College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #704 to #701

manzanera

704. Phil Manzanera, K-Scope (1978)

Phil Manzanera was a busy fellow in the late nineteen-seventies. Undoubtedly most famous as the lead guitarist for Roxy Music, Manzanera was dabbling in all sorts of other projects. Tops among them was the band 501, which included fellow Roxy Music veteran Brian Eno. Originally conceived as a live act only, the group gelled well enough to release the studio album Listen Now, in 1977, and they started working on a follow-up shortly thereafter. Things shifted, however, and that material wound up as the core of K-Scope, officially the second solo album from Manzanera.

Drawing on the creativity of many contributors, Manzanera makes an album that zips zanily around rock subgenres, somehow managing to feel wholly apart from the most tired trends of the day. Not every track is strong — or even particularly good — but the freewheeling spirit keeps K-Scope consistently buoyant. Among the better cuts, “Remote Control” has a new wave crispness, and “Slow Motion TV” is like the Damned circa Strawberries, when they followed poppier instincts. On the downside, reggae-influenced “Cuban Crisis” lands somewhere between 10cc, Steely Dan, and Sting at his most blandly appropriative, and “Walking Through Heaven’s Door” starts at drippy soft rock then shifts into a bland musical trot that sounds like a discard from a markedly misguided rock opera.

The instrumentals on the album are generally stronger, whether the punchy, jazz-inflected explorations of the title cut or the edgy musical probing on “N-Shift.” There’s nothing particular wrong with the vocals or the lyrics, but there’s an inescapable sense that what Manzanera and crew really want to be doing is noodling around with different tones, melodies, and rhythms until they land on something novel. They reach that goal enough to make K-Scope a solid enough record to overcome its flaws.

 

clash rope

703. The Clash, Give ‘Em Enough Rope (1978)

The Only Band That Matters were formally introduced to U.S. audiences with Give ‘Em Enough Rope, their second album. The Clash’s label, CBS Records, simply felt the band’s self-titled debut was too brash and raw to make any headway stateside. Record-buyers in the U.K. were a varied enough lot that Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols could levitate all the way to the top of the album chart (amusingly taking over peak position from Cliff Richard and the Shadows and ceding it to Bread), but the equivalent U.S. sales tally was all Rumours all the time.

To increase the likelihood that the Clash would make a more marketable album in their sophomore outing, CBS Records paired them with Sandy Pearlman, the regular producer of Blue Öyster Cult. For a band that was used to bashing out songs and then picking up the pieces — or, more likely, letting the pieces lie and rot — the persnickety polish Pearlman brought to the recording process was tedious. But Pearlman wasn’t trying to disguise the Clash’s insurrectionist soul. If anything, he shaped the platform to properly showcase the Clash, distinguishing them from other punk acts whose no-fucks-to-give disregard for the niceties of performance could come across as a reactionary insolence of youth, born of uncertainty and bound to fade. Despite CBS’s misgivings, The Clash is a great album. It’s also true that Give ‘Em Enough Rope is the album that proved the Clash were a realer deal than their contemporaries.

As if to prove that refinement doesn’t necessitate softening, the album opens with the immediate explosion “Safe European Home,” about the troubles endured by Joe Strummer and Mick Jones when they were seen as easy marks on a writing trip to Jamaica. The cut is political, fevered, conflicted, and wry in its miserable self-appraisal. There’s nothing easy about it, and matters remain similarly knotty on the propulsive “Guns on the Roof” and “Tommy Gun,” the latter highlighted by the rat-a-tat drumming of Topper Headon, new to the lineup for the second album, as Strummer rages about the glorification of violence.

“Julie’s Been Working for the Drug Squad” is downright jaunty, partially attributable to the barrelhouse piano playing by Blue Oyster Cult’s Allen Lanier. Jones take his turn at the lead microphone on “Stay Free,” which takes nineteen-sixties sunshine pop and gives it a hard twist, and the album closes with the melancholy autobiography “All the Young Punks,” which was renamed “That’s No Way to Spend Your Youth” on original U.S. pressings of the album. Across all the tracks, the band plays with an urgency that suggests the plugs might be pulled from the amps at any moment, so if they’re going to say something, they’d better say it now.

As the label’s overt stab at creating product that would work in the U.S. market, Give ‘Em Enough Rope didn’t really work out. While it performed admirably in the U.K. the album stalled at #128 on the Billboard chart, two places lower than the peak of The Clash, when it saw its delayed U.S. release in 1979. Even so, Give ‘Em Enough Rope must be seen as pivotal. If nothing else, it is what the band built on and corrected from when they made their next studio full-length, an album that is unerringly in the mix in any reasonable, informed discussion of the greatest rock albums of all time.

 

split waiata

702. Split Enz, Waiata (1981)

If the original plan had been followed, the sixth album from Split Enz would have had a different title in practically every country in which it was sold. Waiata is a word from the Māori language, spoken by the indigenous people of Split Enz’s homeland of New Zealand, that translates to “celebratory song.” In Australia, the album was called Corroboree, because that is the rough equivalent of the same word in the language of Australian Aboriginals, that nation’s indigenous population. The band hoped and expected the album would be similarly retitled in every other country, honoring the people who had lived in each territory the longest. The scheme never came to fruition, and Waiata became the default name for the record. It was one of many compromises the band had to make that left them feeling disenchanted.

Split Enz were following up their biggest success to that point. The band’s previous album, True Colours, had topped the charts in New Zealand and Australia, and it had respectable showings elsewhere. In the U.S., it peaked at #40 on the Billboard album chart, and it’s centerpiece single, “I Got You,” had some success on commercial radio. Opportunities were lining up, including a spot as the opening act for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers following the release of Waiata. Presumably, the just needed the one song, hitting the ears just right, to push them over to mass appeal.

The chiming “History Never Repeats” was the obvious choice for a single, given its encapsulation of all of songwriter Neil Finn’s formidable skills as a pop craftsman. It’s not only the sense of introspection embedded in the first word of the title that made it a proper representation when Split Enz eventually needed a name for a “best of” release. The relaxed pop song “One Step Ahead,” and the zippy “Hard Act to Follow,” which sounds a little like Naked Eyes on uppers, are similarly rock solid examples of the way in which Finn, his brother Tim, and their cohorts could take the familiar blueprint of pop music and construction a finished product so clean and perfectly realized that others’ stabs at reinvention seemed almost foolish.

Elsewhere on the album, though, the band loses their way with their own iffy ambition. Some of the stretching is dandy, as is the case with the escalating post-disco goodness on “I Don’t Wanna Dance,” on which Split Enz sounds like an earthier New Order. But “Clumsy” to adopts a sort of Devo art pop vibe and it hangs on the band awkwardly.  “Ships” is like the product of a more rote version of XTC, and the yucky power ballad “Ghost Girl” is mostly kindly interpreted as a bad attempt at commercial crossover.

