Philadelphia Inquirer, December 28, 1986
Rock's hardest-working man,
With no album like Thriller or media event like Live Aid to unify the diverse pop audience, with Prince's movie Under the Cherry Moon a howling failure and with Bruce Springsteen's live collection a blockbuster that arrived only very late in the fourth quarter, 1986 has proved to be one of the most pleasantly aimless years in recent popular music.
It has also been one of the most nostalgic. If, 10 years ago, you were told that both the Monkees and Paul Simon would be prominent pop acts in 1986, would you have believed it?
For a while, Simon's Graceland was even a contender for my choice as the year's best new album. Then I went to see Elvis Costello's extraordinary three-night stand at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby three months ago, and all competition was suddenly irrelevant: This is the hardest-working man in rock, the most intelligent and passionate — an all-but-impossible combination.
Costello's Blood and Chocolate reunited him with Nick Lowe, the producer with whom he has made his greatest albums. Costello already had released an album in 1986, the tender, doleful King of America, which made the September appearance of Blood and Chocolate that much more of a happy shock. Blood and Chocolate represents a return to the raw rock with which Costello began his career, but it is combined with a new maturity and eloquence on songs such as "I Want You," "Blue Chair" and "Battered Old Bird."
Eloquent as well is Graceland, Simon's fascinating collaboration with South African musicians. Simon placed his melodies and lyrics over African rhythms, and the result was an album that revitalized his introspective style.
It is amazing to think that 1986 is being hailed as rap music's "breakthrough" year. Those of us who have been extolling the virtues of this pop subgenre since the late '70s now have the tremendous satisfaction of feeling smug toward all those people who dismissed rap as a novelty. The Beastie Boys' Licensed to Ill is an amazing rap document: three young fellows speaking in the most vivid, vulgar street language imaginable about sex, drugs and rock-and-roll. Their music is a remarkable collage of rap, heavy- metal, funk and jazz, as well as snatches of TV themes and movie scores.
Rap's greatest commercial success this year has been Run-DMC's Raisin' Hell, which included the Top Five hit "Walk This Way," on which the rap duo collaborated with the hard-rock band Aerosmith, whose members were authors of the song, to achieve an unprecedented rap crossover hit.
For pure pop, it was hard to beat the Bangles' Different Light, which started out strong at the beginning of the year with "Manic Monday," a single written by Prince, then faded from the radio only to come back with the No. 1 hit "Walk Like an Egyptian." For hard-core pop, you couldn't top the Volcano Suns' All-Night Lotus Party, which offered the bashing sonic impact of punk with the melodic skill of the most accessible rock music.
This was a particularly good year for women in rock. In addition to the all-female Bangles, there was Marti Jones, whose second album, Match Game, matched its predecessor for shrewdly chosen songs and cool, understatedly witty singing. There was also the return of Jennifer Warnes, whose album-length homage to songwriter Leonard Cohen, Famous Blue Raincoat, represented her return to prominence after years spent squandering her talent singing bathetic movie-sound-track music.
It is a measure of the resurgence — both aesthetic and commercial — of country music this year that two country albums are included on this list. George Jones' Wine-Colored Roses is an underrated beauty, a showcase for great Jones singing disguised as a collection of ordinary songs. And Randy Travis' Storms of Life is a remarkable debut by a singer still in his 20s who has learned lessons from his heroes — Merle Haggard and the aforementioned Jones. Travis is part of a passel of new young country artists, including Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam, whose rough rhythms also appeal to rock fans.
In compiling the 10-best-albums list, I thought it only fair to limit the selections to albums of new material. As a consequence, a treasure trove of reissued material and at least one live album were automatically disqualified. Since this material offered some of the best listening of 1986, however, a list of the best in previously recorded material is in order:
1. James Brown, In the Jungle Groove (PolyGram).
2. Ray Price, The Honky Tonk Years 1951-53 (Rounder).
3. Sam Cooke: The Man and His Music (RCA).
4. Jerry Lee Lewis, The Killer 1969-1972 (Bear Family import).
5. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Live 1975-85 (Columbia).
6. Treacherous: A History of the Neville Brothers (Rhino).
7. Frank Sinatra, The Voice: The Columbia Years 1943-52 (Columbia).
8. Thomas Mapfumo, The Chimurenga Singles (Meadowlark).
9. Serious Clownin': The History of Huey "Piano" Smith and the Clowns (Rhino).
10. The Best of George Clinton (Capitol).
An article in Billboard this month suggested that the days of the 7-inch single are numbered: Sales of 45s are at an all-time low, and 45s soon may be superseded by something called a cassingle — an inexpensive cassette of at least two songs. So while the single still exists, it bears noting that there were many strong ones to be heard on the radio this year. For example:
1. Prince, "Kiss" (Warner Bros.).
2. Cameo, "Word Up" (PolyGram).
3. Peter Gabriel, "Sledgehammer" (Geffen).
4. Janet Jackson, "Nasty" (A&M).
5. Cyndi Lauper, "True Colors" (Epic).
6. Stacey Q, "Two of Hearts" (Atlantic).
7. Madonna, "Live to Tell" (Sire).
8. The Bangles, "Walk Like an Egyptian" (Columbia).
9. Timex Social Club, "Rumors" (Jay).
10. Heavy D. and the Boyz, "Mr. Big Stuff" (MCA).
Philadelphia made an unusually strong impact on national music this year. Cinderella, a local hard-rock band, managed to place its debut album, Night Songs (PolyGram), in the Top 10. Other acts with either Philadelphia or New Jersey roots, among them Bon Jovi and to a lesser extent John Eddie, were also commercial successes.
Quite aside from conventional commercial achievement, however, there was other exciting music from our area. Accordingly, here's a quick "Five Best Local Albums" for 1986:
1. Schoolly-D, Schoolly-D (Schoolly-D Records): Six brutally tough raps, including the anthemic "I Don't Like Rock and Roll."
2. The Ben Vaughn Combo, The Many Moods of the Ben Vaughn Combo (Making Waves Records): Camden's most acute philosopher gets down, gets funky, gets funny.
3. BaBa Lou, BaBa Lou at Bob's (El K'Bong Records): A smart, humorous, tuneful combination of rock, folk, punk and doo-wop.
4. The Johnsons, Break Tomorrow's Day (Restless): Local rock ready to move into the mainstream right now, influenced as much by Van Morrison as the Clash.
5. The Dead Milkmen, Eat Your Paisley (Restless): A rarity — novelty tunes that are also interesting musically, the best of these being "The Thing That Only Eats Hippies." Maybe they should open for Crosby, Stills and Nash next month at the Tower.
(in descending order of merit)
1. Elvis Costello - Blood and Chocolate (Columbia)
2. Paul Simon - Graceland (Warner Bros.)
3. The Beastie Boys - Licensed to Ill (DefJam/CBS)
4. Run-D M C - Raisin' Hell (Profile)
5. The Bangles - Different Light (Columbia)
6. The Volcano Suns - All-Night Lotus Party (Homestead)
7. Jennifer Warnes - Famous Blue Raincoat (Cypress)
8. George Jones - Wine-Colored Roses (Epic)
9. Marti Jones - Match Game (A&M)
10. Randy Travis - Storms of Life (Warner Bros.)
Philadelphia Inquirer, December 28, 1986