924. The Nils, The Nils (1987)
Formed in Montreal in the late nineteen-seventies, the Nils were perfectly poised to infiltrate college radio when their self-titled debut album was released. With nearly ten years under their guitar straps, the Nils had a professional polish that couldn’t be faked, and they played earnest, well-built rock songs that recalled the likes of Let’s Active and just about any of the Minneapolis outfits that rattled left of the dial playlists. On a track like “River of Sadness,” they showed they could even adopt just enough R.E.M. jangle to add texture to their heavier, more conventional rock ‘n’ roll base.
There isn’t a staggering amount of depth to the tracks on The Nils. “Wicked Politician” offers commentary that get no more insightful than the song’s title, which is only underscored by a bland guitar grind that anticipates Pearl Jam at their most slack self-satisfaction. Most of the time, though, the fuss-free verve of the band amply compensates, bolstered by the clean, robust production of Chris Spedding. On “Truce” and “In Betweens,” they approach the punchy, boisterous brand of rock that Soul Asylum eventually spun into gold.
Like a lot of band before and since, the Nils suffered from severe mismanagement by their record label. Signed to Rock Hotel, a newly formed subsidiary of Frontier Records that was investing heavily in punk bands, the Nils quickly found their corporate overlords were drastically short on cash. This dire situation was in spite of the fact that the premier act of Frontier, Run-D.M.C., was in the midst of going triple platinum with their latest record. A worldwide tour in support of The Nils was scuttled midway through the band was left stranded with no financial support. But they also couldn’t extricate themselves from a smothering contract that obligated delivery of seven albums before the band should shop around for different options.
“It was a crime,” bassist Carlos Soria reflected many years later. “We had other labels that wanted to sign us, like Reprise, Combat and Relativity, but it took so long that they went with other bands. When we finally got our release, Kurt Cobain had just died.”
For band leader Alex Soria — Carlos’s brother — the outcome was even bleaker. Idle and distraught over the stasis of a band he’d spend a decade building up, Soria began self-medicating with drugs. By the time the band was freed from their contract, the wounds were too deep. Several years later, while in the midst of working on new material, Soria took his own life by stopping his car on the train tracks in the path of an oncoming locomotive.
923. China Crisis, Flaunt the Imperfection (1985)
When the U.K. band China Crisis released their third album, Flaunt the Imperfection, they were arguably overshadowed by the person who’d offered his services as a producer. As one half of Steely Dan, Walter Becker’s place in rock history was secure, albeit more elevated by a subset of fans who favored pristine fusion jazz shimmer over blasts of heavy metal thunder. Following the 1981 breakup of his band, Becker largely disappeared from the music scene, absconding to Hawaii to try his hand at the farmer’s life. He was lured from his premature retirement when he heard China Crisis’s music, particular, according to some accounts, the song “Papau.” The band was excited enough about the collaboration that they chose to bill Becker not only as producer but also as a fifth member in the resulting album’s linter notes.
Flaunt the Imperfection certainly seems to bear Becker’s glassy fingerprints. “Strength of Character” sounds like Bryan Ferry took some Boz Scaggs material and tried to add a little elegant swing to it, and, in true Steely Dan style, “Bigger the Punch I’m Feeling” resembles a track that gets played when it’s time to really loosen up in the cruise ship lounge. Music writers more interested in Becker’s comeback than the emerging Brit band detected similarities, but the man himself was quick to say the cited material wasn’t his doing.
“By the time I started working with them, they’d already outgrown that new wave element,” Becker told Billboard. “It’s growth on their part, not anything I’ve inserted.”
The album is better when it drifts away from those refinements, anyway. The jabbing chorus of “The World Spins I’m Part of It” is more satisfying than any lush veneer. And when the tempo picks up, as on “Wall of God” or the percolating “King in a Catholic Style,” the album shifts from a strained attempt at high recording art to pop that’s actually, you know, sorta fun. Accurate or not, those moments feel like China Crisis succeeding in spite of Becker rather than because of him.
922. My Dad is Dead, Let’s Skip the Details (1988)
My Dad is Dead certainly sounds like a band name of affected misery that a snarly post-punk band might adopt, but the Cleveland group came by it legitimately. Primary — and, at times, sole — member Mark Edwards had buried both his parents before his twenty-first birthday. The band name was less imposed, calculated gloom than a simple statement of fact.
Releasing his first album under the My Dad is Dead name in 1985, Edwards was laudably prolific. Three years later, he was on his fourth album, and the second to be released on the Homestead label. Let’s Skip the Details is a fuzzy, catchy rouser, the kind of record that might be made by someone who decided they didn’t need to listen to any more music after the first Joy Division album came out. It avoids succumbing to mere derivativeness, mainly because Edwards operates with a visceral determination.
It’s that belief in the material that also allows Edwards to escape occasional traps of self-parody. “Lay Down the Law” could become an eye-roller as the lyrics repetitively imagine acts of homicide as a revenge for personal infractions so awful that “There ain’t no words.” And yet it somehow works. Edwards is shaking out his id like a musty throw rug instead of trying to jolt the world with his anguish, and the understatement is appealing. Besides, there’s plenty of goth cred to be found across the album, right down to the mention of a black light on “Five Minutes.”
It’s not all grime and bloody knuckles. The anti-misery anthem “Put It Away” is a galloping rocker the Feelies might have come up with if they used burlier guitars, and Edwards sounds almost cheery almost sounds cheery as he sings “The days of our lives/ Just slide on by,” on “Bad Judgement Day.” The band’s name doesn’t deceive, but it doesn’t tell the whole story, either.
921. Billy Bragg, Brewing Up with Billy Bragg (1984)
A songwriter who’d been honing his craft since the late nineteen-seventies, Billy Bragg had no shortage of material when he recorded his debut album, Life’s a Riot with Spy vs. Spy, released in 1983. So assembling the lineup for his follow-up, Brewing Up with Billy Bragg, was a snap. Largely, he just made his way through all the songs that were leftover from the first go-round in the studio. The only downside, arguably, was that Bragg’s profile as a lefty activist had already risen to the point it was expected he’d weigh in on the pressing matters of the day, such as the U.K. miners’ strike, for which he’d played benefit concerts. It was well and good to take aim at the British tabloids on “It Says Here,” but some of Bragg’s fans expected new, more specific anthems for their agitation.
The notion that Bragg was going to deliver a recruitment pamphlet in record form was driven by the misreading of his art that’s been present for his whole career, a conflation of his activism with his songwriting. As always, there are plenty of political songs on Brewing Up with Billy Bragg, such as the retort against the Falklands War “Island of No Return” and the plea for peace “Like Soldiers Do.” But Bragg also follows the well-worn pop troubadour path of chronicling wobbly romance, from school days (“The Saturday Boy”) to deep into adulthoods of wistful heartbreak (“St. Swithin’s Day”). As I’ve shared before, I find Bragg to be at his most effective, compelling, and enduring in those moments of melancholy melodizing.
Any disappointment about a dearth of up-to-the-minute commentary on Brewing Up with Billy Bragg was likely quelled quickly. Only three months after the album hit racks, Bragg released an EP entitled Between the Wars, with a title cut inspired by the striking miners and all proceeds going to the fund set up to support them.
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.