Thursday, January 31, 2013

Retroactive : 1986

1986 : The Year In Music

After having stuck the boot in on poor old 1985 it's time to reset the balance and radiate positivity for a while because its successor more than made up for the polka dots, pink lipstick and unacceptable mullets. 1986 was packed to the rafters with sonic pleasures of all shapes and sizes and produced gems from right across the musical spectrum that still stand up today for way more than nostalgia appeal. 80s indie reached its creative zenith with the much-lauded C86 scene that gave birth to as many great bands as the first wave of punk a decade earlier and Chicago House began its legendary journey out of the nightclubs and into popular culture to lay the groundwork for the mass conversion to dance music that would dominate the rest of the decade. But if you're drawn to the heavier end of the spectrum then it was the year's unprecedented flurry of storming thrash metal releases that stood out as the musical highlight - bands from the States, Europe and South America were dropping classics quicker than fans could grab them and for one glorious moment the scene's key players seemed to be part of one cohesive culture shift, all like-minded souls dedicated to the same brand of good friendly violent fun. Megadeth, Metallica, Kreator and the indomitable Slayer all released faultless career peaks but there were plenty more to choose from; Dark Angel's savage 'Darkness Descends', Exodus' ravenous 'Bonded By Blood' and Onslaught's pummelling 'The Force' to name but a few. In the face of a mainstream metal scene characterised by creative forbearers treading water (Maiden's space age synthfest 'Somewhere In Time', Priest's cynical arena-tailored 'Turbo' and AC/DC's cinematic cash-in 'Who Made Who') and poodle-haired pop tarts like Europe, Bon Jovi and a Sammy Hagar-fronted revamp of Van Halen pedalling synth-driven burger rock to teenage girls, thrash brought together all lovers of extreme music into one global fancult and set things in motion for every shift in metal over the next decade as rivetheads kept on chasing the thrill they got from that first spin through 'Angel of Death'. Of course most of this action was taking place a long way from the singles charts and the commercial spotlight was being hogged by high octane crap like Berlin's 'Take my breath away', Genesis' 'Invisible Touch' and Billy Ocean's 'When the going gets tough....' although there were still pop gems like the Bangles' 'Walk Like an Egyptian' and Sly Fox's 'Let's go all the way' to savour along with a run of refreshingly silly chart-toppers like Falco's 'Rock me Amadeus', Cliff Richard's revamp of 'Living Doll' with TV's The Young Ones in tow and Spitting Image's ubiquitous 'Chicken Song'. And perhaps most significantly of all (at least as far as I'm concerned), Channel 4 launched their all-video Chart Show programme which would migrate to ITV three years later and become my go-to resource for off the radar music thrills as a youngster with its specialist charts and garish computer graphics (check out the original format on YouTube here for some period nostalgia). Throw an iconic World Cup into the mix and you've got the recipe for a pretty fantastic year - slap on my Spotify playlist for the year's biggest anthems and brace yourself for a rollercoaster ride through 1986's essential long players!

Albums of the Year

1. Slayer - Reign in Blood
This isn't just a great album, it acts as a musical filter - fans of 'serious music' who will spend hours hectoring you on the merits of Radiohead and Bob Dylan might claim that they dabble in harder stuff by sticking on 'Never mind the bollocks' or the first RATM album from time to time - hey, the braver amongst them might even dabble in Metallica. But for me, the test of someone's metal endurance is whether or not they can stomach 29 minutes of the most deliciously violent, aggressive music ever saddled onto vinyl. 'Reign in Blood' is a manifesto in itself - trim off all the meandering riffs moments, crank the tempo up to breaking point and make every second count. There's no trendy political leanings or pandering to any form of commercial exposure - Slayer's lyrics are downright nasty, their subject matter thoroughly non-PC and their delivery is so relentlessly balls-out brutal from the very first note to the brainmelting finale of 'Raining Blood' that anyone only wanting to dip their toes in heavy music is best advised to stay the fuck away. This is the real McCoy right here!

I got into Slayer via their unfeasibly awesome live twinset from '91 which acted as a conduit for their output from the previous decade - much of 'Reign' made it onto the setlist and they still crank out cuts from this album on tours to this day (I saw them play the whole thing from start to finish as the encore last time they came to Paris!). Someone played me 'Angel of Death' at a party when I was about 18 and it was probably the first time I'd felt any kind of curiosity for the darker, more extreme end of the metal spectrum - like most people drawn to the heavier end of music, I'd been indoctrinated via more accessible means (in my case a 'tallica tape from my mate Mike) but had yet to really embrace full-on metal mayhem. Slayer changed all that - whilst 'Master of Puppets' conjured up 8-minute guitar epics that my adolescent mind could lose itself in, 'Reign in Blood' actually made me want to bang my fucking head so hard that my brains felt like they would splurge out of my ears and splatter all over my bedroom walls. If the previous generation had undergone their epiphany watching the Sex Pistols wreck havoc onstage for their first time, mine came the moment I succombed to Slayer's breakneck Tazmanian Devil shitstorm - everything about them sounded so close to spiralling out of control, one step away from shapeless mayhem yet somehow still together. I'd been raving in my bedroom to electronic music for years before this, but Slayer made guitar music that beat any of that into submission - this was pure audio chaos, and I was in love with it.

Years later I still love this record as much as the first time I heard the songs back in the day - other rock groups from the past have softened up, sold out and generally cleaned up their act but Slayer are still just as venomous and seductive as they have ever been. Their subsequent releases have all been pretty tight, but if you're looking for their landmark work then 'Reign in Blood' is the one that holds the greatest legacy. Just look around you for its influence in places you'd least expect : Public Enemy sampled it on 'She watch Channel Zero', Tori Amos covered 'Raining Blood' and made it even more scary, South Park made use of it in 'Die Hippie Die!' as Cartman's soundtrack to the Hippie Holocaust.....or if you want to really understand its longstanding appeal, go see these guys in concert before they hang up their spikes for good and watch legions of fanatics toss their bodies around to it at the live show.

So there you have it - the ultimate sonic cocktail : one part Discharge, one part Judas Priest and a couple of broken ribs in the moshpit. Say what you like about other groups, but don't tell me you love guitar music unless you own this record. Anyone who can't handle 'Reign in Blood' needs to go back to their fucking Wilco records and grow themselves a pair of cojones real quick, cos this is the ulimate riff trip in popular music. To quote the Neil Kulkarni review in Melody Maker that is still stuck on my teenage bedroom wall; 'Slayer fucking rule'.

Check out : 'Angel of Death'. NUFF SAID.

2. Metallica - Master of Puppets
One of the long running, end of the night pub debates amongst folks well-schooled in heavy metal culture such as myself is over which is better, 'Reign in Blood' or 'Master of Puppets'. I've already nailed my Satanic colours to the mast on this one but I have to admit it's a hard one to call - you have to work your way up to Slayer, few fans approach metal for the very first time and tap straight into 'Angel of Death', whereas 'tallica were my first taste of the harder stuff way back in mid-adolesence. That's no dig at their potency either - despite their current misguided attempts to destroy their legacy in every conceivable way, back in the 80s these guys carried a real air of menace. Before the short hair, group therapy and shitty Lou Reed collaborations, Jaymz Hetfield and co were an obnoxious troup of black-clad metal marauders throwing down punishing thrash metal to arenas full of sweaty neanderthals and cranking out a string of great albums, of which 'Puppets' is the stock choice as their finest hour. I'm not going to be a contrary fucker and disagree for the sake of it either - this one encapsulates everything that made them a fascinating prospect when I first discovered metal back in the day and it still raises a few goosebumps of nostalgia when I stick in on today.

It's hard to describe the illicit charm of heavy metal to anyone who hasn't experienced it firsthand during their own teenage years - as a precocious youngster raised on early 90s rave and Chart Show indie, I regarded metal with total disdain throughout my early teens, convinced that it embodied the bovine machismo that I spent most of my schooldays avoiding. Nevertheless, my trawls through music stores often left my flicking through the metal racks and checking out the band names and album covers, alarmed and slightly scared that people actually went out and paid for music that seemed to recreate the dark headspace and sinister ambiance found only in our childhood nightmares. Yet there was a sly seduction at work as the images and titles stuck in my head until the day my mate Mike lent me a D90 cassette featuring 'Ride the Lightning' backed with a trimmed version of 'Puppets' (minus 'Orion' if you're wondering). I looped the fuck out of that tape, drinking in the dark guitar epics and morose sonicscapes in my bedroom as my mind opened up to the delights of the devil's music. The thing that struck my with 'Puppets' was the total disregard for hit single material - none of the tracks clock in at under five minutes (three exceed the eight minute mark) but instead of boring you with self-indulgent musicianship every second is well accounted for and nothing is left to chance. Song sections unfold across massive slabs of feature-length heavy metal, solos weave through the air like beams of light across the night sky and successions of thunderous, intricate riffs leave you stunned and sonically smitten. This was a darkly potent cocktail that I was powerless to resist and I drank deeply, realising for the first time how much fun I'd been missing out on.

That original feeling of fascination is worth hanging on to as the years pass, not just for me as a listener but also on 'tallica as an institution. Time has not necessarily been kind, though they've done themselves no favours either - cutting their hair and flinging out identity crisis metal, shitty covers albums and pointless classical reworkings before disappearing up their own collective arseholes, losing their coolest member and engaging in an image-decimating bitchfest with downloading websites whilst somehow oblivious to the fact that most of their fans pre-Napster had taped all their records anyway (I spent ages stencilling the logos onto those bastards!). But beyond all the crap, beyond the years of rehab and pattern baldness, 'Master of Puppets' still lies in wait for fertile teenage minds such as mine back in the day, ready to be turned on to a new kind of thrill, one which may well spend the rest of their music-listening life chasing. That's worth bearing in mind the next time you hear Lars Ulrich being interviewed - he may be a prize twat, but had he stuck with tennis and never met James Hetfield we might all have suffered for it.

Check out : the lads tearing up the title track on the 'Binge and Purge' tour back in '89.

3. The Smiths - The Queen is Dead
Indie had risen to prominence over the course of the 1980s and had established its own sales listings along with the unyielding support of increasingly influential weeklies like NME and Melody Maker and acts like New Order, Echo and the Bunnymen and Billy Bragg were all scoring notable crossover successes. Yet somehow the genre still seemed easy to dismiss, a paltry commercial threat in the face of mainstream pop and radio rock and still widely perceived as the work of miserable anti-social misfits toiling away in their bedrooms. The genre needed a flagship band whose material was so bulletproof that not even the most hardened cynic could dismiss them with a patronising wave of the hand - that band was The Smiths and by 1986 they'd amassed two cracking LPs and a faultless run of stellar singles to win over neutrals and establish themselves as the UK's most influential band but had yet to deliver the knockout blow that would set them up as British indie's all-time superstars. Their eponymous debut had captured the band's miserablist roots and observational humour perfectly and follow-up 'Meat is Murder' saw them vary the palette and notch a chart-topper but neither had the scope and ambition of 'The Queen is Dead' which saw Morrissey and Marr lay down a robust mission statement at their creative peak and finally dispense with the idea that they were merely a passing fad. The brazenly republican title gets right up in your face from the very outset and the band proceed to waltz effortlessly through six-minute theatrical tragedies, quickfire snippets laced with barbed-wire humour and effortlessly catchy guitar anthems without once putting a foot wrong - each member is firing on all cylinders  : Morrissey playing the dramatic lead with considerable aplomb, Johnny Marr peeling off indie riff gold on every track and the oft-underrated rhythm section of Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke pumping blood throughout the body of the record like never before. The album was an instant hit with fans and critics alike and unintentionally spearheaded a wave of newer, younger bands dabbling in Marr-inspired jangly indie to form what became known as the C86 scene, a rush of creative energy that spawned a roster of bands to rival that of the initial punk explosion ten years earlier - Morrissey managed to capture the spirit of the times on the non-album single 'Panic' which followed a few months later, forging a rallying cry for the disenfranchised indie masses against the perceived surfeit of synthetic crap doing the rounds in the nation's nightclubs. By the end of 1986 the Smiths were at the helm of a British indie movement that was more powerful than ever and they fittingly dominated the year's Festive Fifty, indie's most reliable reference point, with several entries and end of the night ballad 'There is a light that never goes out' taking home the crown.