Waiata and its aftermath left the band with a litany of complaints. The album packaging fell short of their hopes, they hadn’t enjoyed their second-tier status on the tour with Petty, and things in the studio had been frustrating enough to inspire a split from longtime producer David Tickle. For their next album, Time and Tide, Split Enz were ready to push back against expectations.

 

crenshaw st

701. Marshall Crenshaw, Marshall Crenshaw (1982)

“I wanted to write hit singles,” Marshall Crenshaw told Jim Beviglia, as recounted in the book Playing Back the 80s: A Decade of Unstoppable Hits. “I was in love with the idea that hit singles were art. That was my medium, my platform, and that was really what I was going for with everything I did back then.”

Crenshaw first gained a foothold in the music business by providing “an incredible simulation” of another artist. Crenshaw was cast as John Lennon in Beatlemania, the theatrical production that set performers on stage impersonating the Fab Four. First an understudy to the original New York production, Crenshaw went on to play the role on the West Coast and then the touring company. It was during his many days in nights in hotel rooms waited to don John’s distinctive locks that Crenshaw started writing songs in earnest. Shortly after quitting the Beatles show, Crenshaw recorded a few for Crash Records, and lent a song called “Someday, Someway” to retro rock specialist Robert Gordon. Released as a single from 1981 album, Are You Gonna Be the One, “Someday, Someway” made it into the Billboard Hot 100 and was instrumental to Crenshaw signing with Warner Bros. Records.

“Someday, Someway” did even better when it was released as the lead single of Marshall Crenshaw, the singer-songwriter’s debut album. It nudged over into the Billboard Top 40 and settled into a long haul legacy as one of the signature songs of the era. There’s little doubt as to why. The cut is such a ideal distillation of all the charm and slyness and bright-eyed wonder of pop music — the art of the hit single which was Crenshaw’s aspiration — that it would have almost been understandable if the whole music biz had shut down upon its release, glumly convinced that the quintessential rock ‘n’ roll song had been penned and performed, making any further attempts to reach such a peak futile. That’s ridiculous hyperbole, of course, but it sure does feel close to true when living within the track’s lean three minutes.

So much of Marshall Crenshaw is a fine echo of that sterling track. Other songs might not be as crisp and clean, but they reverberate with a familiar sound. The splendidly bittersweet breakup song “There She Goes Again,” snappy “Rockin’ Around in N.Y.C.,” spirited “Brand New Lover,” and soft rockabilly number “The Usual Thing” are all enticing. “Mary Anne” comes pretty dang close to pop perfection itself, and “Cynical Girl” brings a ringing energy to an atypical tale of pining for a romantic partner with some shrewdness to her character (“Well I’ll know right away by the look in her eye/ She harbors no illusions and she’s worldly-wise”).

Marshall Crenshaw received rave reviews, but the man whose name it bore was one of the less effusive fans. He felt the production was too sterile, a complaint that seems absurd until a listen to one of Crenshaw’s demo recordings offers corroborating evidence that’s hard to dispute.

 

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 — #708 to #705

aka studio

708. The Special AKA, In the Studio (1984)

Using the most straightforward explanation, In the Studio is the third album from the Specials. The fact that the band is billed as the Special AKA tells a significant story. This wasn’t the same outfit that topped the U.K. chart two times in the early nineteen-eighties and delivered seven straight Top 10 hits on the same tally of hots. In the Studio is the document of a band in disarray.

The troubles began when Terry Hall, Neville Staple, and Lynval Golding left the band to form Fun Boy Three. Jerry Dammers, the keyboardist and chief songwriter of the Specials, tried to cobble together a new lineup for the band, cycling through session musicians and members snatched from other bands. In all, Dammers and the rotating support cast spent about two years toiling away in fits and starts. It was apparently a bleak scene during sessions, leading Horace Panter, the Specials’ bassist and co-founder, to later observe the “atmosphere was unbearable.” He quit the band midway through recording process.

Despite these conflicts, In the Studio is a strong album, though miles away from the froth ska music with which the Specials built their fame. That is largely attributable to the new collaborators Dammers brought into his circle, since they were far more accustomed to jazz-influenced riffs than caffeinated Jamaican rhythms. Dammers was also clearly looking outside himself in shaping the lyrics, leading to highly politicized songs such as plaintive pleas “(Free) Nelson Mandela” and “Bright Lights,” the latter of which references the case of Colin Roach, a black man who died in police custody in 1983. Often, the Special AKA chose the most direct path to making their points, as on “Your Racist Friend,” which argues “If you have a racist friend/ Now is the time, now is the time/ For your friendship to end.”

There’s a remarkable fullness of thought in the sound of the individual tracks. “The Lonely Crowd”  jazz colliding with R&B, “Housebound” is flinty and experimental, and “Break Down the Door”  recaptures Stax soul sound, giving it a decidedly modern spin. None of this was what fans wanted, evidently. Except for “(Free) Nelson Mandela,” which benefited from its timeliness, none of the singles fared particularly well, and the album was the band’s lowest-charting effort to date.

Shortly after the release of In the Studio, Dammers dissolved the band, opting for other pursuits. The Specials’ name has been opportunistically employed for various nostalgia tours over the years, but Dammers hasn’t really been a part of the zombie versions of the band.

 

rank long

707. Rank and File, Lone Gone Dead (1984)

Lone Gone Dead is the sophomore full-length studio release from Rank and File, a band out of Austin, Texas that was fronted by Chip Kinman and Tony Kinman. Slotted into the emerging cowpunk scene, Rank and File were exhibited tendencies toward more straightforward Americana rock ‘n’ roll. They do ably cover the the Lefty Frizzell song “I’m an Old, Old Man” on the album, keeping some current running through the country music connection, but most of Lone Gone Dead sounds like the college rock version of what John Mellencamp was just starting to bang out.

There are still vestiges of the band’s shared punk roots, but mostly found in the layers of defiant attitude as on the homespun “Sound of the Rain,” which includes the simple, powerful lines “I see walls/ But these wall aren’t in my way.” There’s a popgun fun to “Saddest Girl in the World,” and “John Brown” finds them sounding like a cowpoke Nick Cave. In general, there’s a boisterous quality to the album, sometimes manifesting in unexpected ways. “Hot Wind,” for example, sounds like it could have served as the theme for a television Western had the genre remained a wholly viable genre into the mid-eighties.

The music is good, but the band had difficulty getting a foothold with broader audiences. There was only one more album, a self-titled effort for a new label, before Rank and File quit for good.

