984. UB40, 1980-1983 (1983)
The early nineteen-eighties was a good time to be dishing out gentle, reggae-influenced pop in the U.K. The band UB40 started germinating around 1978, when Ali Campbell took the compensatory award he received after enduring a physical assault and put it towards securing musical instruments for a bunch of his school chums. The first true live gig for UB40 took place in early 1979, and their first single — a double A-side featuring “King” and “Food for Thought” — was in shops within about a year.
The embrace in their homeland was warm and immediate, but UB40 struggled to make headway in the U.S., at least until a covers album in 1983 contained a slow-building smash. The attention from North American audiences might have been slow to come, but the band’s label for those territories seemed to think the chance for a breakthrough was there in 1983. In addition to covers album Labour of Love, A&M Records released a compilation dubbed 1980-1983. Though UB40’s singles were reasonably well represented, it was questionable to term the album a “greatest hits,” since one half of the band’s tracks to make it into the Top 10 in the U.K. were nowhere to be heard on the album.
The previously mentioned “King” and “Food for Thought” were present, as was “One in Ten,” which peaked at #7 after it was released as a single in 1981. Though pulled together from multiple releases, the compilation has a unmistakable low idle, island grove, whether on the cautionary tale “Don’t Do the Crime” or the slightly more loping “Present Arms.” The material is obviously accomplished within its genre, but there’s only so much creativity that can be mustered within these fairly tight musical confines.
983. Heart, Dog & Butterfly (1978)
As I’ve previously shared, Heart’s fourth studio album enjoyed an impressively strong showing on the very first CMJ album chart, included in a prototype issue of the trade publication birthed in late 1978. CMJ co-founder Bobby Haber assembled the chart from the playlists of college radio stations all over the country, but it’s fair to say that the student broadcasters weren’t pushing into territory all that different from their brethren stocking the airwaves from commercial portions of the FM band. Heart notched a pair of Top 40 singles from Dog & Butterfly: “Straight On” and the title cut.
Dog & Butterfly was an important statement of independence for Heart. It was their first for Portrait Records, a fairly new subsidiary of Columbia Records. To get there, they’d bolted from Mushroom Records, in part because of dissatisfaction with marketing that salaciously played up the attractiveness of Ann and Nancy Wilson, the Seattle sisters who were the creative core of the band. Executives at Mushroom weren’t going to let Heart go without a fight, and extensive legal wrangling culminated with the band grudgingly finishing off one more album for their former corporate master.
Since this was the nineteen-seventies, the album had a veneer concept to it, with the A-side (dubbed “Dog”) stacked with harder rocking tracks (like “High Time,” which almost skews into the ever-treacherous prog rock territory) and the B-side (dubbed “Butterfly”) a little more gentle (a strategy almost stated explicitly on the song “Lighter Touch” ). Although I don’t think the approach is especially calculated, the end result is that listening to Dog & Butterfly is like a primer for what album rock radio sounded like right when it was revolting most emphatically against the disco music dominated the culture.
982. Bolshoi, Lindy’s Party (1987)
When Lindy’s Party, the second full-length from the Bolshoi, was released, a profile of band began in writerly anguish:
God, it’s almost impossible to capture the true essence of a band as defiant of description as the Bolshoi without getting hopelessly lost in the alternative jungle of garbled romanticisms.
I mean, should I even try?
Hailing from the modest English town Trowbridge, the Bolshoi offered a swirling, driving style of pop music that was the obvious descendent of new wave and edging toward the Brit pop derivation of alternative that briefly ruled college airwaves before Nirvana trundled in and toppled all the shelves. “Please” has an offhand, keening punch to it, and “T.V. Man” is amusing in its counter-culture tilting against the steel-reinforced windmill of pop culture (“One, two, three, hail TV/ Watching Dirty Harry made a man of me”). “Can You Believe It” is one of those tracks that sounds almost conspiratorial in its bratty deconstructionist approach to fussily descriptive lyrics and jalopy thump rhythms. It could only arrive in 1987.
The album is a little less successful when the Bolshoi strains in the direction of a bigger sound, as on “Crack in Smile,” which sounds like warmed over Psychedelic Furs. The band was never going to transform the world, so more modest musical aspirations suited them better. There’s not a thing wrong with that. There are bands that regularly carve out pained masterpieces that could never make a track as immediate — and, I’d argue, irresistible — in its appeal as “Swings and Roundabouts.” (“Ten o’clock, I’m drinking beer/ I don’t know why I come in here/ Well, it’s cold outside, yes, that’s true/ And I don’t really have much else to do” is so perfect a description of about half of my collegiate nights that I can even forgive the song for later rhyming “hero” with “beer, oh.”) If the price to pay is a few garbled romanticisms, it’s worth it.
981. Split Enz, Time and Tide (1982)
There’s no doubt that the New Zealand band Split Enz are best known for nifty pop gems, the sort of songs that insinuate their way into the psyche in three minutes flat and lilt away, presumably to Heaven itself. They did bring a unique skill to those sorts of compositions, but the whole truth of their sonic output is a touch more complicated. Formed in 1972, Split Enz were a product of their time, which meant prog rock and blues-soaked epics, and thundering bombast at every opportunity. No matter which songs have endured with the greatest stickiness, all of that other material is part of their character, too.
Time and Tide, though it contains one of those shards of pop perfection in the form of the single “Six Months in a Leaky Boat,” is more notable as a compendium of all of the band’s competing creative instincts. For their seventh studio album, Split Enz worked with producer Hugh Padham, fresh from assisting on the first two solo albums by Phil Collins. That provides a reasonable hint as to the overall feel of the album. Album opener “Dirty Creature” percolates with edgy energy, “Never Ceases to Amaze Me” slaloms a disco beat around probing rock keyboards, and “Haul Away” sounds as though it was transferred over from the Small Faces’ Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake or some other jaunty old rock opera about the undefinable malaise of the British middle class.
Time and Tide is a little all over the place, but that seems to be exactly what Split Enz wanted. If it’s messy, it’s also accomplished and gratifyingly exploratory. It tilts away from expectations just as often as it feeds fan desires. That’s a neat trick.
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.