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The Top 10 Albums of 1987

December 22, 2017 | Posted by David Hayter
Michael Jackson Bad

I have a confession to make: I’m in love with 1987.

It just so happens to be the year of my birth, but that has nothing to do with it. Before making this list I didn’t quite appreciate how much implausibly brilliant music was released in this year. I was absolutely staggered that I managed to reach 10 albums without including landmark releases by The Smiths, Sonic Youth, New Order, The Pixies, Anthrax and R.E.M. – some of the greatest (and my favorite) bands of all time.

What an incredible year it was, so let’s get to it:

The Year In Music: 1987

Where to start, perhaps with indie music. The Smiths rounded off their career with Strangeways, Here We Come a less obviously overflowing collection, but one of incredible depth and richness – a farewell that suggested they were far from artistically spent. New Order, meanwhile, released Substance – a compilation of all their indie and album singles that showed how far they’d come since the demise of Joy Division.

Sonic Youth put out Sister, arguable their best album (I’d disagree but that matters little) an intoxicatingly understated blend of dreamy ennui and oddly angled guitars. Come On Pilgrim signalled the arrival of the Pixies on the world stage, an album masquerading as an EP, so full of insanity and energy it set the band out as ones to watch. Rounding off a brilliant year for the scruffiest of genres were Big Black, The Cure and Spacemen 3 – all serving up tremendous long players.

Not to be outdone Metal continued to flourish. Metallica might have had a year off, but Anthrax released the rip-roaring Among The Living to continue thrash’s rise, while Def Leppard’s Hysteria ensured that commercial metal would not go down without one hell of fight.

Rock was in equally good health. Husker Du waved goodbye with a 20 track collection, while R.E.M. continued to edge their way towards global dominance on Document. Dinosaur Jr found time to release Living All Over Me, one of the greatest guitar rock records of the decade that everyone should go and listen to (right now!). Even INXS managed to release a classic in the form of Kick! it wasn’t my cup of tea, but it still ruled the airwaves.

Global popstars also continued to enter purple patches with George Michael releasing Faith in the same year the Pet Should Boys yawned their way to the top of the charts with ActuallyDepeche Mode not to be outdone dropped Music For The Masses and Terence Trent D’Arby made his famous introduction to the world.

Look there’s too much good music to discuss (from Kool Mo Dee to 10,000 Maniacs) I couldn’t possibly fit it all in. So let’s begin our countdown with…

10. Yo! Bum Rush The Show by Public Enemy

Genre: Rap

The 411: Public Enemy would go onto make sharper, more bruising pop music as well as overwhelmingly brutal walls of shrieking, screaming sound, but Yo! Bum Rush The Show remains a wildly creative statement of intent from political rap’s great agitators. There’s actually an argument to be made that this is Public Enemy’s best album, like Please, Please Me or A Hard Days Night by The Beatles, the music here isn’t as deep or rich as what would come later, but the simplicity works in its favor, adding an ungodly immediacy to the affair. On top of this, The Bomb Squad’s wild approach to music making and Rick Rubin’s control of stadium sized aesthetics makes Yo! Bum Rush The Show the one rap album of 1987 that truly sounds modern today, with its rip-roaring use of rock guitars and brooding, swirling grooves. It’s certainly strange hearing Chuck D stay in the pocket vocally, but what he lacks in incendiary pacing, he gains in charisma and intensity. He sits closer to Slick Rick on this release; he’s a wise and enlightened (outside of his attitude to women) storyteller, rather than the rebel with a Molotov cocktail in one hand and a mic in the other. In 1987 the world only worried that Chuck D and Flavor Flav might turn up at your block party, kick the band off stage and start spitting knowledge, but what this danceable and dynamic collection foreshadowed was Public Enemy’s imminent march on Washington. “Mind over matter/Mouth in motion/Corner’s Don’t sell it/No you can’t buy it/Defiant because I’ll never be quiet” – Chuck D wasn’t fucking kidding, the revolutionary flame was lit, it would soon set the rap game aflame.

