Every day after school in 1984 I would call up 101 KLOL in Houston and request “Photograph” by Def Leppard. As soon as the song ended I’d call up and request the song again. One time I reached the same DJ twice—Moby—and he groaned: “Kid, I just played that song—you want to hear it again?”
“I’ll see what I can do. At least you’re not asking for ‘Jump’ like everybody else.”
Haven’t heard of that one, I thought.
Later that evening, I called in to request “Jump,” and instead I accidentally won tickets and a backstage pass to a Julian Lennon concert. The DJ told me to stay on the line to accept the prize. I yelled for my dad, who rushed to my room. I thrust the phone into his hands.
He was confused for a moment, but I could hear the DJ come back on the line.
My father listened, then said, “I’m sorry, no, he’s too young to go to concerts.”
That night I finally heard “Jump” on the radio, and soon I became Moby’s newest albatross. He eventually suggested I get my parents to buy me the single, a novel idea to me. They did, and then I got all the albums and everything else I could find that said “Van Halen” on it.
About six months later, I noticed that kids in all my classes were wearing 1984 T-shirts.
“Hey, where’d you get that?” I asked one of my classmates.
“Uh, the concert?”
10. U2, The Unforgettable Fire
At the beginning of my freshman year in college a friend and I took the bus to the south side of Austin to see Lush. We were new to town and didn’t know how long it would take to get to the club—we arrived two hours too early, and then couldn’t find the front door of the club. We wandered around to the back, where we ran into Lush on their way from sound check to their dressing room. They asked if we wanted to share their dinner, and we had heart attacks and totally died and then they resurrected us and gave us beers and we hung out with them and saw them play and then went backstage afterwards. And it was back there that I found myself talking to the Edge—U2 was playing the next night—and I asked if he was the Edge, and he said yes, and then I had another heart attack and it was awesome.
9. This Mortal Coil, It’ll End in Tears
That 4AD label-head Ivo Watts-Russell summoned the Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, and other musicians from his stable to play covers of songs by Big Star, Tim Buckley, and Roy Harper is not unusual—but that he rode them around bareback and never brushed them was cruel. Still, the man knows how to get results. These evocative versions of weepy songs make for even weepier songs. So moving, you can barely notice the sound of the riding crop in the background.
8. R.E.M., Reckoning
Sophomore albums can define a band’s fate. If the first album is absolutely amazing, everything they’ve ever done is absolutely amazing; if the next album falters, then they used to be absolutely amazing but now they suck. If the next one is good, it’s a “return to form.” The label watches this ping-pong-ing until it drops the band, who then get jobs at the label, where they start on hazing the freshmen. In 1984, when R.E.M. was still doing barbecue jingles , they only had one album and the next would determine whether in 20 years they’d be eating the sauce or serving it. As acclaimed as their 1983 debut was, it was on Reckoning that they truly proved themselves.
7. Depeche Mode, Some Great Reward
It was in seventh-grade English, which at that point in school would have still been called Language Arts, that our teacher assigned us to illustrate a poem that held some personal meaning. When we turned in our assignment a week later, one of my classmates had illustrated the lyrics to “Somebody” by Depeche Mode with a nature scene—I remember there was a tree.
6. Cocteau Twins, Treasure
After Jet Screamer but before Sigur Rós, Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins was using made-up words for her lyrics. On a road trip from Texas to California, my dad and I listened to a stack of mixtapes I’d made for the trip. When the vocals for the Cocteau Twins’ “Donimo” started up, my father said, “Oh… what’s this?”
“The Cocteau Twins.”
He likes to sing along in the car, and he doesn’t care if you pay attention. In fact, if you do, he just starts serenading you.
“What’s she saying?”
I explained that she made up words, that she didn’t use real ones. The next day, he was singing along to all the Cocteau Twins songs. Knew the “words” and everything.
5. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, From Her to Eternity
Facts about Nick Cave: Nick Cave once played a show in Des Moines and bit the head off Ozzy Osbourne. Every fall when Nick Cave gets a flu shot, everybody else gets sick. Nick Cave signed a deal with the devil, but it says that when Nick Cave dies he gets the devil’s soul. If you say “Nick Cave” three times while looking in a mirror, Nick Cave will appear, at which point you’ll play gin rummy, have a fine evening together, some drinks, etc. After a nightcap he’ll jump back into the mirror to go home, but taking your still-beating heart with him.
4. Arvo Pärt, Tabula Rasa
A few years ago, a man who faced a terminal diagnosis of cancer asked a friend to give him some compact disks so that he could have a little music to help him get through the night. Among the recordings that the friend sent was Tabula Rasa, on the ECM label, which contained three works by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. A day or two later, the man called to thank his friend for the disks, and, especially, for the Pärt. In the last weeks of his life, he listened to practically nothing else.
The rest of the article is similarly poignant, and very recommended.
3. The Smiths, The Smiths
Nuclear war, Mary Lou Retton—how did parents in America deal with the issues of 1984? Like their own parents, they spent a great deal of time dreaming up ways to prevent their children from having sex—and then this new musician from Britain comes along and he’s abstinent? Could that be more perfect? And he’s gay? Well, if it keeps my kids out of the military, who can argue?
2. The Replacements, Let It Be
The Replacements were able to make an engaging, three-and-a-half minute song out of practically only one lyric (“Look me in the eye, then tell me that I’m satisfied. Are you satisfied?”). That “Unsatisfied” is superior to almost everything anyone else put out in an entire year’s worth of music says a lot—but with not a lot of words. As with “Color Me Impressed” from 1983’s Hootenanny, they showed us that obvious could be miraculous.
Album of the Year: Echo & the Bunnymen, Ocean Rain
At the time of its release, ads proclaimed Ocean Rain “the greatest album ever made” (as did singer Ian McCulloch). Certainly while listening to it, it does make a good case for itself—it would at least be hard to prove it isn’t the greatest album ever made.
Up to Ocean Rain, Echo & the Bunnymen had been traveling a solid path of great albums—Crocodiles in 1980, Heaven Up Here in 1981, and Porcupine in 1983—great albums, excellent albums, ever-improving albums, but nothing like Ocean Rain, when they finally took a giant plunge into their creative abyss. In just nine songs, they shake away their restraints, making their previous work sound positively inhibited. These aren’t just pop songs, these aren’t just pop songs with an orchestra, this is reinvented pop music, and what everyone after has taken for granted—it cleared away the brush of the early ‘80s and set a stage for the next era of pop music. In nine perfect songs.
The first time I heard Ocean Rain, it floored me, left me breathless and riveted. Listening to it now, my spine still tingles—and I still can’t listen to it only one time. Objectiveness was hung years ago: In the end one album really will be the greatest ever made. If this is it, I won’t argue.