After spending the first couple of articles in the series “Ten Best Albums of…” within the 2000s, I jump to the very tail end of the 80s, in 1989, where genres that dominated the early part of the decade like new wave and post-punk were set aside for the immense popularity of metal, post-hardcore, and the U.K. Madchester scene. Beneath the mainstream horizon, hip-hop continued it’s rise to stardom that would dominate the 90s while early indie rock and grunge took shape with bands like Pixies and Nirvana leading the era respectably. Household names included but were not limited to Madonna and her defining singe “Like a Prayer” and Prince, who was tapped for the soundtrack of “Batman,” which at the time was the fifth highest-grossing film of all time. And to throw a curveball into the mix, a handful of classic compilation albums compiling old E.P.’s into first-time album releases from Minor Threat, Fugazi, and Nick Cave’s first band, The Birthday Party. 1989 was an exciting mix; you had plenty of genres in there infancy with others inevitably fading out of the conversation, transitioning into the wild west that was the 90s. Here is 1989, another extraordinary year packed with albums well worthy of talking about over 30 years later.
10. “Technique” by New Order
A lot can happen in a decade for a musician, ask the members of New Order. In 1979, Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, and Stephen Morris were the backbone of Ian Curtis’s bleak songwriting on “Unknown Pleasures,” the most universally praised post-punk album in existence. By 1989, New Order were new wave darlings branching out even further with their fifth album, “Technique.” Influenced by the booming Madchester scene of the time, New Order demonstrated “Technique” wouldn’t be another new wave record, but a synthy dance record which is on full display on the intro, “Fine Time.” The use of other elements such as acid house, is a testament that the old guard, New Order could still keep up with the younger wave of musicians within the popular Madchester scene.
In 1989, “Technique” was ahead if it’s time fusing the best of both rock and dance music. In 2020, some have argued parts of “Technique,” in particular “Fine Time,” hasn’t aged so gracefully. I see New Order’s fifth album as the start of a graceful exit from the mainstream for synthpop bands as the U.K. music landscape would change drastically in the coming years. In particular, the second half of “Technique” doesn’t get enough credit for being some of the best music of the 80s, with the best two songs of the album being the final two, “Vanishing Point” and “Dream Attack.” As a whole, New Order excels in blending the stark differences of rock and dance, a fantastic way to end a prolific decade for a band that rose from the ashes of the tragic ending to Joy Division.
9. “Complete Discography” by Minor Threat
Hence the album name, what’s more, punk rock than fitting an entire band’s discography on one CD? Minor Threat was a short-lived Washington D.C. act within the cities acclaimed hardcore punk scene, playing venues such as the iconic “9:30 Club” in the same circles as other punk legends, The Void, and Bad Brains. What Minor Threat is perhaps best known for is their pride in carrying the “straight edge” label. This term was initially coined after Minor Threat’s 45-second song “Straight Edge,” first released in 1981 that soon blossomed into a well-acknowledged subculture within the giant punk umbrella.
Before “Complete Discography,” the legacy of Minor Threat was that of music folklore. Much like The Misfits, Minor Threat didn’t garner any significant level of notoriety until after their split. For nearly a decade, with no studio album, the brilliance of Minor Threat could only be heard through scattered 7" and 12" Vinyl’s, far from attainable for the average fan. That’s what makes “Complete Discography” so important, it compiles Minor Threat’s three E.P.’s and other singles into one compact body of work, shedding light on the punk icons, for many the first time. 26 tracks in 46 minutes, “Complete Discography” fronted by Ian MacKaye is a Tour de France of the political, raw energy of Minor Threat’s short but impactful career. From the first track “Filler” to the last “Salad Days,” the passion and intensity are unmatched, embodying the epitome of punk rock.
8. “Streetcleaner” by Godflesh
If you want music that feels like getting your head bashed in with a wrench for 52 minutes, Godflesh’s “Streetcleaner” is a good start. Similar in sound to early Swans records such as “Filth,” “Streetcleaner” embraces dissonant angry instrumentation and shouted lyrics, almost intentionally going against the grain of the guitar playing. This ruthless combination rejects even the littlest sense of melody, opting for hatred and nihilism in the medium of music. “Streetcleaner” starts with the albums most approachable track, “Like Rats” before delving into somehow more even more dissonant, head pounding moments like “Mighty Trust Krusher.”
In a time where metal was at its peak in popularity, most bands within the genre were predictable, attempting to play faster than the next. Godflesh instead opted for a slow and grueling take on metal, blending sludge metal and noise rock of the no wave scene with an Alesis HR-16 drum machine, this creating the origins of industrial metal. The hard-hitting sounds and machine-based percussion influenced bands like Ministry, and Marilyn Mason’s standout sounds present on “The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste” and “Antichrist Superstar” respectably. “Streetcleaner” is far from friendly on the ears, but if a grinding landmark metal album is your niche, the debut from Godflesh is one of the best albums the genre has to offer.
7. “On Fire” by Galaxie 500
One of the finest movements to come to fruition in the tail end of the 80s was the slowcore genre. Known for its characteristics of downbeat tempos, softly sung delivery, and often depressive lyrics, Galaxie 500 are the originators of the distinctive sad sound illustrated on their 1988 debut, “Today.” While an excellent album, “On Fire,” is where Galaxie 500 came into their own, making any situation sound bittersweet. For example, “Strange,” which is about frontman Dean Wareham’s experience of going on a snack run at a local drug store while tripping acid. Much of the lyrics aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel but instead finding appreciation in the simplicity of common youth life occurrences. To me, “On Fire” is the soundtrack to a late-night out with high school friends in your modest hometown. It’ll make you reminisce on teenage memories you may have never actually had, perhaps ones you wished to have experienced when listening to other standouts like “Blue Thunder.”
“On Fire” is characterized by bass leading melodies, admirably lethargic vocal deliveries, all doused in a wall of sound. This blueprint would lead to the ’90s slowcore boon with bands, Low, Duster, and Red House Painters building on the complexity aspect, adding in elements of post-rock and folk. Some of these bands would end up making better music than Galaxie 500. Yet, the originators deserve high praise for the originality of combining neo-psychedelia, jangle, and dream pop forming the early slowcore sound.
6. “Floating into the Night” by Julee Cruise
“Floating into the Night” is an all-star trio formed through lyrics written by David Lynch, composition handled by Angelo Badalamenti, and of course, brought to life by the beautiful voice of Julee Cruise. This same trio is the lifeblood of “Twin Peaks” as “Falling” is the theme song of the cult show with other tracks like “Floating” playing critical roles in the show. Everything about “Floating into the Night” is near perfect, but wouldn’t be made possible without one of the most exceptional vocal performances ever found on an album. Julee Cruise’s vocals are soft and hypnotic, giving you a feeling of what it must be like to be floating through space similar to what’s seen on the album cover.
The best way to describe Angelo Badalamenti’s sound on “Floating into the Night” is jazzy dream pop with traces of laid back lounge. It’s a strange combination that hadn’t been executed before, nor has anyone come close since. But with David Lynch behind the scenes, can you expect anything less than an outside the box avant-garde masterpiece? As an avid “Twin Peaks” fan such as I, it’s impossible to listen to “Floating into the night” without reminiscing and rerunning memorable episodes of “Twin Peaks” such as “Lonely Souls” and “May the Giant Be with You” in my head. “Floating into the Night” is equally weird and beautiful, much like it’s accompanied show leaving me with this, “and there’s always music in the air.”
5. “The Stone Roses” by The Stone Roses
Madchester was a short-lived music scene based in Manchester during the late 80s and early 90s, updating the sound of 60s pop similar to The Beatles and Zombies, adding in then-contemporary elements of neo-psychedelia and alternative-dance inspired by the U.K. rave culture. Most of the bands from this era have been forgotten. Yet, The Stone Roses debut has continued to be adored by indie heads and consistently praised by critics decades later, unanimously earning the position as the poster boys of the Madchester scene.
Layered with a wall of sound, frontman Ian Brown sings about themes such as newfound fame and estranged relationships in an upbeat, melodic matter. In regards to the instrumentation, The Stone Roses created a unique blend of throwback pop songs with heavy guitar work mashing their influences, The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix with the sounds of the U.K. rave culture creating a piece of groundbreaking music. “The Stone Roses” is a happy-go-lucky collection of catchy songs that sparked the next decade’s brit-pop movement. Without The Stone Roses and their influential debut album, popular British bands that would arise less than a half-decade later, such as Blur, Pulp, and Oasis, may not have been the superstars that we know them as today.
4. “Paul’s Boutique” by Beastie Boys
In 1986, The Beastie Boys were the ultimate “frat bros” of music, finding chart-topping success through enormous rap-rock crossover appeal on the back of singles “Fight For Your Right” and “No Sleep Till Brooklyn.” Even with all of the early major-label success the Beastie Boys had, it was easy to write them off as cheesy culture vultures taking advantage of a bubbling New York City subculture. Post “Licensed to Ill” saw a fallout with Rick Rubin and Def Jam, giving the Beastie Boys a much different outlook after signing to the lesser-known label, Capitol. Instead of a radio-friendly follow-up to “Licensed to Ill,” the group’s sophomore album, “Paul’s Boutique,” was the unexpected, with the B-Boys opting to be trailblazers than again chase the commercial achievements of their debut. “Paul’s Boutique” is a left-field release built almost solely off of samples, a number well into the hundreds of short bits and pieces from musicians such as Curtis Mayfield, The Beatles, Elvis Costello, James Brown, and a monologue more, recycling well-known classics and obscurities to create something entirely new. While a commercial flop, the move away from the rap-rock sound of “Licensed to Ill” saw much of the naysayers of the hip-hop community welcome the Beastie Boys with open arms. Even though production-wise, “Paul’s Boutique” couldn’t be any more different, the humorous, often childish lyrics of “Licensed to Ill” are still present on tracks like “Shake Your Rump” and “Hey Ladies” thrown in with the serious rock song, “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun.”
