The dire direction the most popular pop took in 1984 continued to meander the following year. At least the biggest smash of ’84 was the genuinely great “When Doves Cry”. The most popular record of ’85? “Careless Whisper”. As is evidenced on that schlocker, the saxophone threatened to displace the guitar as pop’s key tool, and more often than not, the guitars of ’85 sounded more like over processed synthesizers than guitars. More often than not, the over processed synthesizers sounded like shit. Harrumph, harrumph.
Wait. No. On second thought, scratch that. 1985 was a great year for music, because there actually were some organic and exciting examples of record making that year—and believe or not—everything with a synth or sax wasn’t a wash out either. In fact, I was quite surprised to find that the deeper I searched through the year’s detritus, the more truly excellent albums I uncovered. I even found myself with enough worthy ones that I wrestled (well, maybe that’s too strong a word. Perhaps “thumb wrestled” is more apt) with which to cut. You’ll find five of those after the following ten great discs.
10. Songs from the Big Chair by Tears for Fears
Like Synchronicity, 1984, and Purple Rain, Songs from the Big Chair was a hit-laden mid-eighties chart gobbler. Unlike The Police, Van Halen, and Prince, Tears for Fears did not make their defining statement well into their career. In fact, Big Chair was only their second album. That is an impressive achievement considering that the clanging “Shout”, wistful “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”, and woozily romantic “Head over Heels” are three of the very, very best mid-eighties hits (the more dated but more danceable “Mothers Talk” is really good too). The album’s less-familiar tracks aren’t as stunning. “The Working Hour” is a good song but it overindulges in’85’s signature farty sax work, and “Broken” is straight-up filler, fusing the big drum sounds of “Mothers Talk” with snippets of melody and lyric that would be used to much better effect in “Head over Heels”. However, “I Believe” (later re-recorded and released as a single in the UK) is a pretty cocktail jazz torch song and the concluding minimalist synth epic “Listen” is haunting and strange, drawing out the experimentalism crawling beneath Big Chair’s surface that makes it such a fascinating listen.
9. Psychocandy by The Jesus & Mary Chain
No twentieth-century pop era is as negatively defined by its production trends as the mid-eighties. On their debut, The Jesus & Mary Chain blow-torched through all those saxes, drum machines, and Casio keyboards by shotgun marrying two of the sixties’ coolest artists. From The Velvet Underground comes flaming onslaughts of feedback; from Phil Spector comes retro teen-pop hookiness and puppy lovesickness (not to mention a couple of nods to Hal Blaine’s “Be My Baby” intro). Psychocandy is not a mere conglomeration of cool poses. It may take a few listens to suss it out, but underneath all that grimy guitar noise are some really good songs. “Just Like Honey” can go toe-to-toe with Greenwich and Barry’s greatest hits. There is jangly beauty within the rusty outer shell of “The Hardest Walk”. Toss “Never Understand” in the dishwasher and it will come back out as one of Mike Love and Brian Wilson’s best early collaborations. “Cut Dead” is straight up beautiful. The album’s chainsaw aesthetic might leave you with a severe migraine by the time you get to “Inside Me”, but I’m not sure Jesus & Mary Chain would consider that to be a bad thing.
8. Night Time by Killing Joke
Rarely has an album been so brooding and so exhilarating in such equal proportion as Night Time. Killing Joke continue zooming away from their original aggression to make a record that is very dark and very danceable, fueled by drummer Paul Ferguson’s racing tempos, guitarist Geordie Walker’s swooping shadows, and bassist Paul Raven’s funky grind. Even slower pieces like the UK hit “Love Like Blood” and “Multitudes” sport propulsive pulses, so the entire album feels like a 3 AM highway drag with the headlights off. Behind the wheel, Jaz Coleman keeps tight control of his croon, neither spilling into the terrifying insanity of his early work nor letting up on the anguish. Night Time attracted a tad of infamy amid accusations that Nirvana ripped off the riff of the infectious “Eighties” for their own huge hit “Come As You Are” (ironically, one might also accuse Killing Joke of pinching their song’s riff from The Damned’s “Life Goes On”), but the album is too good to reduce to a footnote in the tale of a better known band. I’m sorry I even mentiond it.
