Welcome back to 1987! A year that had we known what was up ahead would've been considered much better than it was at the time. Keep in mind that just because all of the music listed below existed in 1987, it wasn't always easy to hear it. Music fans had to spend a pocketful of money, sometimes many pockets full, to figure out if the bands they read about were any good.
There were no streaming services. Heck, there was no widely available internet to find out what others were thinking. You had to trust the names in magazines to tell you the truth. Who knew where the other fans of this music were? If you were of age, you joined a college radio station -- and even there you only met a few people who shared your particular tastes. Pity those who didn't even have that. Opal fans were lonely people!
Very few of the names on this list were heard in prime time. Maybe today with the world now being flat, we can assess everyone equally. Let's do it!
25) Depeche Mode -- Music For The Masses: In 1987, there were schisms among the alterna-rockers. Guitar bands stood on one side. Synth bands stood on the other. Punks wanted to rock. Goths wanted to mope. And girls wanted to dance and/ or dream. It was like Visa vs. Mastercard vs. Amex vs. Discover. These days, we except all major credit cards. That's progress!
24) Swans -- Children of God: Swans had to expand their attack. How many times can you tell people everything is crap before they decide to put Gloomy Gus on ignore? They're still plenty down and abrasive, but Jarboe offered glimmers of light where Gira wallowed in darkness. Times were changing and all that outsider music had some chance of getting inside, if you could just find a way to connect. They'd do it the next year with a cover of "Love Will Tear Us Apart" that sounded like Gira had finally practiced his mellowing lessons.
23) The Jesus and Mary Chain -- Darklands: The band name was pure gold. What college-age kid wouldn't want to say that name on the radio waves? The music hinted at the Velvet Underground the first go around and this second try peels back the reverb and distortion just enough to hear a pop band. "Happy When It Rains"? OK, but you sound pretty sunny singing about it, boys.
22) Pet Shop Boys -- Actually: England's always had different musical values than America. Which is why I find it weird how much they like Bruce Springsteen. Maybe it's just that everyone in the U.K. is a music fan. The country's small enough to make a cult band a mainstream one, whereas here you'll never get out of New York City alive.
21) Sinead O'Connor -- The Lion and the Cobra: Funny how Sinead gets pummeled for being a crazy lady when it's done no harm to the reputations of Roky Erickson, Skip Spence, Syd Barrett, Daniel Johnston, et. al. Guess the lady doesn't know her proper place. Maybe it's why I like her. Or maybe it's a family thing. Or maybe her voice still affects me in a way that's as sincere and powerful as those listed above. Had she never had that Gerber Baby "Nothing Compares 2 U" hit video, maybe she'd be living out her days as the respected cult artist she deserves to be. Phone home, sis. Mom would love to hear from you.
20) Husker Du -- Warehouse: Songs and Stories: When Husker Du went to Warner Brothers after years on SST Records where Corporate Rock Sucks became their rallying cry, it was seen as a greater controversy than it actually was. You mean the group were going to get an actual production budget? Too bad they weren't digging each other anymore. They'd never go for it, but they probably should've re-recorded their back catalog while they had the money.
19) Voivoid -- Killing Technology: Metal took on new forms in the 1980s and Canadian metal gods Voivod, for some reason, had the ears of non-metal dudes who were selective in their metal choices. I guess the group had that 'crossover' appeal that allowed punks and metalheads to enjoy the same music. Of course, to outsiders it all sounded alike, but you can say that about anything.
18) Big Black -- Songs About F***ing: For people who enjoy swearing and being rude to their neighbors, Big Black provide an outlet. No blues, no jazz, no pop, no R&B, no funk, no metal, no punk, no reggae, just a purity of sound that's for people who like their music with integrity. Whatever that means. Boys just want to be obnoxious.
17) Eric B. & Rakim -- Paid In Full: Send us all back to the 1980s and tell us that Hip Hop would be the dominant form of music to future generations and most of us would wonder how that could be possible. There were three classic rock radio stations in the NYC area alone that made it feel like it was 1975 for eternity. The big money was in reselling back catalog on CD! Rappers might be culturally important, but so were punks, once upon a time, and we saw where that music went. Nah, tell Billy Johnson, Jr., it's just a phase.
16) Dinosaur Jr. -- You're Living All Over Me: Strip away the wall of guitars and I'm not sure what you're left with. But what does it matter? I don't want to hear the first Velvet Underground album unplugged either. And I don't want to hear the Jackson Browne catalog rocked out with Marshall stacks and powerchords. So, losing your hearing is part of the Dino Jr. experience. That ringing in your ears is ambience. Enjoy!
15) George Michael -- Faith: The little girls understood. And guys fell in line because they liked the girls who liked the boys. "I Want Your Sex" became a hit and civilization fell. I remember that.
