Best albums of 1988: #3 The Waterboys “Fisherman’s blues”

In a previous post on these pages, I told the story of how I worked in the tool rental industry in the years immediately following graduation and during this time, met a guy named Chris, whose last name may now forever escape me, and with whom I shared musical tastes. Often while working together, we would talk music and share concert stories and recommendations and often with him, The Waterboys would be mentioned. I think the first time the name came up was after I told him about how much of a Wonder Stuff fan I was. After that, he would ask me, “Did you listen to them yet?” (‘them’ being The Waterboys), to which I would ashamedly shake my head in the negative. After a few weeks of this, I finally gave a listen to the title track off “Fisherman’s blues”, one of three albums he listed as recommended (“you’ll love any one of them”). I did enjoy the song but then, later the same evening, I heard it again during the opening credits of “Waking Ned Devine”, a film I had randomly picked to go see at my local rep theatre. It then seemed to me fated that I should fall in love with the song. I went out to buy the album shortly afterwards on CD and fell in love with the whole darned thing too.

The Waterboys are mainly the musical vehicle for creative force and frontman Mike Scott. He formed the group in 1983 and, save for a few years where he released work under his own name, the band has been a going concern with a rotating cast of characters. The only other long standing member that is with the group to this day is Irish fiddler Steve Wickham, who helped along the first change in sound after joining the force in 1985. Prior to the fourth album, which is the album of our discussion today, The Waterboys’ music was post-punk based with only hints of folk. “Fisherman’s blues” came out of lengthy recording sessions in Ireland and was heavily influenced by the traditional folk music of that country. It divided listeners at the time between those fans that wanted more of the ‘big music’ and those that loved the new sound. Nowadays, though, it is widely considered the band’s masterpiece.

The mass amounts of recordings that resulted from the year long sessions were such that, more than a decade later, Scott was able to put out a whole other excellent album, a sequel of sorts, from the pieces that didn’t make the original cut. That also means to me that “Fisherman’s blues” is a complete album, devoid of filler, and almost impossible to distill down to three picks for you. Still, I have managed a close approximation. Have a listen.


”Strange boat”: Track number three is a mellow number on the album. Acoustic strum, lazy beat and bass just plod along as a Mike Scott throws out a number of metaphors for this bizarre journey we call life. “We’re living in a strange time, working for a strange goal. We’re turning flesh and body into soul.” But if that sentiment’s not beautiful enough for you, Steve Wickham takes the song out of pedestrian territory with his heaven-meandering fiddles.

”And a band on the ear”: Track seven is nine minutes on the album and was released as the second single in a six and half minute version. It’s a lively, boppy jam that gives guest musician, Máirtín O’Connor, lots of room to prowl with his accordion and of course, Wickham to flail us again with his fiddles. It just begs for you to get up and dance. Meanwhile, Mike Scott regales us in each verse of tales of past loves, saving the best (and current) one for last. “So my woman of the hearthfire, harbour of my soul. I watch you lightly sleeping and sense the dream that does unfold (like gold). You to me are treasure, you to me are dear so I’ll give you my love with a bang on the ear.” And if you’re wondering, “bang on the ear” is not threatening violence but an expression of Celtic origin that refers to an affectionate kiss.

”Fisherman’s blues”: Though as mentioned above, the title track and first single off “Fisherman’s blues” was my introduction to the band, this is not the only reason it’s still my all time favourite Waterboys track. The other reason is more obvious than that, it’s just pure awesome. Here, Wickham’s fiddles are paired with Anthony Thistlethwaite’s mandolin. The two together create a raucous kitchen party all by themselves and the bass and drums can’t help but follow their jaunty lead and Scott yelps enthusiastic “Woo!”s in spite of himself. The lyrics describe Scott’s yearning for a simpler and freer life, like that of a fisherman or train engine driver, at the same time knowing that such a life is not without pitfalls. However… “Well I know I will be loosened from bonds that hold me fast, that the chains all hung around me, will fall away at last. And on that fine and fateful day, I will take me in my hands. I will ride on the train. I will be the fisherman.” It does sound very romantic in his words and music, doesn’t it? Woooo!!!


Check back next Thursday for album #2. 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”
4. Pixies “Surfer rosa”

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

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.