College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #576 to #573

neil re

576. Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Re·ac·tor (1981)

Outside circumstances mandated a new approach for Neil Young when he recorded the album Re·ac·tor. His infant son Ben, his first child with his second wife, had recently been diagnosed with severe cerebral palsy, and the family was devoted almost full-time to working through a program to aid the boy’s development. Young, who’d previously kept nocturnal hours more typical of rock stars, limited himself to recording sessions in the afternoon, usually spending no more than four hours in the booth before getting back to Ben.

Understandably, the material on Re·ac·tor often feels like an early pass that was settled on rather than explored, an impression largely backed up by the reminiscences of those involved. The goofy “T-Bone” is representative. A last-minute, studio-concocted addition, the tracks is over nine minutes of aimless garage rock jamming as Young repeats “Got mashed potatoes” and “Ain’t got no T-Bone,” at last partially as a tribute to the restaurant where he met his wife Pegi. It’s a creative starting point presented as a finished product.

For other artists, this sort of loose approach can work, resulting in an endearingly freewheeling album. But playful is an overly incongruous vibe for Young. His gentle gags come across as grouchy old man complaints (and he was still in his thirties at this point). “Motor City” is a cranky rant set to music (“Another thing that’s bugging me/ Is this commercial on TV/ Says that Detroit can’t make good cars any more”), like Andy Rooney with an amplifier. And “Opera Star” is just bizarre, as if it were accidentally released with placeholder lyrics (“You were born to rock/ You’ll never be an opera star”). Young and his co-producers layer the songs with all sort of fussy elements —  sounds of simulated gunfire on “Shots,” a chugga-chugga beat on train song “Southern Pacific” — that only detract from the music’s impact.

Re·ac·tor didn’t fare well on the charts, helping to sour Young’s relationship with his longtime label, Warner Bros. subsidiary Reprise Records. Young also opted not to tour in support of the records and similarly declined most interviews and other promotional efforts. Tending to the added challenges faced by his son was good cause for Young’s retreat from the machinery of the music business, but the label bosses were kept in the dark about Ben’s condition. To them, Young was just being pointlessly difficult (a conclusion which, to be fair to the executives, was made with the corroborating evidence of Young’s previous professional mood swings). After Re·ac·tor, Young and Reprise parted ways, and the performer jumped to Geffen Records, where he spent a good chunk of the nineteen-eighties in a state of constant reinvention.

 

joe beat

575. The Joe Jackson Band, Beat Crazy (1980)

Beat Crazy, the third album from Joe Jackson, includes an anguished explanation on its inner sleeve: “This album represents a desperate attempt to make some sense of Rock and Roll. Deep in our hearts, we knew it was doomed to failure. The question remains: Why did we try?”

Officially billed as a release by the Joe Jackson Band, Beat Crazy opens with a title cut that hands lead vocal duties to bassist Graham Maby, as if trying to assert a group effort ethos. Part Peter Gunn theme song and part rocksteady, the track is a sleek inversion of the jolting pop sound of Jackson’s first two records. It sets the standard for the rest of the album being simultaneously adventurous and tightly controlled. Sometimes coming unmoored is just the first step to sailing the high seas.

One of the key ways Jackson elevates the material is through the comic specificity of his lyrical observation, as with his griping about a partner whose too busy to spend time with him on “One to One” (“You’re going somewhere everyday/ Vegetarians Against the Klan/ Every Woman Against Every Man”) or the splendid mood-setting on the jittery “Evil Eye” (“I got the candles burning low/ I got the Cramps on the stereo”). Jackson’s pointedness is arguably at its best on the pointed album closer “Fit,” a snarled rallying cry for outcasts that’s admirably ahead of its time (“Don’t laugh, but there are people in this world/ Born as boys and fighting to be girls/ People standing in their way/ Some are straight and some are gay”). Not everything holds up — “Battleground” is now unbearable in its casual and repeated use of a word now wisely unuttered outside of rap songs — but the clarity of Jackson’s perspective gives Beat Crazy a spine.

