College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #840 to #837

fixx walkabout

840. The Fixx, Walkabout (1986)

Formed in London in 1979, the Fixx were a regular presence on album rock radio throughout the decade that followed. Despite indications that they might be able to cross over to the Top 40 charts — the single “One Thing Leads to Another” made it all the way up to #4 — by the the Fixx’s fourth album, Walkabout, label heads and the band’s management were openly fretting about a growing indifference among key programmers. The prior release, Phantoms, was considered a disappointment, so there was a hearty push to get the brand greater exposure, including a gig as opening act for the Moody Blues, then touring on the strength of a surprise late-career hit.

As had been the case on their prior three albums, the Fixx worked with producer Rupert Hine. There is a continuity of sound and style, but also a clear sense that everything was caressed into a more agreeable shape, all the better to connect with a broader audience. Although the Fixx were never exactly hard rockers, lead single “Secret Separation” is noticeably gentler than their earlier hits, any and all abrasion dutifully sanded away. The tactic didn’t exactly work. The song made it into the Billboard Top 40 (and became their second song to top the album rock chart), but peaked at a lower point that the first single from Phantoms.

The rest of the album is right in line with that uninspiring single. “Treasure It” is a piece of wimpy pop with inane lyrics (“We’ll have our turn to use what we’ve learnt/ And stand into the light of our lives/ So please yourself, feed yourself/ Take a seat for this coming attraction”), and “Read Between the lines” clumsily goes for quiet drama, winding up sounding like a watered down Marillion song. The welcome sonic weirdness injected into “Sense the Adventure” is the closest the Fixx comes to an adventurous creative spirit. Everything else is sadly rote.

 

 

vamp pop

839. Transvision Vamp, Pop Art (1988)

With their brash, melting-candy guitar pop and image-first aesthetic, Transvision Vamp struck more than a few observers as a band almost genetically engineered to prosper when MTV was arguably still at the long plateau height of its powers. The deep history of the group back that assumption up, at least somewhat. Lead singer Wendy James and guitarist and chief songwriter Nick Sayer first collaborated on a film treatment inspired by the weird Canadian rock fantasy animated film Rock & Rule. When they shopped it to movie studios, they were redirected to record labels. Not long afterward, the band was in place, and their debut album, Pop Art, was released.

On the off chance that the tight dresses James was wriggled into didn’t provide enough of a signal as to how much Transvision Vamp was willing to use sex to sell records, the track “I Want You Love” really drives it home before the end of the first stanza as the singer essentially rhymes “love” with an orgasmic groan. Subtlety clearly wasn’t an attribute that much interested the band.

Then again, subtlety wasn’t really a prized quality for most of rock ‘n’ roll, and Transvision Vamp impressively romped through the glittery muck built into to form. Single “Tell That Girl to Shut Up” is the album’s truest winner, charging forward with braggadocio, chunky instrumentation, and a vocal performance by James that convincingly combined come-hither sweetness and fierce attitude. Originally recorded by Holly and the Italians, the standout was also borrowed from someone else, which hints at some broader trouble. On Pop Art, anyway, Sayer isn’t much of a songwriter.

Some of the tracks rely on needy references to creations and people with cool kid credibility (“Andy Warhol’s Dead,” and “Hanging Out with Halo Jones,” about the 2000 AD comic book character). The rummage pile of pop culture detritus is arguably at its nadir on album opener “Trash City,” which includes lyrics such as “From LSD to MTV/ From backpack to Pac-Man.” More problematically, the song includes stabs at futuristic effects that make it sound like the specific song Flight of the Conchords were mocking on “Robots.” The lyrics keep tripping up the band, no matter how much vivid glam rock oomph they put into the music. “Revolution Baby” impressively evokes T. Rex, but there’s no disguising the problems with “Your mama’s rich and your daddy’s good looking/ I got the hunger so tell me what’s cooking.”

As if sensing the short window they had, Transvision Vamp released their sophomore album, Velveteen, less than a year after their debut. There was one more album (Little Magnets Versus the Bubble of Babble, in 1991) before the group called it quits.

 

 

ac rock

838. AC/DC, For Those About to Rock We Salute You (1981)

There were plenty of bands across the nineteen-seventies and nineteen-eighties that delivered defining hard rock epics, but Australian powerhouses AC/DC were arguably unique in their ability to craft tracks that played like anthems for budding metalheads everywhere. “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)” is such a perfect blast of fist-pumping, cymbal-crashing, soaring guitar solidarity, it’s as if it was handed down from the power chord gods. In a way, I guess it was.

There’s no overstates the popularity of AC/DC at the time the album For Those About to Rock We Salute You was released. The group’s prior effort, Back in Black, was absolutely enormous. (By now, it has sold more than fifty million copies worldwide.) in fact, Back in Black was such a hit that their U.S. label, Atlantic Records, capitalized by releasing the 1977 album Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap after previously rejecting it as too poorly produced for the stateside market. It, too, was a big seller, so AC/DC suddenly had the highest of expectations weighing on their next studio effort.

For Those About to Rock We Salute You kept the band’s streak of mighty achievements alive, becoming their first to top the Billboard album chart, a feat it would take them over twenty-five years to repeat.

 

 

talk colour

837. Talk Talk, The Colour of Spring (1986)

Talk Talk sounded like a completely different band on The Colour of Spring, their third album. The English group enjoyed effusive critical praise for their austere synth pop of crystalline perfection, but that hadn’t quite translated to significant commercial success. Whether through natural evolution or an attempt to reach a wider audience, Talk Talk pushed to a more robust sound on The Colour of Spring, filling in the margins with bright, bristling musical adornments.

Despite the changes, the material remains fairly light and pretty. Album opener “Happiness is Easy” is decidedly precious, even before the children’s choir joins in. But the The Colour of Spring is delivered with a such a vibrant abundance that, positioned properly, it could dominate and then redefine pop radio. There’s a funky churn to “Life’s What You Make It,” and “Living in Another World” is sharp and lively. On “April 5th,” lead singer Mark Hollis Hollis finishes the song with quiet yelps and murmurs, like a version of the Waterboys succumbing to heavy sedation. Then the album-closing mini-epic “Time It’s Time” spreads a fleet of ideas across its running time, giving an assured sense that Talk Talk possessed the capability to master just about any pop music technique.

The Colour of Spring gave Talk Talk the success that was previously elusive. It charted in the Top 10 in the U.K. This wasn’t smash territory, but it gave the band the clout — as well as the added time and budget — to do whatever they wanted with their next outing, leading to nearly a yearlong process in the recording studio on the way to Spirit of Eden, which retreated almost entirely from the commercial accessibility they’d finally achieved.

 

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 — #844 to #841

belew rhino

844. Adrian Belew, Lone Rhino (1982)

When Adrian Belew released his solo debut, Lone Rhino, he already had a resume heavy with time served alongside iconoclastic geniuses. In the prior decade, he’d been a showcase guitarist alongside Frank Zappa, David Bowie, and Talking Heads. One year earlier, he joined the lineup of a revived King Crimson. It was his work with Talking Heads offshoot Tom Tom Club that brought Belew into the orbit of Island Records head Chris Blackwell. A record contract was offered, and Lone Rhino followed in short order.

In accordance with his famed collaborators, Belew delivered music that was deliriously odd. With his guitar, Belew was like a magician on acid, wringing out sounds that made it seem as if the neck and strings of the instrument became molten at his touch. His kinship with other musicians was clear, and he often seemed close to alignment with the prevalent experimentation of the era. And yet there was a unique discomfort to Belew’s soundscapes.

“Big Electric Cat” is vividly off-kilter, stapling together an electrified beat and probing instrumentation, recalling Peter Gabriel’s pushes into the sonically surreal, but with a much weirder vibe. “Hot Sun” is a mere nibble, but so infused with electronic simmering that it fascinates. With music pitched somewhere between Rockpile retro pop and loopy white funk, “Swingline” recounts peeping on the backyard existences of Midwesterners during a long train ride (“Look at that kid over there with no underwear/ And a silly dog who doesn’t care”). Belew’s probing sometimes threatens to devolve into drab electronic noodling, as on “The Man in the Moon,” but he’s more often truly compelling as he cracks open his songs and cavorts in the resulting shower of shiny notes. It’s almost more of a surprise when a comparatively straightforward song — such as “Animal Grace” — pops up on the playlist.

