11) Security (Peter Gabriel) (1982)
By my own reckoning, Peter Gabriel was a pervasive force throughout the 1980s. He was always walking a thin line between the avant-garde and the mainstream. He was so influential on my listening habits that he deserves a wordier treatment than most. Around 1983, his song "Shock the Monkey" was getting a great deal of airplay on the radio waves. It had a powerful and unusual bass line and I would later learn that this was the work of Tony Levin, who also played with King Crimson. It also had cool synths and other sounds, giving it a world music sound. I had probably first heard his scratchy, guttural, yet highly expressive singing voice years before in the group Genesis, which he'd fronted before drummer Phil Collins took over. Around the same time, a show called Miami Vice was on TV. During one of the episodes, they played a song from his earlier album, "Rhythm of the Heat." It was a powerful story about dancing round a fire with the natives in the heart of Africa. I found out later that he was influenced by a passage from Carl Jung's memoir about experiencing such an episode, which appears in his Memories, Dreams, Reflections. To this day, that memoir remains one of my favorite books. There was something altogether dark, sinister, and liberating in that song, especially the whispered chant: "Smash the radio, no outside voices here/smash the watch, cannot tear the day to shreds/smash the camera, cannot steal away the spirits." It ends in a great crescendo with African-style drum work and you can imagine the natives dancing away through the night. It was absolutely brilliant. These two songs were off the album Security, which remains my favorite Gabriel album. The first album I became acquainted with was his earlier one often referred to as the "Rainy Car" album because of the front cover. It starts out with "Moribund the Burgermeister," another dark and sinister tune, while the runaway hit is "Solsbury Hill," easily the most approachable song on the album, and also one of his most beautiful tunes. I recall having a cassette tape of this album which I probably borrowed from a neighborhood friend, and listening to it from a boom box while walking around the lake at summer camp. The first album I purchased was the "Melting Face" album, which is also quite heavy and dark, beginning with a childlike song about war, "Games Without Frontiers", then another called "Intruder" about an intruder creeping around in the dark. It ends with a political anthem, "Biko." Somewhere between 10th and 11th grade I acquired Security (at least this was the title used for the US version of another nameless album). In addition to the above-mentioned songs, I was captivated by his tale of the American Indian who is caught in a world of materialism as he watches his own culture die. "San Jacinto" was a powerful and sad song about the loss of native cultures and traditions. There were many other great songs on this incredible album, which required some close listening as well as sleuthing to tease out the meaning of the lyrics. Then around 1986 came his album So, which really propelled him into the limelight, especially with "Sledgehammer," a sexual novelty song with a hard punch that went along with a fun claymation video on MTV. This album also featured some haunting tunes, such as "Mercy Street" about the poet Anne Sexton. I remember hiking the Hardangervidda in Norway in midsummer with a friend who was also a Gabriel fan, and listening to and singing to that album, especially "Red Rain." We also played Gabriel albums incessantly in the car during our two-week road trip with our mothers in Norway, so we tracked the whole trip to his music, from Stavanger to Bergen and back down the majestic fjords. At the time I was reading the book Godel, Escher, Bach, and so Peter Gabriel's music is woven in with that incredible reading journey as well. I also recall the film Birdy, one of my high school favorites, coming out around 11th grade, with a beautiful soundtrack by Peter Gabriel. He was everywhere by then. Later in college, he soundtracked the film of the Kazantazikis novel, Last Temptation of Christ, which was one of my favorite novels from my college days. Once again he'd delivered a haunting album, with many different elements from world music and a middle eastern tone throughout. I used to play it in the car on road trips. One of the highlights of my musical memories from high school was seeing Peter Gabriel perform live at the Worcester Centrum in 1987, along with Tony Levin and others. The concert was spectacular--everything I could have imagined and more. During the song "Lay Your Hands on Me," he did a trust fall into the audience and was crowdsurfed around until he was put back on stage (apparently he stopped doing that afterwards for safety reasons). He ended the concert with his anthem to one of South Africa's freedom fighters, Steve Biko, as everyone in the stadium raised their fists in unison.
