1986 : The Year In Music
After having stuck the boot in on poor old 1985 it's time to reset the balance and radiate positivity for a while because its successor more than made up for the polka dots, pink lipstick and unacceptable mullets. 1986 was packed to the rafters with sonic pleasures of all shapes and sizes and produced gems from right across the musical spectrum that still stand up today for way more than nostalgia appeal. 80s indie reached its creative zenith with the much-lauded C86 scene that gave birth to as many great bands as the first wave of punk a decade earlier and Chicago House began its legendary journey out of the nightclubs and into popular culture to lay the groundwork for the mass conversion to dance music that would dominate the rest of the decade. But if you're drawn to the heavier end of the spectrum then it was the year's unprecedented flurry of storming thrash metal releases that stood out as the musical highlight - bands from the States, Europe and South America were dropping classics quicker than fans could grab them and for one glorious moment the scene's key players seemed to be part of one cohesive culture shift, all like-minded souls dedicated to the same brand of good friendly violent fun. Megadeth, Metallica, Kreator and the indomitable Slayer all released faultless career peaks but there were plenty more to choose from; Dark Angel's savage 'Darkness Descends', Exodus' ravenous 'Bonded By Blood' and Onslaught's pummelling 'The Force' to name but a few. In the face of a mainstream metal scene characterised by creative forbearers treading water (Maiden's space age synthfest 'Somewhere In Time', Priest's cynical arena-tailored 'Turbo' and AC/DC's cinematic cash-in 'Who Made Who') and poodle-haired pop tarts like Europe, Bon Jovi and a Sammy Hagar-fronted revamp of Van Halen pedalling synth-driven burger rock to teenage girls, thrash brought together all lovers of extreme music into one global fancult and set things in motion for every shift in metal over the next decade as rivetheads kept on chasing the thrill they got from that first spin through 'Angel of Death'. Of course most of this action was taking place a long way from the singles charts and the commercial spotlight was being hogged by high octane crap like Berlin's 'Take my breath away', Genesis' 'Invisible Touch' and Billy Ocean's 'When the going gets tough....' although there were still pop gems like the Bangles' 'Walk Like an Egyptian' and Sly Fox's 'Let's go all the way' to savour along with a run of refreshingly silly chart-toppers like Falco's 'Rock me Amadeus', Cliff Richard's revamp of 'Living Doll' with TV's The Young Ones in tow and Spitting Image's ubiquitous 'Chicken Song'. And perhaps most significantly of all (at least as far as I'm concerned), Channel 4 launched their all-video Chart Show programme which would migrate to ITV three years later and become my go-to resource for off the radar music thrills as a youngster with its specialist charts and garish computer graphics (check out the original format on YouTube here for some period nostalgia). Throw an iconic World Cup into the mix and you've got the recipe for a pretty fantastic year - slap on my Spotify playlist for the year's biggest anthems and brace yourself for a rollercoaster ride through 1986's essential long players!
Albums of the Year
|1. Slayer - Reign in Blood|
This isn't just a great album, it acts as a musical filter - fans of 'serious music' who will spend hours hectoring you on the merits of Radiohead and Bob Dylan might claim that they dabble in harder stuff by sticking on 'Never mind the bollocks' or the first RATM album from time to time - hey, the braver amongst them might even dabble in Metallica. But for me, the test of someone's metal endurance is whether or not they can stomach 29 minutes of the most deliciously violent, aggressive music ever saddled onto vinyl. 'Reign in Blood' is a manifesto in itself - trim off all the meandering riffs moments, crank the tempo up to breaking point and make every second count. There's no trendy political leanings or pandering to any form of commercial exposure - Slayer's lyrics are downright nasty, their subject matter thoroughly non-PC and their delivery is so relentlessly balls-out brutal from the very first note to the brainmelting finale of 'Raining Blood' that anyone only wanting to dip their toes in heavy music is best advised to stay the fuck away. This is the real McCoy right here!
I got into Slayer via their unfeasibly awesome live twinset from '91 which acted as a conduit for their output from the previous decade - much of 'Reign' made it onto the setlist and they still crank out cuts from this album on tours to this day (I saw them play the whole thing from start to finish as the encore last time they came to Paris!). Someone played me 'Angel of Death' at a party when I was about 18 and it was probably the first time I'd felt any kind of curiosity for the darker, more extreme end of the metal spectrum - like most people drawn to the heavier end of music, I'd been indoctrinated via more accessible means (in my case a 'tallica tape from my mate Mike) but had yet to really embrace full-on metal mayhem. Slayer changed all that - whilst 'Master of Puppets' conjured up 8-minute guitar epics that my adolescent mind could lose itself in, 'Reign in Blood' actually made me want to bang my fucking head so hard that my brains felt like they would splurge out of my ears and splatter all over my bedroom walls. If the previous generation had undergone their epiphany watching the Sex Pistols wreck havoc onstage for their first time, mine came the moment I succombed to Slayer's breakneck Tazmanian Devil shitstorm - everything about them sounded so close to spiralling out of control, one step away from shapeless mayhem yet somehow still together. I'd been raving in my bedroom to electronic music for years before this, but Slayer made guitar music that beat any of that into submission - this was pure audio chaos, and I was in love with it.
Years later I still love this record as much as the first time I heard the songs back in the day - other rock groups from the past have softened up, sold out and generally cleaned up their act but Slayer are still just as venomous and seductive as they have ever been. Their subsequent releases have all been pretty tight, but if you're looking for their landmark work then 'Reign in Blood' is the one that holds the greatest legacy. Just look around you for its influence in places you'd least expect : Public Enemy sampled it on 'She watch Channel Zero', Tori Amos covered 'Raining Blood' and made it even more scary, South Park made use of it in 'Die Hippie Die!' as Cartman's soundtrack to the Hippie Holocaust.....or if you want to really understand its longstanding appeal, go see these guys in concert before they hang up their spikes for good and watch legions of fanatics toss their bodies around to it at the live show.
So there you have it - the ultimate sonic cocktail : one part Discharge, one part Judas Priest and a couple of broken ribs in the moshpit. Say what you like about other groups, but don't tell me you love guitar music unless you own this record. Anyone who can't handle 'Reign in Blood' needs to go back to their fucking Wilco records and grow themselves a pair of cojones real quick, cos this is the ulimate riff trip in popular music. To quote the Neil Kulkarni review in Melody Maker that is still stuck on my teenage bedroom wall; 'Slayer fucking rule'.
Check out : 'Angel of Death'. NUFF SAID.
|2. Metallica - Master of Puppets|
One of the long running, end of the night pub debates amongst folks well-schooled in heavy metal culture such as myself is over which is better, 'Reign in Blood' or 'Master of Puppets'. I've already nailed my Satanic colours to the mast on this one but I have to admit it's a hard one to call - you have to work your way up to Slayer, few fans approach metal for the very first time and tap straight into 'Angel of Death', whereas 'tallica were my first taste of the harder stuff way back in mid-adolesence. That's no dig at their potency either - despite their current misguided attempts to destroy their legacy in every conceivable way, back in the 80s these guys carried a real air of menace. Before the short hair, group therapy and shitty Lou Reed collaborations, Jaymz Hetfield and co were an obnoxious troup of black-clad metal marauders throwing down punishing thrash metal to arenas full of sweaty neanderthals and cranking out a string of great albums, of which 'Puppets' is the stock choice as their finest hour. I'm not going to be a contrary fucker and disagree for the sake of it either - this one encapsulates everything that made them a fascinating prospect when I first discovered metal back in the day and it still raises a few goosebumps of nostalgia when I stick in on today.
It's hard to describe the illicit charm of heavy metal to anyone who hasn't experienced it firsthand during their own teenage years - as a precocious youngster raised on early 90s rave and Chart Show indie, I regarded metal with total disdain throughout my early teens, convinced that it embodied the bovine machismo that I spent most of my schooldays avoiding. Nevertheless, my trawls through music stores often left my flicking through the metal racks and checking out the band names and album covers, alarmed and slightly scared that people actually went out and paid for music that seemed to recreate the dark headspace and sinister ambiance found only in our childhood nightmares. Yet there was a sly seduction at work as the images and titles stuck in my head until the day my mate Mike lent me a D90 cassette featuring 'Ride the Lightning' backed with a trimmed version of 'Puppets' (minus 'Orion' if you're wondering). I looped the fuck out of that tape, drinking in the dark guitar epics and morose sonicscapes in my bedroom as my mind opened up to the delights of the devil's music. The thing that struck my with 'Puppets' was the total disregard for hit single material - none of the tracks clock in at under five minutes (three exceed the eight minute mark) but instead of boring you with self-indulgent musicianship every second is well accounted for and nothing is left to chance. Song sections unfold across massive slabs of feature-length heavy metal, solos weave through the air like beams of light across the night sky and successions of thunderous, intricate riffs leave you stunned and sonically smitten. This was a darkly potent cocktail that I was powerless to resist and I drank deeply, realising for the first time how much fun I'd been missing out on.
That original feeling of fascination is worth hanging on to as the years pass, not just for me as a listener but also on 'tallica as an institution. Time has not necessarily been kind, though they've done themselves no favours either - cutting their hair and flinging out identity crisis metal, shitty covers albums and pointless classical reworkings before disappearing up their own collective arseholes, losing their coolest member and engaging in an image-decimating bitchfest with downloading websites whilst somehow oblivious to the fact that most of their fans pre-Napster had taped all their records anyway (I spent ages stencilling the logos onto those bastards!). But beyond all the crap, beyond the years of rehab and pattern baldness, 'Master of Puppets' still lies in wait for fertile teenage minds such as mine back in the day, ready to be turned on to a new kind of thrill, one which may well spend the rest of their music-listening life chasing. That's worth bearing in mind the next time you hear Lars Ulrich being interviewed - he may be a prize twat, but had he stuck with tennis and never met James Hetfield we might all have suffered for it.
