College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #491 to #489

suburbs love

491. The Suburbs, Love is the Law (1984)

Serving as the trailblazers in a Minneapolis rock scene that went a long way towards defining alternative music in the pre-grunge era, the Suburbs were prepared to make a proper stab at the mainstream in the middle on the nineteen-eighties. Originally perpetrators of arty, angular punk songs, the Suburbs made a deliberate shift to more broadly palatable pop-inflected music, earning them the ire of some of their municipal peers.

“It was decision to make this insistent kind of music that could move people, and make them dance,” explained Chan Poling, frontman for the Suburbs, of the sound the band described as “underground disco music.”

When the Suburbs moved from hometown label Twin/Tone to major label PolyGram, with the album Love is the Law, they had their new, polished form down. The title cut, based on some scrawled graffiti spotted by Poling, is bouncy, bright, and big, like a more fun version of Simple Minds. (Years later, the song’s sentiment and upbeat spirit made it the perfect anthem for those fighting for marriage equality.) “Accept Me Baby” is funky and weird, like a first-draft Morphine song, and “Rainy Day” has the earthy elegance of prime Lloyd Cole. With confidence and aplomb, the Suburbs explore multiple sonic variants across the album, including enjoyably glum guitar rock “Monster Man” and a jittery, funk-laced workout “Crazy Job.”

Enjoyable overall, the album doesn’t entirely avoid the pitfalls of the era.“Skin” is scarred by yucky eighties synths, and other tracks have moments that come dangerously close to cloying slickness. Those a minor issues, though, easy to ignore when considering how Love is the Law is slyly innovative and sometimes distinctly ahead of its time, forecasting future pop iconoclasts such as Future Islands. If anything, Love is the Law might have been too forward-thinking. Dissatisfied with the commercial response, PolyGram dropped the Suburbs after one album.

 

doobie minute

490. The Doobie Brothers, Minute by Minute (1978)

The Doobie Brothers started 1978 by showing up in a highly unlikely place. The band appeared on the ABC sitcom What’s Happening!!, playing themselves in a two-part episode centered on the evils of bootlegging concerts. They closed out the year by releasing their eighth studio album, Minute by Minute, which proved to be the biggest commercial success of their career. It logged a total of five weeks atop the Billboard album chart and yielded three Top 40 singles, including the defining #1 hit “What a Fool Believes.” For a harrowing pop culture moment, the Doobie Brothers were inescapable.

Album opener “Here to Love You” epitomizes the single-gear aesthetic of the Doobies, drifting along at a mid-range tempo with singer Michael McDonald baritoning out laughably bland lyrics (“Well, let me just go down as saying/ That I’m glad to be here/ Here with all the same pain and laughs everybody knows”) as everyone plays their instruments with unobtrusive professionalism, as if they’re expecting someone us to step up and take a solo at any minute. That familiar combo of uninspiring elements is still better than those instances when guitarist Patrick Simmons spells McDonald on lead vocal durties, such as the drab disco number “Dependin’ on You” and the bluesy “Don’t Stop to Watch the Wheels.”

Listening to Minute to Minute is a hunt for stray bit that escape the rut: Nicolette Larson’s sweet, brief guest vocals on “Sweet Feelin” or the passable instrumental hoedown “Steamer Lane Breakdown.” Perhaps tellingly, those moments feel like the band goofing around, less concerned with delivering pristine, rightly controlled music and more interested in having a little fun in the studio. The album that made a hit out of speculation on the belief systems of fools ends by posing the musical question “How Do the Fools Survive?” emphasizing the redundancy of thought that makes the Doobie Brothers one of the duller bands of their era. The disruptions, no matter how minor, to their heavily used patterns were the only elements that merited attention.

 

u2 wide

489. U2, Wide Awake in America (1985)

No part of Wide Awake in America was recorded in the United States. A stopgap release that hit just a couple weeks after the conclusion of the major North American leg of U2’s tour in support of The Unforgettable Fire, which came out the previous year, the EP consistent of two live tracks on one side and a couple songs that didn’t make the cut for the preceding album. The Unforgettable Fire brought U2 their first U.S. 40 hit with “Pride (In the Name of Love),” but it stalled at a mediocre #33 on the Billboard chart, despite saturation play on MTV. Even if the full commercial breakthrough hadn’t arrived, the fan base was building fast, as evidenced by the band sticking with arenas when they toured the U.S. and Canada from February to May. Providing a quick affordable record that felt like a tour souvenir was a shrewd move.

The two live tracks improve significantly on songs that feel overproduced on The Unforgettable Fire. Recorded live at a Wembley Stadium soundcheck and then layered with crowd noise in the studio, “A Sort of Homecoming” has a lean forthrightness and emotionally rich vocals from Bono. And “Bad,” an overlong anchor in its studio realization, becomes bold, freeing, and anthemic, practically defining the unique alchemy of U2 at their best, when they can make a song and sentiment feel intimate and massive at the same time.

Both castoffs from The Unforgettable Fire feel properly omitted from the full album. “The Three Sunrises” comes across as a soulless exercise, the sort of cut that might have been improved by another pass at it but also doesn’t hold enough promise to suggest it would be worth the effort. The probing, intricate “Love Comes Tumbling” is more interesting, if only because the band seems to be trying to channel Wave-era Patti Smith (the song pairs nicely with the band’s later cover of Smith’s “Dancing Barefoot”). The cuts are inessential except to diehards, but by then the band was starting to inspire quite a few of those diehards, all ready and eager to pledge their allegiance by seeking out any available additions to the collection.

 

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 — #494 to #492

neil rust

494. Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Rust Never Sleeps (1979)

Neil Young had a record to promote when he went on the road in 1978. With backing band Crazy Horse sharing the bus, Young undertook a monthlong trek meant to draw attention to Comes a Time, a collection of understated, largely acoustic guitar–based songs. But fans who were hoping to enjoy the singer-songwriter operating exclusively in the mode of Harvest, the early–nineteen-seventies album that was — and still is — his greatest commercial success were nudged from that expected path by a true iconoclast deep in his lifelong exploration of creative oddity.

Young had lately been working on a film project, barely released a few years later under the name Human Highway, that included a collaboration with Devo. It was during a jam session with the art rock band that the term “Rust never sleeps” was intoned by Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh, quoting a Rust-Oleum slogan he remembered from his days working in the advertising industry as a graphic artist. Young liked the sound of it, and basically adopted it as a credo of constant creativity. If rust never sleeps, he better not either. The tour was emblazoned with that name, as was the album that followed it. Rust Never Sleeps was recorded in concert, pulling from both the solo acoustic sets that typically opened the shows and the hard rocking workouts with Crazy Horse that usually comprised the second half of the gigs, all of it supplemented by props, costumes, and other theatrical accouterments. According to the critical consensus of the time — which hasn’t shifted much in the decades since — the result was one of Young’s best albums.

Although a live album (overdubbed in the studio), Rust Never Sleeps is stacked with new songs, all showing Young at peak of his formidable powers. “Pocahontas” is a dreamlike exploration of the historic and ongoing hardship endured by Native Americans, and “Powderfinger” tells the story of a young man facing down a warship, punctuating with a squall of guitar rock that’s simultaneously ferocious and easygoing. The music goes glammy on “Welfare Mothers” and resoundingly lovely on “Sail Away.”  The intricate ballad “Thrasher” uses farmland imagery to extoll the satisfying feeling of seeking personal liberation, the simplicity of concept made transcendent through Young’s phenomenal songwriting (“It was then I knew I’d had enough/ Burned my credit card for fuel/ Headed out to where the pavement/ Turns to sand/ With a one-way ticket/ To the land of truth/ And my suitcase in my hand”).

The dual pinnacles of the album are also its bookends. The spare “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” opens Rust Never Sleeps, and the thundering “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” closes it. The overlapping message of the songs provides more detail to Young’s overall manifesto. “It’s better to burn out than to fade away” is the lyric that provides the bumper sticker version of the philosophy, but the magnificence of the songs together is the overall statement of endurance, the promise of legacy to those who give it their all, who invest in the power of music as a matter of defining belief. It’s a collective statement of aspiration and responsibility. Young showed — and still shows — the value in living that principle.

