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Music

'Songs from the Big Chair': 25 Years Later

Tears for Fears don't get much respect. Even in the wake of Donnie Darko, they're mostly considered an afterthought in pop history. Yet, in an era that favors stripped-down, no-fi production, the sheer majesty of Tears for Fears' sound is surprisingly refreshing.

In the not-so-distant past, the roundtable of NPR's All Songs Considered sat down to discuss the '80s. What was at times a thoughtful discourse on the much-maligned decade more often than not devolved into a bunch of aging hipsters laughing at synthesizers. At one point, a panel member (I can't recall whom) brought up Tears for Fears. Immediately, Bob Boilen (the host) recoiled in disgust. After some coaxing from the forgotten panel member, he reluctantly began to spin "Head over Heels". Before the synth-laden opening bars of the song could even give way to the first verse, he hit the faders, gasping, "I can't even get past the damn opening keyboard!"

Nineteen eighty-five was 25 years ago. I wasn't even born yet, but given my childhood worship of Marty McFly, that's still pretty hard to believe. To many, Back to the Future is about the only thing worth celebrating from that year (the Goonies and The Breakfast Club notwithstanding). Yet seemingly lost on pop culture historians is the anniversary of another massively successful piece of pop art celebrating its first quarter-century: Tears for Fears' Songs from the Big Chair.

Tears for Fears don't get much respect. Even in the wake of Donnie Darko, they're mostly considered an afterthought in pop history. Yet, in an era that favors stripped-down, no-fi production, the sheer majesty of Tears for Fears' sound is surprisingly refreshing.

Did the '80s suck? Yeah. By any reasonable standard, when you look back at the Reagan years they pale in comparison to the cultural output of the '60s and '70s. Even the '90s were probably better. Yet every era has its bright spots, and to me, Songs from the Big Chair is a shining example. The album spawned two number one singles ("Shout" and "Everybody Wants to Rule the World") as well as a number three (the aforementioned "Head over Heels"). But this isn't about chart success (if it were, I might as well extol the virtues of Starship). Songs from the Big Chair stands the test of time because, above all, it is a fantastic pop album.

Despite their relatively low output as a band, Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith were excellent songwriters. The melody of "Head over Heels" is breathtaking; melodrama at its finest. When that keyboard solo kicks in after the first chorus, you can't help being awestruck. "Shout" amazes with its primal scream-influenced lyrics and grandiose production; the music is so big. This type of stylized, reverb-drenched production tends to be critically reviled and to modern ears can seem badly-dated. When it comes to synthesizers, one of the major criticisms amongst "Rockists" is that, in attempting to replace analog instrumentation, they largely fail; to me this is part of the appeal. What largely attracts me to '80s music is how unreal it sounds. Instead of recoiling in disgust (a la Bob Boilen), I tend to revel in these production quirks; we may never hear music that sounds like this again.

Of course, being able to appreciate said dated production largely depends on why you listen to music in the first place. Some people see music as a representation of "what's happening now", and view all older music as irrelevant. A lot of that has to do with pop music's youth-centric posture. The kind of "us vs. the world" mentality associated with adolescence lends itself well to music that more often than not tries to sell itself as a lifestyle choice rather than entertainment. The truth of the matter is all musical "movements" fade away. Some artists hold up better than others, and others remain lodged in the past. Tears for Fears might belong to the latter group, but that doesn't mean they should be forgotten. So take this occasion to give Songs from the Big Chair a listen; I guarantee you it'll be unlike anything you've "heard" before.

Music

The Best Indie Rock of 2017

Photo courtesy of Matador Records

The indie rock genre is wide and unwieldy, but the musicians selected here share an awareness of one's place on the cultural-historical timeline.

Indie rock may be one of the most fluid and intangible terms currently imposed upon musicians. It holds no real indication of what the music will sound like and many of the artists aren't even independent. But more than a sonic indicator, indie rock represents a spirit. It's a spirit found where folk songsters and punk rockers come together to dialogue about what they're fed up with in mainstream culture. In so doing they uplift each other and celebrate each other's unique qualities.

With that in mind, our list of 2017's best indie rock albums ranges from melancholy to upbeat, defiant to uplifting, serious to seriously goofy. As always, it's hard to pick the best ten albums that represent the year, especially in such a broad category. Artists like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard had a heck of a year, putting out four albums. Although they might fit nicer in progressive rock than here. Artists like Father John Misty don't quite fit the indie rock mold in our estimation. Foxygen, Mackenzie Keefe, Broken Social Scene, Sorority Noise, Sheer Mag... this list of excellent bands that had worthy cuts this year goes on. But ultimately, here are the ten we deemed most worthy of recognition in 2017.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

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TV

'Curb Your Enthusiasm' S9 Couldn't Find Its Rhythm

Larry David and J.B. Smoove in Curb Your Enthusiasm S9 (HBO)

Curb Your Enthusiasm's well-established characters are reacting to their former selves, rather than inhabiting or reinventing themselves. Thus, it loses the rhythms and inflections that once made the show so consistently, diabolically funny.

In an era of reboots and revivals, we've invented a new form of entertainment: speculation. It sometimes seems as if we enjoy begging for television shows to return more than watching them when they're on the air. And why wouldn't we? We can't be disappointed by our own imaginations. Only the realities of art and commerce get in the way.

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6

Wars of attrition are a matter of stamina, of who has the most tools with which to keep fighting. A surprising common tool in this collection? Humor.

The name of the game is "normal or abnormal". Here's how you play: When some exceedingly shocking political news pops up on your radar, turn to the person next to you, read them the headline and ask, "is this normal or abnormal?" If you want to up the stakes, drink a shot every time the answer is abnormal. If that's too many shots, alter the rules so that you drink only when things are normal—which is basically never, these days. Hilarious, right?

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