My backwards journey through the pop/rock canon of the 1980s, as inspired by my friend Mike B., continues apace with 1985. Such a transitional year for popular music. It felt like the music industry finally had to start reckoning with MTV, synthesizers, new wave, and a whole bunch of other things they’d been trying to ignore. The historical record shows that there was less consensus than usual regarding which albums from that year really stood out, which strikes me as evidence that everyone’s focus was scattered. Or, put another way, people were listening to a bunch of new things, and tastes changed accordingly.
All of which is to say, it was an easier year than most for being totally subjective.
Ergo, here are some albums from 1985 that I truly love:
Scarecrow, John Cougar Mellencamp
This is another one of those albums where just about every track could’ve been a single. The hooks are abundant, the vocals are tough and confident, and the band has never sounded better. Everything that’s great about Mellencamp’s recorded oeuvre – including his (at the time) burgeoning social conscience – coalesces into its peak form on this record. For me, it’s an all-time classic.
Around the World in a Day, Prince and the Revolution
Full disclosure: this is a purely sentimental pick on my part, and I’m not going to defend it as one of the best albums of its year. It came out during my formative adolescent years, and it has a soft spot in my heart for many inexplicable teenage reasons. Objectively speaking, though, calling Around the World in a Day a transitional record for Prince would be putting it mildly. This was his bizarre, psychedelia-inspired follow-up to Purple Rain, and it confused the hell out of everyone because it was so willfully and aggressively unlike its predecessor. Considering what fans (like myself) had come to expect from The Purple One by that point, some of these songs could easily be called sub-par. But, Prince’s sub-par material was still better than a lot of other artists’ A-list best, and this album was a rebellious announcement to the world that there was more to His Royal Purpleness than “1999” and “Let’s Go Crazy.” Plus, it features my favorite Prince single of them all, the scrumptious “Raspberry Beret.”
Listen Like Thieves, INXS
This was the album where INXS’ brand of 1980s new wave got funkier and grittier. There are tasty hooks everywhere on this record, and the band sounds like they’re enjoying their newfound boldness. Listen Like Thieves clocks in at a lean, mean 37 minutes, and INXS make the most of that time: the album contains eleven songs, four of which became Top 40 hits in the U.S. Think of them as Duran Duran with more guitars (which is a compliment, by the way), and you’ll get the idea.
White City: A Novel, Pete Townshend
Pete Townshend spent most of the 1980s making solid solo albums, and this was one of his best. Anchored by an excellent studio band featuring none other than Pink Floyd‘s very own David Gilmour (who does a fabulous job here as Pete’s session guitarist), White City is full of bouncy earworms that show off Townshend’s still vital songwriting acumen. There’s a loose concept binding everything together (not surprising, since Pete wrote one of rock’s pioneering concept albums), but it doesn’t matter. The propulsive strength of tracks like “Face the Face” and “Give Blood” defy conceptual pigeonholing.
Little Creatures, Talking Heads
This might be the Heads’ most overlooked record, and also their most accessible. By 1985, they’d added the sheen of high-end studio production to their jangly, idiosyncratic sound, and gotten even better at writing hooks. Case in point: “And She Was,” “Stay Up Late,” and “Road to Nowhere,” the album’s trio of signature tracks, all of which became rock radio heavy rotation classics. Little Creatures is full of songs like those, that nestle themselves sneakily into one’s psyche. This album didn’t seem like much to me when I first heard it, but then I discovered I could hum the whole thing after listening to it only once. It’s a fun record that goes down easy, and rewards return visits.