In 1989, my sister was born, and we’ve had our fair share of familial fights. Sharing a car has been a bitch… she also tends to make fun of my politics, religious beliefs, and work ethic. She’s still in her late teens (a.k.a. – “I like to be controversial all the time” phase), so I try to deal. What really irks me, though, is how she scored such a got-damn awesome birth year.
When filling out the original survey that sparked this series, 1989 was the first year where I actually had to think hard about my top album. In a lot of ways, this top 10 is really a collection of number ones and twos, split down the middle. My sister got (arguably) the best records by The Cure, The B-52s, Fugazi, The Stone Roses, and Pixies. Operation Ivy and Gorilla Biscuits revolutionized the punk/hardcore scene with their first and only full-lengths. Nirvana was just getting started, and Joe Strummer began to find a musical life without Mick Jones. And of course, Nine Inch Nails kicked off its brilliant legacy that year with Pretty Hate Machine. My sister got spoiled right out of the gate… er, womb.
Kid sisters always have it so easy.
Listening to Bleach, it’s hard to believe Nirvana ever wrote Nevermind. Bleach seems almost willfully uncommercial. Trafficking in the sludgy Black Flag/Sabbath formula that bands like The Melvins and Mudhoney were developing, Nirvana joined the fray with this 13-song distortion-fest.
In high school, I worked backwards through Nirvana. I purchased Nevermind and In Utero used simultaneously from my friend Rob Ferrier and loved them equally. Every time I try to pick a favorite, I end up changing my mind a few months later. Right now I prefer Nevermind. Bleach, on the other hand, was not an instant hit with me. While Steve Albini’s production on In Utero gave it a brutal heft that my fragile 14-year-old mind hadn’t really encountered before, that record’s songs still had pop hooks steeped in the Beatles tradition. Bleach has none of that. It’s all garage rock squawking and slightly off lyrics. Kurt Cobain’s words here are weird, occupying a surreal space that is not artsy, epic, or emotional. The scenes are simple – schoolyards, girl’s rooms, etc. But it’s all so strange and frenetic and savage.
My favorite Opy Ivy memory is from high school, when The Baffles, a punk band that was feuding with my first real band, tried covering “Caution” to make fun of us. “Caution is a word that I can’t understand” is a key line in that song, which also happens to be the name of my band from the time. This cover wasn’t really the sick burn they had hoped, but it forced me to get off my duff and buy the Operation Ivy collection from Lookout! Records.
Energy’s sound quality is pretty rough; it almost sounds like a bootleg. But that’s part of its punk charm. Another key component is its emphatic take on the ska tradition. Guitarist Lint (you might know him as Tim Armstrong) and frontman Jesse Michaels wrote romper stompers that espoused unity, equality, and aversion to acting like a dick, and packaged them into quick ska-punk bursts. Few bands have been able to improve on this righteous blend. In SAT terms, Operation Ivy is to ska-punk what Richard Pryor is to black comedy.
I’m not a big fan of NYC hardcore. Gorilla Biscuits are one of my exceptions, though. Like Op Ivy’s Energy, Start Today was one of those era-defining records. Also like Energy, Start Today serves as the last will and testament of its creators. While GB’s members went on to further success with bands like Quicksand, Rival Schools, and CIV, Gorilla Biscuits, as a unit, never managed to crank out a second full-length.
But really, how could one follow up Start Today? It stands as a testament on its own. Start Today predicts hip-hop technique’s crossing over into hardcore with the samples on opening track “New Direction.” Sadly, no one really picked up the best album’s best innovation, which is the random harmonica solo on the title track (I am not kidding).
Fast and blistering, and saved from the “NYC hardcore yeah!” chants that mar a lot the area’s bands, Start Today is a punk/hardcore classic whose influence can be felt on many ’90s punk bands like H2O and Bouncing Souls, not to mention on new millennium upstarts like Set Your Goals and Energy.
Poor Joe had a rough going during the second half of the ’80s. He fucked up The Clash something fierce by listening to his manager instead of his heart, leading to the departure of guitarist/co-songwriter Mick Jones and drummer Topper Headon. After bombing with the band’s tepid swansong, Cut the Crap, a record so loathed that I didn’t even know it existed until I read a Strummer biography, and suffering condemnation every time someone jocked Jones’ new act, Big Audio Dynamite, Joe needed a hit badly.
Sadly, he didn’t get it with his first solo album, Earthquake Weather. Unfairly maligned (and compared to B.A.D.) upon its release, the record eventually achieved somewhat of a cult following among Strummer enthusiasts like myself. Of course, when you’re the guy who wrote London Calling, I imagine a lot of your other stuff seems petty by comparison, but even Strummer's lesser releases are better than most.
Earthquake Weather is perhaps best explained as the prequel to Joe’s run with The Mescaleros, filtered through cheesy ’80s production. The album transcends its studio limitations, however, showcasing the hurricane of influences that coursed through Joe’s veins. Elements of punk, rockabilly, reggae, folk, ska, and pop intertwine. At times delirious, Earthquake Weather also feels like a Brian Wilson moment for Joe. It’s crammed with instruments and changes, as if the man never could make up his mind on how to go solo. Outside of scoring films, it would take him another decade to release another album. I hope more people tune in to Joe’s post-Clash work.
Ah, the more assured follow-up. Doolittle is a little less ramshackle than Pixies’ seminal Surfer Rosa, which in this case works out A-OK. Frank Black is no less insane here, as evidenced upon track one, “Debaser.” Essentially just an excuse for Frank to scream the title while bassist/co-vocalist Kim Deal tries to keep everything sensible, “Debaser” is a giddy/angry rock gem in a collection rife with ‘em. This is the same album that gave us “Here Comes Your Man,” “Monkey Gone to Heaven” and “Wave of Mutilation.” A Pixies best of seems almost redundant. All shouts and freak outs, Pixies are the disorder to The Beatles’ order.