Officially positioning Beat Crazy as an outing for a band rather than a solo project is a nice act of largesse, but it doesn’t properly reflect the authorship. Jackson wrote and arranged all the songs, and he also served as the sole producer for the first time. And not long after the album’s release, the Joe Jackson Band guises was dropped altogether. Guitarist Gary Sandford and drummer David Houghton, who’d been on all three of Jackson’s album to that point, were out of the group, and Jackson was off to explore other creative angles, not always successfully.

 

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574. The Colour Field, Virgins and Philistines (1985)

Terry Hall was on his third band of major prominence upon the release of Virgins and Philistines, the debut album by the Colour Field (who would eventually excise the space from their name in favor of a tidy compound word). He fronted the Specials and then released two albums with the offshoot band Fun Boy Three. After the latter group split up, Hall decided to strike out in a different direction, recruiting bassist Karl Shale and guitarist and keyboardist Toby Lyons from the obscure ska band the Swinging Cats. Although the members of the trio shared a history with bouncy, reggae-influenced beats, the Colour Field skewed in the direction of glossy, precise pop, in the vein of Aztec Camera and the Housemartins.

Clean and pretty, the Colour Field sound was somewhat out of step with U.S. tastes at the time, so Chrysalis Records rejiggered the track listing of Virgins and Philistines, putting a faithful, airy cover of the ? and the Mysterians hit “I Can’t Get Enough of You Baby” right up front. The flip of the record included a cover “Hammond Song,” a more obscure song that was originally recorded by the Roches, providing a couple tested tunes to go with the Colour Field originals.

Distant as it may be from U.S. commercial radio preferences, then and now, the material on Virgins and Philistines is very strong. The quietly epic “Pushing Up the Daisies” and the sly, elegant “Yours Sincerely” are gliding beauties, and the polished pop song “Thinking of You” was justly a solid hit in the U.K. Upping the studio sheen yet further, “Castles in the Air” is a precursor to the Divine Comedy and other acts that would make masterful chamber pop in the decade to come. “Cruel Circus” plies the sweet pop to an angry statement in favor of animal rights that give Morrissey’s vegan swoons the taste of flat soda (“Fur coats on ugly people/ Expensively dressed up to kill/ In a sport that’s legal/ Within the minds of the mentally ill”).

In keeping with Hall’s history, the Colour Field didn’t last long. There was only one more full-length album — Deception, released in 1987 — before the group was disbanded, and Hall went onto a journeyman career through U.K. music.

 

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573. Modern English, Stop Start (1986)

Getting a tantalizing taste of commercial success, Modern English were eager to make a hit. The 1982 single “I Melt with You” now stands as one of the quintessential songs of the nineteen-eighties, but it was only a modest success at the time of its release, peaking at #78 on the Billboard chart (nestled between U2’s “New Year’s Day” at #77 and Ultravox’s “Reap the Wild Wind,” at #79, giving that sliver of the Hot 100 a very college radio feel). Modern English weren’t able to leverage the still-growing appreciation of the single into attention for the follow-up releases, so they decided to make an all-in attempt at appealing to the masses with the album Stop Start, abandoning the artier inclinations of their original label 4AD to give themselves over fully to Warner Bros. subsidiary Sire Records.

Every groove of Stop Start holds evidence of a band trying way too hard. “The Border” is horrid in its ornate overproduction and the single “Ink and Paper,” co-written by former Rubinoos guitarist Tommy Dunbar, is painfully generic. As Modern English flails around in search of a crowd-pleaser, they sound like any number of bands that sold their souls to the devils of rapidly advancing studio technology. “I Don’t Know the Answer” is like Glass Tiger hopped up on amphetamines, and “Love Forever” echos Simple Minds as they succumbed to the allure of too much studio time in their desperate, futile attempt to prove they didn’t need a soundtrack hand-me-down to top the chart. The shiny flopsweat gleams ever brighter until the album closing “Start Stop Stop Start” is essentially nothing but studio effects.

