708. The Special AKA, In the Studio (1984)
Using the most straightforward explanation, In the Studio is the third album from the Specials. The fact that the band is billed as the Special AKA tells a significant story. This wasn’t the same outfit that topped the U.K. chart two times in the early nineteen-eighties and delivered seven straight Top 10 hits on the same tally of hots. In the Studio is the document of a band in disarray.
The troubles began when Terry Hall, Neville Staple, and Lynval Golding left the band to form Fun Boy Three. Jerry Dammers, the keyboardist and chief songwriter of the Specials, tried to cobble together a new lineup for the band, cycling through session musicians and members snatched from other bands. In all, Dammers and the rotating support cast spent about two years toiling away in fits and starts. It was apparently a bleak scene during sessions, leading Horace Panter, the Specials’ bassist and co-founder, to later observe the “atmosphere was unbearable.” He quit the band midway through recording process.
Despite these conflicts, In the Studio is a strong album, though miles away from the froth ska music with which the Specials built their fame. That is largely attributable to the new collaborators Dammers brought into his circle, since they were far more accustomed to jazz-influenced riffs than caffeinated Jamaican rhythms. Dammers was also clearly looking outside himself in shaping the lyrics, leading to highly politicized songs such as plaintive pleas “(Free) Nelson Mandela” and “Bright Lights,” the latter of which references the case of Colin Roach, a black man who died in police custody in 1983. Often, the Special AKA chose the most direct path to making their points, as on “Your Racist Friend,” which argues “If you have a racist friend/ Now is the time, now is the time/ For your friendship to end.”
There’s a remarkable fullness of thought in the sound of the individual tracks. “The Lonely Crowd” jazz colliding with R&B, “Housebound” is flinty and experimental, and “Break Down the Door” recaptures Stax soul sound, giving it a decidedly modern spin. None of this was what fans wanted, evidently. Except for “(Free) Nelson Mandela,” which benefited from its timeliness, none of the singles fared particularly well, and the album was the band’s lowest-charting effort to date.
Shortly after the release of In the Studio, Dammers dissolved the band, opting for other pursuits. The Specials’ name has been opportunistically employed for various nostalgia tours over the years, but Dammers hasn’t really been a part of the zombie versions of the band.
707. Rank and File, Lone Gone Dead (1984)
Lone Gone Dead is the sophomore full-length studio release from Rank and File, a band out of Austin, Texas that was fronted by Chip Kinman and Tony Kinman. Slotted into the emerging cowpunk scene, Rank and File were exhibited tendencies toward more straightforward Americana rock ‘n’ roll. They do ably cover the the Lefty Frizzell song “I’m an Old, Old Man” on the album, keeping some current running through the country music connection, but most of Lone Gone Dead sounds like the college rock version of what John Mellencamp was just starting to bang out.
There are still vestiges of the band’s shared punk roots, but mostly found in the layers of defiant attitude as on the homespun “Sound of the Rain,” which includes the simple, powerful lines “I see walls/ But these wall aren’t in my way.” There’s a popgun fun to “Saddest Girl in the World,” and “John Brown” finds them sounding like a cowpoke Nick Cave. In general, there’s a boisterous quality to the album, sometimes manifesting in unexpected ways. “Hot Wind,” for example, sounds like it could have served as the theme for a television Western had the genre remained a wholly viable genre into the mid-eighties.
The music is good, but the band had difficulty getting a foothold with broader audiences. There was only one more album, a self-titled effort for a new label, before Rank and File quit for good.
706. Blancmange, Happy Families (1982)
Blancmange started in 1979, plying their trade in London. Originally a trio, the group settled into a partnership between vocalist Neil Arthur and keyboardist Stephen Luscombe. The pair made intellectually potent pop music, vibrating with dance floor intensity and struck by a bracing certainty of purpose. Happy Families is the band’s debut full-length.
The album opens with the danceable fervor “I Can’t Explain,” and it keeps reverberating with splendid cuts such as the bright, booming “Living on the Ceiling” and the handsome drama of “Waves.” Some of the material is tightly tethered to the era in which is was made, as evidenced by “Cruel,” which is mild goth with a vibe that anticipates Depeche Mode’s “Master and Servant.” More often, the cuts have a bright inventiveness that make them sound perpetually contemporary. “Feel Me” isn’t far off from the jabbing insistence of the most recent LCD Soundsystem album. Occasionally, a track is novel enough that it could have beamed in from another reality altogether, as is the case with “Sad Day,” which is like the theme song for a remake of Knot’s Landing set in outer space.
Blancmange managed two more albums in the nineteen-eighties before announcing a split in 1986. A reunion happened fifteen years later, and it included a re-recording of this debut album, titled Happy Families Too…
705. Kate Bush, The Whole Story (1986)
Kate Bush had creating music from broad public consumption for nearly ten years when she released the “best of” collection The Whole Story. She was very well known at home in the U.K., where her 1978 debut single, “Wuthering Heights,” spent four weeks atop the chart, making her the first female artist to hit that pinnacle with a song she wrote herself. She was eighteen years old when she wrote the song, and her personal odometer had only ticked ahead one year when she hit the chart peak. Although she never quite reached those heights again, she’s remained a consistent commercial force in the U.K., notching seven Top 10 hits over the years, including as recently as 2012. It made sense for her to pull together a collection of peak performers for that market.
In the U.S., she was more of an unknown quantity, leading Bush to joke that most record-buyers probably viewed The Whole Story as her debut album. There was a little exaggeration to that statement given that “Running Up That Hill” pushed into the Billboard Top 40 in 1985, but she likely wasn’t that far off. For some audiences, The Whole Story was merely a shortcut to fill a lamented hole in a collection. For U.S. audiences, it was a primer on a vivaciously inventive iconoclast who was never likely to crack a commercial landscape more inclined toward easily digestible pop.
Bush recorded a new vocal for “Wuthering Heights,” but The Whole Story otherwise pulls morsels straight from her earlier albums, giving listeners — and college radio programmers — the convenience of the pure beauty of “The Man with the Child in His Eyes,” the brilliant churn and charge of “Hounds of Love,” and the tightly controlled wildness of “Sat in Your Lap” all in one place. “Experiment IV,” the album’s sole new track, is less successful, skewing uncomfortably close to filler on a concept album. Otherwise, The Whole Story is a gift, providing a valuable overview of an artist whose creativity is vast and dizzying.
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.