LAST YEAR was a breakthrough year for intelligent and sensual music, as well as for established artists confronting a new maturity. But you might not know that from listening to the radio or reading the sales charts dominated by such mainstream popsters as Foreigner, Asia, John Cougar, Journey and Loverboy or such quirky newcomers as the Go-Go's, Flock of Seagulls and Stray Cats.
The real story has seldom been on the strictly commercial surface. It is, rather, with artists whose visions and lofty aspirations extend beyond technique and craft to reveal inner experiences. Risk-taking is not strictly tied to innovation (Neil Young points out that "every wave is new until it breaks"), and while there were several noticeable trends (synth-pop, rap, harmolodic expansion, African pop), much of the year's most interesting work was done by veterans on familiar ground.
Although several albums were rooted in exuberant or ambitious sound (Marshall Crenshaw, Talking Heads, Blasters), the artists whose work stood out--Joni Mitchell, Elvis Costello, Richard and Linda Thompson, X, Donald Fagen, Billy Joeland Lou Reed--tend to share a command of language and ideas, renewed depth and accessibility and a raw uncompromising honesty about their personal lives. Several albums were long in the making, but the wait was worthwhile. A number of artists offered the best work of their careers, music that was significant and durable.
There was in much of their music a recurrent subtext: Holding on and breaking up seemed equally hard to do. Marriages figured in three important albums, peer group separations in another two. All the artists involved seemed to come to terms with encroaching maturity. Rock has been traditionally (though not totally) tied to adolescent concerns; in the past, the tendency was to bury the issue by rocking out a la Dorian Gray or to deal with getting older without dealing with growing up. But this year a number of artists were willing to address the issue.
Joni Mitchell, "Wild Things Run Fast" (Geffen). These songs are less the confessions of a singer-songwriter than the experienced counsel and observations of a spry spy in the house of love. No more squinting through "For the Roses"-colored glasses at relationships with lovers, friends and children; they're now seen clearly and confusedly, just as in real life. Mitchell also unveils a newfound warmth and accessibility lacking in recent studio experiments.
Elvis Costello, "Imperial Bedroom" (Columbia). Like a Datsun, England's finest songwriter is driven. For the most accessible album of his career, Costello finesses the emotional landscape in low gear and apparently enjoys the sensible pace. Like Mitchell, Costello has warmed up to the point where he's now half investigative reporter and half editorial writer, focusing the angry energy of the former and refracting it through the calming distance of the latter. As always, he's covering the dangerous domestic beat, on the lookout for emotional fascists and unwitting victims; when he gets a lead, Costello twists the words and hidden intentions until they're tear-dry, wraps them in surprisingly spare arrangements and delivers them from the heart. It's the kind of literate pop that gives songwriting a good name.
Lou Reed, "The Blue Mask" (RCA). Having survived the agony of the '70s, Reed has found happiness in marriage and the suburbs; getting happy has led to a walk on the mild side that also has produced some of the finest songs of his post-Velvet Underground career. Domestic calm has inspired intimacy and warmth, but there is still enough paranoia to remind us that even the suburbs are part of the real, dangerous world. And the guitar playing (mostly by Robert Quine) is brittle and brilliant.
Billy Joel, "The Nylon Curtain" (Columbia). Joel's cool commercial instincts have sometimes obscured his acute social observations, but the dark mood and anxiety of separating from his wife inspired some of his most caustic and challenging songwriting ever. He's ended up dealing not only with emotional crowding and its aftermath but with the decaying dreams of the good life and the shattered aspirations of a generation that came of age in Vietnam. Joel has taken chances yet has managed to remain accesible to his public, a quality shared with most of the other artists here.
Richard and Linda Thompson, "Shoot Out the Lights" (Hannibal). One of the most compelling and imaginative guitarists of our times, Richard Thompson has labored too long in obscurity. Perhaps it's his bleak emotional aesthetic or his austere folk-based melodicism, but there is a terrible beauty and a menacing urgency to Richard Thompson's songs underlined by tensile vocals, his semisour, Linda's semisweet. Such intelligent agony proved too much: After a rare tour in America, the couple seperated, leaving the album as a chilling epitath, particularly the ironically harsh "Don't Renege on Our Love." These are songs about the human struggle . . . and about losing.
X, "Under the Big Black Sun" (Elektra). The brilliant songs and harrowingly energetic delivery of another odd married couple, Exene Cervenka and John Doe, make this the third straight album by the Los Angeles quartet to make it into the year's best. Having outgrown its hard-core punk origins, X's increasingly expansive imagination leads to acid meditations on love, temptation and guilt, death and the ambiguity of faith (Catholic variety), all tempered with humanist concern and sometimes lightened with uncharacteristic, self-depreciating humor. This is raging rock on the cutting edge of poetry (Cervenka has, in fact, just published a compelling book of poems), an incautious encounter with the dark side.