12) Violent Femmes (Violent Femmes) (1983)
Speaking of gems, this was another. I recall first hearing about the lead song "Blister in the Sun" in summer camp the summer of 1984. A female camper from California brought it to our attention, along with "People are People" by Depeche Mode. "When I am walking I strut my stuff, I am so strung out..." What was this weirdness? Somewhere in 10th or 11th grade I bought the album and it became a favorite among me and my mates from the neighborhood. It had so many great singalong songs that captured teenage angst, sturm, und drang. Probably the most memorable one is "Kiss Off": "So you can all just kiss off into the air, behind my back I can feel them stare, they hurt me bad but I don't mind, they hurt me bad, they do it all the time..." You didn't have to be a maladjusted kid to love this song and the others on this album. I think that around that time I was discovering girls, and learning to relate to them, and somehow this album went along well with that phase of life. There were a couple of girls who we befriended and went on various group "dates" with to Boston or other places, but they remained aloof. I also associate this album with the swim team. I have one memory in particular of playing the album, or at least attempting to do so, on speakers in the bus during a swim meet, probably in junior year. The other team members told me to shut it off and asked me if I had anything better, so I put on the Beatles. The following year, they were all singing along to this album. I guess I was ahead of the times, thanks to my gal friend from California.
13) This is Big Audio Dynamite (Big Audio Dynamite) (1985)
While I never got into reggae or rap music in any big way, I was aware of these musical forces bubbling up out of the streets onto the airwaves in the 1980s. There were the aforementioned Bad Brains who mixed reggae with punk hardcore, and straight-up rap acts like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, whose song "New York New York" I can still chant from memory (thanks to summer camp and also our local station WHAB). Run DMC was also getting popular in the mid-'80s. Maybe the closest I ever got to digging rap was through B.A.D. Fronted by guitarist Mick Jones after his removal from the Clash, their first record was a crossover album that in some ways continued the project of Sandinista. I acquired it around the time it came out in '85, maybe as a gift from a friend. This album entered into heavy rotation on my eardrums and pretty soon I could recall every sound effect. The lyrics grabbed you by the cojones. There were plenty of add-ins to compete for your attention as well, such as samples and sound clips grabbed from the legendary western-- "Wanted in fourteen counties of this state..." along with the soundtrack to The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. Great punchy political messages were laced with cynicism, and pick-me-up choruses: "When you reach the bottom line, the only thing to do is climb..." There was dubbing scratching and a whole lot else going on in this multiracial group's songs, which included Jamaican artists Don Letts and Leo Williams. Altogether it was heady stuff. My favorite was of course "E=mc2": "Richer life is relativity..." which was probably the hit of this album. "Medicine Show" was good. And "Sony," even though it might be construed as racist today: "western gals and Lexington queens, are the prettiest gals I ever did see, I'd gladly trade some hard-earned yen, just so I can be with them..." With the stream-of-consciousness lyrics they seem to have presaged songs like "It's the End of the World" by R.E.M. The next album was not quite as good but still had some memorable tunes. Maybe they also paved the way for other acts like the infamous white rappers Beastie Boys who came out the following year and were being played ad nauseam by my classmates.
14) Singles 81-85 (Depeche Mode) (1985)
As mentioned above, my first intro to Depeche Mode was through the song "People are People" at summer camp in 1984: "People are people and why should it be that you and I should get along so awfully?" which was being shared and sung by some friends at summer camp in 1984 along with "Everything Counts (in Large Amounts)". By the following year, they came out with "Shake the Disease," one of my own personal favorites from this band, which I associate for some reason with the novels of Michael Moorcock and Piers Anthony (I was deep into these sci-fi fantasy authors at that time and reading their oeuvres). I picked up the album of Depeche Mode singles around the fall/winter of 1985. While their earlier sounds were more poppy and synthy, other songs like Master and Servant were different. They had a choral sound like dark monks, celebrating the black rituals of the flesh (sure enough, they came out with Black Celebration later down the road). Truth be told, this band was a fair bit more poppish than most bands I preferred, but they had great synth work, unusual chord changes, and a sense of high drama. I had no idea how popular they would become of course. By college they were THE band for anybody into the electronic pop genre.
