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Albums of the Year: 1987

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Some time ago I started a series of my favourite albums of the year, starting with round-ups of the ’50s and the years 1960-65. It was a good idea, but the prospect of choosing ten albums from 1966 and writing about them somehow put me off. So I procrastinated in continuing the series. Then, this morning, it hit me: why the compulsion to follow the years in a rigorously tidy chronology? Surely I won’t receive a flood of complaints if I focus on random years. So we’ll continue the long dormant series with a random year, inspired by the album I was playing in the car as I had my brainwave, and which tops the list. A few caveats: these lists represent my top 10 of albums in terms of my own enjoyment and/or the nostalgic bonds they represent. Greatest hits type compilations are not considered (else New Order’s Substance album would have featured). And, no, I never liked The Joshua Tree much, by 1987 I was past my Depeche Mode phase, and never owned Actually.

1. The Jesus And Mary Chain – Darklands
Somewhere I read the Jesus And Mary Chain’s 1985 aptly named debut Psychocandy described as the Beach Boys being played by vacuum cleaners, or a notion to that effect. The description is spot on: the rather lovely tunes struggled to be heard above the feedback. It sounded great, but somehow one wondered how great JAMC might be with a cleaner sound. Two years later the Reid brothers switched off the vacuum cleaner and, Hoover be praised, produced that clean sound. Listen to Cherry Came Too: you can imagine it being sung by the Beach Boys back in the day. Indeed, the Reid boys wore their influences with ease. The dark Nine Million Rainy Days pays homage, wittingly or not, to the Stones’ Sympathy To The Devil. Closing track About You could have been sung by Nico and the Velvet Underground. The title track channels Berlin-era Bowie (but is much better than that). Yet, they could not be accused of plagiarism, as Oasis would be later. The whole thing incorporates earlier sounds without compromising the JAMC’s originality. Two decades later, the album still sounds fresh and exciting. A forgotten classic.
The Jesus And Mary Chain – Darklands.mp3
The Jesus And Mary Chain – Nine Million Rainy Days.mp3

2. Prince – Sign O’ The Times
There probably is a critical consensus that Sign O’ The Times is the best album of 1987. There is indeed much to be admired. The music is great, of course. Provided one is in the mood for it, because it can be a bit tedious. Let it play on a non-Prince day — and surely everybody but the most devoted Prince fan has these — and the whole thing has the capacity to irritate. It is not a pop masterpiece like Purple Rain; SOTT demands that you to listen it, and forgive its trespasses, especially the flab (oh, but if you condensed it down to a single album, which tracks would you cut?). SOTT is to Prince what the White Album was to the Beatles: despite the flaws that tend to be a by product of innovation, a masterpiece.
Prince – Sign O’ The Times.mp3
Prince – Starfish And Coffee.mp3

3. The Smiths – Strangeways Here We Come
A year earlier, the Smiths had released their ageless opus, The Queen Is Dead. Now Morrissey, Marr and chums themselves delivered their swansong. It was not necessarily their finest hour: lead single Girlfriend In A Coma is a lightweight novelty number, presaging Morrissey’s solo career that is riddled with similar witless doggerels. It was a bizarre choice for a single. I submit that Unhappy Birthday might have become a big cult hit on the back of its wonderfully vicious lyrics. A Rush And A Push… and the oppressive Death Of A Disco Dancer are excellent, and Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me is one of the most affecting songs in a canon jam-packed with such things. The line “Oh mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head” is emotionally exhausting. It is a great piece of sequencing that this track, a throw-back to the self-pity years, is preceded — at least on the CD, for Last Night… opens side 2 — by a song called Stop Me If You Think That You’ve Heard This One Before.
The Smiths – Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Love Me.mp3

4. Alexander O’Neal – Hearsay
When ’80s soul became unfashionable, O’Neal became something of a reject emblem for the out-of-favour genre. It was rather unfair on the man. He made some classy soul music in his time, thanks to his effortlessly expressive voice and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’ sparkling funk-soul-pop arrangements. Hearsay is a concept album, with dialogue intros preceding each song (they tend to grate once the novelty has worn off). The first side is the going-to-a-party section with great funk tracks such as Fake and Criticise, on the flip side things mellow down a bit, though the thing continues to groove, as on the gorgeous duet with the frequent collaborator Cherelle, Never Knew Love Like This. This is one of the great soul albums of the ’80s. Why would anyone want to dismiss Alexander O’Neal? Little known fact: O’Neal was the singer of a group called the Flyte Tyme (with Jam and Lewis). The group was signed to Prince’s Paisley Park label, but after a dispute with His Tiny Highness, O’Neal left the group, which hired one Morris Day and renamed itself The Time, providing the baddy foil to Prince’s flawed hero in Purple Rain.
Alexander O’Neal – Criticise.mp3

5. Lloyd Cole & the Commotions – Mainstream
In a comment to a post in which I featured Lloyd Cole’s best song, Rattlesnakes, Rol from the fine Sunset Over Slawit blog wrote that he “could live inside” that song. I know exactly what he means. Likewise, I could spend a lost weekend (with or without a brand-new friend) in Cole’s Mainstream album. Lloyd’s final album with the Commotions, it did less well than its two predecessors. This is a pity, because — and this may be fighting talk — it is in some ways even better than the debut, Rattlesnakes, and most certainly superior to the sophomore album, Easy Pieces. On Mainstream, Cole and his increasingly distant friends returned to the guitar-based sound of the debut. Lyrically, Cole seemed to be at war with himself, his band and the world. On the side two opener he prnounced himself Mr Malcontent, and on the excellent From The Hip, he declared that he doesn’t care anymore. Oh, but he did. There are a couple of commitment songs, notably Jennifer She Said. That line “her name on you…Jennifer in blue” is a regular earworm, sometimes supplanted by the repetitious “that’s forever she said…”.
Lloyd Cole & The Commotions – From The Hip.mp3

