Ironically, many of the albums that dominated the charts through 1984 -- by Huey Lewis, Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna and the Pointer Sisters -- came out in 1983. Among the albums of merit that languished in their shadows:
*"The Gospel at Colonus" (Warner Bros.). You don't get much more innovative than Bob Telson's mix of Greek tragedy -- Sophocles' "Oedipus at Colonus" -- and black gospel, via Thomas A. Dorsey et al. If you think it's an implausible, even impossible wedding (cultural and emotional), after experiencing it, you'll wonder that it was ever any other way. It would be even better to have a complete recording of the beautifully voiced dialogue, but the songs excerpted here are terrific by themselves, from the shimmering "Lift Me Up" and the searing give-and-take of "Stop Do Not Go On" to the haunting, ethereal "Numberless Are the World's Wonders." The singing -- by the Soul Stirrers, Clarence Fountain and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama and, particularly, the J.D. Steele Singers -- is absolutely pure and earthy.
*"That's the Way I Feel Now: A Tribute to Thelonious Monk" (A&M SP-6600). Jazz musicians had been paying tribute to Monk long before his death in 1982, but this eclectic potpourri was a revelation. You expected Steve Lacy and Charlie Rouse to deliver rousing homages, and for strong statements from Barry Harris, Carla Bley and Randy Weston. The surprises came from pop participants like Dr. John, Peter Frampton, Joe Jackson, Donald Fagen and Todd Rundgren; they were sometimes more Monk-ish than the rest. This two-disc set, with 23 Monk tunes, was a celebration not only of intensely personal music, but of a most admirable and independent spirit.
*Ferron, "Shadows on a Dime" (Lucy). The kind of tender, tough, restlessly melodic folk-rock that you'd expect from Dylan at his finest. Ferron continues the tradition of Canadian singer-songwriters that includes Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young and Bruce Cockburn. Her densely packed writing is at once confessional and mystical, her voice lustrous and entrancing, the iron in the velvet glove. The album is also beautifully produced.
*The Pretenders, "Learning To Crawl" (Sire). A survivor's album. Chrissie Hynde, still the best female singer in rock 'n' roll, details her hard passages: the deaths of two band members, the birth of her daughter, the dissolution of her storybook marriage to the Kinks' Ray Davies, growing up and growing strong. Hynde does it all in pure rock terms, too. No soft soap operas or folk confessions here, just rough, tough pump-it-out energies, fueled by a remarkably resilient heart and a revamped band.
*Los Lobos, "How Will the Wolf Survive?" (Slash/Warner Bros.) Coming out of East Los Angeles with an infectious, irresistible sound, Los Lobos confirmed and celebrated the Chicano influence in roots rock 'n' roll and incidentally made one the best party records since the reign of Gary "U.S." Bonds. Their first full album mixes blues, folk, rockabilly, country and Latino styles into some of the most visceral and exuberant sounds of recent years.
*The Neville Brothers, "Neville-ization" (Black Top) and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, "My Feet Can't Fail Me Now" (Concord/George Wein). These two primeval funk bands make a convincing case for New Orleans as the birthplace of both rock 'n' roll and jazz, and the value of the pure "groove thang."
The Nevilles, sporting the best rhythm section south of the North Pole in a live recording, proved that the essence of soul lies in the kind of supple, layered rhythmic joy they champion, nowhere better than on a version of Professor Longhair's rollicking "Big Chief" that is at once tribute and crystallization.
The Dirty Dozen band has made contemporary the classic New Orleans parade-style sound, using basic brass and drum instrumentation and incorporating intricate arrangements and modernistic solos on tunes by Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Art Blakey. Still, the delight is the swirling and raucous ensemble sound churning above the gut-bucket syncopation.
*Prince, "Purple Rain" (Warner Bros.). All right, so this one was a hit. Containing the year's best and most intriguing single, "When Doves Cry," this emotional, genre-spanning sound track melded black and white music in thoroughly accesible pop terms. By drowning the overt sexuality of the past in confessional sensuality, and suffusing it with an intensely personal vision, Prince showed the difference between image and imagination.
*Tina Turner, "Native Dancer" (Capitol). Also a hit, but then rock legends seldom turn out having happy endings like the one Turner experienced with this powerful comeback album. Soul Sister Number One turned to English producers to frame the concerns of a thoroughly modern, thoroughly independent woman who's known intense pain. Along the way, Turner illuminated the mysteries of love and proved she's become as good a singer as she was a dancer, finding a lush ache to complement the true grit at the other end of her range.
*Little Steven and the Disciples, "Voice of America" (EMI-Capitol). Bruce Springsteen's former guitarist was more emotionally charged and politically motivated than his former Boss. By choosing an international perspective (Poland, Nicaragua, Mexico, El Salvador, East Germany, America) and by espousing immediate issues over metaphorical situations, Steve Van Zandt showed a sense of purpose, not of doom. The drive and urgency of Van Zandt's music matched the seriousness of his sociopolitical considerations.