Check out : the lads tearing up the title track on the 'Binge and Purge' tour back in '89.
|3. The Smiths - The Queen is Dead|
Indie had risen to prominence over the course of the 1980s and had established its own sales listings along with the unyielding support of increasingly influential weeklies like NME and Melody Maker and acts like New Order, Echo and the Bunnymen and Billy Bragg were all scoring notable crossover successes. Yet somehow the genre still seemed easy to dismiss, a paltry commercial threat in the face of mainstream pop and radio rock and still widely perceived as the work of miserable anti-social misfits toiling away in their bedrooms. The genre needed a flagship band whose material was so bulletproof that not even the most hardened cynic could dismiss them with a patronising wave of the hand - that band was The Smiths and by 1986 they'd amassed two cracking LPs and a faultless run of stellar singles to win over neutrals and establish themselves as the UK's most influential band but had yet to deliver the knockout blow that would set them up as British indie's all-time superstars. Their eponymous debut had captured the band's miserablist roots and observational humour perfectly and follow-up 'Meat is Murder' saw them vary the palette and notch a chart-topper but neither had the scope and ambition of 'The Queen is Dead' which saw Morrissey and Marr lay down a robust mission statement at their creative peak and finally dispense with the idea that they were merely a passing fad. The brazenly republican title gets right up in your face from the very outset and the band proceed to waltz effortlessly through six-minute theatrical tragedies, quickfire snippets laced with barbed-wire humour and effortlessly catchy guitar anthems without once putting a foot wrong - each member is firing on all cylinders : Morrissey playing the dramatic lead with considerable aplomb, Johnny Marr peeling off indie riff gold on every track and the oft-underrated rhythm section of Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke pumping blood throughout the body of the record like never before. The album was an instant hit with fans and critics alike and unintentionally spearheaded a wave of newer, younger bands dabbling in Marr-inspired jangly indie to form what became known as the C86 scene, a rush of creative energy that spawned a roster of bands to rival that of the initial punk explosion ten years earlier - Morrissey managed to capture the spirit of the times on the non-album single 'Panic' which followed a few months later, forging a rallying cry for the disenfranchised indie masses against the perceived surfeit of synthetic crap doing the rounds in the nation's nightclubs. By the end of 1986 the Smiths were at the helm of a British indie movement that was more powerful than ever and they fittingly dominated the year's Festive Fifty, indie's most reliable reference point, with several entries and end of the night ballad 'There is a light that never goes out' taking home the crown.
'The Queen is Dead' has been the entry point for many into the Smiths' canon ever since and it's not particularly hard to see why - there's the spine of a robust rock album running through here that isn't discernibly present on their limp-wristed debut and they manage to season the mix with different flavours whilst keeping things part of one cohesive whole as opposed to the bit of everything approach employed on 'Meat is Murder', making 'Queen' their most complete long player and most approachable listen for the uninitiated. The title track that opens the record sums up Morrissey's view of 80s Britain over six minutes of fey tirades against the church, the monarchy and the rudderless nature of modern UK culture whilst Joyce and Rourke fire up the motor with twanging basslines and rattling fills leaving Johnny Marr as a peripheral figure until the track's wah wah-fuelled coda. They'd never given the rockers a proper run for their money until now and the message underlying Moz's despondent lyrics was that they could do everything anyone else could and be twice as clever about it. Comic vignettes 'Frankly Mr Shankly' and 'Vicar in a Tutu' show Morrissey at his wittiest and wickedest whilst bedsit classic 'I Know It's Over' paces round the never-ending cycle of loneliness like a failed romantic slowly going crazy, finally giving Moz the stage all to himself for an epic theatrical masterstroke that'll leave not a dry eye in the house. The album tracks dominate proceedings leaving the singles as practically an afterthought (in contrast to 'Meat is Murder' where they arguably soaked up too much of the energy) and the immaculate one-two of 'Bigmouth Strikes Again' and 'The Boy with the Thorn in his Side' merely demonstrate how well-honed their songwriting chops had become by this point but it's the signature show-closer 'There is a Light....' that catches them at their most unique, drafting in a string section for Morrissey's inimitable ode to unrequited love laced with jet black humour and ludicrous melodrama. It's testament to Moz's idol status that he gets away with all this - lesser mortals would be expected to explain the song's mock-suicidal lyrical slant to more impressionable listeners (not to mention the violent imagery of 'Bigmouth' and the savage anti-monarchy slant of the title track) but he seems determined to credit his audience with enough intelligence to picks the bones out of his lyrics. 'The Queen is Dead' provided indie with its first undisputed 'classic album' to rank alongside Revolver, Dark Side of the Moon and Never Mind the Bollocks as universally recognised cornerstones of UK culture and has fared remarkably well since then, topping NME's best album of all time listing at the turn of the millennium and retaining its place at the very top of the tree for British guitar music. Even your football 'n' lager loving mates will have heard this record a few times and its place in UK culture is surely cemented for that reason alone - Morrissey will surely take some measure of comfort from the fact that guys who'd have kicked the shit out of him when he was a nobody now bellow along to his songs after eight pints of Carling. But that's the mark of a classic and even Smiths-haters know that 'The Queen is Dead' is the one record that you can't dodge, one that's been around forever and will never go away.
