College Countdown: 90FM’s Top 90 of 1989, 1


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.

Previously
Introduction
90-21
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

College Countdown: 90FM’s Top 90 of 1989, 2


2. 10,000 Maniacs, Blind Man’s Zoo

Right from the top, there’s a unique detail regarding 90FM personnel that seems pertinent in considering the high placement, arguably unusually high placement, of the fourth full-length album from 10,000 Maniacs on the year-end chart. One of the best-liked people on the staff at that time followed the standard practice of adopting a different last name for all on-air purposes, and he decided to replace his own, fine sturdy surname with Merchant, due to the fact that he had a big ol’ crush on the lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs. Even though he wasn’t even around during the summer the album was treading through the station’s rotation, it was fairly routine for DJs to play a song from the album while announcing they were “sending it out to” him. Proving the best a staff of excellent wingmen, they’d even engage in a little on-air flirting with Natalie Merchant on the incredibly unlikely chance she was within signal range and might be interested to know there was a dreamy boy in central Wisconsin who wouldn’t mind trading smooches.

Certainly, it wasn’t only that love connection that garnered Blind Man’s Zoo enough airplay to earn the runner-up spot–and just barely missing the number one position, as a matter of fact–on a chart that tallied the most popular records of the year at the station. Natalie Merchant was surely lovely, and everyone was charmed by our friend’s crush, but the music clearly held an interest beyond that. (It may be true that other individuals at the station held their own crushes. In 1989, Natalie Merchant did set enough music geek boy’s hearts aflutter to wind up on Spin magazine’s list of the “Most Dateable Babe[s] in Music,” ranked ahead of Kate Bush and Siouxsie Sioux but behind the likes of Debbie Gibson and Susanna Hoffs, the latter’s name misspelled on the list, a sure sign that she wasn’t actually going to be dating any of the Spin editors and writers.) 10,000 Maniacs may be a band that a lot of current college radio programmers would turn up their pierced nose at, but they were part of the rapidly developing canon of important left of the dial artists at the time. Like the Replacements or XTC, they were one of those bands that college radio had cultivated and seemed right on the verge of crossing over as R.E.M. and, to a far greater degree, U2 already had. Their prior album, In My Tribe, had been a significant commercial breakthrough, going gold on the strength of singles “Like the Weather,” “What’s the Matter Here?,” and “Don’t Talk.” The follow-up was hotly anticipated, even by those station that didn’t necessarily have a staffer who swooned every time Natalie Merchant allowed some tremulous vulnerability to come through her warm, perfect vocal intonations.

For better or worse, Blind Man’s Zoo was the band’s attempt to give the fans more of what they clearly connected to on In My Tribe. Merchant and her cohorts had merged their social cause passions with elegant pop music and generated modest hits on unlikely subjects such as child abuse and depression. Emboldened, the whole of Blind Man’s Zoo sometimes comes across as a humanist treatise written upon a melody. The lead single, “Trouble Me,” is a gentle song about nothing more controversially than offering a sympathetic ear to a hurting friend, but much of the rest of the album is a tuneful litany of concerns more likely to crop up in Mother Jones magazine than in the DJ commentary on the perpetually frightened commercial stations. “Eat For Two” addresses unplanned pregnancy, even hinting at the sexual coercion that often leads to it, while “Poison in the Well” considers matters related to environmentalism. “The Big Parade” is about the ongoing mental anguish endured by Vietnam veterans, and “The Lion’s Share” rails against a system based on perpetually fiscal inequity, a topic that’s only grown more relevant in the twenty-plus years since the album was released.

