1984 in Music

Music reviews I’ve written for music released in 1984.

1. Run-D.M.C. (10/10)

I have no idea, but I think this might be one of the most important records of the entire decade. Read the review of Run-D.M.C.’s debut album.

2. Husker Du: Zen Arcade (10/10)

Another classic, do-everything double album in the tradition of do-everything double-albums.

3. Violent Femmes: Hallowed Ground (9/10)

I was a toddler when this record came out so I have trouble imagining the giant left turn this felt like to fans, both because I wasn’t old enough to pay attention and because this record sounds so much in the Femmes’ wheelhouse that it’s hard to understand people didn’t like it. It’s my favourite record of theirs – so much show I used to give it perfect marks- and so I just marvel at the fact that songs about Christianity could have seemed so awful and offensive, especially given the long tradition Gano was writing in. (I get that it was a left turn for a punk band, but it’s also a very punk thing to do. Fans can’t have it both ways.)

Most of Gano’s songs here are in the finest gospel/Christian songwriting tradition. It’s remarkable that he wrote these in high school as they sound like the work of someone who has been alive forever. (That being said, he parrots a lot from older songs, which makes sense but also makes the songs sound older.) We’ve gone from a teenager’s view of sex and adulthood to a teenager’s view of god and religion. And it works just as well as the debut. I’d argue it works better.

The style of the performances and the arrangements are even better than the debut -with more versatility this time out. They once again walk a line of a really ragged, punk sound, with enough musical ability to really be compelling.

My only criticism at this remove is that “Sweet Misery Blues” and “Black Girls” both feel like they belong on the first record, at least lyrically speaking, and so undermine the concept of the record.

Still, this is one of the great roots rock records of the 1980s and one of the great “roots punk” or “punk roots” records ever.

4. R.E.M.: Reckoning (9/10)

This was the first ’80s REM record I think I ever heard, certainly it was the first of their records I heard from when before Stipe learned to sing. I might have heard Eponymous before it, so I technically heard “Chronic Town” first, but in terms of LPs, it was this one. So this one is the one I like the most.

I’ve heard it so many times, it’s really, really hard to be objective about it. But I think it’s a little more self-assured and a little more diverse than Murmur. It’s also less mysterious, but that’s the trade off you get when you get better (and make a better sounding record).

I could basically listen to every record of theirs from “Chronic Town” to Document over and over and over again, so I’m not sure I have anything to say that could convince anyone who doesn’t think much of REM to check this one out, but it’s probably their most accessible of their early records, while still containing everything about the band that made them special.

I love it. I cannot be objective.

5. This is Spinal Tap (9/10)

I love this record and know all the words to all the songs that were actually in the film. My favourite is probably “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight,” which contains my favourite lines but also has my favourite title, one of the all time best mocking song titles in the English language.

But I must say that the impact of this album is not the same as the movie. The movie is the complete experience and the album doesn’t capture everything that the movie does.

Also, this album is lacking a couple tracks, none more important than “Jazz Odyssey” (which may not have actually been written beyond a few bars when this album was recorded), which I would just really like to hear in its entirety.

This is one of the great comedy rock albums of all time but it could be more complete and it just doesn’t quite measure up to the movie. It’s much better to see the movie first, and then listen to this. If this album could somehow capture the essence of the film, I would give it full marks.

6. Meat Puppets II (9/10)

Don’t let the label “cowpunk” fool you, this is one of the great early alternative rock records. Read the review of Meat Puppets II.

7. Fat Boys (8/10)

Some people think they’re a joke but I certainly don’t. Read the review of the Fat Boys’ debut album.

8. Venom: At War With Satan (8/10)

The beginnings of black metal??? Read the review of At War With Satan.

9. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: From Her to Eternity (8/10)

If you had never heard The Birthday Party before listening to this record (as I hadn’t) I can imagine a world in which this record sounded truly great. I know that because it happened to me, as this was one of my introductions to this band. And placing it into the context of 1984 it manages to sound both unique and distinctly un-1984. But having listened to the Birthday Party a bunch since, I now know that the Bad Seeds didn’t exactly have a unique sound, even if lots of personnel changed from one band to the other.

This record is, if you can believe it, like a kinder, gentler (and more literate!) Birthday Party. The edge has been dulled and it is closer to the some of the traditions the Birthday Party sought to upend.

The record does do a pretty good job of setting up the first half of their career too: the covers in their imitable style plus originals with Cave’s singular fixations plus the Bad Seeds’ (relatively) unique approach to post punk. It’s a sound they’d mostly stick with for the next decade plus, even if they did improve upon it at times.

With time it has grown to be not one of my favourite Bad Seed records, but I still recognize it as important for how it launched their career and distinguished them from the extremely difficult and confrontational band that preceded them. (It is extremely hard to imagine the latter day Bad Seeds evolving out of the Birthday Party with this iteration in between.)

10. Prince: Purple Rain (8/10)

Though I have yet to hear even half of Prince’s discography, I think there’s a case to be made that, melodically speaking at least, this is his best set of songs ever. There’s not a single melody here that isn’t up to the quality of the others, and a few of them are among his very best. Moreover, he’s exercised his duty/ability as an editor and shortened some of these from much longer pieces. (Prince did like to let songs run a long time on some of his records.) In that sense I think you could probably make a case that this is the best Prince album.

But I don’t buy it. As is just about always the case with Prince, the lyrics are all over the place, with one song ostensibly (but obscurely) about one subject opening with a brief skit about a completely different subject, for example.

And though Prince’s abilities as a songwriter, arranger and performer (particularly a guitarist) are all on full display, his range isn’t as much. Because this record is more concise and polished, it lacks some of the ambition and diversity of the records of his I like the most. Though he could sometimes let a song run too long or dump too many ideas on one record, I like it when he does those things. Though this record has more immediate appeal than many for me the rewards are greater with the weirder, crazier records. Those are the records where I really admire him. Here it feels like to me he’s too under control, which is fine. (And it’s still a really strong set of songs.)

Not my favourite but I understand why everyone loves it.

PS: “When Doves Cry” set the blueprint for so much aughts R&B (minus the guitar) that it’s kind of incredible. How many songs from that decade can you name which are just a basic rhythm track, one melody instrument and way too many vocal overdubs?

11. The Replacements: Let it Be (8/10)

This is done so well, I can’t resist it, even though I normally don’t like this kind of thing.

12. Philip Glass: Akhnaten (8/10)

This is a significantly more traditional piece of music than Einstein on the Beach. (I have not heard the second opera in this so-called trilogy.) Not being super familiar with Glass, I’m not sure when this change happened, but this is a lot closer to traditional opera (there is evidence, albeit minor, of a plot) than his first effort. And that’s both a good thing (if you care about such things) and a bad thing (if you enjoyed the more radical approach).

I like this – I am generally very intrigued by works that clearly mix traditions as this does with minimalism and traditional opera – but it’s hardly a landmark. Enjoyable for sure, though.

13. Fred Anderson: The Missing Link [recorded in 1979] (8/10)

Anderson apparently got lots of exposure in the ’60s as part of the AACM but never got an album as leader until this one, and then this wasn’t released for five years. Listening to this music, it’s hard to understand why that was.

Anderson plays relatively straight-forward (and often slower) lines for a “free jazz” saxophonist, and the title appears to allude to the space he seems to have found between traditional blues saxophone and free jazz. Like a number of free players, he seems interested in connecting free with tradition, rather than just trying to explode are traditions.

But the lack of a second horn, and the substitution of a percussionist in place of the trumpet, makes the record sound more radical. It’s an unusual combination that both gives more prominence to Anderson’s role and also forces the bass to play a little more of a melodic role.

It’s good stuff. It’s certainly not as far out as some free, but it’s also “catchier” for lack of a better word, despite the slightly impenetrable rhythms.

It’s really hard to understand why this man was pretty much unknown when he recorded this.

14. Hans Werner Henze: Symphony No. 7 (8/10)

Henze’s first symphony in twenty years, the seventh, is a markedly more traditional piece. (And admittedly so, apparently, as Henze claimed he was trying to write in the tradition of Beethoven.) The work is is very pleasing and, as these things go, is something I enjoy listening to, but I cannot shake the conservativeness of it. Certainly it is more daring than most Neo-Classical / Neo-Romantic works, and it breaks more traditions, but it is, at bottom, a far more conservative piece than what he used to write. And so I struggle with it. But, I cannot deny how compelling it is.

15. The Blue Nile: A Walk Across the Rooftops (8/10)

A refreshingly arty sophisti-pop record. Read the review of A Walk Across the Rooftops.

