College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #908 to #905

bears rise

908. The Bears, Rise and Shine (1988)

Rise and Shine was the second album from the Bears, a group guitarist Adrian Belew assembled when King Crimson went on hiatus. At the time, Belew had a reasonably healthy solo career and a resume dotted with highly valued stints with iconic acts such as Frank Zappa, David Bowie, and Talking Heads. Presumably, he could have pursued just about any creative avenue he wanted in rock music, and what he wanted was a truly collaborative band focused on songcraft. Joined by musicians from the relatively obscure Cincinnati-based band the Raisins (who Belew had produced at one time), Belew formed the Bears and landed a contract with Primitive Man Recording Company, a subsidiary of I.R.S. Records.

The egalitarian vibe is clear from Belew’s conviction to just another part of the combo. His wickedly warped guitar heroics are deployed sparingly — such as the burst of fevered squall at the end of the quite funk workout “Rabbit Manor” — in favor of solid, unpretentious tracks pitched clearly at the college radio market. There are still doses of weirdness here and there, surely a result of Belew’s curious tinkering in the studio (the album was recorded in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, essentially Belew’s home base at the time). Trilling sonic trickery subtly simulates ambient sounds from a primeval forest on “Save Me,” taking its cue from opening lines “I was a monkey dancing in the trees/ Out where the jungle used to be/ Before the lumber company/ Took my home away from me.”

As the environmental theme of “Save Me” indicates, Rise and Shine finds Belew and his cohorts joining in the social discourse. Released in the closing months of the Reagan era, the album is awash in the leftward politics of the day, agitating for enlightenment. “Robobo’s Beef” refutes attempts to impose motives of villainy onto other nations and people, but it also makes its point with such flat-footed literalism (“If you watch the news on TV/ It’s enough to make you sick/ Think we need a new solution/ Think we better find it quick”) that it comes close to Sting at his most geopolitically tedious. At least the argument is clear. Sometimes the direct language of the lyrics still can’t rescue a song from inscrutability, leading to the cryptic and the didactic to become intertwined. On “Old Fat Cadillac,” Belew sings, “‘So, Mr. President/ Whatcha doing?,’ I propose to say/ About this fallout business/ Raining all over our parade.” It’s puzzling, but the preacher-lite raving about the titular vehicle anticipates the carnival barker rock star tomfoolery of Jack White.

The single “Aches and Pains” plays like a less restless version of a Dave Edmunds song, making it one of the most successful realizations of the Bears’ mission of creating fine, straightforward pop songs. But I also find plenty of appeal in moments of goofball invention on Rise and Shine, like “Highway 2,” a throwaway play on Kenny Loggins’s “Danger Zone.” And I will surely never be able to parse the meaning of “Complicated Potatoes,” but there’s a clear, happy sense that the band is following their shared muse with a blithe fearlessness.

 

 

dregs earth

907. Dixie Dregs, Dregs of the Earth (1980)

It’s sort of remarkable that it took until their fourth full-length release for the Dixie Dregs to use the most obvious album title at their disposal. Dregs of the Earth was the Georgia band’s first outing on Arista Records, which they’d jumped to after their previous label, Capricorn Records, filed for bankruptcy. Led and produced by guitarist Steve Moore, Dixie Dregs made a careening mashup of all the styles of seventies rock music. It’s hard to say how good of a finished product they came up with, but it’s definitely of the era.

Comprised entirely of instrumentals, the album sometimes feels as though the Dixe Dregs are mostly committed to coming up with material that can be easily used as soun beds for other projects. Any given thirty seconds of the mid tempo “Twiggs Approved” could have been culled from to provide the theme music to a late night talk show hosted by a cool, up-and-coming comedian. If NBC had scrapped Pink Lady and Jeff and instead given Jeff Altman the slot after Tom Snyder’s The Tomorrow Show, the opening titles would have sounded like this.

The tracks on Dregs of the Earth are mostly fairly compact, but the infectious sprawl facilitated by album rock pomposity sometimes gets the better of the band, “Hereafter” is just redundant enough to feel as endless as the afterlife, and “Old World” seems like it was crafted specifically for closing time at the Ren Fair. At nine minutes and change, “I’m Freaking Out” is all the traits of southern rock, prog rock, and fusion jazz plopped into one boiling stew of crazy.

Although this all seemed pitched right into the wheelhouse of rock record buyers, Dregs of the Earth apparently didn’t stir commercial appeal in accordance with the band’s hopes. By the time of their next record, the band had changed their name to simply the Dregs, believing it would help them find a larger audience. They evidently didn’t have a clear view of what might be holding them back.

 

 

ono milk

906. John Lennon/Yoko Ono, Milk and Honey (1984)

Milk and Honey was released in January of 1984, a little more than three years after John Lennon was shot and killed outside his New York City home. Assembled by his widow, Yoko Ono, from material he’d been working on shortly before his murder, the album was a spiritual sequel to the 1980 comeback effort Double Fantasy. As was the case with its predecessor, Milk and Honey was a collaborative affair between Lennon and Ono, alternating between his post-Beatle adult pop and her deconstructionist art rock. Taken as a whole, it traces the ways in which artistic discord and alignment can be mere threads apart.

Lennon’s half of the album is loose and a little loopy, obviously comprised of early takes that may have gone through steps of refinement before being pronounced ready. There’s no guarantee, however, that Lennon would have kept buffing them into shape, since he’d long been inclined to preserve his most spontaneous moments. The cartoonish scatting on “Borrowed Time,” for example, sounds like filler. If it is, it’s easy to imagine Lennon recognizing its playful charm and keeping the scattered syllable in place on the finished product. I’d like to think he would have eventually decided “Grow Old with Me” was pure schmaltz and moved it to the discard bin, but he was hardly immune from gladly hurling that kind of material into the world across his career.

More than most, Lennon and Ono always did seem to be cracking themselves wide open when they created music. They set their shared and individual memoirs to music. “I’m Stepping Out” is about Lennon’s time as a househusband, and “I Don’t Wanna Face It” explicates his mixed emotions as a curmudgeonly activist (“You wanna save humanity/ But it’s people that you just can’t stand”). Ono’s tilt toward the odd can initially make it more difficult to find the biography, but this insomniac recognizes the tale she’s spinning on “Sleepless Night.” Working in feeling and impression rather than more literal expressions of information doesn’t automatically make a song more distant from the truth.

As was clear at the time of its release, Milk and Honey was the final studio statement of Lennon, one of the most important songwriters of the rock era. That imposed a tremendous burden on the release. Everyone wanted to find a meaningful closing statement, a track that would encapsulate all Lennon had said before and perhaps hint at the future perspectives criminally snuffed from the world. The single “Nobody Told Me” meets that impossible expectation just well enough. Wry, observant, a little mischievous, irresistibly catchy, and quietly reverberating with personality, the track was originally written for Ringo Starr, but it feels rightly at home in Lennon’s land. If nothing else, “Everybody’s smokin’/ And no one’s gettin’ high,” that last word delivered in a cheerful falsetto, is everything endearing about Lennon’s creative outlook in a few buoyant seconds. He shines on.

