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100 Best Albums of the Eighties

From synth pop and rap to metal and funk, 100 best albums of the Eighties selected by the editors of Rolling Stone

First 10 entries here span the Clash's polyglot punk, Prince's crossover funkadelica, Afro-bop from Talking Heads and Paul Simon and hymns of innocence and experience by U2 and Tracy Chapman.

This has been the first rock & roll decade without revolution, or true revolutionaries, to call its own. The Fifties witnessed nothing less than the birth of the music. The Sixties were rocked by Beatlemania, Motown, Phil Spector, psychedelia and Bob Dylan. The Seventies gave rise to David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, heavy metal, punk and New Wave.

In comparison, the Eighties have been the decade of, among other things, synth pop, Michael Jackson, the compact disc, Sixties reunion tours, the Beastie Boys and a lot more heavy metal. But if the past 10 years haven’t exactly been the stuff of revolution, they have been a critical time of re-assessment and reconstruction. Musicians and audiences alike have struggled to come to terms with rock’s parameters and possibilities, its emotional resonance and often dormant social consciousness.

The following survey of the 100 best albums of the Eighties, as selected by the editors of Rolling Stone, shows that the music and the values it stands for have been richer for the struggle. Punks got older and more articulate in their frustration and rage, while many veteran artists responded to that movement’s challenge with their most vital work in years. And rap transformed the face — and voice — of popular music.

The first 10 entries here span the Clash’s polyglot punk, Prince’s crossover funkadelica, Afro-bop from Talking Heads and Paul Simon and hymns of innocence and experience by U2 and Tracy Chapman. Further down the list, old-timers like Dylan, the Stones and Lou Reed hit new highs; Public Enemy and Run-D.M.C. kicked out some serious streetwise jams; Metallica and Guns N’ Roses established new hard-rock beachheads; and Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth and the Replacements offered definitive statements of postpunk angst. The embarrassment of riches on this list is all the more remarkable, since arthritic radio programming, corporate sponsorship and outbursts of racism and sexism in rap and metal have complicated rock’s present and raised fears for its future.

Best-of lists such as this one are by nature subjective. But rock in the Eighties was like that — lively, varied, contentious and, to some degree, inconclusive. Looking at the best rock has had to offer in the Eighties, it’s clear that there’s plenty of life left in the old beast yet. The next revolution may be just around the corner.

This feature was originally published in the November 16, 1989 issue of Rolling Stone.

80

Suzanne Vega, ‘Suzanne Vega’

It wasn't until the release of her second album that Suzanne Vega achieved fame, scoring an unlikely Top Forty hit with "Luka," a song about child abuse. But the singer's 1985 debut album, Suzanne Vega, had already awakened listeners to a fresh new voice, reviving the folk-music genre after nearly two decades of dormancy. For Vega, who was then twenty-five years old, the album was cause for uncertainty and isolation as much as triumph. "I felt a little bit like a novelty act," she says of her auspicious introduction.

Vega was certainly an anomaly during the mid-Eighties, softly strumming an acoustic guitar and singing introspective ballads while the rest of the music world was caught up in bigger-is-better events like Live Aid and Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A. mega-tour. In retrospect, however, Vega's intimate first album proved to be a significant milestone in this decade, ushering in a flock of female folk singers, including Tracy Chapman, Melissa Etheridge, Michelle Shocked, Tanita Tikaram and the Indigo Girls.

Having taught herself guitar at the age of eleven, Vega began writing her own songs when she entered her teens. After graduating from Barnard College in 1982, she began playing small coffeehouses in Greenwich Village — the same area of New York City where nearly every Sixties folkie first tuned up his Gibson. But Vega, a child of the Eighties, hardly fit the protest-singer mold. Even though she carried an acoustic guitar, her hero wasn't folk icon Bob Dylan but punk godfather Lou Reed. There were other differences as well. After years on the Northeastern club circuit, she had developed a direct, emotionally tempered style that she has said was inspired as much by novelist Carson McCullers and painter Edward Hopper as by romantic balladeers Leonard Cohen and Laura Nyro.

Weaving these diverse influences into a deeply moving album were producers Lenny Kaye (formerly Patti Smith's guitarist) and Steve Addabbo (Vega's manager), who brought modern touches to Vega's straight-ahead style, enhancing the singer's sparse sound with subtle electric guitars, graceful violins and even New Age synthesizers, all of which added gentle textures to her haunting material.

Vega's prowess with simile and metaphor dominates the entire album, perhaps most effectively on songs like "Undertow," "Freeze Tag" and "Straight Lines." But Vega's sphinxlike wordplay reaches its apex on "Small Blue Thing," a ballad more reflective of an intangible feeling than a literal object. "The song is actually pretty straightforward — it's not a riddle," she says with a laugh. "I never try and be tricky. At the time, I felt like a small blue thing. I never expected that people would think that it stood for something. Some people even asked if it's a fetus. It's not that at all — it's a mood.

"The structures behind folk music and folk songs are very elemental, sort of like water," Vega adds. "You go through your fads with wine and soft drinks and everything else, but water is the basic thing you always go back to."

79

Steve Earle, ‘Guitar Town’

"I had given up on ever getting a record deal and became a staff songwriter, going into the office eight hours a day and trying to write for the radio," says the Nashville-based country rocker Steve Earle. "What happened was that during that period, I learned a lot about craft." When Earle finally did get to make a full-length album in 1986, after having written songs for artists ranging from Waylon Jennings to Carl Perkins, he could apply professional songwriting polish to his Dylanesque verse and outlaw style of music. The result was Guitar Town, an album that straddled country and rock to create something startlingly new. In the words of a fellow artist, John Hiatt, it was "pretty much a darn near flawless record. Great writing, fantastic album."

