College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #676 to #673

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676. Wire, Kidney Bingos (1988)

With the release of the EP Kidney Bingos, Wire reaffirmed they were back in the business of being a band. Eight long years passed without a significant new recorded release from the band before their 1987 album, The Ideal Copy. The arrival of Kidney Bingos — which is really the lead single to Wire’s album A Bell is a Cup…Until It is Struck filled out with some extra material — signaled another extended layoff wasn’t part of the immediate plan. Wire aimed to remain part of the musical landscape.

And the chiming “Kidney Bingos” also made it clear that Wire’s shift to more electronic-based, pop-orientated fare was equally enduring. As the title of the song implies, the sleekness of the music doesn’t mean overt accessibility was a particularly strong component of the band’s approach. The swaggering lunacy of “Pieta,” clocking in at well over seven minutes, suggests the kind of track Bryan Ferry might come up with if he were an unchecked weirdo. On the EP, those studio cuts are joined by two live tracks, “Over Theirs” and “Drill,” both demonstrating the band’s dazzling melding of post-punk and dance music into something that doesn’t exactly sound like either of its contributing ingredients.

The revived prolificness of Wire suggested by the arrival of Kidney Bingos less than one year after The Ideal Copy was no fleeting trend. In the five year span from 1987 to 1991, Wire released six full-length albums. When it came time to work, Wire didn’t kid around.

 

ranking radical

675. Ranking Roger, Radical Departure (1988)

By 1988, Ranking Roger had been a prominent fixture of two major bands, the Beat (known in the U.S. as the English Beat) and General Public, contributing to five full-length studio albums and countless other performances and material. But according to his posthumously released memoir, I Just Can’t Stop It: My Life in the Beat, Ranking Roger didn’t feel completely confident in his creative abilities until his debut solo album, Radical Departure.

“It was a case of practice makes perfect,” he writes. “The first Beat record, we went in blind. No one really knew what they were doing. If you were to take The Beat and strip it down to explain it, you would say, ‘It was one big happy jam,’ and everyone what the best thing to play was.”

Further bolstered by the novel experience of not having to work toward compromise with opinionated bandmates, Ranking Roger made an album that duly drew on all his preceding musical endeavors. The material on Radical Departure boasts the incessant energy of the Beat and the slick pop sensibility of General Public. The combination can lead to some real oddities, such as “One Minute Closer (To Death),” maybe the jauntiest song about heroin addiction ever put to tape. More often, Ranking Roger simply delivers infectious tracks: briskly restless “Time to Mek a Dime,” probing “Smashing Down Another Door,” reggae-inflected “I Told You,” and nicely clamorous “Your Problems” are all fine little gems.

The sunny and intricate single “So Excited” epitomizes the unique musical magic Ranking Roger could conjure. It’s bouncy, smooth, and effortlessly catchy. That it is also firmly dated to its time, undoubtedly a product of the late-nineteen-eighties is part of its charm. Ranking Roger wasn’t transforming pop music so much as living comfortably within it and sharing his own vibe in a way that made the air seem a little lighter.

 

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674. Butthole Surfers, Hairway to Steven (1988)

Butthole Surfers didn’t make life easy for college radio DJs. The band’s name already skirted FCC-mandated propriety, and then Hairway to Steven, the fourth full-length studio effort credited to Butthole Surfers, arrived with no track listing and no song titles. Instead, the record label included track numbers coupled to crude drawings that had at best a tangential relation to the relevant song. Most of the material on the album had an established place in the band’s live repertoire, so some devoted fans behind the microphone might have been able to properly identify a song or two. Anyone else was left to maybe introduce, say, the opening track by describing the connected drawing of a naked people simultaneously playing baseball and performing basic bathroom functions.

As later reissues made clear, the opening to track to Hairway to Steven is actually called “Jimi/Cartoon Song.” It starts musically thick, like mud saturated with crude oil, and it’s made more lunatic by heavily doctored vocals. Then the second half has the sound of a meditative Pink Floyd cut and a sound effects record played simultaneously. For good or ill, this is the sonic territory of Butthole Surfers.

