1984 was a rough year in many ways. Ronald Reagan got reelected. AIDS was on the rise, as was the apathy of people in power like Reagan. Ethiopia sank into famine. More on topic, Tipper Gore rallied a bunch of officious ninnies to wage war against pop music with her PMRC. A look at the charts makes Gore’s crusade seem really unnecessary. What did she have a (where’s the) beef with? Matthew Wilder’s “Break My Stride”? Kenny Loggins’s “Footloose”? Phil Collins’s “Against All Odds”? Lionel Ritchie’s “Hello”? Stevei Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You”? Actually, if she’d wanted any of that crap banned, I probably would have gotten behind her. But, of course, these were not her targets, though the song that inspired the PMRC was buried on the biggest album of the year. So I should stop being flip here to acknowledge that ’84 was also the year of Let It Be, Learning to Crawl, four albums so fantastic that I had a hell of a time deciding which was best, and a bunch of other totally awesome ones. Here are ten.
10. The Unforgettable Fire by U2
U2 had done their best work on their first few albums when there was still some punk spirit behind their righteousness. After the smash success of War, the pomposity that would make them pretty insufferable by the time they put out the vastly overrated Joshua Tree and the boring Rattle and Hum was beginning to creep into their music. So The Unforgettable Fire is not as good as Boy or War, but it is still very good, at least as a collection of really committed performances. Song wise, the lazily vague “Pride (In the Name of Love)” and the repetitious “Bad” aren’t much, but you’ll rarely hear this much uninhibited passion outside of an opera house. Better yet is when Bono doesn’t step on The Edge, Larry Mullen, and Adam Clayton when they kick-it-out on “Wire” and “Indian Summer Sky”. Not everything here works—“MLK” sounds like a shapeless attempt to rewrite the beautiful “40” while going to the Martin Luther King well once too often, and the endless “Elvis Presley and America” is a poorly sung six-and-a-half-minute wank—but when U2 are on fire they make The Unforgettable Fire worthwhile.
Through Seventeen Seconds, Faith, and Pornography, The Cure went from creepily minimalistic to dementedly tormented, but the sounds were all steel grey. As great as all those albums are, they might leave one feeling The Cure needed to start juggling up their sound or risk landing in a rut. So Robert Smith and Lol Tolhurst tested out a sweeter approach on a trio of delightful singles (“Let’s Go to Bed”, “The Walk”, “The Love Cats”) before folding that approach in with the darker style they’d already perfected on LP. This certainly gave The Cure a refreshed sound even if The Top ends up sounding a bit schizo because of it. Dark, “classic Cure” type things like “Wailing Wall”, “Give Me It” (which may be more hardcore than anything on Pornography), and the churning title track don’t sound like they belong on the same record with pieces as light as the romantic “Bird Mad Girl” (which I like to believe was inspired by Siouxsie Sioux, with whom Smith was currently moonlighting), the bubbly “Dressing Up”, “Piggy in the Mirror”, or the whimsical and wonderful “Caterpillar”. But that blend of sweet and somber would be a key component to the band that would butt “Catch” against “Torture” or “Friday I’m in Love” against “Trust” in the coming years.
8. Learning to Crawl by The Pretenders
I believe lazy rock critics have over-exaggerated the existence of “sophomore slump” albums, though Pretenders II is a pretty good example of this alleged phenomenon. It isn’t a bad album—certainly not with very good songs like “Message of Love”, “Talk of the Town”, and “Pack It Up” in the grooves—but it too often plays like a lesser version of the band’s first album (they even cover another Ray Davies song, though Chrissie Hynde’s relationship with him probably accounts for that). Then came two tremendous shakeups: guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and bassist Pete Farndon both died of over doses. Hynde and drummer Martin Chambers took two years to mourn and rebuild their band. The title of Learning to Crawl implies they needed to learn how to be a band again, and this exuberant album does sound like it could have been another group’s debut. Instead of letting these tragedies turn her bitter or dour, Hynde sounds as if she has embraced life anew, even when dealing with Honeyman-Scott’s death on the breezy and lovely “Back on the Chain Gang” or surveying disturbingly changed landscapes on “Time the Avenger” and “My City Was Gone”. On that track, new bassist Malcolm Foster makes his presence felt by contributing The Pretenders’ best bass line since “Mystery Achievement”. The real star of Learning to Crawl remains Hynde, whose songwriting has matured richly on “Chain Gang”, “Time the Avenger”, the heavenly “Show Me”, and the modern holiday standard “2000 Miles”. On dynamite like “Middle of the Road” and “Watching the Clothes”, the new Pretenders prove they can rock just as hard as the old one.
