Pickled Priest Mixtape: Our Favorite Songs of 1986
1986 was a college year for me. Which means College Rock, then a real genre, captured much of my time and interest. I wasn't quite as well-rounded as I might've thought I was back then, but I was getting there. I was, like most of us, a work in progress. Since 1986, my tastes have significantly expanded and many of the artists that would've made my year-end list then have ceded their spots to bands I have since come to appreciate more and more. Here's how 1986 shakes out in mixtape format over 35-years later...
26 "She's Looking at You" | The Leaving Trains
When the new book, Corporate Rock Sucks: The Rise and Fall of SST Records, comes out soon, it will be loaded with stories about the legendary California label's vast stable of influential indie bands like Black Flag, The Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, Meat Puppets, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., The Descendents, Bad Brains, and surely a side order of Saccharine Trust for die-hards. In the 1980s, few independent labels could match them on a record-to-record basis. I do hope the book also gives more than a mention to some of the lesser known bands on the label's roster like L.A.'s the Leaving Trains, a band led by charismatic frontman (later woman, she came out as trans in 2020), Falling James Moreland. She was unfortunately most remembered as Courtney Love's first husband, pre-Kurt Cobain, but her band's music was a fervent mix of streetwise punk and snarling rock & roll (not to mention the occasional ballad). "She's Looking at You" comes from Kill Tunes, an album that lived up to its title and packs some cool lines throughout that I love to belt out when behind the wheel ("30,000 feet over probably Arizona / I spit out the window / You call it rain"). Bottom line: every great book, movie, sitcom, or play seems to have several interesting yet ancillary side characters to inject flavor now and then. In the story of SST, the Leaving Trains were just such a diversion.
25 "On the Other Hand" | Randy Travis
There's something special about a classic country song sung by a classic country voice. I'm not a huge Randy Travis fan, but there's no denying the guy was blessed with a set of bullhorn pipes built for the Grand Ole Opry stage. In the 80s he singlehandedly resuscitated the public's interest in traditional country music. "On the Other Hand" is as vintage-sounding a country ballad as anything shit out of Nashville in the 80s. It could've been written at any time in the past century, with a theme that balances on that blurry morality line between right and wrong, love and lust, angel and devil, well you get the picture. But is it really the wholesome ode to the sacred institution of marriage that some perceive it to be? One read of the lyrics proves that's not necessarily the case. Plot: a man is lured into the arms of another woman and wants desperately to stay with her, but his conscience gets in the way when he (unfortunately for him) sees the wedding band circling his ring finger. Fair enough, good for you sir! The woman who slipped that taken token on his hand "would not understand." All is good. But here's the rub. There's no changing the fact that he yearns for another woman who has made him "feel the passion I thought had died," which indicates his wedding ring is basically a decaying symbol of dead love and has been for some time. Oh, and that wedding band apparently didn't stop him from spending time with her previously, nor did it prevent him from first kissing her lips. That ship has sailed, if you listen closely. In other words, the "band on the hand" was a completely powerless deterrent in those instances. My guess is that he fucked her, too. Probably in more than one hole. Where was the ring then, Randy? The whole thing is questionable, but that's country music in a nutshell. Still, a great country song that reminds me of more, uh, er, innocent days.
24 "Kerosene" | Big Black
One year after John Mellencamp's "Small Town" made life on the rural route seem almost charming, Big Black's "Kerosene" literally ignited the whole quaint idea in flames. Their sound—two guitars, bass, drum machine—was twisted and abrasive, like a farmer's combine plowing recklessly through a city junkyard. The band delivered an unnerving brand of industrial post-punk while sporting the look of AV club nerds turned serial killers (see video). Albini's notoriously uncompromising personality (read: asshole) led the clanging assault with onstage four-eyed foil Santiago Durango robotically spewing riffs from behind a vacant, unnerving stare. Dave Riley added stabs of bass while a bastardized drum machine kept crooked time in the background like a rhythmic punch press in a steel processing plant. It was a lot to absorb. All of this manifested itself in the gloriously demented "Kerosene." The song's opening shards of guitar alert you that something unholy and menacing this way comes. I wasn't quite ready for it in 1986, to be honest, as my music tastes ranged from soul and blues to Americana and college rock, but as years advanced, I discovered a dormant side to my personality that revels in such cacophonous, ear-splitting noise. In fact, I need this kind of music now more than ever. Lately, I've had a yearning desire to just light everything on fire and start over from scratch.
