IX. 14 BIG ONES - The Eighties

I grew up during this strange and wonderful decade and there was a record for every major moment. I cannot list my top ten. So here are fourteen.
Pete Townshend/The Who 1980-1982

Everyone talks about the triptych of Tommy, Who’s Next and Quadrophenia, but PT was just hitting his stride then, and it would continue well into 1982 with the release of his umpteenth masterpiece, All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes. The Who By Numbers and Who Are You would be the pinnacle of anyone else’s career and it only got better with his first true solo effort, the astonishing Empty Glass. It’s rare an artist would enter his fifteenth year under the numbing microscope of celebrity and still be able to create such a definitive work. From the clarion call of "Rough Boys" to the last defiant notes of "Gonna Get Ya," the album bristles with life, a testament to the constitution of one of Rock and Roll's ultimate survivors. Even more amazing is that he turned around and produced the vastly underrated Face Dances for his day job (The Who, who had just lost their most important cylinder in the engine room). In the early 1980s, there was only one band and that was The Who, the proof of which was that no one seemed anywhere near as cool on MTV at the time. (The only other band that came close was The Police and, in a cartoonish way, Van Halen.) By the time he released Chinese Eyes in ’82 with the accompanying "Face Dances Part 2" and "Slit Skirts" videos, there was no one within a mile of him. On the strength of "Rough Boys," "I Am An Animal," "You Better You Bet," "Another Tricky Day," "Somebody Saved Me" and "Slit Skirts" alone, these three records top any list I can dream up, but then you remember "Let My Love Open The Door," "A Little Is Enough," "Daily Records," "Don’t Let Go The Coat," "Stop Hurting People" and "The Sea Refuses No River." There’s only one word for him: QUANTUM.


I’ve been a Rush fan since this album came out when I was eleven years old. It is their best album, the one that defines their originality and vision. It’s another "perfect" album, like AJA, ABBEY ROAD or COURT AND SPARK, a work of blinding precision and cinematic sweep. For me, it is the quintessential progressive rock recording because it combines the pomp and circumstance of that genre with the passion and freedom of The Who and early Bruce Springsteen. It sounds like if The Who were all sober at the same time and playing harder and more precisely than they ever could. It also defines the arc of what a true ALBUM should be. It’s in two distinct halves, like all the best albums (a trait that has disappeared in the dispensable CD age) and soars from the very first notes of "Tom Sawyer" through the greatest epic-song ever written about a car ("Red Barchetta"), to the best rock instrumental ever ("YYZ"), to the finest statement ever about the surreal state of celebrity ("Limelight") (featuring Alex Lifeson’s most signature guitar work) and that’s only side one. Listening to the darker, more experimental side two ("The Camera Eye," "Witch Hunt" and "Vital Signs") all these years later, I still feel this is the most original rock music ever made. It has the punch of the best rock and roll, expert ensemble and individual performance, it is the work of three friends who clearly love each other, which is how they made it in the first place…it is cerebral and yet emotional. It may be my favorite album.

THE FINAL CUT - Pink Floyd 1983

A significant record and maybe the best of Roger Waters compositions. This is the only time he was ever this melodic, bringing forth an understated melancholy instead of his usual biting sarcasm and depression (which have served him well too, of course – Wish You Were Here, Animals, The Wall…) It's Roger’s most emotional singing as well. Another one of those "perfect" albums, where every note, sound, nuance and effect is exactly right in each moment, The Final Cut is a fully realized rumination on the lasting effects of war in the face of the shocking inhumanity of the powers that be. Like The Wall before it, it’s a harrowing experience. Pink Floyd has more soul than meets the ear and it’s apparent here, especially in the best solos Dave Gilmour ever recorded. Across the board, it is the purest sound of a crying soul I’ve ever heard on record, especially on "The Fletcher Memorial Home" and "The Final Cut." Full of expressive power and grace, this is a monumental record from start to finish, climaxing with perhaps Roger Waters’ most beautiful song, "Two Suns In The Sunset" and his most heartbreaking couplet: "Ashes and diamonds, foe and friend, we were all equal in the end." Not really, though, as hardly anyone has ever made a record this good.

