10. Food For Thought by Gray Matter
Awesome D.C. punk with a midtempo SoCal flair. Gray Matter’s first album Food For Thought is often associated with the emocore movement due to its time and place, but they sound more like Adolescents than Rites of Spring, with some dirt thrown on the guitars and vocals that were more much more raw and passionate than filled with that bratty Orange County sarcasm. The lyrics on here deal mostly with the issues and concerns of being a young man, and have more of a sense of humor than a lot of their peers. The album ends with maybe the best Beatles cover I’ve ever heard: a messy punk rendition of “I Am The Walrus”. Gray Matter, with their plethora of influences and their fusion of D.C. emo and traditional punk tone really made themselves stand out early on with this extremely fun record.
9. Meat Is Murder by The Smiths
The self-produced Meat Is Murder is often regarded as The Smiths’ mediocre sophomore effort, wedged in between two masterpieces. While it is a far less consistent record their self-titled debut and The Queen Is Dead, there are a lot of fantastic songs to be heard here. It opens with “The Headmaster Ritual”, perhaps Johnny Marr’s greatest guitar work, as well as some of Morrissey’s best lyrics, telling of the abject horror of being a young boy in punishing England schools. From there, the record proceeds through eight more tracks showing the band in a more experimental and controversial light. Certain attempts are more successful than others. While Morrissey’s exceedingly obvious pro-vegetarian anthem “Meat Is Murder” (complete with sounds of sad animals) is a bit of a mess, and admittedly a poor way to close the album, Johnny Marr’s increasingly large playbook of sounds allows for some great escapes from their trademark jangle, especially on “Rusholme Ruffians”. Possible political missteps aside, Morrissey’s lyrics are still sharp and witty, with some familiar themes such as child abuse and loneliness being served up in addition to somewhat more playful and devious tracks like “Nowhere Fast”. While Meat Is Murder is certainly a more self-indulgent and less coherent release than their self-titled, it’s still wonderfully charming, with enough of a strident edge to keep things interesting from start to finish.
8. Tim by The Replacements
While perhaps not quite on par with their 1984 masterpiece Let It Be, The Replacements’ fourth studio album and major label debut is the edgy and confessional nature of Paul Westerberg’s songwriting wrapped in a very cohesive power pop record, and that ain’t bad. Unfortunately it’s very difficult to review Tim without inevitably comparing it to Let It Be, which is a shame because they’re very different albums. The Replacements clearly didn’t go into this simply wanting to recreate their past creative success. Tim shows Westerberg drawing more from his diverse rock & roll influences to make a very strong and consistent pop record which manages to hold a certain popular appeal without being broad or particularly safe. Bob Stinson plays his last record as lead guitarist of The Replacements, and despite his strained relationship with Westerberg, Stinson’s guitar complements the new songs perfectly, bringing that little bit of Chuck Berry to his normal jangly-yet-rough guitar sound. Some people call this a “sell out” album, but fuck that. Tim is a very strong entry into the discography of one of the most interesting rock bands of the 80s.
7. Speak English Or Die by S.O.D.
This is what happens when Anthrax has left over studio time. Scott Ian assembled some friends (many being fellow band members) and put together Stormtroopers of Death, a hardcore band with heavy crushing guitars and lyrics as hilarious as they are offensive. S.O.D. could be said to be a loving parody of punk; Scott Ian acknowledging the influence hardcore had on the development of thrash metal. On the other hand, a lot of songs on this album are pretty clearly mocking the bullshit tough guy culture and rampant unoriginality that had been breeding in hardcore for years and was now resulting in its temporary wain. Regardless, the album is hilarious and full of mosh-tastic goodness. While this was essentially a jokey side project, it actually did have a big influence on the crossover thrash genre that Suicidal Tendencies pioneered two years earlier, a style which too few bands outside of Venice Beach were embracing. Speak English or Die is a work of hilarious and effective satire, intense and aggressive songwriting, and energetic and technical instrumentation, all put together in a furious little 30 minute hardcore record.
6. Bad Moon Rising by Sonic Youth
Sonic Youth’s third studio album shows a lot of growth from their previous work, which sounded basically like a group of fairly talented young people who wanted to sound like Glenn Branca. On Bad Moon Rising, we get to hear Sonic Youth weaving together an intricate and disturbing sound collage. Rather than individual songs, the band focuses on creating more of a song cycle with dark ambient interludes connecting all of the pieces of the tapestry together. The lyrics are morose and vivid, dealing largely with Youth’s grim outlook on American life. The whole thing is a sort of hazy nightmare of textural feedback and drone-y songwriting, with its minimal percussion and distant vocals. It all comes to an exciting close with “Death Valley 69”, the only genuine rocker on the record, previously released as a single. Some say it’s the only song on the record that stands out, but even as all of the others intentionally bleed together, there are some real standout moments in the haze, like the cold and extremely dissonant “I Love Her All The Time” and Kim’s absolutely menacing “Ghost Bitch”. Bad Moon Rising is far from Sonic Youth’s most fun album, and punishes those who try to listen to it casually, but rewards those looking for a genuinely haunting and thought-provoking experience. This is really Sonic Youth’s first and only piece that relies almost solely on atmosphere and tone, and it works really well.
5. Rum, Sodomy and the Lash by The Pogues
The Irish/English folk-punk pioneers’ sophomore album is arguably their best. Where Red Roses For Me fell flat, Rum, Sodomy and the Lash succeeds wonderfully. The Pogues’ genuine love for celtic folk comes through clear as day, but the album retains the filthy, passionate, and furious punk elements essential to who they were. Elvis Costello took over as producer on Rum, wanting to capture the fervor and messiness of the band’s live shows on a studio LP. He was wildly successful, as can be heard on nearly every track, perhaps most interestingly on “Wild Cats of Kilkenny”, an instrumental that goes back and forth between very traditional celtic folk and a terrifying mess of screams, with Cait O’Riordan’s louring bassline playing underneath. Of course, the star of any Pogues record is vocalist and songwriter Shane McGowan, and some of his best work is on this one. His lyrics have the power to be hilarious and profoundly sad at the same time, and he spits them out with such fire and intense emotion you could just die. While “A Pair of Brown Eyes” and “Old Main Drag” are great examples of his poetic style, perhaps his best performances are on his poignant and heartbreaking covers: “Dirty Old Town” and “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda”. This is all coming from a band that could easily have been written off as a novelty band based on their previous work. This was the record that proved that the Pogues were truly great.
4. New Day Rising by Hüsker Dü
How does a band follow up something with such vision and passion as Zen Arcade? A lot of bands would release something disappointing, but Hüsker Dü didn’t feel like it, I guess. New Day Rising is all of the noise and fury of Zen Arcade with a little less of a hardcore punk edge, showing Bob Mould’s gradual shift towards a more power pop influenced sound. His fuzzy feedback guitar and rabid rottweiler vocals clash brilliantly with his and Grant Hart’s increasingly melodic and mature songwriting. Songs like “The Girl Who Lives On Heaven Hill” would sound absolutely dandy if played by any other band, but Hüsker Dü injects intensity, anger, raw emotion, and pure excitement into every second. Proper credit should be given to SST’s resident producer Spot, collaborating with Hüsker Dü for the fourth time, and really showing his understanding of what the band represents, flawlessly retaining Bob Mould’s sense of mayhem in scratchy walls of tangled up sounds, present throughout the record. Simply put: an amazing achievement and worthy follow up to the greatest punk album of all time.
3. Psychocandy by The Jesus and Mary Chain
A brilliant debut from Scottish quartet The Jesus and Mary Chain. Psychocandy remains one of the dreamiest things ever made even 25 years later. The Reid brothers pioneered a new style with this record, mixing scratchy aggressive feedback with slow catchy pop songwriting and fairly typical dreary post-punk vocals. It’s as hazy and beautiful as it is fearsome and grating, and it’s balanced perfectly. The songs vary from sedate and sleepy (“Cut Dead”, “Just Like Honey”) to faster upbeat tunes, usually with really fierce snarling guitars (“The Living End”), the latter being more representative of the band’s notoriously violent live shows. The entire album is a startling clash of clamorous and beautiful that never lets up, yet never gets boring. It was immensely influential, but even more noteworthy is how it still sounds better than nearly everything it influenced. Way ahead of its time. A true classic.
2. Rites of Spring LP
Rites of Spring’s self-titled debut is up there on the list of most interesting and emotionally resonant punk albums of all time. This was the opening shot of the D.C. punk revolution that would lead to some of the most creative and passionate music ever made; the so-called emocore movement. The term was reviled even in the 80’s, with Rites frontman Guy Picciotto basically saying “emo is stupid, all hardcore punk is emotional”. And he’s right, but the fact is that Rites of Spring and their peers made music that averted the hardcore tropes that were growing stale at the time. This album is fast and sloppy and full of really abrasive guitar textures and even more abrasive vocals. But at the same time, it’s dynamic, melodic, and explores lyrical themes that can’t be rused through in less than sixty seconds. Guy Picciotto’s deal with more personal content than broad anger and angst, and are dripping with more raw emotion than nearly anything I’ve ever heard. While Picciotto and drummer Brendan Canty would later become much more well known when the teamed up with Ian MacKaye to form Fugazi, the importance and sheer brilliance of this album cannot be understated. Forget everything you think you know about the word “emo” and start over from the beginning; right here. It will change your fucking life.
1. Rain Dogs by Tom Waits
Swordfishtrombones was a fantastic album showing Tom Waits transitioning from his 70’s lounge singer shtick to something much different. Rain Dogs shows Waits digging deeper into this new sound, much more comfortable and confident, weaving together little vignettes around the theme of the urban destitute. The chaotic combination of genres, rhythms, and instruments (including marimbas, horns, banjo, and dozens of kinds of percussion) often sounds like Waits just held up a microphone standing in the middle of New York immigrant neighborhood. The album is extremely organic in its sound (especially considering the time it was made), and uniquely American, combining the sounds of the old bluesmen, the Three Penny Opera, and regional styles like New Orleans brass parades. Waits’ lyrics are some of the best of his career, painting extremely vivid and occasionally surreal pictures of a broad variety of characters. The textures and mood of his voice change wildly from song to song to achieve various atmospheres through which to tell his strange and generally sad stories. Underneath much of this is one of Waits’ best collaborators: guitarist Marc Ribot, who plays noisy scratchy textures and unreal dissonant arpeggios, adding to the album’s almost Lynchian strangeness and disturbing nature. But through all of the esoteric experimentalism, Waits is still passionate and emotional (anyone who says they’ve never teared up listening to “Time” or the closing track “Anywhere I Lay My Head” is probably lying) enough to make what would be a sprawling mess by any other artist stay wonderfully relatable. Rain Dogs is an absolute masterpiece, and to this day it is Tom Waits’s single most important and successful artistic statement.
Honorable Mentions: “Racer-X” by Big Black, “Dinosaur” by Dinosaur Jr.,”Seven Churches” by Possessed, “Come On Down” by Green River, “Killing Is My Business… And Business Is Good!” by Megadeth, “Flip Your Wig” by Hüsker Dü, “This Nation’s Saving Grace” by The Fall, “Up In The Sun” by Meat Puppets, “Hounds of Love” by Kate Bush, “No More We Cry” by The Hated, “Hell Awaits” by Slayer