College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #684 to #681

gaucho dan

684. Steely Dan, Gaucho (1980)

For a band renowned for the meticulousness of their recordings, Steely Dan endured a remarkable amount of messiness on the way to Gaucho, their eighth studio album and their final effort until a reunion launched more than a decade later. Coming off the 1977 album Aja, easily the biggest commercial success of the band’s career, Steely Dan stalwarts Walter Becker and Donald Fagen decided to seek out a new corporate benefactors since their longtime label ABC Records was clearly on its last legs. The duo signed with Warner Bros., but they then became enmeshed in a nasty legal scrap when MCA Records purchased the remnants of ABC and insisted they held the rights to release any new Steely Dan material. MCA eventually prevailed.

Becker also experienced a slew of personal problems that complicated his professional duties. He was using drugs at a daunting level, sustained significant injuries when he was struck by a car in a New York City street, and his girlfriend at the time, Karen Roberta Stanley, died of an overdose at his home. Whatever attempts Becker might have made to seek refuge in the comforting familiarity of the studio were thwarted by the contentious atmosphere he and Fagen generated with the New York City studio musicians they relied upon to realize their exacting vision of the songs they wrote. Wherever Becker and Fagen turned, things were not going well.

For other bands, such excessive tumult might manifest as a raggedy record, but Gaucho is as firmly lacquered as any other Steely Dan outing. The dull fusion jazz flow of the title cut is entirely characteristic. It’s unquestionable that the craft of the song is impeccable, but it’s remarkably soulless. Similarly,  “Babylon Sisters” is so laid back it becomes borderline inert, and “Third World Man” unleashes floodwaters of tepid rock. Steely Dan eventually came under some scrutiny for the misogynistic attitude embedded in their lyrics, a tendency that worsened later, but is present in the creepy “Hey Nineteen.” The lyrics have a nasty dismissiveness as the pouts about the lack of cultural acumen in a girlfriend more than ten years younger than the singer: “That’s ‘Retha Franklin/ She don’t remember Queen of Soul/ It’s hard times befallen soul survivors/ She thinks I’m crazy but I’m just growing old.”

Gaucho was another hit for Steely Dan, notching enough sales to go platinum and yielding two Top 40 singles. In other respects, their fortunes did not improve from the grim times of the recording process. Becker was sued by Stanley’s family, who contending her overdose death was a direct result of his influence. That case was decided in Becker’s favor, but a different legal action caused more trouble. Keith Jarrett sued the band for plagiarism, claiming “Gaucho” stole from his 1974 track “Long As You Know You’re Living Yours.” When asked about the similarity between the two songs by Musician magazine, Fagen basically fessed up: “Hell, we steal. We’re the robber barons of rock ‘n’ roll.” Officially, Jarrett now holds a co-writing credit on Gaucho‘s title track.

 

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683. Prince, Around the World in a Day (1985)

The week that Prince released Around the World in a Day, his seventh studio album, its predecessor, Purple Rain, was still in the Top 40 of the Billboard album chart. Partner to the film of the same name, Purple Rain pushed the diminutive Minnesotan into the stratosphere of music stardom. The album landed five singles in the Billboard Top 10, two of them topping the chart, spent more than two years on the album chart, and won Prince two of his first three Grammys (in the same ceremony, he picked up a trophy for writing Chaka Khan’s “I Feel for You”). The month before Around the World in a Day was released, Prince picked up an Academy Award for Best Original Song Score, Purple Rain managing to best The Muppets take Manhattan and Songwriter.

Despite the massive success of Purple Rain, Prince wasn’t really feeling any pressure to top himself, mostly because he purposefully threw himself into the creative process for Around the World in a Day so quickly. Any temptation to eagerly replicate the sound that had proven irresistible to listeners was elided by getting to work before the enthusiastic response registered.

“You know how easy it would have been to open Around the World in a Day with the guitar solo that’s on the end of “Let’s Go Crazy”?” Prince said to Rolling Stone. “You know how easy it would have been to just put it in a different key? That would have shut everybody up who said the album wasn’t half as powerful. I don’t want to make an album like the earlier ones. Wouldn’t it be cool to be able to put your albums back to back and not get bored, you dig? I don’t know how many people can play all their albums back to back with each one going to different cities.”

