1985- not one of the better music years of all time, or even of the 80’s. I was in junior high so I don’t think it was one of my favorite years either. ’85 though was the first year that I really got into music. Most of the music below doesn’t reflect what I was listening to it ’85, which was top 40 radio the first half of the year and nothing but Heavy Metal the 2nd half of the year. By ’85, New Wave, the dominant sound of the early 80’s was petering out. Hair Metal was starting to show increasing chart dominance and the mainstream pop world was becoming progressively cheesier with a few exceptions. Hip-Hop and rap was still mostly underground, though a few handfuls of important singles were released in ’85 that propelled the genre forward. The 80’s funk sound which had dominated the early part of the decade for black music (George Clinton, the Gap Band, Kool & the Gang etc..) was also starting to fade and/or becoming more pop, perhaps in an effort to sell out to the white audience. Music that would become known as adult contemporary was all over the radio and would unfortunately play ad nauseum at my on-campus gig at college in the early 90’s- it was the only station that got a decent signal. I know this stuff better than I ever wanted to know it. Singles were still being released off of huge albums from 1984 like Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”, Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” & Prince’s “Purple Rain” but no other huge pop/rock blockbusters were released in 1985 that were any good, save for maybe John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Scarecrow”- a relatively minor blockbuster compared to the three listed above. Madonna was between albums, though she released two of her best singles with “Into the Groove” and “Crazy For You”. Prince’s “Around the World In a Day” garnered two great single cuts as well with “Raspberry Beret” and “Pop Life” but was seen as a disappointment next to the gargantuan “Purple Rain”. U2 released only an EP called “Wide Awake In America” and R.E.M. came out with the very good “Fables Of the Reconstruction”, which is a necessary part of their catalog for sure, but also kind of a bridge between their seminal early work of “Murmur” and “Reckoning” and their later, more popular 80’s albums like “Document” and “Green” which helped them to eventually become one of the biggest rock bands in the world. So a situation like the above made for quite a ripe underground, both in rap and in rock. That mid 80’s underground would set the table for the alternative revolution of the early 90’s.
Aside from the American rock and rap undergrounds, there was still plenty of great post-punk/synth pop music coming out of the U.K.. Much of it just didn’t cross over to America- some of it never really did and is loved today but a cultish few, and others took longer to sink in here. They either were recognized past their time or on subsequent albums which broke them bigger in the U.S. The biggest of those names are the Cure, the Smiths & New Order. All three groups tower over most everything else of the 80’s and though I don’t think any of them released their best stuff in ’85, all three were very relevant that year. The Cure released “Head On the Door”, which helped break them with American college kids thanks to singles like “Close to Me” and “In Between Days”. The Smiths “Meat Is Murder” I think is their worst album, but it still contains a handful of classic cuts including their most loved track “How Soon Is Now?” (which also appeared on the previous year’s “Hatful Of Hollow”). New Order had already broken through with the massive 1983 single “Blue Monday” but 1985’s “Low Life”, which included standouts like “The Perfect Kiss” and “Love Vigilantes” solidified their status as the reigning kings of post-punk synth-dance pop. Elsewhere in the U.K., Prefab Sprout released their debut album of sophisticated synth-pop “Steve McQueen” (AKA “Two Wheels Good” in the U.S.), Tears for Fears “Songs From the Big Chair” did break in the U.S. with three huge singles- “Shout”, “Head Over Heels” & #1 single “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”, which truly captured the zeitgeist of the greed is good 80’s. “Big Chair” remains the jewel in their catalog. The Simple Minds had a trio of top 40 hits, including #1 smash “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” which ended the beloved Brat-Pack classic move “The Breakfast Club”. Scritti Politti had a great single with “The Perfect Way”, Depeche Mode with “Shake the Disease” and Echo & the Bunnymen with “Bring on the Dancing Horses”. The more rock-oriented The Cult released “Love” which contained 80’s college radio classics She Sells Sanctuary” and “The Rain”. Much loved band XTC came out with a side project called The Dukes Of Stratosphear, a group entirely indebted to 60’s psychedelic pop. Their debut EP, released in 1985, is an overlooked pop gem.
Lesser known U.K. bands were making a splash as well that set the tone for the burgeoning indie scene in America. The Jesus & Mary Chain’s debut album “Psychocandy” is an indie classic and was the biggest influence on the shoegaze movement of the late 80’s/early 90’s. Mark E. Smith’s band the Fall had been releasing great music since 1978 but 1985 album “This Nation’s Saving Grace” is to my ears the apex of their whole storied catalog. Ireland’s The Pogues released “Run, Sodomy & the Lash” is their pinnacle as well- produced by Elvis Costello (!) and still my favorite album to play on St. Patrick’s Day. The Mekons, a group of leftist University of Leeds students who had also been churning out punk music since the late 70’s, released their best album “Fear & Whiskey”, name-checked by some as the first alt-country album. In America groups like Husker Du, the Replacements, Sonic Youth & the Meat Puppets who had been slogging it out since the beginning of the decade all took great leaps forward. Sonic Youth would still remain too inaccessible for most until a few years later but the track “Death Valley ’69” off of their 1985 album “Bad Moon Rising” was a sign of great things to come. Each of the other three bands had released stellar albums in 1984, but “Up On the Sun” (Meat Puppets), “Tim” (Replacements) and “New Day Rising” and “Flip Your Wig” (both Husker Du) were all seen as classics as well, cementing those groups as indie-rock leading lights. D.C. hardcore group Minor Threat released their farewell EP “Salad Days” and Pre-emo fellow D.C. group Rites Of Spring released their excellent debut. Members of each band would go on to form the incomparable Fugazi in the late 80’s.
