Revisited

1988 Revisited

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.

image1-24

ALBUMS:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. Surfer Rosa – Pixies: The bridge from Husker Du/Sonic Youth to Nirvana/Pavement is … um … paved with sugar-rush guitars and obscurantist screaming.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. Thunder Before Dawn — Various Artists
  12. Thokozile – Mahlathini & the Mahotella Queens
  13. Black Album – Prince
  14. Land of Dreams – Randy Newman
  15. Straight Out the Jungle – Jungle Brothers
  16. I’m Your Man – Leonard Cohen
  17. By All Means Necessary – Boogie Down Productions
  18. Critical Beatdown – Ultramagnetic MCs
  19. 16 Lovers Lane – Go-Betweens
  20. The Tenement Year – Pere Ubu
  21. Volume One – The Traveling Wilburys
  22. Appetite for Destruction – Guns n Roses
  23. Old 8X10 – Randy Travis
  24. Isn’t Anything – My Bloody Valentine
  25. Tracy Chapman – Tracy Chapman

 

SINGLES:

  1. “It Takes Two” – Rob Base & DJ EZ Rock
  2. “Sweet Child O Mine” – Guns n Roses
  3. “Paid in Full (Seven Minutes of Madness Mix)” – Eric B & Rakim
  4. “Don’t Believe the Hype” – Public Enemy
  5. “It’s My Beat” – Sweet Tee & Jazzy Joyce
  6. “Ain’t No Half-Steppin’” – Big Daddy Kane
  7. “Fast Car” – Tracy Chapman
  8. “Potholes in My Lawn” – De La Soul
  9. “Microphone Fiend” – Eric B and Rakim
  10. “Fuck Tha Police” – NWA
  11. “Runaway Train” – Rosanne Cash
  12. “Bass” – King Tee
  13. “Teenage Riot” – Sonic Youth
  14. “Go On Girl” — Roxanne Shante
  15. “Strictly Business” – EPMD
  16. “Da Butt” — EU
  17. “Shake Your Thang” – Salt-n-Pepa
  18. “(Nothing But) Flowers” – Talking Heads
  19. “You Gots to Chill” – EPMD
  20. “Straight Outta Compton” – NWA
  21. “Talkin’ All That Jazz” – Stetsasonic
  22. “Because I Got It Like That” – Jungle Brothers
  23. “Handle With Care” – Traveling Wilburys
  24. “Birthday” – The Sugarcubes
  25. “Follow the Leader” – Eric B. & Rakim
  26. “Joy and Pain” – Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock
  27. “Welcome to the Jungle” — Guns and Roses
  28. “Anchorage” – Michelle Shocked
  29. “Beds Are Burning” – Midnight Oil
  30. “Plug Tunin” – De La Soul
  31. “My Philosophy” – Boogie Down Productions
  32. “DJ Innovator” – Chubb Rock
  33. “Paper Thin” – MC Lyte
  34. “Colors” – Ice T
  35. “Alphabet Street” – Prince
  36. “Hazy Shade of Winter” – The Bangles
  37. “My Prerogative” – Bobby Brown
  38. “Going Back to Cali” – LL Cool J
  39. “Whoever’s in New England” – Reba McEntire
  40. “Parents Just Don’t Understand” – DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince

 

My Back Pages

Introduction/A List From the Vault

Cleaning out my attic and office, I came across one of my favorite things I’ve written or worked on and which seems to have disappeared completely from the internet. I’ve been thinking of creating a new blog for a long time, always concluding  I don’t have time for that. And I don’t. But a wish to give this piece a home finally made me do it.

The blog name comes from Elvis, when he was asked, upon first showing up at Memphis Recording Service, just what kind of music he sang. I had another short-lived personal blog of the same name about a decade ago, then it became the name for the music/film/pop culture blog at The Memphis Flyer when I was a writer/editor there. The Flyer discontinued that blog shortly after I left, so I’m taking the name back unless someone tries to stop me.