The city Prince travels to on Around the World in a Day is awash in luxurious psychedelia. The title cut opens the album with a blissed out swirl of sounds, providing a hint of the implied travelogue with tingles of Middle Eastern musical influence. Hit single “Raspberry Beret” engages in a similar seductive swirl, as does the sideways funk of “Tamborine.” Prince courts overt oddity with the restless sonic shifts built into “The Ladder,” and the thumping “America,” which warps “America the Beautiful” to his bidding. The album closes with the tiger prowl of “Temptation,” stretching more than eight minutes and incorporating an art rock diversion that could have come from one of Laurie Anderson’s steamer trunks. Not everything seeks to bend time and space, though. “Condition of the Heart” is comparatively simple, a cooing ballad built on delicate piano and plush surrounding production.

Obviously, Prince didn’t need to openly chase mass approval to win it at this point in the career. Around the World in a Day topped the album chart and sold more than two million copies. Two of its singles peaked in the Billboard Top 10 (“Raspberry Beret” was boxed out of the top spot by Duran Duran’s “A View to a Kill”). Only measured against Purple Rain could the album be viewed as a disappointment.

 

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682. The Who, The Kids are Alright (1979)

Jeff Stein had zero experience making movies when he approached the Who about making a documentary. A fervent fan of the band since he was a teenager, Stein envisioned editing together live performance footage captured over the years to convey the power of the band onstage. Though initially reluctant, lead guitarist and bandleader Pete Townshend acquiesced when Stein suggested such a film could essentially serve the same promotional purpose as a concert tour, buying the Who a little relief for the rigors of life on the road. The resulting film, The Kids are Alright, debuted at the Cannes film festival in 1979 and went into general release a couple weeks later.

The double album soundtrack naturally adhered to the film’s scrapbook approach, pressing onto record many of the showcased live performances. It includes a version of”My Generation” culled from The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967 (which opens the film), and an especially fierce “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” from a 1965 appearance on Ready Steady Go! A trio of live songs from Woodstock are in the mix, as is a brisk, boisterous “Happy Jack” from the famed 1970 concert at Leeds University. To help fill out the film, Stein convinced the band to perform for his cameras at Shepperton Studios, a show represented by, among others, an absolutely thunderous live version of “Baba O’Riley.”

At a time when the Who was shifting into venerable rock icon status, The Kids are Alright provided a handy greatest-hits-style retrospective that also made the argument that band was one of the great live acts in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s not a bad result for a project by a neophyte filmmaker inspired entirely on his own fannish enthusiasm.

 

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681. Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band, Nine Tonight (1981)

For rock acts across the nineteen-seventies and into the nineteen-eighties, one of the key markers of success was the label support to issue a live album as a two record set. Detroit’s Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band first checked that box with Live Bullet, released in 1976. Actually the first record that included Seger’s backing band in the official billing, Live Bullet became the group’s highest charting album to that point, clearing the path for their next three studio albums — Night Moves, Stranger in Town, and Against the Wind — to each reach new pinnacles of commercial success. Seger had never before placed a single in the Billboard Top 40. He saw nine cross that threshold from the trio of studio albums, and two more just missed. Armed with a cluster of new fan favorites, the time was right to again indulge in the double live strategy.

Drawn from 1980 concerts in Detroit and Boston, Nine Tonight is largely a dutiful tracking through the recent hits. Fourteen of the album’s seventeen originated on one of the three preceding studio efforts. A strong cover of “Tryin’ to Live My Life Without You,” a minor hit for Otis Clay, is one of the outliers. It served as a single, climbing all the way to #5 on the Billboard chart, something of a rarity for a live track. There are some other strong cuts on Nine Tonight —  the version of “Old Time Rock & Roll” here is leaner and tougher than the original, and “Betty Lou’s Gettin’ Out Tonight” is raucous enough to resemble the psychobilly genre then still emerging — but, like a lot of live albums, it mostly comes across as a mere memento, most effective as a reminder for ticket buyers of the nice time they had sweating alongside their fellow disciples in an echoing arena.

 

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 — The Mountain Goats with Stephen Colbert, “This Year”

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The brilliance of the extended performance piece that was The Colbert Report duly acknowledged, the portions of the program I most adored were those instances when the host’s disguise fell just enough for his inner fan to emerge. In crafting a nightly show partially dependent on the guests with some amount of celebrity, Stephen Colbert at some point figured out that the rundown could be shaped in part by his own personal predilections formed through a lifetime of obsessive attention to science fiction, fantasy novels, comics books, and other touchstones of Gen X geekery. I admired the way he lived out his pop culture dreams, beaming with joy to the camera as he did so.

