The Best Albums of 1989

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The Best Albums of 1989

As the 1980s came to a close, pop music ruled the radio with hits like Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” The Bangles’ “Eternal Flame” and Phil Collins’ “Another Day in Paradise” topping the charts. But there was plenty of weirder and wilder stuff bubbling underneath, from De La Soul to the Pixies to the Kate Bush. The Cold War was ending—Paul McCartney began the year releasing a version of “Back in the USSR” in Russia, and acts like Bon Jovi, Ozzy Osbourne and Motley Crüe would all play the Moscow Music Peace Festival. By year’s end, Andrea Gardner Swift would give birth to a little girl and name her Taylor. In the meantime, there were a lot of great albums released. The Paste music editors and writers voted on their favorites, and they range from pop to jazz, with a healthy dose of college rock and even a few latter works from icons of the 1960s. I was just starting my senior year of high school and discovering one new favorite band after another on MTV’s 120 Minutes. Many of them are represented here.

Here are the 30 Best Albums of 1989:

blue-nile-hats.jpg 30. The Blue Nile: Hats
If popular music in the 1980s was one long flirtation with synth-pop, then Hats may be the decade’s best and most mysterious deep cut. Words like “ethereal” and “transcendent” are critical banalities at this point, but this sleeper-turned-cult-classic by synth-happy Scots The Blue Nile is an otherworldly experience worthy of those descriptors. The second of four albums released by Paul Buchanan, Robert Bell and Paul Joseph “PJ” Moore is a low-pitched, low-stakes palate of overcast pop. Listening to Hats in the daytime is a funny experience—not a bit of sunlight creeps through on this seven-song bundle of sly, lurking slow jams. Buchanan has a flair for the dramatic, but when he sings lines like “Where is the love? / I need love to be true,” from the pitch-black “Seven A.M,” it doesn’t feel hokey or overly theatrical. He sings about a dark kind of love, and his moody methods are absolutely mesmerizing. Hats isn’t likely to shake its reputation as vinyl-collection filler any time soon, but for the few who truly enjoy venturing into the fog, it can work as brilliant study in mood. —Ellen Johnson

andrew-hill-eternal-spirit.jpg 29. Andrew Hill: Eternal Spirit
This album marked the uniquely gifted pianist-composer’s return to the classic jazz label that launched his career in the 1960s with such brilliant post-bop outings as 1964’s Black Fire and 1965’s Point of Departure. Recorded at Rudy Van Gelder Studio in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., on Jan. 30 and Jan. 31 with a group of jazz veterans in vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, bassist Rufus Reid and drummer Ben Riley and one young gun in alto saxophonist Greg Osby, Eternal Spirit was Hill’s strongest recording in years. Osby’s pungent, angular alto lines lead the way on the minor key, ethereal “Pinnacle” and the swinging “Spiritual Lover,” both underscored by Hutcherson’s warm vibraphone, Reid’s deep, unerring baselines and Hart’s flexible, interactive drumming. “Samba Rasta” has the leader comping reggae style while Osby and Hutcherson double the buoyant Brazilian melody on top. Osby and Hutcherson share the jaunty line on Hill’s boppish “Tail Feather,” and Osby soars on the romantic ballad “Bobby’s Tune,” a showcase for the great vibraphonist and Blue Note label mate of Hill’s back in the mid ’60s. Shifting meters, impressionistic harmonies and idiosyncratic melodies make this one an off-center gem. —Bill Milkowski

ocean-blue-st.jpg 28. The Ocean Blue: The Ocean Blue
When The Ocean Blue released its self-titled debut in 1989, it was my favorite thing to come out of Hershey, Penn., since those little aluminum-wrapped bundles of joy. I’d stumbled across the band’s first video on MTV’s 120 Minutes. They’d been playing together since junior high and were still teenagers when they landed a record contract with Sire. The Ocean Blue was a jangly proto-indie-pop gem that attracted lots of kids like me looking for the next R.E.M. Two singles from that album, “Drifting, Falling” and “Between Something and Nothing,” were modest hits on Modern Rock radio, but the bass and guitar lines of nearly every song pogoed their way through my inner ear, while the keys wrapped the whole thing up in a wash of warmth. David Schelzel’s treatises on love were among the first songs I shared with a girlfriend. Okay, maybe it was better than a Hershey’s Kiss. —Josh Jackson

