Revisiting the Canon: Best Albums of 1988

As my recent posts have hopefully been pointing out, the 1980s was a banner decade for music – and, 1988 was a particularly noteworthy year in that regard. It was one of those years that was so strong musically that it was impossible for me to pick only five albums to highlight. I had to pick ten, instead. And, I could’ve picked ten completely different albums, and I still would’ve been right. That’s how good 1988 was.

Ergo, some longtime favorites of mine from the year in question. (I should note: these are not presented in order of preference or rank, nor have I done that with the other albums I’ve featured in this series. Ultimately, the order doesn’t matter. You, dear reader, will decide what place these records occupy in your heart.)

It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Public Enemy

This might the toughest hip-hop album I’ve ever heard. The beats are hard, the soundscape of samples is relentless, and Chuck D delivers one of the fiercest vocal performances ever committed to record. I had no idea what to make of this album when it first came out, but repeat listens tuned me into its frequency: this is protest music, and one of the earliest and most visible bridges, in attitude, between rap and punk. Chuck said it best early on this record: “…the power is bold, the rhymes politically cold.” Bring the noise, indeed.

Fisherman’s Blues, The Waterboys

Rock meets folk meets traditional Irish music in a mashup that swerves and swoons and dances a jig or two. One of the things I love most about this album is how far it stands apart from dominant musical trends of the era. Fisherman’s Blues simply does its own thing and exists on its own plane, and transports the listener there. Imagine seeing this band play a gig in the middle of a pub near the Irish coast, and you’ll understand the vibe.

Nothing’s Shocking, Jane’s Addiction

Jane’s Addiction was always a hard band to pin down. Who else did they sound like? Nobody and everybody. They had a little bit of punk in their sound, a little bit of hair metal, a little bit of prog rock, and a little bit of many other things. In retrospect, it’s easy to see that the biggest part of their sound was how much of it inspired countless other bands later on. In other words, Jane’s Addiction was a true original, and theirs was the sound of the future. Nothing’s Shocking remains a bracing testament to that.

Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars, Edie Brickell & New Bohemians

Back in the day, it seemed as if Edie Brickell & Co. sprang onto the scene out of nowhere, and they cast a spell over my crowd in no time flat. They led with one of my favorite singles of the decade, the ubiquitous-at-the-time “What I Am,” which was a great introduction to their kind of hippie-dippy folk rock. This is a beautiful record, brimming over with sincerity, that should not be forgotten.

Vivid, Living Colour

One of the hardest rock albums of the 1980s, full of crunchy riffs, and an astonishingly big sound, considering they did it with only three instruments and a singer. Corey Glover has never been a typical frontman, though: dude has a big sound all his own, and he goes gunning for the stratosphere on every track. Case in point: one of Vivid‘s best-known tracks, “Middle Man.” These funk metal pioneers created the sonic template for countless bands that came after them, and it all started with this album, which remains one of the best debuts of the decade.

Lovesexy, Prince

Prince really did own the 1980s, didn’t he? He released a new album almost annually throughout the decade, most of them were good enough to be considered among the best of their respective years (to say the least), and all of them were wildly influential. Even though Lovesexy was considered one of Prince’s lesser efforts at the time, it still featured one of his most popular Top 10 singles, “Alphabet St.,” and future fan favorites like “Glam Slam” and “Anna Stesia.” Just a year removed from his landmark album, Sign o’ the Times, Prince loosens up a bit here, but sounds just as dynamic as ever.

Life’s Too Good, The Sugarcubes

Long before Björk became a universally shapeshifting polymath, she was the lead singer of the Icelandic alternative band The Sugarcubes. Thanks to her otherworldly vocals, the group made a smashing debut with Life’s Too Good, and set themselves up for worldwide notoriety. It may sound weird to some now hearing her front such a conventional (at least, for her) unit. But, when this album first came out, it was downright shocking, not just because of Björk’s extraordinary voice, but also because there was a band on Earth well-suited enough to support it. This is a legit alternative classic, and, to this day, there is still nothing that sounds even remotely like it.

Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1

What do you get when you form a supergroup with four iconic rock stars and an acclaimed producer? One of the greatest larks in the history of popular music. In the late 1980s, Electric Light Orchestra frontman Jeff Lynne produced albums for George Harrison, Tom Petty, and Roy Orbison. In between, the four of them recruited Bob Dylan and teamed up for this record, a breezy, tongue-in-cheek caper in which they billed themselves as half-brothers from a family of traveling musicians. The vibe is loose, the skill level is high, and the result is an album where all five members get to play to their strengths while having more fun than it sounds like they’ve had in a while.

Talk is Cheap, Keith Richards

Back in the late 1980s, when Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were in the midst of professional feud that threatened to break up The Rolling Stones, Keith went off and finally recorded a solo album of his own (in response to the two solo records that Mick had already done). The result was one of the best de facto Stones albums of the decade, a loose, shaggy affair that revealed Keith to be the true heart of the band. Backed up by a roster of superstar session players (who later became the core of Keith’s solo band, The X-Pensive Winos), Talk is Cheap is heavy on grooves and tasty guitar licks, and captures Keith in a rare moment of really joyful musical carousing.

Slow Turning, John Hiatt

In which John Hiatt finally perfected his sound, after years of toiling as a music industry afterthought (and getting dropped by three record labels). The songs take center stage on Slow Turning, and they are terrific: full of wry humor, catchy melodies, and rowdy roots rock arrangements to fill them out. Hiatt cut this record with his touring band, The Goners, and they are remarkably in sync throughout: they twang and croon like country music pros on the ballads, and rumble like a souped-up 1950s Thunderbird on the uptempo numbers. This is the album where his “Nashville-Memphis fusion,” as Robert Christgau called it, finally hit its peak form.

Revisiting the Canon: Best Albums of 1985

My backwards journey through the pop/rock canon of the 1980s, as inspired by my friend Mike B., continues apace with 1985. Such a transitional year for popular music. It felt like the music industry finally had to start reckoning with MTV, synthesizers, new wave, and a whole bunch of other things they’d been trying to ignore. The historical record shows that there was less consensus than usual regarding which albums from that year really stood out, which strikes me as evidence that everyone’s focus was scattered. Or, put another way, people were listening to a bunch of new things, and tastes changed accordingly.

All of which is to say, it was an easier year than most for being totally subjective.

Ergo, here are some albums from 1985 that I truly love:

Scarecrow, John Cougar Mellencamp

This is another one of those albums where just about every track could’ve been a single. The hooks are abundant, the vocals are tough and confident, and the band has never sounded better. Everything that’s great about Mellencamp’s recorded oeuvre – including his (at the time) burgeoning social conscience – coalesces into its peak form on this record. For me, it’s an all-time classic.

Around the World in a Day, Prince and the Revolution

Full disclosure: this is a purely sentimental pick on my part, and I’m not going to defend it as one of the best albums of its year. It came out during my formative adolescent years, and it has a soft spot in my heart for many inexplicable teenage reasons. Objectively speaking, though, calling Around the World in a Day a transitional record for Prince would be putting it mildly. This was his bizarre, psychedelia-inspired follow-up to Purple Rain, and it confused the hell out of everyone because it was so willfully and aggressively unlike its predecessor. Considering what fans (like myself) had come to expect from The Purple One by that point, some of these songs could easily be called sub-par. But, Prince’s sub-par material was still better than a lot of other artists’ A-list best, and this album was a rebellious announcement to the world that there was more to His Royal Purpleness than “1999” and “Let’s Go Crazy.” Plus, it features my favorite Prince single of them all, the scrumptious “Raspberry Beret.”

Listen Like Thieves, INXS

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This was the album where INXS’ brand of 1980s new wave got funkier and grittier. There are tasty hooks everywhere on this record, and the band sounds like they’re enjoying their newfound boldness. Listen Like Thieves clocks in at a lean, mean 37 minutes, and INXS make the most of that time: the album contains eleven songs, four of which became Top 40 hits in the U.S. Think of them as Duran Duran with more guitars (which is a compliment, by the way), and you’ll get the idea.

