Quoting myself elsewhere: 1983 was, in many ways, the unofficial start of the 80s in music: Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and “Billie Jean”, Madonna’s debut, Cyndi Lauper’s debut, Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit”, and rock acts side-stepping into a world of synths (ie. Neil Young’s Trans) and drum-programming or the bleary 80s production, from New Order shedding their Joy Division skin of Movement in Power, Corruption & Lies, “Blue Monday”, Talking Heads dropping Brian Eno for Speaking in Tongues (their best-selling and highest charting album), Bob Dylan’s Infidels, Elvis Costello’s Punch the Clock, etc. It was a dreadful time of music that seemed omnipresent then and dated now.
1986, then, is when everyone seemed to reach a nadir simultaneously. Here, former greats releasing some of their worst albums, including but not limited to Genesis, Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Lou Reed, Neil Young and Bob Dylan (whose Knocked Out Loaded I’ve already previously reviewed). (If you thought Genesis or Pipes of Peace or Trans or Infidels were bad, wait ’til you get a load of these.) And, as it turns out, not even the indiesphere was safe.
The “Every year is great” committee, will, predictably list a few good albums as a counterargument to say “1986 was good.” Indeed, there were some good stuff: Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel released respectable albums; the Smiths released their best album; Elvis Costello released his best song (“I Want You”); R.E.M. released their third best. But just because there were a few good apples doesn’t mean it was a bad orchid.
This is the first installment of a “series” where I’ll be reviewing two bad apples per installment, none of which deserve more than one or two paragraphs each. Here’s Neil Young’s worst album from the 1980s and Yo La Tengo bad debut to start:
Neil Young – Landing on Water
Fucking ungainly music – wherein Neil Young “bellyflops” (thanks, Xgau) into the horrific 80s’ production, producing “Weight of the World,” which contains an odd vocal yelp in the right-channel after the main hook that I’m sure not even Young knew why it was included (it certainly isn’t a “backing vocal”); the never-ending “Drifter,” which contains one of the most grating riffs on the album; “Violent Side,” whose use of a ridiculous gospel choir recalls Bob Dylan’s similar ridiculous gospel choirs of his own bellyflop that year; the blustering “Touch the Night” which attempts to do seven different things, etc. Saved from the D range because “Bad News Beat” has a nice chorus even if it does the “fire/desire” rhyme (not accidentally, the non-synth part of the song), and also because “Hippie Dream” is a good song (not accidentally, the most un-80s song on the album), with Neil Young recalling the glory days, obviously lyrically but also sonically. The best part is the bridge, after the shredding guitar solo where Young emerges with a self-aware “Just because it’s over for you, don’t mean it’s over for me.” Download that one and burn the rest with fire; never mind Trans or Everybody’s Rockin’ – Geffen should’ve sued for this one.
Yo La Tengo – Ride the Tiger
One of their most suckiest. In a decade or so, Yo La Tengo would carve out their own niche of suburban-summer-night music that very few others could emulate, but especially here, they sound derivative of less affecting R.E.M. jangle over less affecting Velvet Underground chord changes (ie. “The Empty Pool” has me running to “Murder Mystery”), with the occasional loud post-punk song in between to break up the monotony (“The Evil That Men Do” and “Screaming Lead Balloons”). It doesn’t help that Ira Kaplan hasn’t found his place as a singer yet, or more aptly, can’t sing, or that Georgia Hubley’s nowhere to be found. A good measuring stick for how much an artist sucks at a certain point is to compare the originals with the covers – the Kinks’ “Big Sky”; Pete Seeger’s “Living in the Country”; bonus track Love’s “A House Is Not a Motel” – which still suck, but at least have distinct tunes to distinguish.