The trend, of course, continues on The Late Show, boosted by Colbert’s liberation from play-acting a conservative commentator. My interest in watching late night talk shows, once ludicrously high, had dissipated almost completely. But I do believe a guarantee that every episode would deliver a segment along the lines of Colbert eagerly discussing vintage science fiction paperbacks with Paul Giamatti for several minutes of precious network airtime, with genuine disregard for whether or not the conversation was interesting to the audience, could entirely revive my bygone viewing habits.

Earlier this week, Colbert again demonstrated the pure joy that can be derived from presiding over a regularly airing television spectacle. The Mountain Goats were booked as a musical guest, presumably to promote their new album, In League with Dragons. Standard procedure is for the band to offer a live performance of one song from the new record and receive a chipper thanks from the host, probably coupled with a shouted good night and the closing of the show since network mathematics long ago determined that music acts chase away enough viewers that they need to be relegated to the point when they won’t compromise any of the precious, precious commercials.

With Mountain Goats on his stage, Colbert opted for a slightly different strategy. The band did give a whirl to the new song “Sicilian Crest,” but Colbert requested an addendum. And since it’s his name on the marquee, Colbert also got to join in, pogoing around in a style that I’ve seen plenty of times in the packed crowds of Mountain Goats shows and assisting on lead vocals, adapting his usual singing voice slightly, but noticeably, in a mirror of John Darnielle’s distinctive warble. Captured and broadcast, it is the bliss of a music fan reveling in a favorite song, the type that sends a feeling of freedom coursing through the soul.

The New Releases Shelf — Designer

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Designer, the third album from New Zealander Aldous Harding, is so luxurious in its beauty that listening to it is like sinking into a cushion so soft it defies the laws of physics. And yet it’s not precisely right to describe the music contained therein as comforting. There’s a tension at play across the album, a sense that the songs are withholding surprises that might or might not hit with devastating impact. “Zoo Eyes” tilts toward the twee pop of the early two-thousands, but there’s a low threat of escalating into the realm of the boisterously baroque. Such a swerve — or lack thereof — is neither good or bad necessarily. The sustained possibility is where the magic lies.

All of the material is delivered by Harding with a poise that plays like forthright confidence. Designer has an air of nineteen-seventies singer-songwriter about it, albeit with less of the precipice dangling that was part of the era. It could have come out of a Laurel Canyon scene defined by peaceful inquisitiveness instead of hippie sex rules and drugs laid out like Brach’s assortments. The title cut is reminiscent of vintage Joni Mitchell with a swirl of dream pop added.

More recent artists come to mind, too. “The Barrel” suggests Sarah McLachlan had she taken the mystery and seduction of her earliest albums and gone in a far flintier, more interesting creative direction, and “Damn” is in the territory of Fiona Apple’s torch songs, including in the mingling of airy, elusive metaphor and disarming emotional directness (“There must be a reason, he said/ I know the reason, he meant”). All of Designer is also distinctively, uniquely Harding’s. There are kindred spirits, perhaps, and useful comparisons, but Harding establishes her considerable distance from other artists — influences or not — with greater conviction and authority than she evokes predecessors.

The album closes with the breathtaking delicacy of “Heaven is Empty” followed by “Pilot,” a probing, rich song that would raise pride and envy in Harry Nilsson. By the end, Harding has laid herself bare and maintained a sly distance from the listener, hinting that there is so much more to give, acres left undiscovered. Designer gives a lot. One of its primary gifts is the promise that the wealth of Harding’s talent just might have no limit.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #688 to #685

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688. The Clash, Black Market Clash (1980)

For U.S. audiences, new material from the Clash arrived at a dizzying rate across the final months of 1979 and through 1980. The band’s 1977 self-titled debut, originally deemed too rough for the U.S, market by the executives at CBS Records, finally hit stores in the summer of 1979, its track listing scrambled with different material added. Then the double album masterpiece London Calling arrived in the final weeks of that year. Before 1980 was up, the Clash issued a yet more ambitious effort: the triple album Sandinista! In between those two studio albums, the band’s label kept the engine stoked in the U.S. by stitching together a collection largely comprised on tracks that had been excised in transport as the earlier albums journeyed across the Atlantic. Issued as a 10-inch record, Black Market Clash was best described as a mini-album.

