While 1988 opened with George Michael’s Faith at the top of the charts and ended with the ultimate hair metal power ballad (Every Rose Has Its Thorn from Poison, of course), the biggest story in hindsight was something was wouldn’t bear serious fruit for a few years: grunge kind of became a thing. Sure, the Seattle scene had been fertile for a while, but this was the year Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman quit their day jobs and got serious with Sub Pop Records. It’s also the year they pushed Mudhoney and Nirvana out into the world. The year also served as a line in the sand for hip-hop thanks to the success of records like Public Enemy’s sophomore album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and the debut LP from N.W.A., Straight Outta Compton. Following the 1968 and 1978 entries in our Best of the Decades series, here are the best records of 1988 according to these collectors:
Nirvana and Nevermind usually get all the credit for pounding the grungy nail in hair metal’s Spandex-lined coffin. But it was Jane’s Addiction — led by future Lollapalooza ringmaster Perry Farrell (who always fulfilled the promise of his name, “peri-pheral,” fearlessly dwelling on the lunatic fringes of LA rock and roll) — that broke major pre-grunge ground. By artfully mixing heavy metal thunder, jam band jungle boogie, and piñata-smashing punk-funk into a cacophony of (Tijuana) Biblical proportions, they against all odds orchestrated a seismic shift beneath the Sunset Strip’s asphalt — becoming the unlikely hottest draw in an ’80s Hollywood scene otherwise overrun by bubbleglam bands with misspelled monikers like Tuff and Lixx Array. The rest of the alternative nation took notice after the release of Jane’s major label debut, with its grotesque and Walmart-unfriendly cover art, ocean-sized guitar bombast, chilling lyrics about serial killers and parental neglect, and disturbing incantations like “sex is violent” (a line that Nirvanabes Bush later interpolated). This is a druggy death-rock masterwork that, contrary to its title, still shocks and awes 30 years later.
— Lyndsey Parker, Yahoo! Music
I was working at Watt Ave. Tower Records location in Sacramento, Calif., in 1988. I was attending college studying theater arts. I had long hair that I dyed blue-black. And Jane’s Addiction was my band, my discovery-it was the “live” release on XXX that got me started. While I saw them a number of times, the most memorable show was at the Fillmore in San Francisco. I own one Fillmore poster, and that’s the one. It hangs above my turntable, endlessly reminding me of my prior self. The LP, Nothing’s Shocking, didn’t include Pigs In Zen, so I was used to the record ending with Thank You, Boys. So, thank you, boys. You got me through.
— Billy Fields, WEA
This record is the full banquet of pop loveliness served up on one 33⅓ platter. From the almost rockabilly Good Thing, with its almost jailhouse swing in the opening jaunty riff, to the heavily drum-machined I’m Not the Man I Used To Be, this album bridges the proverbial gap between funk and sequencer. Standout single She Drives Me Crazy features the doo wop falsetto vocals of lead singer Roland Gift, which are equally matched with a chorus of back up Motown style tracks on personal favorite, ‘I’m Not Satisfied.’
— Dr. Jennifer Otter Bickerdike, Why Vinyl Matters
What an inauspicious start to the most influential band of their generation! The A-side to your first single starts with an audio snippet of Natasha Fatale from a Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon? And is a cover song? Of the ’60s Dutch psych band Shocking Blue? And the B-side is a tongue-in-cheek mocking of the head of your record label? And it’s technically only supposed to be available to subscribers of Sub Pop’s newly-minted Singles Club? This thing should have failed on a thousand different levels, but going by a consistent price of $2,000 and up on the open market, to the over-documentation of the individually numbered copies through the THOUSANDS of counterfeit bootleg pressings that still make hearts palpitate upon discovery — Love Buzz is legit in every which way. I literally never thought I’d even be able to own a copy, but $500 18 years ago was a sound investment of high school graduation money — and a quasi-spiritual moment and connection to my favorite band.
— Ben Blackwell, Third Man Records
When was the last time you listened to Patti Smith singing People Have The Power? Because if you’re in a slump, spin that copy of Dream Of Life and tell me it doesn’t instantly improve your mood tenfold. Here are full-bodied songs backed by shimmering guitars; softly sung odes to life and love (The Jackson Song for instance, written for Patti’s son) all slickly produced. The shift to a more AOR sound may have been unexpected at the time, but really listen to that album. Hear Patti singing – her voice mellifluous but dextrous enough to be familiarly urgent and ferocious. And her lyrics! Strip them of the safety of a leather jacket and they still stand proud and powerful.
— Hannah Vettese, Record Collector
World Domination Enterprises were the most versatile noise-rock band in England — if not the world — in 1988. You can discern their diversity by the choice of covers: LL Cool J’s I Can’t Live Without My Radio, U-Roy’s Jah Jah Call You, and Lipps Inc.’s Funkytown. Aside from the savage deconstructions of hip-hop, dub, and disco in those songs, WDE were paragons of what Simon Reynolds called “psychobilly concrète.” If they had a default mode, it was infernal rock whose noise blasts were as robust as their rhythms. Think Birthday Party and Big Black (sans drum machine) on a frayed-shoestring budget and emboldened by a leftist social conscience: See the dub-rock Molotov cocktail Asbestos Lead Asbestos for WDE at their zenith. These guys understood that being catastrophically abrasive and heavy didn’t mean you had to lose the funk. Thirty years on, Let’s Play Domination still sounds louder and more destructive than a bomb.
— Dave Segal, The Stranger
Jane Siberry’s music seems to exist in an uncanny valley where the runoff of performance art of Laurie Anderson, the artful pop of Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel, prog rock, and an arch, quintessentially Canadian sense of humor gathers into a crystal clear lake. It’s what you’re expected to dive into feet first to fully appreciate this Toronto native’s strangely catchy, deceptively deep work. The Walking — released in Canada in ’87 but out in the States the next year — is a perfect distillation of her singular vision. Through eight lengthy songs, Siberry untangles the tight web of emotions that comes from a heartbreak and spends closing song The Bird in the Gravel tapping into the internal thoughts of the many characters in a Downton Abbey–esque psychodrama.
— Bob Ham, Paste
It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back is likely the most important album in the history of hip-hop. Chuck D’s collaboration with Hank Shocklee’s Bomb Squad created the gateway for the masses to give rap respect. Booming vocals, powerful lyrics over beat- and noise-ridden soundscapes commanded the attention of the listener. The contributions of Flavor Flav in the mix are needed relief, like cups of water for a marathon runner. The LP points the direction to the future of music at multiple points — whether it be G-funk flavors, street perspective, confrontational truths, rap-rock combination of a Slayer sample and more. The album has aged well, fortunately for its sonic qualities but unfortunately for its content, which is still relevant and applicable today.
— Nate Goyer, The Vinyl Guide
One of the most important hip-hop albums of all time was released in the summer of 1988 — and it was only Public Enemy’s second studio album. It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back is but a handful of quintessential albums that “old heads” refer back to when reiterating to young folks that they don’t know what real hip-hop sounds like.
With unparalleled confidence coming from the mouth of Chuck D and unbridled passion coming from hype man Flavor Flav, Nation Of Millions attacked the system and questioned the status quo. And with samples of James Brown and Isaac Hayes on the album, and lyrics that referenced Marcus Garvey, Nat Turner, and Louis Farrakhan, Nation Of Millions was an anthem for black liberation in the hour of chaos.
— Michael L. Moore, Devoted to Vinyl
A decade prior to Murder Ballads or The Boatman’s Call, Australia’s crown prince of grimy punk was barely charting in his home country. Yet the foundations of Nick Cave’s superstardom had been firmly set in releases like Tender Prey with The Bad Seeds. Much can be learned by digging back to 1988.
Opener The Mercy Seat remains a staple, the song you’re all but guaranteed to hear Cave perform onstage. Up Jumped The Devil is an almost plagiarized prequel to the much-hailed Red Right Hand. Cave dances with sex, death, and faith as poetically as he ever would, despite grievances that the LP was “a nightmare” to record. As is custom for noteworthy albums, Tender Prey’s brilliance would only be realized retroactively.
— Tom Cameron, Happy Mag
What could 1988 mean to my then-13-year-old self other than Erasure’s breakthrough third album, The Innocents. Equal part synth pop and soul, their bright, catchy pop songs were the perfect accompaniment to a grey-skied, British youth. Ironically, it was ballad Ship Of Fools which was released as the album’s first single in the UK — a risk clearly worth taking, as who can forget the pairing of Vince Clarke’s opening keyboard riff with Andy Bell’s rich lead vocal. This demonstration of their songwriting craft helped shift their heretofore status as dance club stars, delivering more of a mainstream success. Singles two and three, Chains Of Love and the anthemic A Little Respect, brought radio and MTV plays a-plenty on both side of the Atlantic, cementing the way for a veritable yellow brick road of success. ‘Yahoo! ah higher, higher, higher
Yahoo! ah find your way unto the Lord.’
— Alison Zak-Collins, The Vinyl District
By 1988, The Smiths had broken up. Depeche Mode, New Order and synth pop at large had peaked and would recede. The way toward the 1990s alt-rock/grunge explosion was foretold by Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation and the Pixies’ seminal Surfer Rosa.
In between all this, Australia’s The Church went into the studio in LA with legendary session guitarist Waddy Wachtel and Greg Ladanyi co-producing. They made the band’s ethereal 1988 masterpiece and US breakthrough, Starfish. The album is a fascinating bridge in alternative music, getting airplay on XM’s First Wave but being guitar-driven and timeless enough that it would also be at home on Lithium or any alt-rock station of any era.
Its biggest hits are Under the Milky Way and Reptile, but the entire album demands to be experienced, late at night with the lights down, preferably on an original US pressing with “TML” (The Mastering Lab) in the dead wax.
— Shane Buettner, VinylReviews.com