 

positively dumptruck

493. Dumptruck, Positively Dumptruck (1986)

The Boston band Dumptruck was enjoying the college rock version of a four-ace hand. Their debut album, D is for Dumptruck, had generated enough attention to get them signed to the emerging independent label Big Time Records, an investment that led directly to band landing in Mitch Easter’s Drive In studio with producer Don Dixon at the soundboard. Thanks to the benchmark success of R.E.M., who’d worked with the Easter and Dixon team on their first two albums, securing this combo of collaborators was absolutely the dream. And the resulting album, Positively Dumptruck, shows precisely why that was a worthwhile dream to have.

Chiming and crisp, the music on the album hits the perfect balance of rough yet polished, tuneful and raucous. Album opener “Back Where I Belong” establishes the Dumptruck musical personality: Americana with a funkier undercurrent and a warm, appealingly workaday guitar, bass, and drum sound. The tight, swirling rock song “Walk Into Mirrors” is more of the same, as are the chewy “Secrets” and the loping, almost hypnotic “7 Steps (Up).” The hangover-tinged lament “Autumn Light” has an opening couplet that approaches the evocative descriptions of Paul Westerberg, the poet laureate of regretful insobriety: “Woke up this morning in a foggy autumn light/ I don’t remember anything I did last night.” None of the material is groundbreaking, but it’s all admirably sturdy, the product of a band that clearly had to make their way on the rough, ungenerous club circuit that demand nightly proof of mettle.

Positively Dumptruck is a record full of promise. But maintaining a band is hard work, especially when there’s just a teeny touch of success that doesn’t yet include financial prosperity. Not long after the release of Positively Dumptruck, guitarist and singer Kirk Swan and bassist Steve Michener separately left the band, and there were questions about whether Dumptruck would continue. The remaining member eventually decided to keep going, in part because of the urging of label executives. But their next album, For the Country, came with its own considerable problems.

 

bram

492. Bram Tchaikovsky, Strange Man, Changed Man (1979)

Born Peter Bramall, the guitarist and singer Bram Tchaikovsky first gained a bit of fame with a brief tenure as the frontman for the pub rock group the Motors. He moved on from that band, recruited drummer Keith Boyce and bassist and keyboardist Micky Broadbent, and lent the resulting trio his own distinctive, memorable stage name. After securing a deal with Radar Records, Bram Tchaikovsky released their debut album, Strange Man, Changed Man. Modest yet propulsive, the album is nice representation of the end of the nineteen-seventies, when pop was splintering in countless directions and mastery of basic rock mechanics was its own sort of revolution.

That’s not to imply that there’s no edge to the tracks. The title cut almost makes the band sounds like the new wave version of Gang of Four. But Bram Tchaikovsky mostly comes across as a more rough and ready version of any number of rock ‘n’ roll true believers who were poking the heads out in the waning days of the disco era, checking to see if it was safe for guitars again. “Girl of My Dreams,” a U.S. top 40 single for the band, is like one of Tom Petty’s instant rock standards, “Lady From the U.S.A.” resembles the work of Jackson Browne, albeit at his blandest, and “Bloodline” could have been lent out to Humble Pie.

Strange Man, Changed Man is thoroughly enjoyable in its eager torch carrying. “Robber” has some guitar licks right out of nineteen-sixties British rock, and “Turn On the Light” is like a nineteen-fifties barnstormer, Eddie Cochran made current. The most significant misstep is when they reach to the past explicitly on a cover of the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer,” which is obnoxious in its sloppy bar band aesthetics. At this stage, Bram Tchaikovsky was too good to simply throw away a song like that. The rest of the album implicitly argues that they could have found their way to a new classic with that one, too.

 

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 — #497 to #495

rain explosions

497. Rain Parade, Explosions in the Glass Palace (1984)

Following their well-regarded debut album, Emergency Third Rail Power Trip, Rain Parade began to splinter. Most notably, band cofounder David Roback formally departed, evidently weary of jostling with the group’s other songwriters to get a spot on the records. His closing appearance came at the end of mini-LP Explosions in the Glass Palace, on the lengthy psychedelic drone “No Easy Way Down.” Gradually transforming a bluesy guitar slink into a swelling, thumping manta, the track invites a swaying immersion into its swamp of sound, exactly the sort of mind-bent indulgence the band was glad to soundtrack.

“What I get from your statement is that you hear something in our music that you’ve experienced more directly when you were tripping,” keyboardist Will Glenn responded to an interviewer coyly hinting at altered-state listening, at right around the time of the record’s release. “I think that’s good.”

The rest of the release holds to the revival of nineteen-sixties songs while simultaneously — and understandably, given the personnel circumstances —  tentatively testing out slight, interesting modifications. “You Are My Friend” has a lovely chiming tunefulness, and and “Prisoners” is crystalline psychedelia. “Broken Horse” is careful and tender, like the Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes” if it never exploded into angry rock. Whether the band viewed Explosions in the Glass Palace as a transitional work or a humble reintroduction — or, more likely, just the product of another day at the pop music factory — the record shimmer with promise of energizing new directions. Whether that promise was truly fulfilled by the band’s next album is very much in the ear of the individual listener.

 

three ever

496. The Three O’Clock, Ever After (1986)

Ever After was the third full-length record by the band billing themselves as the Three O’Clock (there was a prior release under the group’s original name, the Salvation Army). It was also their second for I.R.S. Records, the label that courted radio like a deeply smitten suitor, and there a signs that the band was doing their part to try to conjure up a radio-friendly pop hit. Veterans of the famed Los Angeles Paisley Underground scene, the Three O’Clock worked with producer Ian Broudie, who’d had significant success presiding over albums by Echo & the Bunnymen. Opening track and single “Suzie’s On the Ball Now” is arguably the clearest announcement of chart intentions, melding the clever artistry of XTC with the eager synth stylings of Erasure.

Much of Ever After fits into this deliberate pop mode while also hewing closely to the retro sounds that previously defined the Three O’Clock. “Follow Him Around” is straight nineteen-sixties girl group material, complete with a take on the famed “Be My Baby” drum riff. More characteristically, a shifted Summer-of-Love sound is heard in the drifty psychedelia “Step Out of Line” and the appropriately hippie-dippie “If You Could See My Way.” It’s only when the band strays too far from its roots — as on the pillow soft “When We Can,” which has the misfortunate of forecasting the polished aimlessness of Johnny Hates Jazz — that the material takes on an unpleasant veneer.

Despite continuing college radio affection, the Three O’Clock failed to score a crossover hit with Ever After, surely what I.R.S. was hoping for in the wake of the recent smash success of the Bangles, scene-mates to the band. If the label was disenchanted, the Three O’Clock had a famous fan ready to come to the career rescue. Not long after Ever After was released, the Three O’Clock was signed by Prince. The band’s next album was released on the Purple One’s Paisley Park label.

 

sun and the moon

495. The Sun and the Moon, The Sun and the Moon (1988)

The English band the Chameleons were coming off their most high-profile release when everything fell apart. Strange Times, the band’s third full-length, was released by Geffen Records and given a hearty promotional push, which didn’t necessarily translate into crossover success but certainly burnished their reputation. Then Tony Fletcher, the band’s influential manager, unexpectedly passed away at about the same time a personal rift between bassist-frontman Mark Burgess and guitarist Dave Fielding escalating to the point of irreparable damage. The band broke up, and Burgess and drummer John Lever recruited two new guitarists — Andy Clegg and Andy Whitaker — to form a new group, dubbed the Sun and the Moon. Geffen kept ahold of Burgess and released his new outfit’s self-titled debut album.

With The Sun and the Moon, Burgess intended to move the eddying psychedelia that was the most distinctive element of the Chameleons’ sound. To further establish the seriousness of that attempt at distance, he crafted the new set of songs as a loose concept album, presuming to spread one person’s reflections on a discombobulated world across two sides of a record. The album seems less like an aspiring novel and more like a set of songs from a creator of quiet ingenuity emerging into a new era, albeit one in which he’s still more informed by his former feats than he probably would have cared to admit.

The unique creative duality of the Sun and the Moon — and Burgess — is exemplified by the track “Speed of Life,” which is post-punk edginess all ensnarled with the undulating pop reinvention of Revolver-era Beatles. “House on Fire” has a similar dark-waters churn, while “A Matter of Conscience” suggests the Cult with the heavy metal influence stripped away. The more lasting place Burgess would have on the idiosyncratic fringes of rock music is found all across the album. “Death of Imagination” and “Limbo-Land” are the songs Julian Cope might record if his sound wasn’t always teetering on the edge of madness. And “This Passionate Breed” is like one of Peter Murphy’s glistening deep cuts, all grandiose seduction. Whether he meant to or not, Burgess declared his place in the rambling army of the musical iconoclasts, and no amount of Geffen marketing money was likely to budge him. The Sun and the Moon made only one album together before Burgess determinedly went his own way.