Following Lone Rhino, Belew continued to be ridiculously productive, releasing a new solo album every year or two which serving as a highly skilled hired hand. Before the nineteen-eighties were over, he founded and fronted the Bears, appeared on two more King Crimson efforts, and played on albums by Laurie Anderson, Joe Cocker, Jean Michel Jarre, Cyndi Lauper, and Paul Simon.

 

 

crenshaw mary

843. Marshall Crenshaw, Mary Jean & 9 Others (1987)

Mary Jean & 9 Others was the fourth full-length album from Marshall Crenshaw, and it provided some evidence that the crisp style of his songwriting was increasingly out of step with the studio polish so prominent in nineteen-eighties music. The same year, Crenshaw played Buddy Holly in La Bamba (in what knowledgable music fans widely considered inspired casting), which only accentuated the idea that he was best suited to another time, when easy tunefulness was more valuable than an expansive pliability that allowed for the adding stuffing of all manner of synthesized elements.

Sometimes, the melding of styles works fairly well. “This is Easy” has one of Crnenshaw’s terrific hooks grounded in vintage rock stylings, and the pristine studio work helps it shine like cherry candy. And “Wild Abandon” is straightforward but engaging, an example of a song’s charms being accentuated by the fulsome attention of producer Don Dixon. On other tracks — “Mary Jean” is a prime example — the same thick strokes approach obscures Crenshaw’s creative personality almost entirely. The slower songs arguably fare worst. The ripe yearning of “Calling Out for Love (at Crying Time)” nearly redeems it, but “They Never Will Know” is drippier than a cake left out in the rain. Then there’s the Peter Case composition “Steel Strings,” which peppers in some many sonic notions — a Bo Diddley hear, some Caribbean tones there — that it turns into a exhausting muddle.

It’s possible Crenshaw was starting to get a little bored with the grind of delivering a new set of songs every couple years. His next album (Good Evening, released in 1989) was largely comprised of songs written by or cowritten with others, and he started to tackle projects that allowed him to rummage through the archives of vintage music. Within a few years, Crenshaw assembled the honky tonk compilation Hillbilly Music…Thank God! and penned the book Hollywood Rock,a survey of pop stars in the movies.

 

 

pet please

842. Pet Shop Boys, Please (1986)

According to legend, the title of the debut album from Pet Shop Boys was chosen in a deliberately effort to inject a bit more politeness in the world. The theory was that interested music buyers would head to their local shop and say to the proprietor some variant on “I’d like the new Pet Shop Boys album, Please.” It’s unlikely that the gambit affected a major shift in cultural mores, but the album itself can make a fair claim at revolution.

Now that “West End Girls,” the album’s lead single, has entered the canon of era-defining hits, it’s more difficult to convey exactly how different the song sounded at the time. That its place atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart was bracketed by Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” and Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All” provides some idea. Pop hits at the time (as is the case now) were often pushy and obvious, putting any nuance in music and lyrics aside to better capture the fleeting attention of listeners who were expertly conditioned to gleefully embrace material that was superficially new but safely familiar. “West End Girls” was almost painfully restrained, couching its lyrical observations about the constant pressures endured by the lower class in arch synth-pop seemingly indifferent to whether or not it lured anyone to the dance floor.

The smash hit single was properly representative of the whole album. Please is consistently distant and alluring, wise and impulsive, insistent and relaxed. “Love Comes Quickly” is as seductively icy as some sly come on from Sade, and “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money)” surges, churns, sparks and practically glistens. The latter track pushes back against the duo’s reputation for chilliness. There is an abundance of feeling animating the cut, expressed through the richness of its construction. That’s also found in “I Want a Lover,” a synth epic of grand drama and billowing layers, like Pet Shop Boys are claiming the Scott Walker legacy as their own. The complexities crafted with evident ease by Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe (abetted mightily, no doubt, by producer Stephen Hague) are also well expressed by “Why Don’t We Live Together,” which is sweet (“We’ll find a home together/ And sleep there every night”) and tangy (“I may not always love you/ You may not care”) at the same time.

Impressive as it is, there are minor flaws to be found on Please. Musically, “Suburbia” sounds a little too much like it was built around a salvaged theme for a nighttime soap. And “Violence” is arguably the gentlest sounding song that could conceivably be given that title, which could have created an intriguing contrast, but instead comes across as a drab mismatch. These are the least offensive of exceptions, though. Mostly, Please has the sharp ring of a band redefining their chosen genre with unabashed confidence.