The Critics Say: “Sometimes, debut albums present an artist in full bloom, with an assured grasp on their sound and message. Sometimes, debut albums are nothing but promise, pointing toward what the artist could do. Public Enemy‘s gripping first album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, manages to fill both categories: it’s an expert, fully realized record of extraordinary power, but it pales in comparison with what came merely a year later.” Allmusic

9. Tunnel of Love by Bruce Springsteen

Genre: Rock & Roll

The 411: Considering Bruce Springsteen’s ubiquity, it’s easy to forget just how daring an artist The Boss has always been. On the back of Born In The USA, the biggest album of his career where practically every song was top 10 single, came Tunnel Of Love. The aesthetics were radically altered: the buoyancy and drive were dialled back as the walls around Springsteen’s heart came crashing down. Echoing Nebraska and Darkness On The Edge Of Town – without sounding remotely like either – Tunnel Of Love is a more insular and considered listen: tales of woe, personal failures and this feeling of being trapped by bad decisions and worse circumstances pervade. This is still 80s Springsteen and, as such, these songs still sound fit for stadium stages, but as The Boss embraced Americana he rediscovered his flair for insular tragedy. In 2017, Tunnel Of Love is Springsteen’s lost classic, the great album that no one really talks about – that state of affairs cannot endure.

The Critics Say:  “Tunnel of Love was not the album that the ten million fans who had bought Born in the U.S.A. as of 1987 were waiting for, and though it topped the charts, sold three million copies, and spawned three Top 40 hits, much of this was on career momentum. Springsteen was as much at a crossroads with his audience as he seemed to be in his work and in his personal life, though this was not immediately apparent.” Allmusic

8. Bad by Michael Jackson

Genre: Pop

The 411: Okay, cards on the table: I nearly forgot about Bad. The album, believe it or not, received rather mixed and middling reviews on release (which is understandable, the desire to airbrush MJ’s back catalogue is unnecessary), but when revisiting it today the pop craftsmanship is staggering and, compared today’s booming EDM backed fare, surprisingly subtle. Bad also benefits from the artists who it so clearly inspired, the work of Miguel and The Weeknd makes it easier to see the anguished melodic intricacies lurking behind the ferocious pop polish and synthetic 80s eccentricities of the surface. What’s stunning is how content rich this album is. The 9th single on this record is “Liberian Girl”, and while it is not the record’s biggest hit, the deft, tonally sensitive production feels revolutionary – a bridge to 90s R&B, 2000s garage (no I’m not kidding) and modern genre (and gender) bending soul.

Jackson’s great skill is to sing these preposterous songs that feel like they’ve walked off the stage of a pack-em-in-like-sardines broadway musical of the 1950s, but are actually full of modernistic artistry. So much focus is now put on MJ’s quirks and imperious power, that it is easy to forget how soulful and boyish a singer he was. His vocal doesn’t deny sex (far from it), but there’s a naiveté and lack of surety that shouldn’t be possible given his incredible control of pitch and tone. On Bad, MJ feels like Prince’s do-gooder cousin, slowly falling under his elder’s influence and beginning to lose his inhibitions. Being The King Of Pop and living such a bizarre life, perhaps denied us a great filthy MJ album, but there’s something perilous about his purity, like a young man deftly tip toeing across the cracking ice, delivering perfectly sweet and soulful pop that brushes off cries of insincerity with the gentle brilliance of its lead vocal performance.

The Critics Say: “Topping Thriller was never going to be easy. In fact, if it were any artist other than Michael Jackson, it would have been an impossible feat. But, the late King of Pop was something else — a musical Da Vinci, if you will — and, sorry, David Copperfield, but he actually worked with magic. Or maybe it was just luck. After all, Bad is the seventh studio album to Jackson’s name, and the album’s success was unprecedented.” Consequence Of Sound

7. Paid In Full by Erik B. & Rakim

Genre: Rap

The 411: Prepare yourselves, you are about to enter a realm of alien starkness, where industrial scratches and the tight hiss of percussions slice through the uncomfortable and ever present silence. This is a Spartan landscape, every beat hits hard, this is music designed to bruise and disorient – fans of modern hip hop production might be bewildered by the starkness of it all – it’s so raw, so absent, so vibeless – but this, ladies and gentleman, was the new sound: brazen, unadulterated, lo-fi and wilfully different, a true break with music’s past. Who could survive let alone thrive in such a desolate environment where even classic soul is mechanically mutilated? The God MC of course.

