Friday, May 11, 2012

My Music Year: 1988

After considerable deliberation, one stopgap exercise, and an awesome assist from Heather, I'm ready to endorse a music year. How did I settle on 1988? Was it my fond recollection of the molded plastic California Raisins that were so bountiful that year? It was not. My actual music-related memories of 1988 are fairly limited: I remember Fine Young Cannibals on the radio in my dad’s car (“She Drives Me Crazy” and  “Good Thing”), and Bobby Brown's "My Prerogative" was getting some serious play from my older sister. Oh, and the treacly "Living Years" by Mike + The Mechanics was an inescapable pop song. Apparently the New Kids on the Block were Hangin' Tough that year, but I don't really recall. (This Billboard compilation offers a fairly concise glimpse of what else people were listening to in '88.)

I was ten years old in 1988, and I was functionally illiterate as far as pop-culture goes. I didn't even have a tape deck. I think my only exposure to rap music had been a surreptitious viewing of the Beastie Boys' video "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party)". It would be some time before I had the opportunity to understand the Beasties' oeuvre beyond that one song, but I did appreciate their sense of humor. (Yes, even I knew they were lampooning themselves.) I was so remarkably ignorant of popular music that I thought Simon & Garfunkel were a current group. (I'm not sure how to account for that misnomer, but I would guess it had something to do with PBS re-airing the duo's 1980 reunion concert.) What can I say? I lived in my own head-space, as many young people do, and I was content with my paperback copies of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Jules Verne.

It wasn't until I was thirteen or fourteen that I began developing musical tastes of my own, and once that happened, 1988 proved to be the wellspring of my musical interests. In an odd way, the music of 1988 would influence me considerably from my middle-school years to the present day. And let me tell you, there are few constants in my life that span those years. (I'm not strictly using "constant" in the Desmond Hume sense of the word, but you are encouraged to interpret it that way.)

My Top 5 Albums of 1988

It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back - Public Enemy

"Some say no to the album, the show, bum rush the sound I made a year ago..."

Chuck D engaged listeners on a level of intelligence that very few artists are brave enough to attempt. Over the sound of air-raid sirens and blaring funk samples, he wanted to tell you about the realities of the world as he saw it, and how it could be different if people had the courage to stand together. The genius of Public Enemy was in making these weighty concerns a vital part of the overall aural package. The production on Nation of Millions is dizzying in its complexity; a record so sonically dense that you could listen to it daily and a year later you'd still be adding mental footnotes. Flavor Flav's current eminence as a "reality TV" buffoon can make it difficult to re-contextualize the vital role he played in Public Enemy's creative success; playfully anarchic, he was a truly brilliant foil for Chuck's sober truth-telling. (I'm being as gentle as I can in addressing Flavor Flav's current ignominy, because I'm old enough to remember him as something more than a punch-line. I can't be the only one who feels a twinge of sadness when I see an ad for Flavor of Love or whatever.) Public Enemy were much more than a rap group with the trappings of revolution, they were themselves the embodiment of revolutionary aspiration.

The Fugazi (Seven Songs) EP - Fugazi

"But I don't sit idly by, I'm planning a big surprise, I'm gonna fight for what I want to be..."

The Washington, D.C. post-punk band Fugazi began as something of a local super-group, comprised of members of recently defunct D.C. acts Minor Threat (Ian MacKaye), Rites of Spring (Brendan Canty, Guy Picciotto), and Dag Nasty (Joe Lally). Yes, I'm probably cheating by including an EP in my top five, but I can't in good conscience leave Fugazi's debut off the list. The effect these four men would have on the lives and aspirations of their and succeeding generations of musicians, artists, writers, and social activists is incalculable.When people talk about music being more than mere music, they might as well be talking about Fugazi. The group took their songwriting and performing abilities to places this initial EP barely hints at, but their legacy will be about more than the music they made together. I encourage anyone unfamiliar with the band to listen to this record's iconic closing track; MacKaye's barking refrain ("Sitting in the waiting room!") is both an invigorating anthem and a visceral call to action. These seven songs would later be combined with the Margin Walker EP and released as 13 Songs.