 

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 — #500 to #498

inxs sha-001

500. INXS, Shabooh Shoobah (1982)

The members of INXS knew they were on the verge of a breakthrough when preparing to record their third album, Shabooh Shoobah. After a couple reasonably successful album releases in their homeland of Australia, the band shopped demos and got signed for worldwide distribution with a few different labels, including Atlantic Records subsidiary Atco for North America. INXS took their handful of new songs, which had been produced by Mark Opitz, and played them for other studio mavens they were interested in working with. Bob Clearmountain, just developing a reputation as an expert mix engineer and producer thanks to work with the likes of the Rolling Stones and the Church, is generally credited as the person who settled the matter of who’d get hired to oversee the record.

“Bob Clearmountain said to us, ‘I love the music, and I would definitely work with you guys, but I don’t have any ideas better than the guy who recorded these for you,'” INXS guitarist Kirk Pengilly later recalled. “‘The best advice I have for you is to go back to Australia and record the whole album with him.'”

INXS followed that advice, setting up shop at Sydney’s Rhinoceros Recordings and bringing focused musicianship to their new set of songs, most of which were captured live in studio. “The One Thing,” which masterfully apes the slicked-up new wave of Duran Duran, perhaps best demonstrates the level of commitment INXS brought to getting themselves a shiny international pop hit. To its credit, Shabooh Shoobah isn’t merely a set of trend-grabbing songs, however. Instead, INXS truly seems to be exploring, trying to find their place and they to try to spread beyond Australia. “Here Comes” deploys a jabbing dance beat, and “Old World New World” is probably best described as attempt to invent Australian soul. There are even airy art pop elements to “Spy of Love.”

Fittingly, it’s the album’s last track that best represents the future of the INXS, like a coupling between train cars. It’s also the sole cut on the album on which songwriting credit is shared by the entire band. “Don’t Change” is soaring, urgent pop rock, a yearning keyboard part undergirding a smash-up clatter of drums and guitars, the clear, smooth vocals of Michael Hutchence delivering the irresistible come-on “Don’t change for you/ Don’t change a thing for me.” The song has the simple directness of classic rock ‘n’ roll with a boldly modernized feel. In its four and a half minutes resides the band that was a couple years away from selling records and concert tickets in astonishing numbers. Stardom lurks in its groove.

 

husker zen

499. Hüsker Dü, Zen Arcade (1984)

Zen Arcade started like all albums do: a few songs here, a few general ideas there,” Bob Mould wrote in his memoir, See a Little Light. “But at some point we realized that it could be so much more and ambition kicked in.”

With their second full-length release, the Minneapolis trio Hüsker Dü unleashed a double album and a concept record, both largely anathema to the punk ruck culture that raged against the classic rock excess those forms represented. But then, there’s arguably nothing more punk rock than refusing to be pigeonholed, and Hüsker Dü were already being told who they were and what they were capable of on the basis of their blistering early songs. With a heaping dose of snarling rebellion, Zen Arcade aims to absolutely redefine everything.

As Mould and his bandmate Grant Hart wrote their separate songs, a story started to coalesce. Thankfully lacking the lapses into numbing exposition of Tommy and its misbegotten descendants, Zen Arcade is about a young man who escapes the unhappy home of his youth to become a video game designer. The burgeoning sense of freedom is quickly punctured by the realization that he’s susceptible to tragedy and dismay wherever he goes. Reinforcing the sense of futility, the entire journey undertaken by the protagonist is revealed to be a dream, and he’s left with the bitter knowledge that an uncertain future awaits.

In truth, the story is far less essential than the thundering vigor of the songs. The fevered, acoustic “Never Talking to You Again” is obviously aligned with the central character’s angry departure from his trouble household, but its empowered rejection of soul-draining figures has a bracing universality (“I’d put you down where you belong/ But I’m never talking to you again/ I’d show you everywhere you’re wrong/ But I’m never talking to you again”). And the tunefully caustic “Pink Turns to Blue” is more than a plot turning point, is fiercely authoritative in its depiction of losing some to a drug overdose (“No more rope and too much dope, she’s lying on the bed/ Angels pacing, gently placing roses ’round her head”) even if it eludes the listener that the protagonist’s girlfriend is named Pinkie.

Hüsker Dü was already edging in the direction of a more varied rock sound, but Zen Arcade is still predominantly punk fury. “I’ll Never Forget You” is assaultive, “Turn On the News” is a vicious barrage, and “Chartered Trips” is so rough and loose that it’s the hard rock equivalent of speaking in tongues. “Whats Going On” is a whirlpool of angry guitar work, and “Whatever” finds Mould shouting his voice into a sandpaper gargle. To close the album, Hüsker Dü channels all of their blazing creative and muscular playing into the mammoth “Reoccurring Dreams,” a fourteen-minute improvisational instrumental that is as jagged, complex, and dangerous as a collapsed highway.

Zen Arcade strayed far enough from norms of hardcore punk that the leadership of SST Records, Hüsker Dü’s label at the time, was convinced it would be only a modest seller. They left the album on the shelf for almost nine months, and then initially pressed only five thousand copies, a woefully inadequate number once the album received worshipful reviews. The meager allotment of records sold out quickly, and it took SST months to get new copies to stores, squandering the additional interest the band built while touring. in his book, Mould called this “the first crack in the bond between Hüsker Dü and SST.”

 

dream academy

498. The Dream Academy, The Dream Academy (1985)

After peddling themselves for about two years to all the major and not-so-major labels, the English trio the Dream Academy were finally signed by Warner Bros. Perhaps boosting their profile, the band had a high-profile fan in David Gilmour, the famed guitarist of Pink Floyd. Gilmour even came on board to produce the band’s self-titled debut album.

The Dream Academy is as advertised, delivering lush, swirling pop that relies on ethereal sensation for its impact. The band’s signature song, “Life in a Northern Town,” is emblematic, melding a pining nostalgia (“He said, ‘In winter 1963/ It felt like the world would freeze/ With John F. Kennedy/ And The Beatles'”) with a sense of mystery and gushing, singalong chorus, all of it nestled in a studio arrangement as billowy as a cloud. Released as a single, the cut went Top 10 in the U.S.

The rest of the album is right in line with the famous single, without anything else touching the same ethereal wonderment. “The Edge of Forever” is deeply bland, which didn’t prevent it from migrating to the Ferris Bueller’s Day Off soundtrack, alongside a Dream Academy cover of the Smiths’ “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want.” “This World” is like a bland version of the Go-Betweens, and “In Places on the Run” is unbearably sleepy. The band fares better on “The Love Parade,” a song about the withering of romance, and the charming “The Party,” which include an explicit callback to “Life in a Northern Town.”

The Dream Academy never again approached the heights of their most famous song. There were two more studio albums, including another collaboration with Gilmour, before the band broke up, in 1991.

 

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 — #504 to #501

icehouse

504. Icehouse, Icehouse (1981)

The band Icehouse introduced themselves to the world with the song “Icehouse” off of the album Icehouse. The heavily self-referential methodology wasn’t intention or even in place at first. Hailing from Australia, the band started in 1977 under the name Flowers, and that moniker was still in place when the album was initially released, on the independent label Regular Records. When the album performed well in their homeland, the band was pursued by major labels, finally signing with Chrysalis Records. The old band wouldn’t do, though, because there was already a Scottish post-punk outfit known as the Flowers. As if grabbing the first thing handy, the Australian group became known as Icehouse.

On their debut album, Icehouse is laying pavers to get from the prog rock of the nineteen-seventies to the synth pop of the nineteen-eighties. “Sister” applying its agitated keyboard parts to what otherwise sounds like one of the weird concept album sci fi sagas perpetrated by the likes of Jefferson Starship (“There’s something you ought to know/ About the latest model/ She’s not the usual kind/ She’s made of mindless metal/ She’s not exactly normal”), and “Sons” is similarly awash in a sense of profound drama. On “Fatman,” Icehouse sounds like a more burbly version of Boomtown Rats, and “Not My Kind” is like INXS aping David Bowie. None of the material is all that strong, but it’s all interesting around the edges.

