(Sorry this took a while. A combination of me being slightly burnt out on writing about music and 1984 being a ridiculous year, making this list really, really hard to make)
10. Surviving You Always by Saccharine Trust
Much like Minutemen, Saccharine Trust was a band with a solid noisy hardcore punk background looking to expand upon the genre. In Trust’s case, this was with some angular jazz elements and a Crass-esque art-punk attitude. Their second album, takes post-hardcore to all new levels, sounding at times more like King Crimson than Black Flag, with fast and intricate, yet ragged and raw jazzy instrumentation and psychedelic improvisation. Surviving You Always retains the relentless intensity of the hardcore punk movement much more than Paganicons did, but still manages to sound like an entirely different thing. The result is something that was entirely original and a few years ahead of its time.
9. Ride the Lightning by Metallica
Considering the fact that this is Metallica’s sophomore record, released a mere year after Kill ‘Em All, and before most of their thrash metal contemporaries could even release their first albums, Ride the Lightning is an extremely impressive achievement. It is, in some ways, a transitional album; not as refined as Master of Puppets and not as fun and unaffected as Kill ‘Em All. However, the amount of musical growth Metallica went through in such a short amount of time is astounding. The songs here are infinitely more varied and complex, showing the guys already experimenting with harmonics, speed changes, atmosphere, and new lyrical subjects that other metal bands weren’t really doing at the time. There are still some great thrash tracks like “Trapped Under Ice”, and then there are more complex and genuinely emotional songs like “Fade To Black” and “For Whom The Bell Tolls”. And though credit for this may or may not entirely be Dave Mustaine’s, “Call of Ktulu” is one of the best instrumental metal tracks ever recorded.
8. Psychic… Powerless… Another Man’s Sac by Butthole Surfers
If Swans were the horrifying and dark side of the noise rock movement of the mid-80s, Butthole Surfers were the light-hearted and fun side. The vocals range from fucking goofy nasally vocals to deep grunty Boredeoms-esque caveman vocals, to screeching. There’s also a lot of variety in the music itself. It it at times harsh and angular, at times very fuzzy and psychedelic, and at times it sounds like guitarist Paul Leary is actually just hitting his guitar with a small hatchet. Despite the harshness of the music, Butthole Surfers, as you could guess from the name, never take themselves seriously. Through all of the variety, the one refreshing constant is the childlike playfulness, from the lyrics, to the use of actual body noises in the rhythm section of “Lady Sniff” (spitting, belching, farting). Psychic is a simultaneously funny and disturbing experience that will surprise you a little every time you listen to it.
7. My War by Black Flag
Perhaps not as important or influential as Damaged or the Nervous Breakdown EP, but My War is Black Flag’s most adventurous work, and arguably their best. Side A of My War is a bit slowed down from Damaged, and shows Black Flag achieving a much more textured sound. Greg Ginn (taking over as the sole guitarist on this album) plays some really heavy rhythms as well as some of the most passionate, dissonant, and masterfully sloppy guitar solos of his careers. Henry Rollins’s vocals are as emotional as ever, if not more so. You think you’ve heard it all until side B rolls around. On the second half of the album, things slow waaaay down and get waaay heavier. It’s Black Flag playing sludge metal, but with a certain hardcore punk edge, not terribly unlike Flipper or the soon-to-be Melvins. Most hardcore Black Flag fans detest side B of My War, but considering they were a hardcore band playing outside of their style in a genre that was barely developed yet, it stands out as an extremely risky and shockingly successful little experiment.
6. Meat Puppets II by Meat Puppets
Simply put, Meat Puppets were a hardcore band who got bored and said “fuck this” and made a country-punk record. It sounds like something that would be awful, but it’s really really not. They managed to fuse the two styles together flawlessly, with noisy noisy feedback-heavy production, amazing warbling vocals, and some of the most fiercely played country and bluegrass riffs you’ll ever hear. The trope of “hardcore band dissatisfied by the parameters of the genre passionately and gleefully expanding” that was being pioneered by fellow SST labelmates Minutemen and Hüsker Dü is very present here. In 1984, there were hardcore bands that were content to just rip off Minor Threat and inject a lot of macho posturing and call it punk. Then there were bands like Meat Puppets that realized punk rock was (to paraphrase Cobain) about freedom to play what you want, how you want, as long as it has passion. Get ready to hear me repeat this point a whole lot, because the evolution of America underground music in the mid-80s is hinged on this idea.
5. Let It Be by The Replacements
Another in a long line of hardcore bands that released a couple of records and felt like a bunch of phonies. So for their third record, The Replacements decided to take their aggressive punk rock background and due something more melodic and sincere. The result was a watershed moment in the history of the growing “alternative rock” movement. Let It Be is great for a number of reasons, but one of these is that it’s a creative liberation by a band that had previously felt creatively stifled that is somehow 100% unpretentious. The album is completely brilliant, but you get the idea that Paul Westerberg & co. had no idea. What other band would have a haunting (and lyrically quite progressive) acoustic track like “Androgynous” or the jangly-yet-melancholy coming of age song “Sixteen Blue” on the same record as goofy throw-aways like “Gary’s Got A Boner” and “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out”? Arguably, of all of the “hardcore punk band coming out as a post-hardcore band” records to be released in 1984, Let It Be is the biggest change, and yet The Replacements didn’t turn their back on their punk rock roots at all. They recognized that music can sound like and be about whatever the fuck you want, and with that in mind, made a jumbled up and oddly paced little masterpiece of pure genius. It’s a truly honest piece in a way that very few artists have ever achieved.