Surfer Rosa - The Pixies

"You're so pretty when you're unfaithful to me..."

It's been used as the modern rock template by scores of lesser bands, but Surfer Rosa still sounds remarkably odd. It's a glorious melange of surf guitar, fluid bass, unexpected harmonies, dark humor, and incomprehensible screaming. It's lyrical concerns, those that can be parsed, seemingly concern bizarre familial interactions, and, possibly, Biblical incest. Oh, and many of the lyrics are sung in Spanish. There's a lot going on here, and yet it's a fairly inviting album. The interplay of Frank Black's winsome shriek and the sweetness of Kim Deal's vocals are unique and instantly endearing. A prime example is the iconic track "Where is My Mind?". Like many truly great songs, the lyrics are difficult to decipher and the meaning is open to interpretation, but it's engaging from the first strums of the acoustic guitar.

Follow the Leader - Eric B. & Rakim

"I was a fiend before I became a teen, I melted microphones instead of cones of ice cream..."

There's a reason Rakim is known as the "God Emcee".

Daydream Nation - Sonic Youth

"You're it. No, you're it. Hey, you're really it..."

It's difficult for me to be objective about Daydream Nation, as this is an album with which I intensely identified at one time in my life. Everything from the Gerhard Richter painting on the cover to the curious symbols that marked each side of vinyl (a nod to Led Zeppelin) is evocative of the time I spent in the tumultuous head-space of Daydream Nation. The opening "Teen Age Riot" begins with Kim Gordon reciting school-ground catch-phrases (in the deadpan, disaffected voice that she does better than anyone) over a slightly de-tuned guitar melody. This intro comes to a halt, and is replaced with fuzzed-out guitar and aggressive drumming that accompanies Thurston Moore's vocals, which may or may not be a continuation of where Kim was going lyrically. This record is over seventy minutes long, but it really is best appreciated in its entirety. Sonic Youth are (were?) always at their best when trying to accommodate recognizable song structure alongside their propensity for sprawling other-worldly guitar jams. I remember experiencing an odd sense of satisfaction when, back in 2005, I heard that the Library of Congress was including Daydream Nation in its National Recording Registry. Well done, librarians. (Trivia: Daydream Nation was produced by Nick Sansano, who also engineered portions of Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions.)

Also, Also, Also:

KRS-One carried on with Boogie Down Productions following the 1987 murder of DJ Scott La Rock, but he was pushing things in a very different direction. On By All Means Necessary, he was creating socially conscious music that was an absolute game-changer. EPMD released their debut album, Strictly Business, a stone-cold classic that samples recordings by such disparate acts as Eric Clapton, Syl Johnson, Kool and the Gang, and Pink Floyd. But it would take more than socially-conscious rhymes or technical mastery to counter the aggressive boasts of N.W.A. and their debut album Straight Outta Compton. While its lyrical content would seem to run counter to anything as progressively engaging as the work of Boogie Down, it's worth pointing out that N.W.A. have a tangled legacy that goes well beyond the world of popular music. (It also introduced the world to Ice Cube, one of the very few artists to transition from credible street-level emcee to cuddly matinee patriarch. Yes, that actually happened). One month after N.W.A. dropped their debut, the group's nominal leader, Eazy-E, released his own solo album. Lyrically, Eazy-Duz-It is shockingly juvenile. But while Eazy-E's actual rhyme skills are fairly limited, he was a charismatic personality whose "gangsta rap" exposed a host of social ills to the national spotlight. As I said, it's a tangled legacy.