Stop Start wasn’t a hit, and Sire effectively gave up on the album after the first single flopped. The frustration of it all broke Modern English. They disbanded shortly after the album’s release, though that professional choice also didn’t take. The group reformed a couple years later, as hungry for a hit as ever, releasing the comeback album Pillow Lips. That album’s first single? A rerecorded version of “I Melt with You.”

 

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

This Week’s Model — Mitski, “Cop Car”

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(source)

Officially, “Cop Car” is the first new original song released by Mitski since the stellar Be the Cowboy, and plenty of music scribes have already touted it as a hopeful sign that the artist’s recently announced hiatus won’t be as long as initially feared. The veneer of brand-newness is perpetuated by Lawrence Rothman, the producer of the soundtrack album that is officially home to the Mitski track. In discussing the how “Cop Car” found its way into Floria Sigismondi’s new horror film, The Turning, Rothman enthuses about Mitski’s ability to meet precise dramatic demands.

“There is a pinnacle scene where Kate’s mind starts to unravel while in her car and we needed a cinematic but grunge influenced song shadowing the scene,” Rothman said in a statement quoted across a few sources. “I reached out to Mitski to see if she wanted to get involved as Floria and I had a feeling she would deliver a song that was guitar-based but cinematic. ‘Cop Car’ went beyond what we imagined and we were ecstatic when she sent it to us!”

In reality, Mitski didn’t strive painfully and tirelessly to come up fresh art suited to the protagonist’s mind trip. She reached into a drawer and rummaged to find a song that’s been around for at least five years. “Cop Car” is less creative rejuvenation and more a clearing of closets.

Of course, Mitski’s leftovers are stronger than most artist’s grandest new dishes. Casually sinister and melodically intoxicating, “Cop Car” is a cut worth celebrating, no matter is genealogy. If it’s going to take a while before Mitski starts in on whatever the new phase of her career might be, at least she’d got a few gems like this in reserve to provide comfort during the wait.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #580 to #577

untouchables wild

580. The Untouchables, Wild Child (1985)

Well before the advent of Kickstarter campaigns, the Los Angeles band the Untouchables figured out a way to draw an advance from the enthusiasm from their fans. When the group was playing shows to ever more enthusiastic crowds but still couldn’t generate any interest from record labels, they mounted a fundraising campaign which netted around fifteen thousand dollars. That small windfall was put toward the recording of their debut EP, Live and Let Dance, and the band’s delirious hybrid of ska, soul, and pop eventually found its way to David Robinson, the former Island Records president who had just taken over Stiff Records. The Untouchables became one of the few acts signed to the U.K. cult hero label, and their debut full-length, Wild Child, arrived shortly thereafter.

Opening with a title song that carries the classic vibe of old Stax sizzlers, Wild Child is a vibrant piece of work. The Untouchables definitely flash some of the reggae and ska influence that probably contributed significantly to the interest of U.K. music fans, then at the tail end of the two-tone phase. “Mandingo” is textbook ska, and “What’s Gone Wrong” lilts along with a reggae ballad cool. “(I Spy for the) FBI” demonstrates the way the band could lean into the particulars of the style while simultaneously expanding their possibilities. And an elements such as the bluesy guitar swirling around on “Piece of Your Love” further makes the assertion that they had little interest in being pigeonholed.

The impressive flashes of range on Wild Child are occasionally countered by a running-before-mastering-walking stumble, as with “Lovers Again,” which crams the band into a dance music framework, not entirely comfortably. Mostly, the album is energizing, casually indulging in the sort of blithe rule-breaking that typified the adventure and rebellion of college radio.

 

ThePinkOpaque

579. Cocteau Twins, The Pink Opaque (1985)

For their first few releases, the Scottish band Cocteau Twins lacked distribution in the U.S. So as their distinctive swirling dream pop earned a modest yet impressive following in the U.K., with strong record sales and singles the routinely topped the indie chart, North American listeners who wanted their music to swoon and ache were left digging through import bins and steeling themselves for the heftier price tags stuck onto the 4AD releases. They finally snagged a deal with Relativity Records, mandating a proper introduction to the U.S. audience.