7. Suzanne Vega by Suzanne Vega
Suzanne Vega seems forever painted as a bookish NYC folky, but she’s always shared too much of Bowie’s restless image metamorphosing for that stereotype to hold true. Really, her only album that suits it is her first, and even here it’s a bit reductive. Maybe no one is going to mistake “Neighborhood Girls” for Joan Jett’s latest, but it qualifies as Rock & Roll in my book, Vega curling her lips around its streetwise lyric with the cool sexiness that makes even her most restrained work electrifying. That coolness registers on the thermometer too. Suzanne Vega is a really wintery album, “Cracking” and “Freeze Tag” whipping up images of snow-blocked city blocks and January’s abandoned playgrounds. Joe Gordon’s shudders of electric guitar on “Small Blue Thing” are icicles crystallizing around the edges of the track. Such musicianship is fine throughout the album, yet Suzanne Vega is more of a vehicle for Vega’s impressionistic lyricism than anything else. Producers Lenny Kaye and Steve Addabbo keep the arrangements watercolor thin, which contributes to the record’s folkiness. On subsequent LPs, Vega would plunge into more radical arrangements, experimenting with synthy landscapes and industrials beats with thrilling success. Suzanne Vega is very low key in comparison, but it is a fine debut from one of the best and most underappreciated artists of her generation.
6. Tim by The Replacements
The Replacements see sawed between hardcore hysteria and Stonesy shamble-rock on Let It Be. Their next record found the band’s punk past mostly purged and the shambling grooves filtered through pretty slick eighties production (courtesy of Tommy Ramone of all people). But you just can’t clean these boys up too much. The ‘Mats fight through Tommy’s overly compressed sounds with what may be the most consistent run of songs they ever dumped onto a single platter. Perhaps there isn’t anything as powerful as “Unsatisfied” or as beautiful as “I Will Dare”, but there are no KISS covers or “Gary’s Got a Boner”-style goofs either. There’s just a barrage of great pop pieces puked up from the most unabashed romantic on the barroom floor. “Hold My Life”, “I’ll Buy”, “Swingin’ Party”, and “Kiss Me on the Bus” will weaken the knees of the toughest little savage. “Left of the Dial” and “Bastards of Young” are outstanding outsider anthems, while “Dose of Thunder” proves the guys could still rage and “Waitress in the Sky” proves they could still talk shit without sacrificing their new fulltime commitment to classic pop melodiousness.
5. The Head on the Door by The Cure
The Top was a transitional album that found The Cure caught between their doomiest and most delicious impulses. The Head on the Door sees them coming through the other end of the portal and clutching their best record yet. With the exception of the darkly alluring “Kyoto Song” and “Sinking”, Robert Smith leaves his angst on the lyric sheet, allowing the band to whip up a string of tracks that at least sound jolly. “In Between Days” is the long overdue resurrection of “Boys Don’t Cry”-style rush, and its successful revival would make this kind of track an essential component of many more Cure albums to come. “The Blood”, “The Baby Screams”, and the fuzz-bass frothing “Screw” were made to get asses on the floor at the local Goth club. The album’s twin masterpieces are its twin centerpieces: the clap-happy “Close to Me” (though I personally prefer the horn embellished single mix) and the roiling “A Night Like This” (a rare 1985 sax song that doesn’t totally abuse the instrument). As great as The Head on the Door is, this was actually just the beginning of a stellar new phase of The Cure’s career. Their greatest work was coming soon.
4. Meat Is Murder by The Smiths
Rough Trade felt it necessary to fill time with the first of many Smiths compilations as the band worked on their second proper record. Fortunately for fans, Hatful of Hollow was a smashing collection of singles and BBC cuts that was surely exchanged amongst many Anorak wearers on Christmas 1984. Meat Is Murder isn’t as immediately satisfying as that comp or The Smith’s magnificent eponymous debut. “I Want the One I Can’t Have” and “Nowhere Fast” are a touch generic, and as much as I respect the message of the title track, its lugubrious non-melody, endlessness, and over-the-top slaughterhouse sound effects make it go down uneasily. The rest of the record has all the strength, variety, and glistening atmosphere that make all Smiths records great. Morrissey’s fanged humor and Marr’s rainy strumming drive “The Headmaster Ritual”, an instant classic, while touches of Presley (“Rusholme Ruffians”), noise rock (“What She Said”), and funk (“Barbarism Begins at Home”) open up The Smiths sounds with exciting results. The unlikely single “That Joke Isn’t Funny Any More” might be the most dramatic, gorgeous, and genuinely moving thing they ever recorded. In the U.S., the addition of another towering single, “How Soon Is Now?”, added additional substance, and had it been the band’s intention to include it, I probably would have moved Meat Is Murder a couple of notches up this list.
