Albums of the Year

The Top 10 Albums of 1986

Emptying out a storage space in Houston means judging sentimental value against what fits in the car.

A few months ago my father and stepmother moved out of the house I grew up in, outside of Houston, to a smaller house in the Texas hill country, and had to pare down many of their possessions. My wife and I went to the storage facility last weekend to clean out what we wanted and dispose of the rest.

As it turns out, sentimental value depreciates. A glass cabinet my brother and I crashed into at the end of beanbag races: It’s too big for our living room, and we don’t really need it anyway. A card table my parents would set up every Christmas and wrap presents on: My wife and I don’t have any use for it, and it’s got a hole burned through the top. But some of the items were too cherished to part with. Others still were important to me, but there wasn’t enough space for all of them. Not in my car, not in my house. When you really sit down to do it, it’s easy to rate memories.


10. Public Image Ltd., Album

Hard to believe that eight years after the demise of the Sex Pistols, Johnny Rotten (whose maiden name is Lydon) would be doing the opposite of punk rock, and fronting a supergroup composed of guitar savant Steve Vai, synth lord Ryuichi Sakamoto, and former Cream drummer Ginger Baker. Bill Laswell gets credit for producing/dreaming up the whole shebang. Of course, the most punk-rock thing is that which is least conventional—or expected. Album’s lineup was certainly unexpected, as was it turning out to be the best album in PiL’s career.


9. Billy Bragg, Talking With the Taxman About Poetry

Listening to Billy Bragg is like catching that guy who plays on the subway platform: You appreciate his talent, you’ll stop to listen, but you’re not exactly going to miss the train to finish the song. Still, you have to love Bragg’s sincerity; he really means what he says and he wants you to hear it. In fact, unlike those guys on the subway, I imagine he’d keep playing even after the train arrived and the platform emptied. And that is why I’ll drop some change into your guitar case, but I do not want your CD-R, man.


8. R.E.M., Life’s Rich Pageant

Up to this point, R.E.M. had been putting out some truly excellent albums—1983’s Murmur and 1984’s Reckoning, in particular—but it wasn’t until Life’s Rich Pageant that they finally assembled one that was inspired. Their earlier work was great, but still derivative, and used that Byrds-y 12-string Rickenbacker guitar as a crutch on one too many tracks, one too many times. Here they finally went into new territory (which they attempted on the previous year’s Fables of the Reconstruction, their half-formed foray into psychedelia), and all of a sudden, in the course of the album’s leadoff “Begin the Begin,” coined the R.E.M. sound.


7. Elvis Costello & the Attractions, Blood & Chocolate

I knew I’d heard the name somewhere before, but where? Oh right, “Napoleon Dynamite” is the album credit Elvis Costello took on Blood & Chocolate. It’s random, but not surprising that somebody would be so taken with the name—it’s such an exceptional album, the best he’d recorded since 1982’s Imperial Bedroom. Not as challenging as his early albums, Blood & Chocolate concentrates on Costello’s literate side, making for inaccessibility in a whole new way. The lyrical content doesn’t upstage the Attractions’ grand arrangements, however. In fact, it’s his most beautiful, stirring album.


6. Spacemen 3, Sound of Confusion

Either Jason Pierce or Pete Kember hit an effects pedal in 1986 that hasn’t stopped churning, and they’ve been arguing about who it was ever since. From Sound of Confusion all the way through their respective work today in Spiritualized and Spectrum, they’ve been jamming the same (or similar) riffs, with a drive-off-the-cliff psychedelic freakout attitude that somehow hasn’t lost a bit of its freshness or charm. It’s just that sometimes you’re driving a VW, but once upon a time you were piloting the mothership.


5. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Your Funeral, My Trial

More facts about Nick Cave: Nick Cave knows the exact date and time you’re going to die, but keeps telling you something different just to screw with you. When Freddy Krueger has a nightmare, Nick Cave is the narrator. Elvis isn’t dead; he’s just sitting in a pit in Nick Cave’s basement. Nick Cave shot first.