new-order-technique.jpg 27. New Order: Technique
Towards the end of the ’80s, New Order continued to push the boundaries of electronic dance-rock by escaping the dreary confines of the U.K. recording studios to make their fifth studio album Technique within the subtropical, 24/7 party atmosphere of Ibiza. There they were introduced to a variety of new sonic influences like acid house and Balearic through the island’s wall-to-wall club scene, allowing them to once again stay ahead of the curve of where dance music was headed going into the ’90s. On “All the Way” lines like “I don’t give a damn about what all those people say” may be targeted at critics of the band, as well as those continuing to center the narrative around the past (especially Ian Curtis of Joy Division’s suicide). The chorus—“It takes years to find the nerve / to be apart from what you’ve done / to find the truth inside yourself / and not depend on anyone”—is a relatable, sad echo of the difficult nature of developing self-awareness and coming into one’s own. And while never released as a single from Technique, “Vanishing Point” was certainly one of the album’s standout deep tracks that helped bridge the gap between the band’s early pulsing synthscapes and their newer Ibiza-informed euphoric buoyancy. An instrumental version of “Vanishing Point” was also used as the theme song to the BBC series Making Out from 1989-1991, eventually getting a bonus track release on the 2008 reissue of Technique as the “Instrumental Making Out Mix.” —Will Hodge and Katherine Logan

lou-reed-ny.jpg 26. Lou Reed: New York
In his polemical liner notes to this concept album, Reed directed the listener to hear the 57-minute album in one sitting, “as though it were a book or a movie.” Indeed, the frank lyrics to New York-centric tunes like “Halloween Parade,” and “Dirty Blvd.” carry some of his most vivid imagery and literate wordplay since “Walk on the Wild Side” and “Sweet Jane,” while the raw, stripped-down sound of the band recalls the stark, punchy appeal of Reed’s Velvet Underground days. His broadsides about a multitude of current events, issues and personalities, from the Howard Beach incident to Jesse Jackson, Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump and Minister Louis Farrakhan to the devastating impact of AIDS and the crack epidemic, are fueled by righteous rage and an angry vision of a decaying Big Apple. Homelessness, poverty, child abuse, racial violence, class warfare, environmental degradation and political corruption are other themes he touches on in 14 scenes and sketches here, representing some of Reed’s strongest writing of his fabled career. Rolling Stone’s Anthony DeCurtis called New York: “fierce, poetic journalism, a reportage of surreal horror in which the unyielding force of actual circumstances continually threatens to overwhelm the ordering power of art.” Reed doesn’t shy from much on this album, excoriating his subjects with keen observations and a sardonic wit. It’s a social protest music of the highest order, harkening back to Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie before him. —Bill Milkowski

mighty-lemondrops-laughter.jpg 25. The Mighty Lemon Drops: Laughter
Resenting the fact that they were labeled as a gloomy, Echo and the Bunnymen-style act, West Midlands band The Mighty Lemondrops shifted their focus as the ’80s drew to a close. It was a gamble that paid off, spawning two charting singles, the peppy “Into the Heart of Love” and the sparse, church-gothic “Where Do We Go From Heaven.” But they never lost their edge. “At Midnight” opens with the Cure-lite lines “The sun isn’t out / the sky isn’t blue,” but vocalist Paul Marsh, buoyed by guitarist and lyricist David Newton, carries the song with a wink and an air-kiss. “The Heartbreak Thing” is the album MVP, an underrated gem with Keith Rowley just hammering away on drums, Marsh with his beating heart exposed. Like too many post-punk, pre-college rock treasures, Laughter has been somewhat lost to time. Only the singles appear on the greatest hits collection Rollercoaster, and now out of print, it’s not on any digital service. —Libby Cudmore

