy yet intricate art rock guitars, furious post-punk, and convoluted lyrics) and refines it. The result is a more accessible (though still not overly accessible) and more cohesive album that's chock full of SY classics including "Madonna, Sean, and Me" and the song linked below. The most interesting aspect on EVOL, as on all Sonic Youth releases, is the guitar work. Where, on previous albums, it had been purely chaotic, on EVOL it mixes beauty into the chaos, edging deeply into both at different times (and sometimes simultaneously). The album often chimes and plods along somewhat like a conventional rock album, but the obscure lyrics and noise freakouts prevent that feeling of conventionality from lasting too long. Their third best, but still an amazing work.

14. Public Enemy--It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back
This is probably the greatest hip-hop album ever made. Here's why: the lyrics are angry, smart, political, and groundbreaking in a way that is yet to be paralleled by any other lyrics on any other album in any other genre of music. Chuck D's unconventional MC-ing suits the words well, as every rant and rave is heard with the utmost clarity, precision, and ferocity. Hip-hop had been socially conscious before (BDP, Grandmaster Flash, etc.), but no one had the feeling and the smarts of Chuck D and Public Enemy, and on no other album was that feeling and intelligence as well displayed. (Although Fear Of A Black Planet comes pretty darn close.) The production is equally as wild, raw, interesting, and groundbreaking as the lyrics are. Those high-pitch squeaks and squeals that pop up frequently are now famous, and the use of samples is carefully planned while still sounding extremely raw and messy. It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back is the best and most influential hip-hop record ever.

13. The Fall--This Nation's Saving Grace
This Nation's Saving Grace is the culmination of six or seven years of putting out consistently good, if not great albums. And it sounds like it. By this album, The Fall sounds thoroughly matured musically and lyrically. By this I mean that their music was uniquely executed and structured, able to bounce around to different ideas and moods while always maintaining the same relative sound and attitude, and the lyrics are developed, smart, and sung in perfect confidence and snottiness. I don't mean the lyrics are toned down. Mark E. Smith is more sarcastic and ridiculous on this album than on any other, and it makes for engrossing listening. But, I think, the most important part of This Nation's Saving Grace is, for the first time, not Smith's babbling. It is in fact the music. The music on this album really sounds like it was made by talented and thoughtful, albeit a little crazy, musicians, and that makes it one of post-punk's grandest statements.

12. Spacemen 3--The Perfect Prescription
The sound of confusion, indeed. With The Perfect Prescription, Spacemen 3 created their trippy, psychedelic, shoegaze-y, big rock masterpiece. The sound is refreshing and unique, even though it pays obvious tribute to their influences (an "Ode To Street Hassle" and a Red Krayola cover.) It's completely washed in feedback and organ drone most of the time to great psychedelic effect, but they don't use that haze to mask crappy ideas and lyrics and instrumentation. Instead, behind that fog lies a number of great hooks, riffs, and words. The hooks are warm, raw, and often very catchy. The riffs are also warm, raw, and often very catchy. The words mainly concern drugs and sex, but in a way that sounds mature and clever as opposed to immature and, well, not clever. It is an album of high highs and low lows, which foreshadows the ever present use of dynamic shifts that took place in the music of the '90s. The Perfect Prescription is a perfectly named album and a great one, too.

11. The Jesus & Mary Chain--Psychocandy
Anyone who has listened to "indie rock" in the past twenty years has heard Psychocandy, albeit in a copied, lesser form. That's because The Jesus & Mary Chain discovered the formula for which somewhere between 70 and 100 percent of all indie rock uses. That formula is simple: nice, pretty, consonant melodies and a rock n' roll spirit that are buried underneath immense noise. It influenced shoegaze, lo-fi, etc. etc. and certainly informs the current trend of lo-fi noise pop, even if it's not getting due credit for that. Take away the noise, and you have really good '60s pop songs, but said noise is what makes it heavy, weird, original, and timeless. It utilizes the "Be My Baby" drumbeat a few times, but, for me (and many people of my generation and aesthetic) that drumbeat is the "Just Like Honey" beat. Psychocandy is just that epic and important to the history of music. But, you might say, there are many highly influential albums that just aren't that good. Well, Psychocandy is not one of those albums.

10. Tom Waits--Swordfishtrombones
Tom Waits had already written some pretty great stuff by 1983. He had mastered the art of the drunken, melancholy, lonely ballad over the course of several albums. But that was all boring compared to what he brings on Swordfishtrombones. This was the first album on which he established his distinct and now (semi) famous stomping, clanging, industrial, experimental blues sound. And it's awesome. He sounds every bit as drunken and sleazy as he did before, if not more so, but the music is entirely different. Random found percussion claps and rings and clangs all over the place as demented horns whirl. Waits's voice, alternating between a furious growl, a slurred speaking, and a tender but gravelly moan, tells weird and demented tall tales that, though completely twisted, are warm and personal. He channels his inner Beefheart and Howlin' Wolf, but, in doing so, creates a completely unique piece of music. Swordfishtrombones might as well be the first Tom Waits album because it created that typical Waits sound, and it is still one of the best. (I think it's 2nd.)

