The Best Albums of 1985
With the new year upon us, we here at Le Blog have been putting a little attention on looking back 30 years at the pop culture of 1985. As the resident music enthusiast, I’ve decided to write a quick opinion piece naming my favorite albums of that year. I was 15 years old at the time, so my options were pretty limited then, and only a couple of these are records I was familiar with soon after their release. Most of the popular top 40 type music of the mid 80s was frothy fun and if you look at the top-selling singles of the year you’ll find undeniable pop gems like George Michael’s “Careless Whisper,” A-ha’s “Take on Me,” and Pat Benatar’s “We Belong.” USA for Africa’s “We are the World” was one of the most played tunes and included a huge contingent of what were current stars. It’s not a particular favorite of mine, but it seemed like an appropriate top image for this article. There is plenty of popular music from 1985 that I have warm feelings for despite its general glossy sheen, however. While some of my all-time favorite albums show up the next year, there was also a general turn toward a more shallow kind of dance pop and the dreaded hair metal groups. That leaves 1985 as a sort of last stand of mainstream music appealing to me.
5. “Dare to be Stupid” Weird Al Yankovic
It can sometimes be accurate to call me a bit of a music snob. I have open disdain for many artists and entertainments that are widely popular. But I’m also a huge goofball, so it should come as no surprise that Weird Al has appealed to me since he first hit it big with “Eat It.” That recording made Al popular enough that he had lots of support for his follow-up record “Dare to be Stupid.” Although it was not the runaway hit that “Eat It” and the album it had appeared on were, Al’s third full-length record is arguably his best. The title song is not a direct spoof of a specific Devo song, but lampoons the group’s overall sound and aesthetic brilliantly, along with providing some very 1985 imagery in the video. At the same time, it also satirizes the popular motivational movement of the time and offers up absurdist notions at a break-neck pace. Along with this inspired bit of insanity, Al gave us enduring spoofs of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” as a very bad doctor in “Like a Surgeon” and the wonderful one-two punch of the Kinks/Star Wars satire “Yoda.” Al’s jokes can be a little gentle at times, but when he takes aim at Lucas (as he would many years later with “The Saga Begins”) his wit is just sharp enough to draw a little blood. In fact, Al is in pure sadist mode on the doo-wop break-up song “One More Minute,” in which he declares the vast array of awful things he’d rather experience over continuing a bad relationship. Other silly notes include a cover of the George of the Jungle theme song, an original tune about a violent alien invasion, and his standard accordion-tinged mixup of popular songs, “Hooked on Polkas.” If you’re a fan of Yankovic in general “Dare to be Stupid” is about as indicative of his charms as you’ll find.
4. “Fables of the Reconstruction” R.E.M.
By 1985, R.E.M. was already a well-established act with the underground and college music scene, but they were still largely unknown in the mainstream even though they had opened up for The Police a couple of years earlier. Despite recording the album in England, Fables of the Reconstruction is even more evocative of the mysterious rural American South than their two previous full-length efforts. The darker sound and change of producers mark this as a transitional record for the band, with a grand leap into a heavier electrified sound in their next release that would last through their next three. A suggestion of this can be heard in the opening track “Feeling Gravity’s Pull,” which seethes and strains under the aggressively jagged stabs of Peter Buck’s guitar, and the resulting tension makes it one of R.E.M.’s very best songs. The more tuneful “Can’t Get There From Here” and “Driver 8” grabbed some limited radio and MTV airplay and remain popular starter tracks for introducing the band to friends. Listening back to Fables of the Reconstruction now offers increased rewards, but also makes the group’s eventual rise to stardom seem particularly unlikely. When their single for “The One I Love” hit the top 40 in 1987 it sure seemed like a fluke based on the rest of their output. We couldn’t have been expected to predict “Shiny Happy People.”