 

soul while

905. Soul Asylum, While You Were Out (1986)

Soul Asylum wasn’t a well-known band in 1986, but they made sure there was plenty of music available for the faithful. Including the B-sides and random bits collection Time’s Incinerator (available on cassette only), the Minneapolis band released three different albums during the calendar year. While You Were Out was the final member of the trio and Soul Asylum’s last before jumping to major label A&M Records. Understandably, then, the album is brash, headlong, and mildly undistinguished.

The band bashes away at the songs like the power is likely to be cut at any second. “Freaks” is a steady march of fab hard rock clatter, and “No Man’s Land” sounds a little like the more muscular R.E.M. found on the same year’s Lifes Rich Pageant. Betraying their civic roots. “Miracle Mile” comes close to merely aping the punk tunefulness of Hüsker Dü. If the band is sometimes a little simple, seemingly plowing ahead with the first notion that comes into their heads, they’re at least always earnest about it. There’s nothing all that profound or defiant about the message of rejecting outside criticism found on “The Judge” (“Not that I care what you think of me/ But I hear every word that you say/ And I can’t let you misjudge me that way”), but the outcast empowerment of it undoubtedly sounded great in the confines of a dingy Midwestern club.

Although most of While You Were Out is Soul Asylum in their brash development stage, “Closer to the Stars” offers the clearest forecast of the band that would eventually crossover: yearning, achingly sincere, a little simplistic, offering rock that managed to be ragged and polished at once. Whether the song is good or not is immaterial. Listening to the track, it’s clear this is a band that has a least one hit in them.

 

 

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #912 to #909

palmer clues

912. Robert Palmer, Clues (1980)

Emerging as a solo performer in the midst of the nineteen-seventies, Robert Palmer was one of the British singers touted for his soulful vocalizations. Arguably, there was no better path to U.S. commercial success for a U.K. rocker than instilling straightforward rock songs with a little blues styling, and Palmer followed that path with studied conviction. At the dawn of the eighties, though, practically every artist with a few records under their belt was compelled to try on the sonic variations present in new wave music. On the evidence of his album Clues, the venture into the insurgent pop form exposed some shortcomings.

“Looking for Clues,” the opening track and one of the album’s singles, has unmistakable new wave sizzle, which winds up overwhelming Palmer’s vocals. They sound remarkably thin and have only the most meager amount of personality. Similarly, “Found You Now” is, I think, meant to be a vocal of bluesy yearning, but it mostly sounds like shouting. Nothing reverberates with spirit or authority. The vocals are echoes of echoes until they may as well be a timid whisper.

Palmer produced the album himself, but often seems confused about the best way to showcase the material. His voice keeps getting swamped out by the music, which isn’t interesting enough to justify its prominence. “What Do You Care” has some of the musical assurance of early Elvis Costello, but lacking the erudition that truly set those songs apart. The disco slither of “Johnny and Mary” is a little interesting, at least in the way it anticipates the odd German synthpop of Peter Schilling and others. The cover of Gary Numan’s “I Dream of Wires” is far more characteristic. It’s notably watered down, despite the fact that Numan himself pitches in on keyboards.

Clues, unsurprisingly, was something of a commercial setback for Palmer. Its singles barely registered on the U.S charts, and the album fared more poorly than its immediate predecessors. Within a few years, though, Palmer cracked the code of MTV-era chart success in a big way.

 

everything love

911. Everything But the Girl, Love Not Money (1985)

Love Not Money was the sophomore full-length from purveyors of elegant pop Everything But the Girl. Although sharing the same title and a very similar track list, it still found the the duo’s labels on either side of the Atlantic — Blanco y Negro in the U.K. and Sire in the U.S. — adopting slightly different philosophies as to what was likely to stir the interest of the listening public. The band’s proper debut, Eden, was originally issued in the U.S., as Sire instead opted to pull a half dozen tracks from it, jumble them with some stray singles and B-sides, and put them all out as self-titled album.

Most of Love Not Money was carried straight over, but Sire proved an ongoing wavering confidence when they added a somewhat flaccid cover of the Pretenders’ “Kid” right in the middle of the record, hoping the familiarity would help, especially since lead singer Tracey Thorn’s vocals bore a resemblance to the deep warmth of Chrissie Hynde’s original singing. Maybe the kids would get confused enough to dig deeper into the richly produced material Everything But the Girl offered up.

Everything But the Girl was already celebrated for their jazzy stylings that buffed out the aggressive bleats and kept the low lounge light seduction. Love Not Money retains that at points — notably in the silky swoon of “Shoot Me Down” — but Love Not Money adds some textures. The jauntiness found on “When All’s Well” and “Are You Trying to Be Funny” reaches such a headlong pace by “Anytown” that Everything But the Girl almost start to seem like kindred souls to the Smiths. And they add a mildly militaristic march beat to “Ugly Little Dreams,” befitting its depiction of society as a war waged against women that can never quite be won; “It’s a battlefield, Frances/ You fight or concede/ Victory to the enemy/ Who call your strength insanity.”

Despite Sire’s efforts to reconfigure the record (or maybe partially because of them), Love Not Money made barely a blip in the U.S., apart from college radio. It would take years — and a jump to Atlantic Records — before Everything But the Girl generated a significant hit in the States. When it happened, though, it made quite an impact.

 

honey one

910. The Honeydrippers, Volume 1 (1984)

The debut EP from the Honeydrippers is the pure definition of a vanity project, except perhaps that the vanity in question was not that of anyone actually in the band. The supergroup was essentially assembled to do the bidding of Atlantic Records label head Ahmet Ertegün, who reportedly wanted to hear new versions of some of his favorite hits from the nineteen-fifties. Where others would have little more than an adequate wedding band at their disposal, Ertegün had a roster of rock ‘n’ roll titans. Robert Plant had already been performing the odd gig with a backing band he called the Honeydrippers, mostly to stir his bygone fandom juices as he prepared to work on solo material. Ertegün saw them play and urged them to make a recording. An EP of covers, optimistically dubbed Volume 1, was the result.

Apparently, Ertegün wasn’t the only one who wanted to hear stuff like this on the radio in the mid-nineteen-eighties. The group’s dutiful cover of “Sea of Love” made it all the way to #3 on the Billboard chart, outperforming any of the singles of Plant’s former band, the revered Led Zeppelin. This outcome appalled Plant, who envisioned his stock as a rock god singer diminishing (and it probably didn’t amuse the amazing roster of guitarists on the EP, including Jeff Beck and Plant’s Led Zep cohort Jimmy Page, suddenly reduced to adequate session men). He was correct to be dismayed because the track is painfully drab, anticipating the grotesquely disengaged mangling of pop standards that would define the backend of Rod Stewart’s career. A take on “Good Rockin’ at Midnight” is the only song on Volume 1 that’s even palatable, mostly because Plant’s vocal calisthenics — as if he’s trying hard to keep himself engaged — have some charm.

Understandably, Volume 2 never arrived. Except for the odd charity gig, the Honeydrippers were buried, their indifferent raids of bygone classics blessedly abandoned.