yo-la-tengo-president.jpg 24. Yo La Tengo: President Yo La Tengo
The first song on President Yo La Tengo wasn’t an absolute break from the college rock of their slump-ish sophomore release Ride the Tiger, but its clean guitar and bouncy bass are underlined with a looping guitar squeal. It was an immediate sign that they weren’t the same band anymore. “Barnaby, Hardly Working” is a beautiful droning pop song and the best original the band recorded in the 1980s. “Drug Test” should have been a college-radio hit. It’s catchy in a classical sense, like something Jackson Browne could’ve written. And is this album where Yo La Tengo realized how beautiful Georgia Hubley’s voice could be? “Alyda” is a catchy folk tune with pop hooks (think brushed drums and an acoustic guitar playing an ascending three-note major chord riff) and Dylan-esque vocals from Kaplan. But what makes it great is Hubley’s background vocals. They’re mostly just wordless ahhhhs, but it’s a crucial element that elevates the whole song and also points to what will become one of the band’s most defining sounds. —Garrett Martin

galaxie-500-on-fire.jpg 23. Galaxie 500: On Fire
Boston dream pop outfit Galaxie 500 weren’t around for very long, but the influence of their downtempo, reverb-filled three albums is still glaringly present today. Their second album On Fire is a cornerstone of dream-pop bashfulness and trippy lo-fi rock, and it remains their strongest full-length. Dean Wareham’s voice isn’t exceptional by any stretch of the imagination, but he cultivates something imposing out of his humble means. Their debut Today still stands out for swaying minimalist cuts like “Tugboat” and their cover of Jonathan Richman’s “Don’t Let Our Youth Go to Waste,” but where On Fire bests it is in its slow thrash and more diverse instrumentation. The guitar solo in “When Will You Come Home” isn’t stereotypically dream pop—it grooves and drips and definitely doesn’t cower under the spotlight—but the juxtaposition of this self-assured, flare-filled tangent with delicate vocals and shy, boy-next-door lyrics is incredibly moving. On “Another Day,” bassist Naomi Yang’s dainty lead vocals are just as crushing as Wareham’s psychedelic guitar tumbles, and lead track “Blue Thunder” proves there’s a sheer force in plain, headstrong strums and good-natured vocals. —Lizzie Manno

neil-young-freedom.jpg 22. Neil Young: Freedom
This album marked Young’s triumphant return to Reprise Records after a difficult Geffen tenure that resulted in genre exercises and lawsuits. Young had aborted his first attempt at a Reprise album, releasing five of those songs in a Japan/Australia-only EP, El Dorado. Three of those songs resurfaced on Freedom, which takes its title from one of Young’s greatest rock ‘n ‘roll anthems, “Rockin’ in the Free World.” With a terrific guitar riff and vocal hook, the chorus seems like a patriotic sing-along. But the verses describe a junkie mother leaving her young baby among the garbage cans, drenching the chorus in the most irony since Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” The eight-minute “Crime in the City” and six-minute “El Dorado” extend the sociological tableaus, but some tender love songs balance the mood. —Geoffrey Himes

elvis-costello-spike.jpg 21. Elvis Costello: Spike
One can only be an “angry young man” for so long without becoming a self-parody, and Costello was smart enough to make his music keep pace with his life. Where his opening trilogy of albums burned with fury and landed like artillery shells in 1977-78, his ’80s work reflected his hard-won appreciation for nuance and the many branches of Anglo-American music. Nothing demonstrates that better than Spike, which boasts collaborations with members of the Beatles, Byrds, Chieftains, Pretenders, the Tom Waits Band and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. What never changed during Costello’s evolution was the acerbic intelligence that make him one of the best songwriters of his generation, as he proves here with his angry attack on Margaret Thatcher (“Tramp the Dirt Down”), his Randy Newman-ish send up of the Supreme Being (“God’s Comic”), his lovely co-write with Paul McCartney (“Veronica”) and his understated dissection of capital punishment (“Let Him Dangle”). —Geoffrey Himes