Clustering together several tracks from the preceding years, The Pink Opaque is a fine primer on Cocteau Twins. The beautifully drifty “Pearly-Dewdrops’ Drops” and the delicate dance of “Aikea-guinea” sound ethereal and grounded all at once. They’re light and precise without becoming overly precious. “Lorelei” is ravishingly complex, snarling together elegant restraint and a full-hearted eddy of lush sounds in a way that sounds like a complete reinvention of what music can do. The strictures of the modern pop song are tossed asunder, and yet the track is catchy and stirring, somehow feeling familiar in its oddity. It’s like there’s sorcery at play.

As was the case with other compilations of this ilk, a bit of otherwise unavailable material is also sprinkled in. The album’s sole entirely new track, “Millimillenary,” maintains the trademark sound, rendering in a tough, knotty manner. And “Wax and Wane” is given the polish of a remix, though the spruce up doesn’t carry it that far away from the original.

As a platform for Cocteau Twins’ introduction to the U.S., The Pink Opaque couldn’t have been better assembled. And, in a bit of fortuitous timing, the band’s strongest overall albums were just ahead. Music fans who discovered them with the compilation would soon be rewarded nicely.

 

big atomizer

578. Big Black, Atomizer (1986)

Reviewing Atomizer for Spin magazine, Byron Coley highlighted an unexpected accomplishment for an album steeped in a punk rock ethos: “You’ll notice no drummer listed, and I herewith beg to inform you that Big Black is the only band in the known world that has ever made a Roland drum machine sound good.”

The relatively new invention the drum machine was mostly used by groups making dance music, taking advantage of the device’s ultra-precise rhythms to create tracks meant to keep the dance floor full. Steve Albini and his collaborators in Big Black figured out the relentlessness of the technology was also a fine match for punk rock. The thrillingly assaultive “Jordan, Minnesota” establishes the brilliance of the idea, with the drum machine sounding like a t-shirt cannon refashioned into a Tommy gun. Introducing an element that skews away from the sweat-and-blood authenticity demanded by punk fans courts cries of heresy, but Big Black quickly make a compelling case for their deviation.

There are sparks of invention present all across Atomizer, whether on the formidably horrific “Fists of Love” or powerhouse “Stinking Drunk,” which often sounds like metal contorting. “Kerosene” is an intimidating snarl, answering the small town romanticization making millions for John Mellencamp with a counterargument of misery (“I was born in this town/ Live here my whole life/ Probably come to die in this town/ Live here my whole life”) eventually capped by fantasies of blazing destruction (“There’s Kerosene around, find something to do/ Kerosene around, find something to do/ Kerosene around, she’s something to do/ Kerosene around, set me on fire”). The album closes with the splendid noise of live track “Cables,” as if Big Black wants to make it clear that their use of supplementary technology doesn’t limit them to studio performances. They can rattle a club as well as any of their peers.

Atomizer was the full-length debut of Big Black. Befitting a band built on defiance, there wasn’t much to follow. The following year brought their sophomore full-length, Songs About Fucking. That provocatively titled album was also the band’s last.

 

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577. Greg Kihn Band, Kihntinued (1982)

Greg Kihn tried a few different musical explorations on Kihntinued, the fourth album billed to the Greg Kihn Band and his seventh full-length studio effort overall. He brought a mild Caribbean feel to “Tell me Lies” and “Sound System.” He kicked up the volume on “Seeing is Believing,” leading to some of the least convincing hard rock posturing ever pressed onto record. But a Greg Kihn record is a Greg Kihn record is a Greg Kihn record. In most respects, Kihntinued is interchangeable with the other albums that bear Kihn’s name, demonstrating a sturdy sense of pop-rock craft and a redundancy of ideas that suggests a bunch of folks who are eager to ring the quitting bell early every day.