Boosted by heavy touring, Icehouse made a little bit of headway on the charts in the U.S., earning some admiring airplay on album rock radio stations. And band leader Iva Davies started pulling away from his mates. When it came time to get down to work on the important sophomore release, Davies essentially treated it as a solo project, setting the rough creative approach for Icehouse from then on.

 

ub40 little

503. UB40, Little Baggariddim (1985)

If there was one thing UB40 was better at than any other band, it was recycling. The band’s biggest hit, a version of Neil Diamond’s “Red Red Wine,” first appeared on and was released a single from the 1983 album Labour of Love, which was comprised entirely of cover songs. It’s made the U.S. Top 40 upon its initial release, but become a chart-topping phenom some five years later, after it was rereleased after UB40 performed it a concert paying tribute to Nelson Mandela. The more telling example of their capacity to reuse material is the 1985 album Baggariddim, which featured reworking of songs that appeared on their previous two albums, and which is turn was stripped down for U.S. release to the EP Little Baggariddim.

The main attraction on the EP is a pass at the Sonny and Cher pop classic “I Got You Babe,” with UB40 frontman Ali Campbell trading lyrics with Chrissie Hynde. The track was a result of an impromptu get-together between UB40 and the Pretenders in Minneapolis, a reunion years after the former band got a major career boost when the latter, already well established, offered a spot as an opening act. After the barroom singalong set list got around to “I Got You Babe,” everyone assembled decided it was a good idea to record it. Released as a single, the cheery, sweetly sentimental cut topped the chart in the U.K. and made it into the Top 40 in the U.S.

The rest of the EP is fairly thin. The “One in Ten,” about unemployment in the U.K., and “Don’t Break My Heart” are passable but slack. “Hip Hop Lyrical Robot,” which finds Pato Banton pitching in, is about as dopey as the title suggests (“Can you dig it, all right I can dig it/ ‘Cause I’m your hip hop lyrical robot and a real cool cat”). Whether its viewed as a meaty single or a abridged version of a proper UB40 album, Little Baggariddim is passable at best.

 

mojo bo

502. Mojo Nixon & Skid Roper, Bo-Day-Shus!!! (1987)

The fourth album from Mojo Nixon & Skid Roper briefly threatened to bring the rock duo into the mainstream, all because of a declaration of the omnipresence of Elvis Aron Presley. “Elvis is Everywhere” is undoubtedly the Platonic ideal of a Mojo Nixon song, extolling the coolness of a pop culture icon with a hillbilly enthusiasm and a rascally sense of humor. Elvis has taken over the Bermuda Triangle, Nixon explains, elaborating that “Elvis needs boats!”

With Nixon’s guitar and Roper’s washboard getting proper workouts, they run through a characteristic assortment of roughshod commentary on the indignities of the age. Taking aim at the emerging trend of workplaces demanding drug tests, Nixon declares “I Ain’t Gonna Piss in No Jar,” directing specific ire at the first lady who woodenly advised citizens to simply decline offers of drugs (“Well I ain’t gonna pee pee in no cup/ Unless Nancy Reagan’s gonna drink it up”). Nixon pines for the bygone glories of American blues music on the rip-roaring “I’m Gonna Dig Up Howlin’ Wolf” and cedes lead vocal duties to Roper on the spoof-adjacent but joyful “Polka Polka.” “Wash No Dishes No More” starts with a minor grievance before escalating to defiance against lawyers, taxes, and government-issues IDs, among others.

The album shows some signs that Nixon is starting to repeat himself, suggesting his well of ideas only went so deep. Even so, Nixon was still really clicking at this point. Without a doubt, Bo-Day-Shus!!! lives up to its name.

 

laurie home

501. Laurie Anderson, Home of the Brave (1986)

When Laurie Anderson revisited her concert film Home of the Brave around thirty years after its initial release, she was reasonably pleased with what she found there. But, like any of us with a few extra miles on the odometer, nothing was more jarring than being reminder of bygone energy levels.

“I couldn’t believe I was jumping around like that,” observed Anderson. “I hadn’t remembered how incredibly enthusiastic I was.”

Home of Brave was put together from Anderson’s live performance at the Union City, New Jersey venue Park Theater. The accompanying soundtrack album included some of the same live versions, supplemented with fresh studio recordings. No matter the specific derivation of the individual cuts, the whole album serves as a valuable document of the brilliant, iconoclastic artist at that moment. The slinky, bright “Smoke Rings” and the artful oddity of “Late Show” quickly establish the appealing uniqueness of Anderson’s creative voice, with so many intricate layers that it’s like pop music masquerading as fine art. Or maybe it’s the other way around.

“Talk Normal” includes a spectacular swirl of elements, and “Sharkey’s Night” takes the song’s funk deconstructions several steps further than the album version. “Language is a Virus” demonstrates how much personality brings to songs with her vocals, creating a whole landscape of character with nuances in tone. The album ends with “Credit Racket,” which is exactly that. It’s a mess of sounds that’s like a game show theme from a different planet. No mere throwaway, the cut is odd and wonderful. Nobody makes a racket like Anderson.

 

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 — #508 to #505

ramones halfway

508. Ramones, Halfway to Sanity (1987)

The photo shoot that provided the cover art for Halfway to Sanity provides a pretty solid temperature check of how the Ramones were feeling about being the Ramones at the point of their tenth studio album. According to photographer George DuBose, he’d only gone through three rolls of film when Johnny Ramone announced he’d had enough. DuBose assumed Johnny meant it was time to get to another location, but that wasn’t the case. He was completely done, and everyone else just shrugged and acquiesced, despite DuBose’s insistence that he’d been paid too much by Warner Bros. Records to deliver that few shots.

The Ramones were just as impatient in the studio, opting to record the music first and overdub vocals later only because it was the fastest way to get through the sessions. Johnny and Joey Ramone were locked in their ongoing battle — spurred largely by the fact that Johnny took away Joey’s girlfriend and married her — and Dee Dee was screwing around with a solo career as a rapper. There’s plenty of indication across the album that the band just wasn’t into it at the moment, including the tired rehash “Bop ‘Til You Drop” and run-with-the-first-idea mundanity of “Weasel Face” and “Worm Man.” Even a relative highlight such as “I Wanna Live” is made leaden by a nagging sense that the Ramones are simply going through the motions.

Halfway to Sanity briefly jolts alive whenever the Ramones stray from their well-established norms. “Go Lil’ Camaro Go” is significantly sweetened by Deborah Harry’s guest vocals, suggesting a whole album of Joey Ramone duets might have been a smashing success. “I Lost My Mind” is classic Ramones at the core, but it’s nicely rattled by the screaming vocals by Dee. And the band even takes their brand of punk close to the emerging hardcore variant on “I’m Not Jesus.” If none of these tracks truly matches the power of the Ramones in their mid–nineteen-seventies prime, they at least suggest what an engaged, evolving version of the band might have been.

 

sector 27

507. Sector 27, Sector 27 (1980)

After two albums with a band bearing his name, Tom Robinson sought creative and career reinvention. After achieving quick notoriety with early singles — including the gay rights anthem “Glad to Be Gay,” a radical declaration of personal identity for Robinson to make in the late nineteen-seventies — he felt stalled. He broke up the Tom Robison Band and formed the new group Sector 27. Although Robinson’s name was featured prominently on the cover of the band’s self-titled debut album, the goal was collaboration. Working his bandmates edged Robinson away from the fiery political pontificating that filled many of his other songs, resulting in a slick, sensible set of new wave cuts.

Some of the cuts sit so squarely in the prevailing sound of the time that they offer prime evidence of Robinson’s place in helping to invent the new pop sounds. “Not Ready” has a riveting post-punk edge, “Can’t Keep Away” suggests the early, more aggressive efforts by the Police, and “Where Can We Go Tonight?” is quintessential new wave. But there’s also a strong sense that Robinson and his crew could only take their ideas so far, that they’d run up against the boundaries of their creativity before they could really expand their art into something special and transformative. “Mary Lynne” is a good example. It’s rendering is so C-student straightforward it suggests what Joe Piscopo would have created had he pursued music instead of comedy.

