Tuesday, October 26, 2010

That Wonderful Year in Music... 1985

The excesses of Reagan-era pop culture hit a high point in 1985. In general, it was a year of songs that were insanely catchly though not very trying on the ol' noggin. New Wave was over, and the more organic college-rock sound of the late '80s was slowly taking form. In the underground, the Bauhaus-inspired "goth" sound of The Cure, The Cult, and The Sisters of Mercy was fleshing out quite well. On the radio, synthesizers were so de rigueur it bordered on cliché; it was becoming harder to find actual instruments behind the domineering vocals and slick production values. Surprisingly, a lot of that pop piffle has aged pretty well, largely because they sound ready-made for karaoke and drunken sing-alongs. Without deviating from the point, 1985 was also a big year for movies (Back to the Future, The Breakfast Club, The Goonies) but that's a blog for another time.


1. Rain Dogs, Tom Waits. If there's an artist that doesn't fit into any of the above categories, that would be Tom Waits. His sudden dabbles into avant-garde --a metamorphosis that began with Swordfishtrombones two years earlier-- hits its highest creative plateau on Waits' ninth album. The selling point is the odd instrumentation; marimbas and accordions are just as cognative to this album as the familiar piano and upright bass. "Downtown Train" is the hit here, so to speak; a ramshackle ballad towards the end of side two, it later became a top 10 hit for Rod Stewart. A cacophonus delight.

2. Tim, The Replacements. Irked by distribution problems on the indie Twin/Tone label, Paul Westerberg et al. jumped to the big leagues --while keeping one foot planted in the woods of Minnesota-- on their best album, Tim. With an expanded budget and very limited meddling from their new label, Sire, and the guidance of Tommy Ramone as producer, The Replacements trade their raw DIY sound for something big and roomy. Westerberg the songwriter was never more confessional than on Tim, as evidenced by "Kiss Me on the Bus" and "Swingin' Party."

3. Hounds of Love, Kate Bush. A highly literate singer-songwriter with a distinctive coloratura soprano voice, Bush spent most of the late '70s and early '80s as Britain's best-kept secret but a mere cult favorite in the states. Hounds was not only her American breakthrough but a career peak of sorts. The video for "Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)" garnered some MTV play, and rightfully so; it was both the obvious single and an excellent gateway to one of her most ambitious, complex efforts on disc.

4. Brothers In Arms, Dire Straits
5. The Head on the Door, The Cure
6. Psychocandy, The Jesus and Mary Chain
7. Fables Of The Reconstruction, R.E.M.
8. Fegmania!, Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians
9. Black Codes (From The Underground), Wynton Marsalis

10. Little Creatures, Talking Heads. Known mostly to fans as "the pop album," David Byrne and the other Heads aim for songcraft here and mostly succeed. Where earlier efforts emphasized improvised melodies and lyrics, the intent here is ear candy. This may sound like the Heads were selling out, catering to an expanding audience and such, but the general creativity of their previous work is still very much intact.

Honorable Mentions: Scarecrow, John Cougar Mellencamp; King of Rock, RUN-DMC; Together, Emily Remler and Larry Coryell; No Jacket Required, Phil Collins; First and Last and Always, The Sisters of Mercy; This Is The Sea, The Waterboys.


"Like A Virgin," Madonna
"Broken Wings," Mr. Mister
"Don't You (Forget About Me)," Simple Minds
"Life in a Northern Town," Dream Academy
"She Sells Sanctuary," The Cult
"Summer of '69," Bryan Adams
"Your Love," The Outfield
"Would I Lie To You?," Eurythmics
"Obsession," Animotion
"Everybody Wants To Rule the World," Tears For Fears

Outstanding Achievement in Awfulness: "We Built This City," Starship. A quarter-century on, it's a wonder why this song even exists, much less became an international #1 hit. It still merits radio play on oldies stations, though no song from '85 was an instant period piece quite like "We Built This City." Everything about the song is either half-hearted or synthetic; the city in particular is vaguely defined (there are equal allusions to LA and San Francisco), anti-commercialism is implied but never practiced, and 46-year-old Grace Slick tries way too hard to sing like a teenage girl. Inexplicably, the song was co-written by Bernie Taupin and Peter Wolf. WTF?


1. "Money For Nothing," Dire Straits. One year before Pixar made their first animated short --and ten years before "Toy Story"-- the bar for computerized animation was set with this groundbreaking video. No wonder it was the first song to ever air on MTV Europe.

2. "Don't Come Around Here No More," Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. Lewis Carroll meets Jean Arp in this surrealist-revisionist take on the Mad Hatter sequence from "Lewis in Wonderland."

3. "Take On Me," A-ha. Animation and live action mesh together seemlessly in this iconic, almost heartbreaking clip.

4. "Bastards of Young," The Replacements. And then, there was the anti-video. For all intents and purposes, this clip is nothing more than a static shot of some guy's stereo system. According to legend, the director was given $1000 to shot this video and only spent $75. Money well spent.

5. "Road To Nowhere," Talking Heads. The album-closer from Little Creatures is a thoughtful rumination on life and death and everything in between, with a kalideoscope of carefully chosen images prancing upon David Byrne's yearning lyrics.

Honorable Mention: "Lonely Ol' Night," John Cougar Mellencamp.
Before I ask for your thoughts, I just want to remind everyone to please vote next Tuesday. Regardless of your political affiliation, America's short-term and long-term future in your hands.


  1. "it was becoming harder to find actual instruments behind the domineering vocals and slick production values." Great statement about the times but can't we say the same is happening now with Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Rihanna? But I don't think this is a bad thing, the music is still fun as long as you are not getting fist bumped by somebody from the jersey shore. Great blog Stu keep writing!

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  3. No Smiths "Meat is Murder"? And REM 7? 4, easy