The album was actually somewhat controversial among the band’s disciples — and some of its members — for the ways in which it dialed back on the experimental nonsense. For the first time, the band recorded in a state-of-the-art studio, and they laid down songs they knew well rather than dinked around until they had a swirl of abrasive sounds they found amusing enough to declare ready for pressed permanence. That hardly means Hairway to Steven was safe for mainstream sensibilities, even if they almost, kinda-sorta comes across as an earnest rock band at times, albeit one struggling with a creeping perversity. “Ricky” is like “Sympathy for the Devil” on an absinthe bender, and “Julio Iglesias” comes across like Van Halen on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Still, there’s plenty of room for the dopey spoofery of “John E. Smoke.” And “Fast” sounds exactly like a Butthole Surfers song entitled “Fast.” I truly don’t know how else to describe it.

In many respects, Hairway to Steven was the opening salvo for a new era of Butthole Surfers. Within the next few years, they’d pursue opportunities with different labels aiming to get them greater exposure, a pathway that led to the broader commercial success that once seemed a virtual impossibility.

 

times square

673. Times Square soundtrack (1980)

Directed by Allan Moyle, Times Square is a largely forgotten 1980 movie about two teenage girls who escape from a New York mental hospital and go on adventures through the city streets, soundtracked by a cool radio DJ Johnny LaGuardia, played by Tim Curry, broadcasting from a studio located in a high rise. Judging by the soundtrack, the broadcast outlet employing Johnny is first rate. Not that many stations at the turn of the decade included XTC, the Ruts, and the Cure on the playlist.

Overseen by Bill Oakes, then heading up RSO Records and building a career as a contributor producer to many truly terrible movies, the Times Square soundtrack is a reasonably appealing hodgepodge, mixing artists already approaching iconic status (Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated,” the Patti Smith Group’s “Pissing in a River”) with talented upstarts (the Pretenders’ “Talk of the Town,” receiving it’s first official U.S. release, and Joe Jackson’s “Pretty Girls”). Since the two-record set was issued by RSO, a few grooves were also reserved for a Bee Gee.

I question how enjoyable the Times Square soundtrack listening experience might be now, especially due to the understandable inclusion of songs performed by the film’s stars Robin Johnson and Trini Alvarado. But a relatively engaged primer of up-and-coming music such as this one would have been a very nice addition to a college radio station’s stacks.

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 — It’s Your Trip, So Be My Guest edition

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The Triumph and Tragedy of Woodstock’s Forgotten Album Producer by David Browne

The fiftieth anniversary shabby clone version of the famed Aquarian Exposition hilariously collapsed this week, sparing the universe the weird embarrassment of current crummy bands trying desperately to smear themselves in a unseemly coating of borrowed legend. But that is definitely not going to impede the tried and true media practice of treating every notable moment from the baby boomers’ shared past as a cause for reverential reflection. Luckily, there are indeed fascinating stories to be told, and Rolling Stone is still probably the outlet the best equipped to unearth the most novel and intriguing details. David Browne’s angle is to recount the tangled tale of the live album released the year after the festival in a three-record set, an exceedingly rare extravagance at the time. The darker part of the story is the fate of Eric Blackstead, the album’s producer. He became one of the more obscure casualties of rock ‘n’ roll.

 

Dorothy Toy, 102, Dance Who Electrified the Stage Until a War Intervened by Neil Genzlinger

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The New York Times has undertaken a remarkable and moving project over the course of the past year-and-a-half or so, essentially correcting the record by writing long-delayed obituaries for notable, remarkable figures — initially all women, but the scope expanded —  whose deaths were not originally noted in the newspaper. Neil Genzlinger’s memorial recounting of the life of Japanese-American dancer Dorothy Toy doesn’t fall under the Overlooked project, but as I read her remarkable story, I kept thinking of how easily her obituary might have been shunted aside by editors just one generation ago. The same newspaper today gave over precious — and sadly more prominent —column inches today to an op-ed writer who terms diversity and inclusion “shibboleths” to which institutions of higher learning have become, in his view, tragically beholden, so it’s not all good at the Times these days. Still, I truly believe the ongoing efforts to redefine which global lives are worthy of increased attention will overtake the regressive fiends who seek to preserve the stultifying defaults. Reading about Toy was a moving, inspiring experience for me. It makes me better to know more of her life and times.

