Among my absolute favorite 80s bands is Echo & the Bunnymen. Ever since hearing "The Killing Moon" in the opening credits of Donnie Darko I've loved their music, and their 80s albums all have different feels to them. Their drummer Pete De Freitas died in a motorcycle accident in 1989, and on either side of that death they've released five proper albums (frontman Ian McCulloch left the band in 1988 and they released an album with a different singer which doesn't really count since they reuinited in 1997). In the interest of preserving my 1980s image of the band, I'm only going to pick songs from their five albums of the 80s. Maybe we'll catch up on the uneven records of the 90s and 2000s some other time.
"Crocodiles" - I don't know why, but the title tracks of most of these albums are right around my favorites for each record. Maybe they actually titled their albums after one of the strongest songs, or perhaps it was just intriguing names each time. Either way, this song rocks out. It's a good calling card for their early style, straight forward rock with a little punk in there. They just went for breakneck speed here with McCulloch's gravely voice keeping up with the pace.
"Villiers Terrace" - Definitely a harbinger of sound experimenting to come. It's the most memorable song on the record to me, especially with all the drug imagery. McCulloch's lyrics got a little too weird towards the end of the 80s, but here he's very focused, very visual, very cryptic about the place he sings about.
Heaven Up Here
"Show of Strength" - Everything about this song fits together perfectly to me. The bass and drums are in tune with each other's movements, the guitar floats around and punches when it needs to, and McCulloch's vocals careen from a hoarse whisper to a bellow in an instant over the course of the song. The ending breakdown is fantastic as well.
"Heaven Up Here" - Probably my favorite track they ever did. The emptiness the sound disappears into on the track is awesome. The bass line thunders for the entire song, and McCulloch's wailing is in full swing here. Pete De Freitas' drums are going wild for the entire song as well. RollingStone rated this album their highest in their ranking of the Top 500 albums, and I think that's actually accurate. It's not their most popular album, but I really do think it's their most well-rounded and best.
"Back of Love" - A fantastic opening riff makes this another visceral Echo classic. This album was the hardest to record for the band, and the tensions that began here followed them for the rest of their career. This is probably my least favorite Echo record, but they still keep it together on a lot of these songs. McCulloch's screaming and the repeating guitar work really well in contrast, and the strings in the bridge give it an interesting change.
"Heads Will Roll" - Great acoustic opening, with a tinge of the eastern influence that hangs over the entire album. This album did feel a little bit too much like Echo trying to do the Beatles' eastern bits with English rock, but they rock harder to make up for it.
"The Killing Moon" - Ian McCulloch claims that this is a candidate for the greatest song ever written. I think it has enough to merit entrance to the conversation for the greats, with the fantastic imagery of the lyrics and the lush, fully realized instrumentation. Everything is timed perfectly in this song, and it comes out as though it took absolutely no effort. The sequence in Donnie Darko that used this song originally was to be scored by "Never Tear Us Apart" by INXS, and I think that changing the song in the Director's Cut of the film weakened it a little bit. The acoustic opening and the first verse fit perfectly with that shot of Jake Gyllenhaal biking down a hill.
"My Kingdom" - Far and away my favorite Echo & the Bunnymen song. It's my favorite riff and my favorite lyrics of any song they've ever done. The record itself is only 9 songs long, but the final 4 tracks are just about the best things they've ever done. This is their most popular record, and "The Killing Moon" shot them to some degree of popularity, and deservedly so. McCulloch got a little bigheaded after this album, but for just a short time, they were riding high on a wave of critical and popular success.
Echo & the Bunnymen
"Bedbugs & Ballyhoo" - Echo mastered the slow build on songs like this. They're pretty much on autopilot for most of the song doing what they do best, but damn if it doesn't sound good. Don't try to make sense of the lyrics, they're nonsensical, but the blending sounds, especially when the saloon-style piano enters in the middle, are amazing.
"Blue Blue Ocean" - My favorite departure the band took in terms of their musical style. On this album they got much more into epic 80s synth-style sound, and this one was one of the few that worked for me. They've still got and underlying guitar there that's doing some pretty straight riffing, which is nice. The band was too far apart to survive after the recording sessions for this album, and McCulloch left the band after its release, leaving the band with the terrible idea of replacing their front man for one album before calling it quits for the rest of the 80s.
Honorable Mention Non-Album Tracks:
"Bring on the Dancing Horses" -This is pretty much the most covered song the Bunnymen ever made, and I personally really enjoy it a ton. McCulloch may have been hard to work with, and the rest of the band might have not gotten along really well, but they could write a single.
"Do It Clean" - This song can be found on the remastered version of their debut Crocodiles. You know how Bloc Party releases one-off singles in between records that are sometimes really awesome? Yeah, Echo & the Bunnymen did that twenty years ago with songs like this. Sure it's probably not the first time a band did this, but it's damn cool to hear awesome singles that have no album context to pay attention to sometimes.
There you have it, one of my favorite bands tracked in two songs per album. If you've never listen to them, maybe now's the time to try them out.