1. Bodeans, Home
There are seven other artists with distinct Wisconsin connections in the whole of the 90FM Top 90 of 1989, including three that reside lower within the Top 20. As I’ve noted previously, even if we didn’t have some highly vaunted scene like the one of Minneapolis that was sadly reaching its end, the staff at our central Wisconsin radio station held a collective special affection for performers who shared our Dairyland roots. There was no free pass for these artists, but if one of their respective records somehow hit the station’s sweet spot, it was sure to have a far more robust life than a comparable release that hit Heavy Rotation at the same time. And if an album seemed to be genetically configured to appeal to the predominant musical taste of those who secured a FCC license in order to legally spin records (okay, the license was for taking transmitter readings)…well, it was very likely to turn into the most played new release of the entire year.
The Bodeans hailed from Waukesha, a city eighteen miles west of Milwaukee. Their debut release, the terrifically titled Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams, had been released just three years earlier to notable acclaim, much of that centered on the earthy, downscale production that T-Bone Burnett brought to the effort. They were a young enough band that, when I entered college in the fall of 1988, an outgoing senior who previously attended high school at Waukesha South could talk about how he just missed being a schoolmate of principal band members Sammy Llanas and Kurt Neumann. We didn’t know anyone who knew them (at least at that time), but, more so than with any other band that made an impact on our station’s charts, a direct connection felt like a very real possibility that didn’t quite work out. Given the proprietary sense we already felt towards the bands we played the most, a band that started with an inherent means of inspiring that sense of connection had an enormous advantage.
The second album from Bodeans came out in 1987. Outside Looking In by fellow Wisconsin native Jerry Harrison, who had his place in cool rock history forever secured by virtue of his position as one-fourth of Talking Heads. The Bodeans didn’t especially like the slicked up production, but the album did generate their first significant national airplay. It also landed them a gig as one of the multitudes of opening acts employed by U2 on their lengthy tour in support of smash hit album The Joshua Tree. Around this point, Llanas also spent time working with former member of The Band Robbie Robertson as he launched his long-delayed solo career. Bodeans were making their way up the rock ‘n’ roll ladder in a manner that plainly seemed ideal.
Their third album, Home, came out in the summer of 1989. The title potentially referred to a return to the earthier sounds of the debut with producer Jim Scott, although it’s reasonable to argue whether or not that was they achieved, regardless of stated purpose. The sound of the music on the album certainly told the story of their recent journeys through the music world, especially in regards to the titans with whom they’d recently been keeping company. Lead single “You Don’t Get Much” could have been written by Llanas and Neumann while they crouched in the wings of a U2 show, studying the sonic interactions of Bono and The Edge. Similarly, “Red River” had some of Robertson’s earthy anguish to it, although it would later prove to be a song more in the wheelhouse of a totally different rocker. On “Brand New” and “No One,” they practically channel Bruce Springsteen in their lyrics about women named Janie and Cherry and desolate existences lived “alone in a corner, drinkin’ not hopin’.”
Home may be derivative, but it feels less like phony posturing and more like an eager, almost endearing attempt to please while also sharing everything they’ve learned. They’re like the guys at the party who’ve busted out the acoustic guitar and a set of bongos in an attempt to get a few happy singalongs going. What’s your favorite band? U2? Then this song is for you, buddy! You like Springsteen? Then check this out! It may not add up to a significant personal artistic statement, but it sure sounds good while nursing the last few drops from the keg over in some dimly lit crevasse of the gathering. The album’s mild stylistic restlessness also made it perfectly suited for airplay on a station like ours, where the whole track listing was fair game for the DJs. There was the low, slow amble of “Good Things,” the Diddleyesque churn of “When the Love is Good” or the achy balladeering of “Far Far Away From My Heart.” There was even the lean little scorcher “Good Work,” which sounded more like something Eddie Cochran would have busted out on one of the old nineteen-fifties barnstorming tours than anything that had previously come from these nice Midwestern boys.
I don’t usually think of Home as a great album the way I do some of the other offerings on this list (Bob Mould’s Workbook, Lou Reed’s New York), but a fresh listen to it absolutely reminded me of why we connected with it back then. Yes, they got a head start because, like all our favorite cheese, the record was made with Wisconsin pride. But the album also sounded good on its own terms, moving adeptly between songs that urged the listener to roll down the windows and share with the neighborhood being driven through and those that went down best when heard in the solitude of a quiet night, taking some bittersweet comfort in whatever brand of loneliness had settled over this little corner of life. The album wasn’t challenging like Doolittle or icily imperious like Love and Rockets. Neither too hot nor too cold, the album was, for us, like that last bowl of porridge or the comfiest bed. It didn’t push us or otherwise try to change any perspectives, but it did indeed speak to us. Maybe it had a certain feigned authenticity, but, let’s face it, so did we. For the most part, we were still kids, grabbing ahold of music to speak the things that we hadn’t quite figured out how to say on our own. By condensing a slew of influences, Home did that, and it did it with a twang that sounded familiar, that sounded like us.
20. Bob Mould, Workbook
19. The Rainmakers, The Good News and the Bad News
18. The Mighty Lemon Drops, Laughter
17. Couch Flambeau, Ghostride
16. Robyn Hitchcock ‘n’ the Egyptians, Queen Elvis
15. The B-52’s, Cosmic Thing
14. Camper Van Beethoven, Key Lime Pie
13. The Sugarcubes, Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week!
12. The Godfathers, More Songs About Love & Hate
11. Guadalcanal Diary, Flip Flop
10. The Pogues, Peace and Love
9. The Weeds, Windchill
8. Hoodoo Gurus, Magnum Cum Louder
7. Red Hot Chili Peppers, Mother’s Milk
6. The Replacements, Don’t Tell a Soul
5. XTC, Oranges & Lemons
4. Lou Reed, New York
3. Violent Femmes, 3
2. 10,000 Maniacs, Blind Man’s Zoo