Black Market Clash leads with the ragged fist fight of “Capital Radio One,” a track that was one of the band’s most coveted rarities at the time, otherwise only available on Capital Radio EP that was offered, in 1977, as a premium giveaway to NME readers. “Pressure Drop” first appeared as a U.K. B-side, but the sweetly ambling version included here is a slightly different take, and the melded “Bankrobber/Robber Dub,” which is the clearest example of the band’s reggae influence, includes material that hadn’t seen previous release.

Cataloging the more unique offerings on Black Market Clash is fine, but the mini-album isn’t special because of the way it might have appealed to collectors at the time. Instead, it’s a valuable popping flashbulb illuminating some of the work of one of the best bands of all time when they were in their undefeated prime. The blistering “Cheat” and the snaky, irresistible “Armagideon Time” are astonishments, then and now, no matter what record holds them. Like practically everything bearing the band’s name at the time, Black Market Clash is a gift.

 

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687. Various Artists, Concerts for the People of Kampuchea (1981)

The live event billed as Concerts for the People of Kampuchea began as an attempt to orchestrate that impossible dream of the nineteen-seventies: a reunion of the Beatles. Seeking a splashy way to raise money to help starving refugees fleeing the brutal state formed when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia, Kurt Waldheim, then the secretary-general of the United Nations, approached Paul McCartney and pitched a benefit concert putting him onstage again with George Harrison, John Lennon, and Ringo Starr. Three-quarters of the band expressed willingness to participate, but Lennon balked. A clear all-or-nothing proposition, Harrison and Starr followed Lennon’s lead and dropped out. McCartney still wanted to help, so he offered Wings and, as a more commensurate compensation, a lineup of the Rockestra collaborators of British rock icons he’d assembled in 1978.

Staged at London’s Hammersmith Odeon over four nights in December 1979, the concerts featured different band lineups for each show, encompassing both well-established rock headliners and new wave upstarts. The veterans are given the most real estate on the accompanying double album, released around two years later. The Who take up the whole first side, and McCartney and his various collaborators cover the entire of side four. The choice is wholly understandable, but it makes for a fairly lopsided listening experience. The Who, performing just over three weeks after eleven concertgoers died in the crush of people rushing the stage at their show in Cincinnati, sound detached as they run through their most familiar hits. Only the more novel selection “Sister Disco,” taken from the more recent album Who Are You, is consistently engaging, its peppering of keyboard freak-outs providing jolts of energy. McCartney, carrying no burden of recent concert tragedy, sounds similarly sedate.

The only other act given more than than a single track (not counting the two afforded to Rockpile, since one, “Little Sister,” is more of a showcase for Robert Plant with the band receding to studio player anonymity) is the Pretenders, on stage one day after the U.K. release of their debut LP. Their trio of songs — “The Wait,” “Precious,” and “Tattooed Love Boys” — demonstrate exactly how much Chrissie Hynde could accomplish with pure, unadulterated attitude, especially when backed by the exceptional musicianship of the original roster. The tracks also make the implicit argument that the album would have benefited from a more robust showing by the other artists still in the early and eager part of their respective careers. The Clash, Elvis Costello, and the Specials represented by one track apiece is a heartbreaking missed opportunity.

Oddly, the existence of the album took at least one performer by surprise. McCartney reportedly heard a track from it from it on the radio and promptly called the station to chastise them for playing a Wings bootleg. It was only then that he discovered his earlier charitable act had extended to permanent preservation on record.

 

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686. The Call, Modern Romans (1983)

Formed in Santa Cruz, California, the Call were first signed to Mercury Records, which felt they had secured a major act destined to immediately hit it big. The label insisted the group work with a name producer on their debut album, which led to the hiring of Hugh Padgham, coming off of Phil Collins’s Face Value, Genesis’s Abacab, and the Police’s Ghost in the Machine. The Call’s self-titled debut was released in 1982 and barely registered.

“They spent a fortune on the first one and got almost no sales,” Scott Musick, drummer for the Call, told Musician.