White City: A Novel, Pete Townshend

Pete Townshend spent most of the 1980s making solid solo albums, and this was one of his best. Anchored by an excellent studio band featuring none other than Pink Floyd‘s very own David Gilmour (who does a fabulous job here as Pete’s session guitarist), White City is full of bouncy earworms that show off Townshend’s still vital songwriting acumen. There’s a loose concept binding everything together (not surprising, since Pete wrote one of rock’s pioneering concept albums), but it doesn’t matter. The propulsive strength of tracks like “Face the Face” and “Give Blood” defy conceptual pigeonholing.

Little Creatures, Talking Heads

This might be the Heads’ most overlooked record, and also their most accessible. By 1985, they’d added the sheen of high-end studio production to their jangly, idiosyncratic sound, and gotten even better at writing hooks. Case in point: “And She Was,” “Stay Up Late,” and “Road to Nowhere,” the album’s trio of signature tracks, all of which became rock radio heavy rotation classics. Little Creatures is full of songs like those, that nestle themselves sneakily into one’s psyche. This album didn’t seem like much to me when I first heard it, but then I discovered I could hum the whole thing after listening to it only once. It’s a fun record that goes down easy, and rewards return visits.

The Daily Earworm Shuffle: Part II

Last week, I took a journey through one of my longstanding Spotify playlists: Daily Earworm. It was fun, and much more upbeat than I expected, so I’m doing it again. Here are more highlights from the ongoing set list in my subconscious:

“Reminiscing,” Little River Band: This is one of the yacht rock classics that takes me back to my childhood summer vacations in the Florida panhandle. For me, this is the sound of driving to the beach with my family on a ridiculously sunny day, and, for that reason alone, I will always love yacht rock.

“9 to 5,” Dolly Parton: Over the course of our marriage so far, my wife and I have discovered a couple of things. First, we can watch this movie anytime. It is eternally delightful. Secondly, we both really love Dolly. We will listen to any song of hers, and watch any movie of hers (And, we have.)

“Flash Light,” Parliament: One of my wife’s absolute favorite songs. It ends up on the playlist for every party we throw. We played it at our wedding. I’m guessing it will get played at our respective funerals. Basically, a song for all occasions.

“Here Come Those Tears Again,” Jackson Browne: A rare upbeat-sounding track from Browne that belies its pensive, melancholy lyrics. I’ve always loved his voice and the way he writes, and this is one of my favorites of his.

“The Mandalorian,” Ludwig Goransson: My wife and I were immediately taken with this show when it premiered last year, and especially with its soundtrack. I’m a longtime fan of film and television music, so it didn’t take any doing for this to enter my heavy rotation for a week or two.

“I Believe (When I Fall in Love it Will be Forever),” Stevie Wonder: Speaking of TV shows, have you seen the new High Fidelity series with Zoe Kravitz? It is so well done, and I highly recommend it. This was another one I binged right away when it premiered, and I loved the way it used this song, both as connective tissue to its movie version and as a bit of a thematic inversion from the way it was used in the movie. Super clever and super cool.

“Stand Up,” Cynthia Erivo: Another catchy movie song, delivered with catchy conviction by Erivo. I couldn’t hear this one enough the day after I saw Harriet.

“Walking on a Thin Line,” Huey Lewis and the News: A rare moment of gravitas for this pack of Bay Area favorites. It’s not quite convincing, but it doesn’t really matter because everything else that’s great about them – catchy hooks, a tight rhythm section, and Huey’s smooth vocals – is on full display.

“If I Should Fall from Grace with God,” The Pogues: This raucous celebration of a song needs no explanation. But, if you do need one, just picture yourself and your mates listening to this while sharing a pitcher in your favorite pub. There you go.

“The Dicty Glide,” Don Byron: This album, Byron’s tribute to the work of the Raymond Scott Quintette, the John Kirby Sextet and Duke Ellington, became a favorite of mine when I worked at a record store during college. I played it in the store as often as I could, and it always made my shift go by faster (plus, I never failed to sell a copy or two).

“Walk it Down,” Talking Heads: A subtly catchy tune from a cleverly crafted Heads album. This band truly did not know how to do anything poorly.

“Jigsaw Puzzle,” The Rolling Stones: A forgotten track from a classic Stones album. This was back when they were transitioning from learning their trade in record time to becoming the self-professed Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World. No wonder they could bill themselves as such with a throwaway this good.