 

blanc happy

706. Blancmange, Happy Families (1982)

Blancmange started in 1979, plying their trade in London. Originally a trio, the group settled into a partnership between vocalist Neil Arthur and keyboardist Stephen Luscombe. The pair made intellectually potent pop music, vibrating with dance floor intensity and struck by a bracing certainty of purpose. Happy Families is the band’s debut full-length.

The album opens with the danceable fervor “I Can’t Explain,” and it keeps reverberating with splendid cuts such as the bright, booming “Living on the Ceiling” and the handsome drama of “Waves.” Some of the material is tightly tethered to the era in which is was made, as evidenced by “Cruel,” which is mild goth with a vibe that anticipates Depeche Mode’s “Master and Servant.” More often, the cuts have a bright inventiveness that make them sound perpetually contemporary. “Feel Me” isn’t far off from the jabbing insistence of the most recent LCD Soundsystem album. Occasionally, a track is novel enough that it could have beamed in from another reality altogether, as is the case with “Sad Day,” which is like the theme song for a remake of Knot’s Landing set in outer space.

Blancmange managed two more albums in the nineteen-eighties before announcing a split in 1986. A reunion happened fifteen years later, and it included a re-recording of this debut album, titled Happy Families Too…

 

bush whole

705. Kate Bush, The Whole Story (1986)

Kate Bush had creating music from broad public consumption for nearly ten years when she released the “best of” collection The Whole Story. She was very well known at home in the U.K., where her 1978 debut single, “Wuthering Heights,” spent four weeks atop the chart, making her the first female artist to hit that pinnacle with a song she wrote herself. She was eighteen years old when she wrote the song, and her personal odometer had only ticked ahead one year when she hit the chart peak. Although she never quite reached those heights again, she’s remained a consistent commercial force in the U.K., notching seven Top 10 hits over the years, including as recently as 2012. It made sense for her to pull together a collection of peak performers for that market.

In the U.S., she was more of an unknown quantity, leading Bush to joke that most record-buyers probably viewed The Whole Story as her debut album. There was a little exaggeration to that statement given that “Running Up That Hill” pushed into the Billboard Top 40 in 1985, but she likely wasn’t that far off. For some audiences, The Whole Story was merely a shortcut to fill a lamented hole in a collection. For U.S. audiences, it was a primer on a vivaciously inventive iconoclast who was never likely to crack a commercial landscape more inclined toward easily digestible pop.

Bush recorded a new vocal for “Wuthering Heights,” but The Whole Story otherwise pulls morsels straight from her earlier albums, giving listeners — and college radio programmers — the convenience of the pure beauty of “The Man with the Child in His Eyes,” the brilliant churn and charge of “Hounds of Love,” and the tightly controlled wildness of “Sat in Your Lap” all in one place. “Experiment IV,” the album’s sole new track, is less successful, skewing uncomfortably close to filler on a concept album. Otherwise, The Whole Story is a gift, providing a valuable overview of an artist whose creativity is vast and dizzying.

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 — #712 to #709

redd neurotica

712. Redd Kross, Neurotica (1987)

Technically, Neurotica is the first full-length studio effort by the outfit billed as Redd Kross. The band made their entrance with the 1982 LP Born Innocent, but they were going by Red Cross at the time, raising the ire of a certain humanitarian aid association. Rather than risk being barred from their local blood drives (and, probably more importantly, becoming the target of a devastating lawsuit), the band muddied up the spelling of their name just enough to evade the chafing shackles of U.S. trademark law.

Produced by Tommy Erdelyi, who helped launch the world’s best and most important punk band while drumming under the name Tommy Ramone, Neurotica is a surging blast of rock ‘n’ roll goodness. It draws upon just about every subgenre that had flared, dominated, and started to recede at that point. Glam, punk, garage, psychedelic, goth, metal, and even disco ping around the confines like popcorn kernels leaping off a hot surface. The results are messy, but also exuberant and freeing, demonstrating there’s a power to be found in joyful creative anarchy.

On “Frosted Flake,” Redd Kross sounds a little like the Runaways, and “Love is You” has something in common with the less overly confrontational music being made by the Frogs at about the same time. Mostly, though, the band forges a gleaming hot musical blade that is distinctively original and yet drawing on established approaches with enough expertise to give them a sort of everyband quality. They hammer out a wide stage that runs from the the metal-adjacent assertiveness of “What They Say” to the deeply mellowed out bliss of “Beautiful Bye Byes,” the brief album closer. And the sludgy guitars on “McKenzie,” about the One Day at a Time co-star McKenzie Phillips, forecast the grunge rock that would jolt and deaden the alternative music scene in the nineties.

Any hopes that Neurotica would become a crossover success were quickly dashed when Redd Kross’s label, Big Time Records, shut down shortly after the album’s release. Another three years would pass before their next full-length.

 

kinks word

711. The Kinks, Word of Mouth (1984)

When it came time to record the 1984 album Word of Mouth, the Kinks were riding a rare cresting wave. The band’s previous studio album, State of Confusion, yielded the major hit “Come Dancing,” easily the Kinks’ most notable commercial success since the nineteen-sixties. There was obviously a touch of urgency to getting a new release in the record shops. Word of Mouth followed its predecessor by just about a year-and-a-half, a relatively common pace for college rock bands of the day, but not really expected of British Invasion stalwarts hitting their twenty year and twentieth album at the same time.

Accordingly, Word of Mouth sometimes feels a little dashed off.  “Do It Again” is a catchy pop song about the wearying futility of domesticate life, but that was a rug the band had trudged across many times and a certain threadbare quality was setting in. The similar poignant pessimism of “Good Day” is just plain mundane, and the revived, tweaked “Come Dancing” riff in “Too Hot” also suggests a halfheartedness at work. At the most dire point of the album, “Massive Reductions” suggests what it would have sounded like if Ray Davies had run the Doobie Brothers. The Kinks were thankfully too strong a band to turn in an album of nothing but tracks outside the wide bullseye. “Sold Me Out” has a splendid controlled clamor that niftily reminds how much the sixties garage rock movement owed to the Kinks, and the Dave Davies composition “Living on a Thin Line” is one of his most inspired contributions to the band’s weighty songbook.

There were other signs that the band was starting to splinter: film projects diverting Ray Davies’s attention, personnel changes brought about in part by frustration over a lack of touring, and the internal band feuds that never, ever dropped below a steady simmer. There was more music to come — some of notably good — but a lack of cohesion and creative energy was clearly setting in.

 

greg naked

710. The Greg Kihn Band, With the Naked Eye (1979)

I’m not sure there are too many artists who can claim they butcher compositions by both Bruce Springsteen and Jonathan Richman on the same album. Thanks to With the Naked Eye, Greg Kihn sure can.