When it came time for the follow-up, the Call were basically on their own, which was probably their preference anyway. The resulting album, Modern Romans, is booming, earnest, politicized rock music. “Back from the Front,” all booming melody and simplistic activist sentiment (“Now the truth about war/ It’s a total waste/ It’s the ultimate drug/ It’s the ultimate taste”) demonstrates how close the band could get to the anthemic sanctimony U2 was just starting to perfect. The overly ponderous “Violent Times” provides reinforcing evidence.

The Call could also be commanding and sharply inventive. Those qualities are found across Modern Romans. Single “The Walls Came Down” is splendid, methodical and genuinely soaring in its rock fervor. “Turn a Blind Eye” sounds like New Model Army with an overt Joy Division influence, and the pogo stride of the title cut is difficult to resist. Modern Romans is a mixed bag, imperfect in a way that seems utterly fair for a band still finding its way. They weren’t copying U2 — who were only on their third album at the time Modern Romans was released — they were developing a similar sound concurrently. Looking back, it’s hard not to wonder what might have happened if the Call had another fortunate turn or two.

 

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685. Pat Benatar, Get Nervous (1982)

Pat Benatar approached the recording of her fourth album, Get Nervous, from a place of contentment and success. The rare — at the time — revered rock performer without a Y chromosome, Benatar was coming off a pair of multiplatinum albums, including the more recent Precious Time, her first to top the Billboard chart. During the layoff from recording and touring the hit album had earned her, Benatar got married to Neil Giraldo, her longtime love, guitarist, and creative collaborator. According to Benatar, she and her cohorts had the luxury of going back to the studio when they were ready to instead of when the label was pressing for more product.

“We wanted to be together, to work together again,” said Benatar. “We had new ideas, a new player, and, with Neil and I married, the atmosphere during recording was a joy. Everyone was relaxed and happy to be with each other.”

The new player was keyboardist Charlie Giordano, and, with his help, the album bears some of the new wave influence that was a regular feature on rock albums of the day. “Anxiety (Get Nervous)” has a sprightly agitation reflective of the musical trend and also nicely in line with the title, and hit single “Shadows of the Night” traverses the narrow border between nineteen-seventies rock and nineteen-eighties glossy pop with aplomb. The by-the-numbers rock of “Little Too Late” and power ballad “Fight It Out” are suitable examples of their respective styles, neither inspired nor trite. Album closer “Silent Partner” sounds like the opening salvo to a grand rock saga that Benatar would never get around to — or maybe be pretentious enough to stoop to — recording.

Get Nervous was another success for Benatar. It was her third straight to make the Top 10 of the Billboard album chart and yielded three Top 40 singles. Her popularity started to soften shortly after this, every subsequent album hitting its chart peak a little lower. Get Nervous wasn’t Benatar’s last success, but it arguably closed out her time as one of the dominant figures in rock music.

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

Outside Reading — Right Track, Wrong Track edition

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BEDTIME SONGS by Kiese Laymon

Published in Oxford American, this essay by Kiese Laymon is lovely and moving in its purity. She writes evocatively about the experience of driving at night — with no particular geographic destination, just circling through town — and listening to personally meaningful music. It is poignant and quietly powerful, less about music than the feeling of listening to music when it is needed the most. As someone who has taken to a vehicle while the rest of my small town is sleeping, finding comfort in Sinéad O’Connor’s “You Made Me the Thief of Your Heart” played repeatedly at top volume, I can relate.

 

Unlike Any Other by Nick Paumgarten

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I’m perpetually behind on print issues of The New Yorker, so as long as I keep doing this “Outside Reading” thing, I will occasionally share articles from that distinguished magazine that have at least a month’s worth of dust on them. Nick Paumgarten’s evaluation of golf’s stuffiest tournament, based largely on on-site reporting from its most recent staging, is an expert takedown of the sort of grotesque ritualized privilege that often poses unconvincingly as classiness in the U.S. The details are lined up like damning evidence, straight recounting of the experience and all the trappings of Augusta National Golf Club more than enough to make the whole endeavor come across as unbearably ridiculous. (I opt for the headline used in the magazine, but it’s worth noting that the article was published online as Inside the Cultish Dreamworld of Augusta National, which is a fine encapsulation of its thesis.) Paumgarten also had the good fortune to write this article in a year notable for an unlikely win by Tiger Woods, who, within the world of professional golf, epitomizes the lack of true accountability for people in this country if they carry enough fame and wealth. His victory provides a forceful underline to the article’s depiction of outdated tradition preserved in rotting amber.