Check out : 'Some girls are bigger than others', possibly the best album closer ever.
|4. Beastie Boys - Licensed to Ill|
I remember being at Reading sometime in the late 90s when the Beastie Boys were touring 'Hello Nasty' and had phoned their co-headliners The Prodigy prior to their set, humbly requesting that they remove 'Smack my bitch up' from their setlist. Maxim related the incident onstage during their headline slot and emphatically stated that they would play it anyway. A well-meaning gesture perhaps, but it came across as the newly-serious elder statesmen of alternative hip hop lecturing their younger charges over the use of an old skool rap sample, a slightly tactless move at worst but arguably nowhere near the cheek of much of the lyrical content of 'Licensed to Ill' a decade earlier. Prior to their Tibetan tree-hugging Road to Damascus experience the Beasties were everyone's favourite party band, a bud-chugging trio of teens spouting bravado about guns, girls and partying with not so much as a second thought for political correctness and 'Licensed to Ill' was the soundtrack to their emergence as arguably the first group to bridge the gap between black hip hop culture and white alternative rock, netting the first US#1 rap record in the process and remaining the only bunch of white guys to ever bag a full score in hip hop Bible The Source's review section.
You'd think they'd have made more of it, but by the late 90s the Beasties had distanced themselves from their endearingly immature debut and embraced MTV alternative culture and the political showboating that went with it. To my mind there was no need to choose between them though - 'Licensed' has its place in hip hop culture, dropped back in '86 amidst what now seems like an innocent age of MC face-offs, lyrics about partying and chasing girls and liberal amounts of scratching. No gunshot samples, death threats or muscle-flexing 'thug' vocals, just big dumb fun with no hidden agenda (indeed, any more kitchen sink from the sons of New York Jewish art dealers would've been hard to swallow). With the rise of NWA and Ice-T just around the corner, 'Licensed' feels today like the final blowout before things get too serious for comfort - the party anthems come thick and fast once we get started : 'No Sleep til Brooklyn', 'Girls', 'She's on it', 'Fight for your right to party'.....tunes that can instantly liven up a house party but also make up the sampled backbone of numerous rave records that would surface in the clubs over the following few years. In a way it's a good thing that they never attempted to follow it up with anything similar - the three years separating 'Licensed' from their resolutely grown-up sophemore release 'Paul's Boutique' seem like a lifetime in music culture, leaving their adolescent debut a cheeky relic of hip hop nostalgia even back then. Over 20 years later it's worth reappraisal - sure, it sounds painfully thin by modern production standards and the vocal content has more in common with The Bloodhound Gang than their socially conscious modern personas, but the smiles 'Licensed to Ill' put on faces back in their 80s ascent to fame should be kept on record as testament to their own musical legacy and also the spirit that brings gobby little twerps the world over into rap music then and now - lyrical dexterity and the urge to get your party on. Worthy causes not withstanding, 'Licensed' represents the reason the Beasties started rapping and we should all take heart from that, including the boys themselves.
Check out : the promo for 'No Sleep til Brooklyn', complete with a cameo from Kerry King!
|5. Poison - Look what the cat dragged in|
The 80s tend to be viewed with a mix of dew-eyed nostaglia and puritanical contempt, depending on who you're talking to. Indie purists will vaunt the achievements of alternative songsmiths who triumphed against the commercial odds to carve their own niche whilst those of us whose memories of the decade consist of comics, cartoons and sugar-fuelled pop culture tend to regard the era as elysian period of carefree fun and harmless thrills. Poison tap directly into this perception - their sanitised glam rock was either the pinnacle of loveable MTV-sponsored good time poodle metal or the nadir of chart-chasing spandex clad goofball cock rock depending on what side of the artistic fence you were on. I'm on the forgiving side with this one - I was too young to remember the androgynous foursome's early MTV escapades but revivalist campaigns have brought their garish promo vids and equally lurid pop metal back into vogue since then and even the most post modern listener can't help but pump their fist to the good time chart metal flowing through 'Look what the cat dragged in'. Picking up where Mötley Crüe had left off (or rather inadvertantly paused due to drug addiction, jail sentences etc), the boys took up the mantle of pink lipstick and industrial strength hairspray to fling their image to the forefront in order to gain maximum press attention and followed it up with an arrogant debut packed with chart hooks, poodle rock posturing and glam metal strut. It took a while to float to the surface in the States but a series of remarkably committed MTV promo clips saw these showponies crowned kings of the glam circuit a few months after the album's release, providing an accessible take on viril glam punk without falling into the Blue Peter trappings of contempories such as Bon Jovi and Europe. Poison were never dangerous, they were just flippantly entertaining in the neon-enshrined, mic-stand straddling vogue of the mid 1980s and 'Look what the cat dragged in' provides the perfect period soundtrack for singing into your hairbrush in a white bathrobe whilst your hair straighteners heat up. Even the title speaks volumes - instead of vaunting their own sensuality, Poison's debut could just as easily have been knowingly labelled 'Look at the state of these c*nts!' for all the anticipated scorn they readily invited. In the end the album stands as an endearing landmark of plastic 80s pop metal, a snapshot of the period's taste in showboating to be revered in museum exhibits on how great/awful the 80s were for years to come. Either way, '86 runs all the way through this record which justifies its place on this list - a thousand C86 indie acts could lay more credible claim to their place here but Poison win through their sheer unwavering commitment to stadium-styled poodle punk and unwitting zeitgeist-nailing aesthetic. 'Look what....' is unashamedly '86, for better or for worse.