'The Queen is Dead' has been the entry point for many into the Smiths' canon ever since and  it's not particularly hard to see why - there's the spine of a robust rock album running through here that isn't discernibly present on their limp-wristed debut and they manage to season the mix with different flavours whilst keeping things part of one cohesive whole as opposed to the bit of everything approach employed on 'Meat is Murder', making 'Queen' their most complete long player and most approachable listen for the uninitiated. The title track that opens the record sums up Morrissey's view of 80s Britain over six minutes of fey tirades against the church, the monarchy and the rudderless nature of modern UK culture whilst Joyce and Rourke fire up the motor with twanging basslines and rattling fills leaving Johnny Marr as a peripheral figure until the track's wah wah-fuelled coda. They'd never given the rockers a proper run for their money until now and the message underlying Moz's despondent lyrics was that they could do everything anyone else could and be twice as clever about it. Comic vignettes 'Frankly Mr Shankly' and 'Vicar in a Tutu' show Morrissey at his wittiest and wickedest whilst bedsit classic 'I Know It's Over' paces round the never-ending cycle of loneliness like a failed romantic slowly going crazy, finally giving Moz the stage all to himself for an epic theatrical masterstroke that'll leave not a dry eye in the house. The album tracks dominate proceedings leaving the singles as practically an afterthought (in contrast to 'Meat is Murder' where they arguably soaked up too much of the energy) and the immaculate one-two of 'Bigmouth Strikes Again' and 'The Boy with the Thorn in his Side' merely demonstrate how well-honed their songwriting chops had become by this point but it's the signature show-closer 'There is a Light....' that catches them at their most unique, drafting in a string section for Morrissey's inimitable ode to unrequited love laced with jet black humour and ludicrous melodrama. It's testament to Moz's idol status that he gets away with all this - lesser mortals would be expected to explain the song's mock-suicidal lyrical slant to more impressionable listeners (not to mention the violent imagery of 'Bigmouth' and the savage anti-monarchy slant of the title track) but he seems determined to credit his audience with enough intelligence to picks the bones out of his lyrics. 'The Queen is Dead' provided indie with its first undisputed 'classic album' to rank alongside Revolver, Dark Side of the Moon and Never Mind the Bollocks as universally recognised cornerstones of UK culture and has fared remarkably well since then, topping NME's best album of all time listing at the turn of the millennium and retaining its place at the very top of the tree for British guitar music. Even your football 'n' lager loving mates will have heard this record a few times and its place in UK culture is surely cemented for that reason alone - Morrissey will surely take some measure of comfort from the fact that guys who'd have kicked the shit out of him when he was a nobody now bellow along to his songs after eight pints of Carling. But that's the mark of a classic and even Smiths-haters know that 'The Queen is Dead' is the one record that you can't dodge, one that's been around forever and will never go away. 

Check out : 'Some girls are bigger than others', possibly the best album closer ever.

4. Beastie Boys - Licensed to Ill
I remember being at Reading sometime in the late 90s when the Beastie Boys were touring 'Hello Nasty' and had phoned their co-headliners The Prodigy prior to their set, humbly requesting that they remove 'Smack my bitch up' from their setlist. Maxim related the incident onstage during their headline slot and emphatically stated that they would play it anyway. A well-meaning gesture perhaps, but it came across as the newly-serious elder statesmen of alternative hip hop lecturing their younger charges over the use of an old skool rap sample, a slightly tactless move at worst but arguably nowhere near the cheek of much of the lyrical content of 'Licensed to Ill' a decade earlier. Prior to their Tibetan tree-hugging Road to Damascus experience the Beasties were everyone's favourite party band, a bud-chugging trio of teens spouting bravado about guns, girls and partying with not so much as a second thought for political correctness and 'Licensed to Ill' was the soundtrack to their emergence as arguably the first group to bridge the gap between black hip hop culture and white alternative rock, netting the first US#1 rap record in the process and remaining the only bunch of white guys to ever bag a full score in hip hop Bible The Source's review section.

You'd think they'd have made more of it, but by the late 90s the Beasties had distanced themselves from their endearingly immature debut and embraced MTV alternative culture and the political showboating that went with it. To my mind there was no need to choose between them though - 'Licensed' has its place in hip hop culture, dropped back in '86 amidst what now seems like an innocent age of MC face-offs, lyrics about partying and chasing girls and liberal amounts of scratching. No gunshot samples, death threats or muscle-flexing 'thug' vocals, just big dumb fun with no hidden agenda (indeed, any more kitchen sink from the sons of New York Jewish art dealers would've been hard to swallow). With the rise of NWA and Ice-T just around the corner, 'Licensed' feels today like the final blowout before things get too serious for comfort - the party anthems come thick and fast once we get started : 'No Sleep til Brooklyn', 'Girls', 'She's on it', 'Fight for your right to party' that can instantly liven up a house party but also make up the sampled backbone of numerous rave records that would surface in the clubs over the following few years. In a way it's a good thing that they never attempted to follow it up with anything similar - the three years separating 'Licensed' from their resolutely grown-up sophemore release 'Paul's Boutique' seem like a lifetime in music culture, leaving their adolescent debut a cheeky relic of hip hop nostalgia even back then. Over 20 years later it's worth reappraisal - sure, it sounds painfully thin by modern production standards and the vocal content has more in common with The Bloodhound Gang than their socially conscious modern personas, but the smiles 'Licensed to Ill' put on faces back in their 80s ascent to fame should be kept on record as testament to their own musical legacy and also the spirit that brings gobby little twerps the world over into rap music then and now - lyrical dexterity and the urge to get your party on. Worthy causes not withstanding, 'Licensed' represents the reason the Beasties started rapping and we should all take heart from that, including the boys themselves.

Check out : the promo for 'No Sleep til Brooklyn', complete with a cameo from Kerry King!

5. Poison - Look what the cat dragged in
The 80s tend to be viewed with a mix of dew-eyed nostaglia and puritanical contempt, depending on who you're talking to. Indie purists will vaunt the achievements of alternative songsmiths who triumphed against the commercial odds to carve their own niche whilst those of us whose memories of the decade consist of comics, cartoons and sugar-fuelled pop culture tend to regard the era as elysian period of carefree fun and harmless thrills. Poison tap directly into this perception - their sanitised glam rock was either the pinnacle of loveable MTV-sponsored good time poodle metal or the nadir of chart-chasing spandex clad goofball cock rock depending on what side of the artistic fence you were on. I'm on the forgiving side with this one - I was too young to remember the androgynous foursome's early MTV escapades but revivalist campaigns have brought their garish promo vids and equally lurid pop metal back into vogue since then and even the most post modern listener can't help but pump their fist to the good time chart metal flowing through 'Look what the cat dragged in'. Picking up where Mötley Crüe had left off (or rather inadvertantly paused due to drug addiction, jail sentences etc), the boys took up the mantle of pink lipstick and industrial strength hairspray to fling their image to the forefront in order to gain maximum press attention and followed it up with an arrogant debut packed with chart hooks, poodle rock posturing and glam metal strut. It took a while to float to the surface in the States but a series of remarkably committed MTV promo clips saw these showponies crowned kings of the glam circuit a few months after the album's release, providing an accessible take on viril glam punk without falling into the Blue Peter trappings of contempories such as Bon Jovi and Europe. Poison were never dangerous, they were just flippantly entertaining in the neon-enshrined, mic-stand straddling vogue of the mid 1980s and 'Look what the cat dragged in' provides the perfect period soundtrack for singing into your hairbrush in a white bathrobe whilst your hair straighteners heat up. Even the title speaks volumes - instead of vaunting their own sensuality, Poison's debut could just as easily have been knowingly labelled 'Look at the state of these c*nts!' for all the anticipated scorn they readily invited. In the end the album stands as an endearing landmark of plastic 80s pop metal, a snapshot of the period's taste in showboating to be revered in museum exhibits on how great/awful the 80s were for years to come. Either way, '86 runs all the way through this record which justifies its place on this list - a thousand C86 indie acts could lay more credible claim to their place here but Poison win through their sheer unwavering commitment to stadium-styled poodle punk and unwitting zeitgeist-nailing aesthetic. 'Look what....' is unashamedly '86, for better or for worse.

Check out : the title track, an anthem to clattering in whilst your flatmate is eating breakfast.

6. Megadeth - Peace Sells....but who's buying?
I was never Dave Mustaine's biggest fan - that honour seems to be reserved for the legions of guitar dorks who follow his every move - but I can't deny his band their rightful place in the history of heavy metal. If one person embodies thrash metal as a general concept, it is him. After getting booted out of Metallica before they hit paydirt, his whole philosophy behind forming Megadeth was to prove that he could come out with something faster and harder hitting that his previous bandmates were capable of - upping the ante not only for Hetfield and co but also for every other aspiring noodler out there. Music should never be about competition but the one-upmanship kickstarted by Mustaine's vanity project laid the foundations for thrash being all about how quick you could shred, how nasty you could sound and how difficult your music was to play. If Anthrax had the corner of the market for goofball humour, Metallica had theirs for eight-minute epics and complex storytelling, Slayer theirs for all-out punk aggression, Megadeth's place was for intricacy, dexterity and sportsman-like self discipline.

Which is perhaps slightly strange, seeing as all four band members were apparently raging smackheads when 'Peace Sells' was recorded. Having formed the band from touring jazz musicians with a taste for the underground, Mustaine managed to assemble a motley crew of backing musicians whose technical chops and appetite for narcotics matched his own - the results of their labour are on the one hand tightly drilled like a military unit and on the other crammed full of complex time signatures and instrumental gymnastics to brew up one potent metal cocktail. Ed Repka's eye-catching artwork only adds to the period flavour - this is classic '86. In the end, the line-up's short life span was indicative of Mustaine's lack of long term plan for his project - two years later a radically different band emerged with the similarly stonking 'So far so good so what?' and by 1990's 'Rust in Peace' they'd changed personnel again. The band has soldiered on in various forms since then, propelled by Mustaine's flambuoyant personality and dedication to his art. Whatever you think about the guy (and let's face it, he's not always the most likeable character in metal), Dave's status as a shred legend cannot be denied. Although he always embodied the nerdier side of metal to me, nobody else quite brings out the Beavis and Butthead-like urge to go 'DUH DUH DUH DERRRRR' along to his music than Mr Mustaine. Pompous, ginger and pseudo-spiritual though he may be, Dave still ranks as one of metal's finest.

Check out : the promo vid for 'Wake up dead'. Cages, teenagers, tassled leather jackets - nice.

