Having written up the #1 hit singles of the era and also having looked deep and hard at the best-selling albums of 1988, I realized I was leaving out a huge part of the story. Some might say THE story. Pop music is popular fashion, but the underbelly only grew larger the more the corporate entities attempted to control the outcome. No one can believe the shoulder pads were theirs, but those who dressed in black never went out of style.
Beyond the charts are often the musicians who do the more interesting work. College radio really expanded the scope for all things and back in the 1980s it came into its own formalized success story. Still, there were bands only a few people ever caught in their prime.
This list reflects albums I remember seeing and either hearing or hearing about at the time that 1988 was happening. Plenty of great albums from the likes of the Go-Betweens to Talk Talk to (your missing fave here) are not here because fact is, some names didn’t break in my neck of the NYC suburb woods. So, blame thine self!
25) All — Allroy Sez: The Descendents named their last studio album ALL and then shuffled the line-up and came back as All. Not as immediately great as the Descendents’ best moments, but with the right energy and the potential to hit with the right song in the future.
24) The Steppes — Stewdio: This was an obscure release at the time. Which college radio stations chose to play the album is beyond my knowledge. I heard it, bought it. But I’m a sucker for guys who wish the 1960s had lasted awhile longer. Early Bee Gees fans liked it.
23) Bongwater — Double Bummer: In the late 1980s, Kramer the producer was a household name among people who surfed the underground. As popular as, if not more than, Steve Albini. Shimmy-Disc was a beloved record label until they weren’t any longer. This double album tried people’s patience at a time when they liked having their patience tested.
22) Pixies — Surfer Rosa: Someone say Steve Albini? Gosh, this is where revisionism comes in handy. In 1988, the Pixies were not “The Pixies.” They were liked and disliked, said to be a horrible live band. Opinions varied wildly and everything they did wasn’t given an automatic A+. They didn’t sell out large halls for consecutive nights. They struggled like everyone else. Nowadays, everyone loved them from the first note they heard.
21) Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds — Tender Prey: Again, talk about an artist who divided people. I knew people who HATED Nick Cave. Just didn’t get it. Those of us who dug him were obviously doing so just to annoy them. At the time, I considered this latter-day Cave. He’d already made four or five albums on his own, after the Birthday Party. How much further could he go? “The Mercy Seat” sounded epic, but who knew it would become his encore? I never gave him another 25 years that’s for sure. Twenty-five was old, man!
20) NWA — Straight Outta Compton: I sure didn’t hear this one on the radio. A friend sent a tape, I popped it in the car tape deck and witnessed if not “the strength of street knowledge,” at least the strength of using certain curse words until the words sounded silly. The FBI were worried?
19) The Waterboys — Fisherman’s Blues: Their decision to abandon the pompous U2-like grandeur of their first batch of records, which I loved, and settle in as Irish music traditionalists was made palatable by the inclusion of Van Morrison’s “Sweet Thing” among their other moves. Definitely not a hipster move.
18) Morrissey — Viva Hate: I’d rather read his lyrics and song titles than listen to his solo work. For Moz is forever entertaining, but his cohorts since the Smiths have been hit and mostly miss. This being his first solo album, the reception was clouded by hope. It was a “new” approach at the time and enough decent songs tipped the balance in his favor. But for how long?
17) Dinosaur Jr.— Bug: Thurston Moore’s endorsement that ‘Bug’ was ‘better’ than ‘Daydream Nation’ broke J Mascis and Co. into the indie stratosphere that has allowed Mascis to live on his own ever since. All three band members learned the power a band name — and not your own name — holds over the public consciousness. And what a few catchy songs can do for an entire career that survives without new material people care about.
16) Jane’s Addiction — Nothing’s Shocking: You are correct.
15) The Cowboy Junkies — The Trinity Sessions: The idea of recording the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane,” which appeared on their fourth album ‘Loaded,’ in the style of their third album, the self-titled one, was considered brilliant enough for the Cowboy Junkies to get ahead of the pack for a little while. Canadian broadcasting rules did the rest. (In truth, they recorded several subsequent records that were even more affecting.)
14) Traveling Wilburys — Traveling Wilburys, Vol 1: I had a college professor who wouldn’t shut up about this album. Because he was a Bob Dylan fan, first and foremost, and anything Bob Dylan was involved with (even Band of the Hand?) was of more interest to him than what was going on in the rest of the music world combined. I guess someone liked ‘Down In the Groove’.
13) Tracy Chapman — Tracy Chapman: In 1988, music fans who liked singer-songwriters were pretty well underserved. And when they were, it was usually slick acoustic-pop. Critics who often like ‘message’ songs where the poor rise up and take over the means of production hear words like “Revolution” and go nuts. Had Tracy come along twenty years earlier, she’d be ten times as long-lasting, but so would most people on this list.
12) REM — Green: Some fans are probably still fighting over this one. Even if you didn’t know what label it was on (Warner Brothers! Haven’t you heard?), you likely thought it was missing something.
11) Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians — Globe of Frogs: No one’s been exactly able to explain why musicians often make their lesser works when a major label is involved.
10) Soundgarden — Ultramega OK: Long before they became an arena rock band, they acted like one. Some indie rock fans seemed shocked by this.
9) Patti Smith — Dream of Life: Everyone wanted to say Patti was back so badly that they tolerated far more than they have since. It’s no Gone Again and probably not as good the ones after that.
8) Rollins Band — Do It: Every era has something that you go back to and wonder why. There really had been a time in the 1980s when we found Henry Rollins interesting, even funny, and thought he might have a career after Black Flag. Little did we know, his real career was as a talking head in music documentaries.
7) Sonic Youth — Daydream Nation: I suppose if one had to pick one SY album to study, this would be the longer one to learn. Sister was better, but people usually don’t catch on until the next one (see Smith, Elliot). Plus double albums always scream their importance. (Like many double albums, sides one and four are the ones with the payoff!)
6) Metallica — …And Justice for All: Come for the ballad, stay for the bass lines.
5) Leonard Cohen — I’m Your Man: One album prior, he was washed up. (You know, the one with “Hallelujah” on it). Then he shows up with a banana in his hand and the “comeback” is in place!
4) U2 — Rattle and Hum: I watched the U2 faithful finally get what the non-fans knew all along. Their heroes could be longwinded, joyless and rather didactic when given the chance. Best track? “Van Diemen’s Land,” of course!
3) Butthole Surfers— Hairway to Steven: When the album first came out, I remember DJs having a blast describing the ‘drawing’ that went with the cut they were playing. ‘Urinating baseball player’ was a popular cut.
2) Living Colour — Vivid: Heavy metal was a money-making genre, so why shouldn’t a guitarist with nasty chops give it a shot? The English spelling, Mick Jagger’s early patronage, the Talking Heads cover and the notable race difference between them and 100,000 other metal bands allowed people who didn’t listen to heavy metal (guilty, as charged) to like them very much. (“Which Way To America” still kicks tushy.)
1) Public Enemy — It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back: Love it, hate it, the album was everywhere. I remember hearing the teapot whistle screech playing in passing cars, in the offices of a punk rock label, on both college radio stations and WFMU, the radio station without a real college. What the hell was ‘Cold Lampin’’? Consider the Noise brought and the hype believed.