If Robinson dialed back the political commentary for the record, that didn’t put an equal damper on his pointed observations. That leads to the oddity of “Looking at You,” a Lou Reed–style tale of urban human squalor delivered as British pub rock. And Robinson nips at the feeding hands of the music business on “Take It or Leave It”: “We’re billed as a brand new attraction/ But it’s business the same as before/ You gradually find in a matter of time/ What’s promised is not meant at all.” As the lyrics imply, Robinson was carrying so pronounced disenchantment with the machinery of making music for a living. That evidently extended to the new band. He quit the group not long after Sector 27 was released, and has stuck with a solo career ever since. The other band members continued on without him, releasing a few singles before officially dissolving in 1985.

 

sweet protect

506. Rachel Sweet, Protect the Innocent (1980)

A diminutive singer with a dynamo voice, Rachel Sweet spent her childhood years flitting around the fringes of showbiz, opening for the likes of Mickey Rooney and Bill Cosby. She was eventually signed to Stiff Records and released her 1978 debut album, Fool Around, when she was sixteen years old. Positioned as a teenybopper for the muckier era of the nineteen-seventies, Sweet couldn’t quite find a foothold, which presumably led to some concerted reinvention for her sophomore release.

The model for Protect the Innocent was evidently Suzi Quatro with a new wave spin. I’m not sure that was the shrewdest move in the hunt for global commercial success, but it makes for a surprisingly strong batch of songs. The range of unique songwriters Sweet borrow from is surely part of the appeal. She covers the Velvet Underground on “New Age,” Graham Parker on “Fools Gold,” and Moon Martin on “I’ve Got a Reason,” sounds on that last one like Pat Benatar’s little sister. On “New Rose,” Sweet even dips into the songbook of the Damned, hardly an act that seemed a source of untapped pop hit potential. “Baby, Let’s Play House,” originally recorded by Arthur Gunter but best known as an Elvis Presley hit, races along with Sweet packing a mountain of personality into her vocals.

The originals are solid, too. Opening track “Tonight” is brash and irresistible. And “Lovers Lane,” one of two cuts for which Sweet takes sole songwriting credit, is reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen when he he nostalgically turns his hand to nineteen-sixties pop stylings. There’s even a gleaming, plaintive saxophone solo. Sweet wasn’t going to challenge the Boss for primacy on the arena stage, but she could have presided over a dandy night at the Stone Pony.

My fond assessment doesn’t match the critical response at the time of the album’s release. Protect the Innocent was largely dismissed or derided, and her career coasted to a halt. Sweet did have at least one more droplet of pure delight to dispense, though, co-writing and performing the title song for John Waters’s Hairspray.

 

jackson hold

505. Jackson Browne, Hold Out (1980)

When Jackson Browne titled his 1977 live-ish album Running on Empty, it came across as a wry gag about life on the road for a touring musician. By the time he released his next studio effort, nearly three full years later, critics were starting to grouse that there was more to the metaphor of continuing on when the tank is just about dry. Fans were kinder, buying copies at a steady enough clip to make Hold Out the only Browne record to top the Billboard chart.

There’s some good material on Hold Out, including “That Girl Could Sing” and “Boulevard,” which both became hits and album rock radio staples. But it’s possible that — and wholly understandable if — music writers never quite found their way past “Disco Apocalypse,” the flat, inane recounting of being absorbed into nightlife that opens the album. It’s difficult to discern if Browne is celebrating, condemning, or satirizing  club culture (“When the world starts turnin’ and the floors are shakin’/ And the dreams are burnin’ and the skies awaken/ Through the wind and the fire they will be dancing still”), so it winds up feeling like it’s nothing at all, a song without a point of view. The sense of aimlessness persists across the album.

It’s sometimes worse when the message is clear, as on “Of Missing Persons.” Inspired by the death of Lowell George, Browne signs an ode of comfort to grieving daughter of the Little Feat maestro. The songs comes across as maudlin, condescending, and stupidly chauvinistic (“Your brothers are all older/ And they’ll take it in their stride/ The world’s a little colder/ But manhood’s on their side”). The album finishes with the agonizing marathon “Hold On Hold Out,” which stretches to more than eight minutes. The track is an indulgence Browne hasn’t earned elsewhere on the album. Empty might be too damning a charge to levy against Hold On, but it’s hard to deny that major portions of it are noticeably hollow.

 

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 — #512 to #509

mode music

512. Depeche Mode, Music for the Masses (1987)

For Music for the Masses, Depeche Mode’s sixth studio album, the band was in search of a new approach in the studio. Since their first recordings for Mute Records, Depeche Mode always worked with Daniel Miller, the founder and head of the label. He had a production credit on every one of the band’s prior studio albums, but tensions had risen during the making the band’s 1986 effort, Black Celebration. All involved agreed it was time to consider a producer from outside the Mute galaxy of stars, so they brought in David Bascombe, who’d served as the engineer on Tears for Fears’ Songs from the Big Chair and Peter Gabriel’s So, both massive hits. The members of Depeche Mode might have claimed the album’s title was ironic, but there’s little doubt that hopes abounded that Bascombe might take the band to the next commercial level.

At home in the U.K., the reception of Music for the Masses indicated softening support for the band, but the album swelled an already growing fan base in the U.S., with the slinky single “Strangelove” even managing  to top Billboard‘s dance chart, knocking Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)” from the perch. “Never Let Me Down Again,” also released as a single, is similarly accessible, taking the familiar Depeche Mode sound and applying it to an airtight track with a near-perfect hook. These are instances when the production polish only accentuates the quiet ingenuity and plain expertise of the band.

If there’s an aspect of Music for the Masses that might be an impediment for some listeners, it’s the hint of goth moroseness that blips up every now and then. “The Things You Said” is moony and glum (“I get so carried away/ You brought me down to earth/ I thought we had something precious/ Now I know what it’s worth”) and “Little 15” has an unsettling vibe. When the band turns to icy seduction, on “I Want You Now,” the prevailing sensation is beautiful agony, rendered with lyrics that could have been torn straight from a high school student’s tear-stained Mead notebook: “My heart is aching/ My body is burning/ My hands are shaking/ My head is turning.” Synthesized heavy breathing completes the smeared-mascara picture.

The masses definitely came out for the world tour in support of this album. The tour culminated with a concert at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California that was captured by renowned documentarian D.A. Pennebaker for the concert film 101.

 

bad desolation

511. Bad Company, Desolation Angels (1979)

Staples of rock radio throughout the nineteen-seventies, Bad Company basically leaned into their legacy on “Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy,” the opening track and lead single for Desolation Angels. Against a chunky riff and a steady beat, frontman Paul Rodgers sings, “I love the music/ And I love to see the crowd/ Dancing in the aisles/ And singin’ out loud, yeah,” and it’s about as straightforward a paean to the rock star life as could be delivered. Unsurprisingly, it became the Bad Company’s biggest hit since the heyday of “Can’t Get Enough” and “Feel Like Makin’ Love.”

Nothing else on Desolation Angels quite reaches the rock Valhalla of its hit single, but all the material is suitable enough examples of what can be accomplished by a few dudes with the classic combo of guitars, bass, and drums, with the occasional keyboard part thrown in for spice. “Lonely for Your Love” is textbook classic rock, and “Oh, Atlanta” is the same with a touch of hoedown to it. “Gone, Gone, Gone” is one of the least anguished songs about missing a departed lover to be found in the annals of the form: “I’m gonna miss you cleanin’ round the home/ And help me with my blues/ You know, I think I’ll get myself a maid/ And take her on a cruise.”

Like many of their peers, Bad Company is less convincing when they slow things down, as demonstrated by the warbled “Early in the Morning.” But they also deserve some credit “Take the Time,” which could briefly convince the inattentive that James Taylor is coming through the speakers. For a nineteen-seventies ballad, the outcome could be far worse. That same faint praise can be applied to the entirety of Desolation Angels. It might not be great, but it’s sturdy.

 

mch

510. McGuinn, Clark & Hillman, McGuinn, Clark & Hillman (1979)

The album cover of McGuinn, Clark & Hillman makes the case for music inside. In an unorthodox choice, the front cover includes liner notes that are usually relegated to the back or the inner sleeve. On the album, former Byrds Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, and Chris Hillman “write a new, contemporary chapter that forges a link with their legendary pasts and the promise of their futures,” according to music journalist Stephen Peeples. While that statement is inarguably true on the surface of it, the music pressed into the grooves sounds less like an ingenious hybrid of the bygone and forward-thinking than more of the same muddled soft rock that was woefully easy to find circa 1979.