With the Naked Eye is the fourth studio album released by Kihn, and the first in which he wrapped his name into that of the band. Whatever the branding motivation behind the choice, it provided some logic for Kihn turning over one track to drummer Larry Lynch to sing. “Can’t Have the Highs (Without the Lows),” which Lynch also wrote, is the album’s best cut, but it’s almost by default. All the other competitors in the misbegotten race are the equivalent of race cars with flat tires, revving to no useful purpose.

As for the previously mentioned covers, on “Rendezvous” Kihn offers a sense of what it would be like if Springsteen morphed into Neil Diamond, and “Roadrunner” takes the signature song of Richman’s Modern Lovers and delivers it with all the credibility of Donny Osmond right after he declared he was a little bit rock ‘n’ roll. Criminal as those song are, they outpace the Kihn originals on the record, such as the ponderous rock star tragedy “Fallen Idol” and the indescribably bad “Moulin Rouge.” The almost-a-title-cut “In the Naked Eye” is representative of Kihn’s coupling of muddled music with horrible lyrics (“I must be on the edge of the razor blade/ In the situation that I have made/ What can I do, it’s up to you/ ‘Cause everything I did, I did for you”).

Quality be damned, Kihn made albums at a breakneck pace. By the law of averages, he was likely to stir up a hit somewhere in there. It didn’t happen with anything off of With the Naked Eye, but the breakthrough was coming fairly soon.

 

opal nightmare

709. Opal, Happy Nightmare Baby (1987)

David Roback spent the first half of the nineteen-eighties in the Paisley Underground band Rain Parade and propelled himself into the nineties as half of the creative force behind Mazzy Star (hitting pay dirt with one of those songs that will have a prime place in the world as long as there are sad teens). In between, he teamed with bassist Kendra Smith and drummer Keith Mitchell to form Opal. If there were any doubt the group would continue the dreamy, psychedelic-tinged music of the scene Roback — and Smith, as a member of the Dream Syndicate — previously toiled, the band name was taken from the title of a Syd Barrett song. And Opal adhered to the model suggested by their official inspiration.

Happy Nightmare Baby, Opal’s full-length debut, is a phantasmagoric miasma of vivid, gloomy sounds, with Smith’s moody, evocative vocals casting a spell of enticement that occasional cuts against the jaggedness of the music. “Magick Power” is a cut to accompany a midnight twirl in a decaying garden, and the title cut brings a post-punk clarity to chunky, jammy music. There are guitars that bend and buckle on “A Relevation” and marathon album closer “Soul Giver” takes that to a further extreme, anticipating — of influencing — the swirly, whirly likes of the Brian Jonestown Massacre and Spiritualized. On “She’s a Diamond,” the approach is softened and slowed, giving the impression of T.Rex as pushing through the end of a long set as elephant tranquilizers kick in.

Shortly after the release of Happy Nightmare Baby, Smith departed the endeavor, briefly pursuing a solo career before retiring from music altogether. It was that choice that led Roback to seek out a new partner, quickly alighting on Hope Sandoval, a singer he’d already started working with, intended to produce a solo record for her. Instead, she joined the band, though they’d decide before long that continuing under the Opal name wasn’t ideal. Instead, they adopted the moniker Mazzy Star and moved forward.

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 — #716 to #713

big pig bonk

716. Big Pig, Bonk (1988)

Hailing from Melbourne, Australia — with a formative stop in the U.K. — Big Pig made a brand of propulsive dance music that feels very 1988. Eschewing guitars altogether and employing three different drummers, the band delivered joyful, singalong bombast on their debut album, Bonk. “My iron lung is rusted,” they sing repeatedly on “Iron Lung,” up against big, thumping post-disco, as if Nona Hendryx took over Sisters of Mercy. What it lacks it intricacy, it make up for in headlong bravado. Big Pig plays like its their musical effort alone that’s keeping the merry-go-round spinning.

Oher Witer claimed part of his impetus in forming Big Pig was a performance of Japanese taiko drummers he saw, and the band’s overstaffed percussion system continually tips their sticks to the inspiration, if only in the exhausting fervor of the beat.  “Hungry Town” recalls Bow Wow Wow at their most rhythmically crazed, and notable hit “I Can’t Break Away” delivers the catchiest thunder available, adding just a hint of goth menace to keep it interesting. The model doesn’t work as well when the tempo slows, as evidenced by “Boy Wonder,” which skates perilously close to Roxette’s part of the rink. And a similar misfortune befalls any cut that endeavors for commentary of any complexity, such as “Money God,” which takes aim at televangelists, a favorite target of pop song ire at the time.

The band got an extra boost when “I Can’t Break Away” played over the opening credits of the 1989 film Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, but that wasn’t quite enough to deliver broader crossover success in the U.S. Big Pig’s follow-up album, You Lucky People, wasn’t released beyond Australian shores, and the band broke up shortly thereafter.

 

translator

715. Translator, Translator (1985)

Translator was one of those bands that could trace their success directly to college radio. It was the popularity of a demo tape they’d sent to KUSF-FM, the student station at the University of San Francisco, that got the band signed to local label 415 Records. Like other bands on the roster, Translator benefited immeasurably from the unexpected gift of major label Columbia Records entering into a distribution and co-branding agreement with 415, suddenly providing more exposure than could have been previously imagined. The ink way drying on both Translator’s deal at the Columbia pact at roughly the same time. With a straightforward rock sound, Translator seemed perfectly poised to become of of the breakthrough acts on the 415 roster, but it never quite came to pass.

For the band’s third album, a self-titled effort, there seemed to be a concentrated attempt to leverage their potential into radio and MTV play. Producer Ed Stasium, then best known as the go-to studio impresario for the Ramones, was enlisted, presumably to give Translator a dose of toughness. Instead, the resulting record sound slick and surprisingly passive. Wispy and generic “Fall Forever” and similarly bland and agreeable “Inside My Mind” are wholly typical tracks. Gently chiming “Come with Me” exhibits the stultifying caution further in lyrics that seem salvaged from the tattered pages of a high school student’s Mead notebook (“Now the streets we walk are still/ And the rain has gone away/ And I don’t know ever what made me so afraid”).

There are tracks that add some welcome ripples of sonic ambition, such as the college rock churn of “Friends of the Future” or “New Song,” which has a pleasing psychedelic tinge. And “Heaven By a String” sounds like Modern English on a double espresso, which isn’t necessarily great, but it’s at least something a little different than earnest rock that wouldn’t cause the faintest tremor in a cultural boat.

Translator and the label heads must have thought they were onto something, as Stasium was invited back for the band’s fourth album, Evening of the Harvest, released in 1986. That would prove to be the band’s final recording, at least until the almost inevitable revival several decades later.

