The 30 Best Albums of 1988

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go-betweens-16-ll.jpg 20. The Go-Betweens: 16 Lovers Lane
The Go-Betweens’ last album for almost 20 years featured their best charting single, “Streets of Your Town,” which cracked the bottom reaches of the Top 100 in both Australia and the U.K., but made it all the way to No. 30 in New Zealand. Meanwhile, “Was There Anything I Could Do,” also from this record, was their only song to appear on any American chart, climbing to No. 16 on the U.S. Modern Rock list. The point is, one of the best pop bands of all time couldn’t dent the mainstream charts, despite the backing of various major labels and large indies throughout the ‘80s. Maybe their songs are too stately, their lyrics too literary, to attract a large audience? Whatever the case, 16 Lovers Lane wrapped up the first phase of The Go-Betweens with 10 more beautiful songs that are often tender and sad but never cynical or maudlin. It’s another testament to the songwriting genius of Grant McLennan and Robert Forster. —Garrett Martin

smiths-rank.jpg 19. The Smiths: Rank
Rank may have been created just to fulfill contractual obligations by a band that had just fallen apart thanks to internal strife, but the live album compiled some of the Smiths’ greatest hits the same year Morrissey headed his own strange way with Viva Hate. The 16 songs here were recorded at the National Ballroom in London in 1986, just before the band broke up, and if the members didn’t like each other, it didn’t come through in the music. Rather, it didn’t hurt the music. A brazen “The Queen Is Dead” opens with the kind of fury that often gets scraped away from great rock bands in the studio, with Johnny Marr’s screaming-psych guitar and Mike Joyce’s drums lurching the band forward. Morrissey, in particular, was flying high on this night in London, leading the group through an aggressive set of fan favorites with an almost unhinged flair that more or less defined the ‘80s in England and gave fans their only official live Smiths album. The only question is how some of The Smiths’ true masterpieces, like “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” and “How Soon Is Now?,” were left on the editing floor. —Josh Jackson

wilburys-vol1.jpg 18. Traveling Wilburys: Volume I
A band like The Traveling Wilburys doesn’t just happen. Tom Petty and his Heartbreakers had toured with Bob Dylan as Dylan’s backing band in 1987. Jeff Lynne had co-produced George Harrison’s successful album of that year, Cloud 9, with its infectious hit “Got My Mind Set on You.” Lynne was also working with Petty on the latter’s first solo album, 1989’s Full Moon Fever, and the two were busy writing a few songs for Roy Orbison’s 1989 album, Mystery Girl. That, more or less, is how you arrive at what is probably the greatest supergroup in history. Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 is an expertly crafted and produced record (how could it not be?), but the genius of the final product is how relaxed and effortless it all sounds. Everyone involved was in one way or another past the peak of his respective glory years, yet instantly winning songs like “Handle With Care” and “End of the Line” felt immediate and vital, the rock stars’ rebuke to the prevailing electronic and histrionic sounds of the era. Vol. 1 has a star turn for each Wilbury while packaging all of their signature sounds into one folk-rock artifact. —Matthew Oshinsky

church-starfish.jpg 17. The Church: Starfish
The Church’s breakout hit “Under the Milky Way” stands as one of the most beautiful, haunting songs of the 1980s, but the Australian quartet’s fifth album is full of dream-pop gems. “Destination” sets the tone for the album with lyrics like “Draconian winter unforetold/ One solar day, suddenly you’re old/ Your little envelope just makes me cold/ Makes destination start to unfold”; “Blood Money” and “Reptile” are built upon unforgettable guitar licks; and “A New Season” offers a moment of hopefulness amid the melancholy. Steve Kilbey’s lyrics and the band’s spacious, psychedelic new wave just feel expansive, like Carl Sagan reincarnated as a bunch of Aussie rockers. The band never stopped recording, with something like two dozen studio albums to their name, but Starfish was when their star shone the brightest. —Josh Jackson

nick-cave-tender.jpg 16. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds: Tender Prey
Like most of Nick Cave’s oeuvre, Tender Prey is filled with death and grief and sorrow and murder and madness and deals with the devil and re-worked hymns. Perfect, then, that Cave himself famously disliked the album, which was recorded in West Berlin at a very difficult time in his life. Besides showcasing a guy who’s fully comfortable with his hallucinogenic gift for literate terror (not least his own), the silky-black woe-bringer’s fifth album with The Bad Seeds birthed Cave’s seminal dead-man-walking monologue “The Mercy Seat,” the defiant final words of a condemned man, dripping with religious imagery. Cave would rarely play a show after this that didn’t include “The Mercy Seat,” which was later covered by Johnny Cash on American III: Solitary Man. —Jeff Vrabel

bdk-long-live-kane.jpg 15. Big Daddy Kane: Long Live the Kane
Emerging from Marley Marl’s Queens-based Juice Crew, Big Daddy Kane immediately stood out for his next-level rap flow and his insistence on making sure everyone knew exactly who he was: “The B-I-G-D-A-Double-D-Y-K-A-N-E,” as he spits on the instant classic “Ain’t No Half-Steppin.” That quick-worded style would go on to be mimicked and emulated by Snoop Dog, Nas, Eminem, and countless others, with many tracing their own rhythmic sensibilities directly back to Long Live the Kane. Kane, who was quickly earning a reputation in New York for his rhymes as well as his flow, showed an immediate facility for wearing several (velour) hats, playing the roles of loverman (“I’ll Take You There”) and political poet (“Word to the Mother (Land)”), but his free-rhyming legacy is built on his ruthless takedowns of sucker MCs, as on the immortal “Set It Off” and “Raw.” —Matthew Oshinsky

tracy-chapman-st.jpg 14. Tracy Chapman: Tracy Chapman
When Tracy Chapman’s eponymous debut was released in the spring if 1988, it had been some time since an earnest, politically minded folk-pop record had made any kind of cultural dent. But in the waning days of the Reagan presidency, there were plenty of people hungry for the kind of ruminative, heart-on-the-sleeve expressions of underrepresented voices striving for equality and understanding. The surprise came when the album’s iconic lead single, “Fast Car,” connected with a wide audience (thanks in no small part to MTV), pushing the album to the top of the Billboard charts and netting Chapman three Grammy nominations. Heard today, the album has lost none of its power and luster. Opening track “Talkin’ ‘bout a Revolution” remains empowering and rich with musical incident. The love songs scattered throughout ache with longing and lust. And the novelistic details she draws together in “Fast Car” still linger, still urge and still devastate. —Robert Ham

metallica-justice.jpg 13. Metallica: ...And Justice For All
Metallica’s ambitious third album opens with “Blackened,” which set the tone for a harsh portrait of American decay. The track wastes no time annihilating the planet: “Death of Mother Earth, never a rebirth / Evolution’s end; never will it mend,” James Hetfield shouts rather prophetically. All of the mayhem is underscored by Lars Ulrich’s rapid-fire double-kick. Metallica had held out for years before finally making a music video, but here they unleashed a dark and wonderfully bleak piece of art for “One,” splicing together clips from the 1971 anti-war film Johnny Got His Gun with footage of the band in black-and-white head-bang mode. Of course, “One” is just as intense musically, instilling a sense of dread early on, and raging forth until the machine-gun breakdown and Kirk Hammett’s breakneck outro lead. The combination probably makes it the most theatrical song in the Metallica canon. But the best song on this semi-conceptual album is “Harvester of Sorrow,” a dark and murderous tale brought to life by a bludgeoning yet grooving riff and a particularly menacing bark from Hetfield. —Mark Lore

rem-green.jpg 12. R.E.M.: Green
It can be argued that R.E.M. were at the peak of their powers in 1988, and Green stands as one of their finest hours. It was the band’s most diverse record to that point, both musically and lyrically, with subtle politics frolicking with more playful themes, and stripped-down folky numbers bumping up against full-on power pop. The first earful fans got was the booming rollick of “Pop Song 89,” a song whose title says it all. That’s followed up with the equally good-timing “Get Up,” a song with massive guitars and hand claps that was purportedly written by Stipe about Mills, who was known to sleep late during the recording sessions. Those songs, and a song like “Stand,” stand out because they went against most people’s perceptions of R.E.M. The bubblegum singles were countered by the delicate neo-folk numbers “Hairshirt” and “You Are the Everything,” both of which feature Peter Buck’s mandolin strums. Those contrasts may have been jarring for some at the time, but they’re also part of what has made Green age so well. The record’s centerpiece, of course, is “World Leader Pretend,” a song that will still melt you. —Mark Lore

morrissey-viva-hate.jpg 11. Morrissey: Viva Hate
Viva Hate was released just six months after Steven Patrick Morrissey’s final Smiths studio album, Strangeways Here We Come, making one wonder if he just was hiding these songs under his pillow or what. Regardless, Moz’s solo career seamlessly extended from his band career, with iconic singles “Suadehead” and “Everyday Is Like Sunday” pleasing fans that were worried his songwriting magic might be lost without the presence of Johnny Marr and his old band. From the opening bars of “Alsation Cousin,” Morrissey embraced a darker, more confrontational sound than the bouncy tunes that often accompanied his melancholy musings with The Smiths. But his devoted flock had little to fear: the happy-music-sad-vocals returned by Track 3 (“Everyday is like Sunday / Every day is silent and gray”). —Philip Cosores

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