Guitar Town tells simple stories of people living in hard times, such as the cautionary "Good Ol' Boy (Gettin' Tough)." It also relates the autobiographical tale of a country singer rolling down the road, from "Guitar Town" to "Hillbilly Highway," trying to outrun the blues. "It's important to me to make sure the average person can understand what I'm trying to say," says Earle. "Songwriting at its best is very rarely poetry; it's usually narrative and practically journalism. It is a form of literature, but one you can consume while you're driving your car."

Guitar Town boasts everything from a rich, orchestral twelve-string to some deep, twangy solos on the Danelectro six-string bass. It was recorded at an all-digital studio in Nashville. By embracing the latest technology, Earle hoped his hometown would receive its due as an up-to-date music metropolis. "I want to see Nashville become a place to make records, and not just country records," says Earle.

Does Earle see himself as more of a country or a rock artist? "I've been more readily accepted on rock radio, but as my audience gets older with me, I'll probably end up back on country radio," he says. "I think that as a singer, I borrow more from Hank Williams than from David Bowie."

Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: 'Guitar Town' by Steve Earle

78

Robbie Robertson, ‘Robbie Robertson’

"It's easy to be a genius in your twenties," says Robbie Robertson. "In your forties, it's difficult."

Such was the trepidation with which the former Band guitarist and songwriter approached making his long-put-off solo album. But he needn't have fretted so much: Robbie Robertson — released in 1987, a full decade after the Band broke up — is ample proof that Robertson's abilities are still very much intact.

From the album's ethereal opener, "Fallen Angel," dedicated to Robertson's former band mate, the late Richard Manuel, to "Testimony," its hard-rocking conclusion, Robertson establishes himself as his own man. "It was a personal statement," Robertson says of the album. "When I was younger, I thought I was too young to really be personal. I thought that what I was feeling and thinking might be half-baked."

Robbie Robertson took three years to complete and cost over $750,000 to make. Traveling to New Orleans, Woodstock, Dublin and England for inspiration and recording sessions, Robertson enlisted the help of U2, Gil Evans, Maria McKee, the BoDeans, Peter Gabriel, two of his cohorts from the Band — Rick Danko and Garth Hudson — and the obscure but gifted guitarist Bill Dillon as sidemen.

Much of the work was done in a studio in Santa Monica that Robertson turned into a kind of workshop-cum-lounge. With guitars and synthesizers at the ready, he spent months and months working on ideas. Although he began the recording sessions with an album's worth of material, many of the songs that showed up on the finished record — "Sonny Got Caught in the Moonlight," "Testimony," "Sweet Fire of Love" and "Somewhere Down the Crazy River" — were written in the studio. "I felt it was important for Robbie to write new songs for this record," says coproducer Daniel Lanois.

Robertson wrote passionately about saving the planet ("Showdown at Big Sky"), the price of fame ("American Roulette") and romance ("Broken Arrow"). "I never wrote about the environment before," says Robertson. "I feel very strongly about this stuff, but [in the past] I felt like I'd be jumping on the bandwagon. Now I felt like I couldn't help it."

Robertson sees the album as just the start of a new kind of songwriting and record making. "I was proud to rip open my chest and bare my soul," he says. "I'm not embarrassed to talk about these things anymore. Do you know what a skin walker is? It's a thing in Indian mythology. There are certain people born with this gift, and they're able to actually get inside you and mess with your feelings and with your mind. And if a skin walker chooses to get a hold of you, there's not much you can do. I want a song to get inside me, to feel it did the old skin walker on me. I was kind of discovering that on this album, and now I'm pursuing it."

Video: Robbie Robertson Talks About the Evolution of His Guitar Style

Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: Robbie Robertson

human league dare album cover
77

The Human League, ‘Dare’

When the Human League’s American debut, Dare, began its race up the charts in 1982, both the band and the album seemed unabashed rock rip-offs to more than a few skeptics. The British band, after all, sported no guitars, and there was no drummer or bassist in the group, either. What the Human League used to create Dare was a wash of synthesizers performed by band members who didn’t even consider themselves to be professional musicians.

“We started out as rank amateurs with a belief that you could use technology to make up for the fact that you hadn’t acquired any skill, that you could use computers to make up for the fact that you hadn’t any keyboard players, that you could use sequencers to do rhythms rather than employ a drummer,” Human League vocalist and songwriter Phil Oakey told Musician magazine in 1982.

Dare helped pave the way for the onslaught of electronics that would permeate rock on every level in the Eighties. The album demonstrated that synth pop was a viable alternative to rock’s time-tested but guitar-glutted formulas. Dare and its smash single, “Don’t You Want Me,” also proved that the lucrative American market would willingly digest synth pop, provided there was enough in the way of melody and rhythm to overcome the sometimes sterile strains of the synthesizer sound.

With Dare, the Human League linked itself as much to the Sex Pistols as it did to Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder, two Seventies pioneers in techno-rock. Like punk — a movement completely at odds with the kind of pop music a band like the Human League wanted to make — the band confirmed that attitude, and not musicianship, is what’s really important in the rock & roll process, and that with enough determination, virtually anyone can play the music.

Produced by Martin Rushent, who had also worked with the Buzzcocks and the Stranglers, Dare was the Human League’s third album. The previous two, Reproduction (1979) and Travelogue (1980), were U.K.-only releases. Critically acclaimed, both LPs nonetheless possessed largely unfocused attempts at making synth pop an accessible rock style.

