The 30 Best Albums of 1988

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The 30 Best Albums of 1988

1988 was a great year for music, and not just because it’s when Adele Laurie Blue Adkins was born in the Tottenham district of London and Robyn Rihanna Fenty was born 4,000 miles southwest in Barbados. The tail end of the post-punk and new-wave movements had given way to the a golden age of college radio and a budding alternative-rock scene. A new era of hip-hop was ascendent, with N.W.A. and Public Enemy unleashing socio-political rage on the coasts. And young African-American stars-in-the-making like Tracy Chapman and Living Colour were breaking barriers in folk and hard rock, bringing new perspective to fading American forms. Our favorite albums from 30 years ago also include recordings from England, Iceland, Australia and three from Ireland. They include metal, rap, folk, pop, funk and whatever you want to call They Might Be Giants.

Read: The 15 Best Albums of 1968

Read: The 30 Best Albums of 1978

Here are the 30 best albums of 1988:

dino-jr-bug.jpg 30. Dinosaur Jr: Bug
Dinosaur Jr.’s third album arrived less than a year after their masterpiece, You’re Living All Over Me, so a little bit of a step back would almost be expected—that album’s basically impossible to surpass. And although Bug isn’t the band’s best record, it’s still better than it has any right to be. Bug makes an immediate splash, kicking off with “Freak Scene,” which might be J Mascis’s best song, and is definitely a top-tier indie-rock anthem. That song alone basically earns the album a spot on this list. The rest of Bug doesn’t reach the heights of “Freak Scene” or the previous album, but it’s a strong set of college-radio jams. Songs like “The Post,” “They Always Come” and “Pond Song” are churning, noise-drenched classic-rock riffs played by former hardcore kids, bridging the gap between the mainstream and underground that was still very real and wide in the ‘80s. Bonus points for closing out with “Don’t,” a head-splitting burst of overdriven psychic warfare between Mascis and his soon-to-be-fired bassist/frenemy, Lou Barlow. —Garrett Martin

fishbone-truth-soul.jpg 29. Fishbone: Truth and Soul
Call it funk metal or ska punk, but four months after Living Colour reached radio ubiquity with their blend of hard-rock and funk, another band of black musicians fused several genres into their sophomore (and best) album, Truth and Soul. L.A. collective Fishbone adeptly traveled all over the stylistic map, incorporating ska, reggae, funk, jazz, punk, metal and hard rock from one song to the next. Beginning with a funked-up version of Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead” (which helped me learn to play bass), the band ditched most of the sillier vibe of their debut, In Your Face, for more socially conscious songs like “Subliminal Fascism” and “Ghetto Soundwave” decrying the growing split between the haves and have-nots at the end of the Reagan years. It’s an angry, groovy, hard-driving album that underpins much of the music that followed it. —Josh Jackson

tmbg-lincoln.jpg 28. They Might Be Giants: Lincoln
The beginning of our culture’s nerd revolution can be traced back to They Might Be Giants’ Dial-A-Song answering machine in the mid-1980s. John Flansburgh and John Linnell had developed a cult following with their geeky experimental music, beginning with performances on New York’s Lower East Side before a 1986 self-titled debut and the college-radio hit “Don’t Let’s Start.” The duo’s follow-up, Lincoln, earned them a bigger audience with lead track “Ana Ng” charting on modern-rock radio. There was everything from jazz to polka to funk-backed songs about purple toupees, friendships with cows beneath the sea and imaginary shoehorns with teeth. Every melody was immediate and undeniable. They rejoiced in the bizarre and nonsensical but disguised cleverness and poignancy in the seemingly random lyrics of songs like “They’ll Need a Crane.” —Josh Jackson

boogie-any-means.jpg 27. Boogie Down Productions: By Any Means Necessary
The title and album art for Boogie Down Productions’ second album is a direct reference to Malcolm X, with leader KRS-One copying the stance of the firebrand civil-rights leader in a famed photo, albeit with updated weaponry. It’s a startling image that is almost a Trojan horse for the material on the record. Unlike BDP’s debut, Criminal Minded, the rhymes on By Any Means Necessary looked for more thoughtful approaches to fight the inequality, disease, violence and addictions crippling the African-American community. It’s a boastful record, sure, but also filled with messages encouraging safe sex (“Jimmy”), breaking down the multi-level horrors of the drug trade (“Illegal Business”) and simple pleas to “Stop the Violence.” Thirty years later, it’s dismaying to know that so many of these issues persist in the U.S. Great as this album is, it should have aged poorly by now. —Robert Ham

van-morrison-chieftains.jpg 26. Van Morrison & The Chieftains: Irish Heartbeat
The emerald undercurrent of Van Morrison’s homeland heritage has always played a role in the music he’s created over the past 60 years. But never has it been as explicitly expressed as it is on “Irish Heartbeat,” a song that debuted on 1983’s Inarticulate Speech of the Heart. It’s basically an Irish soul song, combining elements of American masters like Otis Redding and Sam Cooke (“This old world is so cold, don’t care nothin’ for your soul…” ) with the quintessentially Celtic sounds of flute and uilleann pipes. This was truly Van Morrison bringing his famed take on black music right back home. He re-created it as the centerpiece and title track of this 1988 collaborative album with fellow countrymen The Chieftains. With eight traditional Irish songs and a few more reworkings of Morrison and Chieftans originals, the album marked a late-’80s peak for the troubadour. —Ron Hart