7. Run DMC - Raising Hell
When you consider the extent to which hip hop has dominated global culture over the past quarter of a century it becomes almost impossible to imagine the world without it, though strange as it may seem there was once a time when the mainstream was yet to fully come to terms with the genre and rap was seen as something of a passing fad. The early 1980s had seen breakthrough singles from the likes of Grandmaster Flash, Sugarhill Gang and Afrika Bambaataa break through into the charts but hip hop had the same industry rep as electronic music had ten years later, a pleasant distraction in bite size chunks but not suited to the LP format and ultimately not really worth taking all that seriously. You only have to wind back ten years from the nationwide schism that claimed the lives of Tupac and Biggie at the height of their fame to reach the point where even charting with a hip hop album was something of a novelty and it was against this backdrop that genre pioneers Run DMC dropped 'Raising Hell' back in '86 to score arguably rap's first major breakthrough success and change the mainstream's view of the genre for good. Chuck D lauded the boys two years later on 'Bring the Noise' ('Run DMC first said a DJ could be a band/stand on its own feet, get you out your seat') and their template was the first to hold up to the full album treatment against their peers in the rock industry, balancing beatbox dynamics with riff and drum samples to beef the sound up and give whiteboy rock fans something to entice them in whilst retaining the street culture chops that ensured their continued hero status in the rap community. They'd laid the foundations on two earlier records but 'Raising Hell' was where the patience paid off and popular culture allowed them the chance to take a solid run at the charts - the boys had the hits to match and the album's instantly recognisable singles ensured that it stayed in public view for months on end and established itself as rap's first undisputed classic.

Crossover Svengali Rick Rubin teamed up with the band to channel the energy of their boombox-bolstered live show into something you could take to the record stores and sell to kids across the country, a trick he repeated six months later with the Beastie Boys' 'Licensed to Ill' and perhaps equally significantly with Slayer's gamechanging thrasthathon 'Reign in Blood' the same year, each time harnessing a youth culture phenomenon for long enough to walk away with a decent-sounding LP before the trail went cold. It's true that the advance of production techniques over the intervening years have left all those records sounding slightly thin to modern ears but it's worth remembering that very few producers really knew how to record this music back then and Rubin deserves credit for the job he did even if others have since gone on to better it. However the record's massive commercial impact is due mainly to Run DMC's ear for a hook and talent for penning hits that turned the album into a major hit and spawned four classic crossover singles. Goofy knockabout jams like 'You be Illin' and 'My Adidas' drew on street culture and hip hop bragging rights to fashion pop hits that crossed over to listeners who had no idea whatsoever the band were singing about whilst a deft use of familiar rock samples saw them chop up The Knack's new wave classic 'My Sharona' and use the pieces to build house party classic 'It's Tricky', a bombastic slice of call and response dancefloor genius that still sounds great. They took the trick one step further on the quintessential 'Walk This Way' by actually roping in Steven Tyler and Joe Perry from a floundering Aerosmith to re-record their parts for the band's hip hop reprise of their mid 70s party hit - the result ranks as one of the decade's few truly indispensable singles, a ballsy spot of genre-splicing that comes up trumps on both fronts and projected Run DMC into global pop culture whilst leaving Aerosmith to relaunch their own career the following year with the 'Permanent Vacation' LP. It was a bold spot of pop innovation but also a significant stroke of luck - neither band had heard of each other before the track's creation (unlike Anthrax and Public Enemy's later re-recording of 'Bring the Noise' after both bands had spent months touring together) but both had a good ear for a radio hit and agreed to throw their combined weight behind it with their sights set on commercial success rather than critical praise. The riffs pop up again on the title track as the band trade verses over a choppy guitar part reminiscent of AC/DC at their most simplistic but their revert to traditional hip hop dynamics on the beatbox 'n' scratchin' classic 'Hit It Run' and the nimble lyrical gymnastics of opener 'Peter Piper' to prove that they could play to both crowds and win everyone over. The focus stays on parties rather than politics for the most part but they do give a comparatively innocent treatment to themes others would expound upon in later years, bemoaning lazy females on knockabout cartoon diss track 'Dumb Girl' without descending into venomous misogyny and asserting their own cultural identity on closer 'Proud to be Black' as a disclaimer to counterbalance the lightweight character of the album's core. 'Raising Hell' probably isn't rap's finest hour but more significantly it was it's first undisputed classic, the first time a hip hop group produced an album to silence critics and win over fans and the dent it made in the music industry's perception of rap can still be seen all these years down the line. Other acts would tinker the blueprint to their own needs and take things in more radical and experimental directions over the next few years but back in '86 hip hop was still waiting for its first chart-busting crossover classic and the arrival of 'Raising Hell' provided that along with plenty of sonic thrills that listeners across the globe are still enjoying to this day.

Check out : 'It's Tricky', filling dancefloors for 27 years and counting.

8. Queen - A Kind of Magic
The point of this selection is to pick records that marked the moment for each year rather than just regurgitating critics' choice polls from days gone by - as much as it might have been a much cooler move to pick out some dusty C86 shit that I only got into much later, 'A Kind Of Magic' feels much more typically '86 to me. From the garish cartoon artwork on the cover to the sweatbands 'n' stick-mic live show, this record is so anchored to its era that it seems ridiculous to download it - you should be listening to this on a shitty tape deck whilst poring over the cracked cassette box with the bright red frame and the price sticker half-picked off the front. Its status as the unofficial soundtrack to 'Highlander', one of the 80s' biggest cult action flicks, only adds to its period flavour. Maybe it's not exactly the essence of cool, but 'Magic' awakens the 80s child in me more than a lot of the other stuff on this list - some of my first memories of rock music are on this baby, which has to stand for something.

If you're looking it at from a record dork's point of view (not that I would ever do such a thing), Queen's 70s material has a lot more to admire than this - sure, 'Sheer Heart Attack' probably packs more punch but times had changed by the end of that decade and by the dawn of the 80s Queen were pumping out pure FM rock, a weird mix of Top Gear riff material and gay weightlifter disco. They'd made some perfect pop along the way - 'Under Pressure' and 'Radio Ga Ga' to name a couple - but the albums never really got me, especially the unspeakably sucktastic 'Hot Space' set from '82. 'A Kind Of Magic' saw the boys go digital, break out the synths and write an unashamedly commercial pop rock record - the polished, radio-friendly production of stuff like 'One Vision', 'Friends will be Friends' and the title track was enough to endear them to Volvo-driving blokes called Nigel who made up most of radio 1's listenership at the time yet the anthemic nature of the tunes also made for perfect stadium fodder (check out the killer 'Live from Wembley '86 live set if you want proof). Ironically it was the last time they'd get to tour the fuck out of a record in such fashion - ol' Fred got diagnosed with docker's flu in '87, after which they could only muster weak riffage and eccentric pop until the inevitable happened.

Fans will remember Queen however they like - I wasn't around to see Freddy with long hair doing 'Tie your mother down', but I can still remember watching the weird cartoon Queenoids boogie around on TV back when this one landed. I think it's cool that a rock act with such a blatant knobjockey as a singer could conquer the planet the way these guys did - apparently the song 'A kind of magic' topped the charts in 35 countries when it came out!!! I didn't even know there were 35 countries with record stores in 1986! They even sell this shit in Iran these days - I bet Hitler would've let this one slip through the net had it come out 50 years earlier! You can pick your own Queen moment but for me it's this one - back in '86 they ruled the charts, the stadia and the airwaves and I'm gonna remember 'em that way.

Check out : 'Princes of the Universe'. Good one to sing storming in at 3am shitface drunk.

9. Kreator - Pleasure to Kill
For such a thrashtastic year, it would've been too easy to cram this list with stuff from the American big five - however, to do so would be to forget about the noise being made in other parts of the world during what turned out to be a planetary shift in heavy metal. Whilst their peers in New York and the Bay Area were crunching away to increasing returns, guys called Klaus over the ocean in Germany were growing their hair and forsaking careers in operating heavy machinery to bust out their own take on classic thrash. Sodom and Destruction made credible bids for the era's best speed Kraut record but for me the accolade has to go to Essen's finest and their gut-ripping second album 'Pleasure To Kill'.

Whether or not you perceive thrash as an evolution of punk will probably determine how much you dig this record - for me, the coolest thing about the genre was the breakneck tempo and vicious vocal delivery (combined with the suitably raucous live show). Whilst platters like 'Peace Sells...' and 'Among the Living' moved through various musical passages to create their individual aesthetics, 'Pleasure To Kill' was a much rougher, feisty affair - frontman Mille Petrozza delivers his vocals with utter savagery (much aided by the robust German accent) whilst the music rips along so relentlessly that you can't even headbang to it without rupturing neck discs. Modern day re-appraisals of thrash metal often overlook how downright NASTY this shit sounded when it first came out - flanked by 'Reign in Blood', 'Darkness Descends' and a host of other speed releases testing the boundaries of human endurance 'Pleasure To Kill' is an almost-intimidating assault on the senses, free of the goonish elements of some US period thrash and focused on getting the job done with ruthless Teutonic efficiency. The bile-spewing vocals and head-spinning musicianship would become key elements in the global death metal phenomenon a few years later and Kreator's geographical proximity to the future musical heartlands of Scandinavia and Eastern Europe saw their approach influence numerous groups across the spectrum of extreme music. Like many of their contempories Kreator succumbed to a decade of creative fluctuation once the 80s drew to a close but they kept of ploughing away and returned to grass roots around the millennium as revivalist thrash came back into vogue, in turn laying down some of their best material in years. Beer, football, motorways, heavy fucking metal - you can't fault the Germans in some fields. It's almost enough to forgive them for buying all those David Hasselhoff records. Almost.....

Check out : the title track from their storming Wacken set in 2005. Try banging your head to that!

10. Big Black - Atomizer
Back in the mid 1980s the comedy flick 'Revenge of the Nerds' chronicled the triumph of two anti-social computer science dorks over their sporty peers to moderate box office success and prompted MTV to feature regular nerd spokesman Toby Radloff as one of their comic segments spliced between music videos. The nerd trend was fully in motion by this point and was often musically linked to the idiosyncratic New Wave pop of Devo, Oingo Boingo and Talking Heads - those bands all lurked at the less conservative end of the spectrum and encapsulated many of the oddball characteristics of the stereotypical nerd but they were  generally far too amiable and good-natured to come across as genuine misfits who'd suffered years of awkwardness, alienation and getting their heads flushed down the toilet by those above them on the social ladder. The real soundtrack to the nerd mindset was much darker, a mixture of simmering rage at mistreatment by others and frustration at not being able to fight back coupled with an unhealthy fascination with violence, ugliness and all manner of misanthropic art to be indulged in those long hours spent alone whilst everyone else is out having fun. Steve Albini's work as a groundbreaking music producer and outspoken indie puritan have granted him respected celebrity status over recent years but back in the 80s he was a far better poster boy than Radloff for the nerd mindset, a scrawny misfit that had been drawn in by the energy of punk but had rapidly outgrown its boundaries and was hellbent on forging his own path into music's underbelly. Big Black were the outlet for the nihilistic vitriol sloshing around his brain, a seething hybrid of guitars, bass and a Roland drum machine that provided a vehicle for his morbid fascination with the sinister sublevels of American society in all its gruesome detail. The band began life as essentially a solo project for Albini that he operated whilst shooting his mouth off about anything and everything in the music press columns he wrote as a sideline and by the mid 80s he'd built up a cult following as somewhat of an indie celebrity and had released a string of EPs with Big Black on the back of semi-constant touring around the toilet venues of America. However he'd yet to record a full length album and there were suggestions that the band's three man line up had evolved to the point where they were capable of laying down something truly stunning that could elevate them beyond the indie backwater circuit.