A parallel trend in hip-hop was the move towards a more radio-friendly sensibility, and no one made rap music more non-threatening than Will Smith, a.k.a. The Fresh Prince. In collaboration with the talented producer DJ Jazzy Jeff, Smith had a genuinely "fun" hit record with He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper. Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock found similar success with It Takes Two. Another emcee that carried rap music deep into suburbia was Tone Loc. His debut album, Loc-Ed After Dark, contained the memorable radio-ready hits "Wild Thing" and "Funky Cold Medina". The song "Wild Thing" was played during a scene in John Hughes' comedy Uncle Buck (as was Young MC's "Bust a Move"); this should be considered definitive evidence that rap music was in the mainstream.

It's my contention that the truest hip-hop legacy is borne out by its left-field artists, and there are few better examples than Critical Beatdown by the Ultramagnetic MCs, Straight Out the Jungle by the Jungle Brothers, and the handful of singles that would form the foundation of De La Soul's infinitely inventive debut album, 3 Feet High and Rising. Prince Paul's production on the early De La Soul records set a standard for quality in sampling that hasn't really been improved upon, well, ever. Listen to any of the aforementioned records and you'll have an idea as to why this era is considered hip-hop's golden age.

1988 also saw debut releases from several hard-rock acts that would virtually define the sound of modern rock in the next decade. Most notably, Nirvana, Mudhoney, Soundgarden, and Jane's Addiction. Nirvana released their first single in November '88, a cover of Shocking Blue's “Love Buzz”. It would also appear on the band's debut album, Bleach, the following year. Jane’s Addiction released their first proper studio album, Nothing’s Shocking. (Which many people found quite shocking.) Mudhoney released their debut EP, the "grunge" template Superfuzz Bigmuff. Soundgarden's debut album, Ultramega OK, was very much in keeping with this innovative new direction in guitar rock. These as-yet unheralded bands had something of an unofficial anthem in the Dinosaur Jr. song "Freak Scene" (available on the album Bug). All of these recordings might be contrasted with those of the woefully over-hyped Guns ‘n Roses, who followed the undeserved success of Appetite for Destruction with the bloated rock cliches of G N' R Lies.

My Bloody Valentine released their debut album, Isn’t Anything, in November of '88. The album displayed considerable promise and was well received by critics, but for me it's just a prelude to the band's epic followup, Loveless. Scottish indie rockers the Vaselines released the Dying For It EP, and found a major fan in Kurt Cobain. He would record two of the EP's tracks ("Molly's Lips" and "Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam") with his band Nirvana. Olympia, Washington's Beat Happening refined their charmingly lo-fi aesthetic with the album Jamboree. And, Chicago's own Eleventh Dream Day released their debut full-length, Prairie School Freakout. An invigorating confluence of fuzzy distortion and Neil Young/Crazy Horse guitar heroics, Eleventh Dream Day would prove to be underground stalwarts well into the 21st Century.

Early Warnings:

A weird twenty-something by the name of Bill Callahan began releasing cassette recordings under the alias "Smog". These cassette tapes of bizarre lo-fi guitar noodling were distributed with faux-surrealist titles like Macramé Gunplay, and would hardly merit attention in this forum had Mr. Callahan not inexplicably matured into a preeminent singer-songwriter. If there's a single musician who has somehow made music that's stuck with me throughout every stage of my life, it is Bill Callahan. And that guy's musical legacy began in 1988 with those very strange, very amateur home recordings.


As I said previously, both 1993 and 1995 were crucial music years for me. It's not unlikely that I'll highlight both of them in the near future. In 1993 we had the debut Wu-Tang album, as well as PJ Harvey's Rid of Me, Flaming Lips Transmissions from the Satellite Heart (a ridiculously underrated record), Smog's Julius Caesar, Cypress Hill's Black Sunday, The Melvins' Houdini, and Nirvana's In Utero. As for 1995? Well, it seems absurd not to highlight a year that saw GZA's Liquid Swords, Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...., and O.D.B.'s Return to the 36 Chambers. I think you could make a pretty strong case that there's never been a better year for hip-hop than 1995.