Creative leadership in rock returned to America in 1985 after years of British domination--and it wasn't just because of Bruce Springsteen.
While Springsteen was filling stadiums here and in Europe with entertaining and inspiring shows that focused on the responsibilities of citizenship, hundreds of grass-roots bands were crisscrossing the United States, playing music that harked back to the best of the early American rock--music that was lively, urgent and heartfelt.
The bands in the still-growing movement are linked only by a shared independence of vision that places self-expression above chart position, but they offer a welcome break from two distressing factors: the lingering influences in this country of the soulless corporate-rock domination of the early- and mid-'70s, and the overtly commercial tone of so much recent British rock.
Whether dealing with social commentary (the Blasters) or youthful anxiety (the Replacements), the bands--from music scenes as large as Los Angeles and as small as Athens, Ga.--are making commercial inroads. Major labels are signing them with increasing speed and prestigious halls are open to them. The battle isn't over, however.
Millions of dollars in record sales and concert tickets--as well as countless radio/TV hours--are still wasted on the cartoonish bravado of heavy-metal bands like Motley Crue and Ratt, and on bland pop-rock excursions like those of Spandau Ballet and the Starship.
But momentum is on the side of these new-generation bands. Reaching a new level of maturity during the last 12 months, the groups have given rock its strongest foundation for growth since the arrival of the Sex Pistols and the Clash nearly a decade ago.
Here are the albums that best reflected this new spirit of American rock during 1985. To make more room for newcomers, this list excludes bands with gold albums (500,000 sales), such as Talking Heads and Run-D.M.C.
1--Lone Justice's "Lone Justice" (Geffen)--No matter how you measure greatness in rock, this band rates highly. Maria McKee is the most commanding female rock singer to emerge since Chrissie Hynde--and she carries the bonus of being the most promising female country singer since Emmylou Harris. The band's playing reverberates with an understanding of and appreciation for the forces--from country to blues--that have contributed to rock's strongest pulse. And the songs--ranging from playful yearnings to acknowledgements of the price that must be paid to maintain integrity--suggests a commitment and ambition as warmly embracing as that of any new arrival in years.
2--The Replacements' "Tim" (Sire)--This Minneapolis quartet has stepped up to a major label at the right moment. While its earlier albums on Twin/Toneq bristled with energy and desire, the rawness of both ideas and execution indicated the band was still searching for direction. The Replacements have found that course here, examining the rites of adolescence from a bittersweet stance that suggests a melancholy "Tommy." There's no formal concept as in The Who's epic, but Paul Westerberg looks back on good times--and sometimes crazy times--with the somewhat sad realization that he can no longer accept any night out as time well spent. As a writer, especially on personal ballads like "Swingin' Party" and "Here Comes a Regular," he is grappling with one of rock's oldest issues: acknowledging some of the responsibilities of adulthood without sacrificing a youthful spirit. The difference is that he really seems to be looking for answers.
3--R.E.M.'s "Fables of the Reconstruction" (I.R.S.)--Despite the eloquent and engaging shadings in the Georgia group's portraits of the American character, the collection didn't make as much of a step forward as one would have liked, given the rich textures and disarming vision of the band's first two albums. For all the vigor of "Can't Get There From Here" and the wistful loveliness of "Wendell Gee," the album failed to establish a separate identity from "Murmur" and "Reckoning." Still, "Fables" is a frequently beautiful and caressing record that acknowledges the place of daydreams in the usually cold-eyed realism of rock.
4--The Blasters' "Hard Line" (Slash)--L.A.'s roots-conscious, rockabilly-accented group continues to be intrigued by people grappling with hard times and shattered dreams, but the band presents the ideas with more accessibility in this, the group's most solidly produced LP. The added brightness and punch haven't lessened the crackling tension of songs like "Just Another Sunday," which examines loneliness and despair with the unsettling accuracy and detail of Springsteen's "Nebraska." Though the album proved to be another commercial disappointment for the band, the best moments have the ring of a classic.
5--10,000 Maniacs' "The Wishing Chair" (Elektra)--This big-label debut would have ranked even higher if Joe Boyd's production had captured more of the color of the band's stirring live show. On stage, the six-member New York State quintet steps beyond the graceful instrumental similarities to R.E.M. for a far wider musical stance that includes some of the bright musical punctuation associated with Fairport Convention and The Band. Natalie Merchant is still finding her voice as a singer, but that very confusion over how carefully to enunciate her words serves as italics for the songs, which wonder whether traditional values are possible in an impatient, indulgent age.
6--Meat Puppets' "Under the Sun" (SST)--Arizona's "prairie punk" trio may have the most original, if also elusive vision of any of today's entries. There's a soothing, open-spaces slant to the guitar-shaped arrangements and somewhat mystical, reliance-on-nature philosophy that is reminiscent of the Grateful Dead, but the band's themes are more contemporary and its music has considerably more compact.
7--Husker Du's "Flip Your Wig" (SST)--Here's another Minneapolis band that's making its jump to a major label (which means wider distribution and more promotional muscle) at just the right time--in this case the jump is coming next year on Warner Bros. While many of its efforts (notably last year's "Zen Arcade") have been hailed by some as punk masterpieces, they aimed at the somewhat private world of underground rock. Though hardly less intense in spots, "Flip Your Wig" represents a substantial move toward a wider audience. "Makes No Sense at All" continues the theme of exasperation of earlier Husker Du tracks, but with more sure-footed pop-rock instincts, and "Green Eyes" is actually pretty. Enormous potential here.
8--Trouble Funk's "Saturday Night Live--From Washington D.C." (Island)--This black rap 'n' percussion band is on a rock Top 10 for two reasons: It's important to get past the radio-promoted concept that rock--except for an occasional Prince or Hendrix--is only for white musicians, plus the group, leaders of Washington's go-go scene, share the adventurous, grass-roots instincts of today's other bands. In its recent Myron's Ballroom concert here, Trouble Funk totally charmed local rock taste makers. This live package doesn't have some of its best-known numbers, including the old hit "Drop the Bomb," but the party never stops. There's much of the same sense of communal celebration you find with Los Lobos.
9--The Knitters' "Poor Little Critter on the Road" (Slash)--Country is another piece of rock's heritage that is rejected by most rock radio programmers. There have been more ambitious and hard-edged forays into country in recent months, but this informal coalition of members of X and the Blasters captures marvelously the simple, deep-rooted "everyman" emotional focus of country music, circa mid-'50s. This was the same era in country that influenced some of rock's most important figures, from the first Elvis to the second.
10--This slot has been left open to salute the hundreds of other bands--from veterans like the Long Ryders and Peter Case to newcomers like the Rave-Ups and True Believers--who contribute to this vital, still-growing American rock scene. While they would all love to reach a mass audience, their first allegiance seems genuinely to be to the music. R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe defined success for many of these bands in an interview last spring: "My goal isn't to be No. 1 (on the sales chart). It's to be able to think in 10 years I'll be able to listen to our . . . album and not be embarrassed by it."