'Atomizer' was that record and plenty more besides. The band's vitriolic soundscapes were well-suited to the EP format as short bursts of cynical audio rage but their promotion to the full length arena gave them space to stagger their attack and move through different realms of confrontational sonic warfare. The synthetic drum machine thud that at the time was more synonymous with pop artists like A-ha was employed to greater effect on fascistic stompalongs like 'Stinking Drunk' and 'Fists of Love', each time chronicling the directionless rage sloshing around middle America like the ugly cousin to the clean-cut Yuppie aesthetics of artists like Whitney Houston and Huey Lewis and the News and allowing Albini to step into the perpetrator's vocal role and recreate the horrors he was describing. He goes one step further on opener 'Jordan, Minnesota' and plays both victim and torturer over a grizzly tale of child sex rings to offer a thoroughly unsettling experience that will leave many listeners unable to venture any further out of sheer disgust (a result Albini himself would have probably loved). The album's liner notes only took things down another notch....I'm not even gonna get into the shit described in here, safe to say that if someone does lend you the CD or vinyl with the sleeve notes, DO NOT READ THEM. Of course there were many that dismissed Albini as a cynical asshole who simply enjoyed shocking people and had created a way to say the nastiest things possible without ever taking responsibility for them but in fairness to the guy I think that's missing the point somewhat - Big Black's music is confrontational and unsettling yet strangely compelling much in the same way as the grim subject matter used for the lyrics, all of which was easily accessible to the average reader in the form of true crime novels or simply the pages of the local press. He does seem to relish his work a little too much for comfort but that's just the mark of a pro and the ugly soundscapes on show here simply channel the directionless boredom and frustration present in much of small town America - nowhere is this better illustrated than on crossover hit 'Kerosene', an erratically catchy slab of industrial indie chronicling the pleasures of setting stuff on fire when there's nothing else to do in your bog tedious backwater of a home town. If you've not been the despondent pyromaniac depicted in the lyrics, you've surely met someone over the years who matches the description. The track was unintentionally one of the first classics of the industrial genre and other thumpers like 'Passing Complexion' show the band's knack for penning guitar music based around loops and beats rather than standard indie verse/chorus/verse, pummelling the listener with a nihilistic negative-print of the hi-NRG club music doing the rounds back in the mid 80s. The sound is cold but not inhuman, rather the soundtrack to the less loveable elements of human nature and there's still a lot of distance between these guys and the dancefloor-tilted like of New Order - the frantic live version of 'Cables' that closes the record reminds us that Big Black started off as a punk band after all. 'Atomizer' may have caught the band at their peak, it certainly encapsulates them at their most free-flowing and potent, much like a star striker dominating proceedings at a mid-table football club prior to being tempted away by a larger giant - although nothing could actually be further from the truth in Big Black's case and they promptly split after 87's equally stonking follow-up 'Songs about Fucking' left them poised to take over indie's major league, Albini going on to form the largely ignored Rapeman (he certainly does love his confrontational titles!) and later the universally embraced Shellac whilst Big Black went on to posthumously achieve legendary status. 'Atomizer' remains as vital an example of where indie was heading in 1986 as 'The Queen is Dead' albeit in a vastly different content - away from the somewhat self-congratulatory British C86 scene the Yanks were still getting in the van and slowly building up their own national scene that would rise to critical prominence as the decade wore on before finally paying the rent as the 90s dawned. Big Black were long gone by that point but their uncompromising spirit lives on, as does Albini's own puritanical standpoint in his work as a producer, vastly undercharging the numerous bands he works with to allow newer sonic thrills to reach the masses where that otherwise might never have been possible. Grab 'Atomizer' and treat yourself to a bit of US indie history, you'll be glad you did - but, and I can't stress this enough, DO NOT READ THE LINER NOTES. You'll being having nightmares for weeks.

Check out : 'Passing Complexion' live, a blast of seething boot camp nerd rage.

Tune of the Year

Cameo - 'Word Up'

1986 saw the emergence of Chicago house music as a global force but in truth it didn't really infiltrate the pop charts until the following year so I've decided to concentrate on what was blowing up the radio for this year's choice. There was some seriously funky business going on at the top end of the singles charts with Gwen Guthrie's 'Nothing Going On But The Rent' and Prince's 'Kiss' dominating playlists but the runaway winner was Cameo's irrepressible 'Word Up', a fiendishly catchy blend of funk dynamics, clubland production and hip hop frontal delivery. Built around the sort of bassline you could flatten buildings with, the track basically picks up where Michael Jackson's 'Beat It' left off but bolsters its attack with thwocking drum samples, sharp electric synth riffs and badass call and response vocals and the video shows the band sizing up to the listener in an attempt to bowl them over completely. Needless to say they succeeded and the track blew up worldwide providing the band with a platform for a few sizeable follow-up hits and ensuring their continued popularity even after their demise via a series of cover versions from artists as diverse as Korn, Mel Brown and Scottish rockers Gun who took a metal-edged version back into the top ten in 1994. This is a tune that'll put a smile on your face as soon as the first note sounds and dancefloors across the globe still light up for its every airing as folks across the generations thrown down their funkiest moves in celebration of a true booty-shaking classic.

New : Milk Teddy - 'Zingers'

Appearances can be deceptive. Based on the cover artwork and the title's perhaps unintentional reference to one of my favourite fast food treats I was expecting this album to be full of the sort of burger rock synonymous with mid 80s Springsteen and Van Halen, the stuff arenas full of dudes jacked up on testosterone and meat hormones could pump their fist to in sleeveless T-shirts. Fortunately it's nothing of the sort and taps into the washed out vibe of shoegaze-era indie crew Pale Saints - I say shoegaze era as the Saints simply got lumped in with the movement because they were on 4AD and stuck a bit of delay pedal on their material but otherwise had little in common with the likes of Swervedriver and My Bloody Valentine. 'Zingers' channels the same mellow, reflective vibe found on late 80s indie silverware like House of Love's less acerbic moments and the Saints' killer 'Comforts of Madness' LP, stepping back on the riffs and giving way to a warm, shimmering sound from the era that acted as the bridge between C86 and the fuzz pedal theatrics of the early 90s. This sounds like one of those big jumper 'n' cocoa records that you'd stick on in the early evening as the daylight fades and you dissolve into the comfy chair zone, though it avoids tweeness by some distance and there's a very understated seam of anthemic indie running through the record. You feel that the Teddy could have easily turned the guitars up on all these tracks and given everything that extra crunch but their tunes work much better as subtle, lilting gems of pastoral indie - plus their singer has a really nice voice although in keeping with the rest of the band he doesn't wear it out and only catches the long notes in sublime set-closer 'Come Around'. The band work best when they keep their distance and album highlight 'Going to Sri Lanka' beams in like someone's stereo playing out across the yard and in through your window on a lovely summer evening, a soft-focus sunshower that kinda reminds me of the Housemartins (that might just be because I ended up looping their super goofy video for 'Happy Hour' as part of a feature I was writing on 1986). The title track mixes in some Beach Boys 'woo hoo' vocals and the aptly-titled 'XTC' bears more than a passing resemblance to its namesake (those guys and their misleading song titles!) but none of their influences interrupt the strictly laidback vibe on show and 'Zingers' drifts by as a pleasingly lysergic mix of pastoral pop and soft-focus indie. If you're looking for riff kicks then this won't fit the bill but if you wanna just kick back and feel warm and fluffy for 40 minutes then Milk Teddy have just the record to take you there.

Check out : 'Going to Sri Lanka', the younger cousin of Pale Saints' 'Sight of You'.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

New : Dutch Uncles - 'Out of Touch in the Wild' / 'Cadenza'

OK, first up : WERP WERP!!! Daft band name alert! I'd be prepared to let that shit slide if these guys were actually from the Netherlands and played avuncular indie rock dressed entirely in orange but as that's clearly not the case some explaining needs to be done to clarify why this lot have picked a name that sounds like slang for the latest designer club drug. Nominative beefs aside these boys actually play a pretty infectious blend of guitar indie and classic pop that has somehow evaded success until now - that may be about to change as they pick up more and more airtime and based on the evidence spread across these two long players and they certainly have the potential to worm their way into the mainstream. The Uncles are a rare beast, a band that polishes up its sound whilst retaining a strictly organic feel at all times and one that straddles the line between riff-driven indie rock and freeze-dried electronica without fully committing to either - their reluctance to fully nail their colours to the mast has perhaps been what's kept them from the public eye until now but in truth it's more of a strength than a weakness and they've managed to nail a style that is unmistakably theirs over the course of these two stellar LPs. 'Out of Touch in the Wild' just came out so I gave their previous album 'Cadenza' a whirl while I waited and was very pleasantly surprised - this is some catchy shit right here, it'll raise a smile on the first listen but you'll soon find yourself coming back for repeated listens and picking new favourites for every occasion. They monkey around with time signatures on most of the tracks and whilst I'd normally dismiss this as clever bugger muso tactics it actually works really well and gives the music a really tight dynamic - they don't thrash around like early Bloc Party, the Uncles simply lay the foundations and built upwards but it's just as effective and some of these tunes really take off and fly when they get going. I've got a sneaky feeling that these dudes are actually straight-laced music college types who get their kicks listening to Toto and Level 42 and don't wanna have to dumb down their sound to win airplay - again it suits them and there's an 80s feel here but only in a compositional sense, a nod back to the era of bands like Thompson Twins and Tears for Fears when you could play pop with a full band rather than just two gay dudes standing behind a bank of synthesizers. And I stress that there's nothing retro going on here - theses guys have brought pop up to date rather than just hi-jacking a keyboard noise they liked back in 1983 and looped it for four minutes. 'Out of Touch...' is a worthy successor although a less consistent listen overall - they cast the net wider and tap into a slightly more commercial vibe a la MGMT on tracks like 'Bellio' but the record will ultimately be judged on its singles and the devastating twinstrike of radio gems 'Fester' and 'Flexxin' (these dudes like their one word song titles) seems to have already nudged them closer to a radio breakthrough. Their sound might be too light to tame the indie disco scene - there's at least three parts pop to every part of rock on here - but Dutch Uncles might have their sights set considerably higher than that and mainstream pop success in the vein of La Roux might not be beyond their repertoire. And even if that fails they're probably technically deft enough to get session work playing all the difficult bass and keyboard parts on the next Peter Gabriel record - in any case, both these albums merit your full attention for the time being. After all it is January so what the fuck else are you going to buy?

Check out : 'The Ink' from 'Cadenza' and 'Flexxin' from 'Out of Touch...' two quick fixes that might just get you hooked.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Retroactive : 1985

1985 : The Year in Music

Every decade is entitled one year to write off as a total tax loss, a creative pause to leave the fields of musical inventiveness fallow for twelve months as the rot sets in and things generally begin to suck. 1985 saw pop relegated to the sidelines after the lascivious highs and lows of the previous year which were tackled head on by the PMRC, a coven of Washington wives led by Tipper Gore who appointed themselves as moral guardians of popular music and saw to it that much of the year was swallowed up by a largely pointless debate on the corrosive influence of chart music that ultimately saw numerous undeserving records stickered with 'Explicit Lyrics' warnings resulting in many middle-American chain stores simply refusing to stock them. Pop cleaned itself up to avoid further disturbance and the youthful exuberance of the early 80s chart sensations gave way to more mature, tempered efforts that seemed to be aimed at the parents more than the kids : mothers jacked up on hairspray and shoulderpads went wild for #1 hits like Elaine Paige's 'I know him so well', Phyllis Nelson's 'Move Closer' and Jennifer Rush's 'The Power of Love' (the year's best-seller in the UK) whilst dads could cream over Clarkson-endorsed service station rock LPs from the likes of Dire Straits and Simple Minds along with era-defining radio hits like Don Henley's 'The Boys of Summer' and The Carrs' 'Drive' (Radio 1's radical overhaul in the early 90s prompted by the realisation that their listeners were all the wrong side of 30 may have its roots right here). Elsewhere gacky soul pop from bands like Simply Red, Sade and Level 42 filled radio playlists alongside weak-wristed forays into world music from fly-by-nighters like Go West, Mister Mister and Red Box. Stateside fans went equally wild for the garish likes of 60s Yuppie convers Starship and Patrick Bateman favourites Huey Lewis and the News whilst a fresh-faced poppet named Whitney Houston began laying down the blueprint for the persil-washed melisma soul pop that would dominate charts for years to come. Even rock become all grown-up and socially conscious with the Live Aid gig roping together what now seems like a somewhat conservative line-up of platinum-plated rockers whilst the Band Aid inspired 'We are the World' single proved the Yanks could put in an even more nauseating turn in the name of charity. There were glimmers of hope though - pop struggled through with only the likes of A-ha and the Pet Shop Boys to inject new energy whilst Stock Aitken and Waterman notched their first mega-hit with Dead or Alive's inescapable 'You spin me round like a record'. The Aussies weighed in with sweaty vest warblers like John Farnham and Jimmy Barnes notching massive hits and the Yanks provided pink lipstick and billowing sleeves romantic pop from glam rockers like Heart to sweeten the pill slightly but the best moments in the singles charts came from folked-up fantasists like The Waterboys, Dream Academy, The Pogues and a resurgent Kate Bush, all of whom succeeded in weaving a bit of much-needed magic into an increasingly turgid music scene. The mojo would return the following year so let's perceive 1985 as somewhat of a stopgap and enjoy what gems remain from a fairly underwhelming musical harvest.