4. The Smiths LP
A breath a fresh air to the UK music scene, then dominated by horrible pretentious synth pop bands. The Smiths (named to contrast themselves with bands like Orchestral Manouevres In The Dark) released their first LP in 1984 and took everybody by surprise by making essentially a pop album about homosexuality, child abuse, and lead singer Morrissey’s sexy songs about how he doesn’t like sex. The band members were all veterans of punk rock bands, and like the original movement in 1977, this album was a complete aversion of the musical tropes of that time and place. Johnny Marr’s guitar playing had the jangly appeal of bands like R.E.M, but was often wild and untamable, going off on unpredictable tangents like in “Miserable Lie”. Some songs on this record have a traditional pop structure, while others complete defy any comforting sense of verse-chorus structure in favor of a more free form but still very melodic musical exploration. These songs, however, are never acts of wanking pretentiousness, nor do they overstay their welcomes. Morrissey’s vocals are wonderfully sophisticated and a perfectly unpredictable complement to Johnny Marr’s guitar, sometimes going from his signature croon to a mad yelp at the drop of a hat. His lyrics are at times soul-crushingly sincere and dark, at times light hearted and self-deprecating, and at times, as John Peel noted, extremely witty and actually laugh-out-loud funny. Living in a musical climate much more stifling and dull than what was happening in America at the time, the Smiths managed to release something extremely surprising and ridiculously exciting, simultaneously intellectually stimulating and emotionally resonant.
3. Purple Rain by Prince & The Revolution
This shit right here. This shit right here. Prince really, really takes things up a couple of hundred notches from 1999, with some extremely dense arrangements, extremely layered and oh-so intricate. And yet there is a certain restraint to Purple Rain. The songs are all a reasonable length this time, and the whole record clocks in at just under 45 minutes. Prince’s songs are fast and upbeat, slow and soulful. His voice can go from smooth and loving to some of the most insanely emotive screaming ever heard in mainstream music, often at the drop of a hat, as with “The Beautiful Ones”. Prince continues to expand his experimental usage of synthesizers, an all too abused instrument at this point in history. At times the synths are absolutely psychedelic and spacey; absolutely majestic and beautiful. Even songs like “When Doves Cry” have an experimental edge. It sounds like standard pop fare, until you realize the haunting and completely unusual lack of any sort of bass from start to finish. It’s a good little metaphor for the entire record. The first time you listen to Purple Rain, perhaps half paying attention, it sounds like a typical 80’s R&B record. But there is so much love, so much adventure, and so much power packed in here, that it stays fresh to listen to even 26 years later.
2. Double Nickels On The Dime by Minutemen
I could probably write an individual full length review of each of the 44 songs on this record. Double Nickels On The Dime is one of the most diverse, immense, and ambitious records ever made. Inspired by Hüsker Dü to go for a double LP after already recording an album’s worth of material, Minutemen cranked out dozens and dozens of songs, almost all between one and two minutes long. All three band members took composed, and no two songs sound alike. There’s some pretty traditional punk, spoken word, free jazz, funk, dissonant post-punk, Spanish guitar, hard rock covers, etc. etc. etc. They decided to loosely theme it around cars, but it doesn’t show through too much. What’s partially so appealing about Double Nickels is that it’s this grand double LP with no concept. It’s an energetic collection of songs that unite around their startling lack of unity. Beyond that, D. Boon’s guitar work is at its peak here: biting and wonderfully adventurous. Mike Watt’s bass complements with its robustness and free-flowing nature, and George Hurley plays beats of all styles and does so flawlessly. This right here is argument enough of Minutemen’s place in music history as one of the absolute greatest punk trios of all time.
1. Zen Arcade by Hüsker Dü
Zen Arcade is not only the best collection of songs Hüsker Dü ever put out, but it is also simultaneously the most adventurous and the most cohesive hardcore punk album ever recorded. The Minnesota power trio were always destined for a little more than living and dying as a straight hardcore punk band, and their previous release Metal Circus was further proof of this. Appropriately, the follow up is an extremely ambitious double LP, telling the simple story of a boy who, dissatisfied with him home life, runs away only to find the world outside to be even worse. Side B, encompassing the boy’s emotional torment at this realization, is some of Hüsker Dü’s most brutal, chaotic, and passionate hardcore, while much of the rest of the record follows the complex melodic post-hardcore experimentation that their previous record had foreshadowed. Zen Arcade shows Mould and Hart writing straight pop, alternative rock, folk, and psychedelia with surprising consistency and competence. Each of the four sides of the record closes with a fuzzy almost psychedelic instrumental, acting as a bridge to the next chapter. The structure on this album is immaculate, a contrast to the song writing which is still very challenging, emotional, and troubling, with Bob Mould’s rough and textured vocals adding an element of mayhem to even their softest tracks. The record’s D-side closes the story out with two tracks: “Turn on the News”, a narrator’s appeal for the sheltered to see that everything in the world sucks more than their personal lives, and “Reoccurring Dreams”, an extended arrangement of “Dreams Reoccurring”, a surreal instrumental played backwards. Zen Arcade was a huge landmark, and remains one of the most (if not the most) important punk record of all time. Numerous bands and genre offshoots were directly influenced by this, and even 15 years later you can still hear Hüsker Dü in nearly every hot-dicked new melodic hardcore band and pop-punk band and post-hardcore band. It all started here, with this daring, demanding, stirring, and extremely evocative masterpiece. For my money, the greatest album ever recorded.
Honorable Mentions: Saint Vitus S/T, “From Her To Eternity” by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Scratch Acid S/T, “Throb Throb” by Naked Raygun, Negative FX S/T, ”The Crew” by 7 Seconds, Die Kreuzen S/T, “Red Roses For Me” by The Pogues, “Give Thanks” by Articles of Faith, “Born In The U.S.A.” by Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band, “Don’t Break The Oath” by Mercyful Fate, “Cop” by Swans