Don’t expect frequent posts here or very much new writing. But it’ll be a landing spot for old writing I don’t find embarrassing and that seems in danger of disappearing from the public record and various music and movie lists I’ve done in the past either for publication, on social media or, in some cases, as email exchanges with like-minded friends. There’s also a new list project I have in mind that I’ll likely post here. This site is for personal amusement. If others out there are interested, that’s fine, but it’s mostly just for me.

This piece is a “100 Greatest Moments in Rock-and-Roll” list. Not historical moments, but moments on records themselves: Riffs, lyrics, vocal flourishes, etc. It was written in 2001 and is a collaboration with my great college friend Addison Engelking. We stole the idea from the Chicago Reader, which had done a similar list half a decade before, and they stole it from Roger Ebert, who had done a film-themed one.

We had a lot of fun brainstorming and constructing this and, despite the title, we didn’t then and wouldn’t now claim that these are the 100 greatest moments in rock and roll. If we re-did this tomorrow, even sticking to a 2001 cutoff, we might come up with 100 totally different moments. But I still stand by pretty much all of these. A few caveats we published in the original intro, and then the list:

We’re both musical generalists who believe in the big-tent view of rock and roll. We excluded pre-rock forms like blues, jazz and country to make the project simpler. We tried to be as ecumentical as possible, but this is a subjective list and our biases and obsessions show. We like ’60s soul and early rock and roll, punk and pop-friendly hip-hop. We think Chuck Berry and Motown are the great American music. We don’t care much for second-tier “classic rock” or much that tends toward the “progressive” or jammy.

100. Claudine Clark singing, “I see the lights! I see the party lights!” on “Party Lights.”

99. Drummer Moe Tucker’s “Helloooo … You’re my very special one” on the Velvet Underground’s “Afterhours.”

98. Liz Phair’s dry vocals on “Divorce Song.”

97. “Got no money/Got no car/Got no woman/And there you are” — Young MC laying it all out for the eighth-graders who bought “Bust a Move.”

96. Wilson Pickett’s overpowering vocals on the Falcons’ “I Found a Love.”

95. Chrissie Hynde yelping “I’m not the kind I used to be/I’ve got a kid/I’m 33” on the Pretenders’ “Middle of the Road.”

94. The bicycle-chain downbeats on Martha & the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street.”

93. Tie: “Luv L-U-V” from the New York Dolls and “Girlfren G-i-r-l-f-r-e-n” from the Modern Lovers. Bad spelling: How punk rock!

92. A prepubescent Michael Jackson exclaiming “Just look over your shoulder, honey!” on the Jackson Five’s “I’ll Be There.”

91. “She said, ‘Dear boy, I’m gonna make you a man’” — The most passionate moment on the Kinks’ “Lola,” Ray Davies’ eternally coy gender-bender (or is it?).

90. Fats Domino singing “Sunday morning my head is bad/But it’s worth it for the times that I’ve had” on “Blue Monday.”

89. Johnny Rotten’s mad raving at the end of “Holidays in the Sun.”

88. “People say you look like MC Hammer on crack, Humpty!”

87. “Take a piece of paper, ball that motherfucker up … and play with it.” — Coolio explains the rules of “paper ball” on “I Remember.”

86. Alex Chilton singing, “I didn’t find it on a Saturday night/I found it in the Sunday morning light” on the Box Tops’ “I Met Her in Church.”

85. The in-progress opening thunder of the Ramones’ “Sheena is a Punk Rocker.”

84. Steve Mackay’s sax skronk on the Stooges’ “Fun House.”

83. The howl at the end of “State Trooper” from Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska.

82. The will-o-wisp materialization of chords into song as CCR kicks into “Born on the Bayou.”

81. Poly Styrene’s spoken intro to X-Ray Spex’s “Oh Bondage, Up Yours”: “Some people say lit’el gurls should be seen and not heard/But I say OH BONDAGE UP YOURS.”

80. Iris Dement’s singing — every bit of it — on “No Time to Cry.”

79. “No, my first name ain’t ‘Baby’/It’s Janet/Ms. Jackson if you’re nasty.”

78. The piercing guitar on Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.”

77. “Arrested on charges of unemployment/He was sitting in the witness stand” — Chuck Berry introduces the “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man.”