Besides “It Takes a Nation of Millions, to Hold us Back,” “Paul’s Boutique” is the quintessential rap album to come out of the 80s. An artistic statement that defied hip-hop norms at the time took the technique and complexity of sampling to new extremes. Sadly, the extent of sampling the Beastie Boys were able to accomplish on “Paul’s Boutique” has become near impossible to achieve due to the implementation of strict copyright laws set in place not long after. For this reason, the Beastie Boys would again make a drastic shift in sound, but not before making a revolutionary hip-hop album by mashing jazz, punk, and funk samples together with satirical punchlines and trademark goofy lyrics.
3. “Disintegration” by The Cure
It’s a tossup between Prince and The Cure for the greatest act of the ’80s, both seemingly released classic after classic over the decade. However, as Prince did the “Batman” soundtrack to decent reception to end his stellar decade, The Cure would take a victory lap in the form of “Disintegration.”Personally, I find “Pornography” to be The Cure’s best for its ice-cold atmosphere. Yet, the eighth album from the gothic rock icons finds Robert Smith and company in a much more melancholic state, a mix of love and depression that can only be found here such as single “Pictures of You.” From the beginning, you’ll be warped into the ethereal sound of “Disintegration,” giving you the feeling of being in a dreamlike state of gloom on the slow-burning intro “Plainsong.” The complexity of “Disintegration’s” instrumentation is accomplished through the predominant use of keyboard and synthesizers. Paired with Robert Smith's best vocal performance, it becomes easy to see why this is the marquee goth album in the eyes of many.
The late 80s were uncertain times for The Cure. Having a hard time coming to grips with their new level of fame, some members took up self-destructive habits during this period, such as Smith relapsing into LSD use to cope with depression. What could’ve quickly lead down the wrong path, the band rebounded instead of letting the cons of fame cloud their vision. The Cure used inevitable baggage of being known as mega rockstars to create a masterwork of melancholic brilliance, reflecting the band’s state in a confusing but crucial era.
2. “Doolittle” by The Pixies
In the late 80s, indie rock was still in its infancy, born out of genes such as noise rock, jangle pop, and a plethora of others. The band that best morphed these seemingly different sounds into one, making something utterly unique became The Pixies, with Dinosaur Jr. as a close second. A year prior, The Pixies would release “Surfer Rosa” with the well known “Where Is My Mind?” which has become an alternative rock staple. The 1989 “Doolittle,” though, finds the band at their peak, more consistent top to bottom with highlights including “Debaser” and “Here Comes Your Man.” The Pixies also further submitted themselves as the architect of the “loud, quiet-loud” song structure, an extreme example of this style is the second track, “Tame.” Easy to become predictable, this structure couldn’t have been successful without the backing melodic vocals of bassist Kim Deal to balance out the loud, often chaotic vocals of Black Francis.
The Pixies are the most influential alternative band to exist. Rock phenomenons, Smashing Pumpkins, PJ Harvey, Soundgarden, The Strokes, Modest Mouse, and countless others have cited The Pixies as where they derived their sound. The “loud, quiet-loud” structure would become a staple in the grunge movement and the blueprint for plenty of Nirvana’s hits, beyond noticeable on “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Without “Surfer Rosa” and “Doolittle,” it’s hard to imagine 90s rock looking the same, defined by catchy songwriting and abrasive guitar-heavy instrumentation while walking the tightrope between soothing melodies and chaos. No album would influence the next decades alternative sound as much as The Pixies did with “Doolittle.”
1. “13 Songs” by Fugazi
The best album of 1989 happens to be a compilation of a couple of E.P.’s released between 1988 and 1989 from none other than the best hardcore band ever to exist. As you can see, I use the album term pretty loosely, but if I weren’t, Fugazi’s brilliance would’ve gone unnoticed and been a crime on my behalf. The Washington D.C. band is the result of the combination of Minor Threat’s Ian MacKaye, who, of course, holds the ten spot on this list with the “Complete Discography” compilation and members of Rites of Spring creating a long-lasting supergroup. “13 Songs” consists of the band’s first two E.P.’s “Fugazi” released in 1988 and “Margin Walker” released in 1989, just three months before the release of this classic compilation. What you get is Fugazi in there most raw and intense state, an average of three-minute songs of fuzzy guitars and pounding drums best portrayed on the greatest hardcore song ever, “Waiting Room.”
“13 Songs” is a landmark rerelease. It’s the beginning of the post-hardcore movement, a further shift away from the ultra-short songs of hardcore punk, ramping up the complexity of songwriting and guitar work without compromising the ultra-loud and fast spirit. Fugazi would release plenty of acclaimed material in the ’90s but, nothing can beat the band’s original content found on “13 Songs.”
“Mutiny / The Bad Seeds E.P.” by The Birthday Party, “Wrong” by NoMeansNo, “The Sensual World” by Kate Bush, “New York” by Lou Reed, “The Real Thing” by Faith No More, “Bleach” by Nirvana, “Solo Piano” by Philip Glass, “Mudhoney” by Mudhoney, “No Control” by Bad Religion, “Start Today” by Gorilla Biscuits