15) Three of a Perfect Pair (King Crimson) (1984)
I bought a copy of this album sometime between 10th and 11th grade. I wasn't that familiar with King Crimson from previous decades, but that was a different configuration. This was Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew, Bill Bruford, and Tony Levin. They were a tight act all right. I was familiar with some of these musicians from other acts like Talking Heads (Adrian Belew played with them) and Peter Gabriel (Tony Levin played his Chapman Stick on his album Security and joined him on the So tour). The album had some fairly straight up pop-rock songs like "Not a Model Man" but with inventive melodies and leads, and the guitar work was fantastic. The lyrics were interesting--after all, what did "Three of a Perfect Pair" really mean? It also featured some experimental industrial rock sounds as exemplified in the song "Industry". I loved the album and bought the others from this phase in King Crimson History: Beat and Discipline. I didn't realize until many years later that one of the songs from the latter album, "Matte Kudasai" was a Japanese phrase meaning "Please wait." This was great experimental rock music and I recall listening to a cassette tape of it while camping out on the shores of Moosehead Lake in Maine during one of our family trips there. It brought to mind some of the works of Stanislaw Lem, whose sci-fi novels I was devouring at the time. It also paved the way for my interest in Brian Eno, also a collaborator of the band members, and soon I had a few of his albums as well, including (my absolute favorite) Before and After Science. For a guy who was emerging as a science nerd, this was good music indeed!
16) Two Wheels Good (Prefab Sprout) (1985)
I recall acquiring this album sometime in 11th grade after listening to the song "Goodbye Lucille #1" on the radio. It had a retro-50s flavor to it ("oooh Johnny Johnny Johnny, she is a person too/she has her own will") but it came with some really cool atmospheric sounds and I liked the lyrics and the alternating of the male and female voices of Paddy McAloon and Wendy Smith. It was no coincidence that the album was produced by Thomas Dolby, who supplied the atmospherics. Soon I had this album on heavy rotation and was listening to it frequently on road trips--I recall one in particular to Princeton University as I was checking out colleges. With its cover featuring the band on a motorcycle, and the songs, it has a road-trippy feel to it. My favorite song is probably "Moving the River": "You surely are a truly gifted kid, but you're only as good as the last great thing you did, so where've you been since then, did the schedule get you down? Have you got a new girlfriend, how's the wife taking it? If it's uphill all the way, you should be used to it and say, my back is broad enough sir, to take the strain..." Great little ditty, still resonates with me now and then. Even though I didn't continue to follow this band after they made this album, it still remains one of my favorite gems from high school days.