6. Basia – Time And Tide
There is a very good reason why this jazz-pop singer goes by her Christian name. Basia Trzetrzelewska (try saying that after a few pints of finest Hevelius) provided the splendid three-octave female voice on Matt Bianco’s first LP. While I rather enjoyed Matt Bianco, their Get Out Of Your Lazy Bed song used to irritate me when I was still a notorious morning grump. There was nothing aggravating about her 1987 solo debut, a finely judged collection of Latin-tinged jazz-pop which could with ease move the twinkletoed to the dancefloor to do the samba (or its Capetonian cousin, the jazz). The title track and Promises received fairly wide exposure, and are indeed the strongest numbers on the album. But the entire set is strong, with the possible exception of Prime Time TV and How Dare You. Check out songs such as New Day For You or Astrud.
Basia – New Day For You.mp3

7. The Housemartins – The People Who Grinned Themselves To Death
Like an Indie-pop supernova, the Housemartins burnt out after two albums. It probably was just as well: the überanorak shtick was going to get them only so far. So bassplayer Norman Cook became a DJ and then Fat Boy Slim; singer Paul Heaton and replacement drummer Dave Hemingway formed the Beautiful South. Before going their own way, our Marxist-Christian pals left us with a maddeningly uneven yet rather enjoyable album, the title of which was a reference to the royal family. By now the political consciousness started to mingle uneasily with the wackiness. What at first was endearing started to irritate. The single Five Get Overexcited, catchy jangly guitar pop with a message about superficiality though it was, had annoying lrics (“I am mad from Scandinavia, I want a guy in the London area. He must be crazy and Sagittaurus, ’cause I am Leo and I’m hilarious”). Conversely, a serious song about the rotten class-system like Me And The Farmer fails to convey its message thanks to a happy melody (and a very silly video). The People Who… is at its strongest when things are allowed to calm down a bit. And so the stand-out tracks are the quieter Build and The Light Is Always Green. As an opponent of apartheid, I particularly appreciated the inclusion of Johannesburg, although the Housemartins deviation towards jazz was less welcome.
The Housemartins – The People Who Grinned Themselves To Death.mp3

8. Wet Wet Wet – Popped In Souled Out
This may be one of the most unjustly disrespected albums of the ’80s. I cannot understand why Wet Wet Wet have such a poor reputation. Is it because they were initially marketed as the teenybopper group they never could be (I mean, Marti Pellow was good looking, but the drummer and the little one are hardly dreamy heartthtrobs)? Is it because that song from a Hugh Grant movie was so ubiquitous? Was it the name? The answer is beyond me, but it surely cannot have been the music on the Scottish band’s debut album. This is high-quality blue-eyed soul, made by people who clearly understand the genre. The sound draws from ’60s pop and ’70s soul, and Pellow’s vocals settle for a fine balance between soul technique and pop delivery. The songs are very catchy. Strings swell, but never in a corny way. The lyrics aren’t Tom Waits or Patti Smith, but they remain on the right side of pop banality (and sometimes they are pretty good). What, I beg you, is there not to like here?
Wet Wet Wet – Wishing I Was Lucky.mp3

9. INXS – Kick
Let the record reflect that I had no time for INXS before Kick, and none after. And yet, I love this album. It is the most accessible INXS album; the slew of hits that emanated from it testifies to that. It is also their least self-conscious album; Hutchence lets it hang out like Jagger and actually seems to be enjoying himself. On Need You Tonight, Hutchence is sex personified. When he sings “Your moves are so raw, I’ve got to let you know…I’ve got to let you know: you’re one of my kind”, he is having hot ‘n sweaty sex. With you (well, if you happen to be listening to it). I can happily live without a few tracks from Kick, such as opener Guns In The Sky or Calling All Nations, but for all their exposure, I am never unhappy to hear Devil Inside, Never Tear Us Apart, Mediate, New Sensation, Mystify or the song on which Hutchence is having sex with us.
INXS – Need You Tonight.mp3

10. Johnny Clegg & Savuka – Third World Child
I like Johnny Clegg. I like it that an English-born Jewish boy would defy apartheid, which was predicated not only on the separation of races but also of cultures, and assimilate with Zulu culture but not lose the awareness that he could never be a fully-fledged Zulu. His affinity with the Zulu culture is sincere, as was evident in his previous group, Juluka. When Juluka colleague Sipho Mchunu left the group, Clegg founded Savuka. His new group continued in the Juluka tradition; in concerts the setlist included most Juluka classics and the old dance routines with the highkicks. Third World Child was more commercial and polished than Juluka, possibly consciously so as to appeal to the fans of Paul Simon’s Graceland. It was a better album for it, I think. One has the direct comparison of Scatterlings Of Africa, a Juluka single in 1982 and re-recorded by Savuka for this album. The latter version is marginally better. At times Third World Child, like everything Clegg does, is a little too earnest, and sometimes it seems Clegg got bored with an idea before completing its development. But, goodness, when it’s good, it really is great. Apart from Scatterlings, the stand-out tracks are Great Heart and the great anti-apartheid song dedicated to the then still jailed Nelson Mandela, Asimbonanga, with its moving litany of activists who were murdered by the regime.
Johnny Clegg & Savuka – Asimbonanga.mp3

Previously featured:
1950s
1960-65

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