Revisited

1986 Revisited

1986 was a year when most of the best alt/indie bands of the era were before (Sonic Youth), after (Husker Du) or in-between (R.E.M) career peaks, or just taking the year off (Replacements, Talking Heads). Springsteen and Prince were coming down from commercial blockbusters and gearing up for less-heralded artistic triumphs just around the corner, and both were so massive they found their way high onto this list anyway. Hip-hop was just emerging as an album form, with a couple of seminal LPs but not much else. This opens the door for some sui generis contenders, including the greatest single-record, multi-artist compilation in the history of recorded sound and the Last Great Blues Album.

The singles list here is probably one of the weirder ones I’ll have on any of these lists, and I love it. Prince and Cameo’s all-time R&B jams are as indestructible as the album chart-topper. But Junkyard Band? Ciccone Youth? Alex Chilton ranting about his sex life? Gwen Guthrie sort of doing the same? A Brit folkie evoking Holland-Dozier-Holland hits? 1986 more than carries its weight in the effort to keep the Eighties weird. The lists … 

1986 grid

ALBUMS

  1. The Indestructible Beat of Soweto – Various Artists: The album that opened the floodgates for South African pop in the U.S. and quite possibly the finest one-disc music-scene overview ever compiled. A snapshot of mbaqanga from 1981 to 1984, the record is heavy on the sources of the “indestructible beat” –Mahlathini, the Mahotella Queens, and the Makgona Tsohle Band. On the opening track, Udokotela Shange Namajaha’s “Awungilobolele,” a clashing string intro materializes into a circular trance, greeted by groaning male lead vocals, then female backup (moaning “OHH! OHH!” repeatedly). As the groove winds tighter and tighter, the sounds of roosters and chickens issue a wake-up call. From that point on, the avalanche of nimble, pastoral guitar figures, sixth-sense call-and-response vocals, soaring, obsessive fiddles, (seemingly) spontaneous vocal interjections, and body-rattling rhythms coheres into a sound joyous and intense.
  2. Licensed to Ill – Beastie Boys: The rap-rock production still sounds as novel and fun as it did on first contact, despite giving rise to some truly dire inheritors. The line-trading vocal interplay that was already verging on old-school now sounds like an art lost with them. They are very smart about how very dumb they are. Village Voice headline from the time: “Three Jerks Make a Masterpiece.” Rick Rubin made four, but otherwise … yep.
  3. Graceland – Paul Simon: Graceland’s cross-cultural strategy was controversial then and I imagine would be no less so in these woke-r times, but one of the reasons it’s one of the prettiest records of any era is that it doesn’t just draw from South African pop; it essentially is South African pop, Ray Phiri’s guitar, Baghiti Kumalo’s bass, and Isaac Mtshali’s drums driving rhythm tracks recorded before Simon appended lyrics. Graceland‘s global — deceptively, almost uncomfortably “universal” — sweep is part musical, the union of American and African opening up at the end to include simpatico accordion-driven sounds both zydeco (“That Was Your Mother”) and Latin (the Los Lobos-driven “All Around the World or The Myth of Fingerprints”), but it’s also conceptual, which is why this particular music-first-template so enlivens maybe the sharpest group of lyrics in a mostly words-first career. The opening “The Boy in the Bubble” is a bundle of globe-trotting, visionary imagery that hasn’t aged much in the three-decades-plus since its initial release: terrorist attacks, turnaround jump shots, medical advances, “staccato signals of constant information/a loose affiliation of millionaires/and billionaires.” Also, right, the title track is one of the loveliest of Memphis songs.
  4. Strong Persuader – Robert Cray: The last commercially and critically triumphant true blues album doesn’t sound much like what most people think of when they think about blues, lacking Chicago bar-band stomp or hill-country drone or any kind of particular rural and/or Southern feel. Instead, it’s rooted in a distinctly middle-class sophistication. The superb songwriting is marked by authorial distance, untrustworthy narrators, and unintentional revelation. Cray’s nimble guitar work is locked into the songcraft rather than leaping out from it. B.B. King and Randy Newman had a baby and they named it Strong Persuader. Every time I pull it out — more than a decade ago for this appreciation or on a road trip this summer — I’m struck by how distinctly and warmly I remember every song and by how fresh it still sounds.
  5. Candy Apple Grey – Husker Du: With the following finale, Warehouse: Songs and Stories, sounding comparatively dutiful, I consider this to be the band’s spiritual farewell, and a fitting one: A depressive opus that becomes an up through sheer commitment and care.
  6. Parade – Prince: Despite the Beatles influence and soundtrack trappings, his most musically mature album to date. A partial artistic breakthrough that proved a warm-up for the fully realized masterpiece that would come next.
  7. The Queen is Dead – The Smiths: Kitsch classic.
  8. Raising Hell – Run-DMC: A good record of great importance, but a little more singles-and-filler than I’d remembered. Still think their debut was their best.
  9. London 0, Hull 4 — Housemartins: The peppiest imaginable soundtrack to Marxist revolution.
  10. Edge of the World – Mekons
  11. Live/1975-1985 — Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band
  12. Blood and Chocolate – Elvis Costello & the Attractions
  13. Camper Van Beethoven – Camper Van Beethoven
  14. The 12” Collection — The Gap Band
  15. Dirty Work – The Rolling Stones
  16. Life’s Rich Pageant – R.E.M.
  17. Guitar Town – Steve Earle
  18. Storms of Life – Randy Travis
  19. The Good Earth – The Feelies
  20. Brotherhood – New Order
  21. Greatest Hits — Z.Z. Hill
  22. King of America – The Costello Show
  23. Control – Janet Jackson
  24. Psychocandy — The Jesus and Mary Chain
  25. Compilation – The Clean

