Uh-uh. No way. If you think we’re about to tell you which were the best rock albums of the past year, think again. The field of pop music has grown so vast and has diversified so much over the past two decades that neat, all-inclusive lists have lost their credibility In fact, much of “pop” music now is popular only with a relatively small segment of the listening audience. The Billy Joel devotee may have little truck with the worshipper of Billy Idol, and both may sneer at Billy Ocean. Case in point: When one writer confidently strutted in with his list of the “10 best” rock albums of 1984, he was hooted out of the office by other experts who had their own favorite discs of the past 12 months. A stalemate followed. Finally, common sense, the democratic spirit and a 5 o’clock deadline carried the day. Four staffers of varying musical tastes got to pop off on the subject. The results: a healthydiversity, intriguing eclecticity and bullheaded opinion-mongering from people who just won’t admit that Springsteen’s Born in the USA is not only the best album of the year, but the best ever done in the English language. Some people. . .
Born In The USA
Bruce Springsteen (Columbia)
This may be the year of the Boss. He had the tour of the year, and this fine album is Springsteen’s most mature work to date, although it’s already suffering the ravages of critics who build Springsteen up as the Supreme Poet of Rock, then refuse to allow him any line that’s not dripping with Portent and Meaning. With Springsteen, as with any rocker, the medium is the message, or at least it profoundly affects whatever “message” is there. “I’m Goin’ Down,” for instance, is already doomed to overinflation as some sort of defeatist anthem. Actually it’s funny, almost a parody of the big-mama-done-brung-me-down genre in which Springsteen’s voice teases against the line in a deliberate monotone. Same with “Glory Days,” a standout tune. Yes, it’s about lost dreams and faded beauty and what might have been, but listen to the voice and the arrangement: These guys are having too much fun to be worrying about the middle-aged crazies. “Dancing in the Dark,” however, may be the most thought-inducing single of the year. This album is haunted by out-of-work denizens of the Rust Belt, parted lovers and guys who, a la Born to Run, find hope in movement, energy and noise.
The Pointer Sisters (Planet)
The queens of syntho-rock are back with a new one, and if you’re not chair-dancing by the time you hear Side One (with “Jump,” “Automatic” and the frantic “I’m So Excited” in rapid-fire order), there must be 6 feet of dirt on your face. As always, the Sisters’ stock in trade is passionate abandon to the beat-and to the man of the night who’s just drivin’ them insane (“I swear that every time is the last time/Cause I know there ain’t no future in this/And then from the heart of darkness/ Comes that call that I never can resist”). So goes the call of the blood in “Baby, Come and Get It,” with its brassy rip-off of the Stones’ classic riff in “Satisfaction.” Unfortunately, the album doesn’t keep that pace throughout. A few songs illustrate the worst of the wind-up dance beat, disco-ducking the respensibility to be at least mildly interesting as well as danceable. The Sisters bounce back with “I Need You,” a solid, nostalgic tribute to Aretha Franklin. (Has it been that long?) But what’s passionate abandon coming to? In the liner notes, Anita Pointer gives special thanks to her accountant and her attorney.
Russians and Americans
Al Stewart (Passport)
Without making a very bad pun, you can’t call a pop singer “unsung.” But Al Stewart surely has not had his due as lyricist or as singer. This is his most politically conscious album to date, starting with the apocalyptic overtones of “Rumors of War” (“You say there’s a storm that can’t be delayed/And lately it seems to be coming this way”). But something in the lulling, glassy tones of Stewart’s voice belies the horror. He can speak of “souls on fire” and the pent-up anger “on the left and the right in the black and the white,” but his tone is cool and detached-that is, until “Accident on 3rd Street,” in which an innocent woman is killed by a drunken driver. “Maybe it’s just one of those things,” Stewart says, but the hate is there behind the glib cliché. The driver, in court, reminds Stewart of “one of those Vikings with the long-handled swords/ The kind even Joan Baez would not feel nonviolent toward.” And there’s no help for the bereaved speaker. A visit to the “local guru” ends in God-Will-Provide banalities: “He left me with a feeling that what he said was basically sound/Like a black hole in space or philosophy, useless but profound.” This album is permeated by the theme of enmity between Russians and Americans, between stranger and stranger-and it ends with a note of despair, as “The Candidate” waits alone at a banquet, wondering where all the voters have gone. “They’ve all gone to the movies, trying to understand their lives,” we are told. The line is perfect for the Reagan years, during which a majority went to the movies and found just the man for them.
Huey Lewis and the News (Chrysalis)
For a while, it seemed that Lewis’ new album would become the first ever to have all its songs turned into hits. No less than six of the nine songs-The Heart of Rock and Roll,” “If This Is It,” “Heart and Soul,” “I Want a New Drug,” “Walking on a Thin Line ” and “Finally Found a Home”-have made Lewis almost oppressively popular on the Top 40 airwaves. But the good news is that nine million record buyers were not wrong. “Heart of Rock and Roll” does thump and drive, practicing what Lewis preaches, and “Walking on a Thin Line” is one of the best of the now-obligatory musical tributes to the Vietnam vet.