9. My Bloody Valentine--Isn't Anything
It isn't anything like Loveless (oh, how I love a good play on words), but Isn't Anything is a masterpiece in its own right. Though the seeds of this album's successor are certainly sown throughout its twelve songs, Isn't Anything sounds wholly different and wholly unbelievably awesome. It is full of hazy and dreamy atmospheres, harsh dissonance, lots of snare hits, and breezy vocals like Loveless is, but it doesn't bury its beauty and its lyrics as deeply. In fact, the lyrics are easily distinguishable on nearly every track, and they're pretty nice and smart. But, like Loveless, Isn't Anything is about the music and Kevin Shields's ear for dense, beautiful sonics. Some songs are definitely shoegaze (such as "All I Need" and "Lose My Breath") and they execute the sound expertly, smoothly, and hazily, but several of the songs are more straightforward in their approach. This is not to say that they are conventional, just less dense. "Soft As Snow"'s vocals are brought forward, and its jagged guitars show off a rawer, younger, more rockin' MBV, which is what Isn't Anything is all about.

8. Pixies--Doolittle
The best and most cohesive album from what is widely considered one of, if not the, best indie rock band of all time, Doolittle is predictably brilliant. However, that's the only thing predictable about it. It thrashes about, releasing loads and loads of fiery angst and spastic energy, and then takes a few breaks to craft beautiful and refreshing pop songs. And then it thrashes about some more. The lyrics are better developed and even more bizarre on this one than on Surfer Rosa as they tackle everything from sci-fi to religion to relationships in truly unique and clever fashion. Frank Black's vocals sing those lyrics in a jittery, hyped up way that has influenced every other indie rock singer since. Musically, it's carefully calculated to be completely raw and wild. The guitars are spiky and jagged and wonderful. Doolittle is totally weird even if at some points it sounds semi-conventional. The reality is, the only reason it sounds at all normal is because nearly every rock band in the last twenty has tried to mimic it. And for good reason: this album is really amazing.

7. Brian Eno & David Byrne--My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts
This album takes the skills of both artists--Brian Eno's electronic wizardry and avant-garde sensibilites and David Byrne's global ear and twitchy funk sensibilites--and combines them to create a work of art that is more innovative and bizarre than anything Eno or Byrne did separately. I've mostly talked about samples in reference to hip-hop music (3 Feet High, Paul's Boutique, It Takes A Nation, etc.), but My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts uses samples frequently and awesome-ly, and it was released six or seven years before any of those hip-hop records. The samples are of anything from talk-radio to Middle Eastern and African singing, and they are layered flawlessly atop a mountain of experimental electronic funk music. It uses some of Eno's ambience and Byrne's funk, but My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts is pretty different from anything else ever made. That said, its found sound and fusion of genres have influenced nearly every electronic and avant-garde album in the past three decades. It's a truly unique and bizarre trip from two of modern music's biggest geniuses.

6. Minutemen--Double Nickels On The Dime
They say that every in every good double album lies a great single disc. This may be true in things like The Wall or The White Album, but it's not in the case of Double Nickels On The Dime. It has enough material to fill a double. Its forty-three songs may feel overwhelming, but pretty much every single track is great and belongs on the album. Stylistically, it's pretty diverse. Though definitely rooted in and chiefly influenced by punk rock, it forays into folk, experimental, and jazz (a genre that most rock bands cannot pull off without sounding ridiculous. See: Steely Dan, Chicago.) Furiously political hardcore jams are intermingled with free-form exercises and fingerpicked instrumentals. The force that makes the album flow is the vocals and the lyrics. Perfectly jaded and sarcastic, D. Boon (and sometimes Mike Watt) sing about politics, growing up, California, and life in general with the utmost sincerity, intelligence, and humor. This is another one of those endlessly relatable and personal albums that I've been talking about. It's not just one of the best punk albums ever, it's one of the best rock albums.

5. Sonic Youth--Sister
EVOL showed that Sonic Youth was indeed capable of crafting a good song, as opposed to just making a whole lot of noise. Sister proved not only that EVOL was not a fluke, but that Sonic Youth were one of the most important bands of the '80s. (Their next album proved that they were, in fact, the most important band of the '80s.) Sister builds on EVOL's mixing of chiming melodies and slightly reformed song structures with harsh dissonance and plenty of noise, and then it refines the sound even more. This is not to say this is a refined album. It is wonderfully messy and chaotic, but it also contains much more sophisticated and conventional melodies, harmonies, lyrics, and ideas. Sister does this without losing its edge. It rocks much harder than any of their previous (and probably succeeding) releases because of its more basic structure. Rather than getting caught up in hideous guitar noise all the time (which, thankfully, Sister still has), Thurston, Kim, Lee, and Steve decide to take a few cues from normal rock n' roll music. This is an integration that is extremely welcome. As much as I do like noise, this is about rock n' roll when all is said and done, and Sister brings it more than EVOL.