It’s awfully sweet music to set to such cynical sentiments. Though they don’t often get credit for it, 10,000 Maniacs were as pointed in their expressions of discontent as a noted rabble-rouser like Billy Bragg. “You Happy Puppet” even offers a general indictment against a public too complacent to fight for what’s just, theoretically taking aim at those kind-hearted souls who congratulated themselves for the level of enlightenment they demonstrated by buying a 10,000 Maniacs record or concert ticket. Nodding along to the songs was nice an all, but it didn’t go a measurable distance towards rectifying the problems that Merchant sang about. A lot of Blind Man’s Zoo can be heard as the band–largely Merchant, it’s reasonable to presume–surveying a defiantly unchanging political landscape and reporting their dismay. “What’s the Matter Here?” may have received generous attention from MTV, but it didn’t lead to any groundswell of collective action against family violence. If the lyrics on Blind Man’s Zoo were more overt than on previous records, that was in keeping with the album’s prevailing tone of increased spiritual agitation, grown from an urgency to deliver a message that simply wasn’t being heard or processed. For some, the music may have gone down so smoothly that the album’s anger was masked, but 10,000 Maniacs demonstrated that the amps didn’t actually need to get turned up to eleven in order to rage against the machine.

Though it did well, Blind Man’s Zoo wasn’t quite the commercial breakthrough that was expected for 10,000 Maniacs. Neither was the next studio effort, Our Time in Eden. Interestingly enough, the band’s biggest success came a couple years later with a record derived from an appearance on MTV Unplugged. The pared-down format was perfect for the band and the album wound up going triple-platinum. That live release was Natalie Merchant’s last album with 10,000 Maniacs. If anything, it was a surprising she stuck with them as long as she did, given how clearly she became the chief focus of the fans. The band recruited a new lead singer and soldiered on, though they never got anywhere near the same level of success. Merchant went on to very fine, somewhat underrated solo career marked by an increasingly refined approach to adult pop. She records infrequently these days, but she’s still out there, raising her voice. Though I haven’t checked in with him on this particular topic, I’m pretty sure my friend’s crush never subsided either.

Previously
Introduction
90-21
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

College Countdown: 90FM’s Top 90 of 1989, 3


3. Violent Femmes, 3

While I’ll admit to loving that an album titled 3 landed in the third spot of the Top 90 chart, I swear that the tally wasn’t doctored to make that happen. Sure, I might find the temptation to finesse a ranking to accommodate such symmetry entirely irresistible at times, but accurate reporting prevailed in the matter of assembling this list. The scientific method employed in determining the Top 90 may have had some gaps in it, but I followed it assiduously. 3 is at #3 because #3 is where 3 belongs.

3 was the fourth album by Violent Femmes. The number in the title seemed to refer to the number of members of the band. More explicitly, it could be read as a direct refutation of the band’s previously album, the Jerry Harrison-produced The Blind Leading the Naked, which was widely considered an overstuffed mess by the Femmes’ fan base. 3 was a back to basics effort, emphasizing the sort of the sounds that emerged when the original trio played together, the sort of sounds that got them noticed in the first place when Chrissie Hynde discovered them busking on the Milwaukee streets and invited them to open for the Pretenders that evening. Maybe more pertinently, the band was striving to make a record that sounded like their seminal self-titled debut, an album so defining that every mild deviation was greeted with disappointment. After the Femmes stumbled with the moodiness of Hallowed Ground and the rambunctiousness of Naked, maybe the clearest way to reestablish themselves was to embrace their original spirit.

It may be a measure of how far Violent Femmes had slipped that the arrival of 3 was something of a surprise. There was a widespread impression among the radio station staff that Violent Femmes had broken up, speculation that largely seemed to be based on the lukewarm feelings toward the more recent records and the releases of various solo outings and side projects by the band members. There was no expectation of another Femmes album, and no one was especially clamoring for it, either. Most of the staff had happily resigned themselves to busting out “Blister in the Sun” or “Kiss Off” every once in a while (the line “Why can’t I get just one fuck?” meant that “Add It Up” was reserved for party mix tapes). There was no real need for something new.