23 "You Can Call Me Al" | Paul Simon
Moving from Randy Travis to Big Black to Paul Simon is, I realize, a transitional dilemma. But I've found that the only way to cleanse the palette sometimes is to go from one end of the musical spectrum to the other. So Paul Simon, it is. I still love Paul Simon's Graceland because it showed one of our most beloved musicians pushing his creativity in an entirely new direction. Some didn't appreciate him appropriating African rhythms and culture into his music, but now he seems decades ahead of his time. These days, it's no longer an uncommon occurrence. Even his tried-and-true songwriting style changed, becoming more abstract, non-linear, and often downright hilarious in the process (which is why the attached video with Chevy Chase became an instant MTV classic back in the day). Paul Simon managed to reinvent himself on Graceland, and in the process he wrote the ultimate dad rock line of all time (again, far ahead of his time).
A man walks down the street
He says, "Why am I soft in the middle, now?
Why am I soft in the middle?
The rest of my life is so hard
22 "Boomerang" | Lonnie Brooks
The best thing I ever did in my time living near downtown Chicago was immerse myself in the local blues scene back when I hit drinking age. Of all the regular performers rotating through various night spots, there were a few can't-miss acts guaranteed to provide a great night out. Lonnie Brooks was at the top of our favorites list because he was a natural showman, he could play the guitar like a beast, and he could roar his powerhouse vocals without a microphone and still be heard way in the back. He was funny as shit, too. He proved that the blues could be entertaining and fun without losing any of its power. He could shift on a dime and deliver an emotional, gut-bucket blues song as well. And the people loved him for it, packing clubs whenever and wherever he played. Some of the best nights of my life were watching Lonnie and band rip up the stage. His energy and spirit were simply infectious. His albums were also strong, although nothing matched up with his live intensity. His 1986 album, Wound Up Tight, did an admirable job of capturing the total package in the studio. The record even featured Johnny Winter on a few tracks (Lonnie was his idol and not the other way around). The final selection here was a toss-up between the album's wicked title track and "Boomerang," a cut with a rubber band riff that demands a loose neck and a long neck to enjoy. When Lonnie died in 2017 (at 83) it was like losing an old friend. The world, and particularly the Chicago blues scene, was a much better place when he was at the center of it.
21 "No Killing" | Violent Femmes
Favorite songs sometimes gain that status for odd reasons and this is one of them. It's from the third, and third best, Violent Femmes record, The Blind Leading the Naked, a record I still contend is consistently interesting overall. "No Killing" finds a tortured soul twisting in the wind somewhere in the gap between good and evil, unable to properly identify which is which and when. It captures the nerdy angst that marked some of the band's earliest singles and finds Gordon Gano holed up in his apartment paralyzed by the fear of what is happening just outside his front door.
They're knocking at my door
Don't let them in
Don't let them in
I think it's the Milwaukee Police
I think it's the police
I think it's the polizei!
Which circles back to my initial point about songs that become a part of your life for odd reasons. Ever since I first heard this song, I have highlighted the presence of a police officer—on the side of the road, walking a beat, eating a donut, writing me out a speeding ticket for going 25 over the limit in a rented Dodge Challenger (coincidently just outside of the Femmes' home of Milwaukee!)—by announcing, "It's the police! It's the polizei!!!" in my best nasally Gordon Gano wail. Most of the time, the looks I get vary from amused to confounded, but deep down I know why I'm doing it. Because it reminds me of this song.
20 "It's Tricky" | Run-D.M.C.