7. World Shut Your Mouth by Julian Cope
As a member of The Teardrop Explodes, Julian Cope was an important mover and shaker in the new psychedelic scene (had his band hailed from L.A. instead of Liverpool, they surely would have gotten boxed into the Paisley Underground). A cocktail of drugs and aggression exploded the group before they could make a third LP, and Cope was running off to a wonderland of his very own. His was no hippy-dippy nursery of tangerine trees and plasticine porters though, which you could probably tell from his debut’s title. Not that this record is a flood of negativity; the exclamation “world shut your mouth” is actually voiced by a convention-dodging woman. “Sunshine Playroom” soothes the terror of fleeing the nest with the joyous discovery of oral sex. “Pussyface” is not an insult but a weird term of affection for another thrilling lady. Although that song was actually intended for The Teardrop Explodes, it fits perfectly with the free-spirited yet totally fucking crazy vibe of World Shut Your Mouth. So does the music, which is both lovingly evocative of the sixties pop Cope adores (and not just psychedelia; the title track is like Bizarro World Motown) without being self-consciously retro, as the pounding, totally modern “Kolly Kibber’s Birthday” makes clear.
6. Let It Be by The Replacements
The Replacements started diverging from their patented sloppy hardcore on Hootenanny. Let It Be diluted their punk past even further with its pianos, acoustic guitars, and mandolins. The slop remained in full effect. This record makes Keith Richards seem as polished as Jeff Lynne and Dee Dee Ramone as sweet-voiced as Joni Mitchell. Chris Mars’s drumming is more all over the beat than behind it. Paul Westerberg and Bob Stinson’s guitars flap around like flags in a hurricane. Westerberg sounds like he might puke mid-song on basically every song. Awesome, but we already knew that about the ’Mats. The revelation is Westerberg’s songwriting. The effervescent “I Will Dare” and the gut-shredding “Unsatisfied” are straight-up, no-shit, motherfucking Rock & Roll classics from a time when this kind of stuff barely existed anymore (you sure couldn’t find anything this real on any contemporary Stones record). If Let It Be was nothing but a single with those two songs on either side, it would still be one of the great albums. But it isn’t, and the stuttering speed boogie “Favorite Thing”, the insane-punk-morphs-into-barroom-blues “We’re Comin’ Out”, the hilarious “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” and “Gary’s Got a Boner”, the uplifting “Androgynous”, and the profoundly simple/simply profound “Answering Machine” are not-too-shabby even though they’re all totally shabby.
5. Ocean Rain by Echo & the Bunnymen
Grand imagery and weirdness gets swept up in the grand vision of Echo & the Bunnymen’s fourth album. Ocean Rain conjures images of bracing storms and vast seas: a sort of new wave Salty Dog. The Bunnymen’s masterpiece is also similar to Procol Harum’s in its use of elaborate orchestrations. A 35-piece ensemble swoops over the jangling “Silver”, chugs military style behind the shivering “Nocturnal Me”, plucks icily across the divine “Killing Moon”, discharges discordant lightning bolts on “Thorn of Crowns”. This is some of the most committed and original use of strings on a Rock record, but we should not let them overwhelm the discussion just as they do not overwhelm an extraordinary collection of songs. Buoys poppy, brooding, psychedelic, sweet, folky, and waltzing bob on these dark waters. Despite the elegance of the arrangements, this is very much a Rock & Roll record. Check out the psycho-Diddley raver “Thorn of Crowns”, which makes crazier use of vegetable imagery than Syd Barrett’s “Vegetable Man”. Some critics didn’t quite cotton to this sumptuous union of Rock and classical instrumentation, but critics have been known to get it really, really wrong.
4. Reckoning by R.E.M.
Remember what I said above about sophomore slumps being bullshit? Yeah, well here’s one exhibit that supports my theory. Reckoning is R.E.M.’s sophomore album and it might also be their best one. Murmur was terrific, but some of the songwriting was slightly unformed. Not so with Reckoning on which all ten tracks are simply spectacular even as they all refuse to draw attention to themselves. R.E.M. was never really an innovative band, and Reckoning isn’t either. Peter Buck’s jangle still owes everything to The Byrds. Mike Mills and Bill Berry still don’t do anything that Tom Petty’s rhythm section wouldn’t. Michael Stipe is still mumbling surrealist imagery that could have been devised by Leonard Cohen (or Edward Lear on an unusually dour day). Yet there is indefinable magic in “7 Chinese Bros.” and “Time After Time”, incomparable gravitas in “So. Central Rain” and “Camera”, unparalleled energy in “Pretty Persuasion” and “Harborcoat” and “Second Guessing” and “Little America”. As is true of all the best basic Rock & Roll bands, the ingredients of R.E.M. are all familiar but they blend together in an instantly identifiable and totally unique brew. Reckoning is one intoxicating potion.