But 3 was a surprise in more ways than one. Beyond its mere existence, the record was damn good. Opening with the marvelous lead single “Nightmares,” songwriter and lead singer Gordon Gano established that he was back to the lyrical preoccupations that made the band’s music the life raft of relatable angst for sullen teens everywhere. There’s a thin line between romantic longing and damaging obsession, and the most earnest expressions of existential pain lap over into unsettling emotion quicker than the average person can count to ten. Paring back the music brought all that subtext back to the surface, giving special prominence to the bracing expression of a hypersexual id in songs such as “Dating Days” and “Mother of a Girl.” The warped sense of bravado was nicely tempered by the painful fragility of “Nothing Worth Living For” and the goofy skewering of hypocrisy on “Lies.” And, as if to demonstrate that they weren’t solely relying on old tricks, there’s “Fool in the Full Moon,” which was, at least to that point, one of the sharpest, most pile-driving straight-ahead rock songs the band had recorded.

Being a fine collection of songs from one of the touchstone bands of college radio would have been enough to guarantee 3 a generous amount of airplay, but there was one other little detail that added uncommon enthusiasm around the radio station. I suspect most college radio kids have a mildly antagonistic relationship with the campus programming board, the group of students charged with bringing in comedians, hypnotists and other performers to campus. At a lot of schools, especially back then, there was a disconnect between the bands celebrated on the radio station and those brought in to play live shows on campus. At the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point, for example, the campus radio station was a relatively prominent part of the community with a respectable listenership, and yet the campus programming board paid no mind to the music radiating out of the antenna one building over and had used their budgetary outlay for “major” concerts to bring in the likes of Paul Young and Quiet Riot in the mid-to-late-eighties. So when the rumor started spreading that Violent Femmes were coming to play a spring concert at Quandt Fieldhouse, those of us who spent our days playing records in the radio booth thought surely it was untrue.

Our cynicism was misguided. Violent Femmes did indeed come to our humble university that spring, playing a concert in the darkened gymnasium to a large group of beer-addled college kids and similarly woozy high schoolers. It was, if I recall correctly, the show that kicked off the tour to support 3 and their first live gig in a few years. And, being central Wisconsin in the spring, it took place on a day that was notable for a huge blizzard that dumped several inches of snow on the town. In fact, we spent most of the day anxiously wondering if the band was actually going to make it. Sure enough, they made it there in plenty of time. Through tactics that I no longer recall, I wound up in the gym during the sound check and even chatted with drummer Victor DeLorenzo for a bit. He even took me up on stage to see his tranceaphone, the metal washtub inverted atop a snare drum that he invented and contributed mightily to the Femmes’ signature sound. That night, he was proud to tell me, he was using the original one.

Our collective enthusiasm for the show led to a lot of spins for 3 at the radio station (the debut was sampled a lot, as well), both before and after the date in question. We also felt a certain sense of obligation. Another part of the college was finally staging a program that suited and reflected out sensibilities. Of course we needed to support it as vigorously as possible. Thankfully, there was no reluctance on our part. It was no burden to play a track from 3. If anything, many of us were glad to have an excuse to repeatedly revisit the album.

Previously
Introduction
90-21
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

College Countdown: 90FM’s Top 90 of 1989, 4


4. Lou Reed, New York

Lou Reed’s New York has the following instructive message amongst the liner notes: “This album was recorded and mixed at Media Sound, Studio B, N.Y.C., in essentially the order you have here. It’s meant to be listened to in one 58 minute (14 songs!) sitting, as though it were a book or a movie.” The usefulness of that suggestion was completely plausible coming from Reed, given that the best solo album of his career–up to that point, at least–was probably 1973’s Berlin, which was a song cycle (or a concept album, or a rock opera; use the pretentious categorization of your choosing) about a couple mired in romantic tragedy, in every sense of the term. It did indeed tell a story, with plot points that could be mined from the lyrics. Why wouldn’t Reed take that approach again?