 

dmc raising

714. Run-DMC, Raising Hell (1986)

“The guys in Run-D.M.C. are so full of themselves, they’d be completely obnoxious if they weren’t right,” wrote Mark Coleman in the laudatory Rolling Stone review of Raising Hell, the third full-length from the rap trailblazers and icons.

There’s no overstating how completely Run-DMC set the template for practically of the rap that followed them. Until at least N.W.A., every mainstream rap act was essentially doing an impression of Run-DMC, freely pilfering their rhythms, attitudes, verbal musicality, and expert use of turntable manipulations as an act of scrappy creativity. There didn’t need to be powerful political statements to make the music come across as truly revolutionary. On Raising Hell, the rascally fairy tale pilfering of “Peter Piper” or the effortless comedy of “You Be Illin” stood so far apart from what anyone else was making that they were like dispatches from another timeline. Cuts such as “It’s Tricky” and “My Adidas” are flat-out dizzying in their bizarre command of the pliability of language, making simple statements resound like the most erudite poetry.

Raising Hell is probably best known for “Walk This Way,” a cover of Aerosmith’s late-nineteen-seventies Top 10 hit recorded in collaboration with the band. It became an MTV smash and the first Run DMC single to cross into the Billboard Top 40, peaking at #4. Its success had a longer lasting impact on Aerosmith than Run-DMC. The Boston hard rock outfit’s career was cratering, but the collaboration completely revived their prospects. Much as “Walk This Way” is held up as an inspired merging of rap and hard rock, but the same tactic is employed to even more satisfying effect in the machine gun beats and squalling guitar of the title cut.

The album closes with the pointed “Proud to Be Black,” which declares its intentions directly: “Listen party people here’s a serious song/ It’s right not wrong, I should say right on.” Run-DMC then goes on to provide a furious jam that’s part history lesson and part manifesto, miles away from the odes to sneakers and speakers that dominate their oeuvre. The statement is clear: Run-DMC could pull off absolutely anything.

 

game 2

713. Game Theory, 2 Steps from the Middle Ages (1988)

Boasting the exemplary songwriting skills of frontman Scott Miller, the California band Game Theory was adored by college radio programmers and could get only the barest attention from the other corners of the music business. That hardly made them outliers in the nineteen-eighties, but some of their brethren — led by the superficially similar R.E.M. — were starting to break through, and yet Game Theory still toiled away almost entirely to the favor of kids around the age of twenty. 2 Steps from the Middle Ages, the band’s fifth full-length studio effort, was a deliberate attempt to change the trajectory.

Produced, as usual, by Mitch Easter, the album is full of smart songs, drawing equally from roots rock and power pop. Despite Miller’s concerted attempt to write hit singles, the bulk of 2 Steps from the Middle Ages fits squarely in the established Game Theory sound, with only the occasional flourish here and there to differentiate it. There’s a touch of hard rock snarl to “What the Whole World Wants” and a swirling sound on “Amelia, Have You Lost” that tags it as cowpoke psychedelia. Mostly, the material is just well-constructed songs played with expert care, which is triumphant enough. “Rolling with the Moody Girls” is light and charming, “In a Delorean” has a jittery verve, and “Throwing the Election” is downright fantastic in its easy cleverness. “Wish I Could Stand or Have” sounds a little like XTC as an Americana band, an observation that sits mighty high on the towering spectrum of college rock-derived compliments.

Perhaps predictably, 2 Steps from the Middle Ages didn’t provide the commercial crossover Miller and his cohorts sought, in part because the band’s label, Enigma Records, folded shortly after the album was released. Game Theory didn’t last much longer, either. Miller assembled a new lineup for touring purposes, and Game Theory recorded a couple songs for the 1990 compilation Tinker to Evans to Chance. Then the Game Theory name was set aside, and Miller transformed the group into the Loud Family, which was destined become even more of a rarified cult success throughout the nineteen-nineties.

 

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 — #720 to #717

fall payoff

720. The Fall, The Domesday Pay-Off Triad Plus (1987)

Nothing about the Fall is particularly easy, and so it is with detailing the origins of the 1987 album The Domesday Pay-Off Triad Plus. To begin, let’s establish that the group released their ninth studio album, Bend Sinister, in the U.K. in 1986. It was the third Fall album produced by John Leckie and proved to be the last, largely because frontman Mark E. Smith squabbled with him, arguing that the sound was too full and the product would be better if it were mastered off a cassette tape of original demos. No matter the troubles, Bend Sinister became the Fall’s highest charting album in the U.K. to that point, and the label Big Time decided to release in the U.S. the following year.

For the stateside version, the album was thoroughly reworked and given the cumbersome title The Domesday Pay-Off Triad Plus. Three different U.K. product covers were slapped on the sleeve in a confusing cascade, and record buyers were left to puzzle out exactly what they were getting with this hybrid beast. It’s probably a proper ushering in to the album, since the tracks contained therein are bracingly obtuse, as was wholly characteristic of the Fall. Why two iterations of the song “Shoulder Pads”? Well, why the hell not?

And difficult music doesn’t have to be a turn-off. At their finest, the Fall proves that decisively. “Terry Waite Sez” might be odd, but it’s also fabulous catchy. There’s a cool menace to the cover “There’s a Ghost in My House,” and “Hey! Luciani” is a feverish whirl. There’s an offhand quality to the way Smith approaches his songs, which is why that Leckie production he disdained is such a fine match. It bolsters the material, gives it a solidity that creates an exciting friction with the sneering reluctance at the core. The punk-pumped stroll of their cover of “Mr. Pharmacist” (“Better stock me up for the winter time”) is a nice example.

The album is tough to crack, but the extra work it takes is part of the appeal. Plain-faced accessibility would wear strangely on the Fall. Luckily, they never really veered into that particular lane.

 

rossington anyplace

719. Rossington Collins Band, Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere (1980)

There wasn’t much of a model to follow for the surviving members of Lynyrd Skynyrd after they lost three of their bandmates, as well as their assistant road manager, in a plane crash. The 1977 aviation accident that claimed the lives of Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, and Cassie Gaines left many of the other band members severely injured. It took years for many of them to recover, and Lynyrd Skynyrd was officially, understandably folded, with a one-off performance at Charlie Daniels’ Volunteer Jam V, in 1979, serving as a valedictory moment. Instead, most of the remaining members reassembled into Rossington Collins band, named after guitarists Gary Rossington and Allen Collins.

