If 1985-86 is a dead zone for Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, then 1987-88 is a black hole. Mainstream popular music was more about hairspray and pastel colors than artistic achievement.
How bad was music in 1987? It was Bruce Willis – The Return of Bruno bad. It was Whitesnake and Tawny Kitaen on the hood of a Jaguar dreadful. It was Richard Marx unspeakable. It was Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine doing “Rhythm is Gonna Get You” on a recursive loop. You get the idea, I reckon.
But I know some of you must be perplexed. What’s a Whitesnake? So here’s a quick legend to the map.
Bruce Willis = marginally talented American television and film actor; wise guy David Hasselholf-type with roughly the same lack of musical talent
Whitesnake = unapologetic, derivative hair metal from a guy (David Coverdale) who used to be in Deep Purple
Tawny Kitaen = wildly sexy and provocative model-aspiring-actress type who was banging Coverdale at the time
Richard Marx = the American Phil Collins without an art rock pedigree, but with a full head of hair and a sweet mullet
Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine = the ultimate Latin wedding band
But was it all bad? Didn’t certain alternative and indie bands make fabulous records? Weren’t a select number of rap and hip-hop artists allowed to cross over into the mainstream? Wasn’t the heart of rock n’ roll still beating in Cleveland?
The most successful and important rock record of this era was Guns N’ Roses – Appetite for Destruction, but the rock record you couldn’t afford to miss was Jane’s Addiction – Nothing’s Shocking. Either way, there’s still a lot of good music to hear from this period, just not quite as much as we’re used to.
Strikethrough indicates what you probably think it does
Green indicates highly recommended listening
Underlined indicates questionable but ultimately acceptable record
Blue bold italic indicates ABSOLUTELY MUST HEAR BEFORE YOU DIE
Note: Suggested alternatives are from the same year as the contested entry unless otherwise indicated
Also, anything in Red generally indicates hazardous material
Anthrax – Among The Living (1987)
We take our son to play and socialize at a local park, and there’s a rotating crew of kids and parents that you may or may not see on a regular basis. Anyway, there’s this one father whose uniform consists of t-shirt, shorts, black socks and blue Crocs. My wife Janice cannot fathom why he would wear black socks with shorts and sandals, and it bothers her to the point where she tells me that he looks awful. And these socks aren’t scrunched down at his ankles, either; so my response is, “It’s free comedy.” Like dudes who tuck their shirts into their slacks, which are pulled halfway up their torsos. I call ‘em High Riders. That shit is fucking hilarious.
Anthrax is the black socks and blue Crocs of rock music. They played some of the most fashionably unfashionable thrash metal with the same number of fucks given by the guy at the kid’s park: Zero.
Death – Scream Bloody Gore
King Diamond – Abigail
Death – the metal band from Orlando, and not the protopunk group from Detroit – are a trip, and Scream Bloody Gore is considered one of the first death metal albums, but I’ve nothing but indifference about them. Meanwhile, you either think King Diamond is a genius and you love his whole shtick, or Abigail is going to be some of the most terrible shit you’ve ever heard in your life.
Astor Piazzolla & Gary Burton – The New Tango (1987)
Think of one good reason you’re interested in tango music and write it down on a piece of paper. This reason has to be Capital-G good. Like, “I grew up a couple of miles from Ástor Piazzolla International Airport (MDQ) in Mar del Plata, Argentina, a city 200 km south of Buenos Aires. Tango… it is in my blood!”
Or, “I studied vibraphone at Julliard and met Gary Burton on several occasions. I have all his albums.”
Wendy O. Williams and the Plasmatics – Maggots: The Record
Easily one of the most out-of-its-everlovin’-mind albums I’ve ever heard. Considered the first thrash metal opera, Maggots is a concept album set 25 years in the future, where environmental abuse and the burning of fossil fuels have created a greenhouse effect, leading to an end of the world scenario. The album features various scenes of the White Family over the course of three days. The family is devoured while watching a TV game show. Valerie, the girlfriend of hot-shot television reporter Bruce is devoured by three massive maggots while lying in her boyfriend’s bed. The final scene of the record shows the entire human population is headed for imminent annihilation.
