Nineteen eighty-eight was devoid of any overarching theme, trend, or happening, rockwise; the vacuum itself has to be seen as the year’s big news. We did have a sales winner: George Michael, whose solo debut, Faith, and its five singles gave him the biggest blanket on the Billboard year-end charts to be seen in nearly 20 years. But who cares? Other acts that have raked in similar bucks earned our attention as well in additional ways–by creating a compelling image (Michael Jackson), or at least by riding the crest of a cultural wave (the Bee Gees and the Saturday Night Fever dance revival). Whereas George Michael–like, oh, say, Whitney Houston–walks tall but doesn’t leave footprints; he’s a big star but an unimportant artist.

That’s on the commercial front. Aesthetically, the void was awe-inspiring as well: my hunch is that after some indecisive consideration of the interesting but not world-class work of half a dozen or so runners-up–Public Enemy, Sonic Youth, the Pogues, R.E.M., Talking Heads, Midnight Oil, and maybe Brian Wilson–what passes for a year-end critical consensus will center on the young Cambridge folkie, Tracy Chapman. But of course this state of affairs–de facto artist-of-the-year honors to an immature artist armed with but a couple of killer songs and an imaginative producer–just proves my point. A de facto consensus is no consensus at all.

Do we just long, then, for a dominant artist, commercially and critically? Hardly. What 1988 reminds me of, actually, is 1987 or ’86, minus the participation of the decade’s dominant munchkin-stars: U2, Bruce, Paul Simon, Prince, and so forth. In other words, it’s possible that the work of a few artists has obscured the fact that not too much else has been going on. This isn’t to dismiss the charms of hip-hop or ignore the huge college-indie vindication embodied in the triumphs of U2 and R.E.M.; it’s just to note that these things have been going on for a while now, along with all sorts of other tomfoolery important on various other levels (the consolidation and steady worsening of radio, the record industry’s continuing campaign against taping, nogoodnikness on the part of corporate and governmental America generally): old news, in other words. Things are calm, and have been, relatively speaking, for a curiously–suspiciously–long time. Like Billy Bragg, we’re all sitting around, waiting for the Great Leap Forward.

A vacuum, of course, is another name for a place where angels fear to tread, and a lot of fools rushed around in 1988. Where were our stars from seasons past? U2 tried to live down the not entirely undeserved success of last year’s Joshua Tree with a new, “humble” approach that just made Bono, particularly, look sillier and sillier. At year’s end, the ingenuous lead singer revealed–in Rolling Stone’s tribute to Roy Orbison, no less–that his own introduction to Orbison came when his guitarist, the Edge, gave him a copy of the Blue Velvet sound track, way back in late 1986. In Rattle and Hum, their movie-book-record extravaganza, the band let America in on other of their newfound influences: Billie Holiday, Elvis, the Beatles, and Bob Dylan, thus assuring that the attentive U2 fan would share the same rough cultural background of an average suburban preteen. As the year ended, all of America waited for the effects that Bono’s latest acquisition–a remaindered copy of More of the Monkees, picked up at a Kansas City Walgreen’s–would have on Ireland’s biggest band.

Meanwhile, two Stings stalked the land. The first performed concerts, solidifying the ex-Police-man’s rep as the single most pretentious rock act since Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. The other followed close behind, addressing logorrheic, scatological, infantile, and borderline incoherent letters to any local rock critic who dared to hail his royal poseurness as anything but genuine. The net effect of his efforts, of course, was merely to give the local critics, a dull breed who are rarely noticed, dinner-table repartee for life. Sting took consolation from Rolling Stone’s David Fricke, who commented on “how painful such criticisms must be for you.” Sting, clearly caught off guard, could only confirm that they were.

Prince released the single of the year, “Alphabet St.,” presented us with a mighty tour, and instead of releasing the now heavily bootlegged “Black Album,” tossed out Lovesexy, which represented either the end of soul music as we know it or the start of something new.

Bob Dylan produced Down in the Groove, an album that accelerates the precipitous decline of his recording career, which is saying something. Paradoxically, he then took off on his most thoroughgoing, risky, and exciting concert tour in nearly 15 years. He threw out gem after gem that he’d never before performed live (from “Subterranean Homesick Blues” to “Absolutely Sweet Marie” to an acoustic version of “Baby Let Me Follow You Down” to an electric version of “Gates of Eden”) and put himself out on the line, with a stripped-down three-piece band. I’m not a Dylan apologist: I went to a couple of his first west coast shows expecting to see a car wreck live onstage. What I saw was mythic, the tour and comeback (albeit an unnoticed one) of the year.

