Thursday, 4 September 2008

[38] Top Albums of 'The Worst Year for Pop', 1985

In a recent article on Peter Brewis' The Week That Was project, in Uncut Magazine, the writer boldly states that 'There's long been a critical consensus that the worst ever year for pop was 1985'. This didn't sit so well in my mind as I read it, and the reasons didn't convince me either ('post-punk fizzed out, indie yet to start shambling, house not yet jacked up'). It is later revealed that this was a lead-in, as with most articles on Brewis (or his brother David, or their Field Music empire), to a one-note, shock-horror tidbit that a great, contemporary band is influenced by (apparently) 'uncool' music. Brewis' reply? '1985? But that was the year Hounds of Love came out!'.

Much has been made of the Brothers Brewis and their love for (again, apparently) 'uncool' music; writers pick up on the influences from Peter Gabriel, Japan and Fleetwood Mac - acts and artists which, in the grand scheme of things, crafted brilliant music. It might reveal the neophilic, or fad-obsessed, nature of the British music press that something out of current fashion is therefore uncool and must-avoid. It is also ignorant and short-sighted. 1985 is home to some of the great albums in English-language pop music history, as well as some which have been unduly overlooked. Here are some of my favourites.


--The Classics--

The Replacements - Tim

I can't help but feel that whoever decided that 1985 was a bad year for music must be ignoring the innovations in the American mid-west. Tim, the Replacements first album after being signed to major label Sire records, was produced by Tommy Ramone. Frontman Paul Westerberg always favoured narratives about layabouts, dropouts or general against-the-grain types. However, with Tim and its predecessor Let It Be had abandoned, The Replacements had abandoned their snotty punk roots for a more classic, if shambling, pop-rock feel. Tim collects a slightly more eclectic set of tunes, including the rock-and-roll shuffle of 'Kiss Me On The Bus', the guitar-and-strings ode to missed-opportunity 'Here Comes a Regular' and 'Left of the Dial', an anthem to college radio as a cultural touchstone.

Husker Du - New Day Rising / Flip Your Wig

Husker Du were a prolific band, releasing 7 LPs worth of music during their 1984-1987 peak. Even though 1984's Zen Arcade is often held up as their masterpiece, their two albums from 1985 are my favourites. These albums show a band pushing the boundaries of the still-nascent genre of hardcore punk, following their muses by adding melody, harmony and expanded arrangements, in turn creating the space for such musical tags as 'grunge' and 'alternative rock'. New Day Rising is a pop-hardcore album, featuring the whimsical epic 'Celebrated Summer', with its ebb-and-flow structure and acoustic refrain, breakneck riff-rocker 'I Apologize', and the piano-driven 'Books About UFOs'. Flip Your Wig, recorded months later on the cusp of a major-label record deal, is a lighter affair. The guitars are given a less-abrasive crunch, and vocals are more-plainly sung. Indeed, 'Green Eyes' is a prototypical alt-lovesong. These albums are littered with tight, impassioned gems.

Jesus and Mary Chain - Psychocandy

Some lads from Scotland marry bubblegum pop song structures to devastating walls of feedback and noise. Little more can be said of this album, as its border-crossing innovation is almost self-evident. The album is a true successor to the Velvet Underground of White Light / White Heat. It also birthed some major alternative pop songs of the 1980s, including 'Some Candy Talking' (on some versions), 'Never Understand', 'You Trip Me Up' and 'Just Like Honey'. Jesus and Mary Chain arguably invented the concept of 'beautiful noise' - an idea that independent music can utilise dissonance and abrasive production techniques to reap ethereal and atmospheric rewards. Feedback was previously a joke (see the still-prevalent reaction to Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music), and this helped kick off the cross-Atlantic dialogue that resulted in landmark works from Dinosaur Jr, Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, Slint - right up until the rise of 'post-rock' in the mid-1990s.

Tom Waits - Rain Dogs

If I am ever asked about my favourite Tom Waits albums, I unfailingly choose an album from the 1970s (Closing Time or Small Change) or the 1990s-2000s (Bone Machine, Alice, Orphans). Rain Dogs rarely gets a look in. However, it is one of his most critically-acclaimed albums (is often the highest-charting, or only Waits album in those 'Top 100' lists). It is certainly a triumph, as his reinvention from 1983's Swordfishtrombones blossoms, and is married to possibly the most genre-bending set of songs he has ever committed to a single record. Boozy-bluesy numbers ('Tango 'til They're Sore', 'Big Black Mariah') rubs shoulders with demented sea-shanties ('Singapore'), otherworldly rock and roll ('Jockey Full of Bourbon', 'Union Square') and doses of pure pop ('Time', 'Downtown Train'). It is a greatly inspired, organic album - full of unique sounds and ballsy instrumentation, anchored by Waits' versatile, yet distinctive voice.

