College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #588 to #585

nina fearless

588. Nina Hagen, Fearless (1983)

Released in her homeland as Angstlos, the fourth album by German wildling Nina Hagen delivered a notable shift in sonic style. A compatriot of the Sex Pistols, Hagen had previously leaned into offbeat art rock, taking the abrasion of the punk ethos and applying it to genre-bending so extreme that the very idea of categorization started to seem quaint. Titled Fearless the English-speaking audience, Hagen’s album maintained the deliciously nutso vibe while embracing a more straightforward dance music sound. “Honey, after the show, when we are ready to go/ We are going disco, but before we hit East 7th Street/ We are going to another disco/ Disco after disco and shaking our hair to the disco rap,” Hagen sings on the brightly bizarre “New York New York.”

Of course, the addition of Hagen’s sensibility prevents any track from sounding too much like the other records spun in the club. “Flying Saucers” carries the hallmarks of producer Giorgio Moroder, but the inventively trilled syllables of Hagen are a larger part of what makes the cut memorable. “I Love Paul” puts the Hare Krishna mantra to a disco beat, and “T.V. Snooze” gets warped, Devo-esque pop out of the sensation of falling asleep to discordant television broadcasts. Arguably the song that now sounds most conventional is “What It Is,” and that’s only because it was recorded in collaboration with Red Hot Chili Peppers (one year before their debut album was released). Through the echo of retrospection, “What It Is” has hints of the alternative music that would elbow its way into the mainstream around ten years later.

 

squeeze sweets

587. Squeeze, Sweets from a Stranger (1982)

Several albums deep into their career, Squeeze found themselves with some broader commercial success to build on. Although they’d regularly performed solidly on the charts at home in the U.K., it wasn’t until the 1981 album East Side Story that Squeeze made a noticeable impact in the U.S., a situation mostly attributable to the single “Tempted.” When it came time to record the follow-up album, though, the band’s ability to capitalize of the newfound familiarity was somewhat compromised by the departure of keyboardist Paul Carrack, whose took lead vocal duties on the hit song. But the foundation of Squeeze was clearly songwriters Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook. The band survived personnel shifts before.

Recording on Sweets for a Stranger, Squeeze’s fifth studio album, didn’t get off to an auspicious start, though. There was already a high amount of stress because of ongoing legal wrangling over a bad contract that permanently compromised Difford and Tilbrook’s ownership of their own songs, and the band was enduring an ill-advised stretch when they turned management duties over to their regular sound engineer, Paul Lilly, leading to a procession of bad financial investments. Then the band sacked producer Gus Dudgeon early in the process, replacing him with Phil McDonald, who had recording engineer for the Beatles on his resume. “He was calm to work with but never really lit any fires,” Difford later wrote in recalling McDonald’s efforts on the album.

Difford’s assessment of a lax working environment is reflected by the album. The songs slot into the usual Squeeze framework — clever melodies, lyrics ruminating on troubled-water relationships and other dilemmas of malcontented middle class existence — but are mostly delivered with a drab disinterest, as if the only goal was good enough. “Out of Touch” puts a mild disco edge to its tale of a drifting romance and “Stranger Than a Stranger on the Shore,” a tip of the hat to Acker Bilk’s 1962 chart-topping hit, has a racing tempo and a hollow feel. And Squeeze often covers the same thematic ground on the album, as when the slow jazz lament of “When the Hangover Strikes” is later countered by “I’ve Returned,” by jauntier tale of day-after regret.

The album has some moments when the old inspiration flickers alive. “The Very First Dance” is a tricky, layered confection, for instance. The true highlight is “Black Coffee in Bed,” a grinding, soaring pop song that is the sole wholly worthy successor to the sterling East Side Story material.

Sweets from a Stranger must have been dissatisfying to the members of Squeeze, too. After the tour in support of the album, Squeeze officially disbanded. The retirement of the band name was brief, though. The band’s first reunion album, Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti, arrived three years later.