Check out : the title track, an anthem to clattering in whilst your flatmate is eating breakfast.
I was never Dave Mustaine's biggest fan - that honour seems to be reserved for the legions of guitar dorks who follow his every move - but I can't deny his band their rightful place in the history of heavy metal. If one person embodies thrash metal as a general concept, it is him. After getting booted out of Metallica before they hit paydirt, his whole philosophy behind forming Megadeth was to prove that he could come out with something faster and harder hitting that his previous bandmates were capable of - upping the ante not only for Hetfield and co but also for every other aspiring noodler out there. Music should never be about competition but the one-upmanship kickstarted by Mustaine's vanity project laid the foundations for thrash being all about how quick you could shred, how nasty you could sound and how difficult your music was to play. If Anthrax had the corner of the market for goofball humour, Metallica had theirs for eight-minute epics and complex storytelling, Slayer theirs for all-out punk aggression, Megadeth's place was for intricacy, dexterity and sportsman-like self discipline.
Which is perhaps slightly strange, seeing as all four band members were apparently raging smackheads when 'Peace Sells' was recorded. Having formed the band from touring jazz musicians with a taste for the underground, Mustaine managed to assemble a motley crew of backing musicians whose technical chops and appetite for narcotics matched his own - the results of their labour are on the one hand tightly drilled like a military unit and on the other crammed full of complex time signatures and instrumental gymnastics to brew up one potent metal cocktail. Ed Repka's eye-catching artwork only adds to the period flavour - this is classic '86. In the end, the line-up's short life span was indicative of Mustaine's lack of long term plan for his project - two years later a radically different band emerged with the similarly stonking 'So far so good so what?' and by 1990's 'Rust in Peace' they'd changed personnel again. The band has soldiered on in various forms since then, propelled by Mustaine's flambuoyant personality and dedication to his art. Whatever you think about the guy (and let's face it, he's not always the most likeable character in metal), Dave's status as a shred legend cannot be denied. Although he always embodied the nerdier side of metal to me, nobody else quite brings out the Beavis and Butthead-like urge to go 'DUH DUH DUH DERRRRR' along to his music than Mr Mustaine. Pompous, ginger and pseudo-spiritual though he may be, Dave still ranks as one of metal's finest.
Check out : the promo vid for 'Wake up dead'. Cages, teenagers, tassled leather jackets - nice.
|7. Run DMC - Raising Hell|
When you consider the extent to which hip hop has dominated global culture over the past quarter of a century it becomes almost impossible to imagine the world without it, though strange as it may seem there was once a time when the mainstream was yet to fully come to terms with the genre and rap was seen as something of a passing fad. The early 1980s had seen breakthrough singles from the likes of Grandmaster Flash, Sugarhill Gang and Afrika Bambaataa break through into the charts but hip hop had the same industry rep as electronic music had ten years later, a pleasant distraction in bite size chunks but not suited to the LP format and ultimately not really worth taking all that seriously. You only have to wind back ten years from the nationwide schism that claimed the lives of Tupac and Biggie at the height of their fame to reach the point where even charting with a hip hop album was something of a novelty and it was against this backdrop that genre pioneers Run DMC dropped 'Raising Hell' back in '86 to score arguably rap's first major breakthrough success and change the mainstream's view of the genre for good. Chuck D lauded the boys two years later on 'Bring the Noise' ('Run DMC first said a DJ could be a band/stand on its own feet, get you out your seat') and their template was the first to hold up to the full album treatment against their peers in the rock industry, balancing beatbox dynamics with riff and drum samples to beef the sound up and give whiteboy rock fans something to entice them in whilst retaining the street culture chops that ensured their continued hero status in the rap community. They'd laid the foundations on two earlier records but 'Raising Hell' was where the patience paid off and popular culture allowed them the chance to take a solid run at the charts - the boys had the hits to match and the album's instantly recognisable singles ensured that it stayed in public view for months on end and established itself as rap's first undisputed classic.
