Best albums of 1988: #4 Pixies “Surfer rosa”

It was my friend Tim that introduced me to the Pixies, though I didn’t get them right away. They were just so radically different from the AM radio I was still transitioning from at the start of the 1990s. But he definitely tried. Every mixed cassette tape I got from his direction included a Pixies track (along with a Mission and a Sisters track, but those are other stories) so I got used to seeing their name. One Friday night, during my weekly ritual of watching and recording music videos off MuchMusic’s City Limits, I pressed the Record button and added the video for “Alec Eiffel” to my collection. It was this knee jerk reaction to a band name I recognized that became my gateway to the now legendary quartet from Boston.

I shortly thereafter bought a used copy of their second long player, “Doolittle”, which I now love unconditionally. However, the debut album took me much longer to appreciate. Perhaps even a decade, I couldn’t tell you now how long I held out but it all seems silly now, given that I hold all four of their original albums with such reverence. “Surfer rosa”, though, was a game changer. David Lovering, Kim Deal, Joey Santiago, and Black Francis let their don’t give a shit attitudes carry over from from their first ever recorded release, the mini-album “Come on pilgrim”, mixing punk, surf-rock, and whatever else they pleased into their incendiary noise. It is seen as a template for what 90s alt-rock would eventually become, not just for the sheer brashness of the music but also its iconoclastic production, netting future jobs for Steve Albini with artists like PJ Harvey and Nirvana.

So for an album that didn’t sell particularly well (taking decades to reach gold status), it is quite an influential one and one that sits high on many best rock album lists, even winning over many of the critics that didn’t quite get it at the time. And though the whole album has become ingrained in my musical fabric, I still have my favourites and I’ve included them here in my three picks for you.


”Bone machine”: “This is a song for Carol.” Except that it’s not, it’s really a song about sexual deviancy in a few forms. Namely, molestation by priests (“I was talking to preachy-preach about kissy-kiss”) and infidelity and possibly, nymphomania (“Your blistered lips have got a kiss, they taste a bit like everyone”). The opening track on the album, “Bone machine”, is discordance personified, pummelling drums, punished guitar strings, screaming and yelping and carrying on. And then, they just pause everything while Black and Deal harmonize sweetly together: “Your bone’s got a little machine.” Oh, the Pixies.

”Gigantic”: “Gigantic” was the only single to be released off the album and happens to be the second longest track on an album of short bursts of adrenaline. It was one of only two tracks not sung by Black Francis in all of the Pixies’ catalogue and bassist Kim Deal, who did sing it, also co-wrote it with Francis. It is also remarkable for its muscular and big bass line that sets the tone and feel. Deal’s vocals are a case in contrasts, see-sawing between soft and delicate and violent rage, especially when she is joined by Francis at the choruses. Everything I’ve read suggests the song is about a married women watching a teenaged black man making love to another woman and fantasizing that it is happening to her. “Gigantic, gigantic, gigantic / A big, big love.” No, their lyrics aren’t irreverent at all.

”Where is my mind?”: If it wasn’t iconic beforehand, it definitely was after it was used to soundtrack the final moments of 1999’s “Fight club”. Indeed, “Where is my mind?” was never released as a single and yet it is considered one of the band’s best known songs. Francis has said that the song was inspired by a scuba diving experience but true to form, there definitely seems to be a lot more going on here than just talking to fish under water. It’s all very surreal and confusing and the music doesn’t help to steady the ship. Discordant (there’s that adjective again) and topsy-turvy, Santiago’s electric guitar line rolls over and over like crashing waves while the acoustic guitar stands timidly in its shadow. Lovering’s drum is big and sparse while Francis’s vocals range from soft coos to yells and yelps and Deal adds her echoing howl throughout. Wonderful stuff.


Check back next Thursday for album #3. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. The Sugarcubes “Life’s too good”
9. Erasure “The innocents”
8. Billy Bragg “Worker’s playtime”
7. Jane’s Addiction “Nothing’s shocking”
6. Leonard Cohen “I’m your man”
5. R.E.M. “Green”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.