Rakim is perhaps overpraised today, but he had the luxury of going first and while his flow may appear metronomic by modern standards, he still makes jaws drop precisely because he has absolutely nowhere to hide. Nothing is obscured or smeared, Rakim’s flows are hypnotic, each syllable is there to be counted and, upon further study, what we find is an introduction to the art of internal rhyme and the artist’s ability to seamless shift from one rhyme scheme to the next without being led by the beat or crudely clashing against it. Rakim is so harsh, it is hard to describe him as buttery, but his rhymes manage to slide effortless from one form to the another, while somehow appearing inflexible. He is a lyrical paradox. The aesthetic is undeniable tough, but the technique is lithe. Best of all, it’s worth pointing out that Paid In Full is a lot of fun. I chuckled all these years later when he suddenly demanded that the wannabe MCs “can go get me a glass of Moet”.

The Critics Say: “In one swoop, the 1987 LP Paid in Full ended rap’s status as novelty music, announced hip-hop’s new school and set the stage for its eventual chart dominance. DJ Eric B.’s taste in samples was impeccable — yep, he introduced James Brown loops to hip-hop — and the lithe interplay of beat and bass line on “Eric B. Is President” flaunts his virtuosic gifts for crafting minimal funk. “ Blender

6. Pleased To Meet Me by The Replacements

Genre: Rock

The 411: The Replacements were already a great band, 1984’s Let It Be and 1985’s Tim had established that much, but Pleased To Meet Me represented the moment when they became one of those rare acts that could do whatever the hell they wanted over the course of an hour and pull it off without regard for logical cohesion. This record works because The Replacements are simply brilliant. They might be scatter-brained, but their pop chops, sneakily sharp songwriting and perfectly pitched guitar work are going to make even the most disparate threads sit together. The eerie comparison, listening in 2017, is to Taylor Swift – an artist who can patch together any old set of sounds, a jarringly at odds chorus, verse and bridge structure and make it work with a mastery of melody that defies all known laws of audibility.

In keeping with the best alternative bands, The Replacements posture like they don’t care, but they are clearly obsessed with making the best pop music imaginable. Like The Ramones before them, they might sound like they’ve just taken a benzo and thrown up on themselves, but’s not going to stop them from making the world dance to their disillusionment. There’s so much sweetness to be found on this record, even the most nihilistic sentiments are loaded because the bravado of the words (“I’d be willing to wager, it don’t matter much, if we keep in touch”) is belied by beautiful remorseful vocal performance. Better still, listening to each of these wildly incongruous tracks you can here the inspiration for a new indie scene that would blossom in five, ten or twenty years time. Pleased To Meet Me: what a beautiful mess.

The Critics Said: “ Pleased to Meet Me was presented as the Replacements finally ready for the big time. The reality, though, is that the record was all over the place, too schizophrenic for the band to be easily grasped, kind of like Hootenanny with fleshed-out ideas, more confidence, and way better songs.” Pitchfork

5. Criminal Minded by Boogie Down Productions

Genre: Rap

The 411: “Me knew a crack dealer by the name of Peter, had to buck him down with my 9mm…he reached for his pistol, but it was just a waste/Cause my 9mm was up against his face” – in case you didn’t know, KRS-One wasn’t always a nice guy, before he was the enlightened teacher kicking knowledge, he was Boogie Down Productions’ Criminal Minded kingpin. No far from it, there was a time when KRS would laugh and skip with great gayiety before blowing a wrongdoer’s head off. Still, if you think his depictions of inner city violence are bad, wait to you hear what he does to those who dare diss him lyrically. “The Bridge Is Over” and “South Bronx” are classic lessons in why – if you come against the king, you best not miss. KRS-One’s genius in this hyper violent prologue of his career came from his unsettling joy, he tells these tales of guns, death and disrespect with a lilting sing song that simultaneously asserts that he’s not taking you seriously and that matters of life and death are just jokes to him. And how the hell do you battle a man who is not only not afraid to die or haunted by the psychological consequences of murder, but will merrily skip and slide across a blood bath. Now we cannot discuss Criminal Minded without mentioning Scott La Rock’s masterful production: more rich and vibrant than Erik B. or The Ultramagnetic MCs searing scratches into the void and possessing more pop nous than Public Enemy’s agit-party jams. Together, Scott and KRS broadened the hip hop spectrum and introduced us to a world where the murder and crack game could be a joyous and humorous place – a dangerous legacy perhaps, but it sure makes for a thrilling listen. Introducing the brag rap impresarios: Boogie Down Productions.

