1987 was a big year for me personally. It was the year I graduated from high school, lost my virginity, enrolled in college, and did some other awesomely unmentionable stuff. 1987 was also huge for music, as a half dozen of the very best albums of the entire decade were released during this year. Additionally, a handful of bands created music that foreshadowed the sounds of the 90’s.
Here are the 20 best albums from a truly unforgettable year:
Sign O’ The Times * Prince
#1 Prince had already garnered critical and popular acclaim for 1999 and Purple Rain, so he didn’t have much to lose by the time he started to work on Sign O’ The Times. Those drawn to the album by the hit single (and its weakest track) ‘U Got The Look’ were surprised to discover a musician pushing the outer boundaries of his art form. Like a Funk and Soul version of the White Album, Sign O’ The Times is a glorious hodge-podge of sounds that run the gamut from jubilation (‘Play In The Sunshine’ and ‘Housequake’) to sexual innuendo (‘It’ and ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’) to dour fatalism (the title track and ‘The Cross’).
Nearly every facet of Prince’s eclectically exciting and frustrating career can be found on this double album set. And while it didn’t sell in blockbuster numbers, it did manage three Top 10 hits. In hindsight it’s easy to see that this is Prince’s masterwork – an achievement that he hasn’t approached during the last 20 turbulent and uneven years. Fortunately, Sign O’ The Times is an album that can still take you places, nearly two decades on.
Guns N Roses * Appetite For Destruction
#2 Guns N Roses’ debut put nasty back in Rock music for the first time in nearly a decade. It’s an album filled with jug wine, cheap thrills, and unapologetic debauchery. Not surprisingly, it took a while to catch on, but once it did, it changed the face of hard rock, and set the stage for the grunge and alternative rock that ruled the 90’s. ‘Welcome To The Jungle’ ‘Paradise City’ and ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ are epic slices of the everyday lives of people who have fallen through the cracks, but more importantly, they’re first rate, ripping tunes of an ilk that hadn’t been in play since the early Stones and Faces. With all the melodrama and shenanigans that followed, it’s easy to forget what a powerful influence Appetite For Destruction had on those who heard it in the late 80’s. Fortunately, one listen quickly brings back every bit of its swagger and bile.
U2 * The Joshua Tree
#3 By trading hard line politics for a softer, more searching, philosophical side, U2 made the quantum leap from recording artists to superstars. A great deal of The Joshua Tree (including its name and cover art) owes a debt of influence to America and its sights and sounds. It’s an album about promise and potential, comfort and confusion, and if the overall sound is more hook-laden and laid back than previous efforts, the songs themselves retain an unsettled undercurrent. From the hits to lesser lights like ‘Bullet The Blue Sky’ and ‘Trip Through Your Wires’, there isn’t a bum note here, and it’s an album as expansive, conflicted, and lovely as the country that inspired it.
Eric B & Rakim * Paid In Full
#4 Perhaps the finest hip-hop album of all-time, Eric B & Rakim’s debut sounds as funky fresh today as the minute it dropped. Rakim’s style on the microphone became the standard by which all subsequent MCs were judged, and Eric B’s mixing and sampling were also hugely influential – ‘I Know You Got Soul’ is one of the first Hip-Hop tracks to sample James Brown. Paid In Full is so good, so revolutionary, and so unexpected that it is the natural dividing line between the Old and New School.
INXS * Kick
#5 The zenith of these Australian rockers’ career, Kick was the last in a string of great albums (including Shabooh Shoobah, The Swing, and Listen Like Thieves) before they faded into irrelevance. Overflowing with great songs known (‘Need You Tonight’, ‘Devil Inside’) and less so (‘Mediate’, ‘Wild Life’), this is clearly one of the finest albums of the 80’s. A decade later, lead singer Michael Hutchence would accidentally hang himself, and INXS would belatedly be recognized as one of the best groups of their time (before finally becoming the punch line to a reality television program).
The Cure * Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me
#6 The Cure’s finest hour (and eleven minutes) on tape, this sprawling double album gem brings guitars to the forefront and horns into the mix. It’s at once delicate and immense, and contains two of the group’s most enduring songs – ‘Just Like Heaven’ and ‘Why Can’t I Be You?’ Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me will leave you exhilarated, exhausted, and possibly frustrated, but it never bores.
Yello * One Second
#7 A glimpse into the electronica-filled future, One Second is a kaleidoscopic whirligig of styles, voices and sounds. Album opener ‘La Habanera’ paints a vivid picture of a spy double-crossed in Cuba, while the beats slip into a dark rhumba. It’s the kind of moment that Yello pulls off effortlessly, time and again, employing a montage of guests that includes diva Shirley Bassey. It’s an album that wasn’t hyped much in its day, but One Second has withstood the test of time.
Public Enemy * Yo Bum Rush The Show
#8 Public Enemy’s debut put America on full alert that the revolutionary spirit of the Black Panthers was now a force within rap music. Chuck D barked his rhymes and left no doubt about his veracity or sincerity, and Flavor Flav provided much needed comic relief. Much more raw than the Bomb Squad production that would eventually make Fear Of A Black Planet and …Nation Of Millions… so sonically compelling, Yo Bum Rush The Show nonetheless has its share of great tracks, including ‘Public Enemy No 1’ ‘Raise The Roof’ and ‘You’re Gonna Get Yours’. An overlooked rap classic.
George Michael * Faith
#9 Faith parallels Thriller as the 80’s album you love to hate and hate to love. Like Michael Jackson’s epic, it contained a bounty of Top 10 hits, and signaled the multi-platinum highpoint of an artist who would produce increasingly minimal returns while staying within the public eye for exceedingly dubious reasons. But Faith is a pop masterpiece and uses every 80’s production cliché to best effect. It’s a reward for those brave (or dumb) enough to go out on a limb and have a good time.
