“The Pop Presidents” series is an ongoing feature originally published on Fundamentalists Drink Good Beer, Too.
One of the things that should prompt a thankful pride in all Americans is how our country’s presidents so often and so willingly reach for the hot handle of responsibility. In fact, a famous president once said, “The buck stops here.” This series, “The Pop Presidents,” seeks to honor an aspect of the last eleven president’s responsibilities that is often overlooked – presiding over the growth of pop music, specifically the genre known as Rock and Roll. Over the course of the first eleven articles, the ten best albums released under each of the eleven administrations’ oversight will be briefly discussed. In the final article of the series, the eleven presidents will be ranked based on the music released during their time in the Oval Office.
Doc Brown’s incredulity aside, an actor was just what the music industry needed in the Oval Office. As Artist-in-Chief, President Reagan understood better than his well-intentioned predecessor that the best way to combat the evils that threatened America was with music. There was no way for Gorbachev to overcome the earnestness of U2, nor could the head-pinko silence the vitriol of Hüsker Dü. Even The Boss himself embraced President Reagan’s dawning morning and released an album titled Born in the USA complete with an album cover with the iconic image of the American flag.
Disclaimer/Explanation/Aside – I have decided to give President Reagan fifteen albums instead of ten. Now, I expect the fans of Gerald Ford to sputter, “But, but … that’s not fair! That means that he’ll get extra points in the final tally! So not fair!” Well, according to the way that I’ve set this series up, they may have a point. But, at the moment, I don’t see any of Reagan’s albums cracking the final top ten. So, I don’t think that the additional five albums will be enough to push the current front-runners out of the way. However, President Reagan exhibited such an incredible affinity for excellent music, that, at the moment and off the top of my head, I think that President Reagan’s bottom ten (and possibly twenty) are better than almost all of the other president’s bottom five. To that end, I believe that President Reagan deserves recognition and credit for his consistent and overwhelmingly awesome contributions to pop music. So, he gets fifteen albums. As for the whining fans of President Ford, they should just be thankful that I even remembered to include their guy.
Oh, and “P.S.” – check out the incredibly long honorable mention list before you go apoplectic because the favorite album of the fourteen year old version of yourself was snubbed. Honestly, I think that if you take note of the albums that are not mentioned at all in this post, the awesomeness of the Reagan music era will be cast in sharp relief.
Honorable Mentions: Graceland, Paul Simon; Born in the U.S.A., Bruce Springsteen; Synchronicity, The Police; Moving Pictures, Rush; Shoot Out the Lights, Richard and Linda Thompson; A Kiss in the Dreamhouse, Siouxsie and the Banshees; The Message, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five; A Momentary Lapse of Reason, Pink Floyd; Violent Femmes, Violent Femmes; War, U2; Swordfishtrombones, Tom Waits; Texas Flood, Stevie Ray Vaughn; Purple Rain, Prince; Reckoning, R.E.M.; Meat Puppets II, Meat Puppets; Rum, Sodomy & the Lash, The Pogues; Night of a Thousand Candles, The Men They Couldn’t Hang; Licensed to Ill, Beastie Boys; Hatful of Hollow, The Smiths; Skylarking, XTC; Brothers in Arms, Dire Straits; Brotherhood, New Order; Strange Times, The Chameleons; Atomizer, Big Black; King of America, The Costello Show featuring the Attractions and Confederates; Bad, Michael Jackson; Sunshine On Leith, The Proclaimers; Diesel and Dust, Midnight Oil; Tracy Chapman, Tracy Chapman; Superfuzz Bigmuff, Mudhoney; Master of Puppets, Metallica; 1999, Prince.
The Fifteen Best Albums from 1981 to 1989:
15. Thriller – Michael Jackson, November, 1982.
I’m required by law to include Thriller. So, here it is. Enjoy.
14. Run-D.M.C. – Run-D.M.C., March, 1984
In 1984 two albums were released that created new musical paths that would eventually dominate pop culture at large. Run-D.M.C. is the first of those two albums. Run-D.M.C.’s debut album changed hip-hop music – it can be argued, drastically changed. The hip-hop from the famed Sugar Hill label sounds like child’s play compared to the new school hip-hop originated by Jam Master Jay, Darryl McDaniels, Joseph Simmons, Eddie Martinez, and, of course, producer Russell Simmons.
13. You’re Living All Over Me – Dinosaur Jr., December, 1987.
Almost everything that you need to know about Dinosaur Jr. and their masterpiece, You’re Living All Over Me, can be summed up by a quote from Lou Barlow (bass player and vocals). Not long after Nirvana’s Nevermind broke big making grunge music a household term, Barlow ran into Joseph Mascis, the seemingly self-sabotaging leader of the by then fractured Dinosaur Jr., and screamed, referencing Nirvana, “They fucking beat you to it! You could have done it, you asshole, we could have fucking done it!”
For those of us who grew up listening to Nirvana and Pearl Jam, You’re Living All Over Me sounds familiar. But in December of 1987, almost four years away from the release of Nevermind, Dinosaur Jr. released an album that, decades later, demonstrates how many years ahead of the curve the 80’s underground and indie music scene was.
12. Let it Be – The Replacements, October, 1984.
Don’t let the album’s title fool you; Let it Be is no ode to the Beatles. It reflects the 80’s underground/hard-core ethos that nothing is sacred. The irony is that twenty years later, many fans and music critics consider The Replacement’s masterpiece to be sacred. Count me among that group.