14) Rollins Band -- Life Time: It's interesting how audiences for music often reflect the people making it. I remember attending a Nick Cave concert and noting what a tall experience it was, filled with suited goths. Rollins attracted all the angry, frustrated dudes who didn't want to sell out and who were serious about their angry young man status. When they laughed, it was with bitter scorn. The world wasn't fair! Yeah, I know that.
13) Def Leppard -- Hysteria: "Mutt" Lange always wanted songs to pack hooks and to never waste a note. So, he worked over every second of the record. Nothing was left to chance and the band had the most precise rock album of all-time. They were no longer metal and when asked whether it's live or it's Memorex? Oh, it's Memorex. Make no mistake. It's Memorex.
12) Negativland -- Escape From Noise: These merry pranksters were battling "fair use" issues long before it was a widespread concern. Their genius has been making the process the entertainment. "Christianity is Stupid" may seem like the obvious entry point (ooh -- controversy), but any spot on the LP is worth a chuckle and an essay. Just not here.
11) R.E.M. -- Document: The last studio album for I.R.S. Records before moving on to Warner Brothers turned out to be among their strongest -- or at least had strong moments that neutralized the weak. Each album claimed to be the one where their sound cleared up. But it was always the blur that made them interesting. Who needed to know the words of "The One I Love" to know it sounded real. But now that you know, wasn't it better before?
10)The Dukes of Stratosphear -- Psonic Psunspot: XTC needed a side-project because Andy Partridge wrote too many songs and so did Colin Moulding, whose "Vanishing Girl" might be the best song to not be from the era it sounds like it's from. Lots of music fans missed the 1960s in the 1980s and were determined to make sure those sounds never died. If you held on to your vintage equipment, you did well for yourself.
9) John Hiatt -- Bring The Family: It was a sign o' the times that it was considered a gimmick for Hiatt to have recorded this album in roughly four days mostly live in the studio. Who would do that? You can't make a record for just $30,000. Not unless you're one of those punks! Did 'Americana' have its first saint with this record industry vet who'd already tried a few other paths to stardom? I dunno. But Hiatt had his genre finally figured out and he's been mining it into a rut ever since.
8) The Triffids -- Calenture: Triffids? That's Australian for Rock 'n' Roll. Story goes the label brought in an American producer who insisted on session men to play behind the singer, David McComb, and those sessions were scrapped, along with further sessions with other outside producers, until Gil Norton, who'd produced Born Sandy Devotional, was brought in to re-record the album. I'm sure the record execs earned their bonuses that year.
7) The Verlaines -- Bird Dog: I'm assuming the New Zealand scene consisted of four bands. The Chills, The Clean, The Jean Paul Sartre Experience and these guys. At least that's all I remember off the top of my head. This album has been considered the band's best, though I think it's just where most people first came on board. First purchase, best purchase.
6) The Go-Betweens -- Tallulah: Let's move back over to Australia, everyone's favorite penal colony. The Go-Betweens, being one of Dave "New This Week" DiMartino's favorite bands, surely deserve an astute observation from Dave himself. However, actually having heard the album in question only muddles Dave's thinking. So, let's just assume he's thinking something extremely salient and ending it with an earnest overuse of exclamation points!!!!
5) The Cure -- Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me: The Cure came the closest to mainstream success without actually being considered mainstream. No one mixed these guys up with Van Halen. Most amazing is how they responded to success. The Head On the Door had been a commercial breakthrough in many parts of America where alternative rock stations were gaining market share. So, the band made a double album and opened it with six minutes of wailing guitar. They knew their audience would understand.
4) Opal -- Happy Nightmare Baby: Before there was Mazzy Star, there was a Paisley Underground scene in Southern California that at its best broke on through to another side of music appreciation. Opal, once known as Clay Allison and Smith, Roback and Mitchell, briefly captured a heavy mellow that was as entrancing as it was elusive. What did I just hear? Fall asleep and it's gone.
3) Spacemen 3 -- The Perfect Prescription: Guitar distortion speaks to a specific audience in a way that's hard to explain to outsiders. Get the right over-the-top sound moving and it doesn't much matter what else is going on. As long as one can nod along and out, the rest is complimentary coffee.
2) Tom Waits -- Franks Wild Years: Tom's evolution from barroom beatnik to arthouse weirdo turned his music upside down (obviously) and I fear lots of fans like the idea of his music more than they enjoy it. As someone who likes pump organs and megaphones and weirdness for weirdness' sake, I'm good with it. But I wouldn't force this music on people. People have a right to silence!
1) The Smiths -- Strangeways, Here We Come: The fourth and final studio album by the 1980s best pop combo was considered a disappointment at first, but in retrospect is often considered their best album. Morrissey and Marr like it the most. I won't argue, though I consider them a singles band in the best definition of the phrase. Extra points for nailing "Girlfriend In A Coma" in just two minutes. Your brevity is admired if not emulated.