(Check out my bitchin' Spotify playlist for the official soundtrack to 1985!)

Albums of the Year
1. Kate Bush - Hounds of Love
Have you heard (insert name of next big thing) yet? They're so hot right now! Their music is great, it's totally unique but at the same time really catchy, but the best thing about them is that they became successful, like, totally on their own terms and stuff. No compromise! You should totally check them out blah blah blah.....Dear reader, does any of that sound overly familiar? We've all been guilty of tossing around terms like 'unprecedented', 'unique' and 'one of a kind' when describing artists we like but let's keep them reserved for those who truly deserve them, folks who've turned up out of nowhere with a gateway into their private universe and gone on to totally change the musical playing field around them. Led Zeppelin. Elvis. Pink Floyd. Prince. Kate Bush. She's up there with the greats because there's nobody else like her, a creative force so beguiling that aspiring imitators wouldn't even know where to look for a foothold. Lightning struck when she was plucked from obscurity by Floyd's Dave Gilmour in the mid 70s and went on to drop possibly the best début single ever in the shape of 'Wuthering Heights' in '78 which kickstarted a spell of success that would keep her in the limelight until '82 when the commercial misfire of the underrated 'The Dreaming' LP prompted the first of many retreats into the shadows as she morphed into her next creative form. The wide eyed wicca nymph that disappeared from view at that point would return as a more poised, elegant lady for 1985's 'Hounds of Love' - the princess was no more, this time we were dealing with the Queen. The yowling eccentricities of her earlier work hadn't been consigned to the past along with her look but rather channelled into a more composed, slow release form that proved just as compelling and commercially viable - indeed, as the market had evolved from the rapid creative turnover of the early 80s to the more stable 'Brothers in Arms' era of long term sales returns, 'Hounds' proved to be her most established hit and prompted a career retrospective the following year before she settled into a slower, steadier release schedule that would encompass equally solid follow-ups in 1989's 'The Sensual World' and 1993's 'The Red Shoes' before she disappeared again to raise her kid. Since then she's bided her time between records, dropping 2005's engrossing twinset 'Aerial' before staying peripheral until last year when she released one record of reheated classics and another of trippy new stuff - wherever you parachute into her career you'll find music made by a lady who lets the rest of the world set their watch by her rather than the other way round. 

All her stuff is great and well worth soaking up at your own pace but my personal fave has always been 'Hounds of Love' and it's perhaps the record of hers that gelled most successfully with the prevailing musical trends of the times, chiming in with the echoic production and dry ice mystery of mid 80s pop music. The brazen synth fuelled chart electro of the early 80s was by now dead and buried and pop progressed into music suited for wider spaces and more elaborate ideas. Whilst the viril, studious likes of Dire Straits, Simple Minds and Bruce Springsteen satisfied period appetite for epic stadium anthems, 'Hounds' occupied a creative hinterland far away from sweaty arenas (Bush only toured once and that was in the late 70s) where imagination and atmosphere were as important as hit singles. The first half of the album features a five song set encompassing some of her better known tunes; ghostly opener 'Running up that hill', the slow-building magic of 'Cloudbursting' and the thunderous title track, all radio staples that would help the album go shoulder to shoulder with Springsteen and co on both sides of the Atlantic. But that's only half the story - keep listening and the remainder of the record unravels a multi-track story piece mixing Arthurian legend and dreamy mysticism, kinda like Pink Floyd's 'The Wall' transported to Middle Earth. It should suck and anyone else would have surely turned such a premise into a cackhanded shambles but Bush rises above it all to draw the listener in and accompany them through a complex dreamscape in the same way David Lynch does in his films, drifting through layers of bliss, panic and isolation before closing track 'The Morning Fog' soundtracks your emergence from the dream and the journey finally ends. Having run into all this from the hit-straddled first half you're greeted with a series of WTF moments before it all starts to fade into focus but repeated listens make this sequence perhaps even more rewarding that the more accessible earlier segment, and the fact that Bush effectively succeeds in doing both on the same record only goes to show how far ahead of the pack she's always been. If her earlier albums had provided the inspiration for generations of female performers, 'Hounds' casts the net even wider and has proved a massive influence on genres stretching from goth, indie, folk and even the murkier subgenres of metal where corpsepainted Norwegians are often known to cite her as an inspiration. Add to that the various cover versions of tracks on here from bands across the musical spectrum (Utah Saints' re-appropriation of 'Cloudbursting' for 'Something Good', the Futureheads' mid noughties run through the title track and even The Prodigy's sample from 'Hello Earth' on their first album) and you can see how far and wide the spell cast on here has spread. The understated promo campaign of this album may explain why it's not regarded as an 80s staple in the same way as 'Thriller' or 'Purple Rain' but don't let that fool you - there's no need to trumpet this record's virtues to get people interested, they'll come in their own time and will most likely fall in love with what they find when they get there. If you've not travelled through the universe of Kate Bush before then I envy you the journey - start here and call me when you're done. Take your time.

Check out : 'And dream of sheep', the spellbinding entrance to the Ninth wave. 

2. The Jesus and Mary Chain - Psychocandy
British indie was enjoying a fairly robust period of success in the mid 1980s, albeit one often restricted to critical circles in the music press and underground radio. Acts like The Smiths, and Echo and the Bunnymen had broken into the top ten but still remained bands more synonymous with drinking tea in provincial bedrooms rather than going out and conquering the world. There was definitely room for a bit of cocksure swagger and confrontational rock 'n' roll, the likes of which hadn't been seen since the advent of punk the best part of a decade earlier and it eventually came not with the arrival of one band but with the founding of a record label that provided the springboard for countless British guitar bands to break into the mainstream over the next decade. The label was Creation Records, run by Alan McGee, a Scot who had relocated to London in order to indulge his passion for punk and subversive rock 'n' roll and ended up founding a record label to promote the bands he felt shared his passion for the R'n'R looks and lifestyle - the first group that fit the mould were fellow Caledonians The Jesus and Mary Chain who broke big with their raucous début 'Psychocandy' in 1985 and set the scene for the next ten years of freakish R'n'R success stories on the label including The House of Love, Primal Scream, Ride, Swervedriver, Teenage Fanclub and finally a little known band from Manchester fronted by the Gallagher brothers. The Mary Chain's musical legacy would feed into the output of many of those bands but it was their grouchy nonchalance and provocative public appearances that defined them as the classic Creation band, surpassing even Oasis in their ability to capture people's attention with their intoxicating music whilst refusing to jump through any media hoops and winding up the press and their own audiences to create a dark, dangerous mystique around their abrasive take on classic pop and R'n'R. 

'Psychocandy' nails their signature sound in the record's title, a mixture of the sweet-tooth charm of classic pop music and imagery coupled with the menacing swirl of feedback and deadpan vocal delivery that characterised their songwriting style. The band revered Phil Spector-produced 60s pop and classic surf music but brought their own venom and introversion into the mix to make the populist more personal - a gaggle of misfits from the grey backwater of East Kilbride, they weren't about to act like they'd grown up with flowers in their hair and the candy-coated Ronettes-style pop they drew on was channelled through a wall of acerbic guitar fuzz and despondent vocal echo to satisfy both the melodic thrill of a pop record and the electric rock buzz of a guitar track. You felt like the Mary Chain could happily churn out top 40 chart records to rival the likes of Stock Aitken Waterman if they could be arsed but instead they stuck to their guns and brutalised the pop format to within an inch of its life and eventually breached the top ten on several occasions with their own venomous take on the formula. 'Psychocandy' is best appreciated in this context, as a new take on pop music rather than as a rock critic's wet dream - the band could churn out hits in their sleep and the record boasts several of their more memorable tracks in the feedback-soaked pop lunge of 'You trip me up', the dreamlike swirl of opener 'Just like Honey' and the rampaging warped take on surf music of 'Never Understand'. The latter track is perhaps their best song, essentially Jan and Dean's 'Surf City' soaked in toxic waste and repackaged as a sun-warped tale of alienation and frustration best embodied in the drawn out primal scream that closes the track over a wall of deafening feedback. The band balance out the rough with the smooth, laying out mellow swathes of laidback guitar pop on 'Sowing Seeds' and 'Cut Dead', the latter fading into the squalling bloodrush of 'In a hole' to kick things back up several notches and prevent anyone from drifting off into too comfortable a place (as I found out when I put the album on prior to a mid-afternoon snooze). The breezy surf rush of 'Taste of Cindy' would be laid bare as a perfect pop gem when they stripped it back to an acoustic version on B-sides comp 'Barbed Wire Kisses' a few years later and the dour Joy Division-esque sign off of closer 'It's so hard' acts as a reminder of the dark, foreboding headspace that they came from. The Mary Chain would win plaudits a plenty for the album and bag themselves a string of hits starting with non-album single 'Some Candy Talking' the following year whilst their labelmates Ride and My Bloody Valentine scored independent success with their own takes on the Mary Chain's fuzz pop. Drummer Bobby Gillespie would leave after the album's release to found Primal Scream and the Reid brothers would pilot the group through various phases of success before finally laying it to rest in the late 1990s, their final album perhaps significantly ranking as one of Creation's last releases before the label folded at the turn of the millennium. The legacy of both the band and their parent label is well-documented in the documentary 'Upside Down' (itself named after the Mary Chain's début single) which is well worth checking out as an introduction to loads of great bands that will feature on my yearly lists as part of this series so go take a look if you've not already seen it. 'Psychocandy' is the ideal introduction into that fascinating universe and still sounds great - if you've never had the pleasure then crank this one up loud and drink in the sweet rush of volume, lust and mystery than runs through every track. You'll be back for more. 

Check out : 'Never Understand', encapsulating alienation better than a planet full of emo bands ever could.

3. The Pogues - Rum, Sodomy and the Lash
Shane Magowan's decision to blend traditional Irish music with the modern punk of the mid 1980s was celebrated as a stroke of musical genius in some quarters but the man himself has always been keen to downplay his creation, often stating that he was surprised nobody else has thought of it before him. The cocktail isn't exactly rocket science in any case - both genres are widely appreciated and instantly accessible and have the added quality of sounding better the more you drink so it's little surprise that the Pogues went on to become such a well-loved institution over the years. Their clattering début 'Red Roses for me' landed in 1984 to much acclaim, mixing revisited folk classics with modern tales of drunken rampages but it was their follow-up 'Rum, Sodomy and the Lash' that cemented them as a force to be reckoned with - less scattershot than its predecessor, the record struck a perfect balance between rabble-ready folk punk and plaintive romantic ballads with Magowan's alehouse poetry fitting nicely alongside a well-chosen cluster of covers. The band's accidental role as the inspiration for numerous Celtic punk bands pedalling a tired stereotype-reinforcing brand of red-faced Oirish folk rock doesn't do them justice - the Pogues' repertoire was a lot wider than that of a St Patrick's Day house band, their material blended the raucous dynamics of 80s punk with Magowan's flair for poetry and storytelling which allowed them to explore romance and history alongside their ramshackle hymns to boozing and brawling. Their frontman's cult status as a defiant stance against the institutions of dentistry and sobriety is admired by many but Magowan deserves credit as one of music's great romantics, soaking up the amorous failings and refuge in history typical of your average barfly and translating them into heartbreakingly coherent form over music that wasn't too savage to drown out the tender wit and starry-eyed desire of his lyrics. When they tapped into the hopeless romantic in all of us over music that suited the six beers deep frenzied energy of a punk gig, the Pogues were pretty much unbeatable. 