In an effort to differentiate the new group from the famed Southern rock outfit that spawned it, Rossington Collins band recruited a female lead singer. Dale Krantz had kicked around the music industry for a bit, including time as a backup singer with 38 Special. Across the album, she strives for charmingly ragged blues-rock belting — coming closest to Full Janis on “Three Times as Bad” — which does succeed in giving the material a different flavor than the Skynard romps. The rollicking “Sometimes You Can Put It Out” and brazen “Prime Time” are solid enough, but the album has the unmistakable feel of adequate creators with a limited number of ideas stretching themselves too thin. The big, empty hard rock song “Winners and Losers” and even the band’s biggest hit, the funk guitar speckled “Don’t Misunderstand Me,” are so nondescript as to be basically anonymous.

Rossington Collins Band released one more album before splitting up in 1982, mostly because Collins wanted to form his own group. One partnership from the group did endure. After divorcing the partners they were with at the time Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere was released, Rossington and Krantz married. Over thirty-five years later, they’re still together.

 

cure top

718. The Cure, The Top (1984)

Things were looking shaky for the Cure as the midpoint of the nineteen-eighties approached. Friction with frontman Robert Smith caused bassist Simon Gallup to quit the group at the conclusion of the tour in support of the 1982 album Pornography, and the Cure was effectively on hiatus as Smith pursued other projects, including playing guitar with Siouxsie and the Banshees. Smith was also chafing at the poppier direction his music was going in, partially the result of suggestions from execs at the band’s label, Fiction Records. His contrarian instincts were kicking in.

When Smith got to work on a new album for the Cure, he did it almost entirely alone. Officially, Lol Tolhurst is credited with keyboards and Andy Anderson for percussion on The Top, but the album is almost a mislabeled solo outing for Smith. The tracks are packed so full, it seems as if he’s trying to prove he can sound like a full, bustling band all on his own. The overstuffed opener “Shake Dog Shake” sets the standard, swirling and undulating and devolving into psychedelic frippery. Sometimes Smith’s approach works — as with the intriguing Middle Eastern textures on “Wailing Wall” — but much of the album is muddled and overly busy.

Always ornate, the album is also markedly, problematically withdrawn at times. “Dressing Up” is so languid and overly precious, it sounds as though it was recorded while Smith was drifting off to sleep. The military drums and pipes on “The Empty World,” the sort of trick XTC could pull off, but it sits awkwardly here, a gimmick more than an imperative. Only the itchy “The Caterpillar” has any real life to it. Unsurprisingly, it was the album’s sole single.

Smith has since acknowledges The Top as a compromised endeavor, an album he needed to get out his system before moving the band forward. Soon enough, the Cure would start sounding like the Cure again.

 

b bouncing

717. The B-52’s, Bouncing Off the Satellites (1986)

“I adored my brother,” Cindy Wilson told Rolling Stone, a few years after that sibling, Ricky Wilson, had died from AIDS-related complications. “He had the greatest sense of humor and uniqueness about him. He really had a vision about him. He was one of the strongest elements of the B-52’s in the beginning, the conception. He was everything.”

Unavoidably, Bouncing Off the Satellites is a party record shadowed by a sad outcome. Ricky Wilson, the group’s guitarist was suffering through the recording process, largely keeping his illness a secret. He died when most of the album was complete, but well before it was released. His despondent bandmates chose not to tour in support of the record, and the widely held assumption was that the B-52’s weren’t going to continue, giving the album the disjointed effect of playing like a blithe, bouncy eulogy, at least at the time of its release.

Years later, the album is more like standard issue B-52’s, which is largely a good thing. “Wig” is flat-out amazing, taking the simplest of topics and turbine-spinning it joyful celebration. The magic act continues for trick after trick: the soaring “Girl from Ipanema Goes to Greenland,” the agreeably wackadoodle “Detour Thru Your Mind” (“All of a sudden your mood changes and your face looks like a cake/ Left out in the rain/ Is your name MacArthur Parker?/ Or is it Reba?”), and simply drawing out the word “lemonade” until it seems to last as long as an Avengers movie on “Summer of Love.” The band’s style is so distinctive and briskly transformative that a wisp of a song can turn into something memorable through sheer force of personality, as demonstrated by “Juicy Jungle.” Only the ballad-ish album closer “She Brakes for Rainbows” disappoints, sounding like a rejected B-side from Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors era.

Defying predictions, the B-52’s were not done, though three years passed before their next album. Released in 1989, that outing, Cosmic Thing, was by far the biggest hit of their career.

 

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 — #724 to #721

thriller

724. Michael Jackson, Thriller (1982)

Looking at the list to this point, I wonder if Thriller was a major catalyst for the shift in the music college radio played, or, more accurately, what college radio chose not to play any more. Within a year of its release, Thriller vaulted to the top of list of all-time best-selling albums in the U.S., on its way to a staggering count of over thirty-three million records moved. (These days, its total sales numbers are only surpassed by the first greatest hits release from the Eagles.) All six singles officially released from Thriller went Top 10, including two chart-toppers, and the album itself logged thirty-seven weeks at the peak of the Billboard album chart, occasionally ceding the spot in what was essentially a yearlong run, with only the Police’s Synchronicity displacing it for a notable length of time.

Presumably, a certain number of student programmers surveyed that massive success — the level of sensation around Thriller was impossible to avoid — and wondered what purpose was served by giving chunks of their precious, left-of-the-dial airtime to a record that was not lacking in exposure elsewhere. The first CMJ album chart, published in a 1978 demo issue, is strewn with popular releases, more or less indistinguishable from a list of titles moving briskly in record stores, with only a clear aversion to disco setting it apart. By the time I plopped my sneakered feet into a college radio broadcast booth ten years later, rejecting almost song, album, or artist that was immediately recognizable to the casual music fan. The emergence of artists pitched straight to college radio was surely a significant part of the evolution (R.E.M.’s debut album, Murmur, arrived four months after Thriller‘s release), but my theory is that Thriller was the album that initiated philosophical self-questioning about what music should shimmy through these higher education transmitters.

Of course, Thriller is now problematic for entirely different reasons. The troubling personal predilections of Michael Jackson were long the subject of speculation and callous jokes, but the recent documentary Leaving Neverland has altered the conversation. It might not be the closing argument on the artist’s legacy, but it seem to the be the point at which the jury has started to turn.

 

minutemen mersh

723. Minutemen, Project: Mersh (1985)

“We wanted to see if it would fuck with people’s, critics’ heads, our fans’ heads, the radio people’s heads, yeah, because they pigeonhole you and then they’ll leave you there forever,” bassist Mike Watt explained when asked about Project: Mersh, the EP that served as the follow-up to the masterful double album Double Nickels on the Dime. “We think we should be competing with all the bands and not be relegated to any area, so we’ll show ’em. You want choruses and fade-outs, huh?”

