1986 was a strange year in music. It seemed that the mega-group returned, (witness the awful GTR and Emerson, Lake & Powell) everyone was dancing again, (possibly burned-out by the charity events of last year.) and some old stars returned from the dead.
Above it all, some groups, and LP's stood out from the rest.
In reverse order:
10) Let's Active - Big Plans For Everybody — Certainly one of the "no-respect" entries here. Let's Active are not only as important as the critically acclaimed, but needlessly redundant REM., but more representative of what's good in homegrown music. "In Little Ways," "Fell," and "Last Chance Town" are as good pop as you'll find. "Badger" is a stunning ballad. Go back and check out Mitch Easter's work of art, not artifice.
9) Bruce Springsteen & The E-Street Band - Live '75-'85 — O.K., the hysteria surrounding this release was (and is) ridiculous. But this live set moves mountains, and the version of "The River" will give any warm-blooded mammal chills.
8) Cactus World News — Urban Beaches — Along with Ruefrix, the best news to come out of good of Ireland since, uh, U-know-2. A powerful and integral debut record. As much as I tried to hear the U2 in this band, they stand on their own in the end. And Frank Kearns in the most exciting guitarist since, well, The Edge. Some things are unavoidable.
7) The Jazz Butcher - Bloody Nonsense — These bunch of British lunatics gave me many laughs this summer. Fortunately, the comedy in songs like "The Jazz Butcher versus the Prime Minister," and "Drink" are backed by propulsive rhythms and taut melodies. "Caroline Wheeler's Birthday Present" contains the classic line, "Caroline Wheeler's birthday present / was made from the skins of dead Jim Morrison's."
6) Crowded House - Crowded House — Former Split-Enz vocalist/guitarist Neil Finn's band are a pop-group in the best sense of the word. This record is stuffed full of memorable melodies and intelligent lyrics. In an age where pathetic morons like Duran Duran claim to be "intelligent pop acts," Finn's Unforced brilliance is refreshing. "Mean to Me," has the catchiest opening you'll hear this year.
5) Peter Gabriel - So — "Gabriel sold out, man!" Choke on your blasphemy, scurvy pig-dog! Some of us just came late to Gabriel. Dig in past "Sledgehammer," (a deserving number I single) an-pop ("That Voice Again") and songs of in-describable beauty, like "In Your Eyes," and the LP's most typical Gabriel track, "Mercy Street." No matter what this album is to the masses, in and of itself, it's great.
4) The Smiths - The Queen Is Dead — "I never knew you wrote such bloody awful poetry," Morrissey sings here, but the poetry on The Queen Is Dead is powerful and relevant. (Especially to Anglophiles) The Smiths are one of the few groups to actively court digression, and still leave the listener uplifted at the end. Much of that has to do with Morrissey's brilliant sense of humour. This is rock at its most captivating.
3) XTC - Skylarking — Available as an import for nearly a month, this album is XTC's finest in a stunning career. All the elements that were successful for them in the past are reprised here, while all the fatuous excesses are gone. "Earn Enough for Us," in a just world, would be a top 40 hit. Also, XTC is still one of the most humorous bands around; witness the James Bond parody "The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul." A varied and essential release.
2) Billy Bragg - Talking With The Taxman About Poetry — Besides having the best title of the year, this album is instantly moving and unforgettable. Bragg is the self proclaimed "spokesman for his generation," a job he said "he inherited from Paul Weller." I only wish that our generation was as committed and socially-conscious as Mr. Bragg. The record is basically Bragg accompanied by a single electric guitar, although there is some other instrumentation. Bragg, with any luck, may become the Bob Dylan of our age. if that analogy is apt, then this album is akin to Another Side of Bob Dylan. What comes next should be brilliant an aboundary-smashing. "Help Save the Youth of America," is as stem a warning against apathy as any that exists.
1) Elvis Costello - King Of America — His most personal, direct and unobscured record, KOA is 57 minutes of sheer joy. Elvis seemed to have found a good groove here, and using more improvisational musicians rather than the Attractions, freed his imagination. This record has a resilience that was lacking in nearly all of Costello's previous albums, and in the new LP, Blood & Chocolate. The high points are too frequent to list, but suffice it to say that "Sleep of the Just," is the best ballad, "The Big light," the best country, and "Brilliant Mistake," a powerful statement of the alienation one feels in a new land. Sincere, powerful, and eventually totally fulfilling. A nearly perfect record.
Expect new LP's from The Psychedelic Furs, U2, Los Lobos, and Marillian in January. Happy 1987 to all.