4. Talking Heads--Remain In Light
"And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack/and you may find yourself in another part of the world/and you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile/and you may find yourself in beautiful house, with a beautiful life/and you may ask yourself, 'well, how did I get here?'" That sounds about right. That's what Remain In Light feels like. It takes the listener to that shotgun shack with its furious, metallic polyrhythmic experimentalism. It takes him or her to another part of the world with its African tinged funk. It puts him or her behind the wheel of a large automobile because the listener feels in control and in touch with what David Byrne is warbling (not sure it can be called singing.) And Remain In Light gives the listener that beautiful house and that beautiful wife because it's that big and that grand. But at the end of it, you definitely will ask how the hell you got there. Because all that stuff is happening at once--the funk, the avant-garde, the rhythmic twists, the clever lyrics, etc. etc. etc. This album is unbelievably busy and unbelievably weird, but it never strays from Talking Heads' pop and punk sensibilities. Remain In Light is one of the best band ever's best album.

3. Joy Division--Closer
More diverse than Unknown Pleasures, Closer is the definitive British post-punk album. It combines its predecessors stark minimalism and heir of despair with heightened musical ability and more successful experimentalism. Ian Curtis is at his jittery, melancholy best as he moans about life, death, epilepsy and all other things that relate in some way. Bernard Sumner's guitar/synth playing: immaculately jagged, rough, bizarre, and overwhelming. Hook's bass sounds similar to what it sounded like on Unknown Pleasures; it's quick and light, bouncing underneath the chaos that unfurls on top of it. This makes it even more refreshing. I think the thing that makes Closer such a viscerally personal experience is its size and its scope. It's utterly massive--the avant-garde songs like "Atrocity Exhibition" hit harder than nearly anything I've ever heard, and the synth-y ballads are gloriously minimal and spacey. It's so big, it allows the listener to fall into the music and feel like you are next to Ian Curtis as he is having a fit. Recorded a few months before Curtis died and released a couple months after, Closer truly contains all life's experiences, and it sounds like death. That's a sound that is certainly depressing, but it's also singularly unique and unbelievable.

2. Tom Waits--Rain Dogs
I said that Joy Division's Closer, the previous album on this list, is diverse. If I am to stick with that claim, then a new, more extreme word has to be created to adequately describe Rain Dogs. I'm going with flarb. Rain Dogs is very flarb. It delves even deeper into the avant-garde than Swordfishtrombones did, and it yields even greater results. Waits uses increasingly unconventional instrumentation--besides marimbas and whatnot, he uses all sorts of unidentifiable percussion--to create an atmosphere that is darker, sleazier, and weirder than any other. The relatively short songs generally resemble blues and rock, but branch out in countless directions. Sounds of the circus, funeral parlor, saloon, opera, caravans of gypsies, and Hell itself seep into the vague blues structures. The result is a completely unique and flarb sound that is so solidly bizarre that it actually hasn't been influential to modern indie rock. (Except for maybe Man Man.) Some tender ballads are intermingled with the experimental romps, but their simplicity actually sounds nice and interesting juxtaposed with their highly cacophonous neighbors. Enough with the music, though. Waits's lyrics and singing are sharper and quirkier on Rain Dogs than on any other release. He tells twisted and intricate stories of love, life, death, family, and things that I don't quite understand (and don't want to.) Rain Dogs is a beast of an album, a statement yet to be matched in terms eccentricity or Hellishness.

1. Sonic Youth--Daydream Nation
First things first: click the play button on the video below.

Alright. Pretty good, huh? One of the best songs you've ever heard, right? Now, imagine an album full of twelve songs that also have that one's brilliant mix of dissonant, free-form guitar playing with pop sensibilities and a heavy dose of rocking and rolling. Well, that's Daydream Nation. And if you still need to be convinced why it's the '80s finest album, I'll try to sway you.

Daydream Nation is Sonic Youth's most fully realized effort. The previous seven or so years of taking in all the no wave and post-punk that was going on around them and producing some wild guitar based noise-rock albums was seemingly just practice for Daydream. (Even if some of those previous albums are still pretty amazing.) On Daydream, they sound like matured, seasoned veterans while maintaining the exuberance and spark of a nascent post-punk group. This is shown in their ability to add brilliant hooks and brilliant lyrics to their already well-developed guitar attack. That guitar attack--a combination of Thurston Moore's lead and Lee Ranaldo's rhythm (which is more heavily featured here)--is chiming and beautiful when it wants to be, and it's devastatingly loud and dissonant when it wants to be. Moore and Ranaldo have such supreme control over their instruments, they can invent brand new tunings on every song and make it sound like that tuning is standard. Daydream Nation does indeed contain both Sonic Youth's best rock music and the decade's, but what sets it apart even more is that accessibility that it offers. While I won't call it a pop album or an accessible work, Daydream Nation is full of some infectious melodies and more straightforward structures. And it rocks. Hard. An album like EVOL was atmospheric and bizarre and awesome, but it forgot the aim of this kind of music. It's rock n' roll, and Sonic Youth realize this the most on Daydream Nation. Daydream Nation is an ear (and eye--it as a cool Richter cover) opening experience that is just that: a musical experience.

That's what I think. And I realize that the top 10 has two Sonic Youth albums, two Tom Waits albums, and two David Byrne albums. I like those people. You should, too.

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