“How Much Did You Get for Your Soul?,” The Pretenders: Slick, shiny, synth-tinged Pretenders still pack a punch. Chrissie Hynde’s patented snarl comes through no matter how studio musicians she surrounds herself with.

“I Say a Little Prayer,” Aretha Franklin: I’ve written about this one before. Suffice it to say, one of the greatest covers of all time.

“The Chamber of 32 Doors,” Genesis: One day, I’ll write something extensive about how much I love this band. For now, though, I continue to marvel at how much their inherent pop sensibilities shine through the prog rock conventions of the mid-1970s. Mind-blowing to this day.

Revisiting the Canon: Best Albums of 1986

When my pal Mike B. put out his social media APB for listening suggestions earlier this month, he didn’t just want to know what the best album of 1987 was. Oh no, he took it a few steps further, and started canvassing his social circle for their musical opinions on several different years throughout that glorious decade known as the 1980s. Which, in turn, inspired me to do some listening and research of my own. Home quarantine was made for following wild, random impulses like these.

Again, I’m no expert. I’m just another dude on the internet with opinions and time to kill. Which means that now’s as good a moment as any to talk about a few more albums that I truly love. (They also seem to have passed the test of time with flying colors.)

Ergo, some of my favorite albums from 1986:

Graceland, Paul Simon

Paul Simon - Graceland | This Day In Music

There were a couple of years there during high school where one of my mother’s closest friends, Joan, would give all of the teenagers in her life the same Christmas gift: whatever album was hot that year. Graceland was her gift du jour back in 1986, and it was my first taste of world music. I could not have asked for a better introduction. Graceland was the ideal sum of its parts: an experienced tunesmith learning new tricks in conjunction with the perfect cultural and political moment. And yet, this album also completely transcends its historical origins, and it sort of did that right from the get-go. That’s why it became a classic: because it operates in both a time and a league of its own.

Control, Janet Jackson

Image result for janet jackson control album

I’ve written about this one before, and could write a lot more about it. Suffice it to say, this album rocks hard, funks hard, and slams hard. Even for those of us who witnessed the ascendance of Madonna in real time, hearing a woman be this fierce on record was still a startling, refreshing shock back in the day. Plus, you could dance to it and hum the whole thing pretty much after only one listen. In many ways, a perfect album.

Parade, Prince and the Revolution

Prince - Parade: Music from the Motion Picture "Under the Cherry ...

The 1980s were very good to Prince. Or, maybe, Prince was very good to the 1980s, perhaps more so than any other artist of that decade. It’s easy to overlook Parade, since The Purple One made several other epochal albums during that era. But, don’t fall asleep on this one. It’s a party from start to finish, anchored by a pair of strong singles – “Kiss” and “Mountains” – and a bunch of other tracks that became fan favorites. This is dazzling, kaleidoscopic fun that showcases my favorite purple genius in full control.

Boomtown, David & David

Boomtown by David David, LP with mabuse - Ref:118047321

The one-off that time forgot, and that’s a shame because it’s terrific. Songwriters David Baerwald and David Ricketts teamed up for a one-time-only album that can be best described as L.A. by night. Their tales of “beautiful-loser mythology” (thank you, Robert Christgau) are fertile sonic territory for moody atmospherics and surprising hooks. Every song sounds like it should have its own video made up of people either drinking silently by themselves or driving through Los Angeles after dark in a convertible with the top down. And, I mean that as a compliment. This is a gem of a record that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Skylarking, XTC

XTC - Skylarking (1986, Vinyl) | Discogs

There are so many things I could say about this album. It was the moment where XTC finally embraced their obsessions with The Beatles and 1960s psychedelia full on. It was also the moment where they settled comfortably into life as a studio band, and began trying new sounds, textures, and arrangements they knew they’d never have to play live (much like, ahem, The Beatles). It was the record where frontman Andy Partridge famously clashed with producer Todd Rundgren (another Beatles stan) behind the scenes. But, the end result was a dazzling song cycle that revealed an accomplished level of pop craft underneath the band’s new wave beginnings. Plus, it featured “Dear God,” a single that prompted one of the better pop music controversies of the decade. Well done, lads.

