988. Jefferson Starship, Modern Times (1981)
It’s easy — and given the inferior quality of the latter iteration — to view Jefferson Starship as the inconsequential afterthought of Jefferson Airplane, but that group lasted longer and released more albums, even when not including the mid-eighties reinvention as the even more dire Starship. With the release of Modern Times, Jefferson Starship was one album shy of the original total of their ancestor band and had officially spanned one more year as a recording act. In a field that still largely rejected attempts at band longevity, the endurance is impressive. Of course, on Modern Times, that descriptor shouldn’t be applied to anything else.
Grace Slick was back in the fold after briefly splitting from the band, though she basically breezes in and out songs noncommittally. More often, it’s lead singer Mickey Thomas yelping his way through the ludicrous lyrics, such as the full-potency nonsense of “Wildeyes”: “Break the walls I’m in love again/ And even telepathic children have to eat their vegetables.” There are some vestiges of the band’s old hippie vibe, as when guitarist Paul Kantner’s bizarrely retrograde brand of progressive commentary rears its snout on the title cut. That track, like the single “Find You Way Back” tips off the real goal, which is doing a convincing impression of Styx.
Mostly, the album is filled with remarkably dippy material, such as “Mary,” which hinges on the repeated lyric “I’ll never marry Mary,” or “Alien” which is dead serious in asking “Do you know my thoughts?/ Can you read my mind?/ Would you dare to tell me/ What it is you find?” And then there’s album closer “Stairway To Cleveland (We Do What We Want),” which indulges in the time-honored rock star practice of lobbing bratty retorts at the music press that has soured on their creative output. The desire to push back against the withering assessments, but Modern Times inadvertently makes the argument that the critics are right.
987. Lou Reed, Growing Up in Public (1980)
When it comes to fulfilling a tough professional ultimatum, a person could certainly have a worse experience than Lou Reed did when recording his tenth solo album, Growing Up in Public. His label at the time, Arista Records, had reached the point of impatience with Reed (hardly a unique sensation across the legendarily cantankerous performer’s career), somehow expecting significant commercial success was ever a likelihood. A new record was needed, so Reed disembarked to Montserrat, setting up in George Martin’s newly opened AIR Studios for six weeks. Beaches, booze, and beautiful views were at the ready.
The album was co-written by Reed and Michael Fonfara, guitarist and keyboardist in his touring, with the pair engaged in all night sessions that finished with them teaching the songs to the band in the morning. The resulting material feels loose, although Reed and Fonfara give the tracks a thick studio veneer that betrayed the album’s chronological position at the dawn of the nineteen-eighties. It doesn’t exactly sound like Reed is trying to muscle his music onto the pop charts, but material like “Smiles” (thanks in part to its keyboard breaks) almost sounds like he is at the midpoint of polishing it up to turn it over to the E Street Band.
Although Fonfara had a lot of input on the music, the lyrics were all Reed, distinctively so. The title cut is a prime example of Reed’s tendency to shovel in vividly descriptive lyrics full of ten dollar words with only the most casual interest in whether or not they work within the melody. The same is true of “How Do You Speak to an Angel,” which slings up its verbosity against a music tinged with the kind of goth glam perfected by Alice Cooper: “What do you do with your pragmatic passions/ With your classically neurotic style/ How do you deal with your vague self-comprehensions/ What do you do when you lie”
Elsewhere, Reed visits the evergreen topic of rotten fathers on “My Old Man” and offers a small epic of sexual politics at the end of the Me Decade on “So Alone” (“Sure all men are beasts/ Hey, look, I’ll sit here quietly and I’ll stare at my feet/ I don’t blame you for taking umbrage/ With animals staring at your cleavage/ So alone, we’re so all alone”). If the album is a hodgepodge, it’s one created by a terrifically inventive musician and performer. It didn’t give Arista what they wanted, and Reed left the label shortly after its release, openly bashing boss Clive Davis on the way out the door.
986. The Specials, More Specials (1980)
It’s possible the Specials would have preferred a little time off to help start the nineteen-eighties. The band that invented two-tone music, stewing together Reggae influences and punk rock energy, had enjoyed massive success with their self-titled debut, released in 1979, including a climb to the top of the U.K. singles charts with “Too Much Too Young.” They were worn out from touring, but Chrysalis Records wanted new material too keep the record stores well-stocked with product listeners were craving.
Rushing in to the studio, the individual band members kept bringing their own inklings about where to go next musically, leading to an album that retains the feel of the prior release while engaging in fascinating sonic expansions. More Specials opens with a swingin’ ska version of the jazz standard “Enjoy Yourself,” and that nicely sets the tone for what follows. “Do Nothing” demonstrates the wisdom of its title by providing the easiest beat imaginable, made for swaying hammocks, and “Pearl’s Cafe” is wildly good-natured in delivering the lyrics “It’s all a load of bollocks/ And bollocks to it all.” There’s the lounge-a-rama goodness of “I Can’t Stand It,” featuring vocals from Rhoda Dakar, and “Sock It to ‘Em J.B.” is a spirited ode to 007.
The variety on the album is satisfying, but it also represented significant discord within the band. Those hairline cracks became chasms while the Specials toured. By the start of 1981, they forced the layoff they were craving, which foretold a completely fluctuating band identity in the years ahead.
985. Richard Thompson, Daring Adventures (1986)
Daring Adventures was Richard Thompson’s second album with Polydor Records. There wasn’t much other continuity in place, as Thompson strayed from longtime producer Joe Boyd — working instead with Mitchell Froom — and recorded the album away from his English homeland. And there was less of the daring confessions of Thompson’s previous work, including his revered collaborations with then-wife Linda Thompson. Instead, Thompson pushed into the literary, crafting smart character studies, such as album closer “Al Bowlly’s in Heaven,” about a British jazz performer who died during a bombing of London in World War II.
Thompson basically marked out territory he’d stay comfortably within for the remainder of his career. The gentle blues of “Missie How You Let Me Down,” the chugging “Cash Down, Never Never,” and the wryly amusing “Nearly in Love” (“I don’t want to cause you doubt/ But I’m really checking you out/ You’re the closest to my heart bar none/ Except for my wallet and my gun”). It also put a sharp pin into Thompson’s typical sales level, which was middling at best. On the U.S. album charts, it peaked at #142, which was right in the middle of the range he’d always stay in, forever denied a true commercial breakthrough.
To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs.