College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #832 to #829

cooder borderline

832. Ry Cooder, Borderline (1980)

As the nineteen-seventies were giving way to the eighties, Ry Cooder was the musician’s musician. His solidly prolific solo career was bolstered by appearances on other performer’s records, many of which were likely far more widely heard than anything on which he put his own name. Cooder was called in by the likes of Van Morrison and Randy Newman, giving him that much more cachet in the industry. For his 1980 album, Borderline, used his solid place in the industry to help his friend John Hiatt find some stability as he struggled with a drinking problem. Cooder gave Hiatt a place in his backing band and recorded two of his songs, including a pleasant instrumental amble that became the title cut.

Cooder was a frequent collaborator with Hiatt over the year (notably anchoring the band on Hiatt’s 1987 gem, Bring the Family) and there’s a clear affinity in place that lends to the relaxed, affable feel of Borderline. In the best possible way, the album sounds like the product of a bunch of pals playing together in the studio until they land on something that feels and sounds just right. The breeziness even manifests in an occasional hint of reggae stylings — as on the intro to the otherwise classic R&B styled number “Speedo” — as if the cool, psychoactive vibes can’t help but waft in.

As respected as Cooder’s musicianship was, he was arguably yet more well-regarded for his deep knowledge of pop and rock history. Borderline sometimes has the feel of a sponge squeezing out some of what it’s retained. “Why Don’t You Try Me” has the steady ease of vintage offerings from the Band, and “The Way We Make a Broken Heart,” penned by Hiatt, finds Cooder borrowing the ingratiating sway of the Drifters. The easygoing approach occasionally grows too slack — “Crazy ‘Bout an Automobile” is the clearest example — but Borderline is mostly a procession of tuneful charmers.

 

 

bruce world

831. Bruce Cockburn, World of Wonders (1986)

Bruce Cockburn went out into the world and reported back on what he saw. The Canadian singer-songwriter released his self-titled debut album in 1970, and many of the records that followed adhered to the earnest folkie model of the day. By the following decade, Cockburn expanded his horizons, quite literally. At a time of incredible strife in Central and South America, Cockburn took regular visits to refugee camps and other locales that were bringing desperately needed humanitarian relief to the people who were suffering. In particular, he got a firsthand look at evidence of the U.S. intervention in the region making matters worse. His lyrics began to be reshaped accordingly.

World of Wonders opens with the angry protest rock song “Call It Democracy,” on which Cockburn spells out the moral corruption at the core of governments supposedly by and for the people: “See the paid off local bottom feeders/ Passing themselves off as leaders/ Kiss the ladies, shake hands with the fellows/ And it’s open for business like a cheap bordello.” It’s the poetry of discontentment, delivered with appropriate vitriol. it’s part rallying cry, part citizen journalism, and part seismic manifesto, placed against lean music to better accentuate the fierce words.

Cockburn sticks to roughly the same model across the album, occasionally sprinkling in some different studio effects that help carbon date the album to the mid-eighties. There are tinkling pop sounds on the title cut and sonic baubles on the bleating “People See Through You.”  Mostly, these are ornaments on Cockburn’s plainspoken political treatises. It can sometimes be a little flat, too much dispatch and not quite enough songwriting polish. More often, though, World of Wonders is marked by earnestness and urgency.

 

 

pink cut

830. Pink Floyd, The Final Cut (1983)

Officially, Pink Floyd released three studio albums after The Final Cut, but I suspect many consider this the proper ending for the influential band. It was the last outing with lead singer and chief songwriter Roger Waters, before growing disputes with guitarist David Gilmour led to his permanent departure. There are also some who consider this the first solo album by Waters, simply in disguise as a Pink Floyd record. Unlike other prior releases, Waters was the sole credited songwriter on every track, and keyboardist Richard Wright doesn’t participate at all. One final interpretation of The Final Cut posits it as not a proper new studio release, but instead as a collection of stray leftovers from the epic The Wall, released in 1979. The genesis of The Final Cut was as a soundtrack album for the film version of The Wall, directed by Alan Parker.