Revisiting the Canon: Best Albums of 1987

My friend Mike B. recently put out an APB on social media: he wanted to do a deep dive on the greatest albums of 1987, and asked for everyone he knew to weigh in on their favorites. 1987 was such a great year for music, in my opinion, and everyone who commented on that thread was right, no matter which albums they mentioned. That’s how strong a year it was, and it inspired me to revisit some my own favorites from that time.

Are these the actual best albums of 1987? On the one hand, there is empirical evidence to suggest that these albums have stood the test of time, and have been lauded appropriately. On the other hand, I’m no expert, nor am I trying to be. I’m just looking for an excuse to write a little something about a handful of albums that I absolutely love.

Ergo, here are some of my favorites from that magical year of 1987:

Sign o’ the Times, Prince

Prince - Sign O' The Times (2CD) - Amazon.com Music

This one was a shocker when it came out, even for hardcore Prince fans like myself. In a decade where he kept upping the ante for himself on each record, how is it that Prince made the best album of his career after making the biggest album of his career? How is it that he released a double album that was even better than the double album he’d put out only five years earlier? Maybe the answer is just as simple as Robert Christgau’s sentiment that Sign o’ the Times was nothing less than “the most gifted pop musician of his generation proving what a motherfucker he is for two discs start to finish.” Amen.

Pleased to Meet Me, The Replacements

Musicheads Essentials: The Replacements, 'Pleased to Meet Me ...

This was the album that introduced me to The Mats, and what a great introduction it was. In retrospect, this was the sound of a band going for the brass ring – except that we’re talking about a band that was always too scrappy, rowdy, and rough around the edges to ever fully achieve whatever popular mainstream success they were aiming for. In their hearts, they were an underground cult band, and this album showed the world what an underground cult band on the cusp of some measure of maturity could do when operating at full power.

Kick, INXS

INXS - Kick - Amazon.com Music

INXS built upon the new wave funk/rock sound they’d developed on their previous album, and came up with a record where every track could’ve been a single. Kick was one of those magically catchy albums where everything just worked, and it was a bona fide hit machine: five of its six singles went Top 5 on the U.S. Top 40. When put up against other mega-hit albums from that era – like Thriller, Control, Purple Rain, Born in the U.S.A., and pretty much everything Madonna and Whitney Houston did in the 1980s – Kick holds its own just fine.

The Lonesome Jubilee, John Cougar Mellencamp

Canon Fodder: John Mellencamp, 'The Lonesome Jubilee' | The ...

This was the first appearance of Mellencamp’s expanded band, featuring new additions Lisa Germano on fiddle, John Cascella on accordion, and backing vocalist Crystal Taliefero. All three opened up new musical avenues that hadn’t been available before to Mellencamp’s long-standing band, and their playing on The Lonesome Jubilee reflects how much they relished it. As for Mellencamp, the band’s new rootsy country folk sound gave him the chance to embrace the kind of songwriting he wanted to do: as he said in his 2016 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame exhibit, “I realized what I thought I wanted to say in song. …I wanted it to be more akin to Tennessee WilliamsJohn SteinbeckFaulkner, as opposed to The Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan.” This was where he really started wearing his social conscience on his sleeve, and it was a great fit for the toughness of his band. A fantastic album from start to finish.

Document, R.E.M.

Document: Caputring R.E.M. At A Pivotal Point In Their Career ...

This was the first R.E.M. album I ever heard, and I knew right away what all the fuss was about. This was the sound of an indie band making a big time power move – and succeeding. They never rocked harder or more convincingly than they did on Document, which also featured their first Top 40 hit, “The One I Love,” and a future classic rock radio staple, “It’s the End of the World as We Knew It (And I Feel Fine).” This was obscure college rock made accessible for the masses without sacrificing an ounce of indie cred, and it helped usher in the mainstream takeover of alternative music. Perhaps more than any other album from that year, on both a musical and a historical level, Document was the sound of 1987.

The Daily Earworm Shuffle

Every day, I wake up humming a random song in my head. I have no idea why. That’s just the way my subconscious works. And, once I realized that this was a thing I did, I decided it would be interesting to keep track of these songs

So, I started building a Spotify playlist titled Daily Earworm.

I hadn’t listened to that playlist once since I started it over a year ago, but I still put stuff on there almost every day, and it’s over 13 hours long now.

So, this past week, I decided to finally give it a listen and remind myself what was on there, which has easily been one of the highlights of my home quarantine so far. Here’s a random sampling:

“Warning Sign,” Talking Heads: I first heard this on their live album, The Name of This Band is Talking Heads, but the version here is the original from their second album. This one slinks and moves like the live version, but is way more ominous and urgent. Could be the added studio polish, or it could be our current moment in time colliding with a song perfectly suited for it.

“What Goes On,” The Velvet Underground: Last month, I went through a few days where I was bummed out about the aftermath of Super Tuesday, for so many reasons, and the most effective emotional salve turned out to be listening to Lou Reed’s back catalogue. This was one of his tracks I rediscovered, a peppy little number that I always overlook because the idea of Lou Reed or The Velvets being this upbeat does not compute.

“She Gave Good Sunflower,” The Black Crowes: A great track for keeping one’s spirits up during an emergency run to the grocery store in the middle of a global pandemic.

“Street Theory,” Van Morrison: A total throwaway that proves, once again, that Van can get good and funky when he wants to.

“It’s Not Where You Start, It’s Where You Finish,” Tommy Tune: It’s easy to see why Tommy Tune became a Broadway star. As is the case with the best Broadway cast albums (in this case, Seesaw), he does such a great job with this song – and the song itself works so well as a musical theater number – I feel like I can see his performance while listening to it.

Absolute Zero,” Bruce Hornsby (featuring Jack DeJohnette): Another fascinating curiosity from Hornsby, whose facility with melody never fails to impress me, and whose melodies never fail to lodge themselves permanently in my brain.

“I Love Paris,” Frank Sinatra: I don’t actually remember waking up humming this one, but my wife was in Paris the week before our home quarantine started, so that must have been where this came from. Besides, one can never really have enough Sinatra on any playlist.

“Yakety Yak,” The Coasters:  Another one I don’t recall waking up humming, but one can never really have enough early Top 40 rock and roll on any playlist.

“Hello, Dolly!” Mary Martin: The morning after I saw the most recent national tour, it was this version of this iconic title song that I wanted to hear. No idea why.

“Teacher, Teacher,” Rockpile: A gem from the early 1980s rockabilly revival. The perfect gateway drug for going down a Nick Lowe / Dave Edmunds rabbit hole.

“Long Time,” The Roots: This went on heavy rotation the day after my wife and I saw them live in Oakland last fall. This earworm is stealthy as a mofo.

“Blinded by the Light,” Manfred Mann’s Earth Band: A sentimental favorite from the days when I first discovered classic rock. No apologies here.

“See Me Through, Pt. II / Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” Van Morrison: Nothing to see here except Van giving a well-known hymn from his youth the old Caledonia soul treatment. Would that church sounded like this all the time.

“What’cha Say,” The Meters: This track moves and grooves, and is as catchy as all get-out.

“High Flying, Adored,” Patti LuPone & Mandy Patinkin: I didn’t realize I had so many show tunes on this playlist. And, of all the tracks I could’ve picked from the Evita cast album, why did I pick this one? Does it matter? My subconscious is a mysterious place, but Patti and Mandy are always justified.

Award Tour: Oscar Season Warm-Up, Part 2

Image result for star wars 1977 photos

Award Tour travels through the yesteryears of pop culture to revisit both the highlights and the curiosities of award season.

As the announcement of this year’s Academy Award nominations approaches (FYI: they’re coming up tomorrow morning), I continue my look back at past recipients of the four major film critics groups end-of-year awards. In my previous post, I highlighted a half dozen times the critics’ picks were spot-on. This time, I take a look at six instances where they opted to be truly idiosyncratic, in either an innovative, surprising, or (sometimes) baffling way. These former honorees prove that there is no ironclad way to predict what the critics will do come award season.

1969 – National Board of Review (NBR), Best Director: Alfred Hitchcock, Topaz

This was only the second time in his career that Hitchcock won an award for directing, and it was a puzzling choice for so many reasons. 1969 was a year chock full of notable films, but the NBR thought that Hitchcock prevailed with a film that is now largely forgotten. Really? They couldn’t have honored him sooner for any of the legendary movies he’d made before then? The late film director Francois Truffaut said it best in what may be the definitive book on Hitchcock: “It is obvious that despite a few scattered beautiful scenes…Topaz is not a good picture. The studio didn’t like it, and neither did the public, the critics, nor even the Hitcockians. The director himself wanted to forget it, and felt an imperative need to make up for it.”

1977 – Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), Best Picture: Star Wars

Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine a world in which the Star Wars franchise doesn’t exist. But, back in 1977, the original installment of the Skywalker saga was a shock to the moviegoing public’s system, a movie so revolutionary that it changed both the parameters of filmmaking possibilites and the business practices of the movie industry. Let me put it this way: Star Wars was such a big deal when it came out that it shattered the show business bias against so-called “genre films,” and scored 10 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. The LAFCA Best Picture win for Best Picture was one of the first steps in Star Wars‘ long march towards arguably becoming the all-time heavyweight champion of movie blockbusters.

1981 – National Society of Film Critics (NSFC), Best Supporting Actor: Robert Preston, S.O.B.

Best remembered as Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man (or Centauri in The Last Starfighter, depending upon which generation you hail from), Preston has some mischievous fun playing against type in S.O.B., Blake Edwards’ rowdy, savage takedown of the movie industry. Playing a private physician to the Hollywood elite with the kind of low-key, flexible morals that suit his clientele just fine, Preston gets to display some dry comic wit, and position himself as a comedic supporting actor par excellence. His performance didn’t get much more traction on the 1981 awards trail beyond his NSFC win, but it probably helped his longer-term case the following year when he nabbed his first (and only) Oscar nomination for his scene-stealing turn in Victor/Victoria.

1984 – New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC), Best Actor: Steve Martin, All of Me

This was the performance that took Martin’s film career up a notch or two, and he knew it. In the biography Steve Martin: The Magic Years, the comedian admitted, “My mature film career started with All of Me…” 1984 was a heavyweight year for movies, featuring a crowded field of iconic, award-worthy performances – including Martin’s. As an everyday attorney who accidentally ends up having to share his body with the soul of an eccentric millionaire (played by the fantastic Lily Tomlin), Martin’s bravura performance is a master class in physical comedy, and it brought him a newfound level of professional respect: he also won the NSFC’s Best Actor Award, received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor, and proved once and all that there was more to him than just “King Tut” and The Jerk.

1984 – NSFC, Best Supporting Actress: Melanie Griffith, Body Double

Melanie Griffith and Craig Wasson in Body Double (1984)

In hindsight, this one seems a little random, especially considering that 1984 was such a powerhouse year for movie performances. Still, Griffith shines in her breakout role as a porn star caught up in an amateur sleuth’s cock-eyed murder investigation. As former New York Times film critic Vincent Canby said in his review of Body Double, “Miss Griffith gives a perfectly controlled comic performance that successfully neutralizes all questions relating to plausibility. She’s not exactly new to films… What is new is the self- assured screen presence she demonstrates here…” Griffith went on to score a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her work here, and it wasn’t long before she was starring in the films that cemented her reputation: Something Wild and Working Girl.

1998 – NYFCC, Best Actress: Cameron Diaz, There’s Something About Mary

Historically speaking, film critics have been more willing to consider comedy as artistically legitimate than the movie industry guilds have. By that metric alone, this pick by the NYFCC should not have been all that surprising – and yet, it totally was. Diaz had not been in the awards conversation at all that year, despite starring in one of the highest-grossing films of 1998. Perhaps it was easy to overlook her performance because she basically played the comic straight man to her flashier co-stars, Ben Stiller and Matt Dillon. But, what Diaz brings to There’s Something About Mary is an old-fashioned dose of high-wattage movie star charisma. Janet Maslin of The New York Times wrote that Diaz plays the title character “with a blithe comic style that makes her as funny as she is dazzling.” Maslin was not alone in that opinion: Diaz scored a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress later that year, and her career went next level after Mary.