This Week’s Model — Pom Pom Squad, “Honeysuckle”

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(source)

Championing my personal pick for the best new song of the week has been an ongoing endeavor since the start of this calendar year, and I haven’t previously had such a difficult time settling on a selection. This week brought fantastic new offerings from a slew of artists who already have a firm grasp on my attention: Angel Olsen, Mikal Cronin, Haim, Sleater-Kinney (but I can’t feature them again, right?), and Carly Rae Jepsen (collaborating with Gryffin). And then there were stellar turns from new to me acts Parsnip and Snarls. I would have happily slid any of these tracks forth for consideration, bobbing my head joyfully. I very nearly just plunked a playlist into this digital space as a form of surrender.

But I gave myself an assignment, and I aim to fulfill it. Luckily for me, it quickly became clear that one track tickled my inner being more than any other, even in this field of champions. When in doubt, I simply ask myself which song is the one that my old college radio self would play compulsively, helplessly, all besotted and blissful.

Pom Pom Squad is a band started by Mia Berrin, a former resident of Orlando who moved from bedroom recordings to sturdier stages after relocating to New York and picking up a few bandmates. By all accounts, Pom Pom Squad, is Berrin’s creative voice, passion, and confessional all rolled into one. The sound revive a certain bygone punk and riot grrrl spirit, but flavored with a keening tunefulness that’s reminiscent of the path alternative rock could have followed in the nineteen-nineties if it grabbed its map from Veruca Salt, Elastica, and Tracy Bonham instead of Bush and Silverchair. To employ more current references, in a magical realm where one kingdom is ruled by Waxahatchee and the other by Diet Cig, Pom Pom Squad lives in the borderlands.

In advance of a new EP, entitled Ow, Pom Pom Squad has released “Honeysuckle,” a preciously perfect single. It has a chewy melody line, a clicking rhythm, and buzzing guitars that occasionally threaten to turn into an unstoppable swarm. All the while, Berrin moans out lyrics of punishing heartache and toxic romantic dependency, repeatedly asking, “If I’m nothing without you am I anything at all?” The song has a walloping power and intoxicating rock luxury. And it all wraps up in just over three minutes, properly adhering to the wise economy of great pop songs.

Truly, I couldn’t love this more.

The New Releases Shelf — Help Us Stranger

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Over ten years has passed since the release of Consolers of the Lonely, the album from the the Raconteurs that is the direct predecessor of their latest, Help Us Stranger. Any reasonable music fan might have wondered if the band was still any sort of ongoing concern, especially as individual members bounded off to other projects. The diversions taken by the professionally mercurial Jack White have been most prominent, but his Raconteurs co-songwriter Brendan Benson has also released three solo albums in the interim and taken of plenty of producing gigs. Drummer Patrick Keeler and bassist Jack Lawrence cycled back to the their band the Greenhornes and each picked up plenty of side jobs, including with White’s other endeavors, such as solo outings and his band the Dead Weather. The more time passed, I suspect the less curiosity there was about a third album by the Raconteurs. So Help Us Stranger arrives to a tricky question: What makes this record necessary?