pogues-grace.jpg 25. The Pogues: If I Should Fall From Grace With God
Elsewhere in Ireland, everything was lining up for The Pogues on their third album, which became their biggest hit both commercially and critically. Quite the opposite of Van Morrison, though, they were taking their Celtic roots and expanding them outward. The band widened their punk approach to traditional Irish folk music by introducing sounds from other cultures, including Turkish music in the ghost story “Turkish Song of the Damned” and Spanish music in the riotous “Fiesta.” The best songs here though continued the band’s exploration of the Irish experience both home and abroad; “Fairtayle of New York” remains their best known hit, and an annual Christmas favorite, whereas “Thousands Are Sailing” powerfully captures the pride and pain of the Irish diaspora. —Garrett Martin

michelle-shocked-sss.jpg 24. Michelle Shocked: Short Sharp Shocked
After stints at a community college, the University of Texas and, finally, the Baylor Hospital psych ward (her stage name comes from the electroshock therapy she received there), the woman born Michelle Johnston wound up volunteering at the Kerrville Folk Festival, becoming what she calls, “perhaps the last American to receive the mixed blessing of being field recorded.” Pete Lawrence, an English producer and label owner with a Sony Walkman recorded Shocked and her acoustic guitar among the late-night gatherings and released the set of originals as The Texas Campfire Tapes back in the U.K. Shocked only became aware of the tapes when a friend brought a magazine back from Amsterdam with a flexi-disc inside of “Who Cares?” by Michelle Shocked. After debuting at Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, she ended up signing a record deal with Mercury and put out her first genre-hopping album. Short Sharp Shocked is a folk record with a punk-rock heart, beginning with the jazz-folk “When I Grow Up” and ending with the thrashy hidden track “Fogtown,” featuring Austin hardcore outfit MDC (Millions of Dead Cops). —Josh Jackson

bsurfers-hairway.jpg 23. Butthole Surfers: Hairway to Steven
The Butthole Surfers’ bad-vibes aesthetic took a tentative step into the light with their last record for Touch & Go. It might sound like an unwieldy mess today, but it’s actually fairly cleaned up from their earlier stuff, which is one reason it remains one of their best-known albums. There’s still all manner of dirt piled onto these songs, along with studio trickery that makes Gibby Haynes sound like a hungover demon on some songs and an elf on helium on others. Despite those touches, the underlying songs are pretty straight-forward rock in a traditional vein, with Jeff Pinkus and King Coffey as tight a rhythm section as the band ever got, and Paul Leary’s guitar nailing some classic-rock, radio-caliber solos. The strongest sign of the band’s long commitment to musical bad trips comes from the opener, “Jimi,” a schizophrenic epic where Haynes grunts and groans along to a lurching, stuttering dirge for seven minutes before ceding to a seemingly peaceful acoustic-guitar sound collage. If you ever wished Ween were creepier and more unhinged, this is the album for you. —Garrett Martin

living-colour-vivid.jpg 22. Living Colour: Vivid
The hard rock at the heart of Living Colour’s debut album was as muscular as any of their contemporaries, but while their glam-metal peers were living up to Spinal Tap’s cock-rock parody, lead singer Corey Glover’s lyrics were politically charged, from opening mega-riff hit “Cult of Personality” (“I sell the things you need to be / I’m the smiling face on your TV”) to the album’s third single “Open Letter (to a Landlord),” an earnest lament for the decimation of inner-city neighborhoods, to “Funny Vibe,” a frank attack on black male stereotypes featuring Chuck D and Flavor Flav (No, I’m not gonna rob you / No, I’m not gonna beat you / No, I’m not gonna rape you / So why you want to give me that funny vibe?” Muzz Skillings’s steady bass countered Vernon Reid’s speed-metal guitar solos and Will Calhoun’s arena-worthy drumming to create something more interesting than just another ’80s hair-metal band. Outside of hardcore pioneers Bad Brains, there were few black rock musicians having any kind of success when Vivid was released, but it peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard charts on the way to going double-platinum and beating out Aerosmith, Guns N’ Roses, Mötley Crüe and Great White for the Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance with “Cult of Personality.” —Josh Jackson

sugar-cubes-lifes.jpg 21. The Sugarcubes: Life’s Too Good
For many listeners, the debut by The Sugarcubes was an introduction into the singular universe that is the Icelandic music scene. It’s a place where, at the time, the various strains of influence from Europe and North America collided but were jumbled up gloriously in translation. In the hands of this pale quintet from Reykjavik, led by the intoxicating vocals and pixie-ish presence of Bjork Gudmundsdottir, post-punk, jazz and folk were twisted into multi-colored braids of arch pop and seamy revelations about untoward relationships between a bearded gent and a little girl, the joys of sex and gawking at a car crash. Complain all you want about the honking vocals or trumpet intrusions from Einar Orn, the Flavor Flav of The Sugarcubes, but this album would be far less satisfying without them. —Robert Ham

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