11. Appetite for Destruction – Guns N’ Roses, July, 1987.
Possibly the greatest glam rock/hair metal/punk rock/blues rock album of all time. Granted, Appetite for Destruction has very little competition in that mish-mashed category of normally competing genres.
10. Murmur – R.E.M., April, 1983.
Showing the softer underbelly of the 80’s indie music scene, R.E.M. convinced a large swath of the hard-core kids that excellent music didn’t have to flatten the hair of the inner ear.
9. Rain Dogs – Tom Waits, September, 1985.
Not only is Tom Waits a treat to listen to, Rain Dogs is a musical melting pot that reflects the urban environment that Waits wrote and sang about on the album.
8. Double Nickels on the Dime – Minutemen, July, 1984.
The Minutemen may have jammed econo, but that didn’t mean that they had to release albums sparse on content. For example, the 45 song double album Double Nickels on the Dime. Granted, the majority of the songs are less than two minutes in length, no song is over three minutes long, and a few are less than a minute. But, just because the band was able to say what they wanted to say in short songs doesn’t mean that they didn’t have a lot to say. They did. Speaking up for the working class, speaking out against racism, and commenting on the degraded nature of the music industry were just a few of the things that the Minutemen wittily and eloquently spoke about. Quality transcends quantity any day of the week.
7. Straight Outa Compton – N.W.A., August, 1988.
No album spoke more directly or better to President Reagan’s understanding and concern for race relations in the country than N.W.A.’s debut album Straight Outa Compton. It also created a demand for Raider’s gear, which in turn helped the economy.
6. Surfa Rosa – Pixies, March, 1988.
If an individual who’s not familiar with the Pixies was played Surfer Rosa and then asked to guess which decade it was released, I highly doubt that they’d pick the 80s. Which is unfortunate, because like many of the other albums on this list, Surfer Rosa represents the best of a specific 80’s music scene that is far better than the vast majority of the music that is included on the supposed Best of the 80s albums that get hawked on late-night television.
5. The Joshua Tree – U2, March, 1987.
Morning in America was apparently so bright that it compelled an Irish rock band to create an album as an attempt to make sense of their love for America. And what an album! Almost everyone is familiar with the incredible first three tracks, but The Joshua Tree finishes just as strongly.
4. It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back – Public Enemy, June, 1988.
Many critics consider It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back as the greatest hip-hop album of all time. Regardless of whether or not a person agrees with that, it’s impossible to deny that Public Enemy’s second studio album is one of the most influential albums of all time, for good and bad. With this album, Chuck D became one of the foremost social commentators on life in black America.
3. The Queen is Dead – The Smiths, June, 1986.
President Reagan loved to laugh, and one of the most unexpectedly funny albums of all times was released by a navel-gazing alt-rock band under his administration’s twinkling eyes. Of course, that alt-rock band also happens to be one of the greatest bands of all time featuring one of the most iconic front-men of all time. The Queen may have been displeased by The Queen is Dead, but we’re anti-monarchists in America.
2. Daydream Nation – Sonic Youth, October, 1988.
By pointing out the side of the American Dream that most people were unfamiliar with (or unwilling to acknowledge), Sonic Youth did everything in their power to help Ronald Reagan. Bad Moon Rising may be the band’s most obvious ode to Reagan’s America, but Daydream Nation is the band’s artistic pinnacle.
1. Zen Arcade – Hüsker Dü, July, 1984.
Remember way back to #14 when I wrote, “In 1984 two albums were released that created new musical paths that would eventually dominate pop culture at large”? Well, Zen Arcade is that other album. Enmeshed as one of the leaders of the hardcore scene, Hüsker Dü created a concept album, a previously unheard of foray for a hardcore band, and incorporated musical elements that opened up the hardcore sound. As a result, Zen Arcade demonstrated that the punk ethos was actually enhanced by experimentation and embracing previously assumed contra-punk musical styles. To be fair, Hüsker Dü wasn’t operating in a complete vacuum; for example, London Calling by The Clash had more than ably shown the punk world that punk needn’t be limited to the three chord punk sound. But, Zen Arcade was operating in an iteration of punk that The Clash didn’t. Forcing hardcore to evolve opened up the scene for Sonic Youth, Pixies, and Nirvana. In other words, an argument can be made that without Zen Arcade, Nirvana and, hence, Nevermind would never have existed. As far as the late 80s through today are concerned, Zen Arcade is the George Bailey of albums.
 Of course, you will have to wait until the final post to find out who those front-runners are. Although, I’m willing to bet that anyone with a modicum of music savvy will be able to figure it out on their own.
 Or I may be tired of trying to whittle his incredible canon down to a mere ten. You decide.
 A cynical person may surmise that the real reason that Reagan gets 15 albums instead of 10 is so that I could work Thriller onto the list. Of course, my stated reason for giving Reagan five more entries may very well be true. Or, my other footnote about it may be true. Even I’m no longer sure of my reason(s).
 Calm down, R.E.M. fans, I said “softer” not “soft.” Besides, you should be thankful that I didn’t mention how R.E.M. is possibly the best/worst example of selling-out in the history of pop music – and that includes Metallica.
 Of course, that applies to many of the albums on this list.
 “Ably shown” is quite an understatement. London Calling was, after all, listed as President Carter’s #1 album.
John is a theatre artist and writer based out of Arlington, VA. Nowadays, though, most of his artistic output is spent on keeping his two young children amused, occupied, and off of the top of the bookshelves.