The chiming guitars that were the most distinctive feature of the Byrds’ sound are almost entirely absent on the album, replaced by a smoothness that makes McGuinn, Clark & Hillman sound like John Denver with less of an edge. The bland “Long, Long Time” and tepid boogie number “Release Me Girl” are indicative of an album that plods along without ever quite getting anywhere. “Don’t You Write Her Off” has some of the acoustic sunniness of nineteen-seventies Paul Simon efforts and even hint of disco influence, which is at least distinctive. There’s also a cloying quality to many of the tracks, such as hippie-dippy love song “Feelin’ Higher” and the schlocky “Surrender to Me.” It becomes downright unbearable on the closing track “Bye Bye Baby,” which includes the lyrics “She kicks up her heels like a filly running wild/ Inside a woman’s body is the soul of a child/ Like the seasons she’s changing/ Like a bird soaring high/ Ah, you can’t help but love her when you look in her eye.”

It all sounds dreadful to me, but I’ll allow a closing rebuttal from Peeples, who evidently anticipated complaints and decided to preemptive dismiss them: “There is a timeless quality in McGuinn, Clark and Hillman that renders analysis insignificant. More importantly, it deserves to be heard by everyone.”

 

b52s

509. The B-52’s, The B-52’s (1979)

“This is the best debut album of the year,” proclaimed New Music Express. “No conditions, no exceptions.”

By the time The B-52’s arrived in record store, in July 1979, the year had already seen first albums from Joe Jackson, Stiff Little Fingers, Rickie Lee Jones, the Fall, Simple Minds, the Pop Group, the Cure, the Undertones, the Knack, and Joy Division. The determination of superiority was no small matter. The revolution delivered can be easy to overlook now, given the way the band evolved into a brand, with a couple massive hits and and the party mix ubiquity of several other entries in their career catalog. By the time the Muppets aired a remarkably faithful rendition of the band’s first single, the B-52’s were simply in the canon, as safe and familiar as the Doobie Brothers or the Jackson 5. At the end of the nineteen-seventies, though, no one else sounded quite like this. In its way, the music was as wild as disruptive as punk rock.

The B-52’s were admirably cautious in making the jump from their home base of Athens, Georgia to the national scene, rejecting offers from Virgin Records, Radar Records, and Sire Records before signing with Warner Bros. Recorded in the Bahamas with Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records, producing, the band’s debut is full of retro rock spruced up with modern verve, a deliberate sense of kitsch knocking aside nostalgia to let the sounds live again. One of the first hits Blackwell produced was Millie Small’s “My Boy Lollypop,” and The B-52’s almost sounds like the ancestor of that odd, infectious pop hit. If Millie Small had been the Beatles, everyone would have sounded like the B-52’s by the late seventies.

“Rock Lobster” is the album’s signature song, but the album is filled with tracks that make the loopy logical. “Planet Claire” celebrates a woman from outer space with flourishes of sonic oddness that sounds like they were nicked from and Ed Wood movie and lyrics explaining “She drove a Plymouth Satellite/ Faster than the speed of light.” “Lava” offers the pure delight of the Fred Schneider’s sullen threat “I’m gonna jump in a crater” getting rhymed with the dismissive response “See ya later.” “Hero Worship” is a thumping wonder and “Dance This Mess Around” rattles its own sunny American Bandstand vibe with some amazing punk-style wailing by Cindy Wilson and a deliberate beat that almost like something Wire might have used on one of their earlier albums.

The album closes with a cover of the Petula Clark hit “Downtown,” a choice that is at once inevitable and entirely unnecessary. The B-52’s were true originals. There was no fitting someone else’s song into their streamer-strewn paradigm.

 

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 — #516 to #513

hunter alone

516. Ian Hunter, You’re Never Alone with a Schizophrenic (1979)

As so often happens in rock ‘n’ roll, Ian Hunter’s career trajectory was hampered by ugly business entanglements. The former Mott the Hoople frontman developed a modest but noticeable presence on the U.S. scene with his first two records under his own name. As Hunter readied his third solo outing, Overnight Angels, he split from his management, prompting his U.S. label, Columbia Records, to put a hold on the North American release of the record. By the time Hunter got matters sorted out, too much time had passed, and Columbia opted against any sort of release for the album in the U.S. For Hunter to reassert himself in the marketplace, his next album needed to be especially strong.

For the first time since his 1975 solo bow, Hunter enlisted the help of Mick Ronson as producer. After An abortive attempt to work on the album in England, Hunter and Ronson embarked for New York City. A favor was called in, and members of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band were recruited to be the session musicians behind Hunter. After three months of prep work, Hunter knocked out the album You’re Never Alone with a Schizophrenic with about a month’s work in the Power Station studio.

The album Hunter delivered is a loose, light-footed example of prime nineteen-seventies rock ‘n’ roll. Ronson’s vaunted tenure as a Spider from Mars is probably most evident on the punchy and enjoyable “Life After Death,” but there’s discernible evidence of drawing from David Bowie’s sense of grand invention and happy showmanship all over the album. “Just Another Night” has easygoing rock swing, and “Cleveland Rocks” is freewheeling, unabashed fun, though it admittedly sounds thin in comparison to the more famous cover version that arrived several years later.

The beautifully weary ballad “Standin’ in My Light” references the New York Dolls (“You took my pictures from your walls/ Ain’t gonna trade with the pain of the New York Dolls”) and asserts itself as a worthy extension of the music of the punk progenitors, at least in terms of its raggedy bombast. The other slow, deliberate songs on the album represent Hunter’s creative weak spot. “The Outsider” is a dreary power ballad, and “Ships” is so saccharine that Barry Manilow was able to take it all the way into the Billboard Top 10 later that year. Of course, Manilow’s version of the song probably made Hunter, as the sole credited songwriter, more money than the rest of Hunter’s solo output to that point.

 

lewis this

515. Huey Lewis and the News, Picture This (1982)

The sophomore release from San Francisco–based band Huey Lewis and News looked like a breakthrough. After their self-titled debut came and went with barely a ripple two years earlier, the group took the product into their own hands, self-producing Picture This. The album’s first single, “Do You Believe in Love,” was a hit, climbing all the way to the Top 10 of the Billboard chart. Written by Robert John “Mutt” Lange, a collaborator of the band from back in the days when they worked the California clubs as Clover, the song was perfect for people who liked Cheap Trick but found them to be a little too edgy.

The rest of the album is in a similar mode, scattering a few borrowed songs among the originals, as if to emphasize the band’s origins as a bar circuit toilers. “Giving It All Up for Love,” is a prime example, dishing up a passable bar band take on a quasi-disco track from the solo debut of Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott. “Whatever Happened to True Love”  shows off the band’s soppy, and “Tell Me a Little Lie” is easy going light blues, with a touch of the Police about it. And “Workin’ for a Livin,” which just missed the Top 40, is made for drunken Friday night singalongs, beer bottle raised high in solidarity.

To some, Picture This probably seemed as big as Huey Lewis and the News could get, and their label, Chrysalis Records, felt no particular urgency to get out the band’s next album, delaying so long that the group had to return to playing their old local haunts to make ends meet. When the third album finally did hit, it proved that Huey Lewis and the News could get much, much bigger after all.

 

abc zillionaire

514. ABC, How to Be a Zillionaire (1985)

ABC was on their third album and already in need of a comeback. Following the hit debut Lexicon of Love, the band — primarily comprised of singer Martin Fry and guitarist and keyboardist Mark White — suffered a significant commercial and critical setback with their sophomore outing, Beauty Mark. After two years — an eternity given the demand for quick turnaround in the U.K. pop scene of the early nineteen-eighties — the duo returned with two largely inconsequential new members and an album that eagerly courted success. As a title, How to Be a Zillionaire is a cheeky provocation, as cynical an attempt to preemptively mock external proclamations of failure as anything perpetrated by the Replacements, the acknowledged masters of the form.

As the title also promises, How to Be a Zillionaire is an exercise in excess. ABC is committed to putting every idea they have onto the record, all of their choices squarely within the synth-pop trends of the day. Sometimes, their previous command is still evident, as is the case with “Be Near Me,” which practically shimmers with expertise, or the controlled romp “15 Storey Halo.” More commonly, cuts simple get away from them, and no one involved seems much to care. “(How to Be a) Millionaire” is like Pet Shop Boys if that group didn’t really know how to scale up their pop opuses, and “Vanity Kills” is a plain mess, sounding like Teena Marie teaming up with the Escape Club. Sometimes, as with the roll call element dribbled into “A to Z,” it feels like a desperation to keep adding is the only thing driving decisions.