After a personnel shake-up in 1980 that left Oakey and Philip Adrian Wright the only surviving members of the original Human League (Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware went on to form the British Electric Foundation and then Heaven 17), the band was revamped with newcomers Ian Burden and Jo Callis on synthesizers and Joanne Catherall and Susanne Sulley on vocals.

Aside from delivering an alluring synthesizer-soaked brand of rock on Dare, Oakey and the rest of the Human League further validated their best songs with lyrics that went beyond pop pap. “Seconds,” a deceptively haunting song about the JFK assassination, “Darkness,” a tune about paranoia, and “The Sound of the Crowd,” a satirical stab at conformity, are nearly as memorable as “Don’t You Want Me.”

But in the end, Dare is most remembered for its slick synthesizers, drum machines, dance rhythms and palatable pop.

“We wanted to have a Number One record — like the Beatles,” Oakey said. With “Don’t You Want Me,” the Human League achieved its goal.

76

Public Image Ltd., ‘Second Edition’

"I don't want to live in history books," John Lydon told Rolling Stone in 1979 by way of burying his old band, the Sex Pistols, and praising his new one, Public Image Ltd. "We're trying to write the next chapter." However iconoclastic they had been, the Pistols were "just" a rock & roll band; PiL was an anti-Rock & Roll band, and if the members of the group were on a search-and-destroy mission, they found their target on Second Edition.

Guitarist Keith Levene says the album — which was also known as Metal Box because its original U.K. packaging looked like a small film can — represents the peak of early PiL and dismisses the idea that the anarchistic band was all a joke. "It fucking wasn't like that, okay?" Levene says. "We were trying to do something serious."

The band wanted a unique album cover and toyed with ideas such as a sardine can that would require a key (not supplied) and even what Levene describes as a "sandpaper-type record, which would fuck up all your other records when you put it in your collection." Eventually, the album was released in the U.K. in a limited edition of 50,000 as three twelve-inch records (recorded at 45 rpm for maximum sonic impact) crammed into an embossed tin can and titled Metal Box. The tracks weren't listed on the album or the labels, which were at least color coded. Much to the band's displeasure, the album was released in the United States with a cardboard jacket, a different title (Second Edition) and relatively inferior sound.

With Jah Wobble's reggae-drenched bass way up front and Levene's dissonant guitar forays, the band pumps out droning, fragmented dance music — disco, Samuel Beckett style. Lydon's disembodied monotone vocals sound like they were phoned in long-distance.

Virtually all the songs on the album were improvised in the studio. Bassist Wobble would play until the other two heard something they liked, then structure a track around it, using a clutch of session drummers; Levene says the best work on the record began as mistakes that were then refined and repeated. "There was a great lack of fear, a childlike innocence in the way it was approached," says Wobble.

Many saw in Lydon's lyrics an attempt to bury the Sex Pistols myth (significantly, he had changed his name back from Johnny Rotten). On the opening track, "Albatross," he sings about "getting rid of the albatross," perhaps a reference to former Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren. On "Memories," he wails, "This person's had enough of useless memories," and "Whatever's past/Could never last."

Second Edition also features three instrumentals, including the beautiful "Radio 4." But according to Levene, dropping vocals wasn't a conceptual statement. "Nobody was around," he says, "and I had to do something with the bloody studio time."

Johnny Rotten Contemplates New Sex Pistols, PiL Albums

75

Cyndi Lauper, ‘She’s So Unusual’

She's So Unusual was an appropriate title for Cyndi Lauper's 1983 debut record: From her electric-orange hair and colorful flea-market wardrobe to her squeaky, giddy voice, Lauper hardly appeared an odds-on bet to become one of pop's premier vocalists.

Nor are many of the songs selected for She's So Unusual conventional. "She Bop," a seductive account of female masturbation, "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," an uncut statement about sexual freedom, and "He's So Unusual," a short but sweet taste of a 1929 tune that recalls comedienne Gracie Allen, weren't the kinds of songs that typically add up to a hit album. But that's precisely what She's So Unusual became. The multiplatinum disc and its four Top Five singles made Lauper an instant star.

Before embarking on a solo career, Lauper sang with Blue Angel, a group she cofounded in 1978. The band's debut album, released in 1980, bombed, and Blue Angel broke up.

Lauper signed a record deal with Portrait, and with producer Rick Chertoff at the controls she began work on She's So Unusual. Chertoff brought in Rob Hyman and Eric Bazilian of the then-unknown Philadelphia band the Hooters to play on the record. Together they opted for a synth-heavy sound that evoked the girl-group era of the early-Sixties and deftly played Lauper's vocals against thick arrangements.

Not yet an accomplished songwriter (although she co-wrote "She Bop" and the touching ballad "Time After Time"), Lauper looked outside for material. She interpreted the Brains' "Money Changes Everything," Prince's "When You Were Mine" and Robert Hazard's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" with wit and conviction.

That she was able to integrate her zaniness into She's So Unusual without sacrificing the underlying seriousness of the songs or her vocal delivery also meant something to Lauper's career. Few solo artists have been able to balance such a delicate dichotomy the first time around. Fewer still have made it seem so easy — and so much fun.

Rolling Stone's Original 1983 Review

Prince Performs Killer Show With Help From Janelle Monáe, Cyndi Lauper

74

Prince, ‘Sign o’ the Times’

It began as Dream Factory, a two-record set with major contributions from Revolution members Wendy and Lisa, then metamorphosed into Crystal Ball, a three-record extravaganza whose lengthy title track was to be Prince's masterwork. But by the time of its release it had once again become a two-disc set, not titled Sign o' the Times.