 

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Why Would Anyone Defend Jeffrey Epstein? by Jessica Valenti

As Jessica Valenti points out, writing for GEN on the Medium platform, the inarguable villainy of convicted sex criminal Jeffrey Epstein is already prompting an insidious manipulation of rhetoric, mostly in a long game to protect other powerful men who’ve routinely engaged in criminal predatory behavior. Valenti shares a particularly repugnant quote attributed to Robert Trivers, a famed evolutionary biologist funded by Epstein to provide shady, quasi-scientific justification for the rape of children, but the assault on basic decency through language finessing is more likely to be slow and stealthy. I think this tweet from The Good Place writer Megan Amram is a useful reminder about the need to push back against attempts to soften the narrative:

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This Week’s Model — Anna Meredith, “Paramour”

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Merging orchestral music with modern pop stylings often results in a sonic mess, tilting toward either the pure cheese of the disco classical that burbled up in the nineteen-seventies and -righties or the unbearable pretension of rock acts trying to expand their artistry into more revered forms. The degree of difficulty, verging on near impossibility, puts a glowing halo around the miracles delivered by British composer Anna Meredith.

Likely best known in the U.S. for her sterling score for Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, Meredith has issued “Paramour,” the first single from the forthcoming album Fibs. Racing at breakneck speed, the track is clearly structured like an orchestral work, right down to the dialogues between brass and reeds. And yet it wears the glittering jumpsuit of an electronic dance workout, jolting helpless bodies in the vicinity to movement. “Paramour” isn’t a hybrid, nor an amalgamation. Instead, it feels like its own wondrous invention, designed for a better, more joyful cultural future.

 

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #692 to #689

tallulah-the-go-betweens692. Go-Betweens, Tallulah (1987)

Tallulah might not have delivered the Go-Betweens their first experience with professional disappointment, nor even their most pronounced. And yet the recording experience and subsequent related duties were peppered with enough frustrations that the album stands as a key delineating point for the band. It’s perhaps unsurprising that the Go-Betweens would fold two years later.

Broader commercial success was the stated goal as the Go-Betweens embarked on Tallulah. The Australian band stood in the golden light of critical acclaim, but that hadn’t yet translated into record sales or hit singles. Their previous album, Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express, made only the most modest headway on the charts of their homeland and register nary a ripple anywhere else. The band went into the studio with producer Craig Leon expecting to play together, attempting to capture some of the energy of their live performances. Instead, Leon meticulously recorded individual tracks and assembled them, working so slowly that a sizable chunk of the budget and the scheduled recording time was expended on only two cuts. Leon was replaced by Richard Preston, and the Go-Betweens dashed off the rest of their new songs as quickly as possible.

Despite the compromised recording process, Tallulah is a fine album, mostly because the material crafted by perfectly paired songwriters Grant McLennan and Robert Forster was bound to push through whatever hardship threatened to disguise them. Opening track and lead single “Right Here” is a fine example: pristinely perfect pop, sunshiny enough to disguise some scalding lyrics (“I know you’re thirty-two/ But you look fifty-five/ You walk around/ With your eyes wide open/ But you’re barely alive”). “I Just Get Caught Out” has a similar shimmery energy, as does the lilting “Bye Bye Pride.”

The Go-Betweens were from Australia, but London was essentially their professional home base. Accordingly, there’s a strong Britpop feel to the album, whether in the Bowie-esque rule-bending around the fringes on “Cut It Out” or the mild Echo and the Bunnymen vibe to “The House That Jack Kerouac Built.” The leaner cuts especially benefit from the sheen. “Hope Then Strife” is what might be expected if the mid-nineteen-eighties Violent Femmes adopted lush British production.

Other problems were cropping up in the Go-Betweens camp. Developing interpersonal friction was compounded by the revelation that Forster was secretly mulling a solo record. Then Tallulah was released, and the fervently sought mainstream embrace didn’t happen. For the next album, the group decided to make significant changes in their process and even their geography. Creatively, it would pay off beautifully.