When Kihn and his cohorts landed on a slick hook or a nifty turn of phrase, they could cook up a song that broke down the defenses of the most committed music elitist. The rest of the time, the material settled into a region of nearly unbearable blandness. Kihntinued sits squarely in the rest of the time. Putting a squirrelly saxophone part into “Every Love Song” isn’t the same as adding personality to a song. And if “Everyday/Saturday” is exactly as inane as modern pop songs about club life, that doesn’t make it prescient. Kihntinued is early-eighties pop-rock at its most generic.

 

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

This Week’s Model — U.S. Girls, “Overtime”

u.s girls

“Overtime,” the new song from U.S. Girls, isn’t all that new. A version of the song cropped up earlier, on the 2013 EP Free Advice Column. Meg Remy, the creative force behind U.S. Girls, decided to revisit “Overtime” for the forthcoming album Heavy Light, giving it a perfectly formed studio sheen and a full-to-bursting pop soul that contrasts nicely with the stark lyrics of romantic betrayal. It’s heartbreak, and you can dance to it.

“Overtime” is one of three older songs U.S. Girls revisits, reconceptualizes, and re-records for the new album. Tracing the evolution of an artist is one of the record room pastimes of any music fan, and Remy’s approach makes it easier to engage in the task. What better way to think about where a performer has been and where they’re now at than hearing their take on an older song; not just on the concert stage, where reinvention is a given, but back in the studio, where several years of learned lessons come to bear, giving a song an entirely different sound and outlook. And maybe sparking ideas for new songs in the process. On “Overtime,” U.S. Girls illuminates the evolution.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #584 to #581

cure walk

584. The Cure, The Walk (1983)

The Cure were on the verge of collapse in 1983, and that’s naturally when they enjoyed their most commercially successful year to that point. Bassist Simon Gallup left the band in late 1982, prompting lead singer Robert Smith to openly speculate that the Cure was over and done. Instead, Fiction label head Chris Parry convinced Smith to keep going. Lol Tolhurst moved from keyboards to drums and the duo version of the Cure started recording songs. The first single to emerge from that era, “Let’s Go to Bed,” became one of the most beloved entries in the Cure’s catalog, but it was on a modest success at the time. Instead, it was the next single, “The Walk,” that brought the Cure their first significant chart success. It peaked just outside the U.K. Top 10.

In the U.S., Sire Records caught in the constant tussle to figure out how to release the Cure’s popular singles in a record store market that significantly favored albums. The solution was to package the three tracks apiece from the U.K. singles “Let’s Go to Bed” and “The Walk” into a sort of mini-album, with the latter song provided the release’s official title. By the end of 1983, all of these tracks would got swept back up again and plopped on the Japanese Whispers compilation, but The Walk offered the first chance for college radio programmers to revel in the quietly riveting “The Upstairs Room” and synth-bop winner “The Dream.”

Sudden flares of commercial promise might cause other bands to fortify their crumbling foundations. Instead, Smith grew grouchy about the expectations that the band would continue jauntily down a pop music pathway, so he veered away from material likely to please the newfound fan base. The band’s next album was the flawed, experimental The Top, which was also a Smith solo outing in every aspect but the name. Major commercial success would come, but Smith was determined to fight the embrace as along as he could.

 

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583. What Is This, What Is This (1985)

Although the band What Is This technically predated the Red Hot Chili Peppers, they also toiled in the shadow of the future generator of funk-inflected alternative rock hits. Guitarist Hillel Slovak and drummer Jack Irons were one-half of the founding lineup of What Is This, and they were actively working the Los Angeles music scene with the band. One night, more or less on a lark, Slovak and Irons took the stage with old pals Anthony Kiedis and Flea, jamming under the name Tony Flow and the Majestic Masters of Mayhem. When their intended one-off group was an unexpected hit, they changed their name to Red Hot Chili Peppers and started taking on club gigs. What Is This and Red Hot Chili Peppers each inked major labels deals at about the same time.

Initially, Slovak and Irons oped for What Is This over the Red Hot Chili Peppers, considering the latter more of a side gig. When time came to record the self-titled full-length debut of What Is This, Slovak had second thoughts and asked to get back into the Red Hot Chili Peppers, leaving What Is This as a trio without the distinctive guitar player who helped them get noticed in the first place.