Best albums of 1988: #5 R.E.M. “Green”

R.E.M.’s sixth album “Green” was the first album I owned by the band. In fact, this album’s second single, “Stand”, was my introduction to R.E.M.. I distinctly remember watching a music video show, though I can’t recall now whether it was a countdown or not, and the video for “Stand” being played in the same segment as Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t worry, be happy”. (If that song gets stuck in your head today, I’m truly sorry.) I bought the album shortly afterward on cassette tape, but not just your run of the mill cassette. No. It was a ‘metal’ cassette, whatever that means. I likely paid a few extra dollars for that adjective too. Did I notice a difference? I was fourteen or fifteen, so likely not. Indeed, the only reason I remember this piece of trivia at all is that I still have said ‘metal’ cassette tape amongst my ‘things’ in a box in the basement.

“Green” was R.E.M.’s first album released on major label Warner Bros., having fulfilled their contract with I.R.S. the previous year. It was the second album of five produced by Scott Litt, a run of albums that can easily be considered R.E.M.’s glory years. It was the first album to introduce Peter Buck’s use of the mandolin, which would later be used as a basis for some of their biggest hits. So yeah, they were still being experimental and provocative on a major label and yet they saw greater success with the money backing them. The album hit both the US and UK album charts, saw a couple of hit singles, and went double platinum in the states. Perhaps the commercial success was related to those singles, which are easy to pick out from the album, sounding as if the band made a concerted effort to write hits, a possible concession to their label for allowing them such creative freedom.

It was these singles that definitely drew me to R.E.M. but I grew to love all of “Green” with repeat plays. As I mentioned above, this was my gateway to their excellent back catalogue and kept me coming back for future albums throughout the 90s. Two of my three picks for you are from these hit singles and the other, well, it’s a personal fave.


”Stand”: “Stand in the place where you live. Now face north. Think about direction. Wonder why you haven’t before.” The chorus of “Stand”, words which I’ve sung along with countless times, never wondering what they were all about, are, according to Michael Stipe and Peter Buck, among they stupidest and inane the band has ever come out with. Perhaps subconsciously this is why I’ve never thought too hard on them. Yeah, the song which introduced me to the group was purposely crafted to sound on par with the pop songs they loved from the 60s. It’s no wonder, then, that it’s so infectious and catchy. (Maybe not to the degree of “Don’t worry, be happy”. Whoops. Sorry.) The beat and melodious guitars just beg a hop and wriggle dance, not unlike the one featured in the video.

”World leader pretend”: Even before I learned that track five on side one was Stipe’s tribute to Leonard Cohen, I loved the tune. The wordplay, like on many R.E.M. tunes, is great, but particularly so here. “This is my mistake. Let me make it good. I raised the wall and I will be the one to knock it down.” The inner turmoil and internal war-waging game is strong and we are left guessing whether he wants to correct his mistake or make it a real doozy. Likely, it’s a bit of column A and a bit of column B. The instrumentation has always appealed to me on this song too, the pedal steel and cello further dampening the melancholy with a fresh run of tears. And Stipe nails it, resting his vocals on the low ledge, tentative and introverted.

”Orange crush”: “Stand” was a huge hit for the band but it wasn’t their first. “Orange crush” was the advanced promotional single and it was massive. Widely misunderstood, which is definitely not hard with Stipe’s purposefully vague lyrics, it is an anti-war song. And the hints are there, from the sampled military cadence and shuffling of boots to the machine gun guitar riffs and drum rhythms. The title is a reference to Agent orange (not the soda drink), a chemical weapon that was used indiscriminately during the Vietnam war, which brings a whole other level of hurt to this line. “I’ve had my fun and now it’s time to serve your conscience overseas (over me, not over me). Coming in fast, over me.” Heart breaking and beautiful and still with that R.E.M. jangle and shine.


Check back next Thursday for album #4. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. The Sugarcubes “Life’s too good”
9. Erasure “The innocents”
8. Billy Bragg “Worker’s playtime”
7. Jane’s Addiction “Nothing’s shocking”
6. Leonard Cohen “I’m your man”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.

Best albums of 1988: The honourable mentions (aka #10 through #6)

 

Happy Thursday! And welcome back to my Throwback Thursday (#tbt) best albums series.

I know it’s been a while since the last of these but there’s good reason. If you look back at my sentiments at the time of my last series, you’ll see that I had this crazy idea of whipping through six of these things this year to catch up. Well, halfway through writing for this particular list, I hit a wall. I found the mission way too onerous and ambitious…. So I decided to take a break, take my time writing these posts, and enjoy them again. I’ve decided instead to choose years at random to do throughout future years and maybe even do some theme-based best albums lists. First, though, I wanted to share this particular list with you because I pushed through to finish it and it is a good one with a lot of important albums.