You snooze, you lose on this one, kids.
Butthole Surfers – Locust Abortion Technician (1987)
Brace yourself for probably almost definitely the very first grunge album, which, generally speaking, gets tedious after a while. I wouldn’t blame you for bailing out after 20 minutes or so, precisely because that’s how far I’ve ever gotten.
Def Leppard – Hysteria (1987)
The next time your drummer loses his left arm in a self-inflicted auto wreck, and following the accident, declares his intention to return to the drum kit despite his disability, using a combination electronic/acoustic kit with a set of MIDI pedals, DO NOT discourage or dissuade him. Simply hand him a copy of this record and say, “This is what we don’t want to do.”
Depeche Mode – Music For The Masses (1987)
Dinosaur Jr. – You’re Living All Over Me (1987)
One of THE classic alternative rock albums. Post-punk noise pop with gnarly guitars and whining vocals. They sound exactly like the 1987 high school version of Neil Young and Crazy Horse. I don’t know how or why these guys ever became such a big deal, but they did. I like them now more than I did 28 years ago.
My brother Bobby Camp recently passed away, and I cannot forget that it was Bobby who absolutely adored Dinosaur Jr., and dragged me kicking and screaming to Cabaret Metro to see the band on the Bug tour (1989). And it was Bobby who wanted to be right up front, within arms reach of J. Mascis, where the mosh pit was unhinged. It was at the time, the most offensively loud musical performance I had ever attended, and I walked away from it absolutely cursing J. Mascis for his assault on my senses.
Dolly Parton With Linda Ronstadt & Emmylou Harris – Trio (1987)
Are you planning on knitting a sweater for your granddaughter this evening? Maybe light a fire in the hearth, brew a pot of tea, and soak your feet in hot water and Epsom salts? Later, I’ll make some hot cocoa with pillowed marshmallows and we can nibble on butter cookies and snuggle under a quilt.
Look, I have nothing inappropriate to say about these three artists. However, having all three of them on one record is like putting Buffalo chicken wings on a birthday cake, frosted with a salmon icing and sprinkled with Flintstone Chewables. The fuck are you going to do with that?
Nudge. Wink. Flintstone Chewables. Haha. Anything but Wilma!
George Michael – Faith (1987)
Faith won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 1989 (that’s not a typo) and sold 11 million copies in the U.S. alone.
How great were the odds against the former lead singer of dry-fart pop duo Wham! making an album anybody Must Hear? There were no odds, but there was a gun to George Michael’s head. He was going to make one of the most successful and enduring pop records of all-time, or he was going the way of Boy George and Adam Ant. And you can’t say the guy got lucky; he knew how to produce an adult contemporary masterpiece. Credit where credit is due, Michael wrote and produced every track and played nearly every instrument on the record.
Faith stayed in the top 10 for 51 weeks, spent 12 weeks at #1, and produced five #1 singles. I feel that recommending this album as a Must Hear is like encouraging someone eat nothing but Hostess Twinkies for a week straight. Why not just start using heroin? Or crack? Or try snorting those bath salts from the Dolly Parton knitting incident?
Minutemen – 3-Way Tie For Last
Guns N’ Roses – Appetite For Destruction (1987)
Hüsker Dü – Warehouse: Songs And Stories (1987)
Please refer to this episode of Jukebox Antagonist for my complete thoughts on Appetite.
Warehouse is one of the rare double LPs worth a contiguous listen, i.e. almost every track is killer.
John Zorn – Spy Vs. Spy: The Music Of Ornette Coleman (1987)
You should be acquainted everything this record represents: avant-garde free noise jazz. I don’t know that you’re really going to make it all the way through this album, or even the first two minutes of track 1: “WRU”, but now you know what it is. Your work is done here.