Econo-jammers unparalleled, Minutemen experienced their first real commercial success of note with Double Nickels on the Dime, albeit a highly modest version of such music biz stardom. Joe Carducci, the co-owner of SST Records, thought there was a chance to capitalize on the swelling attention. He suggested that Minutemen quickly record a new EP so fresh material could be lobbed out to college radio programmers. The plan was to put a little more money into the process and polish the material. Watt and his bandmates, lead vocalist/guitarist D. Boon and drummer George Hurley, agreed to work on the record, though with a certain bit of dismissive irony. Borrowing Watt’s characteristically off-kilter term to refer to material eagerly courting a wide commercial audience, the EP was dubbed Project: Mersh.

Even many years later, its odd to hear light R&B horns providing added texture on a Minutemen song, as with “The Cheerleaders,” which finds Boon crooning out wavering notes as he delivers his invective against political complacency: “When you hear them and call your name/ Can you count the lives they will take?/ Do you have to see the body bags/ Before you make a stand?” As a stab at the pop charts, it remains strikingly esoteric. “Take Our Test” sound jubilant enough that some level of crossover would have been conceivable, but even the requisite cover — a take on Steppenwolf’s “Hey Lawdy Mama” that sounds like a hungover version of the Beat Farmers — wasn’t likely to capture the previously unconverted. The marvelous “Tour-Spiel” is maybe the clearest example of the band forging a sound that could grip the attention of the masses, if only because of the way it forecasts the moment in the mid-nineteen-nineties when grunge gave way to indie rock.

Project: Mersh was released in early 1985. Before the year was up, tragedy would strike the band when Boon was killed in a van accident. The EP provides evidence of just the sort of range, skill, and inspiration that was lost.

 

verlaine flash

722. Tom Verlaine, Flash Light (1987)

The consensus view of Tom Verlaine’s Flash Point, his fifth solo effort, was that it represented a return from exile. It had been three years since his previous album, ages in the timetable of the nineteen-eighties, and Verlaine reportedly spent much of the gap lounging in Europe, though he often claimed he never really left his home of New York City. Accentuating the tale of revival, Flash Point was Verlaine’s bow on IRS Records, arguably the dominant label of college radio, thanks largely to its status as the home of R.E.M. (even if the band was about to make the leap to major label Warner Bros.). As Verlaine’s former band, Television, only grew in retrospective prominence, he was poised to make a statement of enduring artistic viability.

Flash Point was well-regarded upon its release, and Verlaine made the promotional rounds with the aplomb of practiced indifference. Now it sounds overly tethered to the era in which it was released, vacated of the forceful personality that defined Verlaine’s strongest work. An artist who previously stood apart seems as if he’s trying to elbow his way into the scrum of college rock upstarts. “Say a Prayer” is like Psychedelic Furs when they’re trying to play nice, and “At 4 A.M.” sidles up to the homespun sound of Let’s Active, at least if Lou Reed stepped in as guest vocalist. Both “Song” and “Annie’s Telling Me” could be easily mistaken for Lloyd Cole. They’re all passable tracks, but lacking in zest. The only time the album lapses into a more dire space is on “The Scientist Writes a Letter,” which is painfully reminiscent of the Pink Floyd albums after Roger Waters left.

Flash Light did well enough, but didn’t meet the lofty expectations affixed to it. Another three years passed before his next studio outing, and by that time I.R.S. Records had lost interest, leaving the album, entitled The Wonder, to be released solely by Verlaine’s U.K. label, Fontana Records. Also by that time, getting Television back together started to shimmer into focus as an appealing prospect.

 

camle breathless

721. Camel, Breathless (1978)

Breathless was the sixth studio album by the U.K. prog rock band Camel, and they were experiencing some of the common tumult of groups with several miles on the odometer. Conflict-driven personnel changes had dogged the band in recent years, and Breathless ushered in a major one when keyboardist Peter Bardens quit at the end of the recording sessions, citing creative conflicts with guitarist Andrew Latimer as the impetus for his departure. Some might claim to hear evidence of the discord in the album’s grooves, but I find the material to be too polished to make such claims wholly credible. Any confusion is more probably attributable to a band with a very particular speciality colliding with major musical trends — disco and punk rock, most prominently — that made their output feel strained and quaint.

Like most acts of the day, Camel nudges up to disco and tries a tentative embrace. “Summer Lightning” was hardly going to topple Donna Summer or Bee Gees from their perches, but the groove is unmistakable angling for the consideration on the dance charts. That cut is a relative rarity, though, and most of the album locks into the mode exemplified by “Echoes,” existing in some sort of netherworld between prog rock and fusion jazz. Camel roams freely across that terrain, leading to everything from the irredeemably drippy “You Make Me Smile” to the ambitious “Wing and a Prayer,” on which the heavy layering of instrumental trickery becomes mere clutter. To their credit, the band also has moments when the pretension falls away and an appealing playfulness stands in its place. “Down on the Farm” has a little Cheap Trick chunkiness to its opening guitar clamor, then it quickly settles into an ever so British recounting of the provincial life that could stand proudly next to similar frippery from the likes of the Small Faces and the Kinks.

If the evolving music scene was threatening to leave Camel behind, the band wasn’t going to simply fade away. They continued making records well into the nineteen-eighties,

 

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 — #728 to #725

joan key

728. Joan Armatrading, The Key (1983)

Joan Armatrading was deep into her career when she released The Key, and she was ready for a little more commercial success.

“I would like to sell more records in America, not so people could look at me walking down the street and say ‘There’s Joan Armatrading,’ but I would like to walk down a street and hear someone singing my songs,” she told Orange Coast magazine at the time. “That would be great.”

Armatrading’s label, A&M Records, harbored similar aspirations, though they were a little more impatient. After Armatrading turned in the album, execs came back to her with the dreaded and commonplace complaint that they didn’t hear a hit. Produced by Steve Lillywhite, a previous collaborator of Armatrading’s who was also producing on U2’s War at about the same time,  The Key was hardly without charm, even the kind of bright, catchy ingenuity that often found a place on the pop charts. “(I Love It When You) Call Me Names” plays with the the jagged post-disco that scored Kim Carnes a massive hit with “Bette Davis Eyes,” and tracks such as fierce, gnarled “Tell Tale” and the barbed wire gauntlet of “The Dealer” carry the kind of brusque authority that appealed to album rock radio. Lillywhite arguably brings too heavy a hand to the ballads — “Everybody Gotta Know” is thickly overproduced — but that approach was hardly a dealbreaker fror radio programmers.