Rampaging opener 'The sickbed of Cuchulainn' fires off every weapon in the band's arsenal over three minutes of relentless folked-up mayhem but they temper their assault from there on in, allowing slow boil storytelling to come to the forefront on Magowan's tragicomic tale of a rent boy's descent into ruin on 'The old main drag' and the hopeless romance of end of the night gem 'A pair of brown eyes'. Elsewhere history acts as the main subject matter : 'Navigator' pays tribute to the Irish workers who forged the railways of Britain, 'Dirty Old Town' pitches tender scenes of romance against a backdrop of industrial England and closer 'The band played Waltzing Matilda' unfolds slowly over eight minutes as an epic monument to the futility of war. The band aren't averse to a spot of punk humour either, drafting in sole female member Cait O'Riordan to sing trad staple 'I'm a man you don't meet every day' and mixing in screeching Widow Twankee vocals on their run through 'A Gentleman Soldier'. And when they decide to crank up the pace they don't fuck around - 'Billy's Bones' stampedes through two minutes of frantic folk punk whilst live favourite 'Sally MacLennane' acts as the perfect foot-stomping call-and-response show closer. The band strike the balance nicely : half their own material, half revisits of folk tunes or covers of songs by like-minded artists and a mix of influences from the emerald Isle as well as Australia, America and their period backdrop of urban Britain. 'Rum...' doesn't deserve to be dismissed as the aural equivalent of green beer and leprechaun hats, there's a lot more to love on this album than you might expect when confronted with the legions of cod-Irish chumps who've culturally adopted the Pogues since its release and it remains their most finely crafted set to this day. Shane Magowan's teeth and liver may not enjoy a particular long lifespan but you can count on this album surviving them to remain a perennial favourite.

Check out : 'The old main drag', an endearing honest depiction of blowing dick for a living.

4. Tom Waits - Rain Dogs
The music world needs its troubadours, those whose role it is to tell stories rather than just pen catchy tunes and sell records. Pop music isn't necessarily incompatible with such traditions but it does tend to present tighter parameters to work within than the more cinematic realms of modern folk, a genre that was very much in vogue in 1985 as the increasingly synthetic, inoffensive material padding out the singles charts drained media interest in mainstream pop and prompted many less likely hitmakers to emerge from the deeper waters. The likes of Shane Magowan and Nick Cave rose forth from the ashes of punk to draw inspiration from history and literature to fashion new, more substantial slabs of dive bar folk rock and dark-hued storytelling but both would freely admit that they were riding Tom Waits' coattails at the time - he had after all benefited from a ten-year headstart and was in the middle of crafting a three-album triptych that many regard as his finest hour when 'Rain Dogs' dropped by in '85. It didn't yield any hit singles or get his music on the radio but the rising tide of folk in the charts opened it up a path to critical acclaim and NME bestowed their coveted 'Album of the Year' award upon it as many listeners found a level of human drama on it that made most period pop records sound threadbare and pointless by comparison. Waits has retained that same appeal for generations of new fans since then in the same way that Johnny Cash did when he re-emerged in the 1990s, taking up pride of place in the record collections of people who look down their noses and rock 'n' roll whilst still crossing over to fans of punk, metal and alternative rock in their droves. His material has been covered by everyone from the Eagles to the Ramones and he's notched several huge critical successes over the years including a couple of well-deserved Grammies but has never lost the underground appeal that suggests he'd be happiest playing his music in a smoky nightclub to a crowd of drunken deadbeats, blissfully oblivious to the fact that platinum-plated rock stars are netting massive radio hits with covers of his material.

'Rain Dogs' works best as a journey through the fascinatingly grotty world of the mid 80s New York that provides its backdrop - apparently he wrote the whole thing over two weeks in a basement room in some shitty bit of NYC which somehow seems strangely appropriate. There's something about this record that makes it sound like it's piping out from the sewer, the soundtrack to stuff happening in the middle of the night in a city where there's still plenty going on in the wee small hours. Marimbas tinkle across the songs like skeletons dancing in the drains, discordant guitars twang like a drunk stumbling up the stairs and percussive thuds and clunks litter the record like the remnants of an argument several rooms away. And across the top of it all there's Waits' distinctive voice, sometimes a barely audible croak, sometimes a sinister spoken-word narrative and on occasions the booze-soaked foundations of a truly stunning rock vocal. He slips into the scratchy saloon-bar growl of a wizened country singer of 'Gun Street Girl' and 'Diamonds and Gold' and crafts a pantomime wheeze like a spluttering carny on 'Cemetery Polka' and 'Tango Til They're Sore' but never lays it on too thick, tailoring his delivery to each of the 19 tracks without repeating himself and lets each story develop it its own time. '9th and Hennepin' recounts a spoken-word tale of seedy city-dwellers with enough panache to avoid slipping into clumsy melodrama and tender end of the night ballad 'Time' commands total silence from the listener in the same way that Jeff Buckley managed with his cover of 'Halleluja' - Tori Amos covered it years later and pared it back even further for extra drama, although its to Waits' credit that he didn't have to go that far on the original to get the point across. That's equally true on 'Downtown Train' which presents the bares bones of a massive 80s rock anthem but goes no further, leaving the option for some sweaty stadium rocker to slam a bigger engine on it and ride it to the top - it came as no surprise when Rod Stewart released a high-octane version of the track a couple of years later and bagged himself a top ten hit. Waits' strength is his knowing when to hold back, leaving the commercial pot of gold for others and only hob-nobbing with like-minded souls - he drafts in Keith Richards for shit-kicking rockers 'Union Square' and 'Big Black Mariah' to perk up proceedings and prove that Keef still had some tricks up his sleeves back when the Stones were trotting out their shittiest material and Mick Jagger was dancing the street with David Bowie. In fact 'Rain Dogs' reminds me of 'Exile on Main St' in the way that you can stick it on random and run through a killer double album without wanting to skip any of the tracks, although where the Stones were soaking up riffs and grooves in a haze of tax-free coke, champagne and groupie poon in Southern France when they recorded 'Exile, Waits was scrutinising the underbelly of America's most cosmopolitan city and filling his music with the seedy, darkly fascinating charms that he uncovered. There's no wallowing in misery here, every track breathes and simmers with brooding urban sleaze, smoky nightclub gravitas and the spluttering life force that somehow refuses to die. 'Rain Dogs' is a journey through the depths that is well worth taking - you can imagine Waits' grizzled head popping out of a manhole and inviting you to climb down with him for a tour of the underworld. If that ever happens, GO! If not, content yourself with this LP, a bottle of Johnny Walker Black and thoroughly satisfying listening session buried deep within the wee small hours.

Check out : 'Jockey Full of Bourbon', a nursery rhyme slurred out through the smoke.

5. The Fall - This Nation's Saving Grace
Punk, when you think about it, was only a short term fad. The arrival of the Sex Pistols undoubtedly changed British music for the better but the band were only active for about 18 months tops and by the mid-80s even their peers had long since ceased to produce anything worthwhile - 1985 saw The Clash drop their universally disliked swansong 'Cut the Crap' whilst the Undertones' lead singer Feargal Sharkey went pop soul and bagged himself a chart topping single with 'A Good Heart'. Survivors of the first wave of punk in the late 70s must have wondered where it had all gone wrong. The best way of looking at the dissolution of the initial punk phenomenon is perhaps to view the emergence of the Pistols and their ilk as the boot in the arse British music needed in 1976-77 - they were a shock to the system and made everyone stand to attention but ultimately they all eventually sat down again. Post punk represented not the boot that initially made contact but rather the impact itself, the slight bruising to the spine that left the recipient shuffling in their seat for weeks afterwards, an unsettling discomfort that the victim eventually comes to grudgingly accept. The boot becomes only a distant memory but the pain in the arse remains. And that's the best way to view post punk's standard bearers The Fall, a long term musical pain in the arse that would linger in the background for decades after punk's initial explosion and come to influence numerous bands on both sides of the Atlantic to the point where it's difficult to imagine life/arse without them. 

Mark E. Smith and co. got off the blocks in 1978 and laid down some solid foundations with their early material but they were always in it for the long haul as opposed to overnight success and they were only just hitting their stride by the time the mid 80s rolled around. Along with its predecessor 'The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall', 'This Nation's Saving Grace' saw the band establish themselves as mainstays of British indie, triggering a period of commercial and critical success that saw them churn out a semi-decent album every year for over a decade and remain a consistent undercurrent to the changing musical landscape that surrounded them. Always far enough below the surface to evade mainstream detection, they nevertheless remained a constant presence and the occasional sea change would see them emerge into plain view as an ugly reminder of what lurks beneath the waves, the indie equivalent of the grim-faced socialist worker candidate present at every election since 1973. And even if their chart placings didn't see them taken seriously be the mainstream, it was perhaps unsurprising that their biggest fan allowed them to shine in a separate medium, John Peel's annual festive fifty embracing them over the years as the most featured band on the countdown. 'This Nation's...' isn't radically different to any of their subsequent releases and I personally prefer their 90s output but it nevertheless acts as a pretty good introduction to their art, combining the leering guitar menace of 'Bombast' and 'Barmy' with the infectious charm of Smith's rambling stream of consciousness delivery on 'Gut of the Quantifier' and period classic 'Spoilt Victorian Child'. The band have the enviable talent of being able to keep their remit fairly narrow yet still pen tunes that you can remember after one listen - Smith uses his voice as an instrument as effectively as any rapper and though the riffs are always catchy it's a given that the band are backing him up and not the other way round. Though for many they represent the embodiment of tea-drinking student indie rock, I consider The Fall as one of guitar music's closest links with dance culture, there's a rhythmic sensibility here that most of their whiteboy peers couldn't imitate if their lives depended on it. Their caustic sense of humour pervades throughout too, the derisive title placing them firmly in the Northern anti-establishment bracket of Viz magazine and underground indie radio (former member Mark Riley would later surface on primetime Radio One as one half of duo Mark and Lard). The 80s music scene was often too wrapped up in its own shtick to even notice bands like The Fall but time would reveal them as a force strong enough to withstand changing fashions as their peers fell by the wayside - if you're looking for a way in then bag 'This Nation's Saving Grace' and ride the wave out from there, it's a journey well worth taking and this is undoubtedly the best way to begin it.

Check out : 'Spoilt Victorian Child', Smith at his grizzly, shambling best.