Age. Don't do it. I gasped when I realized that Run-D.M.C.'s Raising Hell came out while I was still in college. I do distinctly remember the omnipresence of "You Be Illin'" in every DJ set at every college bar in the state of Iowa, but still. It sounds much fresher than that, doesn't it? The album was packed with bona-fide rap classics, too. Their collaboration with a reluctant Aerosmith on the MTV-dominating "Walk This Way" was the big blockbuster, but the real meat was in "Peter Piper," "My Adidas," and my personal favorite from the album, "It's Tricky." There was no escaping it and miraculously it still holds up decades later. I love the song because it starts with a helpful "this ain't as easy as it looks" public service announcement and then attempts to prove the point in the ensuing verses, which also deal with managing and debunking lazy stereotypes along the way for good measure. If you weren't there when it all went down, that's OK, but I cannot begin to tell you what a blast this was to sing along with on quarter beer night. It was unlike anything we'd ever heard.
19 "Levi Stubbs' Tears" | Billy Bragg
From a record with one of my all-time favorite album titles, Talking With the Taxman About Poetry, comes one of Billy Bragg's finest, and most heart-wrenching, ballads. The song unfolds in reverse order, like the movie Memento, starting with an unknown woman determined to make it in the world on her own terms. Then we get a brief yet vivid introduction to her ex-husband and the story starts to gel, "Her husband was one of those blokes / The sort that only laughs at his own jokes / The sort a war takes away / And when there wasn't a war he left anyway." In the final section, we hear of the abuse that preceded his departure and an all-too-familiar story comes into focus. Now we understand why her journey leads to her taking refuge in a mobile home with only an old Four Tops tape as her constant, reliable companion. As the chorus says, "When the world falls apart some things stay in place / Levi Stubbs' tears run down his face." It speaks to the desire to survive as much as it does to the power of music. The song isn't soul as you might expect, instead a modern folk song built on some downright aggressive acoustic strumming and a giant angry guitar riff that could slash a throat of an abusive ex-husband if within striking range. A brilliant, crushing, and ultimately galvanizing tale of human resilience.
18 "Bizarre Love Triangle" | New Order
My appreciation for New Order has grown over the decades. I wasn't drawn to dance music in my formative years. Nobody wanted to witness me flailing about in my Timberland boat shoes anyway, I'm sure. Every time I entered a night club, always at the behest of a group mentality, I felt out of place, like the world was moving at a pace not designed for my introvert-in-training personality. It was a lot to process. While pretending not to care about having zero chance for a hookup, I could at least focus on my old standby—the music. "Bizarre Love Triangle" was ubiquitous at the time and it was built to move the body electric. Some songs cannot be properly appreciated without the full impact of a monstrous, pulsating club sound system. This song sounds remarkable no matter how you listen to it, but until you've experienced it in its element, the whole thing might not make complete sense. Underneath swirling lights, wattage in cottage, it sounds like a new form of energy is being discovered.
17 "Get Up Off Our Knees" | The Housemartins
Writing this days after another school shooting, where the obligatory "thoughts and prayers" are offered to the permanently damaged, this song seems like the bitch slap people need to finally take concrete actions instead of just anteing up ceaseless petitions to a presumed higher power (who, if he exists at all, is clearly not a micromanager). While the song is not specifically referring to this exact scenario, it generally preaches an "action not words" approach to change (financial, social, political), sometimes with shocking boldness. The song's most famous lyrics are "Don't shoot someone tomorrow that you can shoot today," which, when taken out of context, especially with another school shooting nearby, seems reprehensible, but this was not a literal statement of course. It was just meant to drive home the fact that very little progress is made while on one's knees seeking help from an at best passive, and at worst, nonexistent spirit in the sky.
16 "Call it Democracy" | Bruce Cockburn
Canada's beloved Bruce Cockburn went from a spiritual folk singer in the 1970s to a passionate political and environmental activist in the 80s. The sudden switch was best exemplified by his unlikely 1984 single, "If I Had a Rocket Launcher," which lamented the treatment of Guatemalan refugees during the country's civil war in 1982-83. It's a powerful song that was misinterpreted by some as supporting violence as a rightful alternative to peace. The opposite was true. Two years later, Cockburn delivered "Call It Democracy" and this time there was no chance of misunderstanding its intent. The song's lyrics, this time aimed at corruption within the IMF (International Monetary Fund), laid out in bold-face type the downstream atrocities caused by the organization's fiscal mismanagement. If you didn't know the song and read the lyrics cold you might assume they are from the lyric sheet of an early Rage Against the Machine album:
North South East West
Kill the best and buy the rest
It's just spend a buck to make a buck
You don't really give a flying fuck
About the people in misery
Bruce, of course, doesn't deliver his lyrics with the bile-spitting intensity of Zack de la Rocha, but somehow the message gets across with similar power. Sometimes a calm, literate review of the facts can have just as powerful an impact. Even if the subject matter has lost its immediacy decades later, miraculously the song still translates to the present day. The underlying concept—money first, people second—is perhaps more true today than ever before.