Despite the relative strength of the material she’d already turned in, Armatrading acquiesced, penning a pair of songs that were recorded with Val Garay, who’d in fact produced the previously mentioned smash for Carnes. “Drop the Pilot”  is anthemic and soaring, taking full advantage of Armatrading’s rich, deep vocals. The other song, “What Do Boys Dream,”  is built upon tricky rhythms seemingly drawn from Armatrading’s Caribbean birthplace. They’re both strong, but don’t especially outdistance the other tracks. A&M made them both singles, and “Drop the Pilot” did become the sole Armatrading offering to crack the Billboard Hot 100, albeit peaking at a modest #78.

 

longtwo

727. The Long Ryders, Two Fisted Tales (1987)

The Long Ryders had every reason to believe stardom was imminent in the months surrounding the release of Two Fisted Tales, their third full-length studio effort. They had champions in the music press, members of R.E.M. were proclaiming their own ascendancy would be used to help their favored cohorts (supposedly insisting, “Soon as we get through making the Replacements famous you guys are next!”), and their labelmates U2 tapped them to serving as one of the support acts on the tour behind The Joshua Tree. As it happened, though, Two Fisted Tales never broke, and the band dissolved within a year of its release.

Produced by Ed Stasium, who’d overseen some of the strongest releases by the Smithereens and Ramones, Two Fisted Tales certainly charges forward like world domination is the goal. The raw barroom snarl of “Gunslinger Man” and the jabbing “Long Story Short” sound like they’re meant to make other rock songs bend a knee in respect. “I Want You So Bad” sounds like the little stretch when Brian Setzer put away overtly retro tomfoolery in favor of earnest Americana, and “Spectacular Fall” is what might have resulted if Julian Cope had offered to team up with the Alvin brothers on a new version of the Blasters. The groups demonstrates they know how and when to call upon collaborators in their Los Angeles stomping grounds, as when Los Lobos’s David Hidalgo squeezes his accordion to provide just a little extra tang on “The Light Gets in the Way.” There are also little signs that Long Ryders may not have been able to push past the fairly narrow constraints of their own sound. “Harriet Tubman’s Gonna Carry Me Home,” a seeming attempt to pen a spiritual-influenced folk classic, is a clunker.

The band started to splinter apart with key members leaving to pursue other paths. Island Records was game for another record, but the remaining Ryders decided not to keep what remained of the band together. As is the case with many of the neglected college radio bands of that era, reunions happened, eventually leading to an unlikely follow-up to Two Fisted Tales. Under the Long Ryders banner, Psychedelic Country Soul was released in February 2019.

 

twins future

726. Thompson Twins, Here’s to Future Days (1985)

Thompson Twins were riding the whirlwind while recording their fifth studio album, Here’s to Future Days. Their previous release, Into the Gap, had been a true breakthrough, yielding three Top 5 singles at home in the U.K. and making them staples of MTV, the rapidly emerging behemoth of pop culture tastemaking. In the midst of the sessions, they jaunted from the New York city studio where they were working with producer Nile Rodgers down to Philadelphia in order to perform at Live Aid, where no less than Madonna pitched in on backing vocals during their set. This was a band reaching a peak, or maybe starting to teeter at the tippy top, with inevitable descent looming. Also during the sessions, band leader Tom Bailey collapsed in his hotel room. A diagnosis of nervous exhaustion was given.

It was Bailey’s illness that helped prompt the hiring of Rodgers, presumably to take some pressure off. As would be expected, Rodgers upped the guitars and the slick studio sheen. His presence is clear on the track “Tokyo,” which takes some unfortunate turns in the lyrics (“Pepsi Cola/ Wax Tempura/ Yamamoto/ Sayonara”), but also collects a teetering stack of studio elements that coheres into something catchy and even a little giddy. Much of the album boasts a similar sound, trying to straddle the corner border between disco, rock, funk, and broader dance music. Understandably, it’s just a mess at times. “Don’t Mess with Doctor Dream” is as dopey as the title implies, and the weird new wave lounge of “You Killed the Clown” is oddly flavorless. The stabs at social awareness get lost in the taffy tangles, notably a painfully vapid cover of the Beatles’ “Revolution” and the overstuffed “Love is the Law,” which devolves into a series of tangled platitudes (“Fighting in the name of religion/ Another senseless contradiction/ So when you feel like getting rough ‘n’ tough/ Remember no excuse is good enough”).

Here’s to Future Days boasts a pair of solid hits — both Top 10 in the U.S. — and they’re worthy of the affection they engendered. “Lay Your Hands on Me” finds the Thompson Twins outdoing Howard Jones at his own game of keening, mid-tempo pop, and “King for a Day” is bright and infectious. They build on what the band had done before, but add in greater complexity, craft, and charm. Basically, the cuts show the band growing in exactly the way a band is supposed to grow.

Bailey has implied that, at the time of Here’s to Future Days, everyone in Thompson Twins was getting worn out with the trappings of pop success they’d chased. Joe Leeway, who played percussion and keyboards for the band, stepped away after this album, leaving Bailey and percussionist Alannah Currie to continue. They released three more studio albums as Thompson Twins and a pair of later records under the name Babble before closing shop for good in the mid-nineteen-nineties.

 

tom tom

725. Tom Tom Club, Tom Tom Club (1981)

Talking Heads were on hiatus, so bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz needed something to do with their time. They invited along guitarist Adrian Belew, whose Gump-ian carousing through the coolest stops in rock ‘n’ roll history including time in the Talking Heads touring band, and went down to the Bahamas. Recruiting musicians from the region, the ad hoc assemblage of performers held their first rehearsal in a place called the Tom Tom Club and figured that was as good a name as any for their new unit. After a few months in the Nassau’s Compass Point Studios, they emerged with a self-titled album.

Tom Tom Club is full of odd and delightful explorations, as if every idea gets equal time. So much is happening on album opener “Wordy Rappinghood” that it’s as if the track is drawing simultaneously from every disco in the world, including one where some upstart is trying out this new style of vocals called rapping. The album’s other track of sizable fame, “Genius of Love,” is a lovely, breezy morsel of pop reinvention, pinging and zinging and draping a loving arm around the listener’s shoulder like a friend who’s third tequila shot is just kicking in. Across the album, the rhythms take a starring role, whether the skittering tempo that almost takes on a spooky tinge on “As Above, So Below” or appropriately charging fervor of “On, On, On, On…”

Tom Tom Club might have been a side project, but it proved to be about as commercially success and the Weymouth and Frantz’s day gig. The album peaked in the charts in the rough vicinity of the most recent Talking Heads releases, and “Genius of Love” made the Top 40, a feat no Talking Heads original had achieved to that point. It was notable enough that a few minutes of Stop Making Sense, the 1984 Talking Heads concert film, were turned over to Weymouth and Frantz to lead a performance of “Genius of Love,” a courtesy not extended to Jerry Harrison for anything off his hiatus album, The Red and the Black.

 

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