Except he didn’t, really. As he admitted in interviews at the time, be brought a batch of new songs into the studio and basically recorded them in random order. He and his fellow producer, Fred Maher, spent time trying to figure out a sequencing approach that was especially evocative before deciding that largely following the recording order was as good a method as any. Reed’s printed message to the listener, then, was less of a sincere expressive of artistic intent and more of a sleight of hand to make his audience take this record seriously, to treat it like a true work of art instead of mere background music for other activities. Generally speaking, the eighties represented a fairly low point for Reed, creatively speaking. By the time 1989 rolled around, Reed was starting to get more attention–and scathing, dismissive attention at that–for the way he was exchanging his cache of cool for sponsorship dollars from decidedly uncool products like American Express and Honda scooters. Emphasizing the importance of New York with an emphatic couple of sentences on the back cover of the LP might seem a little desperate, but Reed had good cause to think it might be necessary. At this stage, he couldn’t count on anyone else to do it for him.

The thing is: he was right. New York is an amazing record, probably the best of his solo career. Without forcing an overarching storyline or set of themes on the album, it definitely comes across as a snapshot of big city, urban life at that point in time. Released in early January, just as Ronald Reagan was wrapping up his presidency and the ravaging hangover of his callous war on the downtrodden of the nation was starting to throb, the album was a poignant, piercing survey of the agony out there on the streets. Reed always had a deep empathy as a songwriter that ran somewhat counter to his prickly reputation as an ego-driven collaborator. That’s fully evident on this record as song after song finds him crawling into the skin of other people to offer detailed reports from the front lines in the struggle for an American dream that seems ever more illusory. The lead single, “Dirty Blvd.” did that as well as anything on the album, focusing on a boy named Pedro who lives in a hotel room with his large family, trapped in his existence in part because “It’s hard to run when a coat hanger beats you on the thighs.” The closest thing he has to hope is a “book on magic” he retrieves from the trash, inspiring fruitless wishes of vanishing away to a better place.

That sense of existential desolation prevails throughout the album. Fierce guitar playing underscores the litany of hated platitudes on “There Is No Time” and there’s a wounded, ruminative quality to the lament for friends lost to AIDS on “Halloween Parade.”. In general, the harshness of mortality and the burden of grief cuts across the hole album. Besides the dangerous environs traversed by the characters in the songs, Reed continually employs songwriting as a method of morning. At the time of New York‘s release, Reed had just started performing some of the songs from the Songs for Drella project that reunited him with Velvet Underground cohort John Cale to provide a tuneful eulogy to their shared former mentor, Andy Warhol. New York closes with a preview of sorts: the jagged elegance of “Dime Store Mystery,” which is dedicated “to Andy-honey.”

In some ways, Reed’s insistence that the album needed to be taken as a whole actual serves to diminish its actual value. New York works wonderfully that way, but it’s also satisfying in individual pieces. Songs such as “Romeo Had Juliette” and “Last Great American Whale” stand as tremendous achievements all on their own, not needing the surrounding record to bolster their effectiveness. The lyrics are sharp enough that Reed could, and did, publish them on editorial pages and make arguments for the urgent need to address the mounting social decay as convincingly as any master rhetorician. The proof of New York‘s potency as a work of art isn’t measured by how well it can be equated to a book or a film or some other linear form. It’s instead in its adaptability, the profound value of the music and words considered in a wide range of settings and delivery mechanisms. In the way of the very best albums, its strength is evident whether taken as a whole or a collection of thrilling components. It’s everything a great album can be and should be.

Previously
Introduction
90-21
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

College Countdown: 90FM’s Top 90 of 1989, 5


5. XTC, Oranges & Lemons

Perhaps befitting a band that had a colossally strong affection for the era of the Beatles built on densely layered psychedlia, XTC played their last tour date in the spring of 1982. While the Fab Four had retreated from live shows because they felt they had greater latitude to be creative in the recording studio, a setting of rapid technological development that they definitively mastered, XTC eschewed performing in front of audiences because of crippling stage fright endured by lead singer Andy Partridge. Whatever the motivation, the end result was largely the same: the band became impresarios of the recording process. When XTC started, they were practitioners of a jittery brand of post-punk that may have been good, but also made them similar to any number of bands pogoing their way through U.K. record stores. By the time they’d gotten to the late-nineteen-eighties, and the release of the album Oranges & Lemons, they’d moved a vast distance from their origins and come remarkably close to being the sort of band that Partridge once said he’d give his right arm to be in.