15 "Slipping (Into Something)" | The Feelies
The Feelies debut album, Crazy Rhythms, is a classic—acclaimed by almost every critic on the planet—and it similarly ranks among my favorite albums of all-time. It was a nervous record, both vocally and instrumentally. The title was intentional, the rhythms were unlike anything heard before or since. I can think of only a handful of albums that create a completely new guitar sound out of thin air and many of them are by artists that influenced this New Jersey-based band (Television, the Velvets, etc). I will never tire of listening to it. But where to go from there? Clearly, the Feelies wondered the same thing, for it took six years to deliver a follow up, the underrated 1986 offering, The Good Earth. Without the element of surprise, now an impossibility, there is still new magic to be found in the band's unique musical thumbprint. "Slipping (Into Something)" is proof. Co-produced by Feelies superfan Peter Buck (R.E.M.), the song builds slowly like a VU track from the late-60s only to erupt in a guitar flurry for the last two exhilarating minutes. There's something about their guitar chemistry that cannot be described with words, but it's all here and it is an absolute thrill to experience whenever it chooses to poke its head out of the good earth.
14 "I Against I" | Bad Brains
Regret: never saw Bad Brains live. I saw contemporaries and those influenced by the band (Living Colour, Trenchmouth, Fishbone, etc.) but I will suffer knowing I missed out on one of the great live bands ever (ask Henry Rollins; actually, don't). I Against I, the band's first album for SST (and the second song from the label on this tape), is a whirlwind. The title track sounds innovative and influential even now, so it's hard to imagine how it sounded then. If you didn't know better, the guitars here could belong to the great Vernon Reid. There are elements of reggae and punk and metal and rock and it all spatters against the wall at once. H.R. sounds positively possessed behind the mic, which is his usual state, one that made him such a compelling force of nature. This is the next best thing to being there.
13 "Mr. Pharmacist" | The Fall
It seems ludicrous, considering how prolific a songwriter Mark E. Smith was during his years with the Fall, to pick a cover for this mixtape, but I so love their version of this obscure 1966 "nugget" from the golden age of psychedelic garage rock that I simply cannot do without it. The original is also fabulous, the perfect example of what Lenny Kaye was looking for when he compiled the track list for his seminal Nuggets LP back in 1972. Unsurprisingly, considering the times, the song is about a guy looking to get hooked up with some drugs. Is "Mr. Pharmacist" a real pharmacist? Highly unlikely—probably just a local dealer—but Smith's bratty pleas for pills and powder lend the song the perfect amount of bite, taking the nasty sounding original and adding the sharp punk edge for which the man was best known. Credit Smith for bringing the song from one drug era and inserting it in another. It sounds totally contemporary in its new surroundings.
12 "No Sleep Till Brooklyn" | The Beastie Boys
Sorry, another fucking college party song (see Run-D.M.C. entry) that reminds me of a time when the Beastie Boys (and me, for that matter) were burning the proverbial candle at both ends. Actually, from the sound of it, the Beasties added another wick on the side of the candle just so they could burn it from the middle, too. "No Sleep Till Brooklyn" is the ultimate tour diary from an immature band unexpectedly launched into the stratosphere—like monkeys in a space capsule—who were intent on enjoying the shit out of every minute of the delirious ride. In my own way, albeit to a lesser degree, I was doing a little of that myself. Sometimes, I went a little overboard and I did end up having some regrets about my choices back in the day. So did the these guys. The Beastie Boys Story documentary made me feel better about it all, however. They also seemed to have regrets, but they chalked it up to being young and wild. In the end, can you blame them for anything considering the circumstances? "No Sleep Till Brooklyn" is about juicing every minute out of life and that's not a bad philosophy at any age.