Several of the songs were first drafted for The Wall, but ultimately not used for that double album.  (“If these songs weren’t good enough for The Wall, why are they good enough now?” Gilmour recounted asking of Waters, which surely didn’t go over all that well.) And when Waters began tinkering with them again, they were further informed by his agitation at the geopolitical marauding of Western governments and corresponding erosion of support for homeland citizenry with the greatest need. The Final Cut became a broadside concept album against war, weighing both the boondoggles of the moment and the lingering effects of midcentury skirmishes. For a band that specialized in whirligig sonic explorations that were lyrically somewhat timeless, it’s a little strange to hear repeated lyrical references to the dominant political figures at the time. “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome, Reagan and Haig/ Mr. Begin and friend, Mrs. Thatcher, and Paisley,” Waters jarringly sings on “The Fletcher Memorial Home.”

It’s not simply the topical details that bring disconcerting clumsiness to The Final Cut . In general, the album is leaden and surprisingly drab. Signature Gilmour guitar solos are sprinkled in here and there, but otherwise the album doesn’t particularly come across as the product of Pink Floyd, with dense layers cascading out to overwhelm the senses. It’s shockingly plain, more resembling the weirder turns of Billy Joel or the less adventurous moments of Peter Gabriel. Waters delivers the lyrics with a keening directness that fully exposes the shortcomings of his language. “The Hero’s Return” is ponderous and almost didactic in its surface-level details of post-war homecomings (“When we came back from the war the banners and/ Flags hung on everyone’s door”), and the title track is similarly hackneyed about more down to earth concerns (“And if I show you my dark side/ Will you still hold me tonight?”).

Pink Floyd splintered after The Final Cut. Individual members cut solo albums and Waters publicly asserted the band was over. Legal battles ensued, and Gilmour carried on the band in the face of his former cohort’s protests, releasing A Momentary Lapse of Reason in 1987.

 

 

rain rail

829. The Rain Parade, Emergency Third Rail Power Trip (1983)

“We’re psychedelic in a sort of psychoanalytic sense,” the Rain Parade guitarist and vocalist Matt Piucci explained around the time his band’s debut album was released. “I think what psychedelic drugs did to people is that it made them reflect on some very internalized parts of their lives.”

One of central groups in the streaking comet of the Paisley Underground music scene in early-eighties Los Angeles, the Rain Parade’s full-length, Emergency Third Rail Power Trip, is a quintessential piece of retro psychedelic pop, steeped in affection and softly glimmering with approachable musical candor. Accomplished and lovely, there’s little reinvention to the material. Instead, the Rain Parade takes the position of respecting bygone pop traditions, figuring there was a reason they all liked this kind of music in the first place.

And the album is littered with tones and takes that evoke their most vaunted forebears. “I Look Around” has the brusque, bendy guitars and lolling melodies of Revolver-era Beatles, and “What She’s Done to Your Mind” calls to mind the Kinks when Ray Davies decided to dial down the intensity in favor of more wistful melodies. The band regularly transcends pastiche, though, mostly through the moments that suggest they’d picked up the best elements of other styles through osmosis. “1 Hour 1/2 Ago” nestles into its kaleidoscopic intricacies, fortified with a little power pop meatiness, and the band must have been at least a little attuned to the college radio favorites of the day, since “Talking in My Sleep” sounds like early R.E.M. with more of a flower power swirl and discernible singing.

The Rain Parade’s sound is so distinctive that the album sometimes threatens to turn in one long love-in blur, but then an odd little bit will break through the haze, like the haunted music box opening on “Look at Merri” or the moments of romping energy on “Saturday’s Asylum.” They never lose track of their own aesthetic, but the band proves they can occasionally supplement it with some crisp new idea.

Given its somewhat niche appeal, Emergency Third Rail Power Trip did fairly well, but the band stood on shaky ground. Not long after the album’s release, David Roback, guitarist and vocalist, left the band, moving on to other L.A. outfits. Eventually, he teamed with a singer named Hope Sandoval, and they did all right together. The Rain Parade released one more studio album, in 1985, before breaking up.

 

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