 

 

pete xl

841. Pete Shelley, XL1 (1983)

In 1983, Pete Shelley was already a legend in certain circles. He had devotees from his time as frontman of the Buzzcocks, of course, and he also picked up a cadre of supporters from his more synth-oriented proper solo bow “Homosapien” (which preceded the album of the same name), in no small part because an oblique lyrical reference to gay sex combined with Shelley’s uncommon openness about his bisexuality to cause the BBC to band the song. Nothing creates the cachet of important rebelliousness like an official rejection by the cultural powers that be.

And yet, Shelley’s second solo album, XL1, was probably less notable for any of the music in its grooves than an extra item packaged within the shrink wrap. The album was bundled with a computer program, compatible with the home computer ZX Spectrum, that provided visual accompaniments to all of the songs. The computer animation was rudimentary, but simply thinking to include such a component was strikingly forward-thinking.

Removed from its gimmick, XL1 isn’t particularly successful. Moving away from the brash punk authority of his previous band, Shelley favors a style of synth pop that is painfully dated, overly enamored of studio craft over sturdy song stylings. To note that “If You Ask Me (I Won’t Say No)” hews perilously close to the Wet Wet Wet model or that “I Just Wanna Touch” sounds like a slightly edgier Howard Jones is as cruel as it is accurate. There are signs of where Shelley could have taken the material in more satisfying directions. “You Know Better Than I Know” is sprightly enough to intrigue, and “Millions of People (No One Like You)” is one or two good choices away from turning into a brilliantly trashy glam rock song.

Unsurprisingly, XL1 was met with indifference. Shelley’s label, Arista Records, dropped him, and there would be only one more solo album before he reassembled the Buzzcocks, which has remained his primary artistic avenue ever since.

 

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 — #848 to #845

fall saving

848. The Fall, This Nation’s Saving Grace (1985)

Although the classic college rock era covered by this particular Countdown partially tracks the journey from outsider obscurity to a wary mainstream for several artists — and, to a degree, the whole creative ethos that reigned on the left end of the dial — it’s probably worth remembering that accessibility is highly relative term, wholly dependent on the established grammar of the personnel involved. By most assessments, This Nation’s Saving Grace was the most listener-friendly album the Fall had produced to that point. It’s supposed approachability was even lamented by established fans of the band, who quickly grew accustomed to snarling — with no small hint of misogyny — about the influence of band leader Mark E. Smith’s wife, Brix Smith, who’d joined the lineup as a guitarist, singer, and co-songwriter two years earlier. She didn’t necessarily disagree that she’d shifted the sound.

“Even with the old songs, I think I added some shadow and light to them all,” she said around that time. “I give it a lot of drive, as well as adding some ‘glamor’ to it all.”

None of this means the Fall were coming anywhere near “Walking on Sunshine.” The band’s eighth studio album overall, This Nation’s Saving Grace is characteristically raw and caustic, alchemizing the confrontation of punk into pop music so deconstructionist that it’s the equivalent of bare steel beams, slender shards shedding off as some unseen external pressure rises. Mark E. Smith’s instincts call to mind comparisons to structures and other entities under assault. “Bombast” has a spoken word opening that sounds as if it’s emanating from a broken speaker (“All those whose mind entitles themselves, and whose main entitle is themselves, shall feel the wrath of my bombast!”) before going into a stark, lean rattle reminiscent of prime Iggy Pop. It’s matched in brashness by the likes of “Spoilt Victorian Child” and the intoxicating eddy of sonic elements in “Gut of the Quantifier.”

It’s recession as much as aggression that defines the Fall. Sketching the blueprint for future practitioners of too-cool-for-school artists purposefully indifferent songcraft — such as Pavement — the Fall deliver multiple tracks that feel as if they were wrapped up two or three passes early. Unlike most of the acts that echoed their approach, the Fall often made their choice at truncation with a sense of pointed purpose. The approach tends to add a air of bracing uncertainty. The sinister amble “What You Need” and the controlled casual “Paint Work” (which includes audio from a BBC documentary, reported inserted inadvertently and then retained) fit this part of the model.

