Retro Active: 1987, Here We Come

How long is long enough to declare an album truly great? Six months is probably pushing it – sorry, Wincing the Night Away – but 20 years seems safe enough. It’s the traditional span of a generation, or at least it used to be. Casting an eye back on 1987, the year of the Iran-Contra affair, Black Monday, and The Princess Bride seems lousy with great music. Most of the following albums remain as relevant and enjoyable, if not more, today; the current Rolling Stone certainly thinks so. It was a banner year for pop (Bad, Faith, Sign O’ the Times), rock (The Joshua Tree, Kick, The Lonesome Jubilee, Tunnel of Love, Diesel and Dust), rap (It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Paid In Full, Criminal Minded), country (Always and Forever, Ocean Front Property, Hillbilly Deluxe), and metal (Appetite for Destruction, Girls, Girls, Girls, Among the Living). But alternative and college rock may have trumped them all.

1987 was, as they say, a transition year. The Smiths and Husker Du exited the scene as the Pixies, Jane’s Addiction, Happy Mondays and Sinead O’Connor debuted, R.E.M. and the Cure broke big, and distant rumblings of the future echoed from the Pacific Northwest from newly formed Nirvana and Alice in Chains. Elsewhere, Jesus Lizard, Fugazi, Massive Attack, No Doubt, Operation Ivy, Slint, and Uncle Tupelo also came together, effectively completing the ‘90s’ musical blueprint. Bands still with us today released embryonic albums: Red Hot Chili Peppers (Uplift Mofo Party Plan), Flaming Lips (Oh My Gawd…The Flaming Lips!!!) and Yo La Tengo (New Wave Hot Dogs). Sorting through all the year’s great music is nigh impossible, but these 12 albums, in no particular order – or are they? – have more than stood the test of time.

The Cure, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me – “Why Can’t I Be You” and “Hot Hot Hot!!!” fan the pop spark of “In Between Days” into a raging bonfire, while “The Snakepit” keeps Pornography’s darkness intact. “Just Like Heaven” is.

Depeche Mode, Music for the Masses – They weren’t kidding. After the glorious synth symphonies of “Strangelove,” “Behind the Wheel” and “Never Let Me Down,” bound by the more intimate glue of “Sacred” and “Little 15,” even their own personal Jesus couldn’t save them from stardom.

Sisters of Mercy, Floodland – Not quite the Ur-text of Goth-rock – Peter Murphy and the Love & Rockets boys might have something to say about that – but coldly erotic all the same. Andrew Eldritch’s baritone puts Nick Cave to shame on “1959,” “This Corrosion” soars for all ten-plus minutes, and “Lucretia My Reflection” assumes Eldritch casts one.

The Smiths, Strangeways, Here We Come – It’s not The Queen is Dead, but what is? The lilting “Girlfriend in a Coma” and swinging “I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish” (did they ever) sent Morrissey and friends – or former friends, anyway – out on a high note.

Sonic Youth, Sister: The compact, snarling Sticky Fingers to Daydream Nation’s sprawling, bleary Exile on Main Street. Raw, bitter, brutal and the exact opposite of all those things.

Replacements, Pleased to Meet Me and Husker Du, Warehouse: Songs and Stories – Minneapolis’ last great year in the sun until Soul Asylum’s belated “Runaway Train” breakthrough in 1993. Paul Westerberg’s crew would carry on for one more album, but All Shook Down came nowhere near Pleased to Meet Me’s power-pop glory and up-all-night tenderness (“Skyway”). Bob Mould’s trio packed it in after Warehouse, leaving an epitaph for the ages in “Could You Be the One?” and a legacy everyone from Superchunk to Plain White T’s has tried and failed to surpass.

Pixies, Come on Pilgrim EP and Dinosaur Jr., You’re Living All Over Me – Straight outta Beantown, these noisy, nasty records nonetheless endeared themselves to a generation. Frank Black’s surf-rock mutants were just warming up, kicking into high Surfer Rosa gear with the prequel’s spastic “Vamos” and ghostly “Caribou.” Meanwhile, J. Mascis crams hardcore, heavy metal, Neil Young, and mountains of feedback into each solo and becomes one of the unlikeliest guitar heroes in history.

R.E.M., Document – R.E.M. were playing arenas (albeit small ones) even before Document’s release, and the Top 10 success of “The One I Love” pretty much shattered whatever cult status they had left. However, hidden treasures like “Exuming McCarthy” and “Oddfellows Local 151” help explain how they maintained their credibility for so long as their peers either faltered or flat plain sold out, and “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” never fails to quicken the pulse.

Los Lobos, By the Light of the Moon – It’s hardly punk or alternative, but the rambling melancholy of “One Time One Night,” juke-joint-hardened “Shakin’ Shakin’ Shakes,” and otherworldly “Tears of God” show a contemplative yet tough side of the band from East L.A. their admittedly exuberant “La Bamba” remake just couldn’t.

Honorable Mentions: Butthole Surfers, Locust Abortion Technician; Jesus & Mary Chain, Darklands; New Order, Substance; Sinead O’Connor, The Lion & the Cobra; 10,000 Maniacs, In My Tribe; Echo & the Bunnymen, Echo & the Bunnymen; Happy Mondays, Squirrel and G-Man 24 Hour Party People…; Big Black, Songs About Fucking; Spaceman 3, The Perfect Prescription; Pussy Galore, Right Now!; Faith No More, Introduce Yourself; Pet Shop Boys, Actually; Erasure, The Circus; The Cult, Electric; Meat Puppets, Huevos, Mirage

See? I told you it was a good year. – Chris Gray

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