Crossover Svengali Rick Rubin teamed up with the band to channel the energy of their boombox-bolstered live show into something you could take to the record stores and sell to kids across the country, a trick he repeated six months later with the Beastie Boys' 'Licensed to Ill' and perhaps equally significantly with Slayer's gamechanging thrasthathon 'Reign in Blood' the same year, each time harnessing a youth culture phenomenon for long enough to walk away with a decent-sounding LP before the trail went cold. It's true that the advance of production techniques over the intervening years have left all those records sounding slightly thin to modern ears but it's worth remembering that very few producers really knew how to record this music back then and Rubin deserves credit for the job he did even if others have since gone on to better it. However the record's massive commercial impact is due mainly to Run DMC's ear for a hook and talent for penning hits that turned the album into a major hit and spawned four classic crossover singles. Goofy knockabout jams like 'You be Illin' and 'My Adidas' drew on street culture and hip hop bragging rights to fashion pop hits that crossed over to listeners who had no idea whatsoever the band were singing about whilst a deft use of familiar rock samples saw them chop up The Knack's new wave classic 'My Sharona' and use the pieces to build house party classic 'It's Tricky', a bombastic slice of call and response dancefloor genius that still sounds great. They took the trick one step further on the quintessential 'Walk This Way' by actually roping in Steven Tyler and Joe Perry from a floundering Aerosmith to re-record their parts for the band's hip hop reprise of their mid 70s party hit - the result ranks as one of the decade's few truly indispensable singles, a ballsy spot of genre-splicing that comes up trumps on both fronts and projected Run DMC into global pop culture whilst leaving Aerosmith to relaunch their own career the following year with the 'Permanent Vacation' LP. It was a bold spot of pop innovation but also a significant stroke of luck - neither band had heard of each other before the track's creation (unlike Anthrax and Public Enemy's later re-recording of 'Bring the Noise' after both bands had spent months touring together) but both had a good ear for a radio hit and agreed to throw their combined weight behind it with their sights set on commercial success rather than critical praise. The riffs pop up again on the title track as the band trade verses over a choppy guitar part reminiscent of AC/DC at their most simplistic but their revert to traditional hip hop dynamics on the beatbox 'n' scratchin' classic 'Hit It Run' and the nimble lyrical gymnastics of opener 'Peter Piper' to prove that they could play to both crowds and win everyone over. The focus stays on parties rather than politics for the most part but they do give a comparatively innocent treatment to themes others would expound upon in later years, bemoaning lazy females on knockabout cartoon diss track 'Dumb Girl' without descending into venomous misogyny and asserting their own cultural identity on closer 'Proud to be Black' as a disclaimer to counterbalance the lightweight character of the album's core. 'Raising Hell' probably isn't rap's finest hour but more significantly it was it's first undisputed classic, the first time a hip hop group produced an album to silence critics and win over fans and the dent it made in the music industry's perception of rap can still be seen all these years down the line. Other acts would tinker the blueprint to their own needs and take things in more radical and experimental directions over the next few years but back in '86 hip hop was still waiting for its first chart-busting crossover classic and the arrival of 'Raising Hell' provided that along with plenty of sonic thrills that listeners across the globe are still enjoying to this day.
Check out : 'It's Tricky', filling dancefloors for 27 years and counting.
The point of this selection is to pick records that marked the moment for each year rather than just regurgitating critics' choice polls from days gone by - as much as it might have been a much cooler move to pick out some dusty C86 shit that I only got into much later, 'A Kind Of Magic' feels much more typically '86 to me. From the garish cartoon artwork on the cover to the sweatbands 'n' stick-mic live show, this record is so anchored to its era that it seems ridiculous to download it - you should be listening to this on a shitty tape deck whilst poring over the cracked cassette box with the bright red frame and the price sticker half-picked off the front. Its status as the unofficial soundtrack to 'Highlander', one of the 80s' biggest cult action flicks, only adds to its period flavour. Maybe it's not exactly the essence of cool, but 'Magic' awakens the 80s child in me more than a lot of the other stuff on this list - some of my first memories of rock music are on this baby, which has to stand for something.
If you're looking it at from a record dork's point of view (not that I would ever do such a thing), Queen's 70s material has a lot more to admire than this - sure, 'Sheer Heart Attack' probably packs more punch but times had changed by the end of that decade and by the dawn of the 80s Queen were pumping out pure FM rock, a weird mix of Top Gear riff material and gay weightlifter disco. They'd made some perfect pop along the way - 'Under Pressure' and 'Radio Ga Ga' to name a couple - but the albums never really got me, especially the unspeakably sucktastic 'Hot Space' set from '82. 'A Kind Of Magic' saw the boys go digital, break out the synths and write an unashamedly commercial pop rock record - the polished, radio-friendly production of stuff like 'One Vision', 'Friends will be Friends' and the title track was enough to endear them to Volvo-driving blokes called Nigel who made up most of radio 1's listenership at the time yet the anthemic nature of the tunes also made for perfect stadium fodder (check out the killer 'Live from Wembley '86 live set if you want proof). Ironically it was the last time they'd get to tour the fuck out of a record in such fashion - ol' Fred got diagnosed with docker's flu in '87, after which they could only muster weak riffage and eccentric pop until the inevitable happened.