This Nation’s Saving Grace didn’t provide some massive commercial breakthrough, but its arguably the band’s release that had the most lasting power. It was even the subject of a lavish rerelease several years ago, weighty with alternative edits and other supplementary material.

 

 

records

847. The Records, The Records (1979)

There might not be a finer example of the pure joy to be found in power pop than the“Starry Eyes,” the debut single from the Records. Inspired by the Eddie and the Hot Rods track “Do Anything You Wanna Do,” the Records song is shiny as polished chrome and zingily propulsive with its kiss-off lyrics (“I don’t want to argue/ There’s nothing to say/ Get me out of your starry eyes and be on your way”). It is simultaneously timeless and sharply of its era, sounding like its doing its level best to preserve the slightly retro cheeriness of nineteen-seventies AM radio pop stations. The song wasn’t exactly a hit, peaking at #56 in the U.S. and doing no better in the band’s U.K. homeland, but it gave them a template as they worked on their debut album, first with producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange (still early in his career, well before his time overseeing notable abominations against taste perpetrated by Def Leppard) and then Tim Friese-Greene. Entitled Shades in Bed in the U.K., the album was released as a self-titled effort in the U.S.

In addition to “Starry Eyes,” the album is packed with dandy songs in a similar vein. “Teenarama” is perfect bubble gum pop, though full enjoyment of it requires willful ignorance of some of the skeevy lyrics (“I wanted a change of style/ To be with a juvenile”) and “Girls That’s Don’t Exist” opens with a quickened pulse riff akin to “I Got You” before the sound fills in, completely with keening guitar lines. “Affection Rejected” has the breeziness that would someday be the defining quality of power pop legacy adopters Fountains of Wayne.

As much as there’s real strength to the material, there are also signs of a fairly limited range to the Records. “Another Star” wobbles in large part because of the prog rock indulgence layered into it, and the decent hook in “Insomnia”  can’t make up for inane lyrics (“I’ve tried all kinds of pills/ And also counted sheep/ Read another magazine/ Still I can not sleep”). The Records tinkered with their lineup and sound for two more albums before folding as a going concern.

 

 

fegmania

846. Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians, Fegmania! (1985)

The music career of Robyn Hitchcock was always likely to strange and circuitous, but for a time in the early nineteen-eighties, any attentive observers might reasonably predict it was going to terminate well before the peculiar poet from Paddington had run out of words. Following the dissolution of his band the Soft Boys, Hitchcock delivered a series of solo albums which maintained the mode of tunefully offbeat he’d previously established as a thoroughly unique voice. Their penetration in the cultural consciousness was impeded by music business confusion, leading Hitchcock to at least make overtures of walking away from the upside down circus altogether, releasing the single “Eaten by Her Own Dinner” as a parting shot.

Following a return with the spare I Often Dream of Trains —an album undertaken as a cathartic exercise ahead of beginning again — Hitchcock reached out to his former bandmates Morris Windsor and Andy Metcalfe. They became a backing band dubbed the Egyptians. Fegmania! was the album that followed.

To the degree that Hitchcock is known to a broader audience, it’s likely as a lyricist whose propensity for the absurd puts him just outside the realm of novelty. There’s no denying that quality to his material, especially with titles such as “The Man with the Lightbulb Head.”  But it’s that track’s incorporation of enticing psychedelia that provides a fuller picture of Hitchcock’s artistry. The music is as vivid and unorthodox as the lyrics, whether skewing to lush (“Egyptian Cream”) or driving (“Heaven”). On Fegmania!, it truly seems as if Hitchcock can go spiriting through any secret door spied through a kaleidoscope. “Strawberry Mind” sounds like demented zydeco, and the mightily agitated rhythm of “The Fly”  suggests the title insect while somehow making the gimmick immaterial, as if all music of the era sounded like that. Why wouldn’t it?

Although Hitchcock is often pigeonholed — somewhat understandably, if I’m being honest — for the wild imaginings he shares, there’s an inherent understanding of the emotions that drive human interaction. No matter the strangeness slaloming through the tracks, the words are grounded in something truthful, as with the tender “Another Bubble” (“She’s just another human/ And when you get up close you’ll see/ Now, what you gonna do, man?/ Don’t make her what you’ll never be”). Hitchcock’s endless inventiveness is always in the service of exploring the deeper self. With Fegmania!, people were starting to properly listen.