In addition to those well known indie groups above, there were some lesser appreciated yet still pretty great groups active in 1985 as well- Dramarama, Australia’s Hoodoo Gurus, Camper Van Beethoven & Fishbone all had big college radio hits and well reviewed albums or EP’s. Another Australian group INXS released their biggest album to date “Listen Like Thieves”. With their next release “Kick” two years later, they would become one of the bigger rock groups of the 80’s. Baby boomer rockers like Tom Petty & the aforementioned John Mellencamp were big in ’85. Bruce Springsteen, still basking in the wake of his biggest success to date, released his great life cover of “Trapped” by Jimmy Cliff, which was included on the “We Are the World” tribute album. John Fogerty of CCR, came back from a dormant period of almost 10 years to release the very successful “Centerfield”- still played at every baseball diamond across America. New Wave legends Talking Heads released perhaps their last great album with “Little Creatures”. Long broken-up group the Velvet Underground released “VU”, a collection of previously unreleased studio tracks. Some of which were legendary already due to bootlegs or previously released live versions. Weirdo singer-songwriters Tom Waits and Kate Bush had seminal releases in 1985 as well. Bush’s “Hounds of Love” was her best and Waits “Rain Dogs” was one of the top albums of the year and I think the best he ever made as well. Though the New Wave movement was dying out a few great one hit wonders remained in ’85- Katrina & the Waves “Walking On Sunshine”, Murray Head’s “One Night in Bangkok”, Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry” and the Dream Academy’s “Life In a Northern Town”- 80’s New Wave Classics all.
Though outside of LL Cool J & a pair of classics by Doug E. Fresh & MC Ricky D (later to be known as Slick Rick), 1985 was mostly light on rap. Run-DMC released their second album “King Of Rock”, which was inferior to both their self-titled debut and their breakthrough 3rd album “Raising Hell”. But it still had at least two classic tracks in the immortal title cut and “Can You Rock It Like This”. Cool J’s album debut was pure star power and announced the 2nd biggest star of rap’s new school which started with Run-DMC. The Beastie Boys released their first singles as a rap outfit. Kurtis Blow releases his last classic track “If I Ruled the World”. Aside from those the year was filled with “Roxanne” response tracks- two of which introduced new females to the game- Roxanne Shante and The Real Roxanne. Aside from Cool J’s singles off of “Radio” and the “King Of Rock” the best and most legendary rap tracks of ’85 was the two sided single “The Show/La-Di-Da-Di” by Doug E. Fresh, which inspired everything from beatboxin’ to Snoop Dogg. Lesser known super producer Kurtis Mantronix released his debut album errr “Album”. It’s electro beats took hip hop production to new places. On the R&B tip Lisa Lisa & the Cult Jam’s debut single “I Wonder If I Take You Home” was a monster. Unfortunately there were increasingly lame follow-up singles. Mary Jane Girls Rick James-produced “In My House” and Sheila E’s Prince-produced “A Love Bizarre” were two other R&B classics but in ’85 the cupboard was mostly bare. Sultry Brit Sade released her first two albums in the U.S.. She continues to flourish in the present day, but her sophisticated, jazzy bedroom soul was mostly an anomaly and pointed the way toward no great trends unless you hear it as a progenitor of the mid-late 90’s neo soul movement. Way underground music like techno (Detroit techno founder Juan Atkins group Model 500’s track No UFO’s came out that year) and Jamaican dancehall reggae were emerging and would become ever more important to music culture in years to come. Barrington Levy’s “Here I Come”, Wayne SMith’s “Under Me Sleng Teng”, Anthony Red Rose’s “Tempo” and Tenor Saw’s “Ring the Alarm” are all early dancehall classics that came out that year.
HUSKER DU- NEW DAY RISING
THE CURE- HEAD ON THE DOOR
THE TALKING HEADS- LITTLE CREATURES
SADE- DIAMOND LIFE (*RELEASED 1984 U.K., 1985 U.S.)
KATE BUSH- HOUNDS OF LOVE
THE MEAT PUPPETS- UP ON THE SUN
RITES OF SPRING- RITES OF SPRING
JESUS & MARY CHAIN- PSYCHOCANDY
THE POGUES- RUN, SODOMY & THE LASH
THE MEKONS- FEAR & WHISKEY
JOHN COUGAR MELLENCAMP- SCARECROW
TOM WAITS- RAIN DOGS
NEW ORDER- LOW LIFE
R.E.M.- FABLES OF THE RECONSTRUCTION
THE FAll- THIS NATION’S SAVING GRACE
THE REPLACEMENTS- TIM
HUSKER DU- FLIP YOUR WIG
L.L. COOL J- RADIO
THE SMITHS- MEAT IS MURDER
TEARS FOR FEARS- SONGS FROM THE BIG CHAIR