For some fans of Swans, the betrayal of principles began with a cover of “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” To the degree that the track — or tracks, really — represented a distinct turning point, they’re not entirely wrong. Michael Gira started Swans in the countercultural swirl of New York’s early-nineteen-eighties no wave scene, releasing a succession of abrasive, challenging albums and EPs. By the middle of that decade, pierced eyebrows were already raising as the hardest, most bruising edges were buffed off, a process accelerated by the inclusion of keyboardist and vocalist Jarboe on the roster. Then, in 1988, came the unexpected and mellow cover of Joy Division’s signature song. Though there was a level of abject difficulty to the very nature of the release: two different versions of the song, with either Gira or Jarboe on lead vocals, the cover of the EP the only signal to which was contained therein, leading countless music buyers to be perplexed when they got home and piped their new purchase through the stereo speakers. Skepticism-fueled positing the Swans were trying for a easy cash-in was bolstered by a groundswell of new interest in Joy Division, which itself drove the release of the compilation Substance that same year. Crass or not in motivation, the success of the cover did spur a major label to finally come courting Swans. “Love Will Tear Us Apart” was the undisputed motivation for an ultimately ill-fated signing to MCA Records. (The band’s sole release under that banner, the 1989 album The Burning World, was said to be the poorest-selling album in the label’s history.) Gira later regretted the cover, fighting for years to prevent the version with his vocals from a rerelease. Jarboe viewed it more warmly. “I will always remember the time I sang it in a Swans concert in Manchester, England, to a large audience, and they all sang along with me. Amazing. Like a huge choir of believers,” she said. “Also, the lyrics hit home again and again. They describe my own experiences with my relationships, and when I sing that song, it is truth.”
Dave Stewart was trying out his new drum machine. He had reason to be excited. Acquiring the device had taken quite a bit of effort, entailing a drive of hundreds of miles and a night bunked down on a stranger’s floor. It was a complicated device, and Stewart was flustered when unable to shut down the machine after setting it into aural motion with a bass drum pattern. The incessant beat roused his chief collaborator, Annie Lennox. She rushed in and started playing around with keyboard lines, soon moving on to writing down the cascade of lyrics that were occurring to her, including a thunder crack of a title: “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).” According to Stewart, he and Lennox knew they had something special, but others were slower to come around. “To us, it was a major breakthrough, but I remember later some famous publishers coming to hear it, and they didn’t get it at all,” Stewart wrote in his memoir. “They just kept saying, ‘I don’t understand this song. It doesn’t have a chorus.’ But the thing is, it just goes from beginning to end, and the whole song is a chorus. There is not one note that is not a hook.” Anyone who was initially dismissive of the track eventually saw their opinion proved foolish. Released as a single in 1983, it became a worldwide smash. That included a turn at the top of the Billboard chart, where it had the distinction of knocking the Police’s “Every Breath You Take” from that perch after a two-month run.
“Is She Really Going Out with Him?” the first single from Joe Jackson, began with the title. “I heard that phrase somewhere and I thought that could be a kind of funny song about gorgeous girls going out with monsters,” Jackson later explained. “It just started from there. It was just a funny song, or supposed to be funny. It was a great surprise to me when some people interpreted it as being angry.” The track was released in 1978 as the introduction to Jackson and his music. And it went absolutely nowhere on the charts. The following year, it was included on Look Sharp!, Jackson’s debut album. Helped by a blessed downpour of critical praise for that full-length release, Jackson started to made headway with the general public. When “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” was rereleased as a single, it had a much better fate, becoming Jackson’s first Top 40 hit in the United States. The slow build became a mad rush in such a convincing fashion that Jackson’s label urged him to deliver a sophomore album as quickly as possible, leading to the release of I’m the Man a mere seven months after its immediate predecessor.
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.