Actually, the first sonic sampling of the band came a few years earlier when XTC released an EP under the name The Dukes of Stratosphear. Operating under the assumed names Sir John Johns (for Partridge), The Red Curtain (bassist Colin Moulding) and Lord Cornelius Plum (guitarist David Gregory), the group indulged in their every whim of recreating the lush soundscapes of the swirling sixties. Like their revered predecessors, they were creating music that didn’t need to be duplicated in a live setting, allowing them to build in layers upon layers and set the whole thing reeling with an array of studio effects. It was like trying to provide the soundtrack to Heaven, albeit a very particular version of it that existed inside the bubbling colors of a lava lamp. Probably intended as a mere diversion intended to get those musical instincts out of Patridge’s system, the side project instead seems now like the opening salvo in a new direction for the band.

The next record for XTC was 1986’s Skylarking–probably the album that stands as the band’s masterpiece–with producer Todd Rundgren. The album was devlishly delectable and strikingly full-bodied with pop songs so ingeniously constructed it felt like they could venture anywhere and be properly appreciated. Partridge’s sense of songcraft was always strong, but it was beginning to reach a whole other level, defined forcefully by thrilling overtones of endless possibility. There was one more Dukes record on the offing, and then the album that brought all the instincts of the band together.

Running at just about an hour, Oranges & Lemons was released as double album on vinyl. That seemed just right given the album’s leanings back towards the day when coming up with a wild inner gatefold was a vital part of the album cover design process. The music on the record soared and cascaded, pinwheeling luxuriously in an attempt to find its proper place and time. “Garden of Earthly Delights” starts the album out perfectly, sounding like a distillation of everything XTC had ever been. It’s agitated, buoyant and blooming with plush sounds. Partridge’s pointed political opinions show up repeatedly on the album, always couched in pop song grandiloquence, luring in the listener with almost tactile sounds that prevent any of the material from lapsing into unappealing didactic lectures. Partridge may have had fierce things to say, but he never lost sight of the fact that he was trying to say it through song, and his chosen medium required a certain kind of finesse. He had a cautionary tale to tell, but he always knew he was a musician and not a preacher or a politician.

He also wasn’t an elected official, although that’s the metaphor he adopted on the lead single, which is the only XTC song to cross into the Billboard “Hot 100” singles chart. “The Mayor of Simpleton” is as good as a pop single gets, with a slick hook, engrossing beat and exceedingly clever lyrics that make a person feel wittier just by singing along. (Please note that the version of the music video found by clicking the preceding hyperlink is the proper version and worth cherishing for many reasons, chief among them that the Internet is flooded with a different edit that manages to drain most of the humor and charm out of it.) When Partridge sings “Well I don’t know how to write a big hit song,” he’s technically correct, although the band’s relative lack of chart success is more of an indictment of the music industry than any choices XTC ever made. A music business model that can’t make a song like “Mayor of Simpleton” into a massive hit is a model that’s doing something deeply, disastrously wrong.

To a degree, the band members had similar feelings of dismay about the mismanagement by their record company overlords. The group’s uneasy relationship with their label, Virgin Records, reached a boiling point after the release of their next album, 1992’s Nonsuch. Angry over the perceived lack of support for the album, including label indecisiveness over how much to support individual singles, the band asked to be released from their contract. The label bosses denied the request and the band, in turn, refused to record any more music. The impasses lasted several years before Virgin finally gave in. By the time XTC was again releasing new material, the band was largely an afterthought for an alternative music scene that had skyrocketed then exploded on the tainted fuel of grunge rock. Once a cornerstone of college radio, there was no real place for them any longer. There was one more album, and that was it. A final and seemingly irrevocable break-up followed, largely because of disagreements between Partridge and Moulding.

Whatever the squabbles, it also must have felt like their time had simply passed. They’d never fit as neatly into a genre box as the taste-makers wanted and the stratification of music had continued to such a degree that the inability to hang an overly reductive label on the band had to be a further impediment. If the studio is where they’re bound, then its got be disheartening when there are fewer and fewer listeners anxious for the resulting recordings. There’s only so much pleasure in perfect pop if there aren’t people lined up to snap their fingers to the beat.

