Rock critics often pack their year-end lists with would-bes, shoulda-beens and want-nots, mostly to impress intellectuals and to play Stump the Reader. But during a year infused with nostalgia, comtemptible soundtrack compilations and flunked comebacks (eg., The Monkees, Kansas and Emerson, Lake and Powell), only three albums on the above list weren't among the 100 bestselling albums of 1986.
In short, commercial taste and critical opinion seemed to mesh.
There's one obvious omission in the Best of '86 list: Bruce Springsteen's Live: 1975-1985. That's because it deserves a place of its own. Its arrival was this year's pop event, and its proportions put it in a class all by itself.
There's a lot of truth to the idea that if Springsteen hadn't come along, some rock critic would have concocted him. In the 10 years that his new album covers, Bruce's tours spread the faith that rock and roll could change your view of life in some essential way. If you believed in it, the music would' repay you.
Yes, Springsteen was conservative in picking which songs to include on the album. He omits classics like "Murder Incorportated" (which takes on the Mafia) and "Roulette" (inspired by Three Mile Island).
Yet he included better renditions of songs from his first two albums and definitive versions of songs he wrote for others 'Fire" and "Because The Night"). Springsteen's version of Edwin Starr's "War," moreover, is probably the single of the year, if only because it's an explicit response to the knee-jerk misinterpretations of "Born in the USA."
So the 10 Best List includes only mortals:
With his version of the Animals' "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood, Elvis Costello manages to add irony to indignation on his King of America album. Former Elvis Presley guitarist James Burton and drummer Ron Tutt lend the album a country music style, making Costello's anti-Reaganism ("American Without Tears," "Sleep of the Just") all the more credible. "Suit of Lights" is a rueful expose of celebrity. It talks about the audacity it takes for someone to dub oneself "Elvis," and even implicates the audience in the process. Best yet, by breaking into the Top 40, Costello's anti-Yank diatribe became a popular paradox.
But on Blood and Chocolate, Costello's lyrics get even more complex as his music shrivels to minimal essentials. It begins with "Uncomplicated" — a song that contradicts its title — and ends with a suicide note. "The Next Time Around" traverses from despair to outrage. The most powerful song on the album, "I Want You," is also the most restrained.
By the time you finish both albums, Costello emerges as artist of the year.
The year's best also provoked a year of controversy. Some critics wrapped Paul Simon for not overtly attacking apartheid on his Graceland, which was peopled by South African musicians and inspired by South African rhythms. But the flap is suspect. The title song, for example, is a loving evocation of the more innocent race-mixing musical days of Elvis, when white neurosis was sung to black rhythms just for the sheer passion of it.
And Madonna's "Papa Don't Preach" may not be overtly political, but the singer's ambiguity did direct attention to the issue of teen pregnancy.
Madonna, by the way, didn't make the best album list because her singles stood better by themselves. Getting through True Blue is like eating an entire cheesecake in one sitting.
Among some of the highlights:
Post-punker Billy Bragg produced his most accessible album yet, Talking With The Taxman About Poetry. He touches on the Four Tops in "Live Stubbs' Tears," and waxes melodic in "Greetings to the New Brunette."
Then Richard Thompson makes John Kirkpatrick's unlikely accordian a convincing part of a rock and roll groove on Daring Adventures. Run-DMC, on Raising Hell, crosses over to the Top 10 with its version of Aerosmith's "Walk This Way."
Among vocalists, Steve Winwood has become the high-class crossover soulster we've been waiting for (move over, Daryl Hall). Pretender Chrissie Hynde's surprise entry into the diva derby outclasses Tina Turner, Patti LaBelle and Whitney Houston, if only because she has better taste in music and the talent to write it herself.
Joe Jackson's Big World was too ambitious to ignore. The Indestructible Beat of Soweto is a collection of South African mbaganga by various artists that makes more sense when you dance to it. Trust me.
And among the lowlights:
Top disappointment has to be the Talking Heads, whose True Stories album — as distinct from David Byrne's film of the same name — sounds matter-of-fact compared to 1985's Little Creatures. "Only the chipper single "Wild Wild Life" sounds outrageously happy.
R.E.M.'s new Top 40 drum sound on Life's Rich Pageant isn't as bothersome as the material itself. "Superman," the best cut, is a reheated version of someone else's song.
Finally, last year's question still lingers: where are you, Los Lobos?