We had written about our CD experience with Out of the Box: 90s CD’s, but we bought plenty of music in the 80s as well, although they were on cassette tape and probably long gone. Fortunately, at some point, we upgraded to discs. We wanted to keep the theme going since we loved writing about those 90s discs. So let’s go into the 80s and dig into those boxes and see what music needs another listen to.
The 80s was much different from the 90s for me, the 90s was about finding my way and I experienced music much differently. The late 80s was about getting through high school. My musical taste was not adventurous, I wanted nothing to do with anything too strange that wasn’t played on the radio (except for Split Enz). I also didn’t have the change-the-world/angry-at-the-world mentality I had in the early 90s. I liked oldies and classic rock and pop. It was a bit softer or safer and you will see that represented in my picks.
Indigo Girls (1989) Indigo Girls
I am a huge fan of the Indigo Girls (Amy Ray and Emily Saliers) and I have talked about them previously on this site. For me, the best three albums are Swamp Ophelia, Rites of Passage and Nomads, Indians and Saints. I listen to those albums in whole or other Indigo Girls songs on my iPod, but I never go back to their major-label debut. After giving it a listen, it’s very good. I did expect it to be and was surprised I don’t listen to it more. It opens with what may be their finest and most known song “Closer to Fine”. One of my favorite songs without a doubt. They sound just a crisp here as they do today. With “Kid Fears” another stand out they get some help from Michael Stipe from R.E.M. another Georgia based band. The rest of R.E.M. play on “Tried to Be True” one of the few up-tempo rockers on the album. “Land of Canaan” stands out as well and was a carryover from their independent label album Strange Fire. I completely forgot about the album conclusion “The History of Us” a Saliers penned tune that is just beautiful. Saliers often writes my favorites and it’s these contemplative songs, that have great melody and lyrics. Not sure what the song means, it could be about missing a past partner or about the questioning of God. Either way, it’s a perfect ending to a very complete album. They wrote every single song and they seem already at the top of the game, I would hold this album up to anything they have done recently. Their music is filled with lyrics about love, relationships, one’s inner feelings, and often religion spiritually. I respect what they have built for a career both musically and in the community and it all started here.
Bonus: Up for Best New Artist at the Grammys they lost to Milli Vanilli – how cruel!
MG: Wow – did not know they lost to Milli Vanilli – what a farce. I always thought of the Indigo girls as a 90s band, and did not know they debuted in 89. I’ve enjoyed a few tracks off this, especially “Closer To Fine”, but I can’t recall if I ever listened to the whole album start to finish. I will have to check it out when I want some mellower music at work to listen to.
In My Tribe (1987) 10,000 Maniacs
To be completely honest when 10,000 Maniacs show up on my iPod, I almost always skip at least if I am paying attention. Not sure why but I avoid them, so when a chance to relisten to a full album I took a shot to see what I liked about In My Tribe. This was their breakthrough album, mostly due to the hit “What’s the Matter Here?” another great opening track. Natalie Merchant writes about relationships but also modern-day problems. She talks about child abuse in this song and the inability to act on stopping it, pretty powerful. I love the track and this and “Like the Weather” are what originally got me to purchase it. Those were the only 2 singles but “Don’t Talk” sounds like it could have been a hit. “My Sister Rose” is a fun upbeat song. The album ends with two of my favorites “City of Angels” and “Verdi Cries”, two ballads that are beautiful. Completely surprised how solid every track is and how listenable this album was. I did not like the follow-up Blind Man’s Zoo at all but did like Our Time in Eden. Once Merchant left it just wasn’t 10,000 Maniacs to me. If you were lucky enough to get the original album you also got them covering Cat Steven’s “Peace Train” which is a great song. They wiped out the song from subsequent pressings because Cat Stevens, who had become part of the Islamic religion spoke in favor of the Fatwa on Salman Rushdie. Doing this has increased my interest in not stopping Maniac’s songs when playing.
Bonus: Natalie Merchant had some solo success with a couple of albums but for me, hey didn’t have the same sound as the Maniacs.
