The 30 Best Albums of 1988

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74.My-Bloody-Valentine.jpg 10. My Bloody Valentine: Isn’t Anything
The first great album from Irish shoegaze progenitors My Bloody Valentine was an unexpectedly huge leap forward from their pedestrian 1985 debut and a stepping stone to their 1991 masterwork, Loveless. Isn’t Anything was druggy, time-bending and mercilessly loud, built around songwriter Kevin Shields’s tremolo-crazed guitar assault, a tidal wave of noise through which his and Bilinda Butcher’s breathy voices beckoned like flickers from a lighthouse. Opener “Soft as Snow (But Warm Inside)” set the tone with a disorienting swirl of guitars and huge ‘80s drums, leading many listeners to wonder if there was something wrong with their stereos. They figured it out one song later as Butcher’s sweet ooohing on “Lose My Breath” shoved against a wall of atonal acoustic guitars. This music was challenging, but endlessly rewarding. From 1988 on, “You Made Me Realise”—its 30-second white-noise bridge sometimes expanding to more than half an hour onstage—inevitably served as the finale for their shows. It wasn’t long before an entire scene emerged around the band, including “shoegazer” acts like Ride and Chapterhouse, who emulated MBV’s virtues of dreamy melodicism and blistering guitar noise. —Douglas Wolk

67.The-Waterboys.jpg 9. The Waterboys: Fisherman’s Blues
While folk-rock thrived in the U.S. during the 1970s, The Waterboys’ blend of ’80s rock and the Celtic roots of their Irish, Scottish and English members was refreshing. When Fisherman’s Blues came out in 1988, Mike Scott and his very large band had almost completely shed their arena-rock leanings for a more traditional tour de force that name-checked Hank Williams and quoted William Butler Yeats. The opening title track, with its driving bass line, colorful mandolin, Scott’s pleading vocals and the most memorable fiddle solo since the devil went down to Georgia, was a masterful mash-up of old and new. Its ranging influences could be felt in its source material with covers of Woody Guthrie and Van Morrison and an adaptation of Yeats’s “Stolen Child,” fitting in snugly next to the band’s hybrid originals. —Josh Jackson

nwa-soc.jpg 8. N.W.A.: Straight Outta Compton
“You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge,” Dr. Dre announces at the beginning of the opening title track, “Straight Outta Compton.” What follows is full of the rage of a million young black men subject to racial profiling before there was a name for it and police violence before Rodney King’s beating was caught on tape. Gangsta rap remains as controversial in hindsight as it was at the time (the album’s misogyny and violent calls to action remain problematic), but it captured an all-too-common American life in the ’80s that was missing from popular music. Songs like “Fuck tha Police” and “Something Like That” amounted to a nihilistic response to the more incisively political New York rap of Public Enemy, who preached social revolution as N.W.A. extolled the base virtues of partying and breaking shit. Dre, Ice Cube and Easy-E put a scare into privileged white America, not least because the album found popularity thanks to its three distinct personalities and its deft uses of funk and R&B. Straight Outta Compton influenced a new generation of West Coast rappers who would eclipse N.W.A. in sales and popularity. —Josh Jackson

leonard_man.jpg 7. Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man
Before the release of I’m Your Man, Leonard Cohen was beginning to be discussed in the past tense, something he acknowledges in “Tower of Song.” “I ache in the places where I used to play.” The album’s synth lines and slick chick harmonies, however, gave the revered songwriter a new relevancy in the era of worsening poverty, homelessness and AIDS. The mock-fascist “First We Take Manhattan,” with its sly anti-authority refrain, became an sarcastic soundtrack for the trickle-down bullshit of the Reagan-Bush regime, not to mention the Occupy movements more than 20 years later, and the protests against creeping tyranny and authoritarianism infecting America today. Cohen’s particular genius was to point a finger not so much at the perpetrators of social rot and destroyers of compassion, but at those who claimed to oppose it but stood idly by. On the foreboding “Everybody Knows,” propulsive synths collide with flamenco-style guitar in a cynical past-meets-present cautionary tale: It’s not just that the rich are eating the poor and gay men are dying by the thousands, it’s that nobody is doing anything about it. But hey, “that’s how it goes.” Cohen’s cutting narratives and droning voice are now gone from this world, but their legacy can never die. —Tim Basham

Talk Talk Spirit of Eden.jpg 6. Talk Talk: Spirit of Eden
Much like their contemporaries My Bloody Valentine over in Ireland, British trio Talk Talk leapt into an entirely new phase of their innovative career with Spirit of Eden. Then again, that’s what they always did, moving from the plastic synth-pop of their 1982 debut into more organic territory with each successive album until they were playing a style of progressive modern pop music that bore little resemblance to their earlier work—or to anyone’s work in 1988. Call it post-rock, call it psych-jazz, call it experimental mumbo-jumbo. Whatever your preferred tag, one thing is clear: In the 30 years since its release, there’s never been another album quite like Talk Talk’s sprawling masterpiece. Mark Hollis sings enough just to barely sing, quivering out artful melodic squiggles with his radiant chest-cold tone, slinging spiritual poetry drenched in fog. Beneath is a cavern of sonic heaven—double-bass moans, flickers of muted trumpet, sizzling cymbals, violent clashes of electric guitar. Spirit of Eden slithers through six indefinable songs, if you can even call them songs. Talk Talk were simply playing music in a different universe than their peers. As it turned out, they only had one more album in them. —Ryan Reed