All Over the Place
The Bangles (Columbia)
Comparing this new four-girl group to the Go-Gos is inevitable: Both hail from Los Angeles, and both play high-energy rock’n’ roll that reverberates to a dance beat. That, and the fact that most female groups never even get recorded, much less lauded in what is still considered by many to be a boys’ domain-the craft of spartan rock. The Bangles hate the comparison, and justly. This, their second album, echoes the Sixties as much as the Eighties, and several songs are reminiscent of the Mamas and the Papas. But the echo is embellished with subtle, smart lyrics and a serious point of view that-for all their arguments to the contrary-the Go-Gos’ music lacks. Of course, serious isn’t everything, and the Bangles know it. All Over the Place has been praised for its diversity and sheer tunefulness. The Bangles are having a good time; what sets them apart is that they make that time count.
Paul Young (Columbia)
He can parlez very well, thank you, and in several languages, so to speak, from the heavily orchestrated and slick “Come Back and Stay” to the simple, almost grappling, “Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home).” Young, like Talk Talk, uses the syn thesizer in moderation and isn’t afraid of the pop refrain or emphatic backbeats. But he gives it all heart. “Love of the Common Peo ple,” perhaps the best song on the album, sways like the sea and sucks you into its easy, slow, sing-along rhythm and aching lyrics. It’s an auspicious first album. -A.T.
It’s My Life
Talk Talk (EMI America)
It’s My Life is a solid example of music beyond New Wave and the creative use of synthesizers. This album spawned only one hit, the haunting and charged title track, but the whole thing is terrific. Heavy percussion and bass work cleanly underscore the quirky melodies of piano, keyboards and an occasional trumpet in what becomes a very spacious, pop-epic sound that uses (rather than relying upon) the synthesizer. Even more so than Talk Talk’s debut album several years ago, It’s My Life seems to take a great deal of space and fill it with a melancholy but vibrant mood, due in no small part to leader Mark Hollis’ ambitious composition and straightforward vocals.
The Honey Drippers Volume One
The Honey Drippers (Es Paranza/Atlantic)
It’s no big secret anymore. The Honey Drippers are Robert Plant, formerly of Led Zeppelin, and his pals, taking a sentimental journey. Despite the gooey name, these masked travelers make sweet music on this five-song, discounted LP. Most of the songs are fast and simple, like Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman,” although it was the Sinatra-esque “Sea of Love” that hit the charts this fall despite predictions that something that slow and tender could never see the light of Top 40. This is a return to rock ’n’ roll roots for people who never really left.
Rickie Lee Jones (Warner Bros.)
It’s no surprise that the queen of crossover jazz always prints her lyrics on the album jacket: She is a poet, and words matter Ironically, she often sings those words as if they don’t matter, so if she didn’t have them printed, we’d miss some. From her pensive dream-sounding ballads to her up-tempo rhythm twisters that make you think she’s going to break into scat, Jones is a marvel. There’s an extra dose of seriousness on Magazine, and a move to classical orchestration on several cuts, but when Jones lets loose, she really lets loose, as on “Juke Box Fury,” a sensational, intentional allusion to “Danny’s All-Star Joint,” a winning song off her first album.
My Ever Changing Moods
The Style Council (Geffen Records)
It would be hard to find a more appropriate title for this near-schizophrenic album that jumps from up-tempo jazz to sad and draggy blues and back again. Guitarist and lead vocalist Paul Weller wrote all but two of fine songs and co-produced the album. The jewel is the very upbeat title song, which received some airplay this year, its smooth harmony and playful trumpet and sax work proving irresistible. More intriguing still are “The Paris Match.” a torch song lovingly sung by guest vocalist Tracey Thorn, and “The Whole Point of No Return,” a slow jazz instrumental performed entirely by Weller. My Ever Changing Moods is a most unusual and satisfying album.
Into the Gap
Thompson Twins (Arista)
The Thompson Twins are neither twins nor Thompsons. They are a trio-Tom Bailey, Alannah Currie and Joe Leeway-whose relationship began on a South London street. And they are talented. Using such varied instruments as synthesizers, harmonica, xylophone and congas, the group has melded a distinctively individual sound that encompasses influences from rock (“Doctor! Doctor!”), reggae (“You Take Me Up”) and up-to-date romantic ballads (“Hold Me Now”). These three songs, all released as singles in 1984, are indisputably the hallmarks of the album, but follow their unique thread through the lilting strains of “Sister of Mercy” and the haunting “Storm On the Sea.” The gulf is often wide between pop that’s popular and music with merit; with this album, The Thompson Twins prove they haven’t fallen into the gap.
Prince and the Revolution (Warner Bros.)
