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!
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.
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?
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?
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’.
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.
10) Soundgarden — Ultramega OK: Long before they became an arena rock band, they acted like one. Some indie rock fans seemed shocked by this.
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.
6) Metallica — …And Justice for All: Come for the ballad, stay for the bass lines.
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!
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.)
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