3. “Songs From the Big Chair” Tears For Fears
This is perhaps the most 1985 album in the history of 1985 albums. But it’s also got a vitality and muscle to it that most similar recordings sorely lack. On one level, you could call the big-synths-big-drums-and-saxophone instrumentation the epitome of cheap Reagan era movie background music, but on another level, you’d have to admit that somebody must have done it really well for it to get that popular. Well at least one group did, and they were named Tears For Fears. The fact that Songs From the Big Chair is stacked with three big radio hits (“Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” “Shout,” and “Head Over Heels”) does nothing to damage the overall flow and dramatic tension of the album as a whole, as each track contributes substantially to a front-to-back listen. Having felt assaulted by the music press on their first release, band mates Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith set out to create a bully pulpit for themselves with its follow-up which would leave little chance of being misunderstood. They named the resulting album after a plot point in Sybil, in which an abused woman with multiple personalities is only comfortable speaking as herself in her therapist’s large chair. Tears For Fears never really capitalized on the huge success of 1985, waiting four years before releasing a follow-up and then splitting soon after. “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” has been banned here and there due to its subject matter, including by the U.S. military during 2001 operations. Nobody saw fit to ban the tiresomely dour and lousy cover Lorde did of the song for one of the Hunger Games movies, though.
2. “Head on the Door” the Cure
You know that album that comes before the big commercial breakout? The one that establishes all of the approaches and territory that would come to define the group for years to come? You know, the album that is actually better than any of the platinum sellers that follow? “Head on the Door” is that album for British gloom pop outfit The Cure. While there had been hints of a tin pan pixie in Robert Smith and company’s previous recordings, this is the album when that promise leapt forth in full flower. The fact that they pulled it off without alienating their established fans is pretty impressive. The singles “Inbetween Days” and “Close to Me” were practically danceable, while still maintaining the quirky outsider’s stance that was so much a part of the Cure’s stock in trade. With those songs getting modest airplay and their fascinating videos appearing on MTV and in clubs, the remaining tracks manage to continue the spell by poking and prancing on the edges of a myriad of styles and sounds while retaining a cohesive whole and making the album both deeply stimulating and wildly entertaining. The carnal bass of “Screw,” the hair-raising flamenco of “The Blood,” and the tuneful droning landscape of “A Night Like This” somehow manage to co-habitate in a way that only a variety of freaks can. As a result, “Head on the Door” went top 10 in the UK, France, and Australia and made the top 100 in the U.S. for the first time in the band’s career. Within two years they’d have a top 40 hit in the states (“Just Like Heaven”) and within four they’d be in the U.S. top 10 (“lovesong”) and be headlining stadium tours. All of this success and each record managed to be wonderful for quite some time, but none ever reached the satisfying listenability of “Head on the Door.”
1. “Rain Dogs” Tom Waits
Tom Waits is a genius and “Rain Dogs” is his masterpiece. Staggering out of Los Angeles in the early 1970s with a uniquely idiosyncratic style and a haggard voice soaked in bourbon and nicotine, Waits appeared to be doing something unlike anyone else around. His songs were equal parts sentimental and sadistic, peans by the hard-bitten figures that populate a dramatized version of California with more in common with a particularly grimy noir film than the flower child flock or laid back cocaine cowboys depicted by more successful acts. After a decade of Hoagy Carmichael by way of Charles Bukowski piano and strings recordings, Waits began developing a new approach that would trade on his established persona while integrating a wild junkyard instrumentation and amping up the traces of Captain Beefheart that could be detected. A transitory album featuring electric guitars, “Heart Attack and Vine” led to what looked to be his big new statement, “Swordfishtrombones,” but even that impressive accomplishment would stand second to the stunning expansion of the Tom Waits world found in “Rain Dogs.” The mix of stylistic leaps, angular guitar work by the great Marc Ribot, (who was told to “Play it like a midget’s bar mitzvah”), unique organic studio approaches to getting the desired sounds, and a set of amazing tunes and lyrics produced an enveloping universe that the listener becomes a character in, setting sail for Singapore with a gang of fascinating but unsettling sacks of humanity. Additional guest work by a cascade of talents including Keith Richards, John Lurie, G.E. Smith, and Robert Quine keeps a shabby chic continuity and dig its own grave in your brain. Most famously, the gorgeous driving ballad “Downtown Train” was covered by Rod Stewart a few years later, that took the “Hot Legs” singer to #3 on the U.S. Billboard singles chart. If you prefer the Stewart version to the original you should feel bad about yourself. After all, the Tom Waits recording is from the best album of 1985. One of the best albums in my whole collection.