Sting, … Nothing Like the Sun
I never really listened to the Police to know if Sting had always had an eccentric writing style, but on … Nothing Like the Sun, he was still not as insufferable as he would be on his solo albums in the ’90s. In fact, … Nothing Like the Sun struck a nice balance between sprawling ambition — it was a double album — and appealing songcraft. Yes, he could be all serious, as on "They Dance Alone" and "The Secret Marriage", but he could still write some hits. I’m partial to "Be Still My Beating Heart". The b-sides from this era could have constituted a Side Three for the album. I hope one day they become available in a digital format.
Swing Out Sister, It’s Better to Travel
I don’t care what kind of cachet Swing Out Sister possesses now. This album had a direct influence on my own songwriting back then.
U2, The Joshua Tree
The Joshua Tree was my first U2 album, and I had no reference for how the band sounded like before. Radio in Hawaiʻi pretty much ignored U2 till The Joshua Tree dominated the charts. It wasn’t until I heard Boy did I realize how far U2 had come. In retrospect, the album would mark a turning point in the band’s career. They finally cracked the American mainstream audience, but their current creative path was leading to a dead end. The next decade would require a reboot.
Wendy and Lisa, Wendy and Lisa
The shadow of Prince casts long, and I don’t know if Wendy and Lisa would have ever been able to get out from under it. I just know Prince annoyed me, but Wendy and Lisa seemed kind of cool. The self-titled debut album was onto something — funk and pop with a more rock edge. The barrier between rock and R&B — more crassly put, black music and white music — was pliable under the hands of Wendy and Lisa, and it wasn’t until Eryka Badu, India.Arie, Macy Gray and Res would come along to hammer the idea home. But by then, the major labels had no room for Wendy and Lisa, who have gone on to become film and TV scorers.
Original London Cast, The Phantom of the Opera
As an adult, I wouldn’t give Andrew Lloyd Webber much credit, but as a teenager, he was important for stimulating the idea that a division between high and low art isn’t so immutable. Lloyd Webber had a real talent for making orchestral music accessible to listeners unwary of the music’s history, and even if he didn’t receive a conservatory training, he had some good instincts. The Phantom of the Opera is pretty much the crest of his works. The muse really did him favors with that one, and it’s one of three scores from him I continue to admire. (The other two are Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar.) His other shows don’t age so well.
Original Broadway Cast, Into the Woods
The Phantom of the Opera was the juggernaut of the Tony Awards around that time, but Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim won best score. The fairy tale-themed show was a humorous contrast to the very artfully-produced Sunday in the Park with George. Into the Woods cleverly imagined how all the characters from popular fairy tales would interact with each other, but then it went a step further to imagine some very adult consequences of their actions. Happily ever after, my ass. Sondheim’s music is complex and at times difficult, and as a teenager, I didn’t really understand all of it. It took classical music training in college to begin to grasp his scores, which is why Sondheim’s show have far more staying power with me than Lloyd Webber’s shows.