The Critics Say: “ BDP weren’t the first to rap about inner-city violence and drugs, and there’s no explicit mention of gangs on Criminal Minded, but it greatly expanded the range of subject matter that could be put on a rap record, and its grittiest moments are still unsettling today.” Allmusic

4. The Joshua Tree by U2 

Genre: Rock

The 411: This might count as a spoiler: this list will be topped by an album that contains, arguably, the greatest opening lyric in music history – well if that yet-to-be-revealed record has the best opening sentence, then The Joshua opens with the biggest run of three hit singles imaginable. What’s incredible is that after The Joshua Tree fires off “Where The Streets Have No Name”, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “With Or Without You” – songs so good they need no introduction, let alone description – the album actually peaks with its forth track, “Bullet The Blue Sky”. Bono clearly wanted to repeat the trick of 1984’s “Bad”, a single that would anchor live shows with its unflinching directness, but in that cavalcade of noise and apocalyptic bigness, U2 created a song whose raw urgency overawed the gentle poignancy of old. The Unforgettable Fire might be the moment when Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois billowing sonics triumphed, alongside The Edge, and created modern arena rock, but The Joshua Tree is where they achieved world domination and rammed their standard down into the earth. The big secret, of course, is that their floating chimes truly shine on the albums latter half as Bono starts small and slowly fills the cavernous space at the heart of U2’s music with a universal ache that proved impossible to deny. 30 years later, bands like Coldplay may have mastered the effect, but few manage to make agony this precise and unflinching feel so giant and devastatingly unifying without resorting to generic platitudes. Don’t allow familiarity to breed contempt, The Joshua Tree is startling achievement and a game changing moment in rock history.

The Critics Say: “The music is more tailored and assured, the lyrics are more consistently focused and eloquently designed than in past albums, and Bono Hewson’s singing underscores the band’s expressions of disillusionment and hope with new-found power and passion. The LP confirms that U2 is what the Rolling Stones ceased being years ago–the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world.” The L.A. Times

3. The Lion And The Cobra by Sinead O’Connor

Genre: Pop

The 411: The world needs more popstars like Sinead O’Connor. Today people have completely forgotten how much of a stone cold bad arse she in 1987. So your major label is determined to make you a star, you’re Irish, they want you to be a folksy throwback with an angelic voice – so what do you do? Sack your producer, scrap an album’s worth of material and embrace the brooding new industrial and alternative rock sounds, indulge in structures that are simultaneously gothic, baroque and bolshy pop – oh, and while your at it, you give MC Lyte a call and stick your middle finger up at the idea of being a novelty traditionalist. Of course it doesn’t end there. So your label thinks, well if she can’t be our folksy sweet heart, Sinead can still be a sex symbol, she’s such a beautiful girl after all. Well, we all know what she did, off went her hair with the immortal words: “hair’s a fashion statement and I don’t want to make one”.

So having royally fucked off her management team, seven months pregnant and having refused to abort, Sinead set to writing and producing her debut, The Lion And The Cobra: a staggering achievement of brooding spectral pop music that blows a whole host of modern artists out of the water. Were this record released today, Fever Ray and Aldous Harding (two brilliant artists, btw) would be quaking in their boots. This is the rare album that sounds better today than it did then. In 1987 this was strange and brooding. The Critics decried these forays into introspection and these ghostly looped abstract vocalizations, today this is bread and butter for the avant garde. The trouble is that in 2017 few artist sing this beautifully or are ballsy enough to write pop music so direct. The Lion And The Cobra is a landmark achievement – yes obviously inspired by Peter Gabriel and Prince among others – but one that, at the end of the day, sounds tantalizingly original. Distinctly Irish by ancestry with the ice cool air of Northern Europe in its lungs, but hitting hardest and influencing America most profoundly – this is the lost chapter in the history of modern pop music. 