76. “What key? What key?” — Little Stevie Wonder grows up on the false ending of “Fingertips Pt. 2.”

75. The false start on “Milk Cow Blues,” where Elvis declares it’s time to get “real, real gone.”

74. Justine Frischmann taunts an impotent lover — “Is it just that I’m much too much for you?” — on Elastica’s pointedly titled “Stutter.”

73. The earliest bit of rock criticism, from the Showmen’s “It Will Stand”: “Don’t nickname it/You might as well claim it/It’ll be here forever and ever/Ain’t gonna fade/Never, no, never.”

72. “And you could have a change of heart” — Steely Dan’s hipsters plead an everyman sentiment on “Rikki, Don’t Lose That Number.”

71. The hiccup vocals on Buddy Holly’s “Rave On.”

70. The prolix, pretentious and true lyric “Every generation throws a hero up the pop chart” on Paul Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble.”

69. The first two notes of “Brown Sugar.”

68. Otis Redding singing “Theeessse arms of miiine.”

67. The vocal blues sample on Moby’s “Honey.”

66. The rock-and-roll haiku of Big Star’s “In the Street.”

65. “No, I don’t wanna see your thong/I kinda dig them old school, cute, regular drawers” — compassionate (sexual) conservatism, courtesy of Outkast.

64. “It’sjustlikeajunglesometimesitmakesmewonderhowIkeepfromgoingunder.”

63. Al Jackson Jr.’s drumming on almost any early Al Green record.

62. “It’s better to burn out than to fade away” — Not a death sentence, from Neil Young on Rust Never Sleeps.

61. Little Willie John singing “Write it down on a paper so it can be read to me” on “Need Your Love So Bad.”

60. Rakim rapping “Even if it’s jazz or the quiet storm/I hook a beat up/Convert it into hip-hop form” on Eric B. & Rakim’s “I Ain’t No Joke.”

59. Jay-Z expanding Rakim’s turf grab with the Annie sample on “Hard Knock Life.”

58. “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine” – the first line of the first song on Patti Smith’s first album.

57. Run-DMC converting “Walk This Way” from a guitar record to a drum record.

56. The little speech at the beginning of the Contours’ “Do You Love Me.”

55. “Each record that I make/Is like a record I have made/JUST NOT AS GOOD” — Randy Newman, voice of a generation, on 1999’s Bad Love.

54. Frankie Lymon’s wondrous “uh-uh-oh-ohs” after finishing the alphabet on “The ABCs of Love.”

53. “This is not my beautiful house/This is not my beautiful wife” — David Byrne’s existential dilemma on the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime.”

52. The evanescent lyric “We could be heroes/Just for one day” on David Bowie’s “Heroes.”

51. Elvis Costello snarling “I want to bite the hand that feeds me/I want to bite that hand so badly/I want to make them wish they’d never seen me” on “Radio, Radio.”

50. When all three instruments lock into place at the beginning of Husker Du’s Zen Arcade: Something big is about the happen.

49. The opening charge of Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower.”

48. The menacing instrumental intro to the Rolling Stones’ “Stray Cat Blues.”

47. The unmistakeable, familiar-as-your-own reflection notes that lead off “Stairway to Heaven.”

46. “Number 47 said to number 3/You’re the cutest jailbird I ever did see.”

45. The crowd’s screams after the first “triiiaahhh me” on James Brown’s Live at the Apollo.

44. All of the stray sounds during the breaks on Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man,” especially the interjection “Play it, Steve!”

43. Courtney Love delivers the “fuck you” of an answer song that Yoko Ono didn’t have in her with “Celebrity Skin.”

42. All of the little kids singing on the Bar-Kays’ “Soul Finger.”

41. The organ riff on “96 Tears.”

40. The first chord on the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night.”

39. The shout of “Okay, let’s give it to ’em/Right now!” on “Louie, Louie.”

38. The harmonica at the end of “Tangled Up in Blue”: Hope springs eternal after all that misery.

37. “All the leaves are brown (all the leaves are brown)/And the sky is gray (and the sky is gray)” — the best moment of hippie peacenik pop is actually a moment of decay, courtesy of the Mamas and the Papas.