Fans will remember Queen however they like - I wasn't around to see Freddy with long hair doing 'Tie your mother down', but I can still remember watching the weird cartoon Queenoids boogie around on TV back when this one landed. I think it's cool that a rock act with such a blatant knobjockey as a singer could conquer the planet the way these guys did - apparently the song 'A kind of magic' topped the charts in 35 countries when it came out!!! I didn't even know there were 35 countries with record stores in 1986! They even sell this shit in Iran these days - I bet Hitler would've let this one slip through the net had it come out 50 years earlier! You can pick your own Queen moment but for me it's this one - back in '86 they ruled the charts, the stadia and the airwaves and I'm gonna remember 'em that way.
Check out : 'Princes of the Universe'. Good one to sing storming in at 3am shitface drunk.
|9. Kreator - Pleasure to Kill|
For such a thrashtastic year, it would've been too easy to cram this list with stuff from the American big five - however, to do so would be to forget about the noise being made in other parts of the world during what turned out to be a planetary shift in heavy metal. Whilst their peers in New York and the Bay Area were crunching away to increasing returns, guys called Klaus over the ocean in Germany were growing their hair and forsaking careers in operating heavy machinery to bust out their own take on classic thrash. Sodom and Destruction made credible bids for the era's best speed Kraut record but for me the accolade has to go to Essen's finest and their gut-ripping second album 'Pleasure To Kill'.
Whether or not you perceive thrash as an evolution of punk will probably determine how much you dig this record - for me, the coolest thing about the genre was the breakneck tempo and vicious vocal delivery (combined with the suitably raucous live show). Whilst platters like 'Peace Sells...' and 'Among the Living' moved through various musical passages to create their individual aesthetics, 'Pleasure To Kill' was a much rougher, feisty affair - frontman Mille Petrozza delivers his vocals with utter savagery (much aided by the robust German accent) whilst the music rips along so relentlessly that you can't even headbang to it without rupturing neck discs. Modern day re-appraisals of thrash metal often overlook how downright NASTY this shit sounded when it first came out - flanked by 'Reign in Blood', 'Darkness Descends' and a host of other speed releases testing the boundaries of human endurance 'Pleasure To Kill' is an almost-intimidating assault on the senses, free of the goonish elements of some US period thrash and focused on getting the job done with ruthless Teutonic efficiency. The bile-spewing vocals and head-spinning musicianship would become key elements in the global death metal phenomenon a few years later and Kreator's geographical proximity to the future musical heartlands of Scandinavia and Eastern Europe saw their approach influence numerous groups across the spectrum of extreme music. Like many of their contempories Kreator succumbed to a decade of creative fluctuation once the 80s drew to a close but they kept of ploughing away and returned to grass roots around the millennium as revivalist thrash came back into vogue, in turn laying down some of their best material in years. Beer, football, motorways, heavy fucking metal - you can't fault the Germans in some fields. It's almost enough to forgive them for buying all those David Hasselhoff records. Almost.....
Check out : the title track from their storming Wacken set in 2005. Try banging your head to that!
|10. Big Black - Atomizer|
Back in the mid 1980s the comedy flick 'Revenge of the Nerds' chronicled the triumph of two anti-social computer science dorks over their sporty peers to moderate box office success and prompted MTV to feature regular nerd spokesman Toby Radloff as one of their comic segments spliced between music videos. The nerd trend was fully in motion by this point and was often musically linked to the idiosyncratic New Wave pop of Devo, Oingo Boingo and Talking Heads - those bands all lurked at the less conservative end of the spectrum and encapsulated many of the oddball characteristics of the stereotypical nerd but they were generally far too amiable and good-natured to come across as genuine misfits who'd suffered years of awkwardness, alienation and getting their heads flushed down the toilet by those above them on the social ladder. The real soundtrack to the nerd mindset was much darker, a mixture of simmering rage at mistreatment by others and frustration at not being able to fight back coupled with an unhealthy fascination with violence, ugliness and all manner of misanthropic art to be indulged in those long hours spent alone whilst everyone else is out having fun. Steve Albini's work as a groundbreaking music producer and outspoken indie puritan have granted him respected celebrity status over recent years but back in the 80s he was a far better poster boy than Radloff for the nerd mindset, a scrawny misfit that had been drawn in by the energy of punk but had rapidly outgrown its boundaries and was hellbent on forging his own path into music's underbelly. Big Black were the outlet for the nihilistic vitriol sloshing around his brain, a seething hybrid of guitars, bass and a Roland drum machine that provided a vehicle for his morbid fascination with the sinister sublevels of American society in all its gruesome detail. The band began life as essentially a solo project for Albini that he operated whilst shooting his mouth off about anything and everything in the music press columns he wrote as a sideline and by the mid 80s he'd built up a cult following as somewhat of an indie celebrity and had released a string of EPs with Big Black on the back of semi-constant touring around the toilet venues of America. However he'd yet to record a full length album and there were suggestions that the band's three man line up had evolved to the point where they were capable of laying down something truly stunning that could elevate them beyond the indie backwater circuit.
