The Art of Getting By throws down the challenge: Name your Top Ten bands or musicians of the 1980s. Stand back, everybody, here we go.
HUSKER DU These three deafening guys from Minneapolis owned the 1980s, no contest. It doesn’t even matter that most people never heard of them, either: their eardrum-busting take on “Eight Miles High” is the signafture song of the Reagan years. New Day Rising remains my favorite album on the strength of Grant Hart’s wonderfully skewed love songs (“The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill,” “Books About UFOs”) and “Celebrated Summer,” Bob Mould’s finest moment as both a guitarist and a songwriter.
PRINCE Like some of the others on this list, he officially started his career in the 1970s but he came into his own during the years of ReaganBushBlight. Purple Rain is an album by a young man out to prove he could do anything he wanted, and succeeding. Sign ‘O’ the Times shows him going even farther. Surrounding those two milestones are a bunch of unjustly underrated records in need of some free time and fresh ears.
PUBLIC ENEMY Yes, the paens to Louis Farrakhan were and are annoying and stupid. But no other pop group in the 1980s released a record as boldly angry and as musically adventurous as It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and no songs transformed the landscape as completely as “Bring the Noise” and “Don’t Believe the Hype.” Dense, hard beats layered with intricate raps and seasoned with scraps of speeches, overheard conversation and jagged noise — this is not a comforting or accommodating record, but its brainy fury did more to shatter racial-cultural barriers than the preceding two decades of love-thy-neighbor platitudes. Their next two great records belonged to the 1990s, but on the way out of the ’80s they paused to rattle everybody’s teeth with “Fight the Power,” one of the greatest singles of all time. Nobody else in hip-hop even comes close to filling their shoes.
TALKING HEADS Yes, their first three records came out in the 1970s: two of them excellent and one a masterpiece. But in the 1980s, starting with Remain in Light and continuing with Speaking in Tongues, the Heads stepped clear of their New Wave origins and staked their claim as unique American band bridging P-funk goofiness with rock and roll chops and far-ranging musical tastes. And, as they demonstrated in Stop Making Sense, the greatest concert movie ever made, they were second to none as a live act.
ELVIS COSTELLO He ended the 1970s with three straight knockouts — My Aim Is True, This Years Model and Armed Forces — then started the 1980s proving that the whole Angry Young Punk thing with the New Wave had been a marriage of convenience. Where Armed Forces had the polished pop sound of a late-period Beatles album, his opening salvo for the 1980s, Get Happy!!, delved into 1960s soul, Motown and Stax/Volt records. (The well-earned shitstorm that followed his drunken bar-fight outburst against black performers undoubtedly played a part in his stylistic choice — he later said in an interview that yes, he wanted to demonstrate to all that he really did like black people.) Trust and the albums that followed (Almost Blue, Imperial Bedroom, King of America, Punch the Clock) shifted the emphasis away from Costello’s brute power as a rocker and into his considerable gifts as a songwriter and — surprise! — a singer. It’s all quality work, well worth exploring in depth, but as someone who was weaned on This Years Model, I love the back to basics approach in Blood and Chocolate, the most commanding of his 1980s albums.
RICHARD THOMPSON After several years with the seminal folk-rock group Fairport Convention, and several more as a duo with his wife Linda, Thompson started the 1980s with a broken heart and a bright future as the world’s most famous cult artist Simply put, the man has it all: mordantly elegant yet emotionally direct songwriting, a unique guitar sound with threads of Celtic and Arabian influences (he’s one of the few fretmen who should be encouraged to take more solos) and an arresting, engaging singing voice. He’s also an exceptionally funny and captivating performer — whether he’s performing solo or with a band, his live shows are must-sees. Gosh, where to start? Hand of Kindness? Rumour and Sigh? Daring Adventures? Avoid the gimmicky Strict Tempo as well as the morose Small Town Romance and Across A Crowded Room, but you can’t go wrong with any of the others. He’s got a huge catalogue — have fun exploring it.
PERE UBU They started out strong in the late 1970s and seemed to have petered out by their third album, and reigning genius Dave Thomas wandered off into whimsical solo projects. But then 1988 brought The Tenement Year, a good stiff shot of the old industrial-strength weirdness that made The Modern Dance and Dub Housing so bracing. They even went on tour to support the record, and their live shows were absolute monsters. An acquired taste? No doubt about it. But in my book, one well worth acquiring.
ROBERT CRAY You’ll find no better pop-blues record than Strong Persuader, Cray’s 1986 commercial and artistic breakthrough: tough songwriting, excellent singing and fierce guitarmanship. Cray is the Richard Thompson of blues music: he operates at such a consistently high peak of quality, people tend to take him for granted.
VAN HALEN The mid-decade replacement of David Lee Roth with Sammy Hagar nearly got them crossed off my list, and their lazy ways ensured that even on their best 1980s albums (Women and Children First, Fair Warning, 1984) there was usually barely a half-hour of music, even then padded with sonic doodles. But between Eddie Van Halen’s revolutionary playing and Roth’s heavy-metal-goes-Vegas schtick, this used to be one great hard rock band, and 1984 — cheesy synth curlicules and all — is pure up from the word go.
TOM WAITS The 1980s dawned with Waits at the end of his creative rope: the Beatnik poet poses, the blowsy balladeer phase and the raggedy bluesman exercises had all been played out, and Heartattack and Vine left even diehard fans who’d made it through the Bette Midler duet wondering why they should bother listening. So Waits did something quite remarkable: he reinvented himself and his sound so completely that people who loved 1970s work like the wisecracking Nighthawks at the Diner practically have to be argued into believing they’re listening to the same guy. I play Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs and Franks Wild Years and I hear scraps of Kurt Weill, galumphing Harry Partch percussion, blues howls ripped straight from the chain gang, cocktail lounge wisecracks, Nelson Riddle jazz orchestrations and, every once in a while, straight rock and roll. The unassailable masterpiece is Rain Dogs, an overflowing cornucopia of great songs and character turns. Killer lines (“There’s nothing wrong with her a hundred dollars wouldn’t fix”) and bizarre whimsy (“Nobody brings anything small into a bar here”) flit past like faces in the crowd. And just when you begin to worry that there might be nothing going on beneath the collection of funny masks and jangling sounds, Waits turns and delivers “Downtown Train,” a love song so heartfelt that everyone from Rod Stewart on up has tried to make it his own, and yet so idiosyncratically attuned to Waits’ rough delivery that the song remains completely, perfectly his. A great American songwriter and performer — the underground Irving Berlin.