Albums of my Years – 1986

No 2019 roundup here – if I manage to keep to schedule  on these that one should arrive in late October.  Instead we roll past the halfway mark of my first decade: 1986.

It’s an odd year for music this one. I have vivid memory of the songs of this time – given that radio still plays a lot of them it’s no real surprise. I also have a clear memory of a walk home from school (we lived about 10 minutes’ walk from my primary school) and seeing a smashed cassette on the ground and having, at the time no idea who Bon Jovi were or why someone would have stomped on Slippery When Wet (my guess, now, is that they couldn’t hear ‘Without Love’ one more time without going loco).

Jon and his hairspray-loving mates didn’t really kick in over here in the same way as the US.  ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’ did hit the top ten later in the year but here the radio was ruled by songs like Madonna’s ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ (True Blue was released in June and went on to bonkers numbers in sales) and Surivor’s ‘Burning Heart’ or, even worse Diana Ross’ ‘Chain Reaction’ and Boris Gardiner’s ‘I Wanna Wake Up with You’ that still haunts my brain. The Communards’ take on  ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ saw off the horrors of Chris De Burgh’s ‘Lady in Red’ and Berlin’s ‘Take My Breath Away’ for the title of biggest single. Dark times on the radio.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame held its first induction ceremony in January ’86. The ceremony took place in New York and first inductees included Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry (inducted by Chuck devotee Keith Richards) along with The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and record producer Sam Phillips.

Bob Geldof picked up an award in ’86, he was awarded an Honorary Knighthood for his Band Aid / Live Aid work, though as he’s not a citizen of the Commonwealth he can never be Sir Bob…

In August, guitarist Bob Stinson was out of The Replacements, the group he founded, with the old ‘creative and personal differences’ explanation being wheeled out. Stinson preferred the faster, louder sound of the band’s earlier songs while Paul Westerberg’s growth as a songwriter was taking him down the quieter, introspective route with songs like ‘Here Comes a Regular’. Bob’s drug and alcohol abuse only made the situation worse.

Late September, Metallica were on tour in Sweden promoting Master of Puppets and members drew cards to determine which bunks on the tour bus they would sleep in. Bass player Cliff Burton won and chose to sleep in Kirk Hammett’s bunk. Next morning, as the sun rose, the driver lost control and the bus skidded and rolled over several times. The rest of the band were ok but Burton was thrown out of the window. The bus fell on him, pinning him  to the ground and killing him. While detectives would point to the lack of ice and the skid marks being exactly like ones seen when drivers fall asleep at the wheel, the driver was cleared of any fault. Burton would be replaced by Jason Newstead who would remain with the band until 2001.

It was goodnight from The Clash in ’86 as what was left of the band disbanded as did Men At Work, ELO and The Firm, the short-lived Paul Rodgers and Jimmy Page supergroup. However, The Afghan Whigs, Band of Susans, Boards of Canada, Manic Street Preachers, Slint, and two of Boston’s finest – The Pixies and Buffalo Tom all formed in 1986, putting the scales firmly in the positive.

There were a lot of album releases in 1986 but, in terms of what would fall in my listening orbit, it’s a slim entry of a year. Metallica’s Master of Puppets which contained not only the stonking title track but ‘Battery’ and ‘Orion’ arrived in March and Van Halen, now fronted by an actual singer called Sammy Hagar, dropped 5150 a couple of weeks later – it was the first of their run of four albums with Hagar, all of which would hit Number 1 on the charts. The glorified strip-club MC that previously fronted their band dropped his own debut Eat ‘Em and Smile in July.  While Dickhead Dave had Steve Vai, there’s no comparing to EVH, even when he’s in ballad-mode, the guy drips riffs and tricks:

In a similar arena-bound genre, Bon Jovi unleashed Slippery When Wet in ’86 with it going on to shift something like 30 million copies.  Meanwhile debuts this year came from Bruce Hornsby and the Range who, just for fun, said ‘get a job’, Big Black, Steve Earle and Crowded House whose strong, eponymous first album featured some absolute great tunes and one of their biggest singles to date:

Having dropped two belters in 1985 you’d be forgiven for expecting Hüsker Dü to take a breather but, instead they released Candy Apple Grey via their new major label Warner Bros. and shifted ever so-slightly enough from their hardcore punk sound to create what could be considered one of the first college-rock records. Former SST label-mates Sonic Youth released EVOL in 1986. It’s a real favourite of mine, possibly in the Top 5 of their albums – it’s their first with Steve Shelley on the drum stool and marks the turning point from the whole ‘no-wave’ to the sound they’d perfect over the next few years (1988 is pretty much a done-deal).

Bruce Springsteen topped the charts toward the end of 1986 with Live 1975 – 85. This (until then) career-documenting box set broke records for pre-orders and remains an absolute must in terms of both Springsteen’s catalogue and live records.. I mean I could feature this as it wasn’t covered in the Least to Most series but going for a live album would open up the ability to include compilations and … well I don’t think it can count. So, that leave:

Lifes Rich Pageant – REM

I got into R.E.M around the release of ‘E-Bow the Letter’ single in 1996. By that time it was impossible not to know who they were, this was after ‘Everybody Hurts’ and ‘What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?’ etc had been riding the airwaves for a few years but it was that song that properly hooked me when I heard it on the car radio one day.  From there, as with so many other bands, I went back and scouring and collecting the back catalogue and discovering R.E.M’s IRS albums was almost like finding the work of a different band.

My second-favourite R.E.M album behind New AdventuresLifes Rich Pageant was the band’s fourth and strips away the murky sound of Fables of  the Reconstruction for something dramatically more direct and punchy sounding – well, certainly in terms of early R.E.M.

The choice of Don Gheman as producer is an odd one – the dude was known for his work with John Mellencamp and you’d be hard-pushed to listen to ‘Jack and Diane’ and think ‘this is the sound those dudes who did Harborcoat need’ – but it works, even if they didn’t work together again. Songs like ‘Just a Touch’ and ‘Begin the Begin’ are the clearest beneficiaries and were the hardest the band had sounded at that point, paving the way for future tracks like ‘Drive’ and Accelerate:

Stripping away the deliberate cloud in the sound and opting for a crisper approach may have been down to the fact that Stipe was becoming increasingly confident as a singer and as a songwriter with lyrics that were now taking on political and environmental / ecological themes like the one-two punch of greatness that make up ‘Fall on Me’ and ‘Cuyahoga’, which are underpinned by Mike Mills’ harmonies and rolling bass lines:

For me this is the album where R.E.M step away from the fog and sound both contemporary and forward-thinking. While it sounds very much of the time it isn’t bound by it either. It’s riddled with the sounds and hallmarks of what would soon be pegged as the R.E.M sound but still sounds fresh and exciting some three decades plus later and when you listen to the great live albums the band have made, some of the biggest cheers are reserved for songs from early albums like Lifes Rich Pageant – because they’re brilliantly crafted nuggets written before all the weight of expectation that would soon greet every R.E.M album and remain highlights in a catalogue stuffed with great tunes.

My only issue with this album isn’t the apostrophe. It’s the fact that the track listing on the back of the album isn’t correct. It’s never been and has never been corrected either, it drove me bonkers at first and it still gets me each time I listen to it.

17 thoughts on “Albums of my Years – 1986

  1. For some reason there are a bunch of 1986 albums I adore. Along with Life’s Rich Pageant other absolute favourites include the textural experimentation meets pop of Talk Talk’s Colour of Spring and XTC’s song cycle Skylarking.

    There’s also Paul Simon’s Graceland, The Smiths’ Queen is Dead, and Sonic Youth’s Evol.

  2. Much to unpack here. 1986 doesn’t stand out for me musically in any way so I did a little research. Albums – Frank Zappa’s “Does Humor Belong in Music?” notable largely because after fans constantly yelling out for them to play the Allman’s ‘Whipping Post’ they finally did it. Dweezil plays the solo here but I believe Steve Vai was doing it live. Others: ‘Tuff Enough’ by the Fabulous Thunderbirds; ‘So’ by Peter Gabriel; Crowded House debut; ‘Strong Persuader’ by bluesman Robert Cray. And even though I don’t own them, it should be noted that the ingloriously named Butthole Surfers released the equally ingloriously named ‘Rembrandt Pussyhorse’ and a band named Felt released ‘Let the Snakes Crinkle Their Heads to Death.’

  3. Thanks Tony, looking forward to checking out your previous year posts. Couple of random comments. Absolutely loved Crowded House debut – Don’t Dream Its Over is a perfect pop song imho.
    Re: VH, while I agree that DLR is a pretenious ***hole and not much of a singer, I prefer almost any VH song with him as front man to Sammy Hagar. VH I remains one of the greatest debuts of all time. In my opinion, VH staring going downhill with 1984 when Eddie decided to try his hand at synths (although he is and remains amazing on guitar).

    I remember the 1986 Grammy awards where the nominees for album of the year were Peter Gabriel So, Paul Simon Graceland, Steve Winwood Higher Life, and Dionne Warwick That’s what Friends are For. One guess what won – and I have never payed attention to the Grammys ever since.

    • Ah DLR…. 😂 yeah I agree on the first VH album but I find his schtick gets old fast, every interview with him I’ve seen / read just makes me wonder how many screws he’s had knocked loose and his voice was limited even at his peak. I think everybody turned to the synths too much in the 80’s, but once they withdrew the couple of albums Van Hagar dropped in the 90s were much heavier.

      Can’t believe I omitted So as well.

    • I’m going to agree on Roth. Tony, love ya but you keep conflating people’s personalities with their musical abilities. David Lee Roth is a fine singer and the perfect frontman for Van Halen. As to the Grammys, I don’t – and never have – bothered with them. At least not the televised piece. It’s all show biz.

  4. My head hurts trying to remember any of that stuff so my hats off to you for a job well done. I must have been there for a few. I know I was for the Steve Earle, Springsteen, Husker Du. The REM is a good one. Time to pull a few out for a listen. I’ve been stuck in a jazz funk. A good funk.

  5. If you look up ‘Empty Arena Rock’ in the dictionary, there you’ll find Bon Jovi. The Firm. Jimmy Page’s last gasp I think before he realized he couldn’t top Zep and would have to just settle for being an elder statesman of rock. Nothing bad to say about REM. I like ’em more than I did then. Just a great catalog. I don’t like everything on the ‘This is REM’ Spotify list so I’ll have to create my own. ‘Fall on Me’ is a glorious song and is, I think, my favorite of theirs. I think I own, like, one album by them as my album-buying days had slowed. Then I started buying CD’s.

  6. Entertaining as ever, Tony.

    I realised that Dickhead Dave’s awesome debut was 1986, so I was waiting to tell you it would be my album pick. The hiring of (actual singer) Sammy resulted in Van Halen entering their generic rock phase. So, The Power Station is therefore promoted to my favourite 1985 album and Diamond Dave’s Eat ‘Em and Smile edging Steve Earle’s Guitar Town for me.

    Anyhoo, R.E.M.’s a good focus pick. I won’t argue with that.

    And Happy New Year to you!

  7. Tony, the guy whose voice I hate is Geddy Lee. Rush seem like a nice bunch of guys, great musicians, some good music. But he is one of the worst lead singers I ever heard in my life. They should have long ago added a good vocalist or someone who could both sing and play an instrument.

  8. Paul Simon Graceland and Steve Earle Guitar Town are my top for 1986. 5150 is definitely in there too but loved it more then than now.

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