Talking Heads released Naked, a swirling, pristine record that recalled the organicity of Remain in Light even as David Byrne’s lyrics collapsed, victims of his wild search for a way to talk about America. Pizza Huts and 7-Elevens, fantastically replaced by trees and fields, were mourned–or were they? The “Democratic Circus” came to town–or did it? Elsewhere, Byrne disinterred Dylan’s Mr. Jones, trying to modernize him and give him credit for attempting to understand the music of today. Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man”–the song in which Mr. Jones made his first appearance–lashed out at reporters from Time and other Mr. Joneses who categorized and criticized. How much nicer things are in the 80s, when the establishment, far from rejecting the counterculture, embraces and even tries to anticipate it–which is why today, 20 years on, cover-boy Byrne is “Rock’s Renaissance Man” to Time. When you’re accepted on your own terms, Mr. Jones doesn’t seem all that frightening.

Elvis Costello was silent, for the second year in a row. He’s allegedly been writing songs with Paul McCartney, and recording for a new label, Warners, but nothing came out in 1988.

The Amnesty tour made headlines with its all-star lineup–Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman, Youssou N’Dour. But it didn’t come to Chicago, so fuck human rights.

Roy Orbison died and Husker Du broke up and maybe the Kinks did too. In what may have been the Davies Bros.’ last gasp, they released a live album and then went out on the road, playing nine-tenths of the album note for note, ad-lib for ad-lib. Generally it’s done the other way around. On a rainy night in Berkeley, Ray was sick, so Dave took over much of the show, doing forgotten gems like “Death of a Clown.” Then Ray got sentimental and started firing out obscurities, apologetically presenting “Muswell Hillbillies,” the ineffable “Days,” and an out-of-nowhere “Too Much on My Mind.” From time to time, the brothers’ band would fade and then just drop out altogether as Ray and Dave danced across their past.

The year’s most overrated releases were Richard Thompson’s Amnesia, Metallica’s …And Justice for All, John Hiatt’s Slow Turning, Jane’s Addiction’s Nothing’s Shocking, and Brian Wilson. Jello Biafra, former leader of one of the worst bands in the history of the universe, the Dead Kennedys, went on a solo lecture tour, doing bad stand-up and shamelessly hyping his trial on obscenity charges in LA last year. The trial–brought because of a dumb poster packaged with a DKs record–was, of course, a joke; but what the First Amendment means to me is that you can defend Jello Biafra, but you don’t have to like him.

The story of the year was Bruce Springsteen. Mr. and Mrs. Boss got lost in the tunnel of love, and to make the point, Bruce, in perhaps his finest moment as the 80s’ most accomplished image maker, was photographed on a Paris hotel balcony nuzzling Patti Scialfa–in his skivvies! Tunnel of Love, we saw in hindsight, accurately foretold the breakup with an extraordinary subtext of sexual dysfunction: “It all falls apart / When out go the lights”; “Hit the engine but she isn’t turnin'”; “When I look at myself I don’t see The man I want to be.” On a more serious level, though, there was a new Bruce, whose writing about women in the past has ranged from declamations directed at iconic abstractions to banal “little girl” caricatures. Even his marriage had been little more than a bleakly idealistic, rigidly structured ballet. Here, finally, he’d assertively–publicly–put himself on the line for someone: a Jersey girl named Patti. Best of all, she played in a rock ‘n’ roll band. Bruce met her at work.

My picks as the records of the year, which follow, betray a similar fractured meaning, or lack of it, with the notable exception of the pop dynamite clustered at number one.

1. From Langley Park to Memphis, Prefab Sprout; That Love Thang, E.I.E.I.O.; Sgt. Pepper Knew My Father, various artists. With rock meaning moribund, pop took over assertively, perhaps powered by the Pet Shop Boys’ 1987 commentary on the human condition, Actually. (Someday, I think, we will look back, and perhaps only then will we perceive how strikingly Actually captured our time for us.) Prefab Sprout’s unlikely engine is one Paddy McAloon, who has over the past few years energetically–if almost anonymously, given the Sprout’s almost nonexistent U.S. sales–been gnawing at pop’s edges. On From Langley Park to Memphis he reaches its core. Its leadoff track, “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” cannily confronts rock’s maturity: “All my lazy teenage boasts / Are now high precision ghosts / And they’re coming round the track to haunt me.” On the second track, he drives the point home with a devastating, if ultimately forgiving, analysis of Bruce Springsteen and all he has wrought. “Some things,” McAloon concludes, “mean more than cars and girls.” Like the Pet Shop Boys, McAloon backs up his lyrics with a percolating sense of melody and world-class, groundbreaking production. It’s a stupendous record.

