With the run-up to the NBA season and the final stretch of the presidential election, I fell off the podcast-reduction wagon, but now I’m back to my non-chronological year-by-year trip through pop music’s past.
1988, time to set it straight … This list features a really strong Big Three: The Greatest Rap Album Ever, the Greatest Post-Punk Guitar Album Ever and the greatest female singer-songwriter/folk-rock album ever (so sayeth me, absent acclamation).
After that, the year sounds more muddled to me. Some great afropop aftershocks from 1986’s Graceland/Indestructible Beat of Soweto breakthrough, a classic year for hip-hop singles yielding more good but few great albums, the full-fledged debut of alt-rock’s essential ’80s-to-’90s bridge band (Pixies), and lots of veteran prestige artists doing good work that’s not quite at their best (Prince, Leonard Cohen, Randy Newman, the Traveling Wilburys conglomerate, U2, R.E.M., Talking Heads, Richard Thompson, Robert Cray). There were also some Big Statements that haven’t aged that well (Tracy Chapman, Midnight Oil, maybe U2/R.E.M. apply here) and shocks of the new that aged even worse (Living Colour, Sugarcubes, Fishbone).
But I probably can’t intro my 1988 lists without talking about what might be the two most retroactively lauded albums of the year, neither of which factor prominently for me. N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton and Guns N Roses’ Appetite for Destruction are in many ways the same record.
Both are essentially hits-and-filler records and, as such, both are better represented on the singles list.
There’s more than a little self-conscious epater la bourgeoisie, one more strategically righteous than the other, the other a little more consistent and enduring as a total piece of music. (Another historical hits-and-filler comp, but better: Never Mind the Bollocks … Here’s the Sex Pistols.) Both are (pock)marked by misogyny, with N.W.A.’s problems in this area both more transparent and also more (unintentionally) instructive: “I Ain’t Tha 1” is the best non-hit on either album, not just because it sounds incredible, but because Ice Cube’s resentful attack on a would-be romantic partnere instead turns on itself; it’s a portrait of male loserdom made all the more grand for its lack of self-recognition.
Both bands fell victim to artistic bloat and internal chaos that made follow-ups less worthwhile and their careers — as bands, at least — short-lived. These are definitely two of the most culturally momentous albums of 1988. But this isn’t a list of bands or cultural eruptions, it’s a list of records, and Straight Outta Compton and Appetite for Destruction are both “classic” albums for people who don’t really listen to albums, each with highpoints, each better as an idea of a record than as a listening object.
- It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back – Public Enemy: Definitely one of the albums I’ve listened to most, and would be on the short list if I only concluded spins from 1988-1992. Despite how thoroughly I know every beat, hook, sample, exhortation, and aside, it still thrills. The perfect vocal contrast of bullhorn and court jester. Avant-garde and accessible, relentless and funny. Packed with detail (sound and sense) and sometimes a little full of shit. A Top Five all-time contender.
- Lucinda Williams – Lucinda Williams: Her 1998 follow-up-once-removed Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is more widely considered Williams’ masterpiece, and I used to feel that way, but I’ve come back around to this not-actually-a-debut. It’s a less perfect record, and maybe that’s partly why it cuts deeper. Car Wheels may peak at the very beginning, but every song is of a piece. Lucinda Williams is comparatively uneven. Half the songs are brilliant; the rest offer companionable support. The breathless, yearning opener — “I Just Wanted To See You So Bad” — rushes by in 21 lines, nine of them a repetition of the title refrain. “Changed the Locks” is a love-gone-wrong song that builds steadily toward the cosmic, managing to be horrified and funny all at once. “The Night’s Too Long,” a fictional story of a small-town girl moved to the city, and “Crescent City,” an autobiographical sibling song, are sketches so precise you can feel the cool moisture coming off the beer bottles in the bars where one song ends and another begins. And then there are “Passionate Kisses” and “Side of the Road” — twin titans about the imperatives and limits of romantic love that are at once visionary and also grounded in the everyday. Throughout, Williams’ breathy, marble-mouthed vocals — her signature, if anything is — are just a little more naked and open than they’d ever be again. The simpler secondary songs — the straight country “Price To Pay,” the alt-country Velvet Underground “Like a Rose,” the lonely lament “Am I Too Blue” — give the album some room to breathe, and they grow more lovely all the time. The closing Howlin’ Wolf cover? A turf grab. Not just a declaration of artistic support but one of artistic equality.
- Daydream Nation – Sonic Youth: I’ve tended to disagree with consensus (to the degree there is one) on Sonic Youth. Give me relaxed late career hookfest “Rather Ripped” over pre-Daydream insurgency or Nirvana-era alt-rock breakthroughs. But I agree with pretty much everyone that this was the peak of their powers.