66.Indigo-Girls.gif 20. Indigo Girls: Indigo Girls
A folk duo from Atlanta was an unlikely radio success story, but Emily Saliers and Amy Ray’s major-label debut went platinum thanks to hits like “Closer to Fine” and “Kid Fears.” With guest appearances from their R.E.M. neighbors up the road in Athens, it recalled times when folk songs from Greenwich Village became anthems across the country. Every kid with an acoustic guitar quickly learned how to play half the album and many of those without guitars learned to sing the harmonies instead. These were campfire songs, road-trip songs, sing-along-at-the-top-of-your-lungs songs whenever and wherever they came on. —Josh Jackson

bob-mould-workbook.jpg 19. Bob Mould: Workbook
On the surface Mould’s first solo album sounds lighter and less abrasive than the classic work he did with Grant Hart and Greg Norton in Hüsker Dü. It’s got acoustic guitars, folky arrangements, a cello—this certainly ain’t Zen Arcade. Despite those softer edges, Workbook still has the painful emotional honesty Mould’s known for—despite its pop hooks, “See a Little Light” is about a relationship on the cusp of a breakup, and “Poison Years” is a sharp stick in the eye of Mould’s former bandmate Hart. Workbook signaled that Mould’s success with Hüsker Dü wasn’t just a one-off—that he was a songwriter with a future ahead of him who was building a legitimate career. —Garrett Martin

replacements-dont-tell.jpg 18. The Replacements: Don’t Tell A Soul
Considering All Shook Down is a Paul Westerberg solo record in all but name, Don’t Tell a Soul was the last real ’Mats statement: a hooky, radio-ready set that essentially answers the question “What would The Replacements sound like if they didn’t sound drunk?” And frankly, they sound excellent, if you can stomach a slick adult contemporary sheen applied to the band’s ragged roar. Don’t Tell a Soul is almost nobody’s favorite Replacements album, but it’s full of gems anyway, from the generational anti-anthem “We’ll Inherit The Earth” to the Billboard-charting stomper “I’ll Be You.” Elsewhere, the delectable “Asking Me Lies” features some of Westerberg’s strangest lyrics ever (“At a Mexican Bar Mitzvah / For seven hundred years”??), and “Rock ‘N’ Roll Ghost” exposes the weariness behind this record’s slick shell. You could make the case that Don’t Tell a Soul invented Top 40 Goo Goo Dolls a decade ahead of time. —Zach Schonfeld

b52s-cosmic.jpg 17. The B-52’s: Cosmic Thing
There’s more to Cosmic Thing than “Love Shack,” a staple of every wedding you’ve ever been to. The band’s comeback album following the death of guitarist Ricky Wilson, the album spawned two of their most well-known songs, the aforementioned party-perfect jam and the wanderlusty “Roam.” The lead single, originally titled “(Shake That) Cosmic Thing” was debuted on the Earth Girls Are Easy soundtrack, a perfect match of insanity and delight, and “Roam” was sung by the cast in concept productions of the never-to-be-seen stage musical. But Cosmic Thing is a surprisingly grounded album from the band that gave us trippy art-pop jangles like “Rock Lobster” and “Private Idaho,” drawing inspiration from their Georgia roots. Just as “Party Out Of Bounds” characterized their history of crashing parties, the dreamy “Deadbeat Club” pays homage to their drifting days, hanging around cafes and skinny dipping. And the “Love Shack”—Kate Pierson lived there in the ’70s—was also where they wrote “Rock Lobster.” And Cindy Wilson’s iconic “Tin roof rusted!” was an outtake. Happy accidents are the hallmark of the band. —Libby Cudmore

xtc-oranges.jpg 16. XTC: Oranges & Lemons
XTC stopped touring in 1982 when Andy Partridge had a breakdown before a sold-out show at the Hollywood Bowl. But the British art rock band would return to Los Angeles to record its 11th album, which would turn out to be one of its best. Double LP Oranges & Lemons incorporated some of the psychedelic sounds of their side project as the Dukes of the Stratosphear, but with the brilliant pop melodies on 1986’s Skylarking. The breakout single “Mayor of Simpleton” sports the jangly guitar of 1980s college radio, but right from the opening “Garden of Earthly Delights,” things got proggier and more intricate, and on prescient socio-political songs like “Here Comes President Kill Again,” much, much darker. It’s a complex and varied album with a staggeringly wide range of influences from jazz fusion to reggae to Pet Sounds. And it even got Partridge touring again, if only a stripped-down set for radio stations and one acoustic performance in front of an audience for MTV, which inspired the network to invite other bands to play Unplugged. —Josh Jackson

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