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The 10 Best Albums of 1985

We take a look back and reflect on the music that defined one of the most definable of decades.

Kate Bush
Photo: Rhino

In my introduction to Slant’s list of the 100 Best Albums of the 1980s, I noted that, while ‘80s pop culture is largely remembered for its frivolity, the social unrest that stirred beneath the decade’s brightly colored gloss and greed resulted in not just the guilt-driven good intentions of enterprises like the star-studded USA for Africa, but a generation of artists whose music genuinely reflected the state of the world. From political violence across the pond and the struggles and dreams of the American working class, to race relations, sexuality, and gender, no topic was left unexcavated by the pop, rock, and hip-hop artists of the Reagan era. As we enter the 2020s, an entire generation removed from the ‘80s, it seems as good a time as any to once again look back and reflect on the music that defined one of the most definable of decades. Sal Cinquemani

Honorable Mention: LL Cool J, Radio; Talking Heads, Little Creatures; John Cougar Mellencamp, Scarecrow; Lizzy Mercier Descloux, One for the Soul; The Velvet Underground, VU; Husker Du, New Day Rising; Grace Jones, Slave to the Rhythm; Various Artists, The Indestructible Beat of Soweto; The Smiths, Meat Is Murder; The Mekons, Fear and Whiskey



Fables of the Reconstruction

10. R.E.M., Fables of the Reconstruction

Thematically, Fables of the Reconstruction is one of R.E.M.’s most cohesive albums, drawing heavily from Southern iconography and folklore. Bands like Drive-By Truckers have, in recent years, taken up the cause of reconstructing and deconstructing the mythology of the modern South, but R.E.M.’s take on the subject is, unsurprisingly, far less literal. Southern myths are often preoccupied with mysterious, hermit-like older men, and many such characters serve either as protagonists or sources of inspiration on the album. “Life and How to Live It” was famously inspired by the life story of Brev Mekis, a schizophrenic man from the band’s native Athens, GA, who bifurcated his home into two completely distinct dwellings. “Maps and Legends” is a complex tribute to Reverend Howard Finster, one of the most famous figures in the “outsider art” movement. What makes Fables of the Reconstruction such a rich, deeply rewarding work is that it isn’t simply a retelling of these myths or a hagiography for these men, it’s that the album is a pointed, thoughtful consideration of what these stories mean and, specifically, of how the band perceives them. Jonathan Keefe



Rum, Sodomy & the Lash

9. The Pogues, Rum, Sodomy & the Lash

Landing chronologically and stylistically in the Pogues’s discography between the extremely drunken revelry of Red Roses for Me and the extremely drunken but more refined If I Should Fall from Grace from God, the also extremely drunken Rum Sodomy & the Lash may well be the quintessential Pogues experience. These rowdy drinking songs, both traditional and original, are of course tremendous fun. But it’s the album’s (relatively) sober laments—“The Old Main Drag,” the historical ballad “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” and “I’m a Man You Don’t Meet Every Day,” featuring lovely gender-bending vocals by Cait O’Riordan—that proved the band’s Celtic folk-punk wasn’t just a novelty, but a rich and inventive new form. Jeremy Winograd



Low-Life

8. New Order, Low-Life

If Movement was the funeral and Power, Corruption, and Lies was the haunting, then Low-Life was the exorcism, the moment when New Order fully freed themselves from the ghost of Ian Curtis and set in motion their second life as the U.K.’s finest purveyor of electro-pop dance-floor fillers. Even the song that’s about Curtis, the funereal “Elegia,” isn’t overly indebted to the band’s post-punk roots. From the galloping opener “Love Vigilantes” to the glitchy “Face Up,” Low-Life is the product of a band whose members are deeply in sync and pushing each other in new directions. Bernard Sumner is still finding his voice here—lyrics were often New Order’s Achilles’ heel, and this album features some cringey turns of phrase—but the band’s musicianship has been honed to a razor’s edge. Bassist Peter Hook and drummer Stephen Morris are locked in with each other, and Gillian Gilbert’s synths pair dramatically with Sumner’s spare guitar lines. The highlight is “The Perfect Kiss”: When that keyboard part picks up, Thatcher is in 10 Downing Street and it’s midnight on the Hacienda’s dance floor. Seth Wilson



