1985 in Music

This page is dedicated to my reviews for music released in 1985.

1. The Pogues: Rum, Sodomy and the Lash (10/10)

Read the review.

1.Tom Waits: Rain Dogs (10/10)

Tom Waits’ second record to fully embrace his new sound is obviously less significant than the first, if only because the first time he did it, he essentially created a new subgenre within Americana that was so unusual it essentially just has to be called ‘Waitsian.’

But I think it’s just as good an album and, whatever it lacks it historical importance compared with Swordfishtrombones it more than makes up with in songs – both some of Waits more distinctive songs and some of his most accessible – and in the performances – both from the man himself, who manages a wide diversity, despite his voice, and particularly from Marc Ribot.

Here is one of America’s best and most distinct songwriters fully in his element. Everything about the album sounds like it belongs, despite a wide variety of sounds. The arrangements conjure a sense of time and place (even if that time and place is, perhaps, imaginary) and most if not all the songs on the record are among his very best.

An absolute classic.

3. Celtic Frost: To Mega Therion (9/10)

I don’t particularly listen to Black Metal or Death Metal. I don’t listen to them because the idea of a band focusing on just one style for album after album bores me. So I can’t really say too much about this and its purported historical importance on both of those sub-genres. Apparently it helped establish Black Metal as a thing. And, according to some, it was also an early Death Metal landmark. I’m not really sure which is more true and, frankly, it’s probably an arbitrary thing.

So all I can comment on is the actual music: for 1985, this is some punishing stuff. It’s clearly moving on from Thrash, though there are obviously some major thrash elements. But that’s not what’s really cool about it. What’s really cool about it is the bravado. The bravado to open a metal album with a French Horn. And to have French Horn parts on various tracks on the album. That plus the occasional bizarre falsetto vocal overdub, establishes this as a brazenly different record than a lot of the other metal being made at the time. And it helps add variation to what is otherwise just a pummeling onslaught of slower thrash.

Probably a classic.

4. Husker Du: New Day Rising (9/10)

Proper review coming later this year, I hope.

5. Oliver Knussen: Higglety Pigglety Pop! (9/10)

This is the kind of “children’s music” more children should be exposed to. This is the kind of music that will offend musical conservatives but will delight (and possibly scare) children because they don’t know any better. Oh to have heard something like this when I was a kid in the 80s. It would have changed my life.

As an opera, I doubt it’s really one of the great ones of its era, but I quite like it; it’s got moments that stick with you despite the relatively radical nature of the music.

Note: I have only ever heard the 1999 revision and I don’t know what changed.

6. The Jesus and Mary Chain: Psychocandy (8/10)

Full disclosure: I do not like Shoegaze. I don’t really get “noise pop” particularly. I don’t know why (but my guess is that it’s too one-dimensional for me). So I guess it should come as no surprise that the band that is probably more responsible for shoegaze than anyone else is not a band I like.

But it’s ridiculous of me to say this is a bad or average record because the particular innovation of The Jesus and Mary Chain (pairing pop melodies with at times abrasive distortion) is somehow unimportant. Because, seriously, there is no shoegaze without this band and this record. And there are probably any number of other indie pop trends that never occur because of this record.

So I must say that, despite my personal lack of interest in this style of music, I recognize this as a bit of a landmark.

7. Gothic Voices: A Feather on the Breath of God (8/10)

This is, by all accounts, the album that started our time’s fascination with early Medieval music. So from that point alone, this is an important release. But as with other Hildegard releases, I don’t know enough about her music to know whether or not these pieces were meant to be sung together. I suspect there’s been a lot more research since and so recordings of this century may be better informed, but whatever.

The music is beautiful and ethereal. Don’t know enough to say much else.

8. Various Artists: Lost in the Stars (8/10)

The way tribute albums should be done. Zorn was definitely paying attention while he participated, as this seems to be the inspiration (or partial inspiration) for his fantastic Great Jewish Music series. Proper review coming later this year.

9. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: The Firstborn is Dead (8/10)

The Bad Seeds’ blues album, which was a big surprise to me. They take both old blues tunes and a not so old country tune (I think it’s country) and turn it into a demented re-imagining of the Blues that sounds much more like the early Bad Seeds – and even, at times, the Birthday Party – than it does the blues being made by most contemporary American artists at the time and, especially, British artists. As noted elsewhere on RYM, this is about as good as foreign approximations of the Blues get, in the ’80s anyway.