6. The Cult - Love
After a frenzy of activity earlier in the decade, rock 'n' roll had slumped to a relative halt by the middle of the 1980s - the burst of creative energy that had seen numerous new bands surface during the initial NWOBHM boom had subsided with the scene leaders either aping Stateside pop rock (Def Leppard, Saxon, Ozzy) or ploughing the same creative furrow over and over (Maiden, Priest, AC/DC). Though the metal underground was bursting at the seams with tangents into extremity that would come to characterise the tail end of the decade, back in 1985 there was precious little in the public eye to get heads a bangin'. The only real glimmer of hope came from the nascent goth rock scene, itself an offshoot from the post-punk movement in which black-clad misanthropes could indulge their rock 'n' roll fantasies and covet major venue tours as opposed to the same old dingy provincial nightclubs full of pongy dry ice. Bands like the Sisters of Mercy, Fields of the Nephilim and The Mission all took the fashion and mystique of early 80s post punk and amped it up louder to create a guitar-heavy hybrid of gothic pomp and hard rock delivery - thing is, most of the records weren't actually that good and veered towards pretentious rock theatre with no real tunes. Some of the bands would improve with age (others wouldn't) but the only group to real nail a crossover success between goth and mainstream rock was The Cult, a bunch of enterprising scoundrels who managed to use their beginnings as a breakthrough goth success as the springboard to take them into the charts and establish themselves as a major force in British rock. 'Love' was their second album and has all the trappings of a record its creators fully intended to be commercially massive, shaking off the unglamorous confines of the provincial goth circuit and bracing themselves for a real crack at the main stage. It worked, and they'd go on to better it at least in commercial terms when their union with über-producer Rick Rubin and a further shift into hard rock territory saw them break America later in the decade, although for some this was a step too far from their roots and left them simply another bunch of leather-clad rockers in a sea of identikit bands clogging up the airwaves before the grunge boom cleaned house and flushed them all out. 'Love' remains the most endearing moment of their upward trajectory, a foot in both their past and their future and arguably their strongest setlist to back it up.

The band's charm came mainly from their front couple of vocalist Ian Astbury and guitarist Billy Duffy, both goth scene vets with designs on becoming major rock stars. Astbury saw himself as spiritual air to Jim Morrison and focussed his lyrical direction on shamanism, native American folklore and aboriginal rituals whilst Duffy had the rock god posturing down to a fine art and had a stockpile of chunky riffs and blazing solos for any occasion. Both get plenty of stage time on 'Love', Astbury's forays into mysticism taking centre stage on ballad 'Brother Wolf, Sister Moon' and opener 'Nirvana' and Duffy's wailing solos dominating cuts like 'Phoenix' and the infectious title track. Best of all are the singles 'Rain', 'Revolution' and the instantly recognisable 'She Sells Sanctuary' - whilst the first two showcase the band's mastery of straightforward arena rock, 'Sanctuary' is an altogether more complex beast, a twirling dervish of echoic guitar lines and thrusting rhythm all held together by Astbury's howling vocals that showers the listener in a sound equal to the mysticism of their lyric sheet. It became the band's breakthrough hit and remains an 80s anthem capable of livening up any DJ set - I remember seeing the crowd go ballistic when 2 Many DJs dropped it into one of their sets à propos of nothing. The rest of the record slips effortlessly between romantic folklore and stadium riffery, favouring straightforward statements of intent ('Nirvana', 'Revolution', 'Love') over poetic complexity and crafting every track into a potential arena anthem without fulling shaking off the nocturnal grime of their goth club background. The album crashlanded the UK top 5 upon release and saw them take up residence in the singles charts at a time when their peers could only dream of such success and they went on to graduate fully to mid-Atlantic arena rock as the decade wore on, eventually succumbing to changing times and infighting as the 90s rolled around. 'Love' sees them back at their game-changing moment and remains an endearing portrait of a band making their bid for mainstream rock success in cocky but calculated fashion. It'd be a pretty impressive set in any context but set against the relative creative wasteland of mid 80s British rock, 'Love' is out in a field of its own as the only rock LP worth bothering with at all. 

Check out : 'Phoenix' live in New York back in '85, Astbury and Duffy duking it out in their prime.

7. Possessed - Seven Churches
'Seven Churches on vinyl or fuck off!', as it says on the cult Lock Up T-shirt sported in extreme metal circles. Such is the reverence accorded to Possessed's splunderous début from 1985 by those drawn to the noisier end of the musical spectrum, and the praise is well deserved for a record that can claim its place amongst the elite releases that truly changed the course of heavy music. Whilst Venom's equally influential early releases had seen the Geordie shock rockers' scrofulous punk-metal hybrid unwittingly spawn a sea of imitators across the realms of transgressive music via what seemed like a fortuitous combination of provocative theatrics and shitty production, Possessed's equally ferocious début relied less on shock tactics and more on taking the music to new extremes of bovine brutality and rampaging speed. Released onto a metal scene becoming saturated by the thrash phenomenon when the band were still finishing high school, 'Seven Churches' bent the genre into such a warped, grizzly shape that people had no idea how to approach it and it represents what was arguably the first 'death metal' record (a genre named after the record's closing track that basically took up the mantle for musical extremity once thrash petered out in the late 1980s). The band were weaned on classic Bay Area Thrash (Metallica, Exodus) but side-stepped trends in favour of plumbing deeper levels of subsonic brutality and relentless rhythmic assault, resulting in a sonic cocktail that sounded like the band had dug right through the crust of the earth and come out the other side with something bafflingly alien and fiendishly addictive. Their innovative approach to creating new sounds granted them an otherworldly appeal that transcended the crude Satanism of their lyrics - vocalist Jeff Beccera's guttural bog-belch sounded like he was retching up his own intestines in sharp contrast to the high-pitched shrieking favoured amongst his thrash peers at the time whilst guitarist Larry Lalonde's distorted guitar lines and relentless shredding foretold the virtuoso lead mayhem that many of death metal's most revered guitarists would make their trademark at the turn of the decade. Coupled with Beccera's rumbling bass and drummer Mike Sus' pillaging rhythms, the record threatened to spin right off the turntable and splatter against the wall in an explosion of ectoplasmic gunk if you didn't keep a close eye on it.

An active interest in extreme metal generally depends on whether or not the listener actively want to stray outside their comfort zone and explore new options - not everyone wants to frolic in the sewers of the audio world and that's entirely understandable. For those that did back in the 1980s there were plenty of attractive options fermenting away as the decade progressed, some pandering to the anti-authoritarian thrills and spills sought after by the average hyperactive adolescent and others displaying new sonic delights to indulge in like a new flavour of candy or an innovatively violent video game. Possessed fall into the latter category - whilst their music packs enough punch to satisfy the transgressive thrill-seekers (from the inverted cross 'n' pointy tail logo to the lyric sheet peppered with profanity and occult references), their real attraction came from the almost psychedelic sonic stew they produced. 'Seven Churches' wasn't hell-bent on scaring the listener to death, its real strength lay in its lurid combination of mind-altering guitar noise and regurgitative vocal effects - you feel that as musicians the band could have gone off in all sorts of different directions outside metal but it just turned out that they had a set of cool ideas and metal was the ideal sphere in which they could be brought to life. Wacked-out film samples mingle with bonkers metal onslaught on cuts like opener 'The Exorcist', the metallic bell toll of 'Fallen Angel' and the backwards-masked 'Pentagram' whilst demonic riff whirlwinds engulf the listener on white-knuckle mindfucks like 'Satan's Curse' and 'Twisted Minds' - if the more traditionally minded thrash bands sounded like someone tearing your house to bits, 'Seven Churches' was the equivalent of having it sucked off its foundations and deposited in a trippy parallel universe to then be swarmed by Satanic Oompa-Loompahs and the remains of a partially squashed Wicked Witch. The ball-trippingly warped nature of the record would live on in the band's later endeavours, offering only one further full-length and a Joe Satriani produced EP before splitting in '87 just as the death metal movement they spawned had started to gain momentum - Larry Lalonde joined experimental thrashers Blind Illusion and later formed Beavis and Butthead approved funk metal nutjbos Primus whilst Jeff Beccera narrowly escaped with his life following a shooting that left him paralysed from the waist down but nevertheless went back out on the road in the late noughties as vocalist with tribute act Sadistic Intent to perform 'Seven Churches' to a new audience most of whom were still in nappies when it was first released. Such is the legacy of a true metal landmark, and the boys deserve the attentions of all those who worship at the altar of extreme music as well as a sideways glance from listeners who are merely curious of what your stereo would sound like if you stuck it in the microwave with the cast of the 'Hellraiser' horror franchise and a bubbling vat of black blancmange. This record will bend your brain into shapes you never thought possible. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Check out : 'Death Metal' live at Wacken 2007 with Jeff Beccera rocking the fuck out in a wheelchair. IN A WHEELCHAIR. Now tell me what's more metal than that?

8. The Waterboys - This is the Sea
You can't help but feel that pop had become a dirty word in the music industry by 1985, the quick-fix synth anthems of the New Romantic era and the simple riff-driven radio hits of the post-punk period having drifted into irrelevance as artists and punters searched for something a bit more tangible and earthy to hang their hat on. Folk's infusion of the mainstream around the same time came about not as a direct revolt against the plastic chart fodder of the era and more as a way for the more ambitious songwriters of the times to take their ideas to a more widescreen stage as production values improved and the focus shifted from the flash in the pan singles market to the more sustainable realms of the long player. Like Shane Magowan, Big Country's Stuart Adamson and New Model Army's Justin Sullivan, Waterboys mainman Mike Scott first cut his musical teeth in the punk scene but soon drifted towards the folkier end of the spectrum as a release for his more romantic ideas and keen interest in history - he'd arguably drifted further from the fist in your face appeal of classic punk than most of his peers by 1985 and the breakthrough success of 'This is the Sea' but the album was no commercial cop out and it still resonates with enough free spirit enthusiasm and whirlwind folk energy to reel in even the most casual listener. Scott had laid down two formative LPs with his folk rock outfit whilst taxing his ass on the touring circuit but his blueprint from the beginning was to create 'Big Music', material capable of filling huge venues and connecting with audiences spilling off over the horizon via a cocktail of familiar folk influences and a foray into the arena rock of the mid 80s - things came to a head with 'This is the Sea', thanks in no small part to its omnipresent lead single 'The Whole of the Moon' and the record went on to cement their position in the UK mainstream and establish Scott as one of the more likeable musical visionaries of the era, capable of dabbling in folk culture and eco-politics without turning into an irritating bore like many of his peers. He'd come ever closer to severing his ties with rock as the decade advanced and move steadily into traditional folk music via a move to Ireland that saw his band notch domestic success to eclipse even their most lucrative period in the UK before shepherding his project through various genres shifts as festival mainstays and widescreen rock revivalists but his mid 80s heyday is destined to be remembered as his finest hour and 'This is the Sea' is a pretty faultless trip through the sound of '85

Spinning folk music into the mix hadn't been a barrier to notching a monster hit before 'The Whole of the Moon' - Dexy's Midnight Runners had coined it in with 'Come on Eileen' three years previously but Scott's own crossover hit was much more of a slow-burning love affair than the drink-spilling anthem that 'Eileen' would come to embody as it began to lose some of its appeal via repeated airings at office parties and wedding discos. Striding in on the back of a thumping piano riff courtesy of Karl Wallinger who would later form World Party, the track uses every trick in the book to fill massive imaginary venues as it unravels - staccato drum cracks, trumpet cat-calls and a mellow female countervocal to undercut Scott's own scratchy delivery. The lyrics expand into an ever-widening arc of 'We're the same but totally different' romantic face-offs as the tracks spirals towards its climax and they even get away with throwing some sax in there towards the end without killing the buzz. The track became a moderate chart hit that year but went on to attain cult radio success and was eventually re-released in 1991 and went on to go top three in a year that saw a surge in nostalgia for mid-80s production values as Madonna's 'Crazy for you' and The Cure's 'Close to me' also resurfaced to improve on their original 1985 returns. There's more enticing depths to plumb on the full length too, the pseudo-Celtic groundswell of 'The Pan Within' giving a hint of where Scott would head to over later releases, 'Old England' casting an eye over past glories in contrast with the waning fortunes of the present and the grandstanding sonics of the title track succeeding in creating a sound big enough to carry across the ocean with just Scott's voice and acoustic guitar augmented with a bit of studio cushioning. Scott's not forgotten how to rock either - the rampaging folk rock onslaught of 'Medicine Bow' sounds like the ideal kickstart to every live show and the hoedown theatrics of 'Be My Enemy' can't mask the surprising seam of venom running through the lyrics. Period production tricks like the occasional belch of saxophone and the sort of soft focus percussive whump popular on the soul pop million-sellers of the day make 'This is the Sea' sound anchored to its era but this is only a bad thing if you find the wide-lens theatrics of the period off-putting, otherwise the LP will bring back the halycon days of pre-irony rock spectacle, all buckets of dry ice and drums that sound like they're echoing back off the walls of a castle. Scott's decision to not simply up the ante on his next release probably also spared the Waterboys much of the scorn poured upon their mid 80s peers as the laidback acoustic folk thrum of 'Fisherman's Blues' saw them sidestep the pop charts in favour of a more rootsy charm that saw them coin it in over the Irish Sea and set up a fairly reliable timetable of festival slots for years to come whilst their decade-ending best of reminded many of how many good tunes they'd written that had gone undiscovered. Mike Scott thus remains one of the 80s best-hidden talents, a songwriter capable of scaling the greatest heights yet savvy enough to take his foot off the pedal before he started to bore people and one whose music can survive endless repeats over supermarket radio without inciting hatred amongst unwilling listeners. You'll probably like 'This is the Sea' but if you do then please keep it under wraps - it's probably better that way for all concerned.