MG: So funny – even though I consider this album amazing (probably in my top 50) I also don’t listen to them much lately. I have to admit, I came to this album a few years after its release, but played it a ton in the 90s. So glad we got to see them in concert during that stretch. I was bummed when I upgraded the cassette to CD and “Peace Train” was gone. Seemed silly at the time and even more so now – have never been a fan of boycotting art due to artist politics.
Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1914 (1989) Janet Jackson
Easily my favorite Jackson, for a short period in the late 80s I was a big Janet fan. It was really all about this album. I didn’t really care much for her previous album Control despite it hits. But when I heard “Miss You Much” I had to get Rhythm Nation. It was such a drastic change from her previous material, she even changed her appearance. It was an album of funky beats and cool ballads but with a huge conscience of drug abuse, homelessness and general poverty. It also included some songs about love. I’m not sure when I packed this one away but it could have been during my 90s Grunge phase. That being said I did by 1993’s Janet so maybe it was later. It’s still a really strong album, a ton of high charting singles. The opening track “Rhythm Nation” is a funky call to arms “Love Will Never Do Without You” and “Escapade” are about as radio-friendly as two songs could get, fun danceable and poppy. Never loved “Black Cat” but it has a fierceness to it that Beyoncé would love. “State of the World” is preachy and would be a better fit for her brother Michael. Her best ballad is “Come Back to Me” and has just the right schmaltz to it. I was never a big fan of the interludes, it interrupts the music and I really don’t like that on any album. I get what she was trying to do but it doesn’t work for me. I know this was a huge influence on Beyoncé, GaGa, Rihanna and other modern-day pop-dance acts. It was her way of trying a themed album yet still being relatable to the masses.
Bonus: Janet created a 30-minute Rhythm Nation film that aired on MTV to promote the album.
MG: I like this choice from you – not because it’s obscure but it’s a little different genre for you. No doubt this was a hits-filled album, and I too enjoyed the singles (can’t recall if I ever had the cassette or CD though). “Love Will Never Do” is my favorite track – still really enjoy hearing it when it comes up on my Spotify 80’s mix. “Black Cat” is a great Halloween mix song.
The late 80s musically was the start of a transition for me. It’s interesting when I hear on Sirius FM the top 40 songs from weeks in 88 and especially 89, there are quite a few songs I either don’t like or even don’t recall. I started to get into album-oriented rock, which definitely took off in late 89 when I went to college and my dorm mates introduced me to albums from artists like Jane’s Addiction, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Peter Murphy. It was so easy to borrow music from guys on the floor and it definitely expanded my horizons. I still kept my pop-rock tendencies, though, and enjoyed the follow-up releases from artists with huge 80s albums (George Michael, Tears For Fears, Peter Gabriel, etc.) that came out around the turn of the decade. Here are three albums I’ve “unboxed” in recent years and really enjoyed.
Vivid (1988) Living Colour
I was lucky to see Living Colour in 1989 in Syracuse NY opening for the Rolling Stones and at the time they seemed like a band poised for long-term success. Their set, though marred by a bad sound mix, was so full of energy and great performance I can still remember it, where I hardly remember anything of the Stones’ show. Their guitarist, Vernon Reid, lauded for his playing virtuosity, was being called the next Hendrix, plus they won Best New Artist at the 1989 MTV Video Music Awards and two Grammy awards. Then after their second album, they seemed to disappear. Going back and listening to their debut album, it sounds really fresh – nothing like you’d think of as 80s music. They blended hard rock with twinges of hip hop, funk, and punk, and carved out a unique sound. Lead singer Corey Glover had a powerful voice on the rocking tracks, but was equally effective conveying emotion on a mellower song, like the opening of “Open Letter (To A Landlord)”. A lot of people will remember their most famous hit “Cult Of Personality”, which is still great and has a powerful solo from Reid, and some may also remember their satiric jaunty “Glamour Boys”. My favorite guitar-work by Reid is on the changing-tempo track “Desperate People”, which also showcases Glover’s vocal range – he even hits some falsetto notes. “Funny Vibe” is the albums funkiest track and skewers racial stereotypes with some mean bass by Muzz Skillings and a cameo rap by Chuck D. and Flavor Flav. There is a bonus version of this song on their extended album and it gets turned into a great hip-hop track. The rest of the songs are all well-composed and executed by the band, completing a solid album you can listen to from end-to-end.