New Order - Low-Life

Even though you will find none of New Order's big hits on Low-Life, it is probably their most cohesive and satisfying album statement (rivalled only by 2001's Get Ready). The album still has its fair share of synth-pop ('The Perfect Kiss', 'Sub-Culture'), but the real surprises of the album are in New Order's expanding ambition. Opener 'Love Vigilantes', with its melodica and acoustic guitar, is one of their most organic pop songs; the stately grace of 'Elegia', an instrumental piece dedicated to Ian Curtis, shows a depth, wisdom and economy rarely replicated across their output; equally, the towering synths that introduce 'Sunrise' erupt into a careening rocker, featuring the most furious guitar performance from Bernard Sumner since Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures.


--The Semi-Classics--

The Smiths - Meat is Murder

Meat Is Murder is the ugly child of The Smiths' otherwise impeccable back-catalogue. It is sandwiched between two of their most unified, pristine albums (1984's The Smiths, and 1986's The Queen Is Dead), as well as the brilliant compilation Hatful of Hollow. This album saw Morrissey/Marr experimenting with different genres and approaches - incorporating funk on 'Barbarism Begins at Home' and politically-explicit grandstanding on the title track. Not everything sticks (they would be more successfully-eclectic on 1987's Strangeways, Here We Come), but the album does feature some of the band's best second-tier tracks, including 'That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore', 'The Headmaster Ritual' and (depending on the release) the classic 'How Soon is Now?'.

The Cult - Love

A wonderful blend of psychedelic, goth, post-punk and flat-out rock and roll. While not a perfect album, this is The Cult's high point, where Duffy's mixture of Echo and the Bunnymen atmosphere and AC/DC riffs were perfectly balanced, and Ian Astbury's Jim-Morrison-gone-shaman act was still attached to great hooks. 'She Sells Sanctuary' is a worthy hit, but is joined by such tracks as 'Revolution', 'Love', 'Nirvana' and 'Rain' as forming a tantalising blueprint for what '80s mainstream rock could have been.

Tears for Fears - Songs From the Big Chair

Tears For Fears, like many British pop acts of the time, have mostly been left to nostalgia and kitsch by the music press. However, their sophisticated approach to the pop song is quite unique. Songs From the Big Chair features some of their biggest hits, such as 'Shout' and 'Everybody Wants To Rule the World'. It also features 'Head Over Heels', featured here as part of a miniature song-suite with the track 'Broken'.

Oingo Boingo - Dead Man's Party

A pure party favourite. Again, Oingo Boingo have mostly been relegated to the nostalgia-file, or as a trivia tidbit as 'What Danny Elfman Did Before He Scored Films'. Nevertheless, Dead Man's Party features some of the best New Wave party-pop tracks. Elfman's powerful, schizophrenic vocals are only part of the constantly shifting, detailed arrangements on this album. Opener 'Just Another Day' is pure anthemic paranoia, and the album's other high points (the perfect Halloween song that is the title track, the ballad 'Stay', or the closer, 'Weird Science') display caffeine-fuelled charisma and inspired musicianship.

The Cure - The Head on the Door

By 1985, The Cure had settled on a winning formula. They had moved from pop-punk (Three Imaginary Boys) to insular depressive post-punk (Pornography) and bizarre drug-haze psychedelia (The Top) to what would soon be called 'Alternative Rock'. The album boasted some of their best (and popular) songs, including 'In Between Days', 'Close to Me' and 'A Night Like This'. However, like this album's successor, Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, the singles outshine the album itself.


--Notables and Honorable Mentions (in 5 words)--

Marillion - Misplaced Childhood (The Best Prog-Pop Album Ever)
Slayer - Hell Awaits (Just Not Reign In Blood)
Felt - Ignite the Seven Cannons (Felt meets Cocteau Twins, inconsistent)
Bob Dylan - Biograph (Hits meet Rarities - Great Compilation)

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