 

patti wave

586. Patti Smith Group, Wave (1979)

Patti Smith intended Wave to be her final statement as a musician. Already an icon on the basis of her first three albums and a ferocious stage presence, Smith was growing weary of the scene she helped define. Most importantly, she was in love. Smith met Fred “Sonic” Smith, the former guitarist for the MC5, and the two bonded over poetry and other forms of artistic expression well-removed from the bruised knuckle tussling of rock ‘n’ roll. The Patti Smith Group remained in the dark about their frontwoman’s plans, but she planned for the tour following the album’s release to be her last.

Perhaps stemming from Smith’s planned career mortality, Wave is a scattered affair, coming across like a collection of spare parts, especially when compared against the cohesion of earlier powerhouses Horses and Easter. What could be slipshod from another artist is energizing coming from Smith, as if Wave offers an unguided tour through the firecracker cacophony of her wildly creative mind. The songs fairly tremble with possibility, and every gap between cuts is freighted with mystery. Once the music starts up again, it can go absolutely anywhere, it seems.

Where the music starts on Wave is “Frederick,” Smith’s tribute to the man who would soon be her husband. The song is also a fairly transparent attempt to duplicate “Because the Night,” the Bruce Springsteen–penned song that became her only Top 40 hit one year earlier. “Dancing Barefoot” is a stronger example of Smith taking the cloth of modern pop music and scissoring and stitching it into something new and distinctly of her making.

The freewheeling approach combines with an apparent instinct to hit on every idea she want to get on record before hanging up her microphone, causing the album to range from a tough-minded cover of the Byrds’ “So You Want to Be (A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star)” to the punk dirge “Broken Flag” to the title cut, which is a strange performance piece evidently dedicated to the 33-day papacy of Pope John Paul I (“And the way your the way your cloth looks/ I like I like to see the edges/ The bottom of it/ Get all wet when you’re walking near the water there”). Smith approaches self-parody on the booming “Citizen Ship,” but she’s remarkable steady for most of the album, further cementing her status as one of the most riveting artists of her generation.

The retreat from the music business went largely as planned. She married Fred Smith in 1980, and they had two children together, living a very domesticated life outside of Detroit. Nearly a decade would pass before she put out her next album (Dream of Life, released in 1988), and she wouldn’t return to the job in earnest until the following decade, after the death of her husband made getting back to work into a way to soothe the pain and keep moving forward with her life.

 

phil jacket

585. Phil Collins, No Jacket Required (1985)

No Jacket Required, the third solo album from Phil Collins was released in February 1985, at around the time he was informed that he wouldn’t be performing his nominated song “Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)” at the Academy Awards. One month later, as Collins sat in the audience at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, surely wincing through Ann Reinking’s deeply misguided rendition of his song, No Jacket Required was about to take the top position on the Billboard album chart, starting a four week run there. It would make two more trips to the top of that tally before the year was out, on its way to selling more than twelve million copies in the U.S. and over twenty-five million worldwide.

Probably because it’s not as well-regarded as other blockbuster albums of the era, it’s easy to dismiss No Jacket Required. At the time, though, the album was undeniable. It yielded four Top 10 singles, including two that claimed the top spot: the horn-swarmed, nonsense proclamation of infatuation “Sussudio” and the melancholy ballad “One More Night.” The simple, yearning “Take Me Home” and punchy “Don’t Lose My Number” were also ubiquitous on radio and MTV. As with many of the hits cranked out by the Genesis drummer and lead singer, the songs are merely serviceable and yet undeniably marked by a high level of craft and a canny pop showmanship.

The singles were well-chosen. Going deeper into the album reveals the limits of Collins’s creativity.  “Long Long Way to Go” sounds like Collins taking a stab at the airy, intricate art rock of his old bandmate Peter Gabriel, but without the cerebral intensity needed to sell it. And “Who Said I Would” suggests Collins looked at a gap in the record and said, “Let’s do ‘Sussudio’ again, but kinda different. A little funkier, maybe?” None of the material is dreadful, but some of the songs are highly forgettable. In pop music, that might be an equivalent sin.

At the end of the year, Collins was again atop the U.S. singles chart. “Separate Lives,” a duet with Marilyn Martin, was taken from the soundtrack to the film White Nights. It was nominated in the Best Original Song category at the Academy Awards. Again, Collins didn’t perform. Instead, Stephen Bishop, the nominated songwriter, shared the stage with Martin.

 

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