Bonus: The Stones’ Mick Jagger produced two of the album’s tracks (including “Glamour Boys”) and also plays harmonica and does some backing vocals.
DJ: I am surprised they really fell off the earth, wasn’t a huge fan but thought they had enough talent to hang around. “Glamour Boys” was my favorite from them, still is. Never had the album and not sure I ever heard the whole thing.
11 (1989) Smithereens
I have to admit, up until about a year ago I had forgotten all about this band, which is strange because I really loved this album back when it was released. I remember taking a chance on this album based on a friend’s suggestion and from hearing their hit “A Girl Like You”. This was my first foray into more alternative, album-oriented rock and I played this extensively – and went on to buy their 1991 follow-up album. Then grunge came along and I hastily relegated the band to the scrap heap with a bunch of other 80s stuff. It didn’t help that I virtually never heard the band played on any radio station again. So when I heard them a year ago, yes it was Sirius radio – I promise I’m not getting paid to plug them (I wish I was) – I had the palm-to-forehead moment, remembering that I loved this band. The album starts with their best-known hit “A Girl Like You”, then goes into my favorite album track “Blues Before and After”, which was their second single, followed by “Yesterday Girl”. Lead singer Pat DiNizio writes all the songs and does a good job writing melodies that are a good fit for his voice. His songwriting is probably the most impressive aspect of the album, which features a few hard rocking tunes, but mostly pop/rock mid-tempo numbers. “Kiss Your Tears Away” and “Blue Period” are the two slower numbers, with the latter featuring a guest vocal by Belinda Carlisle. I’m really glad I rediscovered this album and it is back in my rotation (hopefully not be forgotten about again).
Bonus: “A Girl Like You” was originally written for Cameron Crowe’s film Say Anything…, but the film’s producer asked the band to change the lyrics because it evidently revealed too much of the plot. The band refused and saved it for their album.
DJ: I have to admit never a band I could get into, I think “A Girl Like You” was overplayed and I never liked it. Basically after that never gave them a chance. I didn’t hate them but they became a band that was just “meh” for me.
Street Fighting Years (1989)
I distinctly remember Simple Minds’ lead singer Jim Kerr lamenting that he hoped the band wouldn’t be typecast by the commercial pop of “Don’t You (Forget About Me)”, as he felt the band had a lot more to say and more meaningful music to offer. Then they went on to have huge success with 1985’s Once Upon A Time, which was not purely top 40 pop, but it was certainly commercially accessible and held strong in the sales charts for a long time. So in 1989, Street Fighting Years seemed like an intentional rebuke to all the commercialism, returning to the more atmospheric rock of their earlier albums with the addition of Celtic folk influences and lyrics that were pointedly more socio-political. Unfortunately, back in the late 80s, I didn’t give this album the chance it deserved. Like many newer fans of the band, I gave it a few listens but didn’t hear those anthemic hits like their previous albums and simply stopped listening. Going back to this album with fresh ears, I was now able to appreciate the different direction they intentionally took. I’ll admit that there is still some lack of distinction between tracks, other than the album’s one hit “Belfast Child” and the remake of Peter Gabriel’s “Biko”, but the lush and elegant production and Kerr’s soothing vocals make this a true album listening experience. It’s not something you would sing along with, in the car, but if you are home listening on great headphones or high-end speakers, it’s an album you can almost float away with.
Bonus: Kerr and the producer’s wish to take a new artistic direction caused significant turmoil in the band, resulting in drummer Mel Gaynor to be replaced by Manu Katche and Stewart Copeland for much of the studio sessions.
DJ: A big fan of Simple Minds but one of the few albums of theirs I have not listened to. I know “Biko” by Gabriel but that is it. It’s funny cause I had their next album and I loved the previous Once Upon a Time. Maybe I will check it out.