If you’ve never heard the early Bad Seeds, this might come as a shock – i.e. if you’re only familiar with their much more accessible later music – but this is probably their most accessible early album (at least that I’ve heard). And it’s thematic and musical consistency makes it a standout, even if Cave hasn’t quite yet developed into the great songwriter he eventually became.

10. Volcano Suns: The Bright Orange Years (8/10)

Like an unholy marriage of the Dream Syndicate and Husker Du, with a touch of Mission of Burma. Pretty fun. Everything great about US alternative rock in the mid-’80s even if it is more than a little derivative.

11. Camper Van Beethoven: Telephone Free Landslide Victory (8/10)

Imagine Kaleidoscope, if they were ’80s college kids (and, so, liked the Velvets), had far more interest in ska, far less interest in learning to play foreign instruments, and with a sense of humour, and you maybe sort of get the idea of these guys.

The instrumentals tackle a variety of styles but many of them have a vaguely ska-ish feel underlying them (sort of like ska world fusion or something). The songs with lyrics are pretty much all parodies of either contemporary music styles, scenes or subcultures but given enough of an ’80s college radio feel that the album still manages to sound roughly coherent.

I love bands like this, but I must say that their lyrics sometimes let me down. I’m sure “Where the Hell is Bill?” was really funny in 1985, but not being familiar with how people dressed on American campuses in 1985 (I was 4) I can’t really laugh. “Ambiguity Song” does not live up to its title. Etc.

My favourite song with lyrics here is probably “Club Med Sucks,” which is still relevant today (am I joking?).

And yes, they do sound like a much kinder version of the Butthole Surfers. Perhaps they influenced them.

12. Philip Glass: “String Quartet No. 3 ‘Mishima'” (8/10)

The ‘Mishima’ quartet may be his most famous (just a guess) because of its inclusion on a soundtrack and also because it is far and away the most obviously Glassian of his quartets up to the time of its composition. As such, what you think of it likely depends on whether or not you like Glass. I think it’s great, though I am inclined to rate the first quartet higher, but I also have become quite the Glass fan recently. It’s as a good place as any to enter into Glass’ oeuvre, as it’s short enough but representative enough to give you an idea of whether or not he’s for you.

13. Minutemen: 3-Way Tie for Last (8/10)

I have come to the Minutemen completely backwards. I have been a fIREHOSE fan for quite some time but am only now getting to the point of listening to these guys and of course I listen to their last album…

Anyway, this is a set of rock songs (and song fragments) that varies from righteous anger about US politics to reflections on the nature of story-telling, with a bunch of covers (from literally all over the place). The music is pretty typical post-hardcore with the kind of silly, mild experimentation that makes so much American ’80s alternative music great.

Though these guys are serious, they’re fun. And they don’t see the boundaries that tradition has erected.

Good stuff.

14. The Replacements: Tim (8/10)

I think when I first heard this record, as with Let it Be, I felt some kind of pressure to like it more than I did. I mean, it’s the Replacements. If there’s one American underground band you’re supposed to like, it’s them.

But I struggle with this record at times, trying to decide whether or not it’s very good, or just good, having abandoned trying to decide that it’s Great.

And the reason I struggle isn’t the band itself. They did a brave thing, after all. At a time when everyone was very much punk, they revived pop rock traditions that were very old fashioned. And they did it better than other bands attempting to do the same thing.

No, my reservations about the Replacements and this record in particular lie with Westerberg. I have encountered many songwriters in my life: some I love, some I don’t mind, some I find overrated, etc. But I don’t think I’ve encountered another songwriter who can make me admire him and get annoyed with him within the same record – within the same song! – as Westerberg. He has these great character sketches, and he is able to capture the confusion of youthful hormones better than most. But then he has some lines that are just awful (like his lines about smoking on an airplane on “Waitress in the Sky.” And yes, sometimes all of these are wrapped up in the same song.

Ah well. It’s still a good record. Just not quite the classic I’ve always wanted it to be.

15. REM: Fables of the Reconstruction of the Fables of the Reconstruction of the Fables of the… (8/10)

REM was the first contemporary band I was ever persuaded to listen to. I can’t remember when I bought this, but it’s been about two decades or so. I don’t know if I can be objective.

