College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 166 – 164

166 things

166. The Nails, “Things You Left Behind”

As any rock band must, the Nails talked about the artistic growth they were going through when they released their second full-length album, Dangerous Dreams, in 1986. They’d had a mini-sensation two years earlier, with the single “88 Lines About 44 Women,” but the very nature of the track stirred a mist of novelty up around the group’s music. While hanging tight to the gentle beat poetry vibe that made their name (lead singer and chief songwriter Marc Campbell was quick to namecheck the likes of Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman when asked about his influences), there were assured announcements of the ways in which their art had evolved. At the time, Campbell said, “On this album, I think I went deeper into my feelings and got further away from what you might call and rock ‘n’ roll attitude than before. To me, imagery like you find in the painting [on the album cover] and in some of the songs is about purifying one’s life in the fires of experience. I’m not the kind of guy who’s going to go down in flames with a guitar in his hand; I’m not afraid to live. And living your life is definitely what this is all about.” Weighty as those aspirations sound, “Things You Left Behind,” arguably the most celebrated track from the album, aggressively recalls the airy, edgy listed lyrics of the Nails’ prior hit, albeit with a bleak final pivot that turns the whole song into a distinct tale of anguish. Following the release of Dangerous Dreams, the Nails parted ways with their label, RCA Records. In 1988, they recorded a final album, which sat unreleased for several years, and then was issued with little fanfare and the members of the band complaining that they saw no proceeds from it because an unscrupulous producer had wrangled away their publishing rights.

 

165 perfect

165. Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, “Perfect Skin”

“Perfect Skin,” the debut single from Lloyd Cole and the Commotions which can also accurately be called their breakthrough, was written in the basement of the Glasgow Golf Club. Cole, a mere lad of twenty-three when the album Rattlesnakes saw its fall 1984 release, had access to the space because his father worked there as club master. Cole wrote the song and recorded a demo version of it in a single weekend (“Forest Fire” was completed at the same time). Cole reported he had his first label deal within a month of that session. The single quickly turned into a hit (though a somewhat modest one) upon its release in the U.K., leading to a flurry of fascinated press pieces probing Cole to figure out his underlying philosophies as a songwriter. Cole didn’t really play along. While he would sometimes open up about his views of the music, telling NME, for example, that the bulk of the songs on Rattlesnakes were about people falling in love, elaborating, “People get in all sorts of weird scenarios and I quite like the idea of that. I write about that more than anything. Sometimes it is comic, sometimes tragic, sometimes funny and tragic at the same time. After years of trying to deny it, I’m also starting to realize that I basically write about myself.” He was just as likely to disparage such artistic introspection, noting in a different interview that “Perfect Skin” was “not to be taken too seriously.” He continued, “We’ve got Marc Bolan to blame for the trash rhymes. If he was able to rhyme ‘cosmic sea’ and ‘bumble bee’ then that should be a lesson to us all. I think if anyone was to pick on any particular message in one of my songs, I’d probably deny it.”

 

164 our

164. Madness, “Our House”

In simplified assessments of pop music, Madness sometimes gets labeled a one-hit wonder. That’s not even precisely true in the United States, where they first made the Top 40 in 1982, with the single “It Must Be Love.” In their English homeland, that dismissive assessment of their popularity is wildly off. By the time Madness released “Our House” as the lead single from their fourth album, The Rise & Fall, they’d landed ten different songs in the U.K. Top 10, including “House of Fun,” which topped the chart. The catalyst behind “Our House” was a planned concept album that never quite came together. Bassist Cathal Smyth, who then used the stage name Chas Smash, explained, “I suggested to the others that we do a concept album around the theme of families. There were a lot of things that were similar and a lot of things different. But no one bothered.” Smyth said he started the song during a transatlantic flight. He delivered the musical basics to the rest of the band, and the lyrics sprung up fairly spontaneously during a rehearsal session. The single was a major worldwide hit, including the U.S., where it peaked at #7 (which is amazingly low given how ever-present the song seemed at the time.) “Our House” only made it a little higher in the U.K. While it spent as many or even more weeks on the chart as any of their other songs, the fact that it topped out of #5 means it’s one of their less successful singles of the early-eighties.

 

As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown. The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.

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