 

big songs

909. Big Black, Songs About Fucking (1987)

Thirty years after the released of Big Black’s album Songs About Fucking, guitarist and vocalist Steve Albini summed up the band’s goal simply and clearly to Rolling Stone.

“We wanted to make filthy music,” he said.

They unquestionably accomplished that. Albini and his bandmates — bassist Dave Riley and guitarist Santiago Durango — were offering a direct response to the insurgent Parents’ Music Resource Council, which was lambasting the record labels for daring to release records that mentioned masturbation and other taboo subjects. It was Albini who cooked up the title Songs About Fucking, essentially reasoning that there was a time when practically all of rock ‘n’ roll could reasonably be described that way. They were merely carrying on a time-tested tradition.

The material on Songs About Fucking indulges lustily in carnal clatter, although usually through insinuation rather than direct lyrical bawdiness. The filth is arguably more present in the music. Beginning with the buzzy fervor of “The Power of Independent Trucking,” Big Black blasts through punk songs that add a layer of sonic soot to the headlong charge. The fierce back and forth of “Bad Penny” forecasts the industrial assaults of Ministry, but with an injection of punk rock discipline, and the jackhammer guitar punches of “L Dopa” are thrilling.

“Kitty Empire” is all slither and snarl, and its runtime at just over four minutes practically makes it prog rock epic by punk band terms. “Fish Fry” couches its ultraviolence — in the lyrics, mirrored by the racing engine music — in the banality of the traditional, highly unhealthy dinner used to end the work week across the Midwest. It’s a simply trick, but a good one, adding yet more friction to an album already giving off a cascade of white hot sparks.

The protest of Songs About Fucking was deeply satisfying to the members of Big Black, undoubtedly accentuated by the fact they knew it was their last hurrah. Durango was also dead set on starting law school in the the fall of 1987, an act he saw a duty to his immigrant family that had sacrificed much for him. With one-third of the band stepping away, it seemed wrong to continue.

“This is our vocabulary, the three of us,” Albini said on the occasion of the band’s final shows, performed shortly before Songs About Fucking was released. “If we tried to plug someone in when Santa left and called it Big Black, it would be katastrof!”

 

 

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

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #916 to #913

babys jacks

916. Babys, Union Jacks (1980)

Union Jacks, the fourth album by the U.K. rock band the Babys, was the first one they recorded fully without founding member Michael Corby. The guitarist/keyboard player was ousted during the recording process for the preceding studio effort, Head First, released in early 1979. After adding two new members to the roster — keyboardist Jonathan Cain and bassist Ricky Phillips — the band went into the studio with producer Keith Olsen, fresh off Foreigner’s Double Vision and Santana’s Marathon. The Babys were clearly aiming for a certain slicked-up rock sound. They definitely got it.

Album opener “Back on My Feet Again” is pure cheese, declaring a revived endurance befitting a band that’s endured some personnel tumult. The guitar lines sound as if they’re coated in shellac and the keyboard flit in and out like birds chirping through a vocoder. Lead singer John Waite preens his way through the vocals, practically every emotionally intense twist of his head somehow coming through. Whether great or awful (and I’ll admit I can land on either assessment, depending on when I hear it), the track is absolutely of the era. Released as a single, it became the third and final Top 40 hit in the U.S.

The rest of the album is largely most of the same, big rock tracks that gleam and shimmer and don’t leave a mark. The jabbing drum beats and waterfall synth lines on “In Your Eyes” at least provide a little different texture, but that’s a rarity. More tracks adhere to the model of “Anytime,” which is a more plodding version of what the Kings were doing at about the same time, and “Midnight Rendezvous” which was featured in the ribald comedy Up the Academy, dually notable for its positioning as the first cinematic effort associated with Mad magazine and standing as a rare instance of director Robert Downey, Sr. trying to play nice with a major studio. The latter track is one of the stronger cuts, but it also betrays Waite’s propensity for inane bluntness when he growls “I really wanna fuck you” on the fade out.

In general, they lyrics are the most consistently regrettable part of Union Jacks. On the mid-tempo “True Love Confession,” Waite sings, “I try to call ya/ But I only get your service/ You’re the Playmate of the Year/ So I guess that I deserve it.” That garbled nonsense is still superior to the words in the incredibly bizarre “Jesus, Are You There?,” in which Waite’s religious questing manifests as requests for help paying the rent, getting a girl, and being taken “on a cruise around the world.” There’s a clear oversight in the litany of prayers. Waite and his compatriots mainly needed heavenly assistance with their songwriting.

 

 

Grateful Go

915. Grateful Dead, Go to Heaven (1980)

Even among their most faithful fans, the Grateful Dead long had a reputation for transcendent live shows (abetted by plentiful pharmaceutical and herbal enhancements, of course) and studio albums that are mediocre at best. When it came to the efforts crafted in the recording studio, the blasé wasn’t always merited. American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead, both released in 1970, are sturdy as can be, and even later, more uneven efforts, such as From the Mars Hotel, have their charms. But, man alive, when the Grateful Dead records are bad, they are brutally bad. Go to Heaven is bad.

Go to Heaven peaks with opening track “Alabama Getaway,” a satisfying, straight-ahead song that approaches rock ‘n’ roll purity, up to and including a runtime that stretches just a few seconds over three-and-a-half minutes. Though hardly the only instance of economy on the record, it’s absolutely the first and last time the band is tight and focused. Even the thirty-seven second track “Antwerp’s Placebo (The Plumber),” an experimental goof officially co-written by drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, feels like it goes on forever, its indulgence as unpleasant as a summer cold. When the band actually stretches out, as on the nearly seven-minute “Althea,” the drowsy quality of the track becomes unbearable.

Go to Heaven was the first album with keyboardist/vocalist Brent Mydland, and he contributes two songs, the Queen-on-heavy-barbiturates “Far From Me” and the tinkling “Easy to Love You.” Neither is particularly distinguished, but the new guy does better than the venerable Bob Weir. With his usual songwriting partner, John Perry Barlow, Weir contributes the most immediately loathsome material. “Feel Like a Stranger” is so aimless that it’s barely a song, and “Lost Sailor” sounds like the band is trying to singlehandedly invent, perfect, and bury soft rock.

 

As with other maligned examples of the band’s studio output, there have been overtures in recent years to reevaluate Go to Heaven, casting the material in a more favorable light. Successful or not as those efforts may be, there’s one aspect of the record that is unlikely to ever escape scorn.

“It plays better now than it did back then,” Kreutzmann once said. “That’s still no excuse for the cover, though – all six of us, dressed all in white disco suits against a white background.”

 

neil comes

914. Neil Young, Comes a Time (1978)

Following a small string of albums that likely confused his audience — including the complicated Zuma and the crazy stew of American Stars ‘n Bars — Neil Young returned to the homespun folk-rock that characterized the biggest hit of his solo career, the 1972 album Harvest. If it was a gambit, it worked. Comes a Time was Young first album since Harvest to climb into the Top 5 on the Billboard album chart. As it happened, though, the person who bought the most copies of Comes a Time was Young himself.

The original master tape of the album got damaged (Young recalled to Rolling Stone that “it went through the airport or something”) and Young approved the tape for final pressing without realizing the problem. Once he listened to it, he realized the high frequencies were missing. Since he signed off on the records being made, but he couldn’t stand the thought of inferior product being sold under his name, Young made an agreement with his record label to purchase 200,000 copies of the album so they could start over. He reportedly used the vinyl to shingle the roof of a barn on his property.

“I don’t like throwing money around,” Young said. “But I wasn’t going to have this album circulating around the world in bad quality.”

The songs on Comes a Time are gentle and intricate, reflecting the more meditative side of Young. “I know things are gonna change/ But I can’t say bad or good,” he sings on “Look Out for My Love,” and that about sums it up. There’s a similar neighborly simplicity to “Field of Opportunity,” which the farming life as a metaphor for relationships (“”There ain’t no way of telling/ Where these seeds/ Will rise or when/ I’ll just wait/ Around ’til springtime/ And then, I’ll find a friend”). Or maybe it’s completely literal. That would be in keeping with the album’s fuss-free vibe.

The pleasant amble “Four Strong Winds” became a minor hit for Young (peaking at #61, it was his first song to appear on the Billboard Hot 100 in four years), but it was another song that made a significant impact on the charts, albeit not in his version. Nicolette Larson, who contributed harmony vocals on a couple tracks, took Young’s “Lotta Love,” spruced it up, and put it right at the top of her 1978 debut album, Nicolette. Released as a single, it made it all the way into the U.S. Top 10.

 

 

smiths rank

913. The Smiths, Rank (1988)

The Smiths were in ruins when the live album Rank was released. The relationship between lead singer Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr, which had long ago strayed far from the convivial, soured to such a degree that the two couldn’t stand speaking to each other, a rift that continues to this day. They still owed their label an album, so a concert previously aired on BBC1 Radio was dragged out. Morrissey excised some of the band’s best loved songs from the final track list. “How Soon is Now?,” as prime example, was performed that night, but was left off Rank. And it seems to me that Johnny Marr’s guitar is suspiciously low in the mix on the album, but I could be mistaken.

As captured on the record, much of the live performance is dutiful, or even aggressively disinterested. “Ask” is introduced as the band’s new single, but Morrissey already seems bored with it, overenunciating some words and slopping others out. He engages in other vocal tomfoolery on other songs, such as the growl that tuns into a gargle on “Still Ill” Rather than give the material a loose immediacy, it undercuts the strength of songs. The output of the Smiths is too strong to be trashed completely by onstage sabotage (the punk drive of “London” works especially well in the live setting), but it’s telling when Morrissey is actual alert to the moment, as when the band segues from a cover of Elvis Presley’s “His Latest Flame” into “Rusholme Ruffians.” By most accounts, Morrissey’s insistence on covering old pop hits was the final straw that broke Marr’s back, so the lead singer’s evident pleasure at aping the King makes sense. Even then, it’s more a curiosity than an instance of album suddenly, briefly getting good.

The title Rank comes from British slang for masturbation, a compromise Morrissey settled on after the label rejected his original choice: The Smiths in Heat. There’s another definition of the word, straight from the dictionary, that also suits the album. Rank stinks.

 

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

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #920 to #917

plant pictures

920. Robert Plant, Pictures at Eleven (1982)

Realistically, there might not have been much time left for Led Zeppelin, even before tragedy arrived in the form of drummer John Bonham’s demise. Although the band released albums at a steady clip throughout the nineteen-seventies (though no one was championing the likes of Presence or In Through the Out Door as on par with Led Zeppelin’s earlier, highly influential work), by the end of the decade they hadn’t toured in several years, in large part because of a cascade of misfortune that began when lead singer Robert Plant’s five-year-old son, Karac, died unexpectedly.

After Bonham died, the dissolution of Led Zeppelin was formally announced within three months. Already no stranger to mourning, Plant initially retreated, taking solace in family and connecting with his former bandmates from time to time in order to weigh in on the stray material that would make up the contractually obligated final Led Zeppelin album, Coda. Plant eventually started venturing out, developing a backing band he dubbed the Honeydrippers and playing small shows. Finding a symbiotic relationship with guitarist Robbie Blunt — who’d toiled with several bands of middling renown, such as Bronco and Stan Webb’s Chicken Shack — Plant began working on the songs that eventually made up Pictures at Eleven, his solo debut.

The shadow of his former band was formidably long and therefore difficult to escape, but Plant did his damnedest to forge a new sound. He obviously couldn’t — and perhaps didn’t want to — cast aside the legacy completely. “Slow Dancer” comes close to the familiar Led Zeppelin bluesy murk, and “Like I’ve Never Been Gone” effortlessly recalls the band’s pretentious balladry. The vocals might have had the familiar screeching steel effect, but Blunt, while capable, was no Jimmy Page. The distance between the two guitarists is at its most evident when tracks strain toward the epic, such as “Worse than Detroit,” a decent three minute rock song that lasts six minutes.

It’s more interesting when Plant ventures into unfamiliar — and creatively risky — territory, even when he’s not wholly successful. “Burning Down One Side” tries to bridge the gap between seventies hard rock and eighties new wave, but Plant’s keening vocals are an ill fit with the tinny music. Better is “Pledge Pin,” which derives a lot of its off-kilter charm from a rubbery rhythm. A big rock star awash in riches and tailed by an enduring audience that wanted little more than rehashes of past glories, Plant had little motivation to drastically transform himself for a new era. The intriguing fringes of Pictures of Eleven suggest it could have been exciting if he’d undergone the shift anyway.

 

 

shriekback jam

919. Shriekback, Jam Science (1984)

In the mid-nineteen-eighties, bands were still susceptible to accusations of selling out, merely for taking the established steps of upward mobility that were afforded them in their chosen profession. For all the aspirations toward pure artistry, these musicians were still trying to make a living. It’s noble to scrape together shifts at the chip shop to subsidize time with guitars, keyboards, mates, and a recording studio, but it’s surely nicer to pay the bills with robustly paying gigs and record sales.

With their sophomore full-length release, Jam Science, London-based band Shriekback carried the whole story of treacherous commercial aspiration within one album. Well, it was actually two albums. A major part of the stark contrast between prickly iconoclasm and aspirational acquiescence was contained in the existence of two versions of Jam Science. The first was released by the independent label Y Records, the band’s original home, in part because of aggravation that Shriekback had jumped ship to the big leagues by signing to Arista Records. Consisting of unpolished studio material and released without the band’s consent, the Y Records pressing of Jam Science was almost literally a parting shot, among the final releases from a small label in the process of folding.

Released several months later, the Arista Records version of Jam Science is burnished by era-specific studio polish, the jagged edges of earlier Shriekback material buffed away in favor of devilish electronic pop pitched precisely for the dance floor. To illustrate how close the band might have been to cuddly crossover, “Achtung” sounds a little like INXS’s “Need You Tonight” if it never made the pivot into rock song territory. Similarly, the restive “Mercy Dash” and the zombie disco of “Under the Lights” are made for the coolest club at the crumbling outer edge of a flattened planet. They’re hardly hits in waiting, but they have a sparking energy that anticipate a version of Top 40 radio that is as exciting as it is improbable.