Home in the U.K., music fans still weren’t buying it, figuratively and literally. How to Be a Zillionaire was the band’s weakest-selling album, and the singles mostly floundered. It was a different story in the U.S., where “Be Near Me” became ABC’s first Top 10 hit.

 

beck there

513. Jeff Beck, There & Back (1980)

Fans of Mid-South Wrestling in the early nineteen-eighties knew at least one track — or one riff, anyway — off of Jeff Beck’s There & Back. For several years, “Star Cycle” provided the theme music for the televised bouts of the regional professional wrestling league. In addition to being a nifty bit of trivia, that fact provides an accurate summation of the material on Beck’s third solo album, which was also his first full-length studio effort in four years. Devoted fans of Beck’s guitar playing can likely find plenty of enjoyment in pondering the intricacies of his fingering. For anyone else, this set of instrumentals is pure background, as suited to a cursory signal that burly grapplers are about to grace the screen as devoted attention with heavy-duty earphones in place.

Cataloging the album requires little more than citing the marginal differences from track to track, whether noting the Van Halen beat on “Space Boogie” or the sleepy blues stylings on “The Pump.” There’s more skillful yet pedestrian fusion on “El Becko,” and “You Never Know” puts a mildly funky workout behind the guitar noodling. There were dozens of regional wrestling leagues filling airtime on the UHF dial around the time of There & Back, and Beck could have soundtracked every one of 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 — #520 to #517

omd dazzle

520. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Dazzle Ships (1983)

“It sounds strange, I know, but we had been trying to change the world,” Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s Andy McCluskey explained to The Guardian several years after his band experienced a commercial breakthrough with their third album, Architecture & Morality. “It was the naive confidence of youth, the idea that music is that important. The music we made had to be interesting and different. And somehow we believed that would change the world, the way people think. So when we sold three million albums and the world didn’t change, we were scared.”

Charged with following up a big hit record, McCluskey and Paul Humphreys, the other major creative force in the band, were stuck. They couldn’t quite find their way to new material that sat comfortably in the mode of the sleek synth pop they made previously, so they instead let the weirdness in. Dazzle Ships isn’t really a concept album, but it sure feels like one, from the weird interstitial sonic tinkering to the cloak of Cold War dread that hangs over the music. Straining to find intellectual unity actually does a disservice to the better chunks of the album, such as the bright, bold “Genetic Engineering,” the luxuriant and intense “Silent Running,” and the complex, precise “This is Helena,” which basically gets to the Big Audio Dynamite sound a couple years before Mick Jones. These don’t sound like hit singles in waiting. Instead, they’re something better: tracks that take a mallet to pop music and then welds it back together into something odd and new.

Reflecting both the arduous process of revving up their creativity and the inclination towards wild-eye experiments, the highs of Dazzle Ships are countered by some dire lows. “The Romance of the Telescope” is inert, and “Telegraph” is so aggressively pure pop that it approaches self-parody. For fans who wanted Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark to stick with endless variations on “Enola Gay,” I’m sure the arch abstraction of “ABC (Auto Industry)” and “Time Zones” represented the real nadir of the album. Whatever the sticking point, Dazzle Ships was considered a commercial disaster, and the U.K. was only too happy to savage it. Fairly or not, McCluskey and Humphreys chose to take the album’s reception as a lesson to learn. For their next album, they decided to give the people what they want.

 

hothouse people

519. Hothouse Flowers, People (1988)

If the story involves an Irish rock band emerging during the latter half of the nineteen-eighties, there’s a good chance Bono is involved. From humble beginnings as Dublin street buskers (using the name the Incomparable Benzini Brothers for part of the time), Hothouse Flowers expanded their roster, sound, and ambition and started gigging across the country, building a reputation as a great live band. They were well known enough to land a television guest spot. Bono was among the viewers, and he offered to put out Hothouse Flowers’ first single on U2’s vanity label, Mother Records. That in turn led to the band snagging a major label deal with London Records and a trip into the studio with producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, famed for their work with the likes of Madness and Elvis Costello.

The resulting album, People, is one the great debuts of the era. Earthy and rollicking, Hothouse Flowers’ music is clearly road-tested, ready to grab the listener by the shoulder sand yank them in or insinuate itself slowly with the easy confidence of a slow build. It’s the former strategy that opens the album, with the formidable combination of “I’m Sorry” and “Don’t Go,” both barroom burners. There are hints of traditional Irish music to the band’s sound, but decisively repurposed with a modern rock flair without the stultifying slickness that was starting to overtake bands. On the aching ballad “If You Go,”Hothouse Flowers even manage to rescue the saxophone solo from its cloying eighties iteration but putting a dose of Clarence Clemons soul back into it.

Lead singer Liam Ó Maonlaí approaches Van Morrison levels of powerhouse vocalizing on “It’ll Be Easier in the Morning” and outdoes Bono himself with the snarled political insolence in “Feet on the Ground,” the line “I ain’t talkin’ ’bout jet fighters” sounding like it could have been snipped straight out of Rattle and Hum. “Hallelujah Jordan” and “The Older We Get” are demonstration of the forcefulness that can be generated in relatively straightforward, mid-tempo rock songs when everyone in the group is hitting their mark with pinpoint precision. Simply put, People is damn near perfect.

 

Suzanne Vega

518. Suzanne Vega, Suzanne Vega (1985)

Suzanne Vega arrived at her self-titled debut with an almost comically cliched background for a singer-songwriter in the folk tradition. A English literature major at Barnard College, Vega regularly gigged in New York City’s Greenwich Village and got her first chance to record songs when the Fast Folk collective decided to press some compilation albums. Whether or not the collections were meant to be launching pads for artists, some of the contributors were able to stir up some interest, including Vega, who was signed to A&M Records at a time when the label was actively collecting meticulous, idiosyncratic songwriters.

Suzanne Vega is an exceedingly assured album, distinctive for the clear choice to largely forgo fussy adornments that might obscure the strength of Vega’s songwriting. The album doesn’t settle for spare recordings of Vega and her guitar, but the additions properly enhance her clear creative voice. There’s a lot of studio polish to “Marlene on the Wall,” all of it accentuating Vega’s strong perspective as she cleverly imagines a print of Marlene Dietrich as the voyeuristic observer to a woman’s romantic travails (“Marlene watches from the wall/ Her mocking smile says it all”). The magnificent “The Queen and the Soldier” is similarly fleshed out and yet fully preserves the sense of a performer finding greater truth through pointed folk storytelling (“A soldier came knocking upon the Queen’s door/ He said, ‘I am not fighting for you anymore'”).

There are certainly instances when the album is notably spare — as with the lovely and fragile “Small Blue Thing” — but Suzanne Vega has more varied texture than it is usually given credit for. “Cracking” and “Neighborhood Girls” even carry indications that Vega was paying attention to art rock of Laurie Anderson and her peers and figuring out how she could incorporate some of the unique sounds and cadences into her own work. Suggesting the totality of Vega as an artist, these tracks contain the first rumblings of the glorious storms that would come later in her career.

 

danger money

517. U.K., Danger Money (1979)

Taking the three members of U.K. on the album Danger Money, the sophomore outing under that name, and check their resumes. At the time the album was released, they’d collectively had stints in, Uriah Heep, King Crimson, Roxy Music, and various iterations of Franz Zappa’s backing bands. Extend to the years that followed and the list sees the additions of Yes, Jethro Tull, Wishbone Ash, and Asia. That festival lineup from Hell is an accurate indication of the material spread to agonizing running times on Danger Money. It’s all overly emotive singing and dumping-gravel drum fills, galumphing bass parts and headache-inducing synth lines. There are no guitars on the album, but there’s plenty of electric violin playing. Keyboardist (and electric violin perpetrator) Eddie Jobson proudly told Keyboard magazine that “Rendezvous 6:02” features a synthesizer solo with “all sixteen oscillators in monophonic unison,” so that’s exciting, I guess.