Our destination here is 1988, which is unbelievably just over thirty years ago now. I can’t really say it feels like yesterday because at the time, I was spanning my first and second years of high school. The problems of acne, getting braces, and math homework seem like another world ago. I had yet to hit my growth spurt, hadn’t yet started shaving, and I still hadn’t yet dipped my toes in the theatrical arts, something that would radically change my high school experience from then on out.

This is the second time we are touching down in the 1980s The last time we did so, I mentioned in the introductory post that I was still finding my way in the music world. The pop charts were king. AM radio and music video shows and countdowns, and whatever they played at the high school dances at which I was holding up walls. So yeah, a lot of the albums on this list were not even close to being on my radar back when they were released. In some cases, I came upon them a few years later, some of them took longer to take hold, but all of them are now staples in my collection and revered for their place in my musical education.

Yes, the ten albums in this list are all classics and I am going to kick things off with the first five below. And if you don’t know the trick by now, I will be featuring the top five, an album each Thursday, over the next five weeks. I hope you enjoy this trip back to 1988 with me.


#10 The Sugarcubes “Life’s too good”

Nowadays, we have the international sensations Sigur Rós and Of Monsters and Men but before The Sugarcubes hit the scene, we hadn’t heard much rock music from Iceland. The six-piece alternative outfit were made up of veterans of different music groups from the Reykjavik scene. They released three full-length albums in their four year existence, though none as impactful as their debut, “Life’s too good”. Admittedly, I didn’t first listen to the album until well after their former frontwoman, Björk, had established her solo career with her excellent first two records. However, I have grown to love the quirky, punk-inflected DIY rock of The Sugarcubes’ debut. And it doesn’t at all sound thirty years old.

Gateway tune: Birthday


#9 Erasure “The innocents”

Here is an album that I was definitely listening to in high school, though perhaps not as early as 1988. “The innocents” was Erasure’s third full-length album and first to hit the top 10 in the UK charts, spawning a number of hit singles. The duo of Vince Clark and Andy Bell took 80s synth pop and made a career out of getting people out on the club dance floors. I love many of their singles but this is the only one of their albums that I love all the way through. I am well aware that it could be nostalgia factor here, given that this is the first of theirs that I listened to after my friend John made a copy of it on cassette for me.

Gateway tune: Chains of love


#8 Billy Bragg “Worker’s playtime”

I got into Billy Bragg with the album after this one, 1991’s “Don’t try this at home”, during my final year of high school and only went back to discover this previous album a few years later, when one of my university housemates Meagan had it in her CD collection. “Don’t try this at home” is considered by many his attempt at pop but in 1988 Bragg was still mixing his prototypical protest songs with songs on love. He usually performs these songs live solo on stage with his electric guitar but on record, he had a full band with him, though the music is typically secondary to his words. “Workers playtime” is his third album and is chock full of classics and fan favourites like “Must I paint you a picture?”, “She’s got a new spell”, and the one below, “Waiting for the great leap forwards”.

Gateway tune: Waiting for the great leap forwards


#7 Jane’s Addiction “Nothing’s shocking”

Jane’s Addiction is another artist I was listening to by the end of high school, the introduction coming with the album following the one on this list, in this case, 1990’s “Ritual de lo Habitual”. In 1988, though, the quartet led by founding members Perry Farrell and Eric Avery, and including Dave Navarro and Stephen Perkins, were releasing their second album, their major label debut, “Nothing’s shocking”. Here, the group re-recorded a couple of tracks that appeared on their ‘live’ self-titled debut album and added some explosive new ones that mixed metal, surf, glam, funk, and punk. They were a hard-living group and it shows in the raw angst on so many of the songs here.

Gateway tune: Jane says


#6 Leonard Cohen “I’m your man”

I’m hoping that Canada’s singer/songwriter/poet, Leonard Cohen, needs no introduction to anyone that lands on these pages. His eighth studio album, “I’m your man”, was the first CD I owned by the influential lyricist, after being introduced to him by way of the appearance of “Everybody knows” a couple years later in the film “Pump up the volume”, a favourite of mine at the time. The production and instrumentation on this album definitely sound of its time but Cohen’s rich and deep vocals and excellent lyrics allow you to forgive him. So many great tracks, like the title track, “First we take manhattan”, and the aforementioned, “Everybody knows”. How could I not include this here?

Gateway tune: Everybody knows


Check back next Thursday for album #5 on this list. In the meantime, you can check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.