Quit screwing around Keller! Let’s just get right to the music!
Pixies – Surfer Rosa (1988). When it comes to the late-Eighties alternative rock scene, no band cast a bigger shadow over that era and beyond as the Pixies. No one had tried the dynamics of what we now call the “Soft/Loud/Soft” alteration of verse and chorus. The Pixies practically invented this vision of softly played and sung verses followed by choruses that unleashed every bit of musical noise known to man at the time. And, the great thing about this band is that they never forgot the pop melodies in their songs, no matter how much larynx-shredding vocal screams or wild feedback-drenched guitars were layered over it. The Pixies, along with Hüsker Dü, were the big influences on all Nineties alternative rock, intentional or not.
Public Enemy – It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988). What a revolutionary album. They may have rapped about it, but PE really did bring da noise! It was as if their production team, the now-legendary Bomb Squad, were laying as many samples in each song as humanly possible. Then, Chuck D and hype-man Flavor Flav did their best intimidating version of Run-D.M.C. While the West Coast was embracing a G-Funk sound that was thicker and more laidback on which to place their tales of street life, the East Coast, and PE specifically, made their music as fast and claustrophobic as NYC traffic on which to lay the Afrocentric lyrics. They were militant and intimidating and perfectly rock & roll for the times.
Queensrÿche – Operation: Mindcrime (1988). By 1988, the whole glam metal scene was becoming saturated and just plain boring. So, along comes a band from the Pacific Northwest that was equal parts Sabbath, King Crimson, Pink Floyd and Rush, in all the great ways. Queensrÿche brought a musicianship and intelligence to metal that had been lacking since the advent of the hair metal genre. Additionally, this breakthrough album for the band is an intricate and detailed rock opera of love and intrigue. This had to be one of the better metal rock opera/concept albums since 2112. The boys deserved the accolades.
R.E.M. – Green (1988). Right around Election Day in 1988, R.E.M. dropped their first major label joint as one of the biggest rock bands on the planet. And, did they ever deliver with a fairly direct set of rock songs. Their was no denying that the boys from Athens, Georgia, were intent upon letting a generation know their politics were liberal, from the environment to women’s rights to gay rights to anything that went the opposite way of Reaganomics. It’s as if the band decided they were going to be fiercely independent while working for one of the biggest corporations of the time (Warner Bros).
Sonic Youth – Daydream Nation (1988). Sonic Youth were an innovative noise art rock band from NYC who had spent the better part of the decade as part of the ultra-underground No Wave scene. But, along the way, this quartet stumbled upon a sound that combined the plain guitar noise of the avant garde with some pop melodies that would become the third leg of the major influences on Nineties alternative music. This double album is their masterpiece, showing that they could marry the guitar god dreams of Television with the refusal to be commercial like Philip Glass. This was a major statement which allowed the band to sign with a major label in the wake of this album’s critical success.
The Church – Starfish (1988). If you want to know what Nick Drake would have sounded like if he grew up during the punk era, then this Aussie band just might be the answer. This album sounds like The Cure funneled through acoustic instruments. There lone US hit, “Under the Milky Way,” is simply a brilliant song.
The Sugarcubes – Life’s Too Good (1988). Back in the Eighties, a little known Icelandic band with a lead singer by the name of Björk became something of a college rock sensation behind their great single “Birthday.” And, the rest of the album is surprisingly great too. It is so interesting to hear Björk’s voice fronting an alternative rock band as opposed to the challenging electronica she will release as a solo artist in the Nineties.
The Waterboys – Fisherman’s Blues (1988). Hailing from Scotland, The Waterboys had been long hyped as being their homeland’s answer to U2, as both bands shared a sweeping anthemic songs with lyrics full of hope. Yet, for some odd reason, The Waterboys could never quite cross the Atlantic for their share of stardom. So, on this album, leader Mike Scott lead his band into marrying the folkish sound of his native land to his band’s music, creating some music that actually recalled some of Irishman Van Morrison’s classic sound. This album is well worth the effort to find.
Tone-Loc – Loc-ed After Dark (1988). Yes, this was really kiddie rap, but he sure did some innovative stuff. Loc’s bourbon-drench vocal style could run thin by the end of the album, but the samples he used with a pure delight. Who wasn’t taken by the sample of Van Halen’s “Jamie’s Cryin'” on “Wild Thing”?
Tracy Chapman – Tracy Chapman (1988). This album is the moment when a neo-folk album transcended the genre. Chapman’s album was so singularly good that her stuff was being covered by all kinds of artists from different genres (you just gotta hear Living Colour’s raucous version of “Talkin’ About a Revolution”). As I listen to the album, I cannot believe how the lyrics remain so topical even in today’s Black Lives Matter protests. It’s so sad that she was saying the very same things that continue today.
Traveling Wilburys – Vol. 1 (1988). You know, I honestly did feel sorry for the older Baby Boomers, as their rock heroes were losing out to a new generation. So, when four major stars from that generation (George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and ELO’s Jeff Lynne) joined forces with one of the young bucks at the time (Tom Petty) to form a relaxed supergroup, you just couldn’t blame those older rockers getting all excited by this combination. And, for once, this gathering actually worked on all levels. The Wilburys made a terrific rock album that ironically was ignored by the very radio format that all of these men had invented one or two decades earlier. This is a fun album.
XTC – Oranges & Lemons (1988). So, how does a band actually attempt to top a creatively stellar year like they had in 1987? Of course, they attempt to get back to their basics by writing enough material for a high quality double album of fractured Beatles pop/rock, that’s how. Sure, the band was sticking together via wire, duct tape and rubberbands, but they held it together beautifully for this masterpiece.
Ziggy Marley & the Melody Makers – Conscious Party (1988). It sucks when you are the offspring of a legend. It is difficult to get out of your parent’s shadow. But Ziggy and his sisters tried by making one helluva of an updated version of his dad’s brand of reggae. Produced by the Talking Heads’ husband/wife rhythm section, also known as Tom Tom Club, of Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, Conscious Party picks up where Bob Marley left off upon his passing and updates the sound with flourishes that made the producers’ bands so popular. This is just an excellent album of reggae, Eighties-style.
And, that wraps up 1988. See you next time! Peace.