SINGLES

  1. “Kiss” – Prince
  2. “Word Up” – Cameo
  3. “Hold it Now, Hit It” — Beastie Boys
  4. “Ain’t Nothin’ Goin On But the Rent” – Gwen Guthrie
  5. “Walk This Way” – Run-DMC
  6. “No Sex” – Alex Chilton
  7. “Eric B is President/My Melody” – Eric B & Rakim
  8. “Levi Stubbs’ Tears” – Billy Bragg
  9. “Into the Groovey” – Ciccone Youth
  10. “The Word” – Junkyard Band
  11. “Girls & Boys” – Prince
  12. “Nasty” – Janet Jackson
  13. “6 in the Mornin’” – Ice T
  14. “Fall on Me” — R.E.M.
  15. “Fight for Your Right (To Party)” – Beastie Boys
  16. “The Bridge” – MC Shan
  17. “Wild Wild Life”- Talking Heads
  18. “West End Girls” — Pet Shop Boys
  19. “Shake You Down” – Gregory Abbott
  20. “Bizarre Love Triangle” – New Order
  21. “Guitar Town” — Steve Earle
  22. “Open Your Heart” — Madonna
  23. “The Boy in the Bubble” — Paul Simon
  24. “Ask” — The Smiths
  25. “Diggin’ Up Bones” — Randy Travis
  26. “The New Style” – Beastie Boys
  27. “Go Stetsa 1” — Stetsasonic
  28. “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” — John Mellencamp
  29. “War” — Bruce Springsteen
  30. “The Manipulator” – Mixmaster Gee and the Turntable Orchestra
  31. “Walk Like an Egyptian” – The Bangles
  32. “When I Think of You” – Janet Jackson
  33. “Rise” – Public Image Ltd.
  34. “The Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades” – Timbuk 3
  35. “Sledgehammer” – Peter Gabriel
  36. “Rumors” – Timex Social Club
  37. “Opportunities” – Pet Shop Boys
  38. “My Adidas” — Run-D.M.C.
  39. “Ego Trippin’” — Ultramagnetic MCs
  40. “South Bronx” – Boogie Down Productions

MOVIES

The movies caveat for every year of this project: I’ve re-listened to every song and every album on these lists. The movie lists are from memory and contain elements of personal guesswork as a result. Do She’s Gotta Have It and Down By Law hold up enough for these placements? Should they be higher? As an ahead-of-the-curve Woody Allen hater, am I right that Hannah and Her Sisters was his last major film before his work began to curdle in accordance with his grotesque private life (with the following Husbands & Wives working because that curdling was its very subject), or would I downgrade it on reappraisal? The top four are the top four because I’m pretty certain they hold up.

  1. Something Wild (Jonathan Demme)
  2. Blue Velvet (David Lynch)
  3. Manhunter (Michael Mann)
  4. Aliens (James Cameron)
  5. Hannah and Her Sisters (Woody Allen)
  6. She’s Gotta Have It (Spike Lee)
  7. Ruthless People (Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker)
  8. Down By Law (Jim Jarmusch)
  9. Sid and Nancy (Alex Cox)
  10. The Color of Money (Martin Scorsese)

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