828. Gang of Four, Entertainment! (1979)
“We were trying to invent a new kind of music, a new kind of language,” Gang of Four guitarist Andy Gill once told Rolling Stone. “We were using the building blocks of ‘rock music,’ ‘funk music,’ and ‘pop music,’ dismantling them to see what was there and using what we felt like using.”
Gill was referencing Entertainment!, the scintillating debut album from the English post-punk powerhouses. Recorded among contentious battles within the band, the album is friction made musical, passion with a ferocious beat. Cranking to life with “Ether,” the sound is set: burbling bass, slicing guitar lines, Jon King’s vocals pitched to a probing tension, and a production as clean and unadorned as fresh barbed wire. “Natural’s Not in It” stalks like a predator, and “Not Great Men” pulses with seething energy. And all that’s before “Damaged Goods,” a track of sonic invention and brazen lyrical candor (“Your kiss so sweet/ Your sweat so sour/ Sometimes I’m thinking that I love you/ But I know it’s only lust”) that draws the blueprint for much of the punk-influenced rock that would follow in the next decade.
The album includes the political agitation of “Guns Before Butter” and the mighty swipes at atrophying citizenry on “At Home He’s a Tourist” and “5:45.” There’s a blazing sense of purpose to the whole endeavor, like Gang of Four is bashing out an entire musical future across two sides of vinyl, perhaps skeptical that they’ll have another chance to make such a statement.
827. Debbie Harry, KooKoo (1981)
I have a vague recollection of a weekly television program that was attempted in the early nineteen-eighties, serving as a sort of Rolling Stone or Creem for broadcast syndication. It included a panel of rock critics weighing in on major new releases, and my one semi-sharp memory of watching was the forlorn reactions the assembled music scribes had when offering their respective reactions to KooKoo, the debut solo album from Debbie Harry. There was nothing gleeful about their ire for the record. To a person, they felt regretful that their honest reaction to the album was dislike.
When KooKoo was released, Harry’s band Blondie was taking a break, and the woman who commanded the spotlight as lead singer of the group was fervently committed to establishing her own persona. She didn’t completely shun her more high profile gig (her bandmate Chris Stein figures prominently in the songwriting credits and plays guitar on KooKoo), but there’s a clear, concerted effort to forge a different sound, most evident in the hiring of Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, of Chic, to produce the album. Harry may have hoped for a more grinding sort of funk — and portions of the album suggest that very goal — but the actual result is dreadfully drab pop, illuminating some of the shortcomings in the creative approach of Harry and her collaborators that was usually obscured by the new wave verve of Blondie.
Lead track “Jump Jump” opens with the sort of very high-tech syntho-sequencey type thing that mike make someone exclaim, “That’s the news!” and proceeds to the greater misfortune of sounding like it was designed strictly for use in aerobics classes. The chintzy keyboard sounds resurface on “The Jam Was Moving” and “Oasis,” which sounds like it’s meant to be the soundtrack for a disco harem. “Surrender” at least showcases the snapping personality often found in Harry’s vocals. Otherwise, the cuts are more likely to rely on lyrical oddities, such as the weirdo pop crime story “Under Story.” And much as Harry wanted to break free off expectations, comparisons are inevitable. “Backfired” uses some similar structural tricks as “Rapture,” though with far less compelling lyrics (“You were polished slick, really thick/ Wasting time dropping lines like ‘I could get you into movies’/ But we would up at HoJo’s for hamburgers to go!”).
Those rock critics weren’t the only ones unimpressed with KooKoo. The album was a middling success, at best, more notable for the unsettling H.R. Giger cover art than any of the music behind the sleeve. Harry was back with Blondie before too long, but the magic was draining away there, too. The band’s album The Hunter, released the following year, was widely considered a bomb. It would be the band’s final album until reunion dollars beckoned many years in the future.
826. Jethro Tull, Stormwatch (1979)
The story begins on the front cover, delivered in small print beneath the image of a bearded fellow staring through binoculars, lightning reflected in the lens. It reads: “Lines join in faint discord and the Stormwatch brews a concert of kings as the white sea snaps at the heels of a soft prayer whispered.” I haven’t the foggiest clue what that means, nor the inclination to seek out clarifying commentary from band members. Stormwatch falls right in line with other Jethro Tull records of the era, lacing together prog rock expansiveness with folky preciousness. The song “Orion” is typical, lead singer Ian Anderson intoning, “Orion, won’t you give me your star sign/ Orion, get up on the sky-line.” It is a chore.
“Dark Ages” is fussy and antic, like a number in a Rocky Horror Picture Show knockoff set in the next kingdom over from Hobbiton. “Flying Dutchman” sounds like an Elton John song tricked out with prog rock trappings, including, of course, some heavy duty flute playing, and the instrumental “Warm Sporran” is the band’s pass at disco-tinged fusion jazz. It’s not all bad. Even I need to admit there’s a fine fettle to Ian Anderson’s vocals on the cavorting “Old Ghosts.” Mostly, though, its another example of that long, lingering hangover of nineteen-seventies FM longueur that college radio experienced before they found their own set of artists to seek speakers rattling.
825. Sonic Youth, Daydream Nation (1988)
Daydream Nation showed up at my college radio station in the autumn of 1988, during my very first semester, and no one knew what to do with it. Our broadcast outpost was more conservative than many of our national peers, reflecting the fact that we served a portion of Central Wisconsin that wasn’t really looking for music of anxious disruption. The Sonic Youth album proved highly contentious, with various members of the station’s leadership team taking adamant stances in direct opposition when weighing the question of whether we should be playing it at all. In the end, Daydream Nation stayed locked in the cabinet, deemed too abrasive for the tender ears of our listeners.
I offer the above story to provide some insight as to how challenging Daydream Nation, a major artistic and commercial breakthrough for Sonic Youth, sounded at the time of its release, at least to some. Listening to it now, it of course seems safe as can be. “Teen Age Riot,” the album’s lead single, has punching drums and buzzy guitar lines, but it’s also tuneful and eager to engage. It’s not just the way grunge bands freely appropriated from Sonic Youth to craft major hits just a few years later that gives the track a retroactive coziness. It’s craft is impeccable, strong as steel and yet smoothed of splintering edges. How could we ever have been scared?
“The Sprawl” is like a tour through the Sonic Youth showroom, with sounds both bombastic and ethereal, Kim Gordon’s vocals offering warm disaffection. “Hey Joni” is like Minutemen on pep pills, and the album-closing trilogy suite bends the band’s music into a especially gnarled pretzel. Every cut is a proper statement on its own, a contribution to a strong whole, and an announcement of the relentless invention to come.
As for my station, we were fully onboard by the time of Sonic Youth’s proper follow-up, Goo, released in 1990. We were rattled, but clearly intrigued. We just needed a little time to acclimate, it seems.
To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs.