2. 10,000 Maniacs, Blind Man’s Zoo
Right from the top, there’s a unique detail regarding 90FM personnel that seems pertinent in considering the high placement, arguably unusually high placement, of the fourth full-length album from 10,000 Maniacs on the year-end chart. One of the best-liked people on the staff at that time followed the standard practice of adopting a different last name for all on-air purposes, and he decided to replace his own, fine sturdy surname with Merchant, due to the fact that he had a big ol’ crush on the lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs. Even though he wasn’t even around during the summer the album was treading through the station’s rotation, it was fairly routine for DJs to play a song from the album while announcing they were “sending it out to” him. Proving the best a staff of excellent wingmen, they’d even engage in a little on-air flirting with Natalie Merchant on the incredibly unlikely chance she was within signal range and might be interested to know there was a dreamy boy in central Wisconsin who wouldn’t mind trading smooches.
Certainly, it wasn’t only that love connection that garnered Blind Man’s Zoo enough airplay to earn the runner-up spot–and just barely missing the number one position, as a matter of fact–on a chart that tallied the most popular records of the year at the station. Natalie Merchant was surely lovely, and everyone was charmed by our friend’s crush, but the music clearly held an interest beyond that. (It may be true that other individuals at the station held their own crushes. In 1989, Natalie Merchant did set enough music geek boy’s hearts aflutter to wind up on Spin magazine’s list of the “Most Dateable Babe[s] in Music,” ranked ahead of Kate Bush and Siouxsie Sioux but behind the likes of Debbie Gibson and Susanna Hoffs, the latter’s name misspelled on the list, a sure sign that she wasn’t actually going to be dating any of the Spin editors and writers.) 10,000 Maniacs may be a band that a lot of current college radio programmers would turn up their pierced nose at, but they were part of the rapidly developing canon of important left of the dial artists at the time. Like the Replacements or XTC, they were one of those bands that college radio had cultivated and seemed right on the verge of crossing over as R.E.M. and, to a far greater degree, U2 already had. Their prior album, In My Tribe, had been a significant commercial breakthrough, going gold on the strength of singles “Like the Weather,” “What’s the Matter Here?,” and “Don’t Talk.” The follow-up was hotly anticipated, even by those station that didn’t necessarily have a staffer who swooned every time Natalie Merchant allowed some tremulous vulnerability to come through her warm, perfect vocal intonations.
For better or worse, Blind Man’s Zoo was the band’s attempt to give the fans more of what they clearly connected to on In My Tribe. Merchant and her cohorts had merged their social cause passions with elegant pop music and generated modest hits on unlikely subjects such as child abuse and depression. Emboldened, the whole of Blind Man’s Zoo sometimes comes across as a humanist treatise written upon a melody. The lead single, “Trouble Me,” is a gentle song about nothing more controversially than offering a sympathetic ear to a hurting friend, but much of the rest of the album is a tuneful litany of concerns more likely to crop up in Mother Jones magazine than in the DJ commentary on the perpetually frightened commercial stations. “Eat For Two” addresses unplanned pregnancy, even hinting at the sexual coercion that often leads to it, while “Poison in the Well” considers matters related to environmentalism. “The Big Parade” is about the ongoing mental anguish endured by Vietnam veterans, and “The Lion’s Share” rails against a system based on perpetually fiscal inequity, a topic that’s only grown more relevant in the twenty-plus years since the album was released.
It’s awfully sweet music to set to such cynical sentiments. Though they don’t often get credit for it, 10,000 Maniacs were as pointed in their expressions of discontent as a noted rabble-rouser like Billy Bragg. “You Happy Puppet” even offers a general indictment against a public too complacent to fight for what’s just, theoretically taking aim at those kind-hearted souls who congratulated themselves for the level of enlightenment they demonstrated by buying a 10,000 Maniacs record or concert ticket. Nodding along to the songs was nice an all, but it didn’t go a measurable distance towards rectifying the problems that Merchant sang about. A lot of Blind Man’s Zoo can be heard as the band–largely Merchant, it’s reasonable to presume–surveying a defiantly unchanging political landscape and reporting their dismay. “What’s the Matter Here?” may have received generous attention from MTV, but it didn’t lead to any groundswell of collective action against family violence. If the lyrics on Blind Man’s Zoo were more overt than on previous records, that was in keeping with the album’s prevailing tone of increased spiritual agitation, grown from an urgency to deliver a message that simply wasn’t being heard or processed. For some, the music may have gone down so smoothly that the album’s anger was masked, but 10,000 Maniacs demonstrated that the amps didn’t actually need to get turned up to eleven in order to rage against the machine.
Though it did well, Blind Man’s Zoo wasn’t quite the commercial breakthrough that was expected for 10,000 Maniacs. Neither was the next studio effort, Our Time in Eden. Interestingly enough, the band’s biggest success came a couple years later with a record derived from an appearance on MTV Unplugged. The pared-down format was perfect for the band and the album wound up going triple-platinum. That live release was Natalie Merchant’s last album with 10,000 Maniacs. If anything, it was a surprising she stuck with them as long as she did, given how clearly she became the chief focus of the fans. The band recruited a new lead singer and soldiered on, though they never got anywhere near the same level of success. Merchant went on to very fine, somewhat underrated solo career marked by an increasingly refined approach to adult pop. She records infrequently these days, but she’s still out there, raising her voice. Though I haven’t checked in with him on this particular topic, I’m pretty sure my friend’s crush never subsided either.
20. Bob Mould, Workbook
19. The Rainmakers, The Good News and the Bad News
18. The Mighty Lemon Drops, Laughter
17. Couch Flambeau, Ghostride
16. Robyn Hitchcock ‘n’ the Egyptians, Queen Elvis
15. The B-52’s, Cosmic Thing
14. Camper Van Beethoven, Key Lime Pie
13. The Sugarcubes, Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week!
12. The Godfathers, More Songs About Love & Hate
11. Guadalcanal Diary, Flip Flop
10. The Pogues, Peace and Love
9. The Weeds, Windchill
8. Hoodoo Gurus, Magnum Cum Louder
7. Red Hot Chili Peppers, Mother’s Milk
6. The Replacements, Don’t Tell a Soul
5. XTC, Oranges & Lemons
4. Lou Reed, New York
3. Violent Femmes, 3