In Honor of the Walkman: Ten Must-Have Cassette Classics, From 'Da Da Da' to Deathrock to 'Do Me!'
Turns out the Walkman isn't dead yet, but let's face it (those of us who weren't surprised to find that the outmoded portable was still being manufactured): The writing's on the wall. As a sort of premature eulogy for the player, West Coast Sound revisits some of the Walkman's finer moments through the tapes that it's so kindly cradled for us over the years.
As most eulogies are, this is a personal one -- ten selections from our own collection, limited to those released after the 1979 advent of the Sony player, and before 1995, when the CD had formally usurped its spooled predecessor. Sigh. Go gently, dear Walkman, into that great endless loop in the sky. Now, let the party begin ...
Bell Biv DeVoe's "Do Me!" cassingle, the height of New Jack Swing (Chris Martins)
1. Bell Biv DeVoe, "Do Me!" (1990, MCA)
New Jack Swing ambassador, cassingle perfected: Bryan Adams may have had the first U.S. cassingle in 1987 with "Heat of the Night," but the form was a better fit for hip-hop and R&B, and best for the combination thereof -- New Jack Swing. The bright colors, the loud fashions, the tough guy stances, the sensitive guy stances ... plus all that blatent sexuality delivered on a medium that, once unsheathed, is easily insertable. A match made in House Party heaven. The cover quotes BBD: "Our music is mentally hip-hop, smoothed out on the R&B tip with a pop appeal to it." Thanks for straightening that out, guys.
Sonic Youth's "Evol," the noiseniks' first release for Long Beach's SST (Chris Martins)
2. Sonic Youth, Evol (1986, SST)
Daydreams do come true: Just last year, Thurston Moore told CBC radio, "I only listen to cassettes." An exaggeration perhaps, but in the early '80s it wouldn't have been. Moore and co. were then gobbling up everything that Long Beach's SST Records could string to spool -- albums by Minutemen, Black Flag, Meat Puppets and Hüsker Dü. So Evol was significant not only as Sonic Youth's breakthrough album, but as a their first for a label they looked up to (and would eventually come to hate). A gateway release for both the band and the fans that awaited them. Hear it the way Thurston intended.
Beastie Boys' "Ill Communication," in all its green glory (Chris Martins)
3. Beastie Boys, Ill Communication (1994, Capitol/Grand Royal)
Cuz we're the cheese and they're the macaroni: Everyone has their own classic Beastie Boys album. This one's here for two reasons: a) it's green; and b) my mom actually let me listen to it each morning in the car on the way to junior high. Kind of her considering the hardcore crush of "Sabotage," Q-Tip's verse on the round-robin rap classic "Get it Together," and that incredible Mantan Moreland sample about what he'd do to those mashed potatoes if it was, indeed, that kind of a party. Of course, with the Beasties, it was always that kind of a party. Let this one get stuck in the dashboard deck. You don't need nuttin else.
"Stay Hungry" by Twisted Sister, where every song is an anthem (Chris Martins)
4. Twisted Sister, Stay Hungry (1984, Atlantic)
Early '80s = hair metal: Like New Jack Swing, the hair metal genre came, flourished and went all within the quite narrow confines of the cassette era. It follows then, that compact reel-to-reel playback is the only acceptable way to experience these now tragically bygone styles (and not, of course, that the musical movements were as doomed to fail as the medium). With "We're Not Gonna Take It" on the A-side and "I Wanna Rock" on the B -- and both hemmed in as they are by an all-killer, no-filler collection of head-banging anthems -- this is and forever shall be the cassette of the summer.
The L.A. death rock classic "Sleep in Safety," by 45 Grave (Chris Martins)
5. 45 Grave, Sleep in Safety (1983, Enigma)
Los Angeles lore, horror geek
heaven hell: This city is known for a lot of strange things, but deathrock is odder than most. While Goths in New York and abroad were busy taking themselves so. fucking. seriously., the West Coast's black eyeliner crowd was listening to "Monster Mash" on repeat and studying the collected works of Dario Argento. 45 Grave was funny, spooky and damn good at their particular mix of roiling surf, organ-fueled doom and bona fide punk rock (drummer Don Bolles hailed from the Germs). Sleep in Safety was their only album, making this cassette a true artifact.