Check out : the title track live and organic - worth taking your time over.

9. Dream Academy - s/t
This is perhaps a tangent into relatively cheesy territory but I'm going to stand firm in my view that Dream Academy's début is actually a pretty decent album. You'll almost certainly never have heard it but you'll probably be familiar with their worldwide hit 'Life in a Northern Town' either in its original form or as the backbone to Dario G's late 90s dance anthem 'Sunchyme' - the band bagged a brief spell in the spotlight thanks to its success in 1985 but their star soon faded and their output has remained largely in the shadows of glove compartment tape graveyards and charity shop CD racks since then. Such an ignoble fate is hardly deserved - whilst it's true that their music hasn't aged particularly well it does provide a formidable dose of pastoral folk pop in the vein of Kate Bush and post-Waters Pink Floyd (Dave Gilmour was mates with their singer and co-produced the album). The band are settled in crossover chart territory and their début lacks the theatrical depth and cloud-hopping mysticism of 'Hounds of Love' but they draft in an impressively diverse range of instruments to fill out the colours and their pop-tinged compositions are bolstered by soft-focus swathes of woodwind and timpani that rebound off the walls to give things a theatrical wide open space feel. Big sounds were all the rage back then and 'Dream Academy' sounds soooo 1985 that it's hardly surprising they pretty much fell off the map after that, although the fact that they used so many different instruments during the recording process also made it practically impossible for them to tour which probably didn't help either. They started with the right idea though and their lofty ambitions resulted in a finely-crafted slab of period pomp that nails the dry ice and epic sensibilities of classic night-driving mid 80s chart pop with considerable aplomb.

One of the best things about the 1980s was the wealth of new technology available to make pop records and this meant that the music on the radio was constantly evolving as production methods moved forward as quickly as musical trends and underground fashion - put this album up against the cold analogue synth pop of Soft Cell and the Human League only three or four years earlier and it sounds like there were light years between them. I love those records too but for me they're music from a time I don't remember, hits that I know through their presence on latter day radio rotation rather than from when they first emerged into popular culture - in turn, 'Life in a Northern Town' pinpoints a stage in my childhood where I was able to remember songs and attach memories to their initial spell in the charts. One of my prized possessions was a 'Hits' compilation tape featuring the track alongside other soft-focus radio masterpieces like the Carrs' 'Drive', A-ha's 'Take On Me' and Echo and the Bunnymen's 'Bring on the Dancing Horses' and it evokes some of my earliest memories of disappearing into the intriguing world of pop music with all its inherent mystery and magic. The rest of the album lacks the immediacy of their global chart hit but there's enough spellbinding storytelling here to make you want to stay a while longer - 'In Places on the Run' 
drifts by like 'Momentary Lapse of Reason'-era Floyd (don't listen to Roger Waters, that's a good album!), woodwind-soothed smoothies 'Moving On' and 'Edge of Forever' turn the lights down low whilst staying the right side of coffee advert slush and they revert to potential hit-makers on upbeat chart botherers like 'Bound to Be' and '(Johnny) New Light' (why was every male protagonist in 80s pop called fucking Johnny?). 'Dream Academy' could be put to good use easing kids off to slumberland but don't let that detract from its value as a superb piece of period pop - 1985 was all about billowing sleeves, echoic production and fairytale endings and this record has them all in spades to craft one of the era's undiscovered gems and kickstart numerous dream sequences in the process.

Check out : 'In Places on the Run', and feel your troubles slowly fall away.

10. Anthrax - Spreading the Disease
Metal. It's a wonderful thing. The amount of stellar material unleashed onto the heavier end of the music spectrum across the 1980s is a joy to behold and the era continues to be held in high esteem by generations of younger listeners who weren't even born at the time - my recent experience getting the shite stomped out of me at a Kreator show brought home the wide-ranging appeal of old school thrash as patch jacket clad teenagers clashed heads with sweaty skullet-sporting veterans who were there back in the band's infancy. Metal's evolution across the 80s is as rich and varied as dance music's own trajectory across the 90s, each year signalling the emergence of a new sub-genre or a considerable sea change from one trend to another and a surfeit of new bands popping up across the underground who would rise into the mainstream as the years progressed. The dawn of the decade saw NWOBHM hit big on both sides of the Atlantic, swiftly followed by the US glam boom of Sunset Strip and a burgeoning extreme metal scene across Europe as the likes of Bathory, Mercyful Fate and Celtic Frost laid down pointers to the darker realms metal would explore later in the decade. The biggest boom of the mid 1980s was undoubtedly the thrash explosion though, an irrepressible fusion of punk's manic energy and classic metal's headbanging riffs that by 1985 had become the freshest, most vital sonic cocktail doing the rounds in underground clubs across the globe. Scenes blossomed across the globe as rivet heads sought to bring metal to new extremes, the Germans showcasing their brutal efficiency with the likes of Sodom, Destruction and Kreator whilst the US spat forth the 'big four' of Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthtrax, each pedalling their own distinct take on the genre to equally devastating effect. I've left the first three for 1986's listings along with Kreator as they all laid down career peaks that year as high top sneakers and neon T-shirt designs became metal's look of choice but Anthrax shouldn't be overlooked as a pillar of thrash's ascent to the top of the metal foodchain. Their delivery was perhaps the most lighthearted of the major thrash bands, injecting a dose of comic relief into their music and unashamedly targetting the singles charts with their colourful, cartoonish blasts of easily accessible metal but that's not to say that they weren't as lethal a proposition as their sour-faced peers - Anthrax could snap necks at will with the often overlooked arsenal of twin axeman Scott Ian and Dan Spitz providing the pit-friendly speed metal riffs and the relentless rhythm section of bassist Frank Bello and superhuman guitarist-turned-drummer Charlie Benante providing the engine room for some of metal's most rollicking moments. Add singer Joey Belladonna's soaring vocal yelp - pitched somewhere between the siren blast Maiden's Bruce Dickinson and the stadium howl of Journey's Steve Perry - and you had a potent cocktail capable of prompting Cheshire cat grins and furious circle pits across the world's metal clubs.

'Speading the Disease' was the band's second album but marks the beginning of their existence as a true force in metal - their bratty début 'Fistful of Metal' was an endearingly savage opening salvo but its scattershot approach was channelled to more lethal effect on 'Disease' as Bello and Belladonna both joined the ranks to complete one of metal's most accomplished squad sheets. They could match the face-melting energy of their grizzlier peers Slayer, Kreator and Exodus but decided against wallowing in occult mysticism or leaden cold war imagery in favour of brightly-coloured comic book thrills and spills and their music mirrored this appeal, keeping the pace frantic with a rush of positive energy and goofy humour to prove that you could be just as devastating without rubbing the listener's face in the darkside. Breakthrough hit 'Madhouse' hits the balance perfectly, kicking off with a grin-inducing sample ('It's time for your medication Mr Brown'......'BWAHAHAHAHAHA!') before a deluge of screwball riffs and pounding rhythms do battle with Belladonna's shrieking narratives and the band's gang vocal choruses which have more in common with classic US hardcore than the leaden crunch of Maiden-esque period metal. Better still are the breakneck riff assaults of 'Aftershock' and 'Gung Ho' that practically pin the listener to the wall with their ludicrously intense tempos and relentless enthusiasm - you can imagine just how much fun could be had down at the front of one of their shows back in the day. Comic book horror rears its head on the lurid likes of 'Lone Justice' and 'Medusa', both retaining the brightly coloured charm of pulp fiction comic art that the band would use to even better effect on their Judge Dredd-inspired breakthrough hit 'I am the Law'. They even nail a slow 'n' spooky mid-paced gem with 'Armed and Dangerous' bridging the gap nicely with their earlier material in the vein of Judas Priest's stadium-filling anthems of the era and just about avoid slipping into ham-fisted gratuitousness on Third Reich dissection 'The Enemy'. Metal often wallows in life's darker moments for its subject matter but Anthrax always kept their focus on the fun rather than downcast tributes to Satan and nuclear warfare and were open-minded enough to take on board influences outside the notoriously introverted world of heavy metal - they'd become the first metal band to fully embrace hip-hop via a twin-headliner tour with Public Enemy bolstered by crossover hits 'I'm the Man' and 'Bring the Noise', the latter combining PE's combative vocal delivery with Anthrax's balls-out metal assault to craft a universally-recognised classic. Their ability to hang with bands across the musical spectrum granted them an acclaim amongst the indie press that would never be extended to their peers and they remain one of the only metal bands you can get away with playing in front of people who dislike the genre without prompting sour looks. The fact that they've achieved all this without compromise deserves considerable praise and recent 'big four' revival tours have reminded new generations of listeners that thrash existed under many different guises back in its formative years. You're probably less likely to come across 'Spreading the Disease' than recognised metal classics like 'Reign in Blood' and 'Master of Puppets' in revivalist appreciation of heavy metal history but don't miss these guys out - 'Spreading' is as good a monument as you'll find to the irrepressible energy of classic thrash and acts as a timely reminder that this music has always been about providing the soundtrack to an evening's good friendly violent fun.

Check out : 'Gung Ho' live - baseball caps, bermuda shorts and enough energy to light up NYC.

Tune of the Year

Pet Shop Boys - 'West End Girls'

In a year where pop found itself dethroned by radio rock and wine bar soul, 'West End Girls' was like a breath of fresh air. Released as a bare-bones club version the previous year, the boys repackaged the track in a slicker, more streamlined format that married Tennant's spoken-word narrative with a lush backdrop of clubland hi-hats, funk bass and keyboards and that unmistakable dry ice synth rush. It gradually wove its way into the singles charts and didn't reach number one until early January 1986 but the track represented a turning point for British pop as the lurid theatrics of the New Romantic era gave way to a more straight-faced, calculated take on the genre. The subversive content and androgynous charm were still there but direct confrontation gave way to an understated, everyman appeal that saw bands like Erasure, Thompson Twins and Tears for Fears go toe to toe with the rock behemoths of the age and escort pop into the colder, harsher light of the late 1980s. The video patented the format for introvert/extrovert synth duos for years to come and the boys went on to outsell all of their rivals by a considerable margin, notching four #1 hits before the end of the decade and navigating their way through most of the 90s without slipping into wanton nostalgia. 'West End Girls' remains their one truly iconic moment (brilliantly paroided on 'Flight of the Conchords' here) and stands as a watershed moment in pop history that still sounds fantastic.