It’s been a minute since we heard from the B-52s, but the seminal new wave band recently popped on late-night television, celebrated Kate Pierson’s birthday, and announced dates on a farewell tour. Plus, in a move most of us probably never saw coming, Fred, Kate, and Cindy are featured vocalists on a new Miranda Lambert song, “Music City Queen”.
With all that in mind, here’s a ranked list, bottom-to-top of the B-52s’ studio albums. Style note: The B-52s used to have an apostrophe in their name. That’s no longer true, so the only place you’ll see that mark here is when referring to their eponymous debut album.
Good Stuff (1992) Rating: 4
Cindy went on hiatus when the B-52s were recording the follow-up to Cosmic Thing, their biggest album ever. Good Stuff was the result, and in reality, it’s just OK stuff. It very much follows the template of Cosmic Thing, down to the production of Don Was and Nile Rodgers and the somewhat more serious lyrics. Good Stuff does indeed have good intentions, but it never entirely takes off as an album. However, the title track echoes the “Love Shack” vibe nicely, and the UFO travelogue “Is That You Mo-Dean?” is suitably wacky.
Mesopotamia (1981) Rating: 6
Personally, I love the six-track Mesopotamia “mini-album”, but it’s probably the most controversial of all the B-52s’ releases. Produced by David Byrne while Byrne was simultaneously recording his Music from ‘The Catherine Wheel‘, Mesopotamia carries a bit of the self-consciously artsy feel of The Catherine Wheel. Byrne and some of his Catherine Wheel musicians overlay the basic tracks with their instrumental noodlings. That led to confusion when Mesopotamia was first released, with some critics and fans saying that Byrne’s production was heavy-handed and made the new album less fun than their first two records.
Despite these caveats, Mesopotamia is a fun listen. The title track has stayed in the band’s setlists and usually finds its way onto hits compilations. “Loveland” and “Cake” are both rather sexy, “Throw That Beat in the Garbage Can” is a Schneider showcase of goofiness, and “Nip It in the Bud” is a tremendous straight-ahead new wave tune with Cindy on vocals. Even the weakest track on the album, the snoozy “Deep Sleep”, has a slinky exotica vibe that feels straight out of Les Baxter.
Bouncing Off the Satellites (1986) Rating: 6
Bouncing Off the Satellites was recorded in July 1985. During that time, guitarist Ricky Wilson was seriously ill with AIDS, though only drummer Keith Strickland knew at the time. Wilson died in October of that year, and the album was not released until September 1986.
Given the circumstances, the somewhat subdued nature of Bouncing Off the Satellites. A wistful that had rarely been heard creeps into songs like “Summer of Love”, “Ain’t It a Shame”, and “She Brakes for Rainbows”. Even more typical songs like “Girl from Ipanema Goes to Greenland” and “Housework” have a quieter feel. The B52s bring the usual silliness, though, mainly in the 1960s psychedelic parody, “Detour Thru Your Mind”, and the manic tribute to wild hairpieces, “Wig”.
Musically, the B52s continue the reliance on electronics that began with Whammy! But it was the 1980s, right? Few bands were going more acoustic and less electronic in the mid-1980s.
Ultimately Bouncing Off the Satellites is the most subtle of the B-52s’ albums, with the loss of Ricky Wilson adding to the album’s poignancy. Following the release of Bouncing Off the Satellites, the B-52s took some time to mourn and regroup, emerging in 1989 with a triumphant return that would bring them their most considerable mainstream success.
Funplex (2007) Rating: 7
The B-52s remained active after the 1992 release of Good Stuff and subsequent tour, but the band somehow managed to not release another album until 2007, when they unleashed Funplex on an unsuspecting world. As the sole 21st-century entry in the B-52s’ catalog, Funplex bears little resemblance to either the band’s pre-or post-“Love Shack” incarnations but still manages to sound like the B-52s. Keith Strickland is the musical mastermind of Funplex, cooking up a series of hard-driving dance tunes that inspire his bandmates.
Funplex is loud, brash, and fun. There might not be anything here as ultimately timeless as “Rock Lobster” has proven to be. Still, Funplex does add several mini-classics to the band’s repertoire, and these songs have probably added a contemporary edge to the B-52s’ latter-day live performances.
Whammy! (1983) Rating: 8
Whammy! represents the B-52s’ attempt to get back to their wacky basics as the experiment/debacle. Depending on your point of view, that was Mesopotamia. The songs, particularly those on side one – “Legal Tender”, “Whammy Kiss”, “Song for a Future Generation”, and “Butterbean” — are filled with the goofy humor that characterized The B-52’s and Wild Planet. The second half of the album is less consistent but wraps up with the unhinged “Big Bird” and an upbeat instrumental, “Work That Skirt”. The sound of Whammy! is less organic as synthesizers become more prominent. Despite that, Whammy! sounds like classic B-52s.
Wild Planet (1980) Rating: 8
The B-52s’ second album is every bit as much fun as their debut, though it has probably spent its entire existence in the shadows of the band’s monumental debut. Wild Planet is the natural continuation of the first album in purely musical terms. Following Wild Planet, the B52s would begin to move beyond their original sound.
The best tunes on Wild Planet – especially “Give Me Back My Man”, “Private Idaho”, and “Strobe Light” – are just as good as anything on The B52s. Other songs, like “Dirty Back Road” and “53 Miles of Venus”, are a bit more atmospheric. If the album is ultimately less consistent than the debut, it’s only a bit less so. As its opening track indicates, mostly Wild Planet is a “Party Out of Bounds”.
Cosmic Thing (1989) Rating: 9
Some fans might place Cosmic Thing down a notch to #3 in the pantheon, while others raise it to #1. I’m comfortable putting the B52s’ biggest hit at #2.
Led by the massive hit single “Love Shack”, Cosmic Thing brought the B52s back in a big way after the passing of Ricky Wilson. Produced by Nile Rodgers and Don Was – each producer working on a separate set of songs – Cosmic Thing fully brought the band’s sound to the mainstream. While the party song about the tin roof being rusted grabbed all the initial attention, Cosmic Thing proved to have depth. Autobiographical tracks like “Dry County” and “Deadbeat Club” successfully followed through on the wistful vibe of some of the songs on the band’s less-heralded Bouncing Off the Satellites. And as a single, “Roam” proved to be a luminous follow-up to “Love Shack”, charting at #3 on the US Top 40, just as “Love Shack” had done.
Cosmic Thing is a fun, beautiful, and life-affirming record that was also a big hit. Ricky would indeed have been proud.
The B-52’s (1979) Rating: 10
Everything about the B-52s’ debut album – the cover, the style, the personality, but most of all, the music – is iconic. I don’t remember exactly when I first heard “Rock Lobster”, but it was around my 15th birthday in June 1980 that I bought The B-52’s, along with Daryl Hall & John Oates’ Voices. A breakthrough album, Voices found H&O playing around the edges with the new wave vibe in which The B-52’s is fully immersed. New wave was making its mark throughout popular music, and I, along with millions of others, was there for it.
The B-52’s opens with the essential “Planet Claire”, and the first half of the record – including “52 Girls”, “Dance This Mess Around”, and “Rock Lobster” – represents one of the best debut album side ones ever. The second half might be a tad less memorable, but it’s still essential, even the ramshackle cover of Petula Clark’s “Downtown” that closes the record.
The B-52’s has just the slightest edge that nothing else in the catalog possesses, and the group were taking their fun very seriously. The B-52’s is a 10 out of 10. As noted in “Dance This Mess Around”, The B-52’s ain’t no Limburger, whatever that means.