Whenever a new year begins, a lot of music websites like to publish those lists: “Albums Turning 10 Years Old Today” and “Ready to Feel OLD!?!? Here’s 20 Albums Turning 20!” It’s kind of funny when you consider the arbitrary way we structure units of time. I’m sure there’s plenty of historical reasons we segment these mini-epochs into 365 or 366 days, but it still feels kind of random. Besides, it’s like Travis says in Taxi Driver, “You’re only as old…as…you…feel.”
But then again, deconstructing everything is a great way to ruin everything. It’s pretty interesting to look back, say, 30 years and then draw the timeline out from there to see the effect of great art. And while every year has something to offer, 1987 represents a critical moment for metal. It was the year that the world of “extreme” metal began to diverge into styles we now recognize as death metal, black metal and grindcore, with critical albums from Death, Bathory and Napalm Death. But a lot of important bands formed in 1987 as well: Entombed, Darkthrone, Asphyx, Cynic, Deicide (as Amon at the time), Meshuggah, Therion and Autopsy (plus The Pixies and Nirvana).
So with that in mind, I decided to put together a list of 10 great releases from 1987. Of course, some of these were relatively unknown to even most metalheads at the time. And my appreciation is more historical than sentimental, as I have no actual memory of these albums when they came out because…well, I was born in 1987. That I share a birth year with these albums is just a cool coincidence. The fact that someone with no attachment to the year’s events can listen to and become passionate about this music is what makes it significant – and enduring. Great music goes beyond kitsch and nostalgia and remains worth listening to, worth moshing to, and worth banging your head to.
This is just a small sampling of the great albums that came out in 1987, and not meant to detract from other metal essentials from Sarcófago, Kreator, Candlemass, Motörhead, Death Angel, King Diamond, Celtic Frost, Carnivore and Overkill. And let’s not forget about key albums from Dinosaur Jr., The Smiths, Sonic Youth, U2, R.E.M, The Cure, Descendants, and…you know, Guns N’ Roses.
Death- Scream Bloody Gore
Yes, yes, of course I’d say that Possessed’s Seven Churches (1985) is the first death metal album – and a great one at that. But the genre’s beginning as a movement distinct from “really aggressive thrash” began with Scream Bloody Gore. It’s the album that spawned 1000 bands. Sure, Chuck later made more complicated and “intelligent” music, but “Denial of Life” and “Zombie Ritual” are nothing to shake your bloody fist at.
Bathory- Under the Sign of the Black Mark
Likewise, black metal’s heritage stretches back to the early days of Venom, Hellhammer, Mercyful Fate, and Bathory’s first two albums. However, Bathory’s third album marks the definitive cut-off from the NWOBHM influences present on Bathory and The Return of Darkness and Evil. The album’s influence cannot be overstated, especially among a group of teenagers to the west in Norway.
Speaking of which, here’s the legendary mini-album from probably the most notorious black metal band of all time. True, the content here is difficult to categorize, but I’d still call it black metal. I can only imagine what first pressings of this are going for on eBay, complete with red magic marker all over the cover (the initial pressings came back pink apparently).
Napalm Death- Scum
Along with bands like Siege and Deep Wound, Napalm Death emerged out of the punk scene in the early 1980s. Out of that wildfire of small gigs, broken drum heads and distortion came grindcore’s first definitive statement of intent. Contains guitar work of the seemingly ageless Bill Steer on the second half.
Anthrax- Among the Living
An obvious, but still worthwhile choice. Anthrax was always the most “fun” of the big four of thrash, and the band that kept the closest ties to the punk and hardcore scene. Lots of sci-fi and mosh-pit inspired fun to be had here.
Testament- The Legacy
Since we’re on the topic of the big four, here’s one band I’d give top billing to count as number five. “Over the Wall” has one of my favorite guitar solos of all time, and the dramatic build-up that kicks off “Burnt Offerings” cannot be denied!
Sodom- Persecution Mania
I’m a big fan of Sodom’s black-thrash era, encompassing In the Sign of Evil and Obsessed by Cruelty. But the Teutonic ragers could make some ripping “regular” thrash as well. Check out the razor-sharp “Nuclear Winter” and the head-crushing “Enchanted Land.” Among all the albums on this list, this one seems the most stuck-in-time: the later stages of the cold war. But the threat never totally went away, and certain dated themes have a nasty habit of becoming relevant again.
I’m pretty sure Sepultura has made every kind of extreme metal at this point. After making a pair of early black/death metal classics with Bestial Devastation and Morbid Visions, Max Cavalera and crew upped their songwriting chops for Schizophrenia. Where this fits on the death vs. thrash border is subject to debate, though I’d say it’s more the latter. And call me crazy, but I kind of like it’s raw production!
The Melvins- Gluey Porch Treatments
Meanwhile in the Pacific Northwest, the Melvins arrived with their debut album. The album is an encyclopedia of crushing, heavy riffs. For any fan of sludge metal or the heavier side of grunge, Gluey Porch Treatments is indispensable. (Funny thing, “Leeech” was originally a Green River song…called “Leech”…here they are performing it at their reunion show!)
Soundgarden- Screaming Life
With one of the most fitting titles ever, the Screaming Life EP arrived in October 1987 and made a huge impression – complete with sky-high Chris Cornell vocals, heavy riffs, and Charles Peterson photography. Just give “Nothing to Say” one listen and you’ll see why. And it’s legacy as an early grunge classic lives on. They even played “Hunted Down” when I saw them in 2013, a welcome treat considering many other bands tend to leave super-early stuff behind.
(P.S. Apparently the day I was born, Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” was #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Take that any way you wish.)