Tom’s Top 5’s: Albums of 1986

Finally, a Top 5 where I actually have to leave several worthy contenders off the list again! Perhaps the worthiest of those contenders would be Bruce Springsteen’s sprawling Live 1975-1985, which I exclude only on the grounds that it is (as you might expect) a decade-spanning compendium of live performances – as opposed to, say, a single E Street Band concert from ’85 or ’86. And anyway, I’ve tried not to include live albums for the most part, preferring to focus on new material released each year. But also having to leave out Crowded House, Bruce Hornsby & the Range, Genesis, and the Smiths puts back me in mind of the good old days of Top 5-ing (i.e., about two weeks ago).

5. DIFFERENT LIGHT (The Bangles)

Different Light

Forget “Walk Like an Egyptian.” That’s not the Bangles. “Manic Monday”? That’s the Bangles. “In a Different Light”? That‘s the Bangles. “If She Knew What She Wants”? That’s the Bangles. All Over the Place makes for a more potent listen, but the highlights here (the aforementioned trio, plus “Not Like You”) are as good as or even better than anything on their full-length debut. They didn’t have to write every song here to make them indelibly their own.

4. NO GURU, NO METHOD, NO TEACHER (Van Morrison)

No Guru, No Method, No Teacher

What might Astral Weeks sound like had it been recorded by a 40-year old instead of a 23-year-old? No Guru, No Method, No Teacher is Van Morrison at his most mystical, chasing enlightenment across lush folk/soul soundscapes. For those who know Van primarily through his presence on classic rock radio, it may well seem a little esoteric. But for those who find in Van a fellow seeker and spiritual companion, it’s a gripping travelogue through one man’s internal geography.

3. BACK IN THE HIGH LIFE (Steve Winwood)

Back in the High Life

Back in the High Life bears little enough resemblance to the Spencer Davis Group or Traffic, but–and I know I’m committing rock & roll heresy here–I like it every bit as much as anything those bands did. It manages to be punchy and exciting while still still meeting all the needs of pop radio in 1986, making room for funky organ breaks, killer horn charts, snappy syncopated percussion, and (of course) Winwood’s blow-your-doors-off voice. Plus you get Nile Rodgers, James Taylor, Chaka Khan, Joe Walsh, and Randy Brecker in crucial-yet-unobtrusive guest spots. Back in the high life, indeed.

2. SO (Peter Gabriel)

So (Peter Gabriel)

So reins in some of Peter Gabriel’s weirder, artier tendencies, striking just the right balance between commercial accessibility and emotional and musical sophistication. If the likes of “Big Time” and “Don’t Give Up” are pop, they’re pop for adults, full of wit and human feeling. And if “Mercy Street” and “We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)” are art rock, they’re art rock for Everyman, interrogating complex issues without sacrificing listenability. Oh, and “In Your Eyes” may actually be perfect. Like literally perfect.

1. GRACELAND (Paul Simon)

Graceland

Poor Vampire Weekend. Whenever I listen to them, no matter how much I may like what I’m hearing (last year’s effort was particularly satisfying), when it comes right down to it, I mostly just want to hear Graceland. Paul Simon’s surprising and wonderful South African pop-rock fusion was unprecedented at time of release and remains virtually unsurpassed in the annals of so-called World Music today. Every song is a gem, but for me, the album’s crown jewel is “Under African Skies”:

This is the story of how we begin to remember
This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein
After the dream of falling and calling your name out
These are the roots of rhythm
And the roots of rhythm remain

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