The material on Jam Science is also a little too viscously eerie to expect it ever could have transcended Shriekback’s already cemented cult hero status. “Hand on My Heart” was a minor dance hit, but it is airy and spooky, as likely to clear a floor as it is to send people scurrying to its flashing lights. There a hint of Robyn Hitchcock’s loopy menace to “My Careful Hands,” and “Suck” is brash and cacophonous, fading out just as it becomes a mild endurance test. If Shriekback was trying to deliver a hit to their new label — and at the time they acknowledged they were — they were admirably holding on to some of their creatively combative instincts in the process. That might not have been good business, but it make for fine music.

 

 

bruce Nebraska

918. Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska (1982)

“These songs were the opposite of the rock music I’d been writing,” Bruce Springsteen recalled in Born to Run, his 2016 memoir. “They were restrained, still on the surface, with a world of moral ambiguity and unease below. The tension running through the music’s core was the thin line between stability and that moment when the things that connect you to your world, your job, your family, your friends, the love and grace in your heart, fail you.”

The songs he refers to are those that largely made up Nebraska, the album that completely refuted every bit of the legend he’d spent a decade cultivating, including the booming rock sound as big as the stadiums he was finally beginning to play, following the breakthrough success of his 1980 double album, The River. An artist who made records of painstaking polish, Springsteen opted to build Nebraska out of recordings intended to be nothing more than slightly more robust demos. He recorded most of it in a single session with his guitar tech, Mike Batlan, at the controls of a newly purchased Teac Tascam 144 four-track cassette recorder. Springsteen’s bedroom was set up as a makeshift studio. According to Springsteen lore, he labored to make the songs work with the E Street band, recording full studio versions with mounting dissatisfaction before deciding the original, starkly performed material on the cassette was what he wanted to release.

On Nebraska, the romanticized American dream Springsteen previously peddled — in which even the setbacks were marked with aching poetry — was subsumed by a vision of a land broken beyond repair and citizens staring down an impenetrable brick wall that stretched to the clouds. The death traps and suicide raps were triumphant. Emphasizing the redrawn map, the album opens with two songs that take titles from geography: “Nebraska” and “Atlantic City,” the former borrowing details from the killing spree of Charles Starkweather and the latter mirroring a decaying city in a depiction of inescapable personal dismay (“Well, I got a job and I put my money away/ But I got debts that no honest man can pay”). These are problems that can’t be outrun.

Throughout his long, vaunted career, Springsteen’s rock god showmanship often operated at odds with his songwriting, obscuring the insight with bombast, either in the accompanying musicianship or in his tendency to render emotion in swooping bands of paint rather than tender intricacy. Nebraska counters that, revealing and accentuating the poignancy that was always embedded in Springsteen’s work, just sometimes too deeply to notice under the sax solos and paeans to motoring through the night. In a more typical Springsteen rendering, “Mansion on the Hill” could be trite, “Used Cars” too jokey, “My Father’s House” unbearably maudlin. Stripped to the studs, the songs are brutally powerful.

Springsteen, too, found his way to telling others’ stories in a manner largely new to him. Even when he was projecting himself onto a New Jersey life he’d never have, his previous songs largely stayed in a safe zone of rock ‘n’ roll feeling and variants on realized or dashed love familiar from countless pop hits of eras past. There’s a grimly determined novelist present on Nebraska, finding universal truths in narratives of striking specificity. When Sean Penn later adapted “Highway Patrolman” into a feature film, the choice felt as a natural as taking a short story from page to screen.

At the time, Nebraska was well-regarded, but also seen as an odd diversion, straying dangerously from an established sound finally connecting with wider audiences. The River yielded Springsteen’s first Top 10 hit and landed him back-to-back Top 40 singles for the first time. The material on Nebraska was drastically far-removed from that which was just starting to click. On the album charts, though, Nebraska was a reasonable hit, peaking at #3, and both its singles received solid airplay on rock radio. And Springsteen’s next album was Born in the U.S.A., a true blockbuster that decisively proved he hadn’t hurt his momentum one bit.

 

 

surfers pussyhorse

917. Butthole Surfers, Rembrandt Pussyhorse (1986)

A band that opts for the name Butthole Surfers clearly isn’t overly concerned about cowing to the strictures of commercial success. Upon the release of the band’s sophomore album, Rembrandt Pussyhorse, it was still an open question for some college radio stations as to whether or not the group could be plainly identified on the air with incurring the wrath of the FCC. “Pussyhorse” wasn’t great, either.

Aligned with that disregard for propriety, Rembrandt Pussyhorse is downright prankish in its abrasive experimentalism. The ridiculous cover of the Guess Who’s “American Woman” is the ideal representation of the album’s inner being (and I’ll bet it was the most played track on college radio), offering reluctant hints on the familiar that are roughly eradicated by sonically ugly studio effects, ruthlessly manipulated vocals, and rampant deconstructionist tomfoolery. Butthole Surfers, it seems clear, don’t care if anyone actually like this stuff, but they want the listeners who opt out to feel like overly squeamish quitters.

The album is a series of patience-triers of oscillating difficulty level. “Sea Ferring” sounds like a gothic horror story yanked through a post-post-post-punk filter (“Like it or not/ You’ll scream again, again, again”), and “Strangers Die Everyday” is the song played ceaselessly on the Baldwin Bravura located in the rotating center of Hell’s waiting room. “Perry,” which adds lyrics to a warped version of the Perry Mason TV theme song, is at least interesting as the incubator from which King Missile emerged. Listening to all of this, it is absolutely mind-boggling that Butthole Surfers would land themselves a Top 40 single one decade later

 

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

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #924 to #921

nils

924. The Nils, The Nils (1987)

Formed in Montreal in the late nineteen-seventies, the Nils were perfectly poised to infiltrate college radio when their self-titled debut album was released. With nearly ten years under their guitar straps, the Nils had a professional polish that couldn’t be faked, and they played earnest, well-built rock songs that recalled the likes of Let’s Active and just about any of the Minneapolis outfits that rattled left of the dial playlists. On a track like “River of Sadness,” they showed they could even adopt just enough R.E.M. jangle to add texture to their heavier, more conventional rock ‘n’ roll base.

There isn’t a staggering amount of depth to the tracks on The Nils“Wicked Politician” offers commentary that get no more insightful than the song’s title, which is only underscored by a bland guitar grind that anticipates Pearl Jam at their most slack self-satisfaction. Most of the time, though, the fuss-free verve of the band amply compensates, bolstered by the clean, robust production of Chris Spedding. On “Truce” and “In Betweens,” they approach the punchy, boisterous brand of rock that Soul Asylum eventually spun into gold.

Like a lot of band before and since, the Nils suffered from severe mismanagement by their record label. Signed to Rock Hotel, a newly formed subsidiary of Frontier Records that was investing heavily in punk bands, the Nils quickly found their corporate overlords were drastically short on cash. This dire situation was in spite of the fact that the premier act of Frontier, Run-D.M.C., was in the midst of going triple platinum with their latest record. A worldwide tour in support of The Nils was scuttled midway through the band was left stranded with no financial support. But they also couldn’t extricate themselves from a smothering contract that obligated delivery of seven albums before the band should shop around for different options.