Highlighted by the outstanding Curtis Mayfield-styled title track, one of Prince's strongest social statements, the album is his most diverse work, with material ranging from the steamy funk of "Hot Thing" and the jazzy balladry of "Slow Love" to more esoteric gems such as "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker" and the fanciful "Starfish and Coffee." This was also the album that marked the return of Prince's more controversial side with the sexually provocative "If I Was Your Girlfriend."

Produced, arranged, composed and performed by Prince, Sign o' the Times found him back in complete control of every aspect of his music. He abandoned the neo-psychedelic qualities that had come to the fore on his previous albums, pursuing a tougher soul music, evident on the title track, "Housequake" and "U Got the Look." "He was hearing a different kind of music," says Alan Leeds, vice-president of Prince's Paisley Park Records.

At first, Dream Factory was to have been another band album like the preceding Purple Rain, Around the World in a Day and Parade, but along the way Prince disbanded the Revolution and put existing band tracks on the shelf. Instead, he holed up in the basement of his new house and began cutting solo tracks.

About half the album was recorded at home; the rest was recorded at Sunset Sound, in Los Angeles. Prince played or sang nearly everything, although there were some contributions from Sheila E., former Revolution members Wendy and Lisa and a few others. The three-record Crystal Ball concept was followed all the way through to the mastering stage and included a suitelike twelve-minute title track. But Prince and Warner Bros. decided a three-record set wasn't the best move, coming after Parade, which had not been one of Prince's better sellers.

What became the new title track was written toward the end of the recording sessions. "He had begun to see the effect of crack and drugs on young people," says Leeds. "He's not really a preacher, but it's certainly an antidrug song."

"U Got the Look," one of several hits, became a duet featuring Sheena Easton by accident. "Sheena just happened to be around," says Susan Rogers, who engineered the album. "He said, 'How'd you like to do this? Feel like singing?' It was very spontaneous."

"If I Was Your Girlfriend" features a very personal lyric, directed at Susannah Melvoin, who had been Prince's girlfriend. "Being Wendy's twin sister, she's very close to Wendy," says Rogers. "It was a way of asking, 'Why can't I have the closeness you have with your sister? Why can't we be friends too?'"

In retrospect, Sign o' the Times looks more and more like Prince's Exile on Main Street, one of the few two-disc sets by any artist that holds up through all four sides. "There was a refreshing feeling about making his own music unencumbered [by the band] again," says Leeds. "I think it showed an artist who had really grown."

Rolling Stone's 2002 Review

Photos: Prince's Welcome 2 America Tour at MSG

73

Don Henley, ‘Building the Perfect Beast’

The Seventies were the favored habitat of the Eagles, whose tales of "livin' it up at the Hotel California" vaulted the West Coast rockers to superstardom. In the wake of their unannounced breakup around the turn of the decade, the individual members faced the Eighties with a much less certain hold on their audience. While his band mates — especially his erstwhile writing partner, Glenn Frey — have steered a safe, commercial course, Don Henley has written and recorded songs with a sociopolitical conscience, working at a painstaking pace. He has made only three solo albums in this decade.

Building the Perfect Beast is a meticulously crafted and programmed set of songs about love and politics. The first side is given to personal reflections on love and loss, such as the wistful, gorgeous "Boys of Summer." Side two is more issue oriented, tackling subjects from genetic engineering ("Building the Perfect Beast") to America's reckless foreign policy ("All She Wants to Do Is Dance"). The album's longest and most ambitious piece, "Sunset Grill," describes in disturbingly vivid images a character's sense of entrapment in an evil, convulsive metropolis: "You see a lot more meanness in the city/It's the kind that eats you up inside/Hard to come away with anything that feels like dignity."

Henley's collaborator is guitarist Danny Kortchmar, who has also accompanied James Taylor and Jackson Browne. Kortchmar wrote or co-wrote nine of the ten compositions on Building the Perfect Beast. The arrangements are more varied and generally edgier than the Eagles' easy-rolling songs — a development consistent with Henley's growing politicization.

"Maybe what I'm trying to do is find a purpose for being in the music business," he told Rolling Stone in 1985. "I'm trying to make people think a little bit and be aware of things. Maybe rock & roll is not the vehicle for this sort of thing — but I don't see why it can't be."

Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Don Henley

Photos: Eagles' Long Run, From the Seventies and Beyond

72

Marshall Crenshaw, ‘Marshall Crenshaw’

"There was such a flurry of activity at that time that I don't actually have too many memories of making the first album," says Marshall Crenshaw of his acclaimed debut effort, which earned him a reputation as a new master of pop-rock songcraft. "All I can remember is my co-producer, Richard Gottehrer, eating a lot of pasta and me pumping Thom Panunzio, our engineer, for stories about his days working with John Lennon."

After all, only a few years before making his big splash, Crenshaw had been touring the United States as an ersatz John Lennon in various national companies of the successful pseudo-Fab Four musical Beatlemania. Tiring of that well-paying gig, Crenshaw decided to leave the show and work on his own music. By the summer of 1980, Crenshaw — who hails from the Detroit area — was playing his own tunes around New York City as part of a trio, with his brother Robert on drums and Chris Donato playing bass.