The Critics Say: “The initial impact she made both as a musician and a female musician have never really been improved upon, however her influence can be heard across the board in contemporary Irish music (ask Damien Rice), and The Lion And The Cobra will, I’m sure, one day be held in the esteem that it commands.” SputnikMusic

2. Appetite For Destruction by Guns N’ Roses

Genre: Hard Rock

The 411: We’ve discussed this album many times over the years at 411 and, despite the multiple plays, Appetite For Destruction remains the ultimate introduction to the lurid, sleaze-sodden streets of 1980s Los Angeles. Drugs rule, sex is cheap, venereal disease are passed around like a collection plate at church, violence is utterly endemic and out of this moral free malaise rise five immaculately styled and yet undeniable sleazy Gods of Hollywood’s gutter. If Metallica were firing snot rockets and pissing on the walls of the house that Motley Crue and Whitesnake built, then Axl and Slash were obliviously rolling around in the filthy deluge, shooting up, falling in love and fucking. Not only did Appetite For Destruction perfectly capture what Axl Rose would dub “The Jungle”, but they did it while making the most undeniable pop music of the 1980s (well this side of Michael Jaskson). Suddenly, this filthy-but-fuckable five piece were the biggest guitar band in America and unmistakable icons of the pop culture. In 2017 we can only ask: how the fuck did that even happen?

The Critics Say: “Yet the sound of the Guns N’ Roses of 1987 remains an elemental testimony to the glorious foolishness and grubby glory of rock & roll that glimmers beyond either time or reason. A band in the gutter, staring at the kerb, and tragically unaware that all the magic they needed was right before their bleary eyes.” The Quietus

1. Sign ‘O’ The Times by Prince

Genre: Pop 

The Critics Say: Pegging down Prince’s greatest achievement is next to impossible: it could be any number of topsy-turvy sonic conversions or mind blowing live performances, hell it might even be a single he wrote and handed to Sinead O’Connor, but when it came time to silence all the doubters, no one record rendered listeners dumb quite like Sign ‘O’ The Times. Prince would of course release tighter LPs, double albums are rarely cohesive (and seldom good if they are), instead Sign ‘O’ The Times is the moment when Prince layed all his cards on the table from his most politically uncompromising lyrics to his rawest and meatiest funk sounds.

You’d think that after an artist used his falsetto to simulate an orgasm in the back of a taxi cab, his music couldn’t really get anymore out there, but here Prince creates without restraint or regard for aesthetic. He is free to go crazy, exploring the dark themes of the encroaching AIDS (and already established heroin/crack) epidemic, while stubbornly refusing to stop the party. Rather than giving way to grief and turning inwards, Prince’s evolution is more subtle. The sonics are darker, more disconsolate, muddy and mechanical, even as he implores us all to “do the housequake”. It creates a wonderfully contradictory headspace: are we numbly dancing to forget or getting down because our demise seems so sickeningly certain? Prince is also one of the first pop artists to understand how rap production could be merged into the pop sound, his own rapping is weak, but the way the music snaps and staggers and melts into samples feels a full decade a head of its time.

If there is a criticism of this magnificent collection its that it may peak with its first lyric: “In France a skinny man died of big disease with a little name/By chance his girlfriend came across a needle and soon she did the same”. That might be an impossible standard to live up to, but its remarkable to think that the same album that gave us the sublime celebratory sorrow of “The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker” also gave birth to “U Got The Look”, “If I Was Your Girlfriend” and the wonderful “Adore”. Prince, as we well known, could not be categorized. He will be sorely missed and Sign ‘O’ The Times is the ultimate expression of his limitless brilliance: an album that captured the anxiety, nihilism, excess and sexual driven ecstasy of its era magnificently, while pointing the way to hybrid future sound of 21st Century:

The Critics Say: Sign “O” the Times is a double album made with a restlessness that never allows it to settle into complacency or formula. It’s a soundtrack to a highly charged and specific period, for both Prince and his listeners. I remember partying to “Housequake” in the summer of ’87, laughing along with “Starfish & Coffee,” and playing “Adore” for my girlfriend when it was time to get busy. All these years later, it’s still a vibrant thing, the product of a great artist at the height of his powers.” Pitchfork