17. The Darling Buds, Erotica
I don’t really remember if the Darling Buds ever had a college radio hit, the sort that commands such broad-based and intense affection from kids in broadcast booths coast to coast that it feels intrinsic to the era. They were one of the bands that defined my personal haul as a student deejay, thanks in part to the convenience of the calendar. Their debut release, the glistening Pop Said…, arrived when I was a freshman, and their final effort, Erotica, hit the Heavy Rotation shelf as I embarked on my last year in college, grumpily resigned to the fact that I couldn’t drag my feet on the dreaded launch into the so-called real world all that much longer. At the time, of course, we didn’t know Erotica was destined to be the band’s last album. The most notable thing about the record was that it shared a title with almost concurrently dropped Madonna release, which was sucking up all the entertainment world hype that fall, thanks in no small part to the corresponding book of dirty pictures that helped announce it to the world.
The album presumably also got us talking about the evolution of the band’s sound that took place on it. Their previous records were populated with bright, sharp, brisk pop songs. That shifted a little on their sophomore release, Crawdaddy, but Erotica delivered the most sonically expansive version of the Darling Buds yet. Opening track “One Thing Leads to Another” signals what’s to come: there’s a dandy hook in there, but every time the songs seem to be tightening in around it, the layers of sound push outward instead, swelling with cascading guitars. There are several tracks that hew closer to the established sound of the band, like the single “Sure Thing,” which manages to be both punchy and gently languid, and the firm “Please Yourself.” And much of the music that shifts the band’s footing is plenty strong, such as the slightly intoxicating “Long Day in the Universe” and “Isolation,” which almost sounds like a Belly castoff with its rubbery guitar lines and piercing female vocals singing of embittered discomfort (“Why do you have to be so cruel/ You know what I’m going through/ Can’t think straight these days/ And everything is very strange”). Still, Erotica overall wears the compromise of a transitional record. It just happens the dissolution of the band that recorded it denied listeners the pay-off of a fully-formed new sound the next time out.
16. Morrissey, Your Arsenal
Only Morrissey should be allowed to begin an album with the lyric “With the world’s fate resting on your shoulders.” The undisputed master of tuneful misery was still fairly early in his solo career in 1992, though he’d already been admirably prolific. Your Arsenal was his third full-length release since the formal dissolution of the Smiths five years earlier. Wonderfully, he was already approaching gentle self-parody, as demonstrated by song titles such as “Seasick, Yet Still Docked,” “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday,” and, best of all, “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful.” Lest it seem like there’s not quite enough undercutting happening on the album, Morrissey is sure to coo, “Oh…and the songs we sing/ They’re not supposed to mean a thing.” Later in that same song, “We’ll Let You Know,” he sings, “We may seem cold/ Or we may even be/ The most depressing people you’ve ever known.” It’s a mark of how clearly Morrissey was at the peak of his creative powers that the repeated variations of sour appraisals of life miraculously transformed into melodic mission statements of romanticized self-regard never grow old across the album. This can surely be attributed somewhat to the musical variety spread across the album by Alain Whyte, Morrissey’s regular collaborator, but ol’ Stephen Patrick proves equally adept at shrewdly, playfully working variations on a theme. There’s no evident calculation to the album, but it does seem like this was one of the last instances when Morrissey was simultaneously entirely earnest and charmingly in on the joke.
15. The Sundays, Blind
In my time at the college radio station, I don’t know if there was another instance of so dramatic a let down between a debut release and a sophomore effort as happened with the Sundays. The English band’s 1990 debut, Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic, was one of the great albums of that year, practically inspirational in its ability to sound fresh and enlivening. The follow-up was beset by a series of little problems that led up to creative cataclysm. The band’s original label, Rough Trade Records, went bankrupt, and the starburst of success that followed their debut dramatically outpaced the ability of band leaders Harriet Wheeler and David Gavurin to continue handling all management of the Sundays on their own, something they insisted upon doing. Even with those challenges, it was hardly a Chinese Democracy-level delay on the band’s second outing, with Blind arriving around two-and-a-half years after the debut. The whole album feels arduous, though. The singles, “Love” and “Goodbye,” are inert when compared against the earlier gems. These days, their cover of a Rolling Stones classic is probably the only track that most remember, if only because it seems as if it were chemically perfected to accompany lovelorn supercut videos of teen-centric television shows. So at least the Sundays were forward-thinking in that respect. The band came out with one more album, 1997’s Static & Silence, before calling it quits, largely so Wheeler and Gavurin could concentrate on being parents.
14. Television, Television
I’d like to report that I understood the full significance of a new album from the band Television showing up in 1992, but I’m confident I did not. I certainly knew of the band. The eager devotion of Rolling Stone magazine to Television’s 1977 debut, Marquee Moon, saw to that. But I’m betting I hadn’t actually heard a note of their music until I slipped their brand new self-titled effort, the band’s belated third release, into the radio station CD player. At the time, I thought the moody, guitar-driven songs on the album were top-notch, though Television still didn’t become an album that I fully fell for. Now that I’ve got the glorious ins and outs of Marquee Moon practically memorized, Television seems like a mere curiosity, best seen as a reminder to revisit the sounds of the true glory days once again. There have been no further albums, but the band does still play live from time to time.