I also like the song “My Wife and My Dead Wife.”

 

 

x-teens love

845. X-Teens, Love and Politics (1985)

The X-Teens plied their craft in Durham, North Carolina, in the first half of the nineteen-eighties. Almost inevitably, that means they were tangled up with the crew of music practitioners led by Mitch Easter and Don Dixon. Both of those alumni of R.E.M.’s early records pitched in for the X-Teens self-titled debut, released in 1984, and their influence persists on the sophomore release Love and Politics“Don’t Listen to Him” even sounds a little like the sideways funk Dixon indulged in around that time on his solo efforts around that time.

Cranking out clever, jumpy guitar pop, X-Teens court all sorts of comparisons on the album. Change Gotta Come” is like a weirder XTC, there’s an echo of Elvis Costello’s contained bellow on “Say It Isn’t So”, and “It Was Something” is similar to the adding-the-kitchen-sink-means-we’re-just-getting-started approach of Oingo Boingo. I don’t mean to imply that the material on Love and Politics is derivative. Instead, it’s bright and exploratory, bending a fine sense of songcraft in many different directions, always acquitting themselves nicely. The jazzy island-hopping vibe of “Hostage of My Heart” isn’t usually my thing, but bound up with the band’s sincerity, it is warm and winning.

Love and Politics is a fine album. It was also the last from the X-Teens. The band broke up before the end of the year.

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 — #852 to #849

oingo ngo

852. Oingo Boingo, Boi-ngo (1987)

Surely, MCA Records expected Oingo Boingo was poised for a major commercial breakthrough when the band delivered Boi-ngo, their sixth album overall and second for the label. Thanks in part to frontman Danny Elfman’s increasing presence in the business of crafting music for Hollywood movies, Oingo Boingo had a minor hit through providing the title song for a John Hughes comedy and added to their prominence by playing the house band for a Back to School college party (the film also boasted one of Elfman’s first original scores). The sprawling band from Los Angeles was primed to step forward from cult heroes to genuine hitmakers, so it seemed.

Boi-ngo simply didn’t have that kind of magic in it. For better or worse, it was a standard Oingo Boingo album, spotted with decent songs, but also with plenty of mediocre material, inkling of songs that were stretched to several minutes, the pogoing beats and blaring horn parts unable to divert from inherent redundancy. Album opener “Home Again” finds the band at their best: tinkling synth lines, zesty brass, thumping beat, and Elfman’s genially fevered vocals adding up to a dizzying assemblage of sound. It’s the product of a band uniquely equipped to keep the rock club hopping all night, or at least until it becomes apparent that their sleeves have fewer tricks shoved up there than initially indicated.

Elfman is idiosyncratic enough as a composer that he can romp into fascinating sonic territory. “Elevator Man” opens with a recording manipulation that sounds like it could be the preface to some glorious collaboration between Laurie Anderson and Tune-Yards, making it a letdown when the track devolves to a standard Oingo Boingo construct of basic yet fussy dance music and willfully dopey lyrics (“I ride my elevator/ Through the shafts of your heart/ When you climb aboard baby/ There’s no getting off”). “My Life” has so much grand stylish swagger, it’s like an ABC song by way of Elfman’s sensibility. And what “We Close Our Eyes” lack in adventurousness, it makes up for with the tight construction and offhand catchiness that suggests its crafter is already instinctively shaped his output to fit comfortably when draped across cinematic closing credits.

Boi-ngo wasn’t the end of Oingo Boingo’s recording career, but it probably represents the last time Elfman could reasonably consider the band his day job. By the time of the band’s next studio effort (Dark End of the Tunnel, released in 1990), he was highly in demand as a composer of movie music. When a significant revamped (and indifferently renamed) version of the band released their final album, in 1994, it was clear they were little more than an afterthought for Elfman.

 

 

was born

851. Was (Not Was), Born to Laugh at Tornadoes (1983)

Don Fagenson and David Weiss grew up together in just outside of Detroit, tinkering around the local music scene separately and together (as performers, as local rock critics) before decided to respond to the icy revving of new wave and the spent sweat of disco by forming a new funk group that incorporated elements of the other forms with an archly constructed irony that made it difficult to discern if it was all a put on. Adding to the theatricality, the musicians dubbed themselves Don and David Was, aligning their identities with the name chosen for the band: Was (Not Was).

