1980s music: It didn’t all suck

Talk to people about music in the 1980s and you’ll often hear two themes: The emergence of music videos and the popularity of so-called hair metal. I was in my 20s then and my tastes shifted away from popular music all through the decade, landing squarely in the corner of the blues by the end.

But it was the rootsy music of the time that ultimately stuck with me. A lot of it came from the West Coast, particularly Southern California with its lasting blue-collar ex-Okie population, who nicely mixed up country and the blues with a little bit of the swing jazz that was already there.

Here are six of my favorite albums from that time period. I easily could have listed 20 more but six just felt like the right number. I joined my first band in the 1980s and learned a bunch of music from these bands — and I still perform some of those songs from time to time.

Los Lobos — How Will The Wolf Survive? Imagine it’s 1985 and you’re at a friend’s house in the middle of a party that will become legendary. Suddenly, this album drops (there were ‘albums’ then and they ‘dropped’ onto turntables) and the first notes of “Don’t Worry, Baby” come blaring out. Bam! It’s like someone punched you in the chest. You’ve never heard of these “Los Lobos” guys and this is their first album, but you already know that if they stick around, you are going to be a fan for a very very very long time. Thirty years down the road, that is just how it worked out for me. I still sing “I Got Loaded” almost every time I play out with The Joe Chiocca Band, and this is my very favorite album of all time.

Best cuts: “Don’t Worry, Baby” “Evangeline,” “I Got Loaded.”
Biggest surprise: “The Breakdown.” So cool.

Lone Justice (eponymous). OK, Maria McKee was hot (probably still is). And by ‘hot,’ I mean Venus hot, one-percenter hot, the kind of hotness that can nicely camouflage some weak chops. But McKee’s chops were (probably still are) MASSIVE. Imagine someone who can warble like Dolly Parton but also belt it with a snarl — and who comes across as comfortable around a 12-gauge Remington — and you get McKee. And the backing band members were masterful rave-up artists; even when the record label tried to soften the band into Fleetwood Mac, that edge couldn’t be extinguished.

Best cuts: “Ways To Be Wicked,” Working Late.”
Biggest surprise: “You Are The Light,” a soft, sensitive, sparse album-closer that actually works.

The Beat Farmers — Van Go. After the first time I heard this album, I decided I was done with the Top 40. My co-conspirators in Nun of the Above already were twisting me away from the music of the time, and this was the last kick. Here was an album that had underlying notes of country, blues and punk all at once, and yet somehow it still sounded original. You know those SoCal guys who restore cars and have their own reality TV shows? They listened to this album in the 1980s.

Best cuts: “Riverside,” “Deceiver.”
Biggest surprise: Hearing Country Dick Montana for the first time. Check out “I Want You, Too” and especially “Big Ugly Wheels” to get the full Country Dick treatment. (Neither are as good as his covers of “Big Rock Candy Mountain” and especially “Big River” on later albums, but this is where I learned to love him.)

R.E.M. — Reckoning. Yes, I know, huge band, everyone loved R.E.M., etc., etc. But I got on board as soon as I heard “Radio Free Europe,” and the band was underground-popular but not huge yet when this album came along. At this stage, they were still recording songs with obtuse lyrics so far down in the mix that half the fun was transcribing them and trying to figure them out.

R.E.M. wouldn’t sign with Warner for a couple of more years (and the days of buried vocals ended immediately after that), but this remains my favorite album of theirs. I love every song on it.

Best cuts: Pick ’em. I’ll pick “So. Central Rain” and 7 Chinese Bros.” I might change my mind tomorrow.
Biggest surprise: “Don’t Go Back To Rockville,” a straight-ahead mid-tempo song where the lyrics could be heard and made sense. This song was the only thing I knew about Rockville until I moved to the D.C. area.

The BoDeans: Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams. The title comes from the Rolling Stones’ “Shattered,” but these guys never feel Stones-y to me, unless you were talking about the Stones of the early- to mid-1960s. This album was my introduction to a group that still makes the rounds today, and “Still the Night” and “Runaway” were part of my 1980s repertoire. And T-Bone Burnett produced this album, back in the day when he didn’t seem so obsessed with making everything sound like it came out of an AM radio in 1958.

Best cuts: The two aforementioned songs.
Biggest surprise: Not in a good way: “Rickshaw Riding,” which was painful to listen to (but easy to forgive because of the quality of the rest of the album).
Apropos of nothing: My wife and I spent our 10th anniversary at Virginia Beach, and music came drifting into our window one night. We stepped out onto the hotel balcony and…there was The BoDeans, playing at a festival stage up the beach.

The Blasters (eponymous). They really need to be heard live to get the full grasp of their power, and I never did that until the 1990s, but this album set the stage for them and built them a following that still comes out when they’re around. The first seven tracks on this album — none longer than 3:33 — are a master class in American roots music (with obvious garage and punk influences). Both of the Alvin brothers — Dave and Phil — are in their full glory here, and songs from this album still get covered by other artists (Jack White did a memorable version of “I’m Shakin'” just a couple of years ago, for example).

Best cuts: “Marie Marie,” “So Long Baby Goodbye.”
Biggest surprise: “Hollywood Bed.” It’s heavily influenced by Albert King’s “Crosscut Saw,” and at 3:33, it’s practically Jazz Odyssey by Blasters standards.


So, in short, don’t buy the narrative that the 1980s was a polyester and prefab decade for music. The good stuff was there (it also was a great decade for punk if that was your thing). You just had to know where to look for it.

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