804. Propaganda, A Secret Wish (1985)
In the early nineteen-eighties, the West German electronic pop outfit Propaganda was signed to a fledgling label based out of the U.K. And there they quickly got a strange lesson in the twisty economics of the music business.
ZTT Records was the brainchild of Trevor Horn, one half of the Buggles and the producer who was bringing prog rock icons Yes to dizzying new heights. Also headed by Horn’s wife, Jill Sinclair, and music journalist Paul Morley, the label assembled a roster of fierce upstarts, mostly favoring a type of dance music fortified with a steely spine of rock ‘n’ roll bombast. One of the earliest singles from the label was “Relax,” the debut of Frankie Goes to Hollywood. The track became a global sensation, necessitating that all of the label’s limited resources went to capitalizing of the sudden fervor for more new music from the band. Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s labelmates, including Propaganda, were largely put in a holding pattern. Propaganda’s first single, the very German dance grind “Dr. Mabuse,” was a Top 40 hit on the U.K. chart, but over a year passed before the follow-up single, an eon in the timetable of early eighties pop.
By the time Propaganda’s debut album, A Secret Wish, was release, it likely sounded like it was trailing behind and emulating other acts that had already added angrier edges to new wave pop. Some of the band’s invention was robbed from it by the unexpectedly slow grind of a compromised professional schedule beyond their control. The album also sounds like it took a lot of time in the studio. “Jewel” is based upon intricate layering of sounds and effects, and “Dream Within a Dream,” borrowing its word from over Edgar Allan Poe’s poem of a similar title, stretches to over nine minutes of lulling horn parts and steadily pulsing electronic music.
When Propaganda attempts to condense their expansiveness into tidy pop containers, it doesn’t entirely work. The dribbling “Duel” demonstrates that. They’re at their best when smacking against the ramparts, as on the vibrant “p:Machinery” and lush seduction “The Chase.” The album fared reasonably well in the U.K., but the road remained very rocky, marked by lineup changes and a lawsuit against ZZT Records. Five years passed before the arrival of their second studio album, 1234, released in 1990.
803. Heaven 17, The Luxury Gap (1983)
The Luxury Gap was the second studio album from Heaven 17, the band formed by Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware after they abandoned the Human League to Philip Oakey. In a way, Heaven 17 was the corrected reboot of what they’d started with their prior group, since lead singer Glenn Gregory was reported who they’d wanted at the center microphone all along. They may have been creatively satisfied with the new arrangement, but they’d also had to watch Oakey achieve tremendous commercial success while the first Heaven 17 album, Penthouse and Pavement, was met with comparative indifference.
They cracked it the second time out, though, scoring a major U.K. hit with the the third single from The Luxury Gap, the ever-escalating “Temptation.” The track was simultaneously fully in keeping with Heaven 17’s stylistic approach and touch removed from the joyful political insurgency of some of their strongest material. Elsewhere on the album, for example, “Crushed by the Wheels of Industry” offers satiric capitalistic commentary set to a groovy dance beat. It’s matched in wry spirit by the vibrant credit lament “Key to the World” (“Buying items on your wish list/ It’s easier than you think/ But trying to fill the luxury gap/ Has pushed me to the brink”).
Heaven 17 roves far and wide on The Luxury Gap, not always to their benefit. “Come Live with Me,” gets extremely creep with the the opening announcement “I was thirty-seven/ You were seventeen” before recounting the predatory residency offer of the title accompanied including the declaration “Kiss the boys goodbye.” And packed tightly with nonsense lyrics (“Lady Ice and Mr Hex/ She’ll leave you could he’ll make you flex”), “Lady Ice and Mr Hex” sounds like a modernized theme for a wildly mod sixties spy thriller, which is more incongruous than appealingly retro.
If The Luxury Gap is something of a hit or miss affair, the places it connected were strong enough to help Heaven 17 make significant headway in the music industry. That included the chance to collaborate with Tina Turner on a cover of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” Released as a single, it became Turner’s first solo Top 40 hit in the U.S., setting the template for her enormous commercial breakthrough to come.
802. Steve Winwood, Back in the High Life (1986)
By his own account, Steve Winwood was thinking about giving up on professional music-making shortly before he went to work on the album Back in the High Life. He previous album, Talking Back to the Night, was perceived as an artistic and commercial flop, his marriage was on the rocks, and he felt isolated, the latter a direct result of his developed practice of building songs all by himself in his home studio located in the English countryside. Winwood was feeling a distance from more tactile sensations of making music.
”I found that with the advance of technology in music, I was spending my whole time sitting in front of computer terminals rather than writing, singing, and playing,” Winwood told The New York Times around the point of the album’s release. “I thought I should work with people who specialize in programming and computer engineering.”
Winwood shared production duties to Russ Titelman and got out of the house, venturing to various studios and New York City and enlisting a small battalion of ace session players to back him up. Creatively and commercially, the strategy had the desired effect. Back in the High Life was a triumph led by the chart-topping single “Higher Love.” The cut’s spare echoing drum part at the opening gives way to a welling rush of interweaving melodic instrumentation and Winwood’s emotive singing, abetted by Chaka Khan’s powerhouse backing vocals.
It’s not exactly a fair fight, but nothing else on the album quite approaches that luminous peak. “Split Decision,” co-written with Joe Walsh, has a probing skill, and almost-title cut “Back in the High Life Again” moves with a grace that feels uniquely earned. “Freedom Overspill” has some vestiges of the drab fusion that typified Winwood’s earlier solo work, but also demonstrates how it can be salvaged by Stax-style organs, horns, and beats. At the most indulgent, Winwood can still be unbearably drippy in his sentiments. “The Finer Things,” the album’s second-highest charting single, has lyrics that could try the patience of even the most generous fans (“While there is time/ Let’s go out and feel everything/ If you hold me/ I will let you into my dreams”).
Any ideas Winwood had about putting his music career in the rearview were cooled for at least the time being. He had the biggest hit of his career and, before long, a couple Grammy Awards to further validate the wisdom of persisting.
801. Daryl Hall and John Oates, H2O (1982)
Daryl Hall and John Oates were remarkably consistent hit-makers through the first half of the nineteen-eighties, with five chart-toppers and practically every single logging significant time in the upper reaches of the Billboard Hot 100. By some measures, H2O was their most successful studio album. It notched the highest peak of any of their records on the album chart, and its opener and lead single, “Maneater,” itself spent four weeks at #1. In offering a melodic cautionary tale of weak men falling prey to temptress women, it was echoed by side two kickoff “Family Man,” which made it into the Top 10.
The eleventh studio album overall from the duo, H2O is unmistakably competent. Whatever shortcomings Hall and Oates had, they knew how to make their music. “One on One,” another hit single, demonstrated their offhand mastery of Philly soul watered down to purely inoffensive pop. The drabness is unmistakable, too, and few deeper cuts make an impressive. Muddled rock ballad “Go Solo” is emblematic. The album becomes dire only when accomplished belter Hall cedes the microphone to his partner, who records some of the thinnest lead vocals in the history of the form. In the spirit of egalitarianism, the presence of occasional Oates vocals would be forgivable, if not for the fact that they’re associated with dreadful songs, such as the monumentally embarrassing “Italian Girls” (“I drink I drink I drink too much vino rosso/ No more amarone/ I eat I eat I eat so much pasta basta/ I’m so full and yet so lonely”). There’s a reason the equation in the album’s title implicitly calls for twice as much Hall.
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.