janesaddictionnothingsshocking.jpg 5. Jane’s Addiction: Nothing’s Shocking
Jane’s Addiction’s major-label debut, 1988’s Nothing’s Shocking, stands as a towering bridge to the alternative rock movement from a decade of cheese-metal. The album introduced the world to frontman Perry Farrell’s quirky squawk, Dave Navarro’s hero-level guitar solos, bassist Eric Avery’s raw compositions and drummer Stephen Perkins’ hammering riffs. And it was a brief introduction: the band members were already at each other’s throats during the recording process, which made for a pent-up, angry record. Inspiring the likes of Billy Corgan and Trent Reznor, who would blow up in the next decade, Nothing’s Shocking fused elements of punk, funk and metal with with pin-drop-quiet verses and thundering choruses that showed listeners how dynamically volume could be used. It included the super-popular acoustic bit “Jane Says,” but the album’s real shining moment is the epic Ted Bundy-inspired, seven-minute “Ted, Just Admit It.” It also featured one of the most iconic album covers in rock history—one most retailers refused to display. —Tyler Kane

19_80sAlbums_SurferRosa.jpeg 4. The Pixies: Surfer Rosa
On Surfer Rosa, producer Steve Albini captured a blend of exuberant rock and noisy pop that was true to everything The Pixies were when they were at their best. In 1988, the band beckoned listeners into their strange world on their masterpiece debut with surreal, cryptic lyrics about such unsavory topics as mutilation and voyeurism, with Black Francis’s frantic repetitions and sharp shrieks acting as siren calls to an esoteric abyss. Throughout the album, you’re never quite sure which way is up, “with your feet in the air and your head on the ground” (as goes the record’s echo-y anthem, “Where Is My Mind?”). Kim Deal’s saccharine background vocals and melodic basslines add distinctive depth, until she fully takes the reigns on the hooky “Gigantic.” Surfer Rosa masterfully showcases the Pixies’ quiet/loud dynamic, with Albini recording vocals in a bathroom and highlighting noisy studio banter. The record’s murky sounds made Kurt Cobain seek out Albini for the recording of Nirvana’s In Utero. The Pixies did dark and twisted like no one else. —Loren DiBlasi

28_cowboyjunkies.jpg 3. Cowboy Junkies: The Trinity Sessions
On Nov. 15, 1988, the Cowboy Junkies and a few friends went into the Church of the Holy Trinity in downtown Toronto and in one cold night recorded The Trinity Sessions, one of the most seminal and ethereal albums of the “alternative” generation. It was, in many ways, the original DIY album. As guitarist Michael Timmins once described, “The entire costs to record were a hundred buck donation for the church and 22 dollars for couple of pizzas. Oh, I forgot, we also gave five bucks to the janitor for him to go away and be quiet for an extra half hour until we finished the recording, so add that to the tally as well.” How long did it take to record? “Seven hours trying to find the sweet spot for the omni-directional mic and five hours of playing.” Those five hours gave the world some of the most solemnly hypnotic and beguiling beers-and-tears tunes ever captured on tape, and their iconic cover of Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane” launched the Cowboy Junkies’ career. —Jay Sweet

12_80sAlbums_ItTakesaNation.jpeg 2. Public Enemy: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
With their 1988 sophomore album, Public Enemy rethought hip-hop from the bass up, conceiving it not only as an extension of the black-power movement but, more crucially, as the logical conclusion of every popular music form that came before. The group’s legendary production team, fittingly called the Bomb Squad, plumbed rock and funk history for useful loops and fragments to soundtrack their movement, twisting hits by James Brown, Rufus Thomas and even Queen into radical anthems about race, politics, the media and anything else in Chuck D’s crosshairs. On Nation of Millions, he stepped up as rap’s most authoritative voice, delivering stinging lyrics with newfound confidence. Likewise, Flavor Flav stepped up as rap’s greatest rodeo clown, striking a potent balance between humor and outrage. The album has only gained more power since its release, both as a document of its time and as a reminder of hip-hop’s limitless possibilities. —Stephen M. Deusner

11_80sAlbums_Daydream.jpeg 1. Sonic Youth: Daydream Nation
While Nancy Reagan was urging kids to just say no, Sonic Youth promoted just the opposite: “Your life is such a mess,” says Thurston Moore. “Forget the past and just say yes.” On the band’s best album, that actually sounded like good advice, if only because detuned guitars and sprawling noise jams made for a better platform than abstinence and trickle-down economics. Opener “Teenage Riot” installed J Mascis in the Oval Office, and “The Sprawl” copped lyrics from crack addicts out-populating rats in down-and-dirty Manhattan. It was the culmination of the city’s noise scene and of the band’s flirtations with pop, but damned if Daydream Nation didn’tt predict the rise of the anti-fun, anti-culture Guiliani era and grunge both—a cleaner city and a dirtier rock. —Stephen M. Deusner

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