“It was a crime,” bassist Carlos Soria reflected many years later. “We had other labels that wanted to sign us, like Reprise, Combat and Relativity, but it took so long that they went with other bands. When we finally got our release, Kurt Cobain had just died.”

For band leader Alex Soria — Carlos’s brother — the outcome was even bleaker. Idle and distraught over the stasis of a band he’d spend a decade building up, Soria began self-medicating with drugs. By the time the band was freed from their contract, the wounds were too deep. Several years later, while in the midst of working on new material, Soria took his own life by stopping his car on the train tracks in the path of an oncoming locomotive.

 

 

china flaunt

923. China Crisis, Flaunt the Imperfection (1985)

When the U.K. band China Crisis released their third album, Flaunt the Imperfection, they were arguably overshadowed by the person who’d offered his services as a producer. As one half of Steely Dan, Walter Becker’s place in rock history was secure, albeit more elevated by a subset of fans who favored pristine fusion jazz shimmer over blasts of heavy metal thunder. Following the 1981 breakup of his band, Becker largely disappeared from the music scene, absconding to Hawaii to try his hand at the farmer’s life. He was lured from his premature retirement when he heard China Crisis’s music, particular, according to some accounts, the song “Papau.” The band was excited enough about the collaboration that they chose to bill Becker not only as producer but also as a fifth member in the resulting album’s linter notes.

Flaunt the Imperfection certainly seems to bear Becker’s glassy fingerprints. “Strength of Character” sounds like Bryan Ferry took some Boz Scaggs material and tried to add a little elegant swing to it, and, in true Steely Dan style, “Bigger the Punch I’m Feeling” resembles a track that gets played when it’s time to really loosen up in the cruise ship lounge. Music writers more interested in Becker’s comeback than the emerging Brit band detected similarities, but the man himself was quick to say the cited material wasn’t his doing.

“By the time I started working with them, they’d already outgrown that new wave element,” Becker told Billboard. “It’s growth on their part, not anything I’ve inserted.”

The album is better when it drifts away from those refinements, anyway. The jabbing chorus of “The World Spins I’m Part of It” is more satisfying than any lush veneer. And when the tempo picks up, as on “Wall of God” or the percolating “King in a Catholic Style,” the album shifts from a strained attempt at high recording art to pop that’s actually, you know, sorta fun. Accurate or not, those moments feel like China Crisis succeeding in spite of Becker rather than because of him.

 

 

dad details

922. My Dad is Dead, Let’s Skip the Details (1988)

My Dad is Dead certainly sounds like a band name of affected misery that a snarly post-punk band might adopt, but the Cleveland group came by it legitimately. Primary — and, at times, sole — member Mark Edwards had buried both his parents before his twenty-first birthday. The band name was less imposed, calculated gloom than a simple statement of fact.

Releasing his first album under the My Dad is Dead name in 1985, Edwards was laudably prolific. Three years later, he was on his fourth album, and the second to be released on the Homestead label. Let’s Skip the Details is a fuzzy, catchy rouser, the kind of record that might be made by someone who decided they didn’t need to listen to any more music after the first Joy Division album came out. It avoids succumbing to mere derivativeness, mainly because Edwards operates with a visceral determination.

It’s that belief in the material that also allows Edwards to escape occasional traps of self-parody. “Lay Down the Law” could become an eye-roller as the lyrics repetitively imagine acts of homicide as a revenge for personal infractions so awful that “There ain’t no words.” And yet it somehow works. Edwards is shaking out his id like a musty throw rug instead of trying to jolt the world with his anguish, and the understatement is appealing. Besides, there’s plenty of goth cred to be found across the album, right down to the mention of a black light on “Five Minutes.”

It’s not all grime and bloody knuckles. The anti-misery anthem “Put It Away” is a galloping rocker the Feelies might have come up with if they used burlier guitars, and Edwards sounds almost cheery almost sounds cheery as he sings “The days of our lives/ Just slide on by,” on “Bad Judgement Day.” The band’s name doesn’t deceive, but it doesn’t tell the whole story, either.

 

 

bragg brewing

921. Billy Bragg, Brewing Up with Billy Bragg (1984)

A songwriter who’d been honing his craft since the late nineteen-seventies, Billy Bragg had no shortage of material when he recorded his debut album, Life’s a Riot with Spy vs. Spy, released in 1983. So assembling the lineup for his follow-up, Brewing Up with Billy Bragg, was a snap. Largely, he just made his way through all the songs that were leftover from the first go-round in the studio. The only downside, arguably, was that Bragg’s profile as a lefty activist had already risen to the point it was expected he’d weigh in on the pressing matters of the day, such as the U.K. miners’ strike, for which he’d played benefit concerts. It was well and good to take aim at the British tabloids on “It Says Here,” but some of Bragg’s fans expected new, more specific anthems for their agitation.

The notion that Bragg was going to deliver a recruitment pamphlet in record form was driven by the misreading of his art that’s been present for his whole career, a conflation of his activism with his songwriting. As always, there are plenty of political songs on Brewing Up with Billy Bragg, such as the retort against the Falklands War “Island of No Return” and the plea for peace “Like Soldiers Do.” But Bragg also follows the well-worn pop troubadour path of chronicling wobbly romance, from school days (“The Saturday Boy”) to deep into adulthoods of wistful heartbreak (“St. Swithin’s Day”). As I’ve shared before, I find Bragg to be at his most effective, compelling, and enduring in those moments of melancholy melodizing.

Any disappointment about a dearth of up-to-the-minute commentary on Brewing Up with Billy Bragg was likely quelled quickly. Only three months after the album hit racks, Bragg released an EP entitled Between the Wars, with a title cut inspired by the striking miners and all proceeds going to the fund set up to support them.

 

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #928 to #925

cale honi

928. John Cale, Honi Soit (1981)

“Among the True Perverts of Rock, John Cale has always been the most persistently wanton,” Boo Browing wrote in The Washington Post around the time Cale released the album Honi Soit. I believe it was meant as a compliment.

Honi Soit was Cale’s first studio album in six years and his debut on A&M Records. Although Cale’s laudable efforts as a producer and crafter of esoteric rock throughout the nineteen-seventies lent him an aura of éminence grise, he lagged well behind Lou Reed, his old Velvet Underground bandmate, in popular stature. In some ways, Honi Soit seems an overt attempt at bridging that distance or at least reclaiming his piece of the building legacy of Andy Warhol’s famed and influential house band. (Warhol provided the cover art for Honi Soit, but was reportedly irritated that Cale added color to a design intended to be black-and-white.) On the track “Russian Roulette,” Cale even appropriates some of the punk-adjacent brashness that was Reed’s stock-in-trade.

