Best albums of 1989: The honourable mentions (aka #10 through #6)

Happy Monday all!

(I know what you’re thinking: is it really Monday?! Well, the answer to that is: “YES!!!” )

And if that wasn’t enough of a good reason to kick off a new series this morning, it’s also June 1st. That’s right. We’re five months into this train wreck of a year called 2020 and I haven’t done one of these throwback Best Albums series for a while so I thought I’d throw down for you one of the greatest years for alternative rock. That’s right: 1989.

If you’ve been around these pages before, you might remember that I typically do these Best Album throwbacks on Thursdays (for the #tbt thing, of course) and though I’ve changed up the day this time around, I’ll be keeping the rest of my usual format intact. Today’s post is just the tease, introducing the five albums that round out the latter part of my top ten, and then, over the course of the next five Mondays, I’ll lay out my five favourite albums of the year, one by one. And as I said above, it’s a great one. Many of the albums are classics, catching the bands who released them at their peaks, whether at the beginning or the end of their careers, and are considered some of the most influential albums to the alternative rock artists that followed, through the 90s and beyond.

I’ve already done my top ten favourites for both 1987 and 1988 and though I talked up both of those years at the time, 1989 was the real deal. And I’m not just saying that because I say that about all the years. I was by then firmly into high school and my teen years when the final year of the eighties came around and I was finally forming some musical tastes beyond the normal AM radio fare. And though I didn’t catch on to all of these albums at the time, I can at least say I was aware of most of them, if not right away, then at least within a year or two of their release date. Indeed, I have been listening to these ten albums for so long, they are like close friends.

Are you excited? I am. So let’s do this. And of course, as we do, I’d love to hear your thoughts, both on my picks and what your own would be for 1989…

#10 The Jesus And Mary Chain “Automatic”

With “Automatic”, the Reid brothers, Jim and William, picked up right where they left off with 1987’s “Darklands”, which, incidentally, appeared at #8 on my list for that year. The Jesus And Mary Chain were effectively just the two of them at this point, though you wouldn’t know it by listening to the tunes. They filled every ounce of soundscape using electronics, employing a drum machine and synthesizers to imitate bass guitars and to wash out the rest. And though they were criticized for this at the time, attitudes have changed over time, and the album is nowadays considered amongst The JAMC’s best work. The music is dark, raging, and roaring stuff, like a loud motorcycle racing through high and violent winds, the hair of its leather-jacketed rider, whipping about wildly, but being kept on course by the ever-present cool sunglasses. Yeah.

Gateway tune: Head on

#9 Galaxie 500 “On fire”

I didn’t listen to this album until well over a decade after its release. I finally decided to investigate Galaxie 500 a few years after frontman Dean Wareham’s second band, Luna, broke up and I had exhausted their catalogue. I started with “On fire” because it was the only one of their three of which I had previously heard, which makes sense because it is widely considered the trio’s high watermark. Together with Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang, Wareham found his voice out of a love for lo-fi soundscapes, understated guitar brilliance, and The Velvet Underground. “On fire” is definitely rougher hewn than anything in the Luna catalogue but that doesn’t make it any less the underrated dream pop classic that it is.

Gateway tune: Tell me

#8 The Beautiful South “Welcome to The Beautiful South”

After The Housemartins called it quits in 1988, frontman Paul Heaton and drummer Dave Hemingway immediately formed The Beautiful South, the moniker a tongue-in-cheek jab at the fact that they were from Northern England. The five-piece’s debut “Welcome to The Beautiful South” expanded on the jangle pop sound of The Housemartins but happily, the biting and outspoken lyrics continued, as it did throughout their career. The controversial cover (the Canadian version of the cover pictured above omits the image of a woman with a gun in her mouth) didn’t seem to hurt album sales any and really, this album was just the beginning for a band that would go on to sell millions of units. So many great tracks on this one, including the one below.