3. Hyaena by Siouxsie and the Banshees
Siouxsie and the Banshees hit a creative pinnacle with 1982’s A Kiss in the Dreamhouse. That inspiration was still in full effect when Hyaena arrived a year and a half later. These two albums may be the most perfect of the Banshees’ career, though Hyaena is more of a challenge than Dreamhouse, which kept things very accessible across nine delectably compact songs. “Blow the House Down”, the violent epic that closes Hyaena, is as hard on the ears as anything on The Scream and Join Hands. It’s the last time the Banshees would really do that sort of thing though. The rest of the album is more pop, even as its icy sheen doesn’t make most of the cuts that much cuddlier than “Blow the House Down”. Siouxsie and the guys sure aren’t going soft on the jittery “We Hunger”, the spaghetti-western “Bring Me the Head of the Preacher Man”, or “Running Town”, which rocks out to a tortured guitar riff. Yet there are glimmers of light reflecting off the glacier with the elegant “Take Me Back” and the utterly irresistible “Belladonna”, which should have been a gargantuan hit single. The two singles that were may be the Banshees’ most enchanting: “Dazzle”, with its Walt Disney orchestrations and unstoppable beat, and the spooky, surrealist, erotic metaphor “Swimming Horses”. Trippy and frosty as a spiked sno-cone, Hyaena would make great listening for the next time you find yourself in the Arctic with nothing but a tab of acid.
2. The Smiths by The Smiths
There is no doubt that the most momentous debut of 1984 was that of four Manchester boys with a slanted reverence for pop’s past and a total commitment to irreverence. The Rolling Stones and Motown-worshipping Johnny Marr best represents the former with his guitar work like sheets of falling rain. Pompadoured Steve Morrissey embodies the latter with his songs celebrating apathy and taking advantage of the dole, lamenting how love and beauty lead to death, or whispering nightmarish tales of child murdering and child molesting. There is so much cynicism, so much darkness, so much evil in Morrissey’s words that a lot of critics and fans miss the humor. Call him the Pope of Mope if you absolutely must (you don’t), but Steve Morrissey is a damn funny guy too. How many pop songs have lines funnier than “Hand in glove, the sun shines out of our behinds”? And for those who find his delivery monotonous, consult his insane whoops on “Miserable Lie”. Anyone who thinks The Smiths can’t rock unbelievably hard should hear that song too. Yet, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit the dominant allure of the band’s first and finest album is its strangely antiquated exquisiteness, the gentle beauty of its shimmering guitars and pianos and mournful vocals and how they offset the uncomfortable empathy Morrissey plugs into his tales of sex, violence, gleeful indolence, and shiny behinds. He may be a misanthrope but you can’t say he’s judgmental…well, at least not on The Smiths, a delicate work of art that sacrifices none of what makes Rock & Roll vital and electrifying.
1. Purple Rain by Prince and the Revolution
Everyone likes to rhapsodize about how Michael Jackson was the only male all-around entertainer who mattered in the eighties, but in 1984, no motherfucker could touch Prince. The cat could sing like he had a built-in pitch wheel, play guitar that would give Hendrix the heebie jeebies, and dance like James Brown and Plastic Man’s illegitimate baby. That year he even starred in his own movie, though the goofy, melodramatic, and disgustingly misogynistic Purple Rain was no Hard Day’s Night. However, it came to life every single time Prince and the Revolution put down their screenplays to perform the most jaw-dropping, ass-wiggling, gut-punching, groin-thumping popsoulrockelectropsychedelicfunk ever made. The movie may be stupid, but the soundtrack is all mind-blowing all the time. Prince ships us to the top floor of Rock & Roll heaven with “Let’s Go Crazy”, straps us to the back of his Princemobile for a pastoral ride with “Take Me with U”, puts our hearts through a paper shredder as he screams psycho-murder on “The Beautiful Ones”, bends our brains with “Computer Blue”, gives us a bunch of one-way tickets to erotic city with “Darling Nikki” and a guided tour of his familial pains with “When Doves Cry”, drops us to the stage boards with “I Would Die 4 U”, picks us back up again with “Baby I’m a Star”, and blows us away once and for all with the extravagant epic title track of his masterpiece. Purple Rain is one of the most perfectly conceived and executed albums ever made and that rare album that was both the biggest and the best of its year.