College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #840 to #837

fixx walkabout

840. The Fixx, Walkabout (1986)

Formed in London in 1979, the Fixx were a regular presence on album rock radio throughout the decade that followed. Despite indications that they might be able to cross over to the Top 40 charts — the single “One Thing Leads to Another” made it all the way up to #4 — by the the Fixx’s fourth album, Walkabout, label heads and the band’s management were openly fretting about a growing indifference among key programmers. The prior release, Phantoms, was considered a disappointment, so there was a hearty push to get the brand greater exposure, including a gig as opening act for the Moody Blues, then touring on the strength of a surprise late-career hit.

As had been the case on their prior three albums, the Fixx worked with producer Rupert Hine. There is a continuity of sound and style, but also a clear sense that everything was caressed into a more agreeable shape, all the better to connect with a broader audience. Although the Fixx were never exactly hard rockers, lead single “Secret Separation” is noticeably gentler than their earlier hits, any and all abrasion dutifully sanded away. The tactic didn’t exactly work. The song made it into the Billboard Top 40 (and became their second song to top the album rock chart), but peaked at a lower point that the first single from Phantoms.

The rest of the album is right in line with that uninspiring single. “Treasure It” is a piece of wimpy pop with inane lyrics (“We’ll have our turn to use what we’ve learnt/ And stand into the light of our lives/ So please yourself, feed yourself/ Take a seat for this coming attraction”), and “Read Between the lines” clumsily goes for quiet drama, winding up sounding like a watered down Marillion song. The welcome sonic weirdness injected into “Sense the Adventure” is the closest the Fixx comes to an adventurous creative spirit. Everything else is sadly rote.

 

 

vamp pop

839. Transvision Vamp, Pop Art (1988)

With their brash, melting-candy guitar pop and image-first aesthetic, Transvision Vamp struck more than a few observers as a band almost genetically engineered to prosper when MTV was arguably still at the long plateau height of its powers. The deep history of the group back that assumption up, at least somewhat. Lead singer Wendy James and guitarist and chief songwriter Nick Sayer first collaborated on a film treatment inspired by the weird Canadian rock fantasy animated film Rock & Rule. When they shopped it to movie studios, they were redirected to record labels. Not long afterward, the band was in place, and their debut album, Pop Art, was released.

On the off chance that the tight dresses James was wriggled into didn’t provide enough of a signal as to how much Transvision Vamp was willing to use sex to sell records, the track “I Want You Love” really drives it home before the end of the first stanza as the singer essentially rhymes “love” with an orgasmic groan. Subtlety clearly wasn’t an attribute that much interested the band.

Then again, subtlety wasn’t really a prized quality for most of rock ‘n’ roll, and Transvision Vamp impressively romped through the glittery muck built into to form. Single “Tell That Girl to Shut Up” is the album’s truest winner, charging forward with braggadocio, chunky instrumentation, and a vocal performance by James that convincingly combined come-hither sweetness and fierce attitude. Originally recorded by Holly and the Italians, the standout was also borrowed from someone else, which hints at some broader trouble. On Pop Art, anyway, Sayer isn’t much of a songwriter.

Some of the tracks rely on needy references to creations and people with cool kid credibility (“Andy Warhol’s Dead,” and “Hanging Out with Halo Jones,” about the 2000 AD comic book character). The rummage pile of pop culture detritus is arguably at its nadir on album opener “Trash City,” which includes lyrics such as “From LSD to MTV/ From backpack to Pac-Man.” More problematically, the song includes stabs at futuristic effects that make it sound like the specific song Flight of the Conchords were mocking on “Robots.” The lyrics keep tripping up the band, no matter how much vivid glam rock oomph they put into the music. “Revolution Baby” impressively evokes T. Rex, but there’s no disguising the problems with “Your mama’s rich and your daddy’s good looking/ I got the hunger so tell me what’s cooking.”

As if sensing the short window they had, Transvision Vamp released their sophomore album, Velveteen, less than a year after their debut. There was one more album (Little Magnets Versus the Bubble of Babble, in 1991) before the group called it quits.

 

 

ac rock

838. AC/DC, For Those About to Rock We Salute You (1981)

There were plenty of bands across the nineteen-seventies and nineteen-eighties that delivered defining hard rock epics, but Australian powerhouses AC/DC were arguably unique in their ability to craft tracks that played like anthems for budding metalheads everywhere. “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)” is such a perfect blast of fist-pumping, cymbal-crashing, soaring guitar solidarity, it’s as if it was handed down from the power chord gods. In a way, I guess it was.

There’s no overstates the popularity of AC/DC at the time the album For Those About to Rock We Salute You was released. The group’s prior effort, Back in Black, was absolutely enormous. (By now, it has sold more than fifty million copies worldwide.) in fact, Back in Black was such a hit that their U.S. label, Atlantic Records, capitalized by releasing the 1977 album Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap after previously rejecting it as too poorly produced for the stateside market. It, too, was a big seller, so AC/DC suddenly had the highest of expectations weighing on their next studio effort.

For Those About to Rock We Salute You kept the band’s streak of mighty achievements alive, becoming their first to top the Billboard album chart, a feat it would take them over twenty-five years to repeat.

 

 

talk colour

837. Talk Talk, The Colour of Spring (1986)

Talk Talk sounded like a completely different band on The Colour of Spring, their third album. The English group enjoyed effusive critical praise for their austere synth pop of crystalline perfection, but that hadn’t quite translated to significant commercial success. Whether through natural evolution or an attempt to reach a wider audience, Talk Talk pushed to a more robust sound on The Colour of Spring, filling in the margins with bright, bristling musical adornments.

Despite the changes, the material remains fairly light and pretty. Album opener “Happiness is Easy” is decidedly precious, even before the children’s choir joins in. But the The Colour of Spring is delivered with a such a vibrant abundance that, positioned properly, it could dominate and then redefine pop radio. There’s a funky churn to “Life’s What You Make It,” and “Living in Another World” is sharp and lively. On “April 5th,” lead singer Mark Hollis Hollis finishes the song with quiet yelps and murmurs, like a version of the Waterboys succumbing to heavy sedation. Then the album-closing mini-epic “Time It’s Time” spreads a fleet of ideas across its running time, giving an assured sense that Talk Talk possessed the capability to master just about any pop music technique.

The Colour of Spring gave Talk Talk the success that was previously elusive. It charted in the Top 10 in the U.K. This wasn’t smash territory, but it gave the band the clout — as well as the added time and budget — to do whatever they wanted with their next outing, leading to nearly a yearlong process in the recording studio on the way to Spirit of Eden, which retreated almost entirely from the commercial accessibility they’d finally achieved.

 

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