At any rate, John Zorn is someone you should be familiar with, and I suck for not suggesting his The Big Gundown (1985), which featured reworked covers of tracks by the Italian film composer Ennio Morricone. That’s the record you really Should Hear.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo – Shaka Zulu (1987)
Laibach – Opus Dei (1987)
Martial industrial is a lonely flank of post-industrial noise, dark ambient, neo folk, dark wave and neoclassical orchestrations mixed with military marches, historical speeches and political, apolitical or metapolitical lyrics. Unlike other post-industrial genres, martial industrial is more interested propagandizing a worldview or philosophy than pure experimentalism, i.e. making music. Does that sound like some shit you want to sit through?
Ministry – The Land of Rape and Honey (1988)
Remember Einstürzende Neubauten’s Kollaps from back in 1982? And remember how I said they would spawn a phalanx of industrial bands? This is the fruit of their loins. Former dance party circus chimp Al Jourgensen fell back in love with rock and heavy metal guitar riffage. And “Stigmata” may be the only industrial track that gets my toes-a-tappin’.
Michael Jackson – Bad (1987)
Here’s a whole bunch of no. The biggest no comes in response to the question: “Is this even decent dance pop music?” No, it’s calculated, mechanical, recycled bullshit, and an embarrassing, stale artifact of the time. Just look at the album cover.
I don’t care that Allmusic gives it 4.5 out of 5 stars. It makes no difference whether or not Robert Christgau calls Bad “the strongest and most consistent black pop album in years.” Christgau has never been the final arbiter of good taste, and the answer is still no. It came out in 1987, and frankly, 1987 sucked.
Like Jackson’s previous effort, Thriller, the value of this album has been gauged by record sales instead of artistic merit. And thanks to a relentless promotional media campaign, it wasn’t a record you could choose to ignore. Only the record label wonks know how much money they spent jamming this “Who’s Bad?” nonsense down our throats.
If anybody other than MJ put out Bad, it wouldn’t have made a dent in the charts. Lionel Ritchie makes this record and his career is over. Dude couldn’t dance like Mike.
Suzanne Vega – Solitude Standing
Making good on an earlier promise to get some Suzie V. on the turntable, Solitude contains both of her Must Hear hits, “Tom’s Diner” and “Luka”. [Please note that it’s not the DNA remix of “Tom’s Diner” (1990).]
John Cougar Mellencamp – The Lonesome Jubilee
A couple of rock-solid heartland toe-tappers on here. And kudos to the Coog for staying true to his rock n’ roll roots; unlike Springsteen, the Coog avoided the trendy ruts of mainstream modern rock. The Coog blazed his own trail, m’er f’ers. There isn’t a synthesizer within a country mile of this LP.
That said, Lonesome Jubilee deliberately employed traditional folk and country instruments in order to make his audience aware of the “once-familiar social landscape” of folk music. That’s…kind of presumptuous, isn’t it, John? Because I was your audience in 1987, and I wasn’t so fucking clueless that I needed a history lesson. For chrissakes, Bob Dylan, yo. Anyway, The Lonesome Jubilee is a far more genuine example of artistic expression than anything Michael Jackson ever did.
Napalm Death – Scum (1987)
Before you drop the needle on Scum, ask yourself a question. “How interested am I in sub-genres of 80s extreme metal?” Napalm Death is fairly deep down the punk thrash death grindcore metal rabbit hole. And Scum is another one of those albums you can look at and think, “I’ve got a pretty good idea what these cats sound like.”
The really neat thing about Napalm Death is that they didn’t linger over the jam. Half of the 28 tracks on Scum clock in at less than one minute. One minute! That’s insane. The best thing about this record is that as soon as you get bored with a riff, it’s over.
Pet Shop Boys – Actually (1987)
Look, if you’re into the Pet Shop Boys, then you aren’t going to be interested in 98 percent of the albums on this list, and have no intention of joining us on the quest to reveal a definitive catalog of Must Hear Albums. You’re wasting your time here. Go away.
For everybody else, you know what’s up with this crap. It’s disco by another name. Even the guy on the album cover is yawning.
fIREHOSE – If’n
We’re gonna get at least two records from these guys, but this may be the best one. Punk, funk, and free jazz, all in one place.
Prince – Sign ‘O’ The Times (1987)
There’s a lot to like about this record because there’s 80 minutes of music, at least half of which is as good as anything Prince ever did. There’s also some stuff not to like. That said, we are forced to threaten to invoke the curse of the Double LP Syndrome on one of my personal favorites, but we’re not actually going to follow through with it. There really is one phenomenal album here. And for the record, “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” is by far my all-time favorite Prince jam.
R.E.M. – Document (1987)
Mmmmm. [Pause; slurping sounds] I just made quesadillas and I need to finish this glass of wine before I can continue. Chicken, by the way. Tomato, Monterey Jack cheese, almost El Paso refried beans, avocado, hot sauce, sautéed onion, diced jalepeno-carrot mix, dried garlic, and last but not least, served with a side of sour cream, which is fucking outrageously expensive! Almost $10 for a 16 oz. tub of sour cream. The fuck do you do with 16 oz. of sour cream? I welcome your suggestions.
R.E.M. had a long and illustrious procession to the mainstream – six years or so. Five LPs. And Document is a phenomenal record. “Finest Worksong” might be the culmination of all great R.E.M. songs. Document might be their BEST ALBUM, and as much as I like it, you’ve already heard at least one LP from the list. Nevertheless, you pretty much have to be familiar with “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”. Bonus points if you can recite the lyrics from start to finish.
Sonic Youth – Sister (1987)
Mmmmm. [Chewing noises] Very Joy Division/New Order clatter, slashing, and jumble [swallowing sound] that never really comes together as a transcendent listening experience. God, I can’t tell you how much I missed sour cream. I’m thinking baked potatoes tomorrow night.
Talk Talk – The Colour Of Spring (1987)
Maybe. There’s an underground-type legend that Talk Talk made a couple of the most incredible modern progressive art rock albums of all-time. Is this one of them? You tell me. I dunno.
Terence Trent D’Arby – Introducing The Hardline According To Terence Trent D’Arby (1987)
The Cult – Electric (1987)
Not a true Must Hear, but wait. Filling the void created by AC/DC’s inability to make entertaining records, the Cult evolved into a dependably mainstream hard rock outfit. Four on the floor, ham-fisted riffage. Delusional lead vocalist. Songs about women, fire, and smokestack lightning, whatever that is. Nobody saw the irony in this record’s biggest hit: a cover of Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild.”
The Jesus & Mary Chain – Darklands (1987)
Nope. Nuh-uh, no way. I gave you Psychocandy last year. That’s plenty.
The Sisters Of Mercy – Floodland (1987)
IF you needed to hear one their records it would have been First Last and Always (1985). Floodland is everything mundane about gothic rock: Gregorian choir arrangements and walls of Wagnerian synthesizer. I barely even know what that means.
The Smiths – Strangeways, Here We Come (1987)
The Triffids – Calenture (1987)
At this point in 1987, I was 19 years old. If somebody made a great record, I would have heard about it one way or the other. There are very few hidden gems from the 80s on forward. So it doesn’t matter that the Triffids are one of Australia’s most loved post-punk outfits. Eh, post-punk is taking things a bit too far.
As I listen with my eyes closed to the opening track of Calenture, “Bury Me Deep in Love”, I hear a well-produced alternative Christian jangle pop rock song with a chump-change chorus. The rest of this record is either adult contemporary folk rock for the evangelical set, or very poor imitations of U2 and R.E.M.
Midnight Oil – Diesel and Dust
This suggested alternative is something of an apology for what some may perceive as a lack of respect for Aussie rock that isn’t AC/DC. I suppose we could toss a Hoodoo Gurus LP in the shopping cart if we weren’t on such a tight budget.
U2 – The Joshua Tree (1987)
Enjoy it while you can.
American Music Club – California (1988)
In the past, I have unfavorably compared AMC to Hootie and the Blowfish, and I think that’s unfair to Hootie.
After several spins of California, I finally found what I had been missing. I get it now. This is American indie slowcore, characterized by bleak lyrics, downbeat melodies, slower tempos and minimalist arrangements. Of the standout moments, “Laughingstock” is sublime elegance and “Bad Liquor” actually threatens to rock. Fans of Galaxie 500, Low, Grandaddy, Iron and Wine, Palace Brothers, Red House Painters, and Sun Kil Moon will love this. But then, you already knew that.
Is California a Must Hear? That’s up to you.
Cowboy Junkies – Trinity Session (1988)
This record is at least remarkable for the fact that it was recorded live in a church with one stereo microphone direct to tape—a single Calrec Ambisonic microphone to 2-track RDAT. That’s bold. The music might crawl at a snail’s pace, and the mood might take you to places you aren’t interested in visiting, but this album has an undeniable character that I believe you Must Hear.
Dagmar Krause – Tank Battles (1988)
I really didn’t know what to expect. I try to do a little bit of homework before I sit down to listen to an artist’s work for the first time. So I knew that Ms. Krause was a prominent figure on the German avant-rock scene, best known for her work with Henry Cow and Slapp Happy. Raise your hand if you’ve heard a note of Henry Cow.
OK, so, Tank Battles is a collection of 26 songs by German composer Hanns Eisler sung by Krause in English. Hanns Eisler (1898 –1962) was an Austrian composer, best known for composing the national anthem of the German Democratic Republic, and also notable for his long artistic association with Bertolt Brecht. To jog your memories, remember what I said about Holger Czukay’s Movies (1979)? Probably not. I said that I had a sweet spot for vocals by non-native English speakers. I think it’s cute. At least, I used to think it was cute. That was before I sat through Tank Battles, and I sat through the whole thing.
As you might imagine, there’s a certain amount of ennui that settles in during my listening and writing processes, which most often but not always run concurrently. If you wanted to cross an aforementioned military march with a Broadway show tune, then Tank Battles is not a bad record at all, but it’s not something the average listener Must Hear.
Dinosaur Jr – Bug (1988)
All told, my brother Bobby made me attend three Dinosaur Jr. shows between now and 1993-ish. It wasn’t that he threatened bodily harm if I refused to go, but he would say, in his infamous and inimitable way, “Come on, chief! You gotta come to the show with us.” While I hated every minute of the band’s set, these concert excursions were always a drug and alcohol-fuelled mating ball of trouble – something crazy went down, guaranteed. Good and bad times were had by some and not by others. At the same time, seeing the band live gave me something to stand on when I would say to people, “I’ve seen Dinosaur Jr. live, and they are legitimately terrible.”
From my best recollection, “The Post” was Bobby’s favorite jam from Bug, and I can see us flying down I-55 with the sunroof open, singing along:
She’s my post to lean on
and I just cut her down
So I’m out to land on somethin’
Hopefully a girl will come between me and the ground
Dwight Yoakam – Buenas Noches From A Lonely Room (1988)
One of my all-time favorite quotes happens to be from actress Sharon Stone, who said, “Even a shit sandwich is better than Dwight Yoakam.”
Everything But The Girl – Idlewild (1988)
Sophisti-pop is a subgenre term retrospectively applied to pop that flourished in the UK between the mid-1980s and early 1990s, incorporating elements of soft rock, jazz, new wave, and blue-eyed soul. Music so-classified often made extensive use of electronic keyboards, synthesizers, and polished arrangements, particularly horn sections. Acts were influenced by the work of Roxy Music and Bryan Ferry’s solo work. According to Allmusic, major artists included Sade, The Style Council, Basia, Swing Out Sister, Prefab Sprout, and the early work of Everything but the Girl.
Fishbone – Truth And Soul (1988)
Upon a cursory look, Truth and Soul, despite being a great record, was not a Must Hear Album, mainly because they have another completely amazing album coming soon. And then I got to thinking and it occurred to me that we haven’t heard the new breed of alternative funk rock yet, c.g. Red Hot Chili Peppers, Theolonius Monster, 24-7 Spys. Fishbone has to be the first.
Happy Mondays – Bummed (1988)
Another record that initially was a no-go but wound up Must Hear. The Mondays might have been massive in the U.K. and Europe, but this stuff wouldn’t find an American audience for a couple of years. In terms of the Manchester sound, the Stone Roses won’t make sense if you haven’t heard Bummed.
Jane’s Addiction – Nothing’s Shocking (1988)
KD Lang – Shadowland (1988)
In full disclosure, I’ve heard this album at least a hundred times. In the mid 90s, I waited tables in a joint that had Shadowland and Harry Connick Jr.’s She on permanent rotation, and at some point, I experienced a Stockholm Syndrome-type of affection for both records. However, this is not the KD Lang album you need to hear.
Leonard Cohen – I’m Your Man (1988)
Granted, it’s been 20 years since The Songs of Leonard Cohen, and we missed Various Positions (1984) which contains Cohen’s crowning achievement “Hallelujah”, and the album that inspired a quote from Columbia Record boss Walter Yetnikoff, who told Cohen, “Look, Leonard; we know you’re great, but we don’t know if you’re any good.”
There are several best of Leonard Cohen collections. Get one.
Living Colour – Vivid (1988)
Not the first African-American metal band but the first and last African-American metal band to achieve mainstream platinum success. They’re really good, but they don’t really explain why there’s never been another African-American metal band.
Metallica – … And Justice For All (1988)
Man, it must have been tough. They lost Cliff Burton and they had to follow-up Master of Puppets. That’s a tall challenge. And they almost kind of met the challenge, too. But they didn’t. This album is marred by poor production, stale riffs, and predictable songwriting. The trauma of Burton’s loss stunted this band’s growth. They never made another metal record. They did, however, make one more Must Hear Album.
You could live 1,000 lifetimes and never hear …And Justice For All and you will have still lived a full and rewarding life.
Morrissey – Viva Hate (1988)
Nuh-Uh. You’ve heard the Smiths. Morrissey didn’t do anything with his solo career that he didn’t do with the Smiths. Case closed. I’m probably going to be repeating this a few times over the next few years.
Mudhoney – Superfuzz Bigmuff (1988)
Keep your eyes on Seattle, let us not forget, home of the Sonics.
My Bloody Valentine – Isn’t Anything (1988)
This record literally made people jump out of their skin. In one shot, My Bloody Valentine managed to announce the arrival two new alternative sub-genres: dream pop and shoegazing, while maintaining a solid guitar-driven alternative rock sound.
NWA – Straight Outta Compton (1988)
Public Enemy – It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back (1988)
Sonic Youth – Daydream Nation (1988)
Of course, all four are Must Hear. End of.
The Go-Betweens – 16 Lovers Lane (1988)
If you’re going to get a full bug of jangle pop, it isn’t going to be from these cats.
Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians – Globe of Frogs
Nowhere near Robyn Hitchcock’s most popular or acclaimed record, it did have one minor college radio hit with “Balloon Man”.
The Sugarcubes – Life’s Too Good (1988)
The Waterboys – Fisherman’s Blues (1988)
Tracy Chapman – Tracy Chapman (1988)
You could totally cherry pick an album’s worth of Must Hear jams from these four records.