Donald Fagen, "The Nightfly" (Warner Bros.). Although the group has finally split, this is basically a Steely Dan record without Walter Becker. The only noticeable difference is a more specific mordant wit. Otherwise it's expectantly dense, immaculately produced, melodically sophisticated and as catchy as a rampaging flu bug (in other words, even if Fagen didn't have anything to say, you'd have to listen). This is a period piece dealing with growing up suburban in the late '50s and early '60s and having one's life saved by late-night radio that played the liberating jazz whose free spirit flows through most of Steely Dan's work. It's adolescence revisited and examined, not simply extended, provocative art that transcends nostalgia.
Laurie Anderson, "Big Science" (Warner Bros.). Avant but accessible modern art music that warms the computer chips even as it stimulates the imagination. This debut, blending minimal mechanization and maximum magic with sardonic satire, impish humor and lofty insights, could have been better, but it will still be influencing people for years to come. Another influential album: "Music and Rhythm" (PVC), a double record that has made clear real and potential connections between music from East and West, Pan-Africa and Europe, black and white; by using stars such as Peter Gabriel and Pete Townshend as a bridge to ethnic ensembles, this album is a key that should open many ears to the possibilities of transglobal pop.
Marshall Crenshaw, "Marshall Crenshaw" (Warner Bros.). Lean and breezy melodies recalling the innocence of Buddy Holly, the early Beatles and the Byrds. It's a renewal of the heart, a flawless updating of the spirit of primitive rock 'n' roll. Crenshaw has invested his popscapes with irresistable tradition, breathless exuberance and emotional vulnerability. Also doing their bit for American music have been "The Blasters" (Elektra), who have carved their own Mount Rockmore out of fundamental rockabilly, country and blues energies and come up with a load of brand-new, thoroughly intense songs that reeked of vintage rock.
And those cerebral Talking Heads have proved on "The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads" (Sire) that they are a great live band by charting their growth and experimentation from 1977 to 1981 via two records worth of invigorating performances that in almost all cases shamed the studio versions. In the process, these Heads swelled from a band to a virtual rhythm commune, which did wonders for David Byrne's neurotic lyrics.
Although the strongest political record of the year was Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's chilling rap single, "The Message," the clear message in the best black pop of the year was that we're in the midst of a copulation explosion. Luther Vandross espoused romantic patience, Marvin Gaye promised mutual sensuality and Prince roared his insistant sexuality; Michael Jackson was, as always, exuberantly ambivalant.
Luther Vandross, "Forever, for Always, for Love" (Epic). The most promising new singer, songwriter and producer in years, Vandross has put the romance back in the dance by refining the straightforward emotionalism of classic '60s soul and lacing it with ultramodern studio know-how. He's waited years for this shot at being a friendly Dr. Feelgood, and his first two albums have been powerhouse affairs. Vandross also produced and wrote a number of songs for "Jump to It" (Arista), the rewarding return to top form for the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, who sang with old-fashioned fire even as she settled into an '80s soul groove.
Marvin Gaye, "Midnight Love" (Columbia). Or "Let's Get It On II," in which Gaye suggests that a good time can be had by all. "Sexual Healing" is one of the sexiest singles in years--sin on the cusp of salvation. Gaye self-produced and multitracked the instruments (surprisingly heavy on the synthesizers) and his own voice; the result is pure passion and one of the best OOOOOHH! records since Jackie Gleason.
Prince, "1999" (Warner Bros.). Prince, all of 21, is self-absorbed enough to be convinced he is the good time to be had by all. Like Gaye, he's a master of the studio: Most of "1999" is Prince on Prince. Like Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, he shatters the boundaries between white and black rock via seductive reasoning. Some are disturbed by Prince's near-porn and decidedly explicit eroticism; others are disturbed by his move away from the political cosnciousness of last year's "Controversy." Now the burning question is whether Prince can break the fame cycle and keep his act together; if he does, watch out.
Michael Jackson, "Thriller" (Epic) and "E.T.--The Extra Terrestrial" (MCA). Jackson has always displayed a naive but ingratiating adolescent aggression, and over the years it has become more delectable through the glossy pop production of superproducer Quincy Jones. As expected, "Thriller" is a killer, but "E.T." is a wonder because it took a near-child to bring off the retelling of that particular fantasy; Jackson may have been the only person who could pull it off and make it wholeheartedly believable. "Thriller" will make you dance, but "E.T." will make you wish upon a star.
THE BEST OF THE REST: T-Bone Burnett, "Trap Door"; Dire Straits, "Love Over Gold"; Al Green, "Higher Plane"; Bobby Womack, "The Poet"; ABC, "The Lexicon of Love"; Human League, "Dare"; Don Henley, "I Can't Stand Still"; The Bongos, "Drums Along the Hudson"; soundtrack, "Atomic Cafe"; The Roches, "Keep on Doing"; Paul Brady, "Hard Station"; Joe Jackson, "Night and Day"; Tom Waits and Crystal Gayle, soundtrack from "One From the Heart"; Van Morrison, "Beautiful Vision"; Rank and File, "Sundown;" Rosanne Cash, "Somewhere in the Stars"; Ricky Skaggs, "Highways Are Heartaches."