Previously
Introduction
90-21
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

College Countdown: 90FM’s Top 90 of 1989, 6


6. The Replacements, Don’t Tell a Soul

Earlier this week, in writing about the DC Comics relaunch that had an uncommonly prominent place in the ongoing mass media conversation, Tom Spurgeon noted, “no one does consumer entitlement like a comics fan.” I’ve tangled capes with my fellow four-color fanatics often enough to confirm the accuracy of that statement, but I don’t think that comics fans run away with the title quite as decisively as I suspect Mr. Sturgeon does. I have a feeling he didn’t properly factor Replacements fans into his seedings.

To be accurate, I’m not sure I’d use “consumer entitlement” exactly to describe Replacements fans, but there’s certainly a fervent proprietary feeling toward their band of choice. This almost always couples with a dead certainty that conclusions based on personal taste made when considering the merits of various albums is akin to unshakable, universal truth, a belief system that is the shared province of those for whom buying records is not a casual diversion, but is instead more of an impassioned necessity, an infusion of life force. What’s more, the most beloved records from the Replacements hold a battered beatific inner resonance. A song like “Unsatisfied” cuts to the core every time it’s heard, expressing the roiling dismay and bitter yearning of a misunderstood soul better than anything short of some emotional masterpiece of a genius poet. But the Replacements version is way more fun to shout along with in the dimly lit gloom of a messy bedroom at three in the morning. A new Replacements record stood out because of the expectations of the disciples. Each new collection of songs was supposed to be a fresh dispatch from some hidden self, a ratification of the feelings that throbbed beneath the surface of all who trudge through a monotonous series of dead-end days. Given that, a mediocre album wasn’t a disappointment for a Replacements fan; it was a betrayal of the highest order.

Most Replacements fans, then, could identify the point when the band stopped being great as assuredly as someone recovering from heartbreak could point to a calendar and name the day their world shattered. For some, the Replacements were never The Mats again after they signed to a major label. For others, it was over when guitarist Bob Stinson was booted from the band. I’ve seen brave, hearty souls who argue that the band peaked with 1983’s Hootenanny–their second album, mind you–and that everything that followed should be dismissed because lead singer and chief songwriter Paul Westerberg was interested in making “real” records instead of the reckless sonic slugfests that defined the band early on. While I have no scientific or statistical data to back this up, it’s long seemed to me that the album most often identified as the one that signaled the true end of the Replacements was 1989’s Don’t Tell a Soul.

It certainly represented a clear shift for the band. Working with producer Matt Wallace, then best known for his behind-the-board efforts with Faith No More, which layered a slick, metallic sheen onto the band’s pounding hard rock, the Replacements finally made an album that had no real vestiges of their sloppy past. Even its immediate predecessor, Pleased to Meet Me, could find spots in the track listing for the extended gag “I Don’t Know” and the raging scrum of “Shooting Dirty Pool,” both songs that weren’t all that far removed from the shouts from the id that made up the band’s scattershot debut, Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash. Don’t Tell a Soul, on the other hand, was a concerted, cohesive effort to make a real rock ‘n’ roll album, with no preemptive punts meant to signal that the band didn’t really mean it. If every other Replacements record forestalled failure by operating with a cynically detached tone that communicated an indifference to success, then Don’t Tell a Soul is the true outlier in their catalog by virtue of the fact that it’s their most transparent stab at commercial acceptance. By the evidence of the eleven songs that make up the album, Westerberg and his cohorts were actually trying this time. Hell, the band that made one of the brilliantly hostile and non-conformist music videos ever even stepped before the cameras to lip-sync and feign playing their instruments.