Robbie Robertson * Robbie Robertson
#10 More than 10 years after he broke up The Band to go solo, Robbie Robertson finally delivered an album to rival those of his former group. Laid out in big, vivid strokes, it’s infused with a dreamlike splendor that stretches the farthest corners of each song. Robertson wistfully pines for times past, lying in the back of an abandoned 59 Chevy with a girl, listening to Little Willie John, while the sounds of night settle in. Good times.
Tom Waits * Franks Wild Years
#11 Franks Wild Years was a pivotal album for Tom Waits and the direction his music would take. Where he’d dabbled in madness on previous albums, here he jumped headlong into the void, reveling in pure insanity like a fat kid in a chocolate factory. The title track (which actually appears on 1983’s Swordfishtrombones, but sets the tone and provides the backstory for this album) is a spoken word monologue that is creepy not least for the sheer glee that shines through in Waits’ voice as he describes driving a nail through his wife’s forehead. This latent schizophrenia would never be far from his music again.
Pixies * Come On Pilgrim
Jane’s Addiction * Jane’s Addiction
#12 & #13 Pixies and Jane’s Addiction blasted two completely different and utterly original tunnels to alternative rock greatness. It’s not much of a stretch to say that (for better or worse) the music that dominated much of the 90’s has root in these two albums.
In hindsight, the Pixies’ loud-soft-loud song structure seems like Manifest Destiny of Rock. To be fair, they hardly invented the formula, but it was out of step with the prevailing music of the day. Their influence on Nirvana has been exaggerated out of convenience, but there’s no doubt that Pixies have had a massive influence on the sound of popular music.
Jane’s Addiction’s live debut is a remarkable blueprint of the sound that would make them Alternative darlings. Many of the songs that would show up on 1989’s landmark Nothing’s Shocking premiered here, along with excellent covers of the Velvet Underground’s ‘Rock & Roll’ and the Stones’ ‘Sympathy For The Devil’.
LL Cool J * Bigger And Deffer
#14 In 1984, LL Cool J’s single ‘I Need A Beat’ became the first release on Def Jam records. He was 16 years old. By 1987 he’d earned a gold album and was a veteran rapper. Bigger and Deffer finds Cool J exploring (with admittedly mixed results) the boundaries of his genre. ‘I Need Love’ was pure ballad, ‘Go Cut Creator’ rocks, and ‘The Do Wop’ is pretty self-explanatory. BAD sold triple platinum, but is a good-not-great example of 80’s hip-hop.
Depeche Mode * Music For The Masses
#15 An album of dour synth pop that channels the spirit of Ian Curtis, Music For The Masses was a major step in Depeche Mode’s conquest of America. The songs are enveloped in gothic darkness, but a few (most notably ‘Behind The Wheel’) pick up the pace and shake up the mood enough that it doesn’t descend into a spiral of self-pity. Still, this music was for teenage girls what heavy metal was to teenage boys – black celebrations of the tenuous nature of life.
The Replacements * Pleased To Meet Me
#16 “Children by the millions wait for Alex Chilton when he comes ‘round” sang Paul Westerberg, and on Pleased To Meet Me, he and his bandmates made a calculated effort to jump into the mainstream. The horns are a nice touch, but the ‘Mats were a group that thrived on chaos, and this tight, highly produced group of songs spelled the beginning of the end. Within three years, Westerberg would go solo (anyone care?) and they’d be history.
Red Hot Chili Peppers * The Uplift Mofo Party Plan
#17 The Peppers’ third album was where they moved beyond novelty band status and realized the sound that would make them superstars. ‘Fight Like A Brave’ is a punk-funk anthem, ‘Behind The Sun’ is a shimmering ballad, and ‘Skinny Sweaty Man’ is manic fun. Lead guitarist Hillel Slovak would be dead within a year from a heroin overdose but the Peppers soldiered on, and by the early 90’s would find themselves selling out arenas all over the world.
Boogie Down Productions * Criminal Minded
#18 BDP’s debut album was an early hardcore rap classic that split the difference between political manifesto and tales of the street. Either way, this was one serious rap group on a self-appointed mission to bring learning to the game. DJ Scott LaRock would be murdered within the year while trying to break up a fight, but KRS-One carried on with the group’s agenda, and has become one of the most well-known ambassadors of education within the genre.
Van Morrison * Poetic Champions Compose
#19 After a dreadful run of early 80’s albums, this was the first glimmer that Van The Man had some juice left in his creative orange. Like many of his best albums, Poetic Champions Compose borders on Jazz, and contains many traditional Irish flourishes. This might not be his best-known record, but it’s certainly his best of the 80’s.
Def Leppard * Hysteria
#20 Can you smell the hair spray? Hysteria vividly evokes an age gone by: one of metal ballads, smoke machines, and leather pants. ‘Pour Some Sugar On Me’ ‘Armageddon It’ and ‘Animal’ aren’t artful, but they still rock. Three years in the making, it has been purchased more than 22 million times. From a decade that brought you plenty of guilty pleasures, this is one of the best.
10 More That Are Worth A Spin…
Pink Floyd * A Momentary Lapse Of Reason
Ice T * Rhyme Pays
The Smiths * Strangeways Here We Come
Slayer * Reign In Blood
Branford Marsalis * Random Abstract
Los Lobos * By The Light Of The Moon
Lee Perry * Time Boom X De Devil Dead
Terence Trent D’Arby * Introducing The Hardline, According To…
Front 242 * Official Version
Sting * Nothing Like The Sun