Born to Laugh at Tornadoes was the group’s second album, and it extends the artistic gamesmanship. The two men who would be Was are the constants on the album, but it’s probably more notable for the string of guest stars filling in its grooves, some of them deployed in deliberately incongruous ways. The lineup was so full of notables that a promotional sticker slapped on the front of the album queried, “How many famous people do you think sang on this album?” A parenthetical note below helpfully suggested, “See back for clues.” It’s strange enough when Mel Tormé lends his sooth croon to the strange saga “Zaz Turned Blue” (“One night in the park for a lark/ Zaz let Steve Brown fool around/ Steve squeezed his neck, figured what the heck/ But Zaz hit the ground, he was downed”), but Ozzy Osbourne contributing to the Devo-esque art synth wildness of “Shake Your Head (Let’s Go to Bed)” crosses over into the mystic land of Why-the-Hell-Not? The Mitch Ryder vocals on the chrome-plated rock number “Bow Wow Wow Wow” are mundane in comparison.

The balance between sincerity and put-on that served Was (Not Was) well on later albums was just being formulated on Born to Laugh at Tornadoes. Regular collaborator Sweet Pea Atkinson sings with authority on “Knocked Down, Made Small (Treated Like a Rubber Ball),” adding legitimacy to the appropriation of thunderous seventies funk. And David Was’s snarled storytelling on “The Party Broke Up” is a reasonable rough draft for the superior “I Feel Better Than James Brown” a few years later, and “Smile” is amsuing for the way it sounds like it’s designed to appear across the opening credits of a Fast Times at Ridgemont High knockoff. The genre tomfoolery can make the material feel a little hollowed out (“(Return to the Valley of) Out Come the Freaks” is just Prince-lite), but overall the rambunctiousness of the duo’s creativity makes for grand fun.

 

 

bluebells sisters

850. Bluebells, Sisters (1984)

“Our songs are very optimistic, even when we’re writing about things that are really bad,” Robert Hodgens once explained about the material offered up by his band the Bluebells. “We are honest, but there’s no point going around gloomy and doomy because everybody just gets depressed.”

Hailing from Scotland, the Bluebells played an chipper, airy brand of guitar pop that was especially refreshing before the sound was pervasive enough that “indie” was bandied about to describe it. Following singles and EP, Sisters was considered the band’s first true album, though even it was reliant of tracks that already had some history. That approach was wholly typical for the era, as bands with an eye on the U.K. charts made sure new discs were in the shops with the regularity of popular periodicals.

If there’s nothing all that revolutionary about Sisters, most of the material is engaging enough. U.K. hit “Young at Heart” is a splendid antic jig cut with yearning vocals, and the loping rhythm and soaring hook of “Red Guitars” gives it the feel of a punchier version of something Squeeze might lob into a B-side. “Will She Always Be Waiting?” makes the band sound like a more prickly, insistent version of the Dream Academy. I’m also fond of the ricocheting percussion breaks on “South Atlantic Way.” There are also plentiful signs of the limits of the band’s rang. “The Patriot Game,” a cover of an old folk ballad by Dominic Behan, strives for earnest political reflection and winds up merely drab and a touch pretentious.

The Bluebells didn’t last long past Sisters. The first of many reunions happened in the early nineteen-nineties, after interest in their music was revived by the inclusion of “Young at Heart” in a Volkswagen commercial.

 

 

march shades

849. The March Violets, Electric Shades (1985)

Electric Shades was the second album released by the March Violets, but there was enough tumult in the roster that it may as well have been presented as the product of a whole new group. Perhaps most notably, lead singer Rosie Garland was out of the band, replaced by Cleo Murray, and fellow vocalist Simon Denbigh departed midway through the recording process. Reflecting that wibbly wobbly trek to completion, Electric Shades has the feel of roving compromising. It’s a goth rock record that steadily sheds any vestiges of drama and danger to become just more eighties dance pop.