The video in question was for the album’s lead single, the the truly tremendous “I’ll Be You,” which managed to distill the band’s trademark societal disenchantment into something catchy, punchy and fully embraceable. The song, somewhat improbably, became a genuine hit, albeit one that still faced limitations in how fully it crossed over. It was all over MTV and actually managed to top Billboard‘s mainstream rock tracks chart for three weeks. To put the latter in perspective, the next four artists to take that slot after the Replacements were Julian Lennon, Tom Petty, the Doobie Brothers and Stevie Nicks. By and large, this was not company the Replacements regularly kept, although they did spend part of the summer of 1989 opening for Petty on tour, a performing proximity that many felt led to the elder rocker appropriating the “rebel without a clue” turn of phrase from “I’ll Be You” and slipping it into one of his own songs a couple years later.

“I’ll Be You” also managed to become the band’s first song to make into the Billboard “Hot 100” singles chart, peaking at #51. It was also the band’s last appearance there, as nothing else released from Don’t Tell a Soul had the same rocket fuel within it, even for college radio. There were a couple more singles, but they garnered only modest attention. And that was about it for the band. There was one more album with the Replacements name affixed to to it, All Shook Down in 1990, but that was realistically the first Paul Westerberg solo album in every respect but the labeling on the cover. Only one song on that album features the entire band playing together and Westerberg always intended it to be his solo debut; it was the label who saw things differently. In all accuracy, Don’t Tell a Soul is the band’s swan song.

Incidentally, I’m one of those strident, opinionated Replacements fans mentioned above. I believe I’m supposed to have an angry assertion at the ready about when the band sold out or lost their mojo or something like that. But I’m in that group, perhaps a minority, that feels that every official record that bore the band’s name is worth celebrating to some degree. (I reserve my forlorn ire for Westerberg’s solo career, and that particular can should stay firmly sealed and hidden in the worms section of the pantry.) And, even with the studio buffing that so many hate, I think Don’t Tell a Soul is a wonderful album. For one thing, I appreciate the ways in which Westerberg fully committed himself to full-fledged songwriting on the album. I adore many of the throwaways on prior Replacements records, but Westerberg is such a good songwriter that its gratifying to see him put his shoulder into crafting a whole album. Songs like “Asking Me Lies” and “Talent Show” demonstrates that playfulness in the lyrics doesn’t need to undermine the fully thought-out construction of the song. Meanwhile, “We’ll Inherent the Earth” and “Anywhere’s Better Than Here” are characteristically pessimistic statements of purposelessness that don’t extend the act of giving up to the rigors of the song itself.

Given the band’s start as purveyors of sneering punk, some of the most dramatic and surprising moments on Don’t Tell a Soul are the ballads which find Westerberg at his most emotionally open. Many of the band’s best slow songs earlier were couched in the relative safety of romanticized misery. The sadness remains on Don’t Tell a Soul, but it’s deeper, almost existential. Amidst crashing guitars, “Darlin’ One” intermingles hope and loss in way that is piercing. “Rock ‘N’ Roll Ghost” is marked by a bracing level of self-reflection: “You think that I might have heard a word/ But I was much too young/ And much too cool for words/ Look at me now” doesn’t sound like someone just trying to fill up the lyrics sheet with language that reasonably matches the music. And then there’s “Achin’ to Be,” which may be the band’s most poignant moment on record as Westerberg turns his gift for metaphor towards an almost inexpressible emptiness and accompanying separateness from the world: “And she’s kinda like a movie/ Everyone rushes to see/ And no one understands it/ Sittin’ in their seats.” The song is arguably the band’s lifelong theme finally presented in an unguarded manner, with no storm of casually-tuned guitar clatter or withering sense of humor to temper the sorrow. This is what it feels like to feel alone and forever misunderstood, and this is what the feeling sounds like channeled into a song of beautiful pain.

If my evaluation of Don’t Tell a Soul is correct, then it’s no wonder that the album ranks so high on a list based solely upon how well a bunch of college kids connected with it. If anything, the mystery is how it didn’t land higher, and somehow manage to top the list every subsequent year.