17) Big Night Music (Shriekback) (1986)
This was one of those oddities that nevertheless had a profound influence on my own life course. I believe I picked up this album in winter of 1986. I had their previous album Oil and Gold, which I enjoyed with its eery, underwater sounds and songs. I was originally aware of the band because one of the founders, Barry Andrews, was formerly of XTC, one of my favorite bands (and coming up on this list). Big Night Music begins with a blast in the form of the opening song "Black Light Trap" and then goes into one of my personal favorites, "Gunning for the Buddha." This song was based on the philosophy of Zen which basically posits that the harder you look for enlightenment, the harder it is to find. The idea of gunning down the Buddha was somehow appealing. I'd been into Zen Buddhism since the previous year, and I credit this to a combination of skiing and swimming. I remember my step-father buying a book called The Centered Skier, which I read too. It was about using some techniques of meditation borrowed from Zen to help with your skiing skills. Well, they didn't help me much, because that winter (1986) I had a terrible ski accident on the slopes of Whaleback Mountain in Lebanon NH. I had misjudged a jump that dipped in the snow and ended up crashing and busting my spleen. It was a life-or-death accident that left me in the hospital for days, contemplating my mortality. As fate had it, I was sent to the Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital in Hanover, NH. This was certainly the reason I chose Dartmouth College as one of my select schools the following year. Anyhow, The Centered Skier led me to other books about Zen that were in my parents' collection. In senior year, I was using Zen meditation (or what I thought it might be) to help conquer my nerves and achieve more personal bests in the pool. I was swimming more than ever before, morning and night, and I needed some philosophy to get me through the hard slogs of workouts and the tensions of swim competitions. Music had always been an antidote, but it wasn't enough. While looking through these books, I became interested in the wonderful calligraphy that appeared in them, which seemed to swim across the pages like the creatures in a Shriekback album. When this album came out, with its amazing cover, I was selecting colleges and wondering what courses to take when I started my freshman year. In addition to "Gunning...", another song that I enjoyed was "The Reptiles and I." It's a rhythmic song that takes you right back to your reptilian existence, and the lyrics chant out various lists, including a list of elements, and another list of exotic-sounding languages. I remember chanting it out during a house party I hosted in senior year, with a group of kids with similar weird music tastes chanting along and dancing some strange reptilian dance. (Of course we put on some more party-oriented tunes later). The combination of the two songs may have swayed me to consider taking the "exotic" Chinese language in college. At any rate, I did so, and as a result my life course changed irrevocably. So in a way I owe my strange life as a Sinologist to the wondrous tunes of Barry Andrews and Shriekback.
18) The Whole Story (Kate Bush) (1986)
The way by which this British singer came to my attention and probably most other Americans was through Peter Gabriel's album So, in which she sings a lovely duet with him for the song "Don't Give Up." Her soft voice went well with the tender yet uplifting lyrics and tone of that inspirational ballad, which was about as pop as I could ever go. As anybody who is reading this list ought to have figured out by now, I was not into female singers. However, through the influence of my parents, I'd grown up listening to great female vocalists including Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, and Judy Collins, Linda Ronstadt and many others. There was something about Kate Bush's voice and image that appealed to me, with the beautiful and lilting tones of a dark enchantress. In senior year of high school, I acquired a cassette tape of her greatest hits compilation album, which began with the tune "Wuthering Heights." I happened to be reading that book for English class and was deep into the story, and I recall reading the novel while listening to the album, which evoked the heroine’s longing for the wild Heathcliff about as well as a modern song could: "Oooh it gets dark, it gets lonely on the other side of you." While I appreciated the unusual melodies and chord progressions, all this pining and moaning wasn't really to my tastes, nor in fact was women's literature in general, but somehow this album came along at the right time and it mesmerized me. The other songs on the album included "Army Dreamers," "Running up that Hill," and the unforgettable "Baboushka" with its Russian-like chanting in the background. I recall listening to the album during a big swim event held at Brown University. Perhaps my clearest memory is listening to this album while reading the Bronte novel in a big gym, waiting for our races in the North Sectionals. This was an important event for us, since ABRHS had for the first time defeated our nemesis, Weston, and we were the county champs. Could we defeat the bigger teams like Chelmsford for the regional championship? It turns out we could, and did. We licked them in a final unforgettable relay. Of course, our victory song was the overplayed “We Are the Champions” by Queen, but “Running up that Hill” always reminds me of that day.