11 "Behind the Wall of Sleep" | The Smithereens
I could make you a Smithereens mixtape right now that would blow your mind. Singer/songwriter Pat DiNizio (RIP) could flat out write great power-pop songs. He was right up there with the revered masters of the craft—highly underrated in all respects. The band's records were not just full of killer singles, but they were deep, too, rarely missing the bullseye. He had a cool voice and his songwriting perspective was always delightfully just left of center, which made even his most basic songs more interesting. "Behind the Wall of Sleep" is a good example. A song about an unrequited crush on a girl who "had hair like Jeannie Shrimpton back in 1965," it ends with a frustrated DiNizio meeting the object of his affections, but only in his wet dreams. Adding a factoid about Jeannie Shrimpton is an example of DiNizio's songwriting genius. I had to look her up on Wikipedia to understand the reference, but when I finally did, I totally understood how someone could become obsessed with such a girl. It's the little things that take a song from good to great and the Smithereens always seemed to stumble on just the right one at just the right time.
10 "If She Knew What She Wants" | The Bangles
"Manic Monday" was the Prince-written mega-hit that officially ushered the Bangles into the big time, but the Jules Shear-penned "If She Knew What She Wants" is the song I always look forward to hearing the most from the band's second LP, A Different Light. First released by Shear on his Eternal Return album from 1985, the Bangles take the song and inject just the right mood into it, one that Shear's vastly inferior original completely misses out on (and the production is just awful). Perhaps the answer was all about perspective, a woman's point of view, not a man's, in this case. It seems to lend the song a little more credibility, as if the story is being told from the vantage point of a concerned friend or impartial observer, not a man trying to crack open the emotional safe that is the female mind. Either way, it's a beautiful sentiment that twists a common theme just enough to make it stand out from similar pop music fare. In just a few minutes, the Bangles stole Shear's song from him for all eternity.
09 "Just Like Fire Would" | The Saints
Coincidental with the making of this mixtape, which includes "Just Like Fire Would, one of the greatest later-period Saints songs ever, we found out that the band's singer Chris Bailey had died at age 65. A major loss, especially if you live in Australia, where the Saints are revered like, uh, saints, I guess. So, while we mourn the loss of one of our all-time favorite rock singers, we also celebrate his singular ability to write and sing snarling punkish rock songs that cracked from the very first listen. When Pickled Priest builds their own Overlooked Artists Rock Hall of Fame (with a mortgage from the Bailey Building and Loan, perhaps?), the Saints will be ushered in with great fanfare. Hopefully, he'll finally get his due someday. Bruce Springsteen did his part, notably covering "Just Like Fire Would" for his High Hopes album back in 2014. Unfortunately, Bruce's interpretation didn't do the song justice at all. After Bailey's death, tributes poured in from everywhere, all claiming his greatness or influence or both. Nick Cave went so far as to say this, "I can only simply repeat, for the record, that, in my opinion, the Saints were Australia’s greatest band, and that Chris Bailey was my favourite singer." Pretty strong words, but I will not argue the point. I will second it, however.
08 "Don't Want to Know If You Are Lonely" | Hüsker Dü
Bob Mould gets the majority of Hüsker Dü love, which seems fair, but what made the band so great was the dual threat added by Grant Hart, an excellent songwriter and amazing drummer. He was also a pretty good vocalist, too, the perfect foil to Bob Mould's natural kinetic intensity. Every Hüsker album has a few great Grant Hart songs and when you start lining them up in a row, it's a pretty formidable playlist. While the best song on most of the band's albums usually belonged to Mould, on Candy Apple Grey that honor goes to Hart's catchy tale of lost love, which is easily one of his finest moments with the band. There are some killer Mould ballads on the album ("Too Far Down," "Hardly Getting Over It"), but when it came time to choose a killer single for our 1986 mixtape, Hart's gem was the ündeniable choice.
07 "Battleship Chains" | Georgia Satellites
The other day, as I was leafing through the new Ball Chain & Beyond catalog, I began to wonder when and why the classic ball and chain started to go out of vogue as the preferred way to domesticate the most virulent forms of the male species. After at least fifteen seconds of deep thought, I believe I narrowed the date window down to somewhere in the latter half of 1986, right around the time the Georgia Satellites released their breakout single “Keep Your Hands to Yourself.” To this day, I cannot bring myself to watch the video on You Tube, so ubiquitous was the song on MTV at the time (basically a bunch of hicks on the back of a flatbed trailer rocking out). Apparently, their brand of Southern rock was the perfect antidote for the times or something—how else to explain its unexpected success? For me, however, the song that was the real standout from that record was the Satellites’ next single, “Battleship Chains,” which inexplicably sank off the charts like a torpedoed gunboat. The song has stood the test of time, and it now ranks with the great Southern rock singles of all-time. It also answers our initial question about the decline in popularity of the ball and chain. When women started tying their men down with battleship chains, the ball and chain simply had no answer. Have you seen anything more badass than one of those huge chains draped on the side of a gun-metal grey battleship? Wrap that around your philandering man and he ain’t goin’ nowhere, ladies! Not only that, it comes with a matching two-ton anchor! So go out and rent The Notebook and treat him to a Saturday night.
06 "Memphis Thing" | Rob Jungklas
There are a lot of contenders, but I think "Memphis Thing" would be a good selection as Memphis's official rock & roll song. It oozes passion for the city and celebrates its rich musical heritage, a real "Memphis Soul Stew" of influences and styles. Plus, the song is delivered with the passion of a 60's soul singer "with a ten inch pompadour," too. All in all, a pretty smokin' hot slab o' wax. Buried as the last song on Closer to the Flame, a record I count among my all-time favorites (there's not a bum track to be found on the record). The album generated enough buzz (Top 100 Billboard single, MTV attention, soundtrack use, etc) to make you think his future was bright, but the music business is a harsh mistress and he ended up fading away from the public eye, only to land on the faculty of a Memphis middle school with his music career limited to cult favorite/local legend status. But that ain't a bad thing, necessarily—especially if you're from Memphis. I think he would say that he's been making the music he really wants to make (haunting, blues-inflected rock) for the last few decades (more than a dozen albums that are all pretty damn good.) If he's happy, I'm happy. And there's no denying the passion he retains for his music. I do wonder where his career might've gone if he stayed in the same lane as he inhabited on Closer to the Flame, though. There's just something about it that sounds like nobody else out there. Listen to "Memphis Thing," of course, but keep going and check out "Boystown," "See That Girl," "Back to 17," and one of my favorite garage-pop songs ever, "Dizzy Blonde." It's a marvelous sounding record that has stood the test of time. Go out and find a copy.
05 "Don't Give Up" | Peter Gabriel
"In Your Eyes" and "Don't Give Up" occupy special places in my listening life and I so want to sneak them both onto this tape behind your back. I haven't had much use for the smash hit singles ("Sledgehammer" and "Big Time") that made So one of the year's hottest records, but these two ballads crush me every time I hear them. "In Your Eyes" (is there a better line than "In your eyes / I see the doors of a thousand churches"?) got a gigantic boost from the pivotal "boombox" scene in Say Anything, so I've opted to give the spot on our 1986 tape to "Don't Give Up," Gabriel's soul-healing duet with Kate Bush. Could there be a better combination of distinctive voices from the 1980s? When Kate sings "Rest your head / You worry too much / It's going to be alright / When times get rough," it's positively knee-buckling. Spiritually and soulfully the precursor to R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts," this is one of those songs whose sheer beauty is replenishing, but whose message is potentially life saving.
04 "There is a Light That Never Goes Out" | The Smiths
There are certain artists that have a magical year, or set of years, where they can seemingly do no wrong creatively. Elvis in the 50s. Dylan, the Beatles, and the Stones in the 60s. Elton John and Stevie Wonder in the 70s. and I am only scratching the surface. In the 80s, the Smiths' mid-decade run also qualifies. And, if you're looking for a single solitary year to make your case, 1986 would be it. The Queen is Dead, considered by many to be the band's greatest record, kicks things off. Then we get "Panic" and "ASK," two of their greatest non-album singles. "There is a Light" (from The Queen is Dead) represents the band on this mixtape by the slightest of margins, a crime against compounded quality if there every was one. But it's this forlorn love song (you expected anything else?) that manages to combine melancholy and morbidity into one strangely delightful miserablist anthem. If I'm going to sing a sad-sack love ballad to myself from behind a rain splattered windshield, you better believe I'm going for the one where the lovers might get creamed by a double-decker bus or a ten-ton truck at any moment. There's an equal feeling of unbridled joy and unavoidable doom in this track, a Smiths specialty, but in the end the rare appearance of a somewhat happy Morrissey brings the song to another level.
03 "Mandolin Rain" | Bruce Hornsby & The Range
There's something transporting about "Mandolin Rain" that has captivated me from the very first time I heard it back in 1986. Like most, I was initially drawn to Bruce Hornsby's music by hits "Every Little Kiss" and the album's title track, "The Way It Is," but this is the song I return to time and time again for sustenance. Plainspoken yet magical in the way it weaves the sound of music into the sound of nature so effortlessly. If you want to know what wistful sounds like, this is it. Hornsby's understated vocals on the album remind me of the restrained, natural, and pure tones of James Taylor, another songwriter who could draw you into their world without so much as breaking a sweat. Here, Hornsby doesn't need to overdo anything to make you feel the beauty of the moment in time he's writing about. He lets the quality of the song do that. And, as the song plays, the image is created.
*Note: When the album originally came out, I somehow made it backstage and got to meet the gigantic (6' 6") Hornsby. When I gushed about "Mandolin Rain" he politely thanked me, signed my ticket (Thanks for coming, Bruce Hornsby), and moved on to the next compliment. Which I interrupted with a question about the Leon Russell cover he did that night. He gave me a look like I was taking too much time, said "I've always loved his music," and turned away. I'll take it.
02 "Fall on Me" | R.E.M.
In typical Michael Stipe fashion, the meaning of "Fall on Me" seems ever-changing, which undermines efforts to pin it down. I like that in a song. This is how he operates lyrically and it is likely why R.E.M.'s songs have such a beguiling shelf-life. If conceived about acid rain, it evolved into an all-purpose song about oppression, if the now effusive Stipe can be trusted, that is. It does make sense. No matter, this may be the perfect R.E.M. song to play for someone who doesn't know their work, mainly because it combines the best of all four corners of the band, each contributing something essential that is uniquely their own. Mike Mills backing vox in particular. It all comes together holistically to triumph over whatever it is up against.
01 "Welcome to the Boomtown" | David + David
This album was a beautiful bummer back in 1986, but it's a fucking punch in the face in 2022, I tell ya. Tales of the forgotten, the lost, the swallowed up, the left out. It all still seemed avoidable back then, but now, the reality of it all seems uncomfortably on the nose. There's not a bad song on Boomtown and the de facto title track hits like a sudden uppercut into the gut, driven by characters captured in hazy Polaroid snapshots by a bleary-eyed observer. It opens with a dead-on vision of 80's excess in one of the most perfect set of lyrics ever written:
Miss Cristina drives a 944
Satisfaction oozes from her pores
She keeps rings on her fingers
Marble on her floor
Cocaine in her dresser
Bars on her doors
Presumably, the next photo is of Cristina's dealer:
Got a little off track
Took a year off from college
And he never went back
Now he smokes much too much
Got a permanent hack
Deals dope out of Denny's
Keeps a table in the back
What do they both have in common? Money, of course.
Welcome to the boomtown
All that money makes
Such a succulent sound
If any song defines the era from which it came, this is it. Hell, it pretty much defines 2022 as well. We've come a long way, baby!
Well, that was triggering, and sometimes not in a good way. But in the end a collection of songs, discovered at the time and since, that I stand behind. It's the list I'm making right now, as an aging old shit. I've really gotta stop hanging out in the 80s. Next time, I'm going back to a year before I was born. It's easier that way.