U.K. at least veered away from the warmed-over fantasy novel trappings and science fiction meandering that typified so much prog rock. “Caesar’s Palace Blues” draws its inspiration from the garish Las Vegas landmark venue (“They’ve cameras in the casino and bugs under your bed/ But all the gold in Reno couldn’t bring old Caesar back from dead”) and the title cut is the saga of a modern mercenary. The album closes with the requisite song stretching past the ten-minute mark, the ponderous, messy, and exhausting “Carrying No Cross.”

Danger Money was the last album by U.K., but few rock acts truly cease. Nearly thirty years later, Jobson pulled together a new band dubbed UKZ and then official reunion shows followed. I mean, why not.

 

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 — #524 to #521

til voices

524. ‘Til Tuesday, Voices Carry (1985)

In the late nineteen-seventies, Boston radio station WBCN started an annual battle-of-the-bands promotional event called the Rock & Roll Rumble. As usual for these sorts of undertakings, the Rock & Roll Rumble had an iffy record when it came to forecasting the bands destined for broader success, with most victors across the now forty-plus year history of the event fading into obscurity. Though there were flashes of national notoriety enjoyed by a few winners — Gang Green, the Sheila Divine, and the Dresden Dolls probably chief among them — it’s basically indisputable that ‘Til Tuesday was the act that best leveraged the opportunities afforded them by taking the Rumble’s top prize.

After winning the 1983 edition of the Rock & Roll Rumble, ‘Til Tuesday scored a major label deal with Epic Records and were paired with producer Mike Thorne, who’d overseen the first three Wire albums and Soft Cell’s hit cover of “Tainted Love,” the latter presumably of greater interest to the music execs. It’s certainly the more palatable sound of Soft Cell’s synth-based new wave that informs the resulting ‘Til Tuesday debut album, Voices Carry. In frontwoman Aimee Mann’s songwriting, there are early indications of the prickly intelligence and emotional exactitude that would soon mark her as a worthy successor to the likes of Graham Parker and Warren Zevon, but cuts such as “Love in a Vacuum” and “Maybe Monday” try to obscure her sensibility in gleaming new wave baubles. The slickest production, though, can’t disguise the anger embedded in “Don’t Watch Me Bleed” (“You tried to keep me in my place/ Said it was love that kept me there/ How could you lie right to my face?/ And smile at me, and sound so sincere”), even if the soft-goth tones of the music are a distracting mismatch with the pointed words.

“Looking Over My Shoulder” is a fine introduction to Mann’s facility for bittersweet pop, and “No More Crying” is an endearing era oddity, sounding as if a song has been plucked from the midpoint of U2 evolving into Saint Etienne. It’s the title cut that sealed the band’s legacy. Originally written as a breakup song between two women, Epic Records exacted pressure to heteronormatize it and funded a music video that emphasized the presence of a caddish boyfriend behind the lyrics of relationship distress. The video was an MTV staple, and “Voices Carry” climbed all the way to the Billboard Top 10.

 

parker real

523. Graham Parker, The Real Macaw (1983)

The Real Macaw was touted — or lamented, depending on preference and perspective — as the album that found Graham Parker shedding some of the fury that was his most distinctive quality as a songwriter. Parker was freshly settled into a state of domestic contentment with his partner, Jolie, who he married around the time of the album’s recording and release. The songs he penned, then, largely traded lacerating appraisals of human failings for mild, wistful pontificating. Album opener “Just Like a Man” takes aim at male chauvinism, but fires only rubber-tipped arrows. The lounge-adjacent and tedious “You Can’t Take Love for Granted” is more characteristic.

It’s often hard to find anything that smacks of familiar Parker craft on The Real Macaw. “A Miracle a Minute” comes across as an overt and deeply misguided attempt at making a hit song, and the drab “Beyond a Joke” halfhearted employs some Caribbean tones and a sloshy sax solo. “Passive Resistance” sounds like Parker, but a version of him with the autopilot switched on. Only “Anniversary,” a complex and earnest love song, is a  worthy addition to Parker’s songbook, and he seems to know it, jolting it further with the strongest vocal performance on the album.

Whatever Parker’s assessment of the album’s artistic merits, it was clear that something wasn’t working by this point in his career. The Real Macaw was his weakest performing album since his modest breakthrough with Squeezing Out Sparks, in 1979. Parker parted ways with Arista Records, beginning the process of agitated label-hopping that would continue, more or less, for the rest of his career.

 

pere year

522. Pere Ubu, The Tenement Year (1988)

Following a series of well-received albums in the late nineteen-seventies and early nineteen-eighties, the Cleveland-based art rock outfit Pere Ubu disbanded, with the various members romping off to different, equally esoteric music projects. David Thomas, provider of Pere Ubu’s distinctive lead vocals, was the most prolific, recording several solo albums with shifting backing bands. Into the rotation of collaborating musicians, Thomas recruited some of his former Pere Ubu bandmates and found the experience surprisingly agreeably, especially when they got on stage together an played some of the old songs. Around six years after what was thought to be the last Pere Ubu album, the band gave it another go, releasing The Tenement Year.

A strikingly off-kilter band, Pere Ubu didn’t exactly see the rest of the music scene — including the more daring alternative rock subgenre — catch up with them, but everyone else had gotten a little closer. The spectacular clamor or “George Had a Hat” and glamorous abstractions of “Talk to Me” are what other bands of the time aspired to when they cut loose. “Rhythm King” sounds like a sonic malfunction identified, tamed, and turned into art. The squeaky squall of “We Have the Technology” is arguably bested by the careening ingenuity of “Miss You,” which suggests a drunken jamboree held on the outer lip of a flying saucer. 

The gloriously reckless creativity Pere Ubu employed on The Tenement Year reignited the band. Unlike some other rekindled collaborations, the second wave of Pere Ubu wasn’t short-lived or even particularly sporadic. Personnel shifts happened every now and again, and the span between new music sometimes stretched fairly long as the band members aged, but Pere Ubu basically operating together from this album on.

 

blow magic

521. The Blow Monkeys, Animal Magic (1986)

Although the meaning of the song likely sailed over the heads of most listeners, “Digging Your Scene” was a daring choice for a single. Just a few years after AIDS was first clinically reported, and when the default mindset in the broader public still alternated between heartless derision and fearful hostility, the Blow Monkeys wrote and recorded a song about the ways in which members of the gay community were being further marginalized and ostracized because of the disease. As a callous teenager when the song was released, I can attest that I didn’t hear the message laced into the song’s smooth groove, but I now have little doubt that it was heard distinctly by the people who needed — truly needed — the love, acceptance, and inclusivity offered by simple being seen, as evidenced by lyrics like “I just got your message baby/ So sad to see you fade away/ What in the world is this feeling/ To catch a breath and leave me reeling/ It’ll get you in the end, its god’s revenge.”

The rest of Animal Magic, the sophomore full-length from the Blow Monkeys, similarly takes a mission-driven approach to making pop music, although I’m not sure any of the other material is quite as politically pointed, even if one of the songs flat-out suggests “Burn the Rich.” The Blow Monkeys traffic in a very refined pop music, which is understandably susceptible to the worst ideas to come out of nineteen-eighties recording studios. Some of the offenses can be forgiven with kind adjustment of retrospective forgiveness, but there’s no avenue to accepting the wanky guitar solo and mannered vocals of “Sweet Murder.”

The band is mostly an outlet for singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Dr. Robert, and Animal Logic is obviously — and sometimes endearingly — a specially build showcase for his talents. “Forbidden Fruit” sounds absolutely vast, and “I Backed a Winner (In You)” is designed to show off Dr. Robert’s easygoing croon. The title cut starts out as a fussier, pushier cousin to the Church’s ethereal jangle rock before shiftier into a drowsy version of Be Yourself Tonight–era Eurythmics. The album is imperfect, because ambition can be messy. Much as Dr. Robert instinctually wants to push into the swirling majesty of Scott Walker, Animal Logic is at its best at its leanest and simplest: the convincing pass at Northern soul on “I Nearly Died Laughing” or the tight pop song “Don’t Be Scared of Me.”

“Digging Your Scene” was an unlikely hit in the U.S., making it into the Top 20 on the Billboard chart and getting ample play on MTV. The Blow Monkeys later had even bigger hits in the U.K., but further success across the Atlantic proved elusive. The band dissolved in 1990, reunited seventeen years later, releasing as many albums in their revival as they did in their first spin on the pop music carousel.

 

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