SYNCHRONICITY - The Police 1983

In the beautiful and now extinct art form that is the rock ALBUM, there is the fabulous facet known as the PERFECT ALBUM SIDE. One half of a glorious record, complete unto itself, showcasing everything magical about the artist who created it. Side One of Abbey Road, Side One of Moving Pictures, Side Three of The Wall, Side One of Houses Of The Holy, Side Two of Songs In The Key Of Life, Side Two of Purple Rain, Side One of Are You Experienced?… And Side Two of this album, The Police’s brilliant swan song, Synchronicity. Four songs. The best record of 1983 ("Every Breath You Take"), the catchiest Sting lament ("King Of Pain"), their best ensemble performance since "Message In A Bottle" ("Wrapped Around Your Finger") and the most magical thing they ever did ("Tea In The Sahara"). Pop Perfection. It’s so strong it allows the perversity of the opening side to be as esoteric and out there as any pop music ever was. Side one of Synchronicity is Monty Python on acid. It’s a shame they broke up. They were as close to Beatles as the early ‘80’s got. I would have loved to hear what Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers would have done with Sting’s burgeoning maturity.

PURPLE RAIN - Prince and The Revolution 1984

The album of the decade. The one that grew my pubic hair and taught me how to feel sexier than I am. "When Doves Cry" is the most inventive rock and roll record of all time. There is no substitute. Except maybe his own "Kiss" from two years later. No bass, no reverb, just genius oozing out of the bathtub. It’s a shame he has apparently lost the script now, for there was nobody to touch him from 1982 to 1987. After my first encountering of The Beatles and what that did to me, the next significant musical shift in my life was discovering this record. All these years later, I’m still trying in vain to emulate the sense of freedom and creativity that the little dynamo from Minneapolis forged here. Listen to "The Beautiful Ones" and "Darling Nikki" as soon as you can.

SO - Peter Gabriel 1986

A personal choice, though some would argue it has not aged well. I still dig it. Especially "Red Rain," "That Voice Again" and the "Bridge Over Troubled Water" of the '80's, "Don’t Give Up." Hooray for Kate Bush, who infuses the performance with surreal breathing life. This is the best work of Gabriel’s career. And we cannot forget the irrepressible "In Your Eyes" blasting from John Cusack's boom box in Say Anything or the overall genius drumming of Manu Katche. In 1986, this was the sound of youthful promise and the feeling that anything was possible. And while that wasn’t the case, it felt that way at the time.


This is the first album I bought at college. I had been reading in music magazines for two years about this great band R.E.M. and wondering what all the fuss was about. It was rare to hear journalists go on and on about a new rock band. But on first hearing "Begin The Begin" and the quintessential "Fall On Me," I understood at once. It was then I discovered the poetry of "Cuyahoga" and "The Flowers Of Guatemala" as sung through the "Underlying Hum of the Universe" voice of Michael Stipe and I was a fan for life. This is their best album and I’ve often wondered what Peter Buck would say if I told him so, given how great their next four albums were.


I cannot include Born In The USA here because it was more a cultural event than a great album, although it was pretty great. It was better than most other records made in 1984. I myself have always preferred The River, but neither record gets me quite enough to make my top picks of the decade. What’s more, I would always take Born To Run or Darkness On The Edge Of Town over anything he put out in the ‘80’s. Great work, but not as great as The Wild, The Innocent and The E Street Shuffle or for that matter, The Joshua Tree.

There is a spiritual line running from Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly on down that begins to flower with Dylan, Lennon and Jagger, flows on through Townshend and Springsteen and reaches full fruition with Bono. Love him or hate him, he was The Man in 1987 and this was The Album. I personally go in for all the posturing and posing because I find him sexy, smart and the very best rock singer of his age. For the singing alone, The Joshua Tree is the best album of the late ‘80’s. But it is the sound of The Edge’s guitar work and the brotherly interaction of the rhythm section (see Led Zeppelin) that keeps this record in the upper echelons of all-time recorded rock and roll. It’s one of the only records from this most dated of decades that still sounds not of any particular time, like Revolver, Who’s Next or Led Zeppelin IV. A massive achievement of soul searching, Side One is the definition of passionate rock and roll music. Side Two has "Red Hill Mining Town" and "One Tree Hill," so is that the better side? It must be, because when Bono unleashes that molten battery of screams at the end of "One Tree Hill" it sounds as though his very soul, and the soul of the whole world, depends on it.