The Head on the Door

7. The Cure, The Head on the Door

The Cure’s The Head on the Door is a cheery pop album as envisioned by a goth-rock master. And weirdly, it works perfectly. Monster hooks flow effortlessly out of Robert Smith, and notably, none of them sound much alike. The speedily strummed “In Between Days” is easily the album’s catchiest song, but nearly every other track is of the same melodic caliber. The joy of The Head on the Door is the dizzying array of different styles Smith manages to cram into easily digestible pop packages. From the high-drama guitar riffs of “Push” and the driving flamenco rhythms and Arabic accents of “The Blood,” to the plinky atmospherics of “Kyoto Song” and the hopped-up minimalism of “Close to Me,” each new element is as surprising as it is hummable. The Head on the Door isn’t as sprawling as some of the Cure’s other beloved albums, but that’s exactly why it’s one of their most essential: It cuts right to the gooey melodic center at the heart of Smith’s songwriting. Winograd



Songs from the Big Chair

6. Tears for Fears, Songs from the Big Chair

In which an attempted primal scream ends up coming out as an incredibly pitch-perfect crying jag. (Boy, am I glad the word “emo” wasn’t around in 1985, though Richard Kelly’s use of the dreamy “Head Over Heels” in his frowny sci-fi teen-angst epic Donnie Darko paid back that particular favor with interest.) British synth-pop act Tears for Fears’ follow-up to the critically acclaimed The Hurting may have seemed a sellout at the time, but heard anew today, the cathartic, shuffling hit “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” seems like one of the great indictments of the materialism and false triumphalism of the decade. Eric Henderson



This Nation’s Saving Grace

5. The Fall, This Nation’s Saving Grace

This Nation’s Saving Grace is the most accessible release from a band that can, at times, border on the completely inaccessible. Mark E. Smith makes no attempt to curtail his ominous murmuring, and his bandmates are as prone as ever to prickly songcraft and thrashing, but the grooves and melodies here showcase the Fall at their least abrasive. With “Barmy,” “What You Need,” and “Spoilt Victorian Child,” the group strikes the perfect balance between bilious dirge and subversive pop, while “Paintwork” is a charmingly tongue-in-cheek homage to ‘60s pop. A little bit of melody goes a long way for the Fall, making this a quintessential album in a unique and strangely interesting canon. Huw Jones



Tim

4. The Replacements, Tim

On the continuum of ‘80s rock acts with a pronounced rock ‘n’ roll influence, the Replacements fall somewhere on the spectrum between Bruce Springsteen and the Mekons, styling a skuzzy blend of mutated rockabilly that absorbs and adapts ‘50s tropes with propulsive glee. There’s a glimmer of punk attitude in all of Tim’s hurtling songs, but each one is too piercingly romantic and sincere to fit into that genre; witness “Kiss Me on the Bus,” which caps off with a joyous wave of sleigh bells. The result is a collection of booming love songs that find the spirit of the adventure in the most domestic of settings. Jesse Cataldo



Psychocandy

3. The Jesus and Mary Chain, Psychocandy

Shaping fuzz into a potent, tactile instrument, the Jesus and Mary Chain helped establish the style of distortion-laden fogginess that would eventually become the foundation for shoegaze. Possibly their most amorphously detailed album, and probably their best, Psychocandy buries snide and snotty vocals in a rolling sea of noise, an enormously effective approach that’s still being imitated today. The musical backing may be spare, like the faint guitar shimmer and lonely hi-hat smack of “Just Like Honey,” or it may be dense, the roiling chaos of “In a Hole,” but it remains effective throughout, leaving each song encased in a thick viscous shell. Cataldo



Rain Dogs

2. Tom Waits, Rain Dogs

Early in his transition from post-beatnik piano man to percussive backwoods hobo, the Tom Waits of Rain Dogs still had the residual stink of a boozy poet left on him, which resulted in the snappy rhythms of this big album. At 19 tracks and 53 minutes, it’s the most overstuffed and expansive effort of his long career. From the squealing free jazz of “Midtown” to the jaunty music-hall balladry of “Anywhere I Lay My Head” and off-kilter accordion jangle of the title track, Rain Dogs is a skuzzy, dynamic mural, awash in film-noir-inspired textures and all kinds of detailed color, a sleazeball concept album pickled in cheap gin. Cataldo



Hounds of Love

1. Kate Bush, Hounds of Love

My mother, a freak for the Victorian, once defied by father by naming me not after him, his father, and his father’s father, but after an Emily Brontë character, so it was destiny that lured my imagination to the wily, windy moors from which Kate Bush appears to sing these tales of longing and remembrance. The album is a haunting—lush with playful and dramatic dreaming, metaphor and symbolism, motifs of running and hiding, beats that gently fall like raindrops. She plays child, woman, beast, and witch, standing on the ground but sounding as if she’s flying through the sky. She is hunter and huntee at once, and she makes you feel her transformation from one to the other, quite literally, with a howling. A whistle becomes a gust of wind, and it takes you away in its wraith-like arms to a place of very warm comfort. Ed Gonzalez

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