36. Jerry Lee Lewis clearing his throat and sounding like the world’s most musically talented rattlesnake throughout Live at the Star Club, Hamburg, Germany.

35. The remarkable transition in Clarence Carter’s “Making Love (At the Dark End of the Street)” — from country corn to the deepest soul.

34. “Shanghai Lil never used the pill/She claimed that it just ain’t natural” — inexplicable joy at traditional values on Rod Stewart’s “Every Picture Tells a Story.”

33. Kathleen Hanna shrieking “In her kiss/I TASTE THE REVOLUTION” on Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl.”

32. The brass sweep that closes out and lifts up “When a Man Loves a Woman.”

31. The aside at the outset of Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady”: “No, wait/You’re kidding/He didn’t just say what I think he did/Did he?”; the startling blast of rhyme that ends the same song.

30. Tie: The first electronic synth sigh of “Little Red Corvette” and the smoochy sounds on the chorus of “Kiss” — both unmistakably the work of an Artist.

29. Kurt Cobain singing “Teenage angst has paid off well/Now I’m bored and old” to lead off In Utero.

28. “Knockin’ me out with those American thighs” — the gospel according to AC/DC.

27. “My smile is my make-up I wear since my break-up with you.”

26. From the Clash’s “Complete Control”: Mick Jones and Joe Strummer sing together, “Complete control/Even over this song!” and then Jones rips into a brief, revved-up rockabilly solo, which Strummer cuts off by shouting “You’re my gee-tar hero!”

25. The guitar and piano exchanges on “Sweet Home Alabama.”

24. D.Boon singing “Me and Mike Watt, playing guitar” on the Minutemen’s “History Lesson, Pt. II.”

23. “One child grows up to be/Somebody who just loves to learn/And the other child/Grows up to be/Somebody you’d just/Love to burn” — Sly Stone’s uncomfortable truths on “Family Affair.”

22. “The Dark End of the Street”

21. Little Richard’s microphone-shattering scream before the sax solo on “Good Golly Miss Molly.”

20. The onomatopoeic opening of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.”

19. The call-and-response between Ray Charles and the Raelettes on “What’d I Say.”

18. The electric piano intro to “I Never Loved a Man (The Way That I Loved You),” topped only by the first line as it leaps from Aretha’s mouth.

17. The group vocals on the chorus of The Band’s “The Weight.”

16. The opening “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” on At Folsom Prison.

15. The instrumental opening of the Who’s “I Can’t Explain.”

14. Sam Cooke’s and Lou Rawls’ call-and-response vocals on “Bring it on Home to Me”

13. Corin Tucker’s and Carrie Brownstein’s call-and-response screams on Sleater-Kinney’s “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone.”

12. Hal Blaine’s drums cutting through the kiddie-music intro of the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.”

11. From The Million Dollar Quartet, Elvis talking about seeing Jackie Wilson do “Don’t Be Cruel”: “He had already done ‘Hound Dog’ and another one or two, and he didn’t do too well, you know. He was trying too hard. But he did that ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ and he was trying so hard that he got better, boy.”

10. Elvis’ casual “mmmm. …” sliding out of the first chorus of “Don’t Be Cruel.”

9. Otis Redding whistling off into immortality on “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.”

8. The bass and guitar together, first 10 seconds of “My Girl.”

7. “Sweet little sixteen/She’s got the grown-up blues”: Chuck Berry explains rock-and-roll in a single couplet.

6. Hal Blaine’s heartbeat drum into to the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.”

5. The eternal guitar riff on the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane.”

4. The harmony “ahs” morphing into a scream of exhilaration on the Beatles’ version of ‘Twist & Shout.”

3. The raging climax of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”: “You’re invisible now/You have no secrets to conceal/How does it feel?”

2. “The record company, Rosie, just gave me a big advance!”

1. The roots of hip-hop, clear as a bell, on the instrumental break during James Brown’s “Funky Drummer.”