Unsurprisingly, What Is This sounds like a wan approximation of the Southern California sounds of the time. “Chasing Your Ghost” is like Lukewarm Chili Peppers, and “Stuck” is like Oingo Boingo without the touch of contained mania. Their cover of the Spinners’ “I’ll Be Around” has a mid-eighties soulless sheen, which is probably attributable to the influence of producer Todd Rundgren. What is This arguably does best when any and all pretensions are stripped away, as with the straightforward rock ‘n’ roll of “Dreams of Heaven” and “Breathing.”

What Is This released only one full-length studio album, and Irons soon followed Slovak back to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. That situation didn’t last long either, though for far more tragic reasons. In 1988, Slovak died of a heroin overdose, and Irons, distraught over the loss of his friend, decided he couldn’t play in the band any longer. Though Irons kept making music, including a stint as Pearl Jam’s drummer, he wouldn’t play with the Red Hot Chili Peppers again until the band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

 

tubes outside

582. The Tubes, Outside/Inside (1983)

If resolute musical oddballs the Tubes were going to have a Top 10 hit, it only makes sense that they’d put a few dents in the mold and succeed with a song inspired by a visit to a red light district peep show. Fee Waybill, frontman for the Tubes, readily acknowledged that the lyrics of “She’s a Beauty” were inspired by his own experience in a San Francisco establishment that made the promise of an encounter with a pretty girl for merely one dollar. Released as a single from Outside/Inside, the sixth studio album from the Tubes, the song became a quick MTV staple and went remarkably high on the Billboard charts. They were a long way from “White Punks on Dope.”

That distance from the band’s raucous beginnings didn’t sit well with everyone on the roster. For the second straight album, the Tubes worked with producer David Foster, who was in between performing the same duties on Chicago 16 and Chicago 17. It was a strange union, leading to the discombobulating sensation of wondering whether the slick, happily dumb hard rock of “Out of the Business” (“I always dreamed of walking out/ Punch that guy right in the mouth/ But I never had the guts/ Now I know I got the stuff”) was delivered with impish mockery or addled sincerity. Foster’s instinct for making audience-friendly hits clearly ran counter to the art rock, deconstructionist instincts of several band members.

As might be expected under the circumstances, Outside/Inside is all over the place. The album has a deadpan cover of the Major Lance Top 10 hit “The Monkey Time” (featuring lead vocals by Martha Davis, lead singer of the Motels, or Michele Gray, who regularly performed with the Tubes as a dance, on different pressings of the album) and the loopy provocation of “Wild Women of Wongo,” which was clearly stocked away in the idea vault raided by Was (Not Was) when they developed their funk storytelling schtick. “Tip of My Tongue” is co-written by Maurice White, of Earth, Wind & Fire, and it sounds like a cutesy version of his band’s wild funk workouts. And then there are tracks “Drums” and “Theme Park,” thin ideas padded out slightly until they were seemingly abandoned as studio boredom mounted.

There was no denying the success of Outside/Inside, but the mounting creative tensions in the band still mandated a shift. For their next album, the band recruited Todd Rundgren to produce, likely figuring he could bridge the distance between slicked-up pop and confrontational weirdness. If intended as a fix, it didn’t work. Except for eventual reunion releases, the next album from the Tubes would be the last.

 

cars panorama

581. The Cars, Panorama (1980)

Driven by the crack songwriting of frontman Ric Ocasek, the Cars made a strong impression from the very beginning, and then discovered firsthand the fickleness of the music press and, to a degree, rock fandom. Only three albums deep into their career, the band already needed to mount an aggressive defense of their artistic choices.

“Well, it’s definitely not a rehash of the first two albums, nor is it just some reply to all those fucks who said the last album was nothing more than detached love affairs and hollow relationships,” guitarist Elliot Easton told Rolling Stone at the time. “The first time Ric played the new songs for us, I thought they sounded plain weird — like inside-out music.”