Crenshaw's homemade demo caught the attention of Alan Betrock of the tiny Shake Records, who put out a twelve-inch single of "Something Gonna Happen" backed with "She Can't Dance." Producer Richard Gottehrer, then much in demand because of his work with the Go-Go's, heard Crenshaw's demo and had rockabilly singer Robert Gordon cut a number of Crenshaw's songs. One of those covers, "Someday, Someway," became a minor hit (reaching Number Seventy-four on the pop charts) and helped create a buzz about Crenshaw.

Before long that buzz led to a record deal with Warner Bros. Initially, Crenshaw wanted to produce his own first record, but he later agreed to bring in Gottehrer as co-producer. When Gottehrer suggested session drummer Anton Fig and bassist Will Lee for the sessions, Crenshaw insisted on sticking with his own group. "I fought to have Robert and Chris on that record," he says, "because we'd forged a group identity and come to that point as a unit."

There were also disagreements over what material to put on the album. "I originally didn't want 'Someday, Someway' on the album," says Crenshaw, "because I felt Robert Gordon had taken a shot with it already, and I didn't want 'She Can't Dance' on there, since it had been on our Shake single. But I gave in."

Crenshaw and Gottehrer finished the record in five weeks at the Record Plant, in New York City — despite breakdowns by a steady stream of Vox amplifiers, a few of which caught fire. The final album is an alternately rousing and heartbreaking cycle of infectious pop rockers ("Cynical Girl," "Rockin' Around in N.Y.C.," "She Can't Dance") and ballads ("Mary Anne," "Not for Me") — none of them clocking in at more than 3:07.

Critics loved the album, and it sold well. Crenshaw's single of "Someday, Someway" briefly hit the Top Forty, peaking at Number Thirty-six.

"At the time, everyone focused on the Fifties-rock influence on my songs," says Crenshaw. "I was widely compared to Buddy Holly — which is a hell of a nice compliment. But to me the real influences on that record were bands like Rockpile and Squeeze. The first album is very much a product of its time. I wasn't trying to make my pop masterpiece, I was just trying to do a good day's work."

71

Crowded House, ‘Crowded House’

It sounds like it was fun to make. Crowded House's debut album is full of lighthearted, melodic, enormously catchy pop songs: "Mean to Me," "World Where You Live," "Now We're Getting Somewhere," "Something So Strong" and its biggest hit, "Don't Dream It's Over." From start to finish, Crowded House is shot through with the high spirits and sheer tunefulness of classic pop music.

But it turns out that the album wasn't so easy to make after all. "It's remarkable to me that it sounds like a really simple, easygoing album," says Crowded House leader Neil Finn, "because there was quite a large amount of angst involved in making that record."

Singer, songwriter and guitarist Finn, drummer Paul Hester and bassist Nick Seymour formed the band after the dissolution of the underappreciated New Zealand pop group Split Enz, of which Finn and Hester were members. They'd been together for about a year when they traveled to Los Angeles to make their debut album for Capitol Records in 1986 — but still, says Finn, "we weren't really a band at all. Having come from a band that had spent ten years together, it just felt like a collection of three people at that stage."

They shared a house in the Hollywood Hills — hence the band's name — and went to work with producer Mitchell Froom, at the time best known for his work with the Boston roots rockers the Del Fuegos.

"They hadn't really decided what they wanted the record to sound like," says Froom. "Even the broadest terms — like, should there be a lot of synthesizers, or should it be more of a natural thing? — weren't sorted out. We just tried different things as we went along, and it seemed to take on a character of its own as it went along."

"It was bloody hard work," says Finn, "partly because it was all so new to me — new producer, new band, new record company, new town, new everything — that I was really cautious every step of the way. I was wary of what Mitchell was suggesting and second-guessing him, and he wasn't completely confident with us, either."

A handful of session musicians, including guitarists. Tim Pierce and Joe Satriani (the latter on backing vocals only), were brought in, and on "Now We're Getting Somewhere" the experienced rhythm section of bassist Jerry Scheff and drummer Jim Keltner was used.

"At the time that was quite a threatening thing," says Finn. "Paul and Nick felt quite sheepish about the whole thing. The next day we recorded 'Don't Dream It's Over,' and it had a particularly sad groove to it — I think because Paul and Nick had faced their own mortality."

The results hardly sounded forced, though the album seemed to be a flop until persistent word of mouth and some never-say-die promotion turned it into a hit eight months after its release. "It could easily have not been successful," says Finn. Indeed, the group's follow-up album, Temple of Low Men, failed to garner significant sales despite strong reviews. "The difference between an album becoming successful and people thinking it's remarkable," says Finn, "and being obscure and completely forgotten about is really slight."

70

Traveling Wilburys, ‘Traveling Wilburys Volume 1’

"This is the best record of its kind ever made," wrote David Wild in Rolling Stone's review of the Traveling Wilburys' Volume One. "Then again," he added, "it's also the only record of its kind ever made."

The Traveling Wilburys' album was one of those happy accidents that was almost waiting to happen. Starting with a throwaway song quickly recorded by George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne for the B side of a Harrison single, the project soon took on a life of its own. After completing the track and deciding it was too good to waste on a flip side, the veteran rockers cooked up a full-length album that not only included some of each member's strongest material in years but also became one of the decade's genuinely unique musical achievements.

From the catchy folk-pop hooks of the first number, "Handle With Care," to the breezy country-rock finale, "End of the Line," the album's chiefly acoustic tunes all have the sound of instant classics. But the real kicker was the presentation. Rather than releasing the album under their own names, the five musicians hid behind a thin cloak of anonymity, attributing their work to a mythical supergroup and adopting hick personae as part of an elaborate charade that included a bogus biography and a custom record label.

The tongue-in-cheek concept was a humorous way of placing the emphasis on the music instead of the big names. Besides offering a witty commentary that mocked the symbols of superstardom, the Wilbury sobriquet served as a sly, preemptive strike against those who might spoil the party and canonize the fun-fest as a Serious Rock Summit.

The five half-brothers of the Wilbury family were hokey but hip, and their individual strengths complemented one another perfectly. There was Orbison (Lefty Wilbury), whose haunting, dynamic vocals are enshrined on the operatic "Not Alone Any More," and who reclaimed his former glory only to pass away shortly after the album became a huge hit. Harrison (Nelson Wilbury) spearheaded the project following his fine solo album, Cloud Nine, proving that his comeback was no mere fluke. Dylan (Lucky Wilbury) emerged from a rut of several mediocre albums with his sneering "Congratulations," the jaunty "Dirty World" and a seeming lampoon of Bruce Springsteen, "Tweeter and the Monkey Man." Meanwhile, Petty (Charlie T. Jr.) acted out the role of eager kid brother, with his fine work on "End of the Line" and the woolly pickup tale "Last Night," presaging his top-selling solo album the following year. Rounding out the quintet was Lynne (Otis Wilbury), the former Electric Light Orchestra leader who handled most of the production chores and also sang the throbbing rockabilly bopper "Rattled."

Describing a typical day in the life of the Wilburys, Lynne remembers how the five musicians usually gathered at Dave Stewart's home studio in Los Angeles and banged out ideas until a complete song resulted from the jamming. "We would arrive about twelve or one o'clock and have some coffee," says Lynne. "Somebody would say, 'What about this?' and start on a riff. Then we'd all join in, and it'd turn into something. We'd finish around midnight and just sit for a bit while Roy would tell us fabulous stories about Sun Records or hanging out with Elvis. Then we'd come back the next day to work on another one. That's why the songs are so good and fresh — because they haven't been second-guessed and dissected and replaced. It's so tempting to add stuff to a song when you've got unlimited time."

While the Wilburys were intended as a lark, songs like "Heading for the Light," "Not Alone Any More" and "Handle With Care" offer idealistic, romantic messages from a fraternity of rock graybeards. "Well, it's alright, riding around in the breeze/Well, it's alright, if you live the life you please," says the opening lyric to "End of the Line." It is a comforting notion indeed, as the uptight, conformist Eighties draw to a close.

69

LL Cool J, ‘Radio’

LL Cool J (Born James Todd Smith) was seventeen years old when he recorded this early rap masterpiece. Rhymes such as "They hear me, they fear me/My funky poetry/I'm improving the conditions of the rap industry" proved prophetic — Radio went platinum, ushering in rap's blockbuster era and heralding the arrival of a superb rapper.

The liner notes say, "Reduced by Rick Rubin," and simplicity was the key to Radio. "We were going to bring it down, break it down, reduce it to its most minimal form — like real low," says LL

But its minimalism wasn't what made Radio a rap landmark. Before 1984, most rappers had simply recited continuous rhymes over four minutes of groove. Rubin arranged raps like pop songs, with verses, choruses and bridges. So that LL's rhymes could fit into this new format, Rubin says, "I would say, 'You've got twelve lines, and you've got to do it in eight.' And LL would rewrite it so it worked in eight. It was just making rap more like songs."

LL Cool J stands for "Ladies Love Cool James"; he became one of rap's first heartthrobs, partly because of his dimpled good looks and macho swagger, but also because Radio includes two of the earliest rap ballads, the cuddly "I Want You" and "I Can Give You More."

One of Radio's most powerful tracks is "Rock the Bells." Oddly enough, the track has no bells on it. LL was set to record the track using a cowbell break from a song called "Mardi Gras," until Run-D.M.C. used the identical best on its "Peter Piper." As LL puts it, "I got housed." Rubin suggested using a percussion break from the go-go great Trouble Funk instead, and LL turned in a ferocious performance; the moment when he yells, "Rock the bells!" and the go-go beat kicks in is one of the most dramatic in rap.

The album's opener, "I Can't Live Without My Radio," became a B-boy anthem. Now that LL has reached the advanced age of twenty-two, he says he is still unable to live without his radio. "But now it's in my car — know what I mean?"

Rolling Stone's Original 1986 Review

Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: 'Radio' by LL Cool J

68

The Specials, ‘The Specials’

The Specials found a happy medium between the aggression of punk and the more danceable, upbeat rhythms of ska. Sporting porkpie hats and two-tone suits, the racially mixed seven-member band from Coventry, in Britain, spearheaded a ska renaissance. The Specials' debut album, produced by Elvis Costello, also launched the briefly successful 2-Tone Record label.

The Specials opens with a cover of Robert "Dandy" Thompson's ska anthem "A Message to You Rudy," then dives into more manic numbers, like a gritty version of Rufus Thomas's "Do the Dog" and the band's own "Concrete Jungle."

In his first outing as a producer, Costello captured the spirit of the Specials' frenetic live shows by re-creating a club environment in the studio. "It was a terrific atmosphere," says vocalist Neville Staples of the sessions at London's PW studios. "We just went in and played our show. It was all live in the studio."

In fact, for the song "Nite Club," the band even brought in an audience. "We had roadies, Chrissie Hynde and a few other friends," says Staples. "It was a laugh, because we had a little drink to get the pub atmosphere going."

"We wanted it to be like the first Clash album," said bassist Horace Panter shortly after the album's U.S. release in 1980. "Not necessarily produced, just recorded. Costello was more of an observer, if you like. Suggesting things that we were too involved in to see ourselves."