Maybe necessary is too harsh a standard. It could be enough that the album contains enough strong cuts to be a happy diversion. “Bored and Razed” sounds like a Firehose song enduring a hostile takeover by Kiss, and it would only take the most minor of production tweaks to make “Shine the Light on Me” pass for a vintage XTC dazzler. The flinty, rambunctious cover of Donovan’s “Hey Gyp (Dig the Slowness)” could have been dropped anywhere, onto a soundtrack or tacked on to last year’s Consolers of the Lonely anniversary rerelease. Instead, it’s here, right in the middle of everything, giving the impression of a band of crack musicians happily at play. The ambling “Only Child” is good, as is “Don’t Bother Me,” which is probably the cut that comes closest to White’s trademark runaway-train rock. It’s all fun and smart and well-played, and that should be enough.

Because White is there, right at the front, I keep instinctually wanting to force Help Us Stranger to be more than it is. Except for the legacy artists making what could be the throat clears to their closing statements, White can seem like the last rocker standing right now. He’s a constant toiler who still believes in the primacy of records and the basic structures of the immediate descendants of the blues, even as the rest of the music industry is shunting his loves to the side in favor of manufactured sonic gizmos cycling through the fleeting privilege of being runner-up to “Old Town Road,” our permanent #1 and future National Anthem. Forget the cosplay of Greta Van Fleet and other acts rummaging through the till at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. When White and his cohorts tear into “Live a Lie” like it’s some long lost late-nineteen-seventies power pop classic, intoning lyrics of profound simplicity (“I like it better when you tell me lies/ When you hide what’s behind those eyes “), they really mean it. 

I suppose that’s it. The answer is simple. Help Us Stranger is necessary, or at least valuable, because the Raconteurs really mean it. In the calculus of rock ‘n’ roll, nothing matters more.

Laughing Matters — Garfunkel and Oates, “What’s Gonna Happen to Chris”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

The Sunday New York Times that landed on my doorstep yesterday included a nice surprise on the front of the business section. In the space usually reserved for a disheartening trend pieces that unwittingly exposed the unchecked cruelty of modern capitalism or a dreadfully boring profile of puffy CEO there sat a story about the ongoing resistance to female comic voices in the realm of television, despite the colossal need for content. The article took a reasonably broad view of the state of the industry, but it fully won my affection by expending a significant number of column inches on the endless hustling of Riki Lindhome and Kate Micucci, known together as Garfunkel and Oates.

Among the many pleasures I derived from the article, it called my attention to the most recent Garfunkel and Oates song, which someone escaped my attention when it debuted last November. Employing their usual deft songwriting, the duo aim their satire at the cries of persecution issued by mewling males in response to earnest, long-delayed attempts at redressing inequities in society. They level their feminist ire with thrilled ingenuity and, as a bonus, manage to slip in a deft and rare successful instance of rhyming the word “orange.” The song contains feats aplenty.

Also, the web presence of the Gray Lady now includes a hyperlink to “The Loophole,” as brilliant and filthy of a comedic song as I’ve ever encounter. I think the construction of that particular information superhighway on-ramp is absolutely delightful.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #680 to #677

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680. Robert Plant, The Principle of Moments (1983)

The Principle of Moments, the second solo album by Robert Plant, finds the frontman of the revered, departed Led Zeppelin asserting a new creative identity with greater assurance. His first outing on his own, Pictures at Eleven, was a fairly muddled affair, clearly the work of someone intending to strike out away from a burdensome legacy, but also not quite certain how to accomplish the goal. For his sophomore outing under his own name, Plant deliberate reinvention shows signs of working.

“I was just trying to do stuff that was as far removed from Zeppelin as possible,” Plant said a few years later. “It wasn’t commercial, but I wanted to be commercial — on my terms. I was on some kind of mission to make mildly obscure music but at the same time be a success on the pop platform.”

As before, the shadow of his former band is so long, Plant can’t completely outrun it. Album opener “Other Arms” really does sound like Led Zeppelin with all the power sapped away, an inevitability when the singer remains the same, but ferocious guitarist Jimmy Page and powerhouse drummer John Bonham have been replaced by Robbie Blunt and Phil Collins, respectively. Fine musicians, the new collaborators simply, understandably don’t measure up when the music invites comparisons.

