Vinyl albums are in the midst of a renaissance, thanks in large part to a heady group of music-loving millennials that want an earthier and more soulful sound than what’s offered by antiseptic streaming services and MP3s. Those of us that grew up in the First Album Age say welcome to the wonderful world of cracks, pops, Sides 1 and 2, turntables, album art, liner notes, and old milk crates full of records. Not to mention the greatest gift of all: the treasure hunt. For those of you looking for that next great album, they’re no further away than your local garage sale or thrift shop, if you know what you’re looking for. And we, the wizened graybeards of music, are here to help. This series will provide you with a treasure map of albums to look for on your journey through vinyl nirvana. Some will be fairly obvious (although we’ll assume you already know about Rumours, Zeppelin 4, Tapestry, Revolver and Frampton Comes Alive), and others obscure. But please trust us. We know what we’re talking about.
And if you want to look up these albums on Spotify, that’s okay, too. It’s all about the music, not the medium.
An artist’s death always refocuses the world’s attention on the artist’s work. Prince, God bless him, is no different. The Purple Rain soundtrack, in particular, made a roaring comeback, and rightly so. It’s Prince’s masterwork, a stroke of genius.
Ooooo, there’s the word. Genius. That word gets tossed around like a football on a fall Saturday afternoon, assigned on the daily to the merely average so-and-so whose greatest claim to fame is a million YouTube hits. Popularity doesn’t make you a genius. Moving the world forward in a righteous direction does. Popularity is tasty, tasty gravy.
But hold on, let me back up a second, to the concept of the popular – and genius – album. There’s been plenty of bloviating about the album’s demise, thanks to music sharing and streaming. I won’t say that news is purely bad, because I love Spotify and Pandora, but album releases are no longer the anticipated events they used to be. (Unless it’s Taylor Swift, Adele or Kanye West, of course.) These days, you aren’t required to buy entire albums to listen to music, so why bother? Shoot, Pete Townshend said there’s no point even making an album anymore, and this is the man responsible for Tommy, Who’s Next and Empty Glass.
The world was different in 1984, when Purple Rain was released. Albums were everything. Yes, you had to spend eight or nine bucks on a cassette of dubious sound quality, and then sort through a half dozen songs you didn’t care about to get to the one killer track that made your world go ‘round, but that was how it worked. You had to take it on faith that the piece of plastic in your grubby mitts would be worth the time and money. “Fast Forward” and “Reverse” were three of the most valuable words in the English language in those days, right up there with “tubular.”
But in ’84, so much of that guesswork was alleviated because 1984 is the single greatest year for album releases in the history of popular music. Better than 1967. Better than 1971. Better than 1991.
Is that a rhetorical statement meant to fire up a heated barstool argument? Well, duh. But this isn’t Old Guy Chris ranting about how THINGS WERE BETTER BACK IN MY DAY, because that isn’t true. (I’ve had a lot of days, with more yet to come.) This is Music Dork Chris giving you a list of albums that made or relaunched careers, kick-started entirely new genres of music, or were just plain ‘ol huge in 1984.
Let me throw out some album titles from when it was morning again in America, and in no particular order:
Double Nickels on the Dime
Born In The USA
Like A Virgin
Stop Making Sense
The Unforgettable Fire
Make It Big
Grace Under Pressure
Building The Perfect Beast
The Footloose Soundtrack
Red Sails in the Sunset
Fistful of Metal
Love At First Sting
Out Of The Cellar
Ride the Lightning
Welcome to the Pleasuredome
The Red Hot Chili Peppers
Some Great Reward
I Feel For You
Learning to Crawl
And, yes, the Purple Rain soundtrack.
That’s quite a list, and I purposely left the artists’ names off. Some are obvious, but for those that aren’t, do yourself a favor and use the tech of today to connect with the tunes of yesterday. I won’t spend countless words trying to convince you that ’84 was music paradise; I’m simply going to give you a path to glory and an encouraging, “Off you go,” and let you do the rest.
The abundance of great music was a treat for kids like me, but made it difficult for artists to stand out in a burgeoning crowd. Established acts like REO Speedwagon, Journey and Foreigner had their hits, too, but they were wheezing towards the end of their shelf life, and getting elbowed aside by the kids with synths and turntables. (Not to mention Spinal Tap’s wickedly uproarious skewering of 70s arena rockers. Hello, Cleveland!)
Amidst all this, Purple Rain stood out, and then some. It was – and is – the encapsulation of Prince’s powers. It’s all there. The perfect blend of rock, pop, funk and soul. The spot-on vocals. All those hits. And the scorching overdrive of Prince’s guitar, which can jump-start a nuclear reactor. And, yes, there is a movie to go along with the soundtrack, but let’s face reality: Purple Rain, the film, isn’t very good. Weird Al Yankovic said it best, when he was promoting his 1989 film, UHF: “My movie is a lot like Purple Rain. Except it’s intentionally funny.”
Okay, so what? It’s the music that matters, right? Music always matters, and it always moves forward. Prince moved music forward his entire career, taking the influences of his past and turning them into something new and refreshing. Hell yeah, he was a Minneapolis genius, one that was easily recognized even when brilliant fellow travelers from Springsteen to Sade crowded the airwaves.
(And Purple Rain’s spiritual companion piece – The Time’s Ice Cream Castle – was also released in ’84, though nowhere near the artistic accomplishment. Still…oh-WEE-oh-WEE-OH!)
The 1980s were a great time, but far from perfect. (‘Sup, Cold War?) Musically, the first years of the decade were a mess, with disco tapping out and New Wave still clawing its way from the underground with no dedicated radio outlet. Yacht rockers like Air Supply, Pablo Cruise and Ambrosia littered the top 40. Kenny Rogers was a hit machine. So was Barry Manilow. And Toto won a Best Album Grammy.
Rock. Was. Dead.
But, magically, MTV showed up on our televisions. Joan Jett reminded us how much we love rock & roll. REM invented college rock. The Police and Blondie finally brought New Wave to the masses. Cyndi Lauper and Madonna began their cavalcade of hits. Michael Jackson donned a zipper jacket and released the visionary colossus, Thriller. Van Halen, Def Leppard and Quiet Riot ushered in the new era of pop-metal, and Metallica double-timed it. Boy George picked up David Bowie’s gauntlet and challenged our notions on gender and sexual identity, while Bowie himself ditched his coke-fueled 70s androgyny for Saville Row and the dance floor.
And Prince partied like it was 1999. We all did.
All of this set up 1984, the year the 80s finally got the music right. And Prince reigned over it all.