The originators of "Da Da Da" did an entire album, "Trio & Error" (Chris Martins)
6. Trio, Trio & Error (1983, Mercury)
More than a Volkswagen commercial: German New Wave offshoots Trio were kaput by 1985, but their music lived on (albeit often unattributed) through their lone hit "Da Da Da," a song that made for cassette play if ever there was one. The incredibly simple, incredibly repetitive, incredibly catchy track sounds the same no matter where it's cued up, and the rest of the album doesn't stray far from that formula. What's surprising is how enjoyable it all is. What isn't is how perfectly '80s Trio & Error sounds with its off-the-cuff playfulness, canned beats, flanged guitars and spoken vocals. Bumps for your biodiesel Bug.
The D.A.I.S.Y. age begins with promo tape "Da Inner Sound Y'all" (Chris Martins)
7. various, Da Inner Sound Y'all (1989, Tommy Boy)
Rare raps, the birth of a new cool: Extensive Google scouring revealed nothing about this tape, which I inherited from a former neighbor, but it's not hard to see what's going on here. In 1989, gassed up over a promising stable, Tommy Boy decides to give away what in hindsight appears to be an incredibly ostentatious, if not downright rude, promo compilation. Borrowing its name from the acronym De La Soul coined to rep the emerging alt-rap sound (e.g. "D.A.I.S.Y. Era"), this set not only includes that group's early single "Say No Go," but debut-predating tracks from Queen Latifah, Digital Underground, Too Poetic (eventually of Gravediggaz), Guy's Timmy Gatling, Coldcut and, um, Black By Demand.
Laurie Anderson's 4-CS opus "United States Live," ft. "O Superman" (Chris Martins)
8. Laurie Anderson, United States Live (1984, Warner Bros.)
Songbooks on tape: Got 261 minutes to kill? No? S'okay -- Miss Anderson's patient, and unlike a CD, a tape never forgets where you left off. First, the packaging. Rather than squeeze square art into an oblong frame, the quadruple cassette version of this five-LP set gets its own multihued design. Secondly, this is exactly the kind of thing you want in cumbersome physical form -- a multimedia magnum opus built around the idea that language can be confusing (music too, though more by example). Third, this is the source material of her brilliant classic, Big Science, which means four times as much brilliance.
David Byrne launched Luaka Bop with "Brazil Classics 1" (Chris Martins)
9. various, Brazil Classics 1: Beleza Tropical (1989, Luaka Bop)
World music ... for the rest of the world: David Byrne launched his fantastic Warner subsidiary Luaka Bop with this astoundingly curated Tropicália compilation. As if out of spite toward the new agey and/or funk-driven World Music cross-pollinations of the day, Beleza Tropical focused simply on the pure stuff: standout works from inimitably Brazilian artists like Jorge Ben, Gal Costa, Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Lô Borges and Milton Nascimento. The J-card unfolds to reveal explanatory essays by Arto Lindsay and Byrne himself, highlighting the newness of these names in the Northern Hemisphere.
Prince's rare "Black Album" didn't ID the artist or the album (Chris Martins)
10. Prince, The Black Album (1987, Warner Bros.)
Take that, Beatles: While virtually all cassettes are officially out of print, some are harder to find than others. Prince's Black Album is among those. Even though the version pictured is the official 1994 issue (released seven years after the album was pulled before it ever hit the shelves), the label only pressed 'em up for a couple of months. Furthermore, the packaging is free of identification other than a pink catalog number drifting in a sea of black. The record's legend may be larger than its actual listening power, but it's a fun one to have in this format. Plus, there's "Superfunkycalifragisexy." Open at your own risk.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.