College Countdown: The Trouser Press Top 10 Albums of 1981, 7

7. The Pretenders, II

Trouser Press wrote: “Derivative? Sure! But Chrissie Hynde can still charm your pants off (sic) when she wants.”

Let me start by noting that I don’t get that review. It’s not that I substantively disagree with it; rather, I genuinely don’t understand what’s being communicated. I know the band employed a classic pop sound that did a little bit of a retrospective bank shot around punk music–while still smartly employing the genre’s fervent strength–but I’m not sure they leaned enough on the past to be truly considered derivative, though I’ll concede that my perspective on that has surely been reshaped by modern groups that expertly (and brilliantly) pilfer bygone rock styles like they’re rifling through a weathered steamer trunk of vaudevillian costumes. Or maybe the album is tagged as derivative because it doesn’t stray far enough from the sonic patterns established on the band’s acclaimed debut from the prior year. And I’m completely puzzled by what sort of snarky or ironic comment that (sic) is meant to convey.

Of course, it’s particularly hard with the Pretenders to sidestep the years of accumulated canonization of their songs to consider what their place in the musical firmament was like when their second album was recent enough that the shrink-wrap around it was still a little warm. I feel like the actual group isn’t often considered for placement among the all-time greats, but those songs they crafted certain endure as ubiquitous staples, don’t they? Tracks like “Message of Love” and “Talk of the Town” (both released earlier in the year on an EP before landing on Pretenders II) are simply rock era standards, fitting as comfortably into any mix as the most unabashedly loved Beatles songs. Songs from the Pretenders seem to show up all over the place, and they never jolt anyone. They’re part of the ongoing cultural soundtrack and often seem like they were made to be just that.

That imagined desire to blend in was clearly not the case, however. Records built for inoffensive mass adulation don’t open with the line, “I’m the adultress,” purred by the lead singer with a tone balanced precariously between taunt and seduction. And then follow that up with a song called “Bad Boys Get Spanked”? That includes the sounds of whip cracks and the lyric, “You don’t listen, do ya, asshole?” Certainly, trying to provoke is one route to commercial success, but the far stronger sentiment is that Chrissie Hynde doesn’t give a shit about playing nice and selling records. If she wants to cover a Kinks song just like she did on the first album, then that’s damn well what she’s going to do.

This was the last album released by the original line-up of the Pretenders. Within a year, guitarist James Honeyman-Scott would die at age of twenty-five, his body shutting down largely due to his robust drug use. From there, the band’s line-up changed often (the Wikipedia page for the band lists a total of seventeen people that can claim, at one time or another, to have been Pretenders), making it more clear than ever that Hynde was the mechanic of the music and everyone other tool and component was fully replaceable. That didn’t hurt the music right away, but there was eventually a sense of soldiering on rather than a genuine impulse to create. Of course, some of the comparatively lackluster efforts that come out under the Pretenders name could also be attributed to the fact that Hynde was a great singles artist operating in an albums era. Of course, no one was going to tell Hynde that without her sparking up to aggressively prove that assessment wrong. And honestly, II is a pretty good counter-argument.

Previously
Introduction
10. The Dictators, Fuck ‘Em if They Can’t Take a Joke
8. (tie) The Undertones, Positive Touch
8. The dB’s, Stands for Decibels