In addition to its punk-meets-reggae sensibility, The Specials is charged with antiracist sentiment: "Just because you're a black boy/Just because you're a white/It doesn't mean you've got to hate him/Doesn't mean you got to fight," sings Terry Hall in the calypso-flavored "Doesn't Make It All Right."

"We were working as a black and white unit," says Staples. "At the time there was a lot of racism happening. So we just thought, 'Well, we went to school with black and white guys. Instead of fighting and calling people names, let's work together.' So we combined black music with punk. We just mixed the two cultures."

67

Randy Newman, ‘Trouble in Paradise’

"Nothing," says Randy Newman when asked what he had been thinking about when he began work on his eighth album, Trouble in Paradise. "I had no cohesive plan in mind."

A cynical tour de force, Trouble in Paradise sets several of Newman's nastiest portraits of prejudice, greed, ego and small-mindedness against some of the most striking music of his career. "It came to be about places and situations that could be ideal," says Newman, "but are somehow messed up."

Newman is clearly one of pop music's preeminent songwriters. But with Trouble in Paradise, he also mastered the art of great record making. Today it stands as one of the best albums of his career, a fully realized collection of story-songs in which Newman's dark take on the world is fully fleshed out.

Although the best-known song is Newman's love-hate letter to his hometown, "I Love L.A." ("Look at that mountain/Look at those trees/Look at that bum over there, man/He's down on his knees"), Trouble in Paradise is full of clever material. "Christmas in Cape Town," with its disturbingly spooky music, is a poignant tale of racism and mean-spiritedness. In "Mikey's," two old-timers complain about what the world is coming to, distressed by the minorities now frequenting their favorite bar. "There's a Party at My House" sounds like a good-time rocker, until the punch line ("Hey Bobby, get the rope"), which hints at kinky escapades.

The centerpiece of the record is "My Life Is Good," which details the self-importance of a Hollywood wheeler-dealer. Asked about the similarities between the song's protagonist and himself, Newman laughs and says, "If I were that big a jerk, I wouldn't admit to it."

The arrangements throughout the album have a cinematic quality (Newman worked on movie scores to The Natural and Ragtime). "His songs are quite visual," says Lenny Waronker, who coproduced the album with Russ Titelman. "His songs are like little movies. It's like scoring eleven films."

The album includes some impressive cameos: Don Henley, Lindsey Buckingham, Christine McVie, Rickie Lee Jones, Bob Seger, Wendy Waldman, Linda Ronstadt, Jennifer Warnes and Paul Simon all contribute. "His peers have such a high regard for him," says Waronker. "They wanted to be a part of it and help get Randy's stuff out to a lot of people."

How does Newman feel now about Trouble in Paradise? "It's a pretty good batch of songs," he says. "There are things about it I love. Like the first half of 'Miami.' I like the two ballads, 'Real Emotional Girl' and 'Same Girl.' And 'My Life Is Good' — although if I had to do it again, I might not do it the same way. It might be funnier just with piano."

Rolling Stone's Original 1983 Review

66

The Neville Brothers, ‘Fiyo on the Bayou’

Keith Richards thought the Neville Brothers' Fiyo on the Bayou was the best album of 1981. Most music fans never had a chance to form an opinion. "I knew it wasn't going to get played on the radio," says Cyril Neville. "So I didn't build up any false hopes. We just made the best record we could."

With Fiyo on the Bayou, the Neville Brothers — singer Aaron, keyboardist and singer Art, saxophonist Charles and percussionist Cyril — set out to capture their undisciplined sound, descended from New Orleans Mardi Gras music, while commercializing it enough to reach a broad audience.

The tracks on Fiyo on the Bayou can be divided into two distinct categories: dance-floor burners (like "Hey Pocky Way" and "Sweet Honey Dripper") and showcase ballads for the band's primo canary, Aaron (like "Mona Lisa" and "The Ten Commandments of Love").

"The first time I saw the Nevilles was at the Bottom Line, in New York," says producer Joel Dom. "They completely blew me out of the water."

Dorn pitched a Nevilles deal to A&M, which initially didn't share the producer's enthusiasm. "A&M thought the Nevilles were too ethnic and too regional," he says. Concurrently, singer Bette Midler — whom Dorn had produced and who is also a Nevilles fan — lobbied A&M on behalf of the band. The label eventually gave Dorn the green light.

A self-admitted "sucker" for Aaron's angelic voice, Dorn painstakingly surrounded it with lush orchestration. "When we cut 'Mona Lisa,' we used the New York Philharmonic," says Dorn, "and Aaron sang live in the booth. We turned out all the lights except for one spot that was focused on a Nat 'King' Cole album. He sang the whole song to that album."

Of course, everyone involved was convinced he had a hit on his hands. "It was one of the few times that I've made a record and was 100 percent satisfied when we finished," says Dorn. "I felt Fiyo on the Bayou was the culmination of my career." But the title of the album proved confusing. Both Cyril and keyboardist Art Neville had been members of the seminal New Orleans band the Meters, which had released a 1975 album entitled Fire on the Bayou! Inclusion of a new version of the Meters' signature tune "Hey Pocky Way" on Fiyo further muddied the bayou. "We wanted those songs to be heard by more people," says Aaron.

Most radio stations were just as puzzled by the Nevilles' style, which didn't fit easily into any programming format. "We just couldn't get any airplay," says Dorn. "It was the kind of record where I wished I could have gone door-to-door and said, 'Here — listen to this record!'"