If the new songs were truly that weird in demo form, a lot of the strangeness was buffed away by the time they appeared on Panorama. The title cut is definitely on the edgier edge of new wave, and both bounding “Getting Through” and shimmery “Running to You” suggest the Cars heading down a couple previously unexplored caverns in the mountain of their sound. But the material on the band’s third album is thoroughly recognizable as an extension of what came before. Making synths more prevalent — or, in the case of “Down Boys,” layering in some flying saucer tones — doesn’t automatically made plain and pointed pop rock all that difficult to parse.

On “Touch and Go,” the Cars do manage to get to the “You Got Lucky” synth line two years ahead of Tom Petty, so good on them.

 

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

This Week’s Model — Celeste, “Stop This Flame”

celeste

In my time as a student leader in college radio, I loved the breaks. As stewards of the public airwaves, we felt an obligation to keep our humble broadcast outlet running, even when the rest of the university shut down. The castaway feeling was especially pronounced during winter break, when the skeleton crew of institutional staffing dwindled down to the barest of bones. For the couple weeks around the December holidays, it could seem like those who volunteered to click on the microphone and build music playlists were the only people to set foot in the Communication Arts Center, a sensation compounded by the gray days and snow-smothered streets outside.

The only downside to this stretch was the halting of the steady flow of new music into the new station. The record labels knew everyone was diverted by an array of other activities, meaning anything new that showed up would likely get lost. For the kind of material favored by college radio, at the time anyway, there were additional reasons to hold back the new stuff during this part of the calendar year, usually leading to an onslaught of great new records right as the second semester of the academic year got underway. Giving a listen to the sheer number of outstanding new tracks that hit this week reminded me of those old days. The onslaught looms.

Having so many songs to choose from can make it difficult to get down to just one to plop into this digital space to properly end the working week, but the decision would up being easy to make. Though I bypassed several favorite artists with fine new material, it was clear to me that nothing else this week was as immediately arresting as “Stop This Flame,” the new single from Celeste.

A performer of British and Jamaican descent who is California-born and British-raised, Celeste has been championed heavily by the BBC the past year or so. “Stop This Flame” all on its own makes the case for the taste of the the state-funded media apparatus. Opening with a bright, jazzy piano line, the track moves with a soaring R&B energy and piercing pop sensibility, Celeste’s evocative, emotive vocals delivering lyrics about romantic perseverance. It’s the kind of song that quickly gets under the skin, mostly because it’s burrowing straight to the soul.

Top 40 Smash Near Misses — Wet Wet Wet, “Love Is All Around”

These posts are about the songs that just barely failed to cross the key line of chart success, entering the Billboard Top 40. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 41.

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Beginning in 1987, the Scottish pop group Wet Wet Wet had a string of hits on the U.K. charts, while causing barely a ripple in the U.S. Each of their first ten singles landed in the U.K. Top 40, only one of which — their debut, “Wishing I Was Lucky” — appeared on the Billboard Hot 100. And that song peaked at a lackluster #58. If there any single that was going to change that dynamic, it was probably “Love Is All Around.”

It certainly helped that the song was a cover. The original version of “Love Is All Around” was a Top 10 hit for the Troggs in 1968, and it endured as a staple of oldies radio stations. Maybe a bigger boost to its prospects was its inclusion on the soundtrack to a hit romantic comedy, at a time when having a music video that doubled as a movie trailer was almost a guarantee of extra airplay. (Screenwriter Richard Curtis gave Wet Wet Wet the choice of three different songs they could cover for Four Weddings and a Funeral, and they bypassed Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” and Barry Manilow’s “Can’t Smile Without You” in favor of the Troggs song.) And then there was the track’s massive success in the U.K. Wet Wet Wet spent fifteen weeks on top of the singles chart there, second only to Bryan Adams’s smash “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You” in the record book.

“Love Is All Around” was indeed Wet Wet Wet’s most successful single in the U.S. It peaked at #41.

 

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Top 40 Smash Near Misses” tag.