E.I.E.I.O.’s second album is just as ambitious, but it has a different target. While McAloon works within the paradigms of British pop from Revolver onward, this Illinois band (with help from Producer Phil Bonnano) plumbs the depths of Amer-roots-rock, recalling the work of the Turtles and Creedence and Todd Rundgren and even another Illinois band, Cheap Trick. That Love Thang, in fact, recalls no other album so much as In Color, Cheap Trick’s 1977 exercise in rock exposition; it has the same insular feel of a rock ‘n’ roll world created solely on vinyl, and the same simple faith in jangly guitars and lovely vocals. E.I.E.I.O., however, has two strong independent songwriters in Steve Summers and Richard Szeluga, and to my ears an even more daring approach to songmaking. I don’t know who came up with the idea of punching up the two standout tracks here, “Hey Cecelie” and “That Love Thang,” with horns, but the gamble paid off–both could have been big hits. The group is currently preparing its third album.

Sgt. Pepper Knew My Father is a various-artist affair put together by the English music weekly New Musical Express; it contains, improbably, the songs of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band done by a variety of mostly British acts, some familiar to us–Billy Bragg, Sonic Youth, the Fall–and some not: Wet Wet Wet, the Triffids, Hue and Cry. Its relationship to Prefab Sprout and E.I.E.I.O. is that like them, the artists on this tape are attempting to bring a modern (or modernist, or, if I dare say it, postmodernist) analysis to bear on what would seem to necessitate (or what had been in the past) a strictly formalist set of rules. We might have been prepared for a respectful recapitulation of Sgt. Pepper, or even a punkish wreaking of havoc on it; we’re not prepared for a series of performances that call into question not the songs but our perception of them. Here, Frank Sidebottom’s version of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” a lyric lifted from a handbill, starts out by throwing everything off beat to remind us of the song’s original rhythms; then Sidebottom raises the stakes, interjecting a verse of “Twist and Shout”–just to remind us that a similar song might someday be written about a poster for a Beatles show. Also notable are Michelle Shocked’s gender-fractured reading of “Lovely Rita” and the Fall’s take on “A Day in the Life,” which seems dismissive at first but comes together nicely on the last chord, when you realize that in fact they’ve taken the song quite seriously. Each song in this collection reinforces a slowly dawning realization: that such an undertaking would not have worked with any other album, no matter how big or how storied–not Thriller, not Dark Side of the Moon, not the Sun Sessions. And then you realize the album is about not Sgt. Pepper, but our feeling about Sgt. Pepper, and our understanding of it.

4. Workers Playtime, Billy Bragg: Bragg’s fourth relatively full-length American album contains undeniable flaws–a rather dreary a cappella testament to the lovelike bond formed by foxhole comrades, another political construct about being held without bail. No one will deny that Bragg occasionally indulges in wishfulness. But these wrong turns leave the memory quickly as the record’s major theme–the redemptive wrack and ruin wrought by love–is formed in song after song after song. And as a bonus, you get “Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards,” giddily presumptuous in its equating of stardom and a Western political awakening, but heroic and epic all the same.

5. Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, Camper Van Beethoven: Laconic and vulgar, dizzy and steadfast, this triumphant major-label debut preserves the Campers’ indie punch and loses their irrelevancies. This is not to say the record is focused or arranged, understandable or coherent; rather it’s a stylistic roller coaster of beats, rhythms, and instrumentation, pushed into the stratosphere by Dennis Herring’s million-dollar production.

6. Get Rhythm, Ry Cooder: Cooder’s guitar playing–a heady mixture of adamantine clarity and snapstringed jazz–anchors the songs on this album, his best. But that’s not news. What is news is Cooder’s remarkable digital production, which makes revelatory his covers of J. Cash’s “Get Rhythm” and C. Berry’s “13 Question Method.” Finally, a stunning original (“Across the Borderline,” cowritten with John Hiatt and Jim Dickinson; Springsteen’ played it several times on his last tour) brings it home.