Like goth titans of the era the Sisters of Mercy, the March Violets were from Leeds, and there are instances on the album where the lesser known band is clearly pulling from the same fetid, murky well. “Snake Dance,” in particular, sounds like the Sisters of Mercy on stronger meds. The glittered silt starts to settle to the bottom, though, resulting in weird hybrids. “Walk Into the Sun” is like the Call taking a crack at goth, and “Electric Shades Part 1” could be a track from a version of Roxette toughened up by a bar fight or two. Until the squall of guitars at the end, “Eldorado” is generically of the era that it could believable be attributed to any number of artists briefly embraced and then rapidly discarded by MTV.

The blatant commercial aspirations of the March Violets worked, at least to a degree. They managed to make headway in the vital avenues of the time, including an appearance in a film off the John Hughes factory. They accumulated achievements without any of it adding up to a true commercial breakthrough. The band broke up in 1987. In the customary fashion, reunions followed.

 

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 — #856 to #853

bowie lodger

856. David Bowie, Lodger (1979)

In the relentless fertile field of David Bowie studies, it’s probably accurate to say that Lodger represents the closing of an age. The cycle of constant reinvention of Bowie’s nineteen-seventies output — the decade’s equivalent to the Beatles’ rolling act of astonishing pop music transformation in the similarly lengthened era prior — arguably reached its clamorous conclusion with the 1977 releases Low and “Heroes,” Bowie’s ideas coming at such a rapid pace that a mere ten months separated the two albums. The 1978 double live album Stage press the cap down yet firmer. The string of records has the feel of a marathon runner finally slowing their stride at the breaking of the finish line tape, spent and triumphant at the same time.

Lodger, then, is the first of many false starts on the long back end of a brilliant career. I don’t mean to imply that Lodger isn’t a good album. Such disappointed assessments were plentiful when the record first went through the gauntlet of the music press. Greil Marcus panned it in Rolling Stone, calling out shortcomings as a gateway to wider condemnation of all things Bowie that came before. “David Bowie’s albums are non events, though given the aura he insists on, they’re halfheartedly presented as such: time and again, ideas are run up the flagpole, but try and find the flagpole,” wrote Marcus.

Marcus’s wrongheaded take on the totality of Bowie’s output to that point has a relevance to Lodger that’s difficult to deny. Bowie was working with producer Brian Eno, reportedly using his famed Oblique Strategies cards. The technique surely stirred creativity as intended, but Lodger suggests it could also spin artists in too many directions, losing the thread of their own identity. Bowie is admirably exploratory on Lodger, but then that was hardly a quality of his that needed goosing. He probably would have benefited more from strategies that weren’t designed to go askew. Surely, Eno’s tricks probably helped shaped the wonderfully bizarro “African Night Flights” and the Middle Eastern eerieness in “Yassassin.” These are great tracks, alive with energy. They’re also distancing, in a way, discouraging too much attention and affection because of a pronounced sense of fleeting commitment. Don’t get too attached, the enduring artist has stepped aside for the momentary abstraction.

It’s a testament to the strength of Bowie’s voice that it keeps coming through, even under these odd circumstances. He was simply too powerful a creator — and if if he wasn’t at his peak, he had just barely begun his descent from the summit — to disappear completely. “Boys Keep Swinging” is probably the most characteristic Bowie offering. (Consequently, when released as a single, it made it into the Top 10 on the U.K. chart.) The vibrant churn of “Look Back in Anger” and the lusciously languid “Fantastic Voyage” similarly stand as recognizably awash in Bowie’s abundance. Even “DJ,” which recalls Eno’s collaborations with Talking Heads, ultimately shifts and shimmies its was to the cool pop that was the through line of Bowie’s many changes.

Lodger did about as well as other Bowie albums of the era, though it didn’t register any singles on the U.S. chart. Still, there’s a tangle of compromises to it, making it feel like an ending that’s too tentative to press a new beginning into being. Bowie’s nineteen-seventies albums unquestionably sketched in the blueprint for nineteen-eighties pop. But it was clearly going to take the man himself a little time to catch up to his own innovations.

 

 

Sierra Exif JPEG

855. Dave Edmunds, Information (1983)

Dave Edmunds collaborated with plenty of people across his career, but it took him a while to put himself in the hands of an outside producer when recording as a solo artist. By one count, Information was the eighth Edmunds solo album and his second since jumