This is a fascinating and astonishingly complicated exercise. It's funny, but you spend hours scouring the lists of albums released, and then when you go back, you found you missed one or two. In fact, I feel that She's So Unusual by Cyndi Lauper to 1983's list of honourable mentions, and I'm astonished that Leonard Cohen didn't appear before today.
But since this will be long enough without any preamble, let's hit it.
1986-Kinda light this year, and as a consequence the choice was easy. Fore! is released by Huey Lewis and the News, which Patrick Bateman critiqued for us so succinctly yesterday, and though it's a fine album, American Psycho is the reason it gets a mention. Licensed to Ill is arguably more important to me personally as a hip hop fan than the album that eventyally will take it, but it's influence was felt by a generation. The winner, like Thriller before it, is much, much bigger than I am, and though I love the album, I choose it because it took a former great and made him releveant once again. Graceland by Paul Simon takes it: political, experimental and gifted. No weak points, and Chevy Chase in a very clever video. I love the Beasties, but Paul Simon gets the nod.
1987-This is about the time I really start listening for myself. I'm twelve, I'm awkward, I'm growing up. Though The Joshua Tree later becomes a favourite of mine, at the time, U2 is just a rock band to me. Meh. Yo! Bum Rush the Show by Public Enemy gets a mention, but won't take the gold for a few years yet. This is their debut album, and ushers in a period when hip hop was both political and pop. And George Michael shakes off the gayness of WHAM! and brings us Faith (which is awesome). I know he got weird later. But this album is cool (though I wouldn't dare admit it at the time). It was the same way with the Pet Shop Boys, who are a great pop band. They release Actually, which contains It's a Sin, What Have I Done to Deserve This, and Heart. Great tunes, all. But at the time my favourite was probably Appetite for Destruction by Guns N' Roses. If you have to ask, you've never heard it. Metal was suddenly mainstream. Really mainstream.
1988-Acne and Erin Capstick are the twin suns around which my psyche revolves in this year (It was largely unrequited, by the way. She liked me, but not really in that way.), and hip hop starts stomping its high tops all over the place. It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back by Public Enemy, It Takes Two by Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock, and Tougher than Leather by Run DMC are notable hip hop albums of note. The winner for the year is a rap album, but I don't want to spoil the surprise. Guns N' Roses follow up with G N' R Lies, which is not quite as good as Destruction, but still pretty kickass. Leonard Cohen comes out with I'm Your Man, containing "Tower of Song", "Everybody Knows", "Ain't No Cure For Love", "First We Take Manhattan", and "Take This Waltz". Fucking brilliant, but not relevant to me until I was in my 20s. So it doesn't make the cut. A-Ha releases Stay on These Roads, and before you say anything, it has "The Living Daylights" on it. Best. Bond. Theme. Ever. Probably. And Weird Al released Even Worse, which was better than Bad, the parody source. Though Bad was pretty bad, by which I mean good. Straight Outta Compton by NWA gets the nod. Gangsta rap was suddenly mainstream. Really mainstream. And it launched the careers of Easy-E, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre. Without this album, there's no Eminem, Snoop Dogg, or the films "Are We There Yet?" and "Are We Done Yet?". It was a mixed blessing, to be sure. But it's influence is undeniable.
1989-My first year of high school, and conversely when I got cooer and nerdier at the same time. If you're not ashamed of the person you were when you were fourteen, you either don't remember or haven't learned from the experience. A bunch of good ones this year: Let Love Rule by Lenny Kravitz, He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper by DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince (It was Rock the House which launched their career, and there's no fucking way anyone saw an Oscar coming to Will Smith. No fucking way.), UHF by Weird Al (A good movie, and I don't care what you say.), Unfinished Business by EpMD (I got Strictly Business later-both solid hip hop records.), The Raw and the Cooked by the Fine Young Cannibals, Bleach, Nirvana's debut, Stone Cold Rhymin' by Young MC, and the Batman Soundtrack by Prince. But none of these are quite good enough. Girl You Know It's True by Milli Vanilli was released this year, too, and it's too bad they were such losers, because the songs are fun. But the winner, hands down, without question for me, and for Canadian hip hop fans everywhere, is Symphony in Effect by Maestro Fresh Wes. A great album, with great production and great videos. Single handedly responsible for a Canadian hip hop scene. No K-os or K'naan without Maestro.
1990-This is going to be a twofer, but before we get there, let's have a look at the honourable mentions, shall we? Flood by They Might Be Giants gets a nod for being so damn clever. Poison by Bel Biv Devoe gets mention for surviving the boy band. Bobby Brown was a product of the same band, and while he went on to notoriety, it may be better than the obscurity which surrounds the rest of them. Any thoughts on that? Is there any such thing as bad publicity? For Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown, the answer is, unfortunately, yes. The Simpsons Sing the Blues was also released this year, important because the show was still pretty underground at this time. But two embarrasing, yet spectacular successes also cloud the horizon in 1990: Gonna Make You Sweat by C+C Music Factory, and To the Extreme by Vanilla Ice. In fact, Vanilla Ice almost makes this a three-way tie, but since he became such a joke later on, it's going to remain a twofer. And one nearly makes the cut, but is soundly trounced by two huge albums: People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm by A Tribe Called Quest. Brilliant. But two of the greatest hip hop albums of all time come out this year: one fiercely political, and the other simply underground. One angry and protesting, the other simply bemused. One group became a force unto itself, and the other produced 2Pac (they shall be excused, because it's not their fault that he went all gangsta and postumous). Fear of a Black Planet by Public Enemy scared the hell out of a lot of white people. Chuck D is a helluva poet and a damn fine historian. I learned a lot from him. He's like Howard Zinn and Bob Dylan for the urban black male. Sex Packets by Digital Underground was my favourite album for four or five years. Funny, clever and musical, it borrows heavily from great funk bands of the 70s, and some of the great hip hop of the late 70s and the early 80s. Great stuff.
1991-Even bigger than '90 in terms of great albums: Achtung Baby! by U2, I Wish My Brother George Was Here by Dell Tha Funkee Homosapien, Blood Sugar Sex Magik by The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Derelicts of Dialect by 3rd Bass, Apocalypse '91, The Enemy Strikes Black by Public Enemy, A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing by Black Sheep, and The Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest. Again, almost good enough to make the three-way. It's going to be another deuce. Naughty by Nature by Naughty by Nature (I loved writing that), is accessible, fun, and clever. Hip hop expands (and will include such underappreciated greats as the Fu Schnickens and the Lords of the Underground) and goes a little more mainstream. OPP is a great song, but not the best on this album. They just knew a radio winner. The other winner is a Canadian band: And Now The Legacy Begins by the Dream Warriors. "My Definition of a Boombastic Jazz Style" is pretty brilliant, sampling the theme song from an old game show. Pacifist hip hop, if you can believe it: nerdy, too. There's a song called Twelve-Sided Dice. You can understand why this album was so important to a geeky suburban white kid.
1992-For the first year in a while, it won't be hip hop. There was, however, great hip hop being produced: Hypocrisy is the Greatest Luxury was clever, angry, Canadian hip hop by The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy is released. Brilliant, but really off the beaten path. Check Your Head was released, my favourite Beastie Boys album. "So What'cha Want" is great. Just great. House of Pain came out with House of Pain, inventing a whole new subgenre: Irish hip hop. And a few weird kids from Ottawa, including the man who was already but would later be known as Tom Green produced Huh? Stiffenin' Against the Wall as Organized Rhyme. Find Check the O.R. on youtube. You won't be disappointed. But the album of the year goes to Gordon, the Barenaked Ladies sort-of-debut album. There was a kind of bootleg EP released a year or two before that purists claim as their best album, but they're kinda snobby. No misses on this album, though I am sick of "This is Me in Grade Nine".
Whew. I'm tired.
1993-A lot worth mentioning again, and but there's a clear winner this year. It was a close one: Naughty by Nature make the top ten again with 19 Naughty III, and Run DMC release Down with the King, a middle-aged hip hop album, with astonishing religious overtones. Onyx kicks out with Bacdafucup, and invent yet another hip hop sound: grimy. Moxy Fruvous produced Bargainville this year, their first major release. Funny and musically sound, featuring "King of Spain", and "The Gulf War Song". Other noted albums were 12 Inches of Snow by Snow, a white Canadian reggae artist (I know, it's absurd) Great Big Sea's self titled debut sparking a celtic renaissance in Canada, and Everybody Else is Doing It, Why Can't We? by the Cranberries. This is their first major album, and they were to be a fixture of the decade. This almost makes the cut. But the winner is somewhat unexpected: Duets by Frank Sinatra. Taking classics and making them fresh, Sinatra was as perfect as always, and partnered with artist who were amazing in their own right: Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, Bono, Bette Midler, Neil Diamond and many others. Two kickass albums.
1994-Short list this year, but all strong selections: Dookie by Green Day, Mellow Gold by Beck, Portrait of an American Family by Marilyn Manson, and Smash by Offspring. All great. But it's going to be a twofer again, one a soundtrack, and the other geekrock. Weezer's blue album Weezer is one sure selection. The other is the soundtrack to Pulp Fiction. I don't care if that breaks the rules. I love that movie. I love that disc.
1995-Clear winner again this year, but let's tour the contenders first. Marilyn follows up Portrait with Smells Like Children, probably my favourite Manson Album. Oasis has great promise with (What's the Story) Morning Glory? but somehow fail to be the next Beatles. Great Big Sea break through with Up, and Ashley MacIsaac is crazy as hell and releases Hi! How Are You Today?, a great blend of celtic roots with punk, rock and hip hop. Pulp almost makes the cut with Different Class, really smart Britpop, but the winner is clear. I don't know what the hell has happened to Gwen Stefani, but Tragic Kingdom by No Doubt takes the gold. A solid album with around eight hits.
1996-More good stuff, and I'm running out of time. Bush produces Razorblade Suitcase, their second big album, with a lot of great songs. A band you might not have heard of, Belle and Sebastian release Tigermilk, beautiful pop that I discovered very late. Cake releases Fashion Nugget, their breakthrough album: clever and cynical. Fun. And Matchbox 20 comes out with Yourself or Someone Like You, a solid album that almost excuses Rob Thomas' later ubiquity. But the CD that stayed in my player nearly nonstop was The Score by The Fugees. I loved every track, and developed an unhealthy crush on Lauryn Hill. Great album that provided the soundtrack to much of my undergrad.
Only 11 more years. Stay tuned.