When Plant pushes further away from his familiar ground, the results are better. “In the Mood” is lyrically simple, but effective in its cool insinuation. And “Big Log” justly became Plant’s first solo hit, unfolding with probing guitar lines and a slinky ease. Even the familiar hard rock strut of “Wreckless Love” is bettered by variety, the dab of Middle Eastern melodic bending giving the dynamic just enough alteration. Sometimes Plant and his cohorts still seems to be trying too hard — the overwrought vocalizing on “Horizontal Departure” comes to mind — but The Principle of Moments is mostly a sturdy, satisfying rock record, proving Plant didn’t need to rely on his storied history. He could have a future, too.

 

black headache

679. Big Black, Headache (1987)

When Big Black released the EP Headache, they insisted on having a unique disclaimer affixed to it. A sticker slapped on the front of the record read: “Warning! Not as good as Atomizer, so don’t get your hopes up, cheese!” Declaring the new record was inferior to the full-length release from the prior year wasn’t a gag or a bit of arch punk rock posturing. According to guitarist Santiago Durango, the band genuinely felt the material on Headache represented a step down in quality, and they wanted to be upfront with their fans.

Overall, Headache strikes me as perfectly fine, if somewhat forgettable. The plodding, snarling “My Disco” sounds like the opening salvo for a dance party in purgatory, and the industrial churn of “Grinder” is a decent representation of the abrasive music that was starting to take hold in certain pockets of Big Black’s Chicagoland home base. The jittery “Pete, King of All Detectives” is slightly more intriguing, if only because its unmoored energy makes it seem as if it can zip off in any direction at any moment.

Headache was presumably meant to be a new start for Big Black, since it was their first release for Touch and Go Records, the label they’d signed with after a serious falling out with Homestead Records. Instead, all of the band members felt the end was night. To a degree, their disenchantment with the finished product stemmed from a mounting certainty that they were running out of ideas. Besides, other paths beckoned. Before the year was up, Big Black released their final album, Songs About Fucking.

 

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678. The Art of Noise, In Visible Silence (1986)

The Art of Noise undertook the recording of their second full-length studio album, In Visible Silence, as a markedly different group. Acrimony had risen between two factions in the band, leading to a split. Trevor Horn, who also had a renowned career as a producer, and Paul Morley, better known for his work as a music journalist, were excised for the band, leaving the remaining members — Anne Dudley, J. J. Jeczalik, and Gary Langan — to push on as a trio. One immediate complication was the Art of Noise’s status as a recording artist on ZTT Records, which was run in part by Horn and Morley. That certainly wasn’t going to work out, and so the Art of Noise moved over to China Records.

Part of the tension in the group stemmed from the idea that Horn and Morley favored a headier approach than the others. The approach on In Visible Silence started to show a playfulness that could approach novelty, heard most clearly on the burbling cover of cover of “Peter Gunn” that included Duane Eddy on guitar and resulted in a comedic music video starring Rik Mayall, of The Young Ones. And the electronic noodling of “Paranoimia” became the band’s first U.S. Top 40 hit when the stammering commentary of digitized character Max Headroom, acted by Matt Frewer, was mixed into the version of the song released as a single.

Morley was especially dismissive of the creative direction the Art of Noise took after he and Horn were booted, but at least there’s something distinctive about the goofball interludes. Much of the material on In Visible Silence is technically proficient and fundamentally soulless, all blending together into one extended post-disco nap dream. The space age lounge of “Eye of a Needle,” the floridly epic “Instruments of Darkness,” and hypnotically dull “Camilla: The Old, Old Story” carry no real weight. Sometimes a single element sticks out, such as the oil pump beat on “Slip of the Tongue.” More typically, tracks are simply tepid. A prime example is “The Chameleon’s Dish,” which is like fusion jazz on amphetamines.