4. Sonic Youth, EVOL

Sonic Youth was going to have to start putting up or shutting up. Yes, in 1983, Confusion Is Sex was a manifesto for the new avant-garde, but I’ve got a headache. I’m not suggesting Sonic Youth should have hired Ginger Baker after 1985’s Bad Moon Rising, when Bob Bert quit the band and they needed a new drummer. So was their hiring of Steve Shelley what turned it around for the band? Hard to say, but this is certainly when Sonic Youth began delivering, when Sonic Youth started becoming the Sonic Youth Thurston Moore wishes had broken up, and when Sonic Youth invented the ‘90s.


3. Depeche Mode, Black Celebration

When I was 15 and still driving with a learner’s permit, my mother would ride with me every morning as I drove to school. Every morning she’d get in the passenger’s seat, roll down the window, and light a cigarette. Whenever I drove with my father—usually in the evenings—he instructed me in the ways of turn signals and full stops, and of friendly waves to drivers who let us in the on-ramps. My mother, however, only hung her cigarette out the window and asked if there were anyone I was thinking about taking to homecoming.

Most mornings, we’d listen to one of my tapes. At a stoplight, I once put in Black Celebration. It started playing as I turned onto the busiest thoroughfare in town. About a minute into the opening track, my mother ejected the tape and tossed it out the window. I was speechless. “I don’t want you listening to that,” she said, “It’s satanic.”

“What the FUCK? YOU’RE satanic! WHAT THE FUCK??”

I continued driving, silently. She didn’t say a word. And though we each got over it in some way, we never said another word about it to each other.

Five years later, she died. A few weeks after that, I went home to visit my father, and he showed me the tape. He said he’d found it in her dresser drawer, and asked if it was mine. The casing was scratched, cracked, smashed, the result of it hitting the pavement when I was 15. She’d gone back for it.


2. Metallica, Master of Puppets

By 1986, there was growing dissension among the ranks of the heavy metal army: Mötley Crüe had discovered ballads (which led to a lot more money, which led to a lot more drugs), Van Halen had Sammy Hagar (who still wasn’t singing from his diaphragm), and speed metal and the Accused weren’t appropriate (yet) for the suburbs. I’m not saying Metallica doesn’t deserve lionizing, but remember White Lion? Remember “Wait?” Yes, heavy metal was fast morphing into hard rock. So what I’m saying is that at that moment there was an opening, there were a lot of jean jackets in desperate need of a new back patch. And this album is bad-ass.


Album of the Year: The Smiths, The Queen Is Dead

When I got my first copy of The Queen Is Dead—on CD, a few years later I purchased a cassette version for the car, and later still, a copy on vinyl for posterity—I made a tape of it for my older brother, who was off at college. I boxed it up and included a four-page letter of song reviews and interpretations. That would have been the first time I tried anything like this. I remember remembering all of my interpretations were wrong, the more I listened to it. And as I grew up with the album, I understood my original interpretations of the songs to be so literal, all taking the songs at face value. (“There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” is not just about car accidents, after all.) This album taught me to listen closer.

About 10 years ago I drove home from Austin to help my father do some cleaning. My stepmother was moving in, and her daughter would be living in my brother’s old room. In a box at the top of his old closet we found something we hadn’t expected—every greeting card he’d ever received. Birthdays, Christmases, Valentine’s Days, every day they make a card for was in there. They were only from a handful of relatives, some of whose handwriting I hadn’t seen in a few years, including our mother’s. My letter was in there, too. We called my brother to ask what he wanted us to do with the box, and he asked us to ship it up to him in Pennsylvania. One more box for somebody to go through, some other time.


Andrew Womack is a founding editor of The Morning News. He is always working on the next installment of the Albums of the Year series at TMN. More by Andrew Womack