19) Skylarking (XTC) (1986)
I must have picked up this album in the spring of 1987. At the time, all my high school friends were getting together for extended parties and other events to say our goodbyes before heading off to college. I had been a fan of the British punk-pop band XTC since junior high. The first single I bought was their song "Generals and Majors," which I absolutely loved (and still do). I associate the album English Settlement with long bike rides in 8th and 9th grade, one four-day trip in particular where I cycled with my dad from New Hampshire to coastal Maine and back. I also associate some of their songs like "Blame the Weather" and "Tissue Tigers" with long car rides to Delaware and Maine, the two poles of my existence, where my grandparents on my mother's side had regular and summer homes. I remember using the song "Jason and the Argonauts" on English Settlement as an example of poetry in popular music in my 10th grade English class. "I've seen acts of every shade of terrible come from manlike creatures, and I've had the breath of liars blowing me off course in my sails. Seems the more I travel, from the foam to the gravel, as the nets unravel all exotic fish I find like Jason and the Argonauts..." While that album had great tunes like "Making Plans for Nigel," "Ball and Chain," "English Roundabout" and of course, "Senses Working Overtime," "Jason" was my personal favorite, especially because I'd been a huge fan of Greek Myths from childhood. All throughout high school I listened to this band, collecting their earlier records like Go-2, their frenetic punkish dance band album, Drums and Wires, and their collection of singles. They had a comical British sound that dovetailed well with my love for Monty Python and just about anything produced by BBC. There was definitely a strong Beatles influence in their music and poetry, but they carved out their own niche with their poetic themes around various metaphors for love and life. When Skylarking came out, it was on the 20th anniversary of Sgt. Peppers and the parallels were rife. Both albums featured songs that blended together into medleys, and both celebrated the joys of otherwise banal everyday life in city and countryside, with songs like "Summer's Cauldron," "Big Day," and "Work Enough For Us". "Supergirl" was the fun novelty hit of the album, while "Dear God" was their more somber hit. I liked the ethereal "Satellite" and the jazzy "The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul." The joyous "Season Cycle" ("who's pushing the peddles on the season cycle?") and "1,000 Umbrellas" backed by violins were amazing as well, and the album ended with "Sacrificial Bonfire," which builds up beautifully into a song about rituals and the flow of life: "burn down the old, ring in the new...". Years later I could listen to this album and tears would still come to my eyes by the end. I associate it strongly with those heady summer days of canoeing in the rivers of Concord MA and dipping into forbidden reservoirs with friends while awaiting the inevitable day when we would all disperse into the big wide world.
20) The Joshua Tree (U2) (1987)
U2 first came on my horizon sometime between 8th and 9th grade with the song "Two Hearts Beat as One." This song was playing on alternative stations--or what passed for them--but soon the band tapped the big vein of the mainstream with songs like "In the Name of Love." I wasn't a big fan of the band, nor well versed in their politics (didn’t realize this song was about MLK until much later) but when they came out with The Joshua Tree with its American themes, it struck a chord with me and with many of my classmates in senior year of high school. The unique guitar sound of The Edge with a country-western twang to it was appealing. I listened to a lot of Dire Straits and other pop rockabilly bands from the era, so don't get me wrong: while I preferred collecting and listening to alternative music, I was just as exposed as anybody from the 1980s to the big bands and artists of the age, from Michael Jackson to Prince to Paul McCartney (who'd jumped the shark with his duet with Stevie Wonder “Ebony and Ivory” if not well before) to Rush, Foreigner, Journey, the Police, and all those other mega rock bands that were filling huge stadiums and being played endlessly on mainstream radio. You couldn't avoid those bands in those days if you tried, and while I didn’t collect their albums (it wasn’t necessary) I do have many fond memories of their songs as well. It's just that being super-saturated by these bands and artists on the mainstream airwaves made me somewhat less interested in them. While U2 was already well on its way to becoming a mega band in the 1980s, this album had a charm the others didn't, at least to me. Of course their ballad “With or Without You” was getting a tremendous amount of airplay. ”Running to Stand Still" was one of my favorites on the album. The bluesy, country, gospel feel of this album drilled deep into a subconscious well of American musical memories. I recall listening to this album on cassette tape during a road trip up to New Hampshire with some friends, where we met up with another high school chum whose mother was a motorcyclist. She and her pals were on their BMW motorbikes, and we took turns riding on the back along the Kancamagus Highway that winds and weaves through the White Mountains. I recall following them in my step-father's SAAB Turbo (for keeping up with their weaving around other cars, I was later complimented for my driving skills by one of the motorcyclists) while listening to this album all the way. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” was a fitting theme song to this restless period between high school and college, when I was gearing up to head off into the unknown.