 

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691. The Bolshoi, Giants (1985)

Arguably the biggest band to hail from Trowbridge, a modest town in South West England, the Bolshoi emerged in the mid-eighties with Giants, their debut EP. Poised between lithe British pop and swooning goth churn, the music on the release transcends the moments when it threatens to lapse into derivativeness with a sense of odd adventure. Led by Trevor Flynn (who would later become know under his real name, Trevor Tanner), the Bolshoi showed an immediate facility for a certain doomed romanticism that sold plenty of jet black hair dye during the decade.

Released by I.R.S. Records, the U.S. version of the Giants leads with the dark, lush, and stealthily menacing “Happy Boy.” The track establishes the template nicely, as does the Cure-like “Fly.” From there, the Bolshoi sticks with the sound while simultaneously traipsing into strange unsettled territory. The thick morass of gloomy goth sounds on the title cut are perhaps not that far off from any number of kindred bands of the time. But the tingly “By the River” has an inner pulse of experimentation that hints at greater depths.

Encouraged by the warm reaction to Giants, the Bolshoi relocated to London and got to work on building a proper repertoire. By the following year, they’d be out with their first full-length, and a brief — but interesting — career was underway

 

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690. Wire Train, Between Two Words (1985)

Wire Train built up just enough of a following in their hometown of San Francisco that they found themselves in odd company following the release of their sophomore album, Between Two Words. In the ninth annual iteration of the Bay Area Music Awards, Wire Train were nominated in the outstanding album category, vying against John Fogerty’s Centerfield, Night Ranger’s Seven Wishes, Santana’s Beyond Appearances, and — prepare to wince — Starship’s Knee Deep in the Hoopla. There’s a wavering quality level across that list of titles, but those are still major acts for a fledging band to be placed among. Wire Train had promise.

Between Two Worlds is a quintessential example of the sort of college rock from U.S. bands that a certain breed of student programmer found irresistible. The tracks are earnest and earthy, but also crisply produced. It sounded as professional as the stuff on commercial radio — or at least MTV — but it had a certain hangdog charm that tagged it as distant from the offerings of the true pop and rock titans. “Last Perfect Thing” might sound a little bit like early INXS, had they been raised on rock songs from the American heartland, but there was no doubt that Wire Train was miles away from ever making an album like Kick.

Songwriters Kurt Herr and Kevin Hunter had a knack for hitting the pocket on fine college rock cuts. There’s a swooning intensity to “Skills of Summer” and a brisk energy on “Two Persons” that make them perfect playlist fodder. But Between Two Words also suggests there was only so many cookies in the jar they raided. The ballad “No Pretties” quickly grows dull, and the pining “I Will” (“Cry for the time/ I wish I could see your eyes”) is similarly generic. The limitations might be better assigned to the playing of the whole band, given that wares of no less formidable a songwriter than Bob Dylan can get finessed into blandness, proven by the flat cover of “God on Our Side.”

 

Wire Train’s Between Two Words lost the Bay Area Music Award for the year’s top album. Centerfield took the prize. Much as I’m inclined to champion the college rock band, the choice was correct. Fogerty’s record is better.

 

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689. Married to the Mob soundtrack (1988)

“Music was my first love, movies came second,” director Jonathan Demme once explained. And that original affection figured significantly in the procession of wonderful film which bore his signature. He presided over several concert films during his career, with the most notable, Stop Making Sense, still standing as the probable peak of the form. But exceptional music also flowed through his narrative features, Demme’s exemplary and beautifully esoteric taste buoying the projects. Demme knew it, too.

“It can be like something that saves you in a scene that isn’t working that great — the right music can make a weak scene acceptable,” Demme told Rolling Stone. “It can also add a whole other dimension to a scene. It can send it right into the ozone.”

Catching the wave of the soundtrack boom of the nineteen-eighties, Demme’s terrific comedy Married to the Mob resulted in the strongest album spun from one his films, excepting the concert documents. Leading with “Jump in the River,” a track from thrilling newcomer Sinéad O’Connor that she would carry over to her sophomore full-length a couple years later, the album is like a generous chunk of a college radio show programmed by an especially strong DJ. Longtime Demme faves New Order, Tom Tom Club, and the Feelies are duly represented, and the filmmaker orchestrates some inspired covers, recruiting Debbie Harry to take a turn on the Castaways’ “Liar Liar” and Brian Eno to drift across a version of William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water.”

There are more significant reasons to celebrate Married to the Mob than the soundtrack. Even so, the accompanying album seems like the truest distillation of Demme’s music taste. That is its own grand gift.

 

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