3. Fables of the Reconstruction/Reconstruction of the Fables by R.E.M.
R.E.M. debuted with their two best albums, so it’s easy—and not uncommon— to view their third as a disappointment (the Trouser Press Record Guide wrote off Fables of the Reconstruction or Reconstruction of the Fables as “colorless and dull” and the band’s own Bill Berry allegedly once said it “sucked”). Plus its moodiness is easy to mistake for fatigue. Hell, the guys couldn’t even be bothered to settle on a title! For those who stumbled on the grouchy press before the music, Fables of the Reconstruction (really the better title) should come as a delightful surprise. Well, maybe delightful is not the right word, as this is a pretty dark album, hooking into the somber mood of “Perfect Circle” and dragging it across most of an entire LP. There are exceptions (the peppy pop-funk classic “Can’t Get There From Here”; the bracing “Life and How to Live It”; brooding yet up-tempo pieces like “Driver 8” and “Auctioneer”), but even if there weren’t, R.E.M. always did moody brilliantly. Fables shows off some of their most mesmerizing glum moods: “Maps and Legends”, the gorgeous labor lament “Green Grow the Rushes”, of “Feeling Gravity’s Pull”, “Old Man Kinsey”. That latter two cuts find Peter Buck experimenting with dissonant riffs that put paid to Trouser Press’ allegation of colorlessness. Fables of the Reconstruction may not be as immediate as Murmur or Reckoning, but allowing it to grow on you reaps long-term rewards.
2. Some People Are on the Pitch They Think It’s All Over It Is Now by The Dentists
Had The Dentists hailed from L.A. they surely would have been lumped in with the Paisley Underground scene. The ghosts of American West Coasters like Love, The Beau Brummels, and The Byrds haunt their retro-jangle psych, though their own countryman Syd Barrett is sneaking in the briars too (and on the amazing title track of their inaugural E.P., Strawberries Are Growing in My Garden [And It’s Wintertime], so are The Beatles). With a completely organic sound alien to the year it was made, Some People are on the Pitch They Think It’s All Over It Is Now may as well have been time-machined from 1966 to 1985. Sincerely great songs and a refusal to indulge in Naz Nomad or Dukes of Stratosphear-type masquerading prevent The Dentists’ debut from sounding parodic or absurdly indebted to past heroes. These guys pitch perfectly conceived blazers (“Tony Bastable v. John Noakes”, “I Had an Excellent Dream”, and “Back to the Grave”), ballads (“Mary Won’t You Come Out and Play”, “Kinder Still”) and eerily biting mood pieces (“Flowers Around Me”, “I’m Not the Devil”, “You Make Me Say It Somehow”) that would bewitch in any era.
1. Hounds of Love by Kate Bush
As we’ve seen, there were some great albums in 1985. There was only one true work of genius. Kate Bush had been a singular artist from the very start, but she only fully fulfilled her potential when she took complete command of her music with 1982’s The Dreaming. On Hounds of Love she commanded the greatest bundle of songs she ever composed, assembling them with intricate care and staggering vision. Side A plays like a mini-greatest hits comp as classic singles leap for attention like puppies. How the hell can anyone choose just one to take home? The throbbing “Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God)”? The irresistible title track? I’d probably choose “The Big Sky”, a track as expansive and overwhelming as its title, but then I’d have to leave behind the chilling “Mother Stands for Comfort” and the elegant “Cloudbusting”, and I’m simply not prepared to do that. On Side B, Bush eliminates any such choices by building a mini-concept, each track an essential yet individual brick in its structure. It’s a tale of someone adrift at sea, staying alive by poring over the events of her life. Like any pop concept worth hearing, “The Ninth Wave” consists of songs that stand on their own perfectly, and each one expands beyond the grandiosity of Side A to soothe (“And Dream of Sheep”), chill (“Under Ice”, “Watching You Watch Me”), terrify (“Waking the Witch”), invigorate (“Jig of Life”), spellbind (“Hello Earth”), and console (“The Morning Fog”). Bush plays mad scientist, electronically manipulating “Waking the Witch” and “Watching You Watch Me” to unsettling effect. Traditional Irish instrumentation animates “Jig of Life”. However, the album’s most extraordinary instrument is its mistress’ voice, which Bush layers all over her masterpiece with abandon. She abandons herself completely on “The Big Sky”, her shrieks easily ranking alongside such scream-sterpieces as Daltrey’s on “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and Lennon’s on “Mother”. My spine vibrates just thinking about it!
5 More Strong Albums from ’85
Around the World in a Day by Prince and the Revolution
Brothers in Arms by Dire Straits
Phantasmagoria by The Damned
Rain Dogs by Tom Waits
White City: A Novel by Pete Townshend