7. La Gartija, Walter Salas-Humara: A period of musical slackness similar to our own existed in the mid-70s, when often it seems little of interest at all was being recorded. Sometimes overlooked, however, was a trio of atmospheric wonders that came out circa 1975: Nell Young’s Tonight’s the Night, Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, and Lou Reed’s Coney Island Baby. Each of these artists felt the times keenly, and retreated into himself to experiment with surroundings. The result was music that, as Young put it once, “should be listened to from another room.” Salas-Humara, Cuban-born, has been exploring the same areas through several albums with his band, the Silos. This, his first solo album, tackles a couple of Silos songs and works through some extremely obscure covers. Though the record is quite electric and proffers some strident and often surprising dynamics, a deferential production and Salas-Humara’s quiet, everymanish voice give it an unadorned consistency and preserve that “other room” texture. Special mention also to the Silos’ Cuba and their EP Tennessee Fire.

8. Substance, Joy Division: This companion volume to the two-record, identically titled release honoring Joy Division’s successor, New Order, appears here for historical importance, and not necessarily for its enjoyment or listenability. With the exception of the timeless, irrationally compelling “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” many of the songs here (including some nice-to-have protoangst from the days when the group was called Warsaw) sound undeniably dated. Accustomed as we are now to New Order’s up-to-the-minute 80s synth splendor, we forget that Joy Division was a guitar band (and an erratic one at that), and that creating gloom-rock (as leader Ian Curtis did before his unfortunate but convincing suicide) is not the sort of thing that gets you into the hall of fame. Still, inventing postpunk certainly is the sort of thing that gets you into the hall of fame, and that’s what Joy Division did along with Gang of Four. The New Order version of Substance, released late last year, is important as well, but I dock it for its tampering with the divine “Temptation.” Each of these albums, incidentally, is available on CD with nearly double the material.

9. Copperhead Road, Steve Earle: Earle makes a definitive break with his country origins in his third album, a somewhat inconsistent but straightforward articulation of a populist romanticism. He might remind an unsympathetic ear of John Cougar Mellencamp, but that is to slur Earle; he preaches not at all, and he never looks for issues. He seems, rather, to find issues in front of him and just pick them up. He then wraps them in a cold inevitability (the title track) and folkloric tradition (the morality play of “The Devil’s Right Hand,” which features cadenced, almost antique line repetitions). A surprising success.

10. Talk Is Cheap, Keith Richards: The biggest beat the world heard in 1988 was the Richards tour, with the guitarist’s new partner, Steve Jordan, laying down a thunderous foundation on drums. Richards himself, an unlikely front man, nevertheless asserted authority through a cozy self-denial onstage. Unlikeliest of all, his solo record, particularly when set against his former partner’s curious solo efforts, is a sui generis wonder, from the Al Greenish churner “Make No Mistake” to the controlled Jagger assassination, “You Don’t Move Me.” Beyond that, the record is a musical tour through Richards’s rock ‘n’ roll soul: the guitar playing seems primal, almost pristine in its elegance, as if Richards were attempting an exposition of Ur-riffs and after-the-Fall dynamics. An unrepeatable one-shot, this record may someday be recognized as the great lost Rolling Stones album.

Honorable mentions to the Hairspray sound track; Bauhaus 1979-1983, a two-record import retrospective; The Light at the End of the Tunnel, a similar double compilation on the Damned, complete with a Pete Frame chart on the band’s history; Midnight Oil’s Diesel and Dust; Divine Weeks’s Through and Through; the Chills’ Brave Words; Short Sharp Shocked, Michelle Shocked; Eric B. and Rakim, Follow the Leader; Joe Strummer’s Permanent Record sound track; the Pet Shop Boys’ Introspective, a very strong album by any standard but their own; Living Colour’s Vivid; The History of Hi Records Rhythm and Blues, volumes one and two; and two lavishly appointed Chess box sets on the careers of Chuck Berry and Willie Dixon.

Finally, a list of notable singles: “Alphabet St.,” by Prince; “My Prerogative,” Bobby Brown; “Trash City,” Joe Strummer and Latino Rockabilly War; “Cars and Girls,” Prefab Sprout; “What Have I Done to Deserve This” and “Always on My Mind,” Pet Shop Boys; “Heaven Knows,” Robert Plant; “System of Survival,” Earth Wind and Fire; “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” Guns N’ Roses; “Bring the Noise,” Public Enemy; “Fast Car,” Tracy Chapman; “The Road,” the Kinks; “I Wanna Be a FlintStone,” Screaming Blue Messiahs.