Guilty pleasures – favourite pop albums of the 80s: Part 5

And so I come to the final part (I think) of my rewind through my favourite albums of the 80s. I’m going to squeeze 4 albums into this post, all of which were released during 1987-88. I can’t seem to find any pure pop albums I really like after this period, as it pretty much coincides with the rising popularity of rock/metal in the popular music charts, as well as R&B and electronic/dance music. And one can hear these musical influences in a couple of the albums featured here.

T’Pau – Bridge of Spies (1987): T’Pau is a character from the original Star Trek series which Carol Decker used as the name for the band that she fronted as lead singer and co-songwriter. Their debut album Bridge of Spies was a huge hit after which the band unfortunately faded away. I think all their creativity got poured into this album, evidenced by the fact that 7 out of the 12 songs were released as singles. The group’s sound is differentiated by Decker’s distinctive high pitched vocals and a tenor sax that features prominently on songs like Friends Like These. The best tracks are the mid-tempo singles Heart and Soul, China in Your Hand and the title track Bridge of Spies (love that chorus, even though it gets a bit awkward when she hits the high note on the last line!). The best song for me is Valentine, the fifth single from the album, an anthemic song built around Decker’s soaring vocals (feels epic when she goes “Hey hey hey, Sunny Valentine”); make sure your speakers can handle the treble when you turn up the volume on to this one! Even an average song like Thank You for Goodbye are elevated by Decker’s vocals. The album went all the way to No.1 on the UK album chart for a week and was eventually certified 4xPlatinum.

George Michael – Faith (1987): I had become big fan of Wham! and their bubblegum pop sound from the early 80s. But I certainly wasn’t prepared for how different George Michael sounded on his debut solo album Faith (this was the same reaction I had when Sting went solo after the break-up of The Police). Incorporating elements of R&B and electronica, the album broke new ground for him and still ranks up there as one of the best pop albums of all time. It won Album of the Year at the 1989 Grammy Awards and more significantly, became the first album by a white solo artist to top the US R&B Charts. With its overt (and covert) mixing of sexuality and religious imagery, George Michael (like Madonna) was making a political statement through his music. I love upbeat tempo and playful lyrics of the title track, FaithFather Figure is, I think, one of the greatest pop songs ever recorded; it has absolutely everything – opening with an oriental synth riff followed by a “smacky” drum beat and throbbing bass line, one already knows that this is going to be an intense song…and then comes Michael’s breathless vocals enhanced with echo effects. Don’t you love it when the vocals skip a beat in the chorus between “I will be the one who loves you” and “‘Til the end of time”. And the variation on the final chorus. I could write a whole section on just this one song. Electronica makes its intro into mainstream pop with the synth riff interspersing the chorus on I Wan’t Your Sex. The electronica/dance sound gets dialed up even more with Monkey. There are two songs with a very different pace – one is Hand to Mouth with its poignant lyrics and minimalist musical arrangement. And the other at the end of the album, is the old-fashioned pop ballad sound of Kissing a Fool, which sounds like it could have been sung by Michael Buble.

Level 42 – Running in the Family (1987): I’ve loved this group ever since I heard their early singles hits The Chinese Way (1982) and The Sun Goes Down (1983). They had a unique sound – Mark King’s bass slapping style, his vocal delivery and just the whole modern jazz infused pop sound of the band. They had a couple of indifferent albums in ’84 and ’85, then it all came together in their 1987 record Running in the Family. Kicking off with the single Lessons in Love (released some months before the album), there were a total of 4 hit singles including the title track, the heartbreak song To Be with You Again and the contemplative/poignant It’s Over. Mark King’s singing style made the lyrics easy to decipher and sing along with. Even the so-called ‘filler songs’ are good enough to play in the background and make for easy listening, although they can be considered a bit formulaic. But I love their formula, so am happy to listen to songs like Sleepwalkers (a bit reggae-infused) and Freedom Someday (opening sounds a bit like The Chinese Way).

R.E.M. – Green (1988): Before they became world famous with Losing My Religion (and that music video directed by Tarsem Singh!) and its 1991 album Out of Time, R.E.M. spent many years as an underground indie band whose popularity was limited to the college circuit in the US. The album they released before Out of Time was Green in 1988, a wake-up call to the world showcasing their immense talent, quirky sound and deep (not always meaningful) lyrics. Virtually every song in this album is worthy of inclusion in a retrospective or “best of” album. Although I love the four bubblegum pop songs which were released as singles, over time my favourite song has become You Are the Everything, a wonderful, meditative love song, which would not have been radio-friendly enough to release as a single. Hairshirt sounds very similar, but somehow doesn’t have the same appeal for me. Another song which usually brings tears to my eyes is World Leader Pretend; this bleak song was not released as a single, but appeared on a compilation album (I think supporting Greanpeace); it is apparently the only song on the album to have its lyrics printed, which means the band felt that the lyrics were worth reading, as it is a political song about hollow/ shallow world leaders. At the other end of the spectrum, you have Stand, a song whose meaningless lyrics exist only as filler for the groovy 60’s-style “bubblegum pop” tune. In the same league are the other three songs released as singles Pop Song 89, Get Up and Orange Crush – all very catchy. For those interested, check out this amazing blog written in 2007/ 08, analyzing a number of R.E.M. songs

Well, that pretty much wraps up my list of favourite 80s albums, but not quite. There are a few consolation prizes to be handed for artists who couldn’t quite get all their best songs into a single album, but did put together 2 consecutive albums that together would account for most of their “best of” compilation. Stay tuned!

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