10. Elvis Costello & The Attractions - Imperial Bedroom
Elvis Costello’s first four outings were masterpieces of guitar-based pop songwriting. Into the 80’s, Costello strayed a little from his roots and experimented with more piano-based music, and other genres like country, to limited success. Imperial Bedroom, his seventh album, saw Costello experimenting with a variety of different styles, with extremely ambitious production ideas aided by Beatles recording engineer Geoff Emerick. The lyrical content is much darker than Elvis’s normal fare, with some people going so far as to call Imperial Bedroom a pessimistic concept album about the death of love. However, with no particular song arrangement, or any repeated styles or themes, Imperial Bedroom is really more of a strong collection of extremely well-written and fairly challenging pop songs. While the message is fairly gloomy, the songs themselves vary amongst all different varieties of sublime catchiness, making it a lot of fun to listen to no matter what your mood.
9. Mission of Burma - Vs.
Mission of Burma’s previous record, 1981’s “Signals, Calls, and Marches”, was a short collection of very well-written post-punk tunes that woefully misrepresented the Boston quartet’s signature sound. With “Vs.”, people who were under the false impression that Mission of Burma was a nice band with a clean sound were punched in the face several times with alarming force. “Vs.” is their first record that was produced to sound like their live shows. The songwriting and vocals are still just as great as on “Signals”, but full of walls of feedback and other textural ear-splitting noise. “Vs.” could be compared favorably to Wipers’ “Youth of America”, incorporating experimental late 70’s No Wave ideas into more melodic punk songwriting, paving the way for bands like Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine.
8. Prince - 1999
Prince’s 1980 release “Dirty Mind” was a small glimpse into what genius pop songwriting this man was capable of. It wasn’t until 1982’s double LP “1999” that his audience really started to see the kinds of complex and sexual ideas that were going on in Prince’s head. “1999” doesn’t sound at all like pop music for teeny boppers, and it certainly doesn’t sound like Prince was concerned with getting radio play (though he did anyway). There are very few songs on here that are under five minutes, and the Artist often goes off into wild frenzied erotic tangents where he moans lyrics such as “I want to fuck the taste out of your mouth.” You better fucking believe he will. Prince’s guitar playing is as underrated and intricate as always and the synths are very 80’s in an enjoyable kind of way. If it weren’t for its immense and barely justifiable length, it would be difficult for this to be considered any less than Prince’s greatest work.
7. The Faith/Void split
If The Faith’s side of this legendary split was more than merely good, this record would probably be in the top 5. The real reason this LP is worth listening to over and over again is the B-side, brought to us by D.C. hardcore outfit Void. John Weiffenbach’s vocals are manic, frenzied, and painful, and Bubba Dupree’s guitars sound almost like Black Flag smashed against a wall a few dozen times. The result is extremely chaotic, abrasive, brooding, and unbelievably passionate. While some of Void’s D.C. contemporaries showed immediate influence, Void seems to have stayed relatively obscure for quite a while, before slews of bands imitating their style popped up out of nowhere years later. Way ahead of its time.
6. Descendents - Milo Goes To College
Massively influential SoCal melodic hardcore written and performed by the class nerd who would go on to get a Ph.D in Biochemistry. Descendents are heard here at their brashest, most irreverent, and most catchy. The entire record is filled with punk rock classics like the anthemic “Myage”, the more noisy and hardcore-influenced “Tonyage”, and hilarious tracks like “I Wanna Be A Bear”. There’s also a fair share of adolescent angst, with songs like “Parents”, which asks the timeless question of “why won’t they shut up?” It can be obnoxious, but it is so in an endearing and understandable way, as it was all being performed by a bunch of high schoolers who truly felt what they were playing.
5. Violent Femmes - Violent Femmes
It’s still hard to believe this came out as early as 1982. The Violent Femmes brilliantly combined folk-rock with new wave-y song writing sensibilities and the wild passion and fury of punk rock to create an extremely unique experience. Brian Richie’s ornate and hectic acoustic bass playing is the perfect backing for Gordon Gano’s distinctive wavering man-child vocal persona and clever lyrics. The frustration and sense of vulnerability that comes with being a young socially awkward man is the general theme running throughout this album, and the delivery on that theme is extremely honest and impassioned. All ten songs are fantastic, and many would go on to become alternative rock standards.
4. Michael Jackson - Thriller
It’s Thriller. Nine of the most wonderful and varied pop songs ever recorded. Michael’s voice is angelic, the production is legendary, the tunes themselves universal. It’s got some of the most genuinely soulful pop ballads of all time, as well as some really aggressive dance tracks, if that’s more your thing. It’s never political, never repetitive, and can never be overplayed. Timeless. It infects you like a wonderful disease, like some beautiful malady for which there is no cure. The symptoms: good feelings and uncontrollable dancing.
3. Bruce Springsteen - Nebraska
Whenever Bruce records without the E Street Band, the result is inevitably something very minimal and very dark that can be hard to recognize as the Boss. Nebraska is his first such album, and is arguably his greatest achievement next to Born To Run. Bruce’s hauntingly somber vocals echo on about death, criminal behavior, and the futility of belief, all accompanied only by his acoustic guitar and harmonica. The lyrics are Bruce’s most poetic, with some truly evocative storytelling and strong resonant images. Nebraska marked Bruce’s departure from the triumphant, as many of his later releases would reflect this darker side of life that previously hadn’t been so prominent in the Boss’s songs. Nebraska is extremely challenging, and a huge milestone in the career of one of the greatest rock songwriters of all time.
2. Bad Brains - Bad Brains
D.C. outfit Bad Brains had been around for a couple of years, gaining an enormous reputation for their live performances, before finally releasing their first studio recording. Bad Brains were faster, more explosive and energetic, and better at their instruments than any of their contemporaries. You turn this album on and the first five tracks are a quintilogy of indescribable passion and fierceness, ending with the iconic “Banned In D.C.” Then Bad Brains completely slow it down with a reggae instrumental. As a guy who really doesn’t like reggae, it would be easy for me to talk shit about tracks on this record like “Leaving Babylon” and “I Love Jah”, but it’s at least authentic, as the members of Bad Brains were actually religious rastafarians. Who would’ve guessed that? Also, the reggae tracks are a really interesting way to segment the more prominent hardcore tracks into little chapters, with downtempo intermissions in between, creating a unique and dynamic element to the album’s structure. It’s volatile, rebellious, abrasive, and amazing. Bad Brains were true originals, and there will absolutely never be another album like this one ever again.
1. Flipper - Generic
The rawest. It’s got the uninhibited feeling and noisy production of a hardcore punk record, but it’s also slow and almost sludgey, showing a possible influence from heavy metal bands like Black Sabbath. This combination of slow heavy guitars with punk rock fervor would be extremely influential for bands like The Melvins, and the noise rock genre in general. On top of that, this is just an amazing album to listen to. Mark Arm of Mudhoney once said that Flipper’s charm came from their ability to really upset an audience while simultaneously capturing their undivided attention and interest, and that really shows through on this recording. Flipper is clamorous, even headache-inducing if listened at the right volume, but at the same time very sincere with a sexy sense of rebelliousness against any and all musical conventions.
Honorable mentions: “Pornography” by The Cure, “Hear Nothing, See Nothing, Say Nothing” by Discharge, “Flex Your Head” compilation, Sonic Youth EP, “Combat Rock” by The Clash, “Millions of Dead Cops” by MDC, “Hex Enduction Hour” by The Fall