Something happened this year: With the release of his 1984 movie, Purple Rain, Prince marked a passage from being solely a performer to being nothing less than a phenomenon. Seemingly sensitive, unabashed-ly salacious, Olis young (24) Minneapolis native has burst onto the cultural scene withI the raw force of the motorcycle that dom-inates the screen in his film (and this album’s cover). Prince’s last album, 1999, proved more popular than his previous albums (yielding the cut ’-Little Red Corvette”); and Purple Rain is even more musically accessi-ble (one could read, more commercial), while still retaining Prince’s funky flair. No one who had heard Prince’s music before seeing the film was surprised at the frenetic energy he drips with while performing; this same writhing wildness translates well on cuts such as “Let’s Go Crazy” and “Darline Nikki.” Romantic roots are found in “Take Me With U” and “I Would Die 4 U.” and “Purple Rain” is an opus that doesn’t lose appeal despite repeated airplay. Prince’s music is never predictable, always provocative and undeniably passionate; as he acknowledges in “Baby. I’m a Star,” Prince reigns.
She’s So Unusual
Cyndi Lauper (Portrait/ CBS Inc.)
As if the title of this album weren’t enough, one look at the back cover-a photograph of a pair of funky, pointy, high-heeled shoes with a rendition of Van Gogh’s Starry Night painted on the soles-further promises what lies inside: a delightful blend of the artful and the offbeat. But artistry is not sacrificed for oddity; the 10 songs included on the album (Lauper co-wrote almost half of them) are delectably diverse. No less than four of the cuts were released in 1984, ranging from the playful kick of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” to the urgent beat of the rather naughty “She Bop” and the slower, melodic strains of “Time After Time” and “All Through the Night.” Employing a combination of exuberant Brooklynese warbles and sensitive, wistful whispers. Lauper exhibits a vocal range-always successful-that in this age of homogenized pop acts is unusual indeed.
Couldn’t Stand the Weather
Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble (Epic Records)
When it rains, it pours in Texas, and one of the state’s hottest artists is Stevie F Vaughan, now at high tide. (Yes. the same Vaughan who was once the featured attraction at the New Bamboo Club off Oak Lawn). Texas Flood, Vaughan’s first effort, was an instant success in national sales. A although his singing will never compare to that of Chicago bluesmen, his guitar may put Texas back on the map in the blues world. He’s now attracting his old crowd at concerts along with younger heavy metal fans. Texas Flood had one marvelous side, but Couldn’t Stand the Weather sounds as though Vaughan had a few cuts left over and put them on a new disc to capitalize on the commercial success of his first. His guitar work doesn’t suffer, however, even though the selection of songs just isn’t the same. But Vaughan is now touring with a new show that keeps audiences on their feet, and the cuts off Texas Flood aren’t really his main-stay. anyway. Look for this man to be femous.
Body and Soul
Joe Jackson (A&M Records)
Longtime Joe Jackson fans were ready for a new album, but what could follow the magic of 1982 s Night and Day, which featured the street sounds of New York in a fusion of jazz, rock and funk that created a musical tapestry of social commentary? We should have relaxed; Jackson didn’t let us down. Dallas fans were introduced to Body and Soul in an open-air concert at Fair Park, with Jackson opening the show with an a cappella rendition of “Body and Soul ” (which, by the way, does not appear on the album that bears its name). The only thing predictable about Jackson is his unpredictability. Although this album is every bit as polished as the Grammy-nominated Night and Day, it takes the listener on an emotional odyssey-punctuated much like a classical opera with valleys and peaks of intense feeling. The album opens with the slow, thoughtful prologue (“The Verdict”), then builds to an emotional crescendo (“You Can’t Get What You Want”), before going down again (“Be My Number Two”). As always, xylophones and horns play a dominant role, along with the ever-present flute. Once again, Jackson has surprised us with his in-novativeness and versatility.
Julian Lennon (Atlantic)
Surely this compendium would not be complete without mentioning the October debut of Julian Lennon (John’s 21-year-old son) on the American music scene, which incidentally coincides with the 20th anniversary of the Beatles’ stateside premiere. As 1984 passes this month, we also mark the fourth anniversary of John Lennon’s death. Even now. it remains a frustrating, painful memory. But if we’re to believe our eyes and ears, his presence is very much with us: Julian (who was the inspiration for “Hey Jude” and “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”) has picked up the proverbial guitar (keyboards and drums, too) and is preserving John’s musical legacy, as well as promoting his own. And life is imitating art in an uncanny way. Julian’s look, his speech and especially his sound all eerily echo those all-too-familiar Liverpool lilts, the nuances and unique delivery that endeared his father to millions. Hearing the first chords of Valone, the title song, one is reminded of Mind Games-as though Julian’s first effort is an extension of his father’s post-Beatles experimental period. And despite his turns at harder rock numbers, there remains a gentleness about Julian’s work that evokes memories of John’s last album, Double Fantasy. But reading the record jacket brings us back to the present: The final note of gratitude simply reads, “To my father…”