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 passedthe testof timewith flying colors.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Released in February of 1986, three months shy of Janet’s 20th birthday, Control‘s immediate impact was easy to measure: it went #1 on the Billboard 200, and sold 10 million copies; it spawned seven singles, five of which went Top 5, and set a new Billboard Hot 100 record for the longest continuous streak of chart appearances by singles from the same album – 65 consecutive weeks (the previous record had been set by her older brother, Michael); it was nominated for four Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year (with Jam & Lewis winning the award for Non-Classical Producer of the Year); and it established Janet as a linchpin of MTV’s heavy rotation, and an innovator of the music video format.
Control‘s legacy since then has proven to be vastly more influential. The sound that Janet and Jam & Lewis created for the album became the basis for new jack swing. The visual and musical persona that Janet introduced on Controlserved as a blueprint for countless pop stars who followed her: one can easily spot her influence in the careers of Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Nicki Minaj, to name but a few. And, Control‘s popularity proved, once again, that a woman of color could have chart-topping mass appeal: in the 30+ years since Control‘s release, nine out of Janet’s ten subsequent albums have gone Top 3 on the Billboard 200, and seven of those went all the way to #1. That is simply unheard of.
And, all of this because Control is a monumentally excellent album. The beats are hard and unstoppable, the instrumentation and arrangements are fierce, and the hooks are infectious. The persistent themes in the lyrics – of wanting respect from men, family, and the world; of wanting control of both one’s career and sex life – struck a notable chord for many listeners, and helped to pioneer the dance floor feminism of the 1980s and further establish a beachhead for the female gaze in pop music.
All of these qualities are encapsulated perfectly on side one of Control: we are introduced to everything that Janet was about at that time, and all of the ways the world would soon change by following her dominant lead.
Janet kicks things off by laying out her mission statement. “This is a story about control,” she tells us in the title track’s spoken intro. “My control. Control of what I say. Control of what I do. And this time I’m gonna do it my way.” Indeed. Once the music starts, she sings about moving on from her controlling parents and her disappointing first love. Her reaction to both?
Rebel, that’s right I’m on my own, I’ll call my own shots Thank you
But, Janet doesn’t just want autonomy for herself. She wants it for us, too, and she’s got some advice for us right after the bridge:
So let me take you by the hand, and lead you in this dance It’s what I got, because I took a chance I don’t wanna rule the world, just wanna run my life So make your life a little easier When you get the chance just take control
Throughout, the music is relentlessly uptempo, defying listeners not to dance, and it introduces a gratifying dichotomy: control may be the subject of the song, but the sound is pure freedom. Listeners responded to that tension by sending “Control” all the way to No. 5 on the U.S. Top 40.
In which Janet famously declares, “The only nasty thing I like is the nasty groove.” Clearly. This track features one of the nastiest she’s ever laid down, a prime example of what music journalist Rob Hoerburger called “post-1999 metallic funk.” The lyrics were partly inspired by an episode of street harassment while working on the album in Minneapolis: as she told Rolling Stone, “…a couple of guys started stalking me on the street. They were emotionally abusive. Sexually threatening. Instead of running to Jimmy or Terry for protection, I took a stand. I backed them down.” Janet credited that experience with eliciting a newfound “sense of self-defense” that turns into unwavering confidence here. Like the song says, nasty boys don’t mean a thing to her.
Janet is no puritan, though. She’s happy to get down with the right gentleman, but it has to be on her terms:
I’m not a prude I just want some respect So close the door if you want me to respond ‘Cause privacy is my middle name My last name is Control
And, we all know the rest. Suddenly, listeners everywhere were divided into two groups: those who were happy to call Janet by her first name, and those who hoped they were lascivious (and lucky) enough to address her as Miss Jackson. Both groups helped this single peak at No. 3 on the U.S. Top 40. Nasty, indeed.
“What Have You Done For Me Lately?”
Jam and Lewis knew what they had with this one: they intended to save it for one of their own albums. But, when they delivered Control to Janet’s label, McClain requested one more uptempo track to finish the album. So, Jam and Lewis flew Janet back to Minneapolis, and the trio went to work on this song. They rewrote the lyrics to reflect more of Janet’s personal experience, especially her annulment from DeBarge, and the result “still slam[s] as hard as any pop funk confection you’ve ever heard,” according to Vibe. “What Have You Done For Me Lately?” was so impressive that it was chosen as the album’s lead single, a remarkable distinction for a song that was added at the last minute. But, it turned out to be the perfect introduction to the brand new Janet, and the world responded to her with open arms: this one hit No. 4 on the U.S. Top 40, and stayed somewhere on the chart for nearly three months.
“You Can Be Mine”
The only track on side one that wasn’t released as a single, but it’s still an important one. This is where Janet first establishes that not only is she nobody’s plaything, but she wants a plaything of her own. And, she’s not asking, either – she’s demanding:
Better get on your job Time to go to work If you want to be mine Better get on your job Time to make me happy If you want to be mine
The glittery synth part is pure Minneapolis (it’s easy to imagine that Prince might’ve written this for one of his lady protégés), and the groove is deep and sneaky. For the first time on the album, Janet sounds like she’s having fun, and it’s contagious. This is the perfect side one closer because we get to meet playful Janet, thereby rounding out the full picture of her new image: staunch determination and high-spirited conviction come together on an album side that leaves no doubt about who’s in charge.
In 2015, Jam told Rolling Stone, “We knew that Janet had a lot of attitude and a lot of feistiness just from watching her as a kid on the different TV stuff she did. Let’s create music that has that kind of attitude and let her run with it.” Consider that mission accomplished. The result of their collaboration left a lasting legacy that continues today, and still sounds exactly the way Janet herself described it to Spin three decades ago: “When I listen to it, I hear someone who is very cocky, bold, straightforward, assertive.” In other words, an artist firmly in control.