This is, in many ways, a transitional album, from their sort of “punk Byrds” Americana mysticism to their later, more polished sound. It’s the first album where more of Stipe’s lyrics are intelligible than not – and, apparently, the first one in which he was actually trying to make lyrical sense, which is a bit of revisionist history, but anyway – and it marks their first use of session musicians (I think). They worked with Joe Boyd, he of the British folk rock revolution of the late ’60s and early ’70s. (I learned something new recently: Joe Boyd is American!) It’s also the only album they recorded outside of the US, even though it is very much about the US. As someone else on RYM noted, there is a definite attempt at creating something akin to the college rock version of Faulkner.

I like pretty much all the songs, but that’s because I’ve known them for 20 years. But regardless of whether or not I can be objective, the idea that this is their worst album – or worst album prior to Berry’s departure – strikes me as kind of insane. I’d much rather listen to something like this that, for all its more professional sound, still retains something of their indecipherability than a couple of their polished later missteps. This still sounds like the band that somehow managed to bridge punk with traditional American music in a way that (at least to my ears) no other band could do. (The rest of them all sound like they are of their time – early REM sometimes strikes me as out of it.) And this is probably the last time they ever sounded like that.

16. The Fall: This Nation’s Saving Grace (8/10)

To this day, this album remains the only Fall album I’ve ever heard. And I never realized that the edition I’m familiar with is an expanded one, so it’s hard for me to really review the original. I am used to almost 1/3 as many more songs, and a slightly different order. Anyway…

This is supposed to be the best Fall album. I have no idea. I do know that I read all the criticism and just sort of accepted that this is near-classic. I used to do that a lot.

But I find that though I appreciate what they are doing – in many ways connecting with pre-punk rock traditions through both the lens of punk and the lens of art rock – this rarely grabs me like it’s supposed to. It’s a record that I can put on and ignore – ignore might be the wrong word. I put it on, I enjoy it, but I never think  “Wow, I want to listen to that over and over” or “Wow, this moment is amazing.” And I don’t really know why I don’t feel that way, because, intellectually, I like what they are up to.

And so this is more one of those “respect” records than one I love. But I still greatly respect it, and really want to like it more than I do.

17. Mauricio Kagel: Sankt Bach Passion (7/10)

This is a rather crazy oratorio, based on the idea that Bach was a saint, I guess, and featuring texts drawn from his letters and other sources.

There is a lot going on in this piece and, even after 3 listens, it’s hard to really put into words what I think about it. I do think that, along with Kagel’s other tributes to major composers, it has a lot more to do with Kagel than the object of tribute, in this case Bach. But that doesn’t make it bad. This is a monumental work which, like so much of Kagel’s work, probably suffers from streaming online through the Toronto library. It deserves serious consideration and I’m not sure I’m quite at a place where I can give it, not just because I haven’t watched it, but because Kagel pulls from so many things (he always does, but here it feels like much more than usual). In some ways I guess this is sort of the Ulysses of oratorios – well, it doesn’t have a reputation like that but it sure is dense.

But whatever we may think of this provocative and long work, it deserves notice.

18. Dire Straits: Brothers in Arms (6/10)

Ten years ago I wrote the following:

This might not be so bad if they had actually hired a producer.  It’s like Knopfler put a big stamp on this record saying “This album was recorded in the ’80s!”  Knopfler’s production is the aural equivalent of those ’50s sci-fi films that imagined the “futuristic” ’70s and now make us laugh…oh how silly they were to think that’s what the future would look like, te he he.  They tried to make this sound “modern” and hear what happened.

His songs aren’t all mediocre.  “Money for Nothing,” aside from having one of the classic guitar licks from the ’80s, is a pretty good attempt at replicating what regular joes probably felt when looking at synth pop/”hair metal” bands on MTV.  “Walk of Life” and “So Far Away” would have been decent without the “Hey, did we mention it’s ’85?” production.  However, “Your Latest Trick” is about as bad as pop music posing as “fusion” gets.  Something else might’ve resulted had they actually found someone who can make records.

Read the rest of the review.

89. The Cult: Love (6/10)

The liner notes actually make this worse. I’m not saying it’s bad. It’s certainly better than most of the “rock” being forced upon us by mainstream radio during this decade. But any claim to it being “important” is ridiculous.

Not Ranked: New York City Opera conducted by Christopher Keene: Satyagraha by Philip Glass (10/10)

This is the middle of Glass’ “portrait opera” trilogy (which aren’t really operas in the traditional sense, as they lack narratives) though I’m listening to it last. Read the rest of the review.