912. Robert Palmer, Clues (1980)
Emerging as a solo performer in the midst of the nineteen-seventies, Robert Palmer was one of the British singers touted for his soulful vocalizations. Arguably, there was no better path to U.S. commercial success for a U.K. rocker than instilling straightforward rock songs with a little blues styling, and Palmer followed that path with studied conviction. At the dawn of the eighties, though, practically every artist with a few records under their belt was compelled to try on the sonic variations present in new wave music. On the evidence of his album Clues, the venture into the insurgent pop form exposed some shortcomings.
“Looking for Clues,” the opening track and one of the album’s singles, has unmistakable new wave sizzle, which winds up overwhelming Palmer’s vocals. They sound remarkably thin and have only the most meager amount of personality. Similarly, “Found You Now” is, I think, meant to be a vocal of bluesy yearning, but it mostly sounds like shouting. Nothing reverberates with spirit or authority. The vocals are echoes of echoes until they may as well be a timid whisper.
Palmer produced the album himself, but often seems confused about the best way to showcase the material. His voice keeps getting swamped out by the music, which isn’t interesting enough to justify its prominence. “What Do You Care” has some of the musical assurance of early Elvis Costello, but lacking the erudition that truly set those songs apart. The disco slither of “Johnny and Mary” is a little interesting, at least in the way it anticipates the odd German synthpop of Peter Schilling and others. The cover of Gary Numan’s “I Dream of Wires” is far more characteristic. It’s notably watered down, despite the fact that Numan himself pitches in on keyboards.
Clues, unsurprisingly, was something of a commercial setback for Palmer. Its singles barely registered on the U.S charts, and the album fared more poorly than its immediate predecessors. Within a few years, though, Palmer cracked the code of MTV-era chart success in a big way.
911. Everything But the Girl, Love Not Money (1985)
Love Not Money was the sophomore full-length from purveyors of elegant pop Everything But the Girl. Although sharing the same title and a very similar track list, it still found the the duo’s labels on either side of the Atlantic — Blanco y Negro in the U.K. and Sire in the U.S. — adopting slightly different philosophies as to what was likely to stir the interest of the listening public. The band’s proper debut, Eden, was originally issued in the U.S., as Sire instead opted to pull a half dozen tracks from it, jumble them with some stray singles and B-sides, and put them all out as self-titled album.
Most of Love Not Money was carried straight over, but Sire proved an ongoing wavering confidence when they added a somewhat flaccid cover of the Pretenders’ “Kid” right in the middle of the record, hoping the familiarity would help, especially since lead singer Tracey Thorn’s vocals bore a resemblance to the deep warmth of Chrissie Hynde’s original singing. Maybe the kids would get confused enough to dig deeper into the richly produced material Everything But the Girl offered up.
Everything But the Girl was already celebrated for their jazzy stylings that buffed out the aggressive bleats and kept the low lounge light seduction. Love Not Money retains that at points — notably in the silky swoon of “Shoot Me Down” — but Love Not Money adds some textures. The jauntiness found on “When All’s Well” and “Are You Trying to Be Funny” reaches such a headlong pace by “Anytown” that Everything But the Girl almost start to seem like kindred souls to the Smiths. And they add a mildly militaristic march beat to “Ugly Little Dreams,” befitting its depiction of society as a war waged against women that can never quite be won; “It’s a battlefield, Frances/ You fight or concede/ Victory to the enemy/ Who call your strength insanity.”
Despite Sire’s efforts to reconfigure the record (or maybe partially because of them), Love Not Money made barely a blip in the U.S., apart from college radio. It would take years — and a jump to Atlantic Records — before Everything But the Girl generated a significant hit in the States. When it happened, though, it made quite an impact.
910. The Honeydrippers, Volume 1 (1984)
The debut EP from the Honeydrippers is the pure definition of a vanity project, except perhaps that the vanity in question was not that of anyone actually in the band. The supergroup was essentially assembled to do the bidding of Atlantic Records label head Ahmet Ertegün, who reportedly wanted to hear new versions of some of his favorite hits from the nineteen-fifties. Where others would have little more than an adequate wedding band at their disposal, Ertegün had a roster of rock ‘n’ roll titans. Robert Plant had already been performing the odd gig with a backing band he called the Honeydrippers, mostly to stir his bygone fandom juices as he prepared to work on solo material. Ertegün saw them play and urged them to make a recording. An EP of covers, optimistically dubbed Volume 1, was the result.
Apparently, Ertegün wasn’t the only one who wanted to hear stuff like this on the radio in the mid-nineteen-eighties. The group’s dutiful cover of “Sea of Love” made it all the way to #3 on the Billboard chart, outperforming any of the singles of Plant’s former band, the revered Led Zeppelin. This outcome appalled Plant, who envisioned his stock as a rock god singer diminishing (and it probably didn’t amuse the amazing roster of guitarists on the EP, including Jeff Beck and Plant’s Led Zep cohort Jimmy Page, suddenly reduced to adequate session men). He was correct to be dismayed because the track is painfully drab, anticipating the grotesquely disengaged mangling of pop standards that would define the backend of Rod Stewart’s career. A take on “Good Rockin’ at Midnight” is the only song on Volume 1 that’s even palatable, mostly because Plant’s vocal calisthenics — as if he’s trying hard to keep himself engaged — have some charm.
Understandably, Volume 2 never arrived. Except for the odd charity gig, the Honeydrippers were buried, their indifferent raids of bygone classics blessedly abandoned.
909. Big Black, Songs About Fucking (1987)
Thirty years after the released of Big Black’s album Songs About Fucking, guitarist and vocalist Steve Albini summed up the band’s goal simply and clearly to Rolling Stone.
“We wanted to make filthy music,” he said.
They unquestionably accomplished that. Albini and his bandmates — bassist Dave Riley and guitarist Santiago Durango — were offering a direct response to the insurgent Parents’ Music Resource Council, which was lambasting the record labels for daring to release records that mentioned masturbation and other taboo subjects. It was Albini who cooked up the title Songs About Fucking, essentially reasoning that there was a time when practically all of rock ‘n’ roll could reasonably be described that way. They were merely carrying on a time-tested tradition.
The material on Songs About Fucking indulges lustily in carnal clatter, although usually through insinuation rather than direct lyrical bawdiness. The filth is arguably more present in the music. Beginning with the buzzy fervor of “The Power of Independent Trucking,” Big Black blasts through punk songs that add a layer of sonic soot to the headlong charge. The fierce back and forth of “Bad Penny” forecasts the industrial assaults of Ministry, but with an injection of punk rock discipline, and the jackhammer guitar punches of “L Dopa” are thrilling.
“Kitty Empire” is all slither and snarl, and its runtime at just over four minutes practically makes it prog rock epic by punk band terms. “Fish Fry” couches its ultraviolence — in the lyrics, mirrored by the racing engine music — in the banality of the traditional, highly unhealthy dinner used to end the work week across the Midwest. It’s a simply trick, but a good one, adding yet more friction to an album already giving off a cascade of white hot sparks.
The protest of Songs About Fucking was deeply satisfying to the members of Big Black, undoubtedly accentuated by the fact they knew it was their last hurrah. Durango was also dead set on starting law school in the the fall of 1987, an act he saw a duty to his immigrant family that had sacrificed much for him. With one-third of the band stepping away, it seemed wrong to continue.
“This is our vocabulary, the three of us,” Albini said on the occasion of the band’s final shows, performed shortly before Songs About Fucking was released. “If we tried to plug someone in when Santa left and called it Big Black, it would be katastrof!”
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.