From junior high throughout high school, I went through phases. I would listen to a particular style of music exhaustively — much to the dismay of my family — then move on to something else. 1985-1986 was my New Wave period. 1987-1988 was my jazz-pop and radio hit era. 1988 was the year I discovered Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim. 1989 found me getting into college rock and classical music.
When I started college, my listening habits "stabilized", and I didn’t listen to one type of thing at the expense of other stuff. That doesn’t mean I still didn’t have my phases, each of which will become apparent as I compile more lists.
1989, though, was the year that would establish the foundation of my listening habits today. It’s heavy on what would become alternative rock, with other genres providing some needed contrast.
Musicwhore.org Favorite Edition 1989
The B-52’s, Cosmic Thing
A friend from high school — on whom I would develop an incredible crush — had the most middle-of-the-road taste in music. He didn’t like the stuff I listened to at all, but we agreed on Cosmic Thing by the B-52’s. Back then, their name was familiar to me, but their albums weren’t. Cosmic Thing was my introduction to the group, for better or for worse. The glossy production of Don Was softened the band’s edge, if the greatest hits compilation Time Capsule is any indication. Regardless, the band’s writing here is spot-on, and the harmonies of Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson sound heavenly.
Camper Van Beethoven, Key Lime Pie
Now that I’ve explored some of Camper Van Beethoven’s earlier albums, I’m beginning to see why Key Lime Pie rubbed critics the wrong way. It really is a dreary album. But compared to the Bon Jovi, Paula Abdul and Poison I was subjected to at the time, Key Lime Pie was the proverbial breath of fresh air. Around the same time, I had started listening to Kronos Quartet, so a band not afraid to use chromatic melodies and dissonant harmonies were all right in my book. And I still like "Borderline" and "Sweethearts".
Julee Cruise, Floating Into the Night
Julee Cruise was pretty much a means to an end for film director David Lynch. Still, composer Angelo Badalamanti exercises a subtle hand with the music. Drenched in reverb, Floating Into the Night takes some surprising turns while still maintaining a ghostly feel. My motivation for listening to this album at the time was pure precociousness, but in hindsight, this album stands up.
Faith No More, The Real Thing
My first encounter with Faith No More was the video for "Epic". I thought the mix of rap and metal was clever, but since I wasn’t a big fan of either genre, I decided to pass. My second encounter with Faith No more was a performance on Saturday Night Live. Mike Patton climbed the set during Jim Martin’s guitar solo. Martin himself stood stock still and menacing. I liked them right then and there. Faith No More would go on to create a scattershot discography, but with The Real Thing, the planets aligned. The music jumped from idea to idea but never lost a sense of structure. Although Patton was brought on at the last minute, he sounded like he’d always been there.
Steve Reich, Different Trains/Electric Counterpoint
I didn’t understand this album when it first came out. In fact, I feel asleep while listening to it. Having borrowed it from the library, I could return it without having shed a cent. Six years — and a college career studying classical music — changed my understanding. I was driving home while I listened to the second movement of Different Trains, and the fractured voices of the Holocaust survivors moved me. In my youthful naivety, I thought the Grammy win was a fluke, but now, I see it’s totally deserving.
Emmylou Harris, Bluebird
This ranking is very revisionist. I would never have listened to country music when I was 17 years old, but Harris’ 1995 album Wrecking Ball steered me to the genre. Bluebird is an album strong enough to muscle its way into favored position on this list.
Tears for Fears, The Seeds of Love
The Seeds of Love was something of a bloated album, but it was yet another drastic creative turn for Tears for Fears. Each of the band’s albums remade their sound from the ground up — The Hurting was heavy on the synthesizers, while Songs from the Big Chair employed a full band. The Seeds of Love went for a more spontaneous style that ended up being long-winded. Still, "Woman in Chains" and "Famous Last Words" are two the band’s most moving songs.
Madonna, Like a Prayer
The Immaculate Collection shows the stark contrast between Madonna’s first three albums, and Like a Prayer. Her earliest work was as bubblegum as a pop artist can get, but Like a Prayer felt like an adult work. "Oh Father" has an almost uncharacteristic emotional nakedness, while "Till Death Do Us Part" conveys a weariness that belies its frantic beat. I dismissed Madonna as all commerce, while I was exploring Stephen Sondheim, the Art of Noise and Kronos Quartet. But oddly enough, it was the overly gimmicky I’m Breathless that got me to give Like a Prayer a shot.
Janet Jackson, Rhythm Nation 1814
With Control, Jackson exerted her independence from the family company. With Rhythm Nation 1814, she grappled with a social conscience. Jam and Lewis made sure the music rocked as hard as the serious subject matter, even if the plain-spoken sentiment seemed to gloss over the topic’s rough edges. Jackson is no Bob Dylan. But Rhythm Nation 1814 demonstrated how socially-minded music could still have a hook and a beat, something Marvin Gaye pioneered with What’s Goin’ On. It’s too bad Jackson has since stopped looking so outwardly.
The Replacements, Don’t Tell a Soul
Like Key Lime Pie, Don’t Tell a Soul wasn’t representative of the Replacements, but it sure was a significant contrast to what I had been listening to at the time. The polished production dulled the charming mess essential to the Replacements, and the songs were some of the most radio-friendly Paul Westerberg had written. I didn’t mind. Just as long as it wasn’t Richard Marx.
Some of these albums also had a shot at a rank:
- Hoodoo Gurus, Magnum Cum Louder I’m not so familiar with the band’s earlier albums, but this one has an avalanche of hooks. It’s a lot tighter than the follow-up Kinky.
- Bulgarian State Radio and Television Female Vocal Choir, Le Mystère de Voix Bulgares, Vol. 2 I was too enamoured of Vol. 1 to give the sequel much air time. I recently bought a used copy, and I’m enjoying it all over again.
- All About Eve, Scarlet and Other Stories I so dug the preciousness of this album back then, but it is kind of light on its feet.
- XTC, Oranges and Lemons It’s not Skylarking, but it’s still a good collection of songs.
- Wayne Horvitz/The President, Bring Yr Camera I’ve given more play time to Miracle Mile, but this album has its charms too.