Following In Visible Silence, more splintering of the band would come, as would more weird commercial cash-ins. Clearly inspired by their faithful revamping of the Peter Gunn theme song, the Art of Noise were recruited to do the same for the famed opening music for cop show Dragnet, to accompany the 1987 film comedy of the same name that cast Dan Aykroyd as Joe Friday’s retrograde nephew and Tom Hanks as his hip new partner, Pep Streebeck. There were worse infractions against good taste. At least the Art of Noise weren’t responsible for Aykroyd and Hanks rapping.

 

babys first

677. The Babys, Head First (1979)

Things got a little messy for the Babys when they were making Head First, their third studio album. The band registered their first top 40 hit, “Isn’t It Time,” from their previous album and were expected to build on that success. But the label took issue with some of the personnel in and around the band, firing the Babys’ manager, Adrian Millar. Not long after, founding band member Michael Corby, who had the strongest relationship with Millar, was also shown the door. Corby would eventually be replaced, but the Head First was finished by the band as a trio.

As a whole, Head First is generic late-nineteen-seventies rock, notable only for lead singer John Waite’s raspy, often over-emotive vocals. They strike through all the expected wickets: a power ballad with “Every Time I Think of You,” a rote, Foreigner-like guitar assault with “Love Don’t Prove I’m Right,” and mid-tempo drippiness on “California.” The title cut is basic, effective pop rock, like the Cars if they had been trying to work out some sort of inferiority complex by toughening up their guitar sound. The lyrics are correspondingly mundane on most of the album, though “White Lightning” seems to be about coming to the realization that LSD isn’t as satisfying as loving God, contradicting a childhood experience with mind-altering substances while in the dentist’s chair (“Lucy in the sky with diamonds/ Oh, it didn’t shine like you Lord”). Whatever is going on in that track, it’s certainly different.

 

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 — The Revolution Will Be Recorded edition

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The Language I Learned From Cassettes by Ben Ratliff

This remembrance of the golden days when cassette tapes were invaluable strikes strikes right at a nostalgic vein that I find irresistible. Ben Ratliff deploys well-chosen details to capture the bygone time, but the real strength of the article is the consideration of the ways the format itself — and the easy, imperfect sharing of tapes —shaped his relationship with music. NPR hosts some tremendous music writing at this website, and this is one of the sharpest that’s showed up there in quite some time.

 

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(image source)

The Joy of Hatred by Jamelle Bouie

Published by The New York Times, this made the rounds before last week, but I didn’t get to it until it showed up in the Sunday paper. Prompted by the ugliness of the recent Trump rally that created controversy that was too brief, Jamelle Bouie writes about the celebratory nature of the chanted bigotry, the way spitting callous invectives against fellow citizens is a grand night out for the people engaged in the vile behavior. Importantly, Bouie draws a comparison to the “communal racial violence” of lynchings and other vicious punishments exacted in the public square in the nation’s deeply troubled past. The action is different, but the instinct is the same: asserting invented power and superiority as a warning to any suppressed class of people that might dare to believe they also have personal value and dignity. It is astounding how many leaders are currently engaged in active attempts to destroy every good and kind part of the national character.

 

Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

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I’ve been trying to do a better job of supporting writers I enjoy through commerce, leading to a too-rare instance of procuring and reading a book immediately upon its release. The debut novel from current New York Times staff writer Taffy Brodesser-Anker is a wry, wounded comic marvel. The plot launches when the protagonist, a New York City doctor approaching middle age, unexpectedly has his children dropped off in the pre-dawn hours by the woman who is his ex-wife in all but the final legal signatures. Then she ghosts him, setting off the seesawing rage and anxiety stitched firmly into modern entitled masculinity. Brodesser-Akner writes with a briskness and clarity that recalls greats like John Updike and Philip Roth, but without those esteemed predecessors’ increasingly embarrassing buy-in to American male myth-making. There’s a keener eye at work here and a more empathetic sensibility, which then allows Brodesser-Akner to effectively expand the scope of her observations until the book offers a compelling consideration of the pitfalls and grace notes of marriage itself.