'Atomizer' was that record and plenty more besides. The band's vitriolic soundscapes were well-suited to the EP format as short bursts of cynical audio rage but their promotion to the full length arena gave them space to stagger their attack and move through different realms of confrontational sonic warfare. The synthetic drum machine thud that at the time was more synonymous with pop artists like A-ha was employed to greater effect on fascistic stompalongs like 'Stinking Drunk' and 'Fists of Love', each time chronicling the directionless rage sloshing around middle America like the ugly cousin to the clean-cut Yuppie aesthetics of artists like Whitney Houston and Huey Lewis and the News and allowing Albini to step into the perpetrator's vocal role and recreate the horrors he was describing. He goes one step further on opener 'Jordan, Minnesota' and plays both victim and torturer over a grizzly tale of child sex rings to offer a thoroughly unsettling experience that will leave many listeners unable to venture any further out of sheer disgust (a result Albini himself would have probably loved). The album's liner notes only took things down another notch....I'm not even gonna get into the shit described in here, safe to say that if someone does lend you the CD or vinyl with the sleeve notes, DO NOT READ THEM. Of course there were many that dismissed Albini as a cynical asshole who simply enjoyed shocking people and had created a way to say the nastiest things possible without ever taking responsibility for them but in fairness to the guy I think that's missing the point somewhat - Big Black's music is confrontational and unsettling yet strangely compelling much in the same way as the grim subject matter used for the lyrics, all of which was easily accessible to the average reader in the form of true crime novels or simply the pages of the local press. He does seem to relish his work a little too much for comfort but that's just the mark of a pro and the ugly soundscapes on show here simply channel the directionless boredom and frustration present in much of small town America - nowhere is this better illustrated than on crossover hit 'Kerosene', an erratically catchy slab of industrial indie chronicling the pleasures of setting stuff on fire when there's nothing else to do in your bog tedious backwater of a home town. If you've not been the despondent pyromaniac depicted in the lyrics, you've surely met someone over the years who matches the description. The track was unintentionally one of the first classics of the industrial genre and other thumpers like 'Passing Complexion' show the band's knack for penning guitar music based around loops and beats rather than standard indie verse/chorus/verse, pummelling the listener with a nihilistic negative-print of the hi-NRG club music doing the rounds back in the mid 80s. The sound is cold but not inhuman, rather the soundtrack to the less loveable elements of human nature and there's still a lot of distance between these guys and the dancefloor-tilted like of New Order - the frantic live version of 'Cables' that closes the record reminds us that Big Black started off as a punk band after all. 'Atomizer' may have caught the band at their peak, it certainly encapsulates them at their most free-flowing and potent, much like a star striker dominating proceedings at a mid-table football club prior to being tempted away by a larger giant - although nothing could actually be further from the truth in Big Black's case and they promptly split after 87's equally stonking follow-up 'Songs about Fucking' left them poised to take over indie's major league, Albini going on to form the largely ignored Rapeman (he certainly does love his confrontational titles!) and later the universally embraced Shellac whilst Big Black went on to posthumously achieve legendary status. 'Atomizer' remains as vital an example of where indie was heading in 1986 as 'The Queen is Dead' albeit in a vastly different content - away from the somewhat self-congratulatory British C86 scene the Yanks were still getting in the van and slowly building up their own national scene that would rise to critical prominence as the decade wore on before finally paying the rent as the 90s dawned. Big Black were long gone by that point but their uncompromising spirit lives on, as does Albini's own puritanical standpoint in his work as a producer, vastly undercharging the numerous bands he works with to allow newer sonic thrills to reach the masses where that otherwise might never have been possible. Grab 'Atomizer' and treat yourself to a bit of US indie history, you'll be glad you did - but, and I can't stress this enough, DO NOT READ THE LINER NOTES. You'll being having nightmares for weeks.
Check out : 'Passing Complexion' live, a blast of seething boot camp nerd rage.
Tune of the Year
Cameo - 'Word Up'
1986 saw the emergence of Chicago house music as a global force but in truth it didn't really infiltrate the pop charts until the following year so I've decided to concentrate on what was blowing up the radio for this year's choice. There was some seriously funky business going on at the top end of the singles charts with Gwen Guthrie's 'Nothing Going On But The Rent' and Prince's 'Kiss' dominating playlists but the runaway winner was Cameo's irrepressible 'Word Up', a fiendishly catchy blend of funk dynamics, clubland production and hip hop frontal delivery. Built around the sort of bassline you could flatten buildings with, the track basically picks up where Michael Jackson's 'Beat It' left off but bolsters its attack with thwocking drum samples, sharp electric synth riffs and badass call and response vocals and the video shows the band sizing up to the listener in an attempt to bowl them over completely. Needless to say they succeeded and the track blew up worldwide providing the band with a platform for a few sizeable follow-up hits and ensuring their continued popularity even after their demise via a series of cover versions from artists as diverse as Korn, Mel Brown and Scottish rockers Gun who took a metal-edged version back into the top ten in 1994. This is a tune that'll put a smile on your face as soon as the first note sounds and dancefloors across the globe still light up for its every airing as folks across the generations thrown down their funkiest moves in celebration of a true booty-shaking classic.