In general, Cale is in fine form on Honi Soit, his songwriting sharp and his musicianship assured. Album opener “Dead or Alive” is delightfully robust, as is “Fighter Pilot,” which sounds like classic rock turned inside out. The latter benefits enormously from the fierce, prominent backing vocals by post-punk upstarts Mo-dettes (renamed the Bomberettes to align with the aviation branding in the liner notes, which also finds Cale credited as the “flight surgeon”). “Strange Times in Casablanca” sounds like the kind of song that would have resulted had  Ernest Hemingway arrived a couple generations later and disregarded fiction writing in favor of a rock music career (“And doors have doors have doors have doors have doors/ Like companions have pets they sleep in each other’s mattresses”).

Commercial aspirations or not, Cale remains an experimentalist at heart, which doesn’t always sit well amidst the more straightforward material. His cover version of the traditional song “Streets of Laredo” eventually starts to sound to me like so much sonic clutter, but I’ve no doubt there are plenty who’d find it to be the most satisfying track on the album. And realistically, any thoughts of crossover were probably fanciful. Honi Soit was the first — and, to date, only — Cale album to register on the Billboard album chart (peaking at #154), but it wasn’t enough for the record executives at A&M. The partnership was dissolved, and Cale moved on to record for labels more amenable to the modest sales possibilities that came with his challenging approach.

 

 

dead fruit

927. Dead Kennedys, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables (1980)

Dead Kennedys came into being because Raymond Pepperell (better known as East Bay Ray) saw a ska-punk band playing in San Francisco and figured he could do just as well as they did. He put up flyers and placed ads in local newspapers, declaring, “guitarist wants to start punk or new wave band.” The first person to respond was a Colorado native and recent transplant to California named Eric Boucher, who took the stage name Jello Biafra. Before long, the rest of the band gelled, and they opted for punk instead of new wave. In summer 1979, close to the year anniversary of the band forming, Dead Kennedys released their first single, “California Über Alles.”

The following year, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, the band’s debut album arrived. The assemblage of politically-minded punk rock scaled by acidic humor included “California Über Alles,” as well as another preceding single, the discomfiting romp “Holiday in Cambodia.” Those two tracks are rightly iconic, and they are reasonably representative of the quality across the album. There are hint of the posturing to come, but most of the album trembles with the vicious of angry citizens who’ve used scrap metal and baling wire to build a platform for preaching to those on the precipice of conversion. They’ll be joined by no unexpected allies, but the kindred souls will feel real good about thrusting their tightly clenched fists in the air.

Because of their propensity for humor — sophomoric and otherwise — Dead Kennedys avoid skewing towards the didactic, even as they deliver treatises of the dismals state of society. “Chemical Warfare” is characteristic, employing a fuming playfulness, complete with a punked-up circus music interlude and a screaming bee swarm of noise near the end. Lead singer Biafra regularly shows he learned all the right lessons for Johnny Rotten, stretching the first word in the “neutron bomb” to about four syllables on “Kill the Poor,” for example. And the band is appropriately ferocious throughout, arguably best heard in the sandpaper guitars of “Ill in the Head” or the zippy rat-a-tat of “When Ya Get Drafted.”

Even with an obvious built-in limit to have successful the band could be, Dead Kennedys got plenty of attention due to Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, including overtures from major label Polydor. Supposedly, the possibility of signing on with corporate overlords spurred some vehement disagreements between Biafra and Ray, but they never needed to reach a final decision. The label lost interest when they heard the title of the single Dead Kennedys recorded as their follow-up to the album: “Too Drunk to Fuck.”

 

 

gordon rock

926. Robert Gordon, Rock Billy Boogie (1979)

Robert Gordon was a performer out of time, but he was determined to make his favored music anyway. As a boy, he loved the rockabilly performers of the nineteen-fifties, doggedly insisting the supremacy of the earlier music when British invasion and psychedelic acts took over in during his teenaged years. He formed a band called the Continentals and stuck with the sound he loved. Then he landed in New York in 1970, and before long it was clear that the best way to keep working as a musician was to embrace the ascendant punk sound. Gordon became lead singer of a band called the Tuff Darts, which spent time on the stage of CBGB as the club started its trek into rock legend.

Gordon’s chance to live his real dream came when Richard Gottehrer, a record executive who started in music biz as a Brill Building songwriter, attended a show and heard the performer croon his way through an Elvis Presley cover. Though Gottehrer was hardly stuck in the past (he produced the debut albums by Blondie and Richard Hell and the Voidoids), he recognized the possibility of a lucrative revival of bygone rock styles. He paired Gordon with guitarist Link Wray, and whole new career was underway.

Rock Billy Boogie was Gordon’s first record without Wray at his side, but there was ample compensation in the arrival of ace guitarist Chris Spedding. Comprised almost entirely of covers, the album is little more than a spirited careen through a well-curated record collection. Even so, the commitment of all involved in clear from the album-opening title cut. Gordon and his cohorts deploy every nifty gimmick they can think of — a boisterous call and response on “All By Myself,” clicking noises sound effects on “Wheel of Fortune,” an explicit call-out to Gene Vincent on “The Catman” —  and it always comes across as lovingly sincere. Adding to the authenticity, when Gordon tries his hand at an original, such as the lovelorn ballad “I Just Met a Memory,” he proves himself as capable a creator as he is a caretaker.

 

 

swans children

925. Swans, Children of God (1987)

When devout experimentalists released Children of God, their fifth album, fans couldn’t quite make sense of how conventional it sounded. Full of drama, menace, and confrontational choices, the reaction says more about the previous output of the band than the material spread across the album’s four sides. It was seen as enough of a departure that individual band members found themselves explaining the evolution.

“I’d say it’s all been evolving over the last two years or so,” band leader Michael Gira said at the time. “I just think we’re developing into a much more musical enterprise as opposed to a much more concretist enterprise. I wouldn’t say a-musical or anti-musical, because I think that was a misnomer with regard to what we used to be. There’s certainly a lot more room for subtlety and sensitivity now.”

As the title implies, Children of God offers commentary on the influence of religion, particularly the Catholic Church. The band’s propensity for harsh poetry in the lyrics is especially well suited to spooked and spooky imagery connected to religious ritual, and when Gira brings the grind of his heavy bass voice to evocations of godly love, it sounds precisely as unsettling as he hopes (“I will always remember/ Your hand on my shoulder/ Pulling me down/ Pulling me down/ Into the cold dead earth,” on “Real Love,” is chill-inducing). Add in the occasional zombie choir or orchestral layering, and it’s as though Swans were trying to make all the goth bands of the day look like sunny amateurs.

Children of God opens with the slow march disturbance of “New Mind.” That sets the sonic thesis of the album, and Swans keep circling back to sly variants, such as the thunderclouds leaking sludge of “Sex, God, Sex” or angsty grind “Trust Me.” It’s arguably yet more unnerving when the band opts for comparative quiet, as with the ethereal twang on “Our Love Lies” or “Blackmail,” which plays like Kate Bush’s spare elegance stripped to the raw studs. And sometimes Swans simply puts everything they’ve got on the table. “Like a Drug (Sha La La La)” is so packed with odd elements — Gira’s yawning vocals, zinging electronic insertions, a eerily off-tune chorus of voices — that it seems an attempt to induce madness.