I tend to hate musicians who act like larger-than-life rock stars. There’s a few exceptions, obviously, like Bono. Really, I just hate prima donnas. But it’s this very loathing that makes me love The Stone Roses even more, as the first track off their first album, “I Wanna Be Adored,” plays with bravado while at the same time showing a heck of a lot of cajones. Frontman Ian Brown plays the slinky rock poet well, skewering rock ‘n’ roll’s association with Satanism with lines like “I don’t have to sell my soul / He’s already in me.” And they made this a freaking single! The lyric is delivered so smoothly over a gothic/new wave set-up. Really, it’s not that different from The Cure or The Jesus and Mary Chain post-Darklands. But it is a lot more fun.
The Stone Roses bridges the gap between new wave and Britpop, The Smiths and Oasis, and psychedelia and rave. Reserving long-form jamming for the album-ending “I Am the Resurrection,” The Stone Roses focused on hooks and the will to use them for most of their eponymous debut, although there are flourishes here and there, like on “Don’t Stop” and “Waterfall.” Makes me wish they followed that same path on the crushingly terrible The Second Coming. As is, though, I’ll settle for this darkly sexy masterpiece.
While my love for some bands has waned over time (Sorry, Sonic Youth), my appreciation for others has only grown stronger (NIN! NIN! NIN!). Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor started his long tenure as commander of all that is angry yet depressed yet danceable with Pretty Hate Machine. For all of its aggression, NIN’s core has always been in club music. This is perhaps made most clear on NIN’s first album. While the songs have evolved into a more rock-centric live setting, their original constructions bear ’80s pop production, making for a record that, for all of its “Head Like a Hole” bluster, really isn’t so removed from, say, Depeche Mode. It’s just better.
Aside from the awkward rapping on “Down In It,” Pretty Hate Machine is a stunning opening salvo. The record combines Reznor’s blunt lyricism with bombastic beats, resulting in an angst-filled mindblower. Cuts like “Sanctified,” “Something I Can Never Have,” and “Ringfinger” perverted new wave catchiness into new, more frightening territories. The ’80s more or less implied that the keyboard was superior to the guitar. Pretty Hate Machine is one of the few albums to actually offer that argument some support.
For a long time, The B-52s were just a decent singles band (so says me). Tunes like “Private Idaho” and “Rock Lobster” were fun, to a point, but they weren’t the kind of pop music I could spin over and over. It might be redundant to say this band is too kitschy, but they are. Cosmic Thing, then, is a “stars aligning” moment in The B-52s’ history. The production/sound is fuller, the retro feel somehow sounds richer, and the hooks are ridiculously awesome. Besides the immaculate singles “Love Shack” and “Roam,” listeners get a slew of funky gems like “Dry Country,” “Junebug,” and “Deadbeat Club.”
Cosmic Thing marked probably my first celebrity crush, as vocalist Kate Pierson was quite the cutie in ’89. She’s got a powerful set of pipes too. Her contributions to “Love Shack” and “Roam” give the songs so much more force. Not that she outshines the rest of the band – Fred Schneider’s arty/flamboyant/Southern spoken word style is just as crucial – but she’s my favorite.
One of the bands I regret missing out on the most is Fugazi. Listening to 13 Songs was a revelation to me in high school. Its mixture of hardcore aggression and Rastafarian grooves was perfect. Sure, Bad Brains blended the two first, but Fugazi did it better, without the homophobia or reggae hang-ups. 13 Songs was the first Fugazi release I ever bought, and while I’ve since acquired their complete discography, it’s still my favorite. Somehow, I always end up listening to it when I get lost on family vacations. After missing the bus to our hotel room during a Disney World trip, splitting up during a
The album kicks off with the band’s best song, “Waiting Room.” It’s all groove and muscle while Ian MacKaye spits flames. Co-vocalist Guy Picciotto is right there in the fire with him on tunes like “Burning” and “Give Me the Cure.” I’ll always respect Fugazi for their staunch independence and incorruptible views, but it’s these furious jams, part dub and part punk in ways The Clash never could have comprehended, that make me love them. I’m fine with The Stone Roses or Operation Ivy breaking up, but I think indie music needs Fugazi to kick its ass and get it away from the neo-America/Eagles soft rock avenue it’s going down.
As I’ve written before, I really, really, really love The Cure. My favorite album is constantly in flux, but for the last month or so, I’ve been heavily grooving on Disintegration. It’s just a perfect record. Perfect for sleeping, driving, awkwardly making out. The record marks a shift away from The Cure’s occasionally psychedelic leanings towards more ethereal realms, and I love how otherworldly it sounds.
There’s some great singles to be had here. No “Just Like Heaven,” but you get “Pictures of You” and freaking “Love Song” instead. I swear, for a sad bastard, Robert Smith writes some of the best love songs (and he’s still going! Have you heard “The Only One?”). Of course, he writes pretty good surreal, weird songs too, like “Lullaby.” And rockers like “
Some albums are nostalgia trips for me. Pretty Hate Machine reminds me of high school (and Michelle. But mostly high school). The Stones Roses reminds me of college. Disintegration is one of a few albums which I’m still attaching memories to. I have this desire to be enshrouded in its dark, swirling waters.
NEXT WEEK: Enter the Schwarzenbach, 1990.