65

10,000 Maniacs, ‘In My Tribe’

In My Tribe — a feast of acoustic rockers centered around singer Natalie Merchant's alluring vocals and a jangly guitar sound — vaulted 10,000 Maniacs from underground status into the Top Forty. And not a moment too soon, either: The third album from the upstate-New York cult band was literally a make-or-break affair.

"There was a lot of pressure on us," says keyboardist and band cofounder Dennis Drew. "If Tribe hadn't been successful, there never would have been another album."

In My Tribe is more than a successful record — it is a poetic, heartfelt message about social concerns such as alcoholism, child abuse and illiteracy.

The Maniacs didn't always have such a passionate sense of purpose. Drew and Steven Gustafson, both college-radio DJs, formed a band called Still Life, which started out covering Joy Division and Gang of Four songs. Merchant joined after wandering into the radio station armed with a pile of LPs she wanted heard on the air. Also recruited were guitarist Rob Buck and John Lombardo, a seasoned composer-guitarist who served as the group's major creative force. Drummer Jerome Augustyniak came on board in 1982, and the group — after changing its name — released an independent EP and album before moving to Elektra Records.

The Maniacs' major-label debut, The Wishing Chair, won fine reviews but met with indifference outside alternative-music circles. Lombardo quit under stormy circumstances, and the anxiety proved to be contagious. After rejecting demos for the band's next album, Elektra insisted the group work with producer Peter Asher, best known for his work with Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor.

The shotgun marriage worked out in the end, but it was a shaky trip to the altar. The band felt uncomfortable recording in Los Angeles, Asher's home turf. The Maniacs were also unhappy with many of Asher's additions to their sound, including computerized drums. Asher insists he was merely "cajoling" the band into doing its best work.

Elektra suggested doing a familiar song as the lead single, resulting in a cover of Cat Stevens's "Peace Train." The gambit failed to break the group, and the song was later removed from the album after Stevens — a converted Muslim — called for the death of Satanic Verses author Salman Rushdie. The Maniacs ultimately scored with their sadly lilting second single, "Like the Weather." It took two years for In My Tribe to go platinum, but even the band agrees it was better late than never.

"The album gave us a great chance to really coalesce as a band," says Drew. "At that point we had to save our career and make a good record. We fucking buckled up, tightened our belt and did it."

64

Living Colour, ‘Vivid’

Screaming electric guitar punctuates the raucous melodies and street-smart lyrics on Vivid, an album that not only marked the auspicious debut of the hard-rocking band Living Colour but was also credited with breaking down racial barriers in pop music. The band proved to be the first black rock group to attract a large mainstream audience since Sly and the Family Stone in the early Seventies, and the album's ascent was accompanied by as much hubbub over the band's ethnic makeup as its compelling style.

"It wasn't like the idea of Vivid or Living Colour was generated by some sort of desire to make it in the white world of rock music," says lead guitarist and group founder Vernon Reid. "There was a lot of talk about it. But it's not odd that black people play rock & roll — what's really odd is that people think it's odd. It's a shame more people didn't focus on the music itself, because that's what we wanted."

The music itself is an intoxicating brew of hard, grinding rock with splashes of funk, jazz, reggae, rap, punk and even country rhythms. Darting from the hip-hop twang of "Broken Hearts" to the philosophical metal assault of "Middle Man," the band refuses to stay stuck in any single groove. Vivid's opening track, "Cult of Personality," is the real kicker, a bursting riff-rock anthem on the harmful effects of idolatry and blind faith that ironically helped catapult Living Colour to the status of pop icon.

The group's seeming overnight success was actually years in the making. Born in England and raised in Brooklyn, Reid earned his musical chops during the early Eighties playing guitar in electric jazz outfits like Defunkt and Ronald Shannon Jackson's Decoding Society. He formed Living Colour as a trio in 1984, going through various configurations for two years before hooking up with singer Corey Glover, drummer William Calhoun and bassist Muzz Skillings. Then came the real stroke of luck: Reid was called in to play on Mick Jagger's solo album, Primitive Cool, and the Stone dropped by the New York punk club CBGB to catch Living Colour's show.

Jagger got so worked up over the set that he took a week off from mixing his own album to produce two demos — "Glamour Boys" and "Which Way to America?" — for the fledgling group. After the Jagger tapes made the rounds and snagged Living Colour a record deal, the band called in Primitive Cool coproducer Ed Stasium to oversee the rest of the album. Jagger, whose demos appear in their original form on Vivid, came back later to blow harmonica on "Broken Hearts," while other studio guests included Public Enemy's Chuck D. and Flavor Flav, delivering a social-commentary rap on "Funny Vibe."

Reid points to "Memories" and other tracks on the album as evidence that the songs are meant to portray the personal feelings of band members rather than pursue any specific social agenda. "The fact that we're African Americans has a lot to do with what's on the record and what we see in our lives," Reid says, "but all our problems aren't generated by the fact that we're black."

Social issues provided the basis for several numbers, such as the scathing attack on gentrification, "Open Letter (to a Landlord)." But there are also touching love songs ("I Want to Know"), a Talking Heads cover ("Memories Can't Wait") and an offbeat, funky theme song ("What's Your Favorite Color?"). According to Reid, the Heads cover was one of the band's particular favorites and had been in its live repertoire for some time. "The duality of the interior life someone's leading and their exterior life spoke really powerfully to us," says Reid.

"People say we're obviously a message band," Reid adds. "But we're just trying to chronicle a certain thing that was happening with us. That thing about messages — well, really, the record was about the way we feel."

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