The changes on Children of God were only the beginning for Swans. Gira complained about audience expectations and resolutely pushed away from them, including a diversion into a side project known as either Skin or World of Skin, depending on which side of the Atlantic one was on when purchasing the resulting records. As the the double album already demonstrated, Gira and his cohorts were going to do whatever they wanted, fan preferences be damned.

 

 

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

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #932 to #929

rush signals

932. Rush, Signals (1982)

I think the prevailing opinion is that the nineteen-eighties demolished the prospects for classic rock bands, especially as MTV took almost complete control over determining which songs were worthy of upward chart movement. There’s some truth to that, but there was also some clear accommodation for those artists who know how to adapt to the times through honest exploration that didn’t pander. It usually involved nicking some of the stylistic tics of new wave music while still maintaining some sense of persisting identity.

Eight studio albums and ten years into their recording career, Rush delivered Signals. The proper follow-up to Moving Pictures, the band’s 1981 breakthrough, the album luxuriates in their usual prog rock swirls, but it’s also notably tighter than might be expected, clicking with synthesized syncopations and generally applying an intriguingly tense songcraft. U.S. audiences rewarded the pinging revolution by making single “New World Man” the one U.S. Top 40 hit of the band’s career. Sounding more like the Police or Peter Gabriel than a rehash of “Tom Sawyer,” the track demonstrates the trio’s willingness to expand their process.

The album is also novel for the inclusion of the tidal wave gurgle of “Chemistry,” which is a rare instance of singer/bassist/keyboardist Geddy Lee and guitarist Eric Lifeson pitching in on lyrics and perhaps an implicit argument against their participation in the wordsmith portion of the process (“Elemental empathy/ A change of synergy/ Music making contact/ Naturally”). Mostly, though, the album makes its impression with its morass of sonics. “The Weapon” has a juicy, jammy midsection with zinging synths and storm cloud guitars, and “Losing It” is soft as swamp muck, at least until the appearance of studio effects piercing enough to prompt the agitated removal of bulked up headphones to spare the nerves.

Even with its batch of nifty tricks, Signals — like much of the rest of the Rush discography — is undoubtedly an acquired taste. It exhibits the band’s trademark ponderousness, which means its likely to wear on all but the most devoted. In this instance, that endurance test quality is the band keeping their stamp clear even as they try out the unfamiliar.

 

reivers saturday

931. The Reivers, Saturday (1987)

Hailing from Austin, the Reivers deal with a lot of headaches around names. They recorded their first two albums under the moniker Zeitgeist, only to wind up in a scrap with another group that claimed rights to the name. Like good Southerners, the Texans looked to the William Faulkner section of the library and settled on the Reivers. In the ceaseless insistence on categorizing every new act that comes along, the music press pronounced the Reivers to be members of a movement called “New Sincerity,” a pallid descriptor no rock band should ever be called upon to transcend.

Saturday was the first album released under the name the Reivers, and it was also the band’s first for major label Capitol Records. Adding to the sense of a grand new arrival, the album was produced by Don Dixon, still basking in the reverberating admiration that came from overseeing the early R.E.M. records. The album meets the enhanced expectations in winning form.

“What Am I Doing” opens the album with the big, echoing drum sound of Big Country before settling into a charming bar band groove with intermingling vocals on John Croslin and Kim Longacre. The album has a headlong authority as it melds sharp songwriting with earthy truthfulness. What could be basic instead becomes charming and sweet, as on the gentle pop gem “In Your Eyes” (“I see myself in your eyes/ And it looks so nice”). The production is mid-eighties pristine, but there’s also allowances for the spirited slop of “Karate Party” and Meat Puppets echoes on “Wait for Time.” And the title cuts sounds like the blessed result of 10,000 Maniacs and the Lemonheads merging.

The constant swings between good and bad fortune continued for the band. Saturday was greeted with warm reviews and college radio support, but it barely registered with commercial radio and the general record-buying public. The band remained heroes in their hometown.

“When the album came out and America didn’t embrace it like we did, that was fine. That was America’s problem” Longacre wrote in the liner notes to a reissue many years later. “The Reivers were still playing Liberty Lunch on Saturday night, and that was good enough for us.”

 

jethro beast

930. Jethro Tull, The Broadsword & the Beast (1982)

I’m not sure how anyone was able to ever take it seriously when the whole band repeatedly shouts out “Beastie!” on the album opener of the same name, but this Jethro Tull concept album is probably the epitome of rock ‘n’ roll as literary majesty to someone out there, even if its only Ian Anderson. To me, it sounds bloated, inane, and spackled with a posturing pompousness that somehow almost lurid. It’s the epitome of something, all right.

In his original review of the album, Rolling Stone writer Parke Puterbaugh explained The Broadsword & the Beast is “about the erosion of old values in today’s rapidly devolving world.” Sure. You bet. Refraining from the repeated immersive listening experience required to test that hypothesis, I can recognize the Ren-faire-in-the-discotheque noodling, but the overarching plot is so inscrutable it might as well be written in Chapstick on a foggy window pane.

“Clasp” has a skittering rhythm that makes it sound as though it’s intended to accompany a chase scene in a fantasy musical acted out by puppets, “Flying Colours” is peak prog rock gooeyness, and “Pussy Willow” is precisely as embarrassing as the song title implies. I guess some whacked out pleasure can be taken in the loopy merry-go-round of electrified musical affectations on “Watching Me Watching You,” if only because the unashamed excess of it can induce giggles. The agonizing ballad “Slow Marching Band” is more characteristic, presenting purple prose as some elegant prize (“Dream of me as the nights draw cold/ Still marking time through Winter/ You paid the piper and called the tune/ And you marched the band away”).

Inevitably, the theatricality of the album spilled over to the resulting tour. The stage was designed to resemble a Viking ship, and the band performed in costumes that made them look like Medieval pirate admirals. Because making an album like The Broadsword & the Beast mandates taking the conceit absolutely all of the way.

 

no wave

929. Various Artists, No Wave (1978)

As this week’s chunk of Countdown makes very clear, classic rock acts did very on the college charts for a good long time. To the degree that student-run radio had an overarching identity before the nineteen-eighties, it was as a commercial-free clone of the freewheeling album rock stations that helped FM overtake AM in the era of Led Zeppelin and their thunderous brethren. CMJ was a major player in transforming the sound of college radio, but the emergence of a different kind of music artist was an obvious factor, too. It’s tempting to look at the lineup of tracks and the copyright date on the compilation No Wave and declare it Patient Zero of the college rock pandemic.

More of a haphazardly assembled label sampler than an artfully assembled mix, No Wave likely provided many college radio programmers’ introduction to eventual playlist mainstays Squeeze, the Police, and Joe Jackson. Opening an album with “Take Me I’m Yours,” “Roxanne,” and “Got the Time” in succession — when all the tracks were shiny and new — had to provide a roller coaster thrill for kids who previously thought playing a deep cut from Hotel California was primo broadcasting rebellion. And that’s before the needle found the Dickies’ beautiful bratty blasts on side two.

 

 

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