1987 Was a Very Good Year for Music

An artifact of artifacts

A friend recently (on Facebook) unearthed my top 10 favorite albums and singles from 1987. With the exception of the Tom Waits, the albums are all things I listen to quite regularly to this day — well, I don’t listen to The Joshua Tree much, but I have a special affection for “Bullet the Blue Sky,” with its epic, filmic quality, and for the version of “Sweetest Thing” that appeared on the B-side of the “Where the Streets Have No Name” 7″ (not the cleaned up, perfected version of “Sweetest Thing” that appeared on U2’s The Best of 1980-1990). The Metallica, Cecil Taylor, and Ray Anderson albums, in particular, are my favorites by those musicians. I still remember plucking the Anderson from the shelf at the college radio station, WYBC, where I had a jazz show, and falling for it immediately.


The singles are very pop, and I have come to realize, in retrospect, that my ear was focused on the music’s mechanical impulses, from the Devo-esque stop’n’start intensity of the They Might Be Giants, to the produced precision of the George Michael and the John Cougar Mellencamp. The Cure is one of the most misunderstood pop groups, often poorly characterized as a synth act. Its “Just Like Heaven” is by far the most live-sounding of the songs on this list, while the rest are quite clearly studio concoctions, in particular the Prince and Celtic Frost.

I’ve had this particular year’s top 10 in mind for awhile. This is in part because compiling a top 10 has become less and less interesting to me as the years have passed, and I look back at past lists wondering how much they were acts of necessity or of habit, rather than expressions of true prioritized interests. I look at the 1987 list and I know it was quite an accurate depiction of what I thought. I started many lists to summarize 2014 and only finished one, which I have yet to publish.

This 1987 list has also been on my mind because I’m especially keen on my sense, back in 1987, that the dense assemblage of M/A/R/R/S’ “Pump Up the Volume” was an invitation for others — for active listeners, as I’ve come to think of them — to join in the production process. The ridiculous bravado of my summary statement of the song is me trying out, I think, some of the rock-criticism writing I reading at the time. I hadn’t yet sorted out how to write like I want to write, and I was, so to speak, trying on other people’s clothes, awkwardly so. I was very sure, though, of what I wanted to listen to, and how I believed that music functioned, how it ticked. This list is reprinted from the February 1988 edition of Nadine, the student music publication where I attended college, Yale.

These are the albums:

  1. Metallica, Garage Days Re-Revisited: The $5.98 E.P.
  2. Cecil Taylor, For Olim
  3. John Zorn, Spillane
  4. Ray Anderson, It Just So Happens
  5. Tim Berne, Fulton Street Maul
  6. U2, The Joshua Tree
  7. Power Tools, Power Tools
  8. Alex Chilton, High Priest
  9. Einstürzende Neubauten, Fünf Auf Der Nach Oben Offenen Richterskala
  10. Tom Waits, Franks Wild Years

And these are the singles:

  1. Roy Orbison and k.d. lang, “Crying”—one of many amazing, current remakes by the dark Elvis, the Elephantman of rock ‘n’ roll.
  2. John Cougar Mellencamp, “Paper in Fire”
  3. George Michael, “Faith”
  4. They Might Be Giants, “Don’t Let’s Start”
  5. Bourgeois Tagg, “I Don’t Mind at All”
  6. Celtic Frost, “I Won’t Dance”
  7. John Cougar Mellencamp, “Cherry Bomb”
  8. Prince, “Sign O’ the Times”
  9. M/A/R/R/S, “Pump Up the Volume”—I never quite got the ‘CD single’ idea til I heard this song. I don’t even know if it’s out in that format yet. But, someday I wanna be able to load every scrumptiously digital instant into my Macintosh, edit the fucker “my way” (in fact I may just use Frankie’s own voice), and add my M/W to their M/A/R/R/S.
  10. The Cure, “Just Like Heaven”

10 thoughts on “1987 Was a Very Good Year for Music

  1. My recollection is that it was a good year as well. If I were to dig up my own list from then, I doubt there would be much overlap with yours, which is a possibly a good sign.

    I’m curious, of the albums, why is the Tom Waits the only one you no longer listen to? To my tastes, it’s the best of all of them.

    1. I was very much engaged with his music for many years. In the early 1990s, especially, I spent a lot of time tracking down copies of every record I could identify, but as time has passed — maybe because I’d overindulged — the mannerism inherent in his singing has come to seem contrived to me. The breaking point was his version of Gavin Bryars Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, which really foregrounded the artificiality of his singing. That said, I barely listen to any music with singing these days, and haven’t for a long time.

  2. Interesting how little overlap there is (almost zero; I own none of those albums and the only one I used to own was The Joshua Tree) considering how much my current tastes overlap with yours.

    1987 was the year I graduated from college. I’ve probably forgotten a lot, but based on a quick search of my current iTunes library, my list at the time would have included:

    Sonic Youth – “Sister” Throwing Muses – “Throwing Muses” Pixies – “Surfer Rosa” “Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares” R.E.M. – “Document” Michael Nyman – “Carrington” soundtrack 3 Mustaphas 3 – “Shopping”

    and a few cheats, i.e. favorites from 1987 that I didn’t discover until a few years later: Zoviet*France – “Shouting At The Ground” American Music Club – “Engine” Salem 66 – “Frequency and Urgency”

    1. Nice list, Jens. I would fall hard for the Mustaphas and Voix Bulgares — in fact, for pretty much all of that — within a year or so. I think in 1987, the year before I graduated from college, only Sonic Youth was really regular listening, though Throwing Muses were big on the radio station I volunteered at.

  3. Man, I can hardly remember 1987. I have to say, that Orbison/Lang version of ‘Crying’ is still near the top of my desert island list, and ‘Paper In Fire’ and the Alex Chilton were once.

    I would have agreed about Tom Waits (except for eternal faves ‘Tom Traubert’s Blues’ and ‘Invitation to the Blues’) – and I agree he was not the best choice for Jesus’ Blood (which I play once a year and it still has me in tears) – but I just got hold of the Orphans monster set and it has me back listening to him again. Saw him live in the wayback and it was a sublime concert.

    1. I still have my copy of that “Crying” 7″. So good.

      My doubts always end up with me challenging them, so my comments above mean I’m likely in for a Waits refresher soon. I did get a taste recently when I dug out the Hal Willner compilation Stay Awake, and heard his “Heigh Ho” (from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves).

  4. I wish that every They Might Be Giants song were as much fun as “Don’t Let’s Start”, but then, I suppose I am saying that I wish They Might Be Giants were more like early Cagey House, and nowadays I’d rather listen to later Cagey House anyway.

    “Just Like Heaven” is such a lovely, cinematic song that’s it’s puzzling that it’s a bit regrettable that it’s been picked up for this film or that by someone else who understands what cinematic pop should be.

    Frank’s Wild Years and the Zorn album would make a delightful mash-up.

  5. Two comments: It was probably a year or two (after 1987) before I was able to finally special order (! – oh the joys of small town living) that debut Power Tools album. I listened to that pretty intensely for a number of years. So much so that I dreamed those melodies. No one else I knew could stand it, even the relatively open minded people I met in college. So it’s a pleasure to see that somebody else out there liked that one. I’ve never heard the follow up, since the appeal for me was the contrast of Frisell with that rhythm section. I still think it’s one of my favorite things that he’s done. Frank’s Wild Years is amazing, but I too find myself not playing it much these days. I attribute it to overplay/overfamiliarity. But now that I say that, I want to hear Ribot tear it up in “Hang On, St. Christopher” again!

    1. Yeah, Power Tools was a special album, for sure. Have you heard Unspeakable? It’s quite different from Power Tools, more downtempo and funky, but also distinct from the “country aura” that is characteristic of much of his output. And, yeah, Ribot on that album is tremendous. The whole band is.

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