- Paris-Soweto – Mahlathini & the Mahotella Queens: Captured in a Paris studio during a European tour after the success of Graceland spurred a reunion, this is the classic mbaqanga sound (West Nkosi producing, the Makgona Tsohle Band playing) updated for state-of-the-art recording. The gritty quality of the earlier recordings is missing, but the beauty is all there: the shimmering, swirling guitars, the open-hearted vocals, the impossible brightness. (In fact, I often think that the second track, “Awuthule Kancane,” is among the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard.) There’s even a healthy dose of English lyrics, and, sung in these voices, they don’t embarrass.
- Strictly Business – EPMD: Two barely distinguishable voices intertwined around a scratched-up post-disco groove that never lets up. Hip-hop reduced to the verities.
- Virgin Beauty – Ornette Coleman & Prime Time: Part of this list-making exercise is relistening to and reevaluating records I know well, but part of it is seeking out contenders I’ve missed along the way, and this is my best discovery so far. A dabbler in the realm of jazz, I mostly just know what I like. I like this. A lot.
- Surfer Rosa – Pixies: The bridge from Husker Du/Sonic Youth to Nirvana/Pavement is … um … paved with sugar-rush guitars and obscurantist screaming.
- The Heartbeat of Soweto — Various Artists: As ’80s mbaqanga comps go, this is a folkier, more wide-ranging alternative to The Indestructible Beat of Soweto, duplicating only Amiswazi Emvelo on the artist list. It’s more rural-sounding, with almost country-blues equivalents such as Mlokothwa’s “Thathezakho” and Armando Bila Chijumane’s “Kamakhalawana.” The result is a record with a more relaxed pace and possibly a calmer spirit — less of a joyous rush but perhaps just as rewarding.
- Follow the Leader – Eric B & Rakim: Similarly elemental as Strictly Business, but more personalized: Eric B’s beat and Rakim’s mind-to-mouth continuum engaged in private conversation as perpetual musical motion.
- Folkways: A Vision Shared – Various Artists: Woody’s rock-era inheritors Dylan, Springsteen and even Mellencamp all sound better here than they would elsewhere for a while and Sweet Honey in the Rock and Taj Mahal more than earn their keep. Not quite as fine as Mermaid Avenue or A Tribute to Jimmie Rodgers, which would come a decade later, but a fine stage-setter.
- Thunder Before Dawn — Various Artists
- Thokozile – Mahlathini & the Mahotella Queens
- Black Album – Prince
- Land of Dreams – Randy Newman
- Straight Out the Jungle – Jungle Brothers
- I’m Your Man – Leonard Cohen
- By All Means Necessary – Boogie Down Productions
- Critical Beatdown – Ultramagnetic MCs
- 16 Lovers Lane – Go-Betweens
- The Tenement Year – Pere Ubu
- Volume One – The Traveling Wilburys
- Appetite for Destruction – Guns n Roses
- Old 8X10 – Randy Travis
- Isn’t Anything – My Bloody Valentine
- Tracy Chapman – Tracy Chapman
- “It Takes Two” – Rob Base & DJ EZ Rock
- “Sweet Child O Mine” – Guns n Roses
- “Paid in Full (Seven Minutes of Madness Mix)” – Eric B & Rakim
- “Don’t Believe the Hype” – Public Enemy
- “It’s My Beat” – Sweet Tee & Jazzy Joyce
- “Ain’t No Half-Steppin’” – Big Daddy Kane
- “Fast Car” – Tracy Chapman
- “Potholes in My Lawn” – De La Soul
- “Microphone Fiend” – Eric B and Rakim
- “Fuck Tha Police” – NWA
- “Runaway Train” – Rosanne Cash
- “Bass” – King Tee
- “Teenage Riot” – Sonic Youth
- “Go On Girl” — Roxanne Shante
- “Strictly Business” – EPMD
- “Da Butt” — EU
- “Shake Your Thang” – Salt-n-Pepa
- “(Nothing But) Flowers” – Talking Heads
- “You Gots to Chill” – EPMD
- “Straight Outta Compton” – NWA
- “Talkin’ All That Jazz” – Stetsasonic
- “Because I Got It Like That” – Jungle Brothers
- “Handle With Care” – Traveling Wilburys
- “Birthday” – The Sugarcubes
- “Follow the Leader” – Eric B. & Rakim
- “Joy and Pain” – Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock
- “Welcome to the Jungle” — Guns and Roses
- “Anchorage” – Michelle Shocked
- “Beds Are Burning” – Midnight Oil
- “Plug Tunin” – De La Soul
- “My Philosophy” – Boogie Down Productions
- “DJ Innovator” – Chubb Rock
- “Paper Thin” – MC Lyte
- “Colors” – Ice T
- “Alphabet Street” – Prince
- “Hazy Shade of Winter” – The Bangles
- “My Prerogative” – Bobby Brown
- “Going Back to Cali” – LL Cool J
- “Whoever’s in New England” – Reba McEntire
- “Parents Just Don’t Understand” – DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince