We’ve finally answered an age-old question from the decade, as our intrepid panel of shipwrecked music lovers definitively chose Prince over Michael Jackson — not to mention Stevie Wonder, Public Enemy, Rick James and Run-DMC — in the 1980s R&B and hip hop edition of our on-going Desert Island Discs series.
In all, Prince received six votes — with two of his 1980s-era albums, 1984’s Purple Rain and 1987’s Sign O’ The Times, earning two nods a piece. Wonder was next with three mentions, all of them for 1980’s Hotter than July. Michael Jackson’s mega-selling 1982 album Thriller and Public Enemy’s 1988 opus It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back received two votes a piece, as well.
Elsewhere, our newly founded island community is jamming to Rick James, the Time, Run-DMC, Anita Baker, Cameo, Fine Young Cannibals and the Beastie Boys, among others …
1. PRINCE – 1999 (1982): Prince’s naughty, nasty, sweaty funk opus.
2. STEVIE WONDER – HOTTER THAN JULY (1981): The last great filler-free Wonder album, save for the mostly compilation Musiquarium volumes.
3. PRINCE – SIGN O’ THE TIMES (1987): Prince’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink “White Album”-type opus.
4. CAMEO – WORD UP! (1986): Cameo’s prior two albums were just as good, but this one gets the nod for containing the title track that became the funk earworm of the mid-80s.
5. THE TIME – WHAT TIME IS IT? (1982): The ultimate Minneapolis sound party record didn’t come form Prince. At least, not directly.
1. MICHAEL JACKSON – THRILLER (1982): Yes, this is an obvious choice. But no one can deny the tremendous impact Jackson’s album had on music, and how songs like “Beat It” transcended genres.
2. PRINCE – PURPLE RAIN (1984): When Prince begins the soundtrack by preaching about “this thing called life,” he grabs the listener by the collar and never lets go. In addition, “When Doves Cray” still stands as one of the most unusual–and compelling–tracks ever recorded.
3. ANITA BAKER – RAPTURE (1986): Jazz met contemporary R&B on Baker’s major label debut, as the hit single “Sweet Love” sounded like nothing else on the radio at the time. Her Sarah Vaughan-esque vocals influenced future generations of soul singers.
4. STEVIE WONDER – HOTTER THAN JULY (1980): Wonder’s last consistently solid album took listeners on a journey from reggae (“Master Blaster [Jammin’]”) to country twang (“I Ain’t Gonna Stand for It”). The ballads “Lately” and “Rocket Love” contain some of his most vivid and elegant lyrics.
5. SADE – PROMISE (1985): Yes, “Smooth Operator” became the chanteuse’s theme song. However, Sade really came into her own on her second album, proving she has formidable pipes on the slow burner “Is It A Crime” and the Latin-tinged “Sweetest Taboo.” Once Promise was released, her reign as the “quiet storm queen” officially began.
1. PRINCE – DIRTY MIND (1980): 1999 probably better distilled his vision; Purple Rain certainly sold more. But, for me, there is no better — can be no better — album than the very first one I ever heard by Prince. He sets his boundary-snapping musical template here, all while singing about matters of the heart (and places further south) in a way that ripples with a lean, visceral power.
2. STEVIE WONDER – HOTTER THAN JULY (1981): 19 albums in, Wonder’s torrent of creativity was finally starting to slow, but we didn’t know that then. What this seemed like, in its moment, was simply another triumph — from the reggae-inflected “Master Blaster,” to the prescient political message of “Happy Birthday,” to the achingly beautiful “Lately” — for an artist who had been reeling them off for almost a decade.
3. PUBLIC ENEMY – IT TAKES A NATION OF MILLIONS (1988): Densely ferocious, Public Enemy — with a powerful assist from the Bomb Squad — captured the very sound of rage. KRS-One was the more literate rapper, and no one was Rakim’s equal for smooth delivery. At the same time, though, neither produced an album that could match the galvanizing power of this one. Really, nobody ever has.
4. PRINCE – SIGN O’ THE TIMES (1987): Maybe it suffers the same unfocused fate as the White Album or Exile on Main Street — often brilliant, but sometimes startlingly inconsistent. But, really, is there a better representation for an artist who always seemed to have this kaleidoscopic creative impulse? I still find myself lost in wonder sometimes as Prince’s sprawling imagination runs absolutely buck wild.
5. AFRIKA BAMBAATAA – PLANET ROCK: THE ALBUM (1986): Recording with Soulsonic Force, Bambaataa crystallized the looming technofuturism by melding street sounds and Kraftwerk. This album is a veritable wellspring for next-gen subgenres as disparate as Latin freestyle and the 808-powered club scene — not to mention, of course, many of the hip-hop turn-tablism cliches still in place today. There’s even an appearance by Melle Mel, of Furious Five fame, on the immortal “Who You Funkin’ With?” My planet was, in fact, completely rocked.
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1. PUBLIC ENEMY – IT TAKES A NATION OF MILLIONS TO HOLD US BACK (1988) The bomb squad was and is the bomb.
2. DE LA SOUL – 3 FEET HIGH AND RISING (1989) Hip-hop hippie freaks. Such a fine album.
3. PRINCE – CONTROVERSY (1981) I remember the exact moment I became a Prince fan, and that was when I heard “Jack U Off” played on the University of Lowell radio station.
4. DAVID BOWIE – LET’S DANCE (1983) This received a ton of play at my first post-college apartment. We didn’t have any furniture (beside the card table and the folding chairs), but we had a ton of records. This is a supposed lesser entry in the Bowie catalog. Funny, it’s the only one I truly love.
5. FINE YOUNG CANNIBALS – THE RAW & THE COOKED (1988) I thought that freaking monotonous snare drum on “She Drives Me Crazy” would drive me crazy. Instead, it took up lodging in my head.
1. PRINCE – PURPLE RAIN (1984): Yes, I know there’s a contingent of Prince fans that consider this record one of his weakest works, but I always loved it and still do. Putting Prince’s guitar out front on several of the tracks pulled me in, and it’s one of a very few ’80s pop records that I still listen to today.
2. MICHAEL JACKSON – THRILLER (1982): True, I haven’t listened to this record in ages, but it kind of has to make this list, doesn’t it? If you were a tween or a teen in the early 1980s, you owned it and probably wore your cassette out. If you say you didn’t, you’re probably lying. Of course, I guess my ranking of it also shows my side in that age-old debate, too.
3. RUN-DMC – RAISING HELL (1986): The collaboration with my favorite rock band opened me up to this album, but I found some pretty rocking stuff outside of “Walk This Way,” which I still think is far inferior to the original, though I like Steven Tyler’s screams here better than the original chorus vocals. It was the first hip-hop album I ever owned, and being a heavy metal kid and holding a devout dislike of rap at the time, I hid it away for a while. But even I have to admit there was some pretty metal stuff here. I always go back to the title track — “I cut the head off the devil and I throw it at you”: Heck, Slayer would have been proud of that one.
4. BEASTIE BOYS – LICENSED TO ILL (1986): This was my second hip-hop record, and I copped to this one a little quicker since there was a very big hard rock influence, from Zeppelin and Sabbath samples to the group’s own rock riffs. I’m still not a huge fan of the genre, but this album is probably the reason that there are a few hip-hop records scattered around my collection.
5. RICK JAMES – STREET SONGS (1981): No, I honestly couldn’t name another song off this record, but who could spend the rest of their life without ever hearing “Super Freak” again? One of the coolest bass lines ever, until MC Hammer co-opted it.
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