After R.E.M. and U2, Tracy Chapman’s debut album was the next musical event of my life. I remember thinking she was a small black man with a strange voice. I wasn’t too far off. I just got the sex wrong. There are few moments when an artist springs full-blown out of nowhere into the consciousness of people who care about popular music. "Fast Car" and the rest of this beautiful album that it highlights is one such moment. The only other songs from 1988 that moved me as much were "The Wrong Child" from REM’s Green and U2’s live version of "I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For" from Rattle and Hum. Tracy carried me through a sad time. I found her singing, writing and the delicate production of her record soothing even though it was despairing music. That’s part of the power, I guess. That’s what Bruce says and he’s made a career out of dancing on despair. The flip-side of appearing in full form artistically is that these very select artists never seem to be able to recover from their initial statement and hardly ever equal it or evolve from it. Such is the case with Tracy. She never again made a record as good.

Which brings us to the other act from this same moment in time that appeared playing acoustic guitars and singing deeply hewn emotional music: My favorite artist of the following decade…Indigo Girls. Just when I thought I couldn’t see past Tracy Chapman, a record appeared that took me over and changed my life again the way Prince's Purple Rain had done some five years earlier. I’m not ashamed to say when I first saw the video of "Closer To Fine" on VH1, I was weeping like a child by the end of it. I don’t believe I have ever been so moved by any music more than that of Emily Saliers, the blond, humble genius lead guitarist of this incredible duo. Together with her friend Amy Ray, she has made the most stirring music I have ever known. Now I love The Beatles above all. And I love Billy Joel nearly as much. But I have never cried so much because of anyone else’s art than that of Emily Saliers'. I will go out on a limb and claim that Amy and Emily are vocally the closest thing in spirit to Lennon and McCartney that has ever been since the heady days of 1962 and ’63. Their respective voices are low and scratchy and high and sweet and together, it’s a female mirror of John and Paul. Daft, you say? Maybe. But my love affair with this blessed duo that began here, with their incredible 1989 debut, goes on and on, entertaining and teaching me. My life has been immeasurably enriched and improved by The Indigo Girls. There, I’ve said it. You don’t name your first child after a singer/songwriter for nothing.


THE SEEDS OF LOVE - Tears For Fears 1989

The twin triumphs of 1989, both aspiring to Beatlesque magic and getting closer than anyone had in some time. Andy Partridge is the great overlooked English country gentleman songwriting genius of our time and Roland Orzabal is one hell of a soul singer. I was always taken with Songs From The Big Chair and I was excited to buy The Seeds Of Love the day it came out. It was well worth the four year wait. Side One especially, which features the exquisite voice and piano of Oleta Adams on the breathtaking "Woman In Chains" and the soulful rave of "Badman’s Song." The title track is the "Hello Goodbye-meets-All You Need Is Love" of the decade and "Advice For The Young At Heart" recreates lost innocence for anyone looking for some. 

Even better is Oranges And Lemons, in which resident mastermind Partridge and superb bass player/sidekick Colin Moulding try to capture the whole of their beloved England over the stretch of some fifteen intricate, intelligent and catchy-as-all-get-out pop songs. The amazing finale "Chalkhills and Children" takes you all the way there and back. Not to mention the invention of "Garden Of Earthly Delights," "The Mayor Of Simpleton," and the marvelous "King For A Day." These two records got me to the end of the decade and took me home again. Lots of succor, sweetness and support contained within. That’s what all great records do. Succor, sweetness and support. That’s why I take the time to babble on about them the way I do. And while you’re at it, check out Prince’s Parade, Rickie Lee Jones’ Pirates and Billy Joel’s Glass Houses and The Nylon Curtain. You’ll be glad you did. I was.

Everybody got to deviate from the norm.