Previously
Introduction
90-21
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

College Countdown: 90FM’s Top 90 of 1989, 7


7. Red Hot Chili Peppers, Mother’s Milk

In case there is need for any additional evidence of my general inability to discern and predict which artists that ruled over college radio had the stuff to cross over to the mainstream, I’ll share my certainty that Red Hot Chili Peppers had no real chance away from the understanding embrace of fist-pumping, head-bobbing, twenty-ish broadcasters. The band’s first three albums of aggressive modern funk did little on the major charts, perhaps understandably, even as they helped build up a respectable enough cult following and undoubtedly placed several songs onto cooler-than-thou mix tapes prepared for parties by intense, youthful Music Directors. I can even imagine “True Men Don’t Kill Coyotes” as the song that spurred less understanding party hosts to remove the the cassette the weird kid brought and put G N’ R back on.

When the band’s fourth album was released in the late summer of 1989–positioned to be a fresh, tantalizing record for all those kids coming back to their colleges after long summers of parents insisting that the music be turned down–the music announced a forced reinvention. Founding drummer Jack Irons had left the group, a seemingly significant blow for a band so firmly defined by their torpedoing rhythm parts, although far less so given that other obligations faced by Irons caused him to cede the kit to Cliff Martinez on the band’s first two releases. Besides, there was a more significant and troubling personnel change caused by the heroin overdose death of guitarist Hillel Slovak. Certainly, that sad turn of events left his cohorts rattled, especially lead singer Anthony Kiedis, who was immersed in exactly the same addictions to nearly the same degree.

After aborted attempts with other musicians, the band settled on drummer Chad Smith and guitarist John Frusciante to fill out the line-up, each of them bringing distinctly different brands of musicianship. As the band started working out songs together in the studio, it was quickly clear that the tectonic plates of their sound were going to go through some significant shits. The propulsive funk that machine-gunned out of Flea’s bass was cut in a different way by the Satriani-evoking metallic guitar lines that Frusciante laid down. As heard on a song like “Johnny, Kick a Hole in the Sky,” Red Hot Chili Peppers had a new, tougher edge (and they were never especially sedate before) that had the potential to bring a entirely different set of music fans into their sphere.

Mother’s Milk was the album that resulted from all this tumult. As surprising as it was at the time, it now sounds clearly like a band committing themselves to reexamination and reinvention. It’s ragged and fairly fearless. The label and producer Michael Beinhorn were reportedly pushing the band to record a hit, which the members didn’t especially appreciate. A lot of the record sounds like an effort to actively subvert that desire for success. The music isn’t abstract by any means, but it does often have the feel of a band that’s happily, ruthlessly experimenting, figuring out how far they can rush down an oddball byways before some authority figure comes along and ushers them back. “Now now, boys, you may have had fun recording ‘Magic Johnson,’ but let’s get back to the business of making music that might get played on the radio, shall we?”

Despite the willful weirdness, the album does have impressive examples of shrewd songcraft. The lead single, “Knock Me Down,” was arguably one of the sharpest, most focuses songs the Peppers had released by that point. It was also clearly personal and open in a way that was fairly new for the band, probably best known up to that point for playing live wearing nothing but tube socks placed on parts of the body for which they weren’t originally designed. The song addressed drug use in a fairly straightforward manner, alluding to Slovak’s death while also pleading for help in avoiding the same fate. Message aside, the song builds and churns in an enticing way, locking a couple different great hooks together. For the second single, the band was able to lean on the expertise of Stevie Wonder, covering his song “Higher Ground.” Still, the Peppers impressively made it their own. To a degree, simply proving that they could adeptly perform a complicated song by one of the acknowledged geniuses of pop music was a feat that established how far the band had come and how far they might be able to go if they added a little more discipline to their approach.

Of course, I was wrong about the level of mainstream adoration Red Hot Chili Peppers could inspire. Their very next album, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, produced the sort of smash hit single that a band can live off of for the rest of their collective career. That hit may have a sort of moony earnestness that wasn’t easy to see coming from the band, but Mother’s Milk had already proved that they were creatively restless enough to continually shift the boundaries of their music. Had I thought about it that way, it would have made perfect sense.

Previously
Introduction
90-21
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