16. Siouxsie and the Banshees: Hyaena (7/10)

Not my favourite of theirs but good as usual. Read the review of Hyaena.

17. Bruce Springsteen: Born in the U.SA. (7/10)

I think I have to rank this record this high because of the quality of the songs but I don’t want to. Read the review of Born in the U.S.A.

18. Felt: The Splendour of Fear (7/10)

Instrumental jangle pop that’s unique enough to make it interesting. Read the review of The Splendour of Fear.

19. Echo & the Bunnymen: Ocean Rain (7/10)

So they’re a baroque pop band now??? Read the review of Ocean Rain.

20. Talking Heads: Stop Making Sense Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (7/10)

I love the film. I got a copy of it not that long after I saw it – in a theatre! though one with only about 6 people in it – and it’s become one of only a few staple rock concert films I have.

But half the appeal of this movie is that it’s a movie. The Heads’ show is unique and is literally half the fun.

Divorced from the film the performances are alright, but most Heads fans agree that the earlier official live album is better. And I can personally attest that there are better performances available on Youtube.

This is still great stuff, it’s just that the visuals are really key and they’re missing when you just listen to the soundtrack.

Also, somehow listening to “Genius of Love” on its own, without the visuals, makes me dislike the Tom Tom Club even more, if that was possible.

21. Black Flag: My War (7/10)

Two drastic left-turns in one. Read the review of My War.

22. Pretenders: Learning to Crawl (7/10)

Hynde is a good songwriter. Dammit. Read the review of Learning to Crawl.

23. Judas Priest: Defenders of the Faith (7/10)

I like this fine for a Judas Priest record. Read the review of Defenders of the Faith.

24. The Bangles: All Over the Place (7/10)

Pretty good power pop. Read the review of All Over the Place.

25. Warlock: Burning the Witches (7/10)

This might be a landmark. Read the review of Burning the Witches.

26. King Crimson: Three of a Perfect Pair (6/10)

Listening to this record, it’s no wonder they broke up for nearly a decade. I can hear the strain.

On the one hand we have Belew songs, one of which is alright, but most of which are really subpar, and on the other hand we have the improvisations. They are at war. Worse, they are mostly divided by side, so that we start with what feels like a borderline Belew solo album as performed by ’80s King Crimson, followed by what we think Crimson might actually want to sound like.

These competing tendencies were well combined on Discipline and Beat (and when they reunited in the 1990s) but here they don’t work.

My favourite song is literally the joke barbershop quartet bonus track. Everything else feels like a pale imitation of a formerly great band.

That being said: would I rather listen to this than Hair Metal or Synth Pop or the New Romantics or Yacht Rock? You’re damn right I would.

27. The Smiths (6/10)

They are fine. They are not one of the greatest bands of this or any other decade. Read the review of The Smiths’ debut record.

28. Simple Minds: Sparkle in the Rain (6/10)

I cannot get over how much these guys sound like a less good U2. Read the review of Sparkle in the Rain.

29. Lou Reed: New Sensations (6/10)

What’s new about it is Reed’s concessions to ’80s production. Read the review of New Sensations.

30. Orchestral Manouevres in the Dark: Junk Culture (6/10)

I guess it’s relatively interesting for synthpop. Read the review of Junk Culture.

31. Twisted Sister: Stay Hungry (6/10)

“Metal” for teenage boys. Read the review of Stay Hungry.

33. Mauricio Kagel: Der Eid des Hippokrates (5/10)

Der Eid des Hippokrates is one of those piano pieces where the piano is used in unconventional ways. It requires three hands and one of them must be doing that knocking. It’s not something that’s going to stay with me.

32. Scorpions: Love at First Sting (5/10)

Not my thing at all. Read the review of Love at First Sting.

33. Van Halen: 1984 (5/10)

Big, dumb. Read the review of the creatively titled 1984 album.

34. Various Artists: Footloose Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (5/10)

Well, it’s not terrible. And it goes by quickly. Read the review of the soundtrack to Footloose.

35. Tina Turner: Private Dancer (4/10)

I don’t like the covers and I don’t like the production. Read the review of Private Dancer.

Not Ranked: English Baroque Soloists et al.: Solomon by Georg Friedrich Handel (9/10)

Read the review.

Not Ranked: Nigel Kennedy et al: Violin Concerto by Edward Elgar (7/10)

Read the review.

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