Gateway tune: Song for whoever

#7 The Grapes of Wrath “Now and again”

The Grapes of Wrath’s fourth album, “Now and again”, was also their most commercially successful. Partially because of Canadian content (CanCon) rules imposed on Canadian radio and television stations but also because this album’s folk rock sound with impeccable harmonies had mass appeal. I definitely remember having the album’s singles recorded to cassette tape from AM radio at the time, but it was years before I would hear this album in full, long after the band had broken up and re-formed again. And though sometimes when I come to an album late, I find I can’t get into the time and place headspace of when it was released, this album is not an example of this. Timeless would be the right word here.

Gateway tune: All the things I wasn’t

#6 New Model Army “Thunder and consolation”

New Model Army’s fourth record is still their most successful to date and is likely one of my own personal faves. Justin Sullivan’s excellent, politically and socially-conscious lyrics and the group’s punk and post-punk informed sound received a bit of facelift when they were joined by violinist, Ed Alleyne-Johnson for this album. The infusion of folk and traditional music started the band to trend towards constantly tweaking their sound over the years and has likely aided in their longevity. And amazingly, they still haven’t lost any amount of edge or sense of urgency, especially here. This album is full of stomping great tracks, like the haunting one below.

Gateway tune: Green and grey

Check back next Monday 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.

Best tunes of 1990: #9 New Model Army “Purity”

<< #10    |    #8 >>

This fact may come as a shock to some of you but the truth of the matter is that I didn’t go to my first ever concert until I was 19 years old. I’m not making excuses here. It’s just that I lived in a small town in southern Ontario, country music territory for an alt-rock fan, and just far enough away from Toronto for a teen without a driver’s licence or a job to make things impractical. Add to that the fact that many of the concerts I really wanted to see were limited to attendees 19 and over and you have some serious challenges.

So the first show came in the summer of 1993. My friend Tim asked me if I wanted to go see New Model Army with him at the now famed Lee’s Palace and I couldn’t say no. He drove us into Scarborough Town Centre and we took the subway downtown, where we spent the day leading up to the show trawling the used CD stores. I purchased copies of Primus’s “Sailing the seas of cheese” and Buffalo Tom’s “Let me come over”. However, neither of them would make it home with me after being left somewhere at Bathurst subway station in our haste to catch the last subway back to Scarborough. I remember being particularly nervous when security was checking ID at the door to Lee’s (as I said, I didn’t have my licence at the time) and they did hesitate when I showed a roughed up copy of my birth certificate and some questionable photo ID but then, shrugged and let me in.

The opening acts that evening were friends and frequent contributors of the band: tattoo artist and poet, Joolz Denby and electric violinist, Ed Alleyne-Johnson. The latter performer made quite the impression on Tim and me, utilizing all sorts of tricks and pedals to bend and mutate the sound of his instrument and also to record, loop, and play back these sounds until it felt to us like he had a whole string orchestra up on the empty stage with him. It goes without saying that the headliners were the real highlight that night, effectively hooking me on the energy of live performances for the rest of my life, but Alleyne-Johnson’s set has also stuck with me almost 25 years later, whereas I had to do a bit of research to remember the other opener.

Ed Alleyne-Johnson was also a proper member of New Model Army between the years of 1989 and 1994, which is incidentally my favourite period in their 37 year career. His fiddle introduced a folk sound to the band’s already gigantic palette of music, whose oils always served mainly as an intriguing base layer for the lyrics of the band’s frontman and driving force, Justin Sullivan.

The rains move in eastwards, in waves of succession
Drawing lines of grey across the sky
With history just as close as a hand on the shoulder
In hunger and impatience we cry
The battle against corruption rages in each corner
There must be something better, something pure

These, the opening lines of “Purity” give you an idea of the types of words and the imagery invoked by Sullivan, the poet laureate of ‘hopeless causes’, ranking up there with Billy Bragg as one of alt-rock’s best political consciences. On this track, he takes arms against corruption in both the science laboratories and the church pews, making us question what is pure, what is good. All the while, the acoustic guitar is given a serious workout, the drums stomp and the Alleyne-Johnson’s fiddles scream and we wish we were anywhere else but this world described by Sullivan. Yet in all its dystopian angst, it’s a lovely track that always transports me back to an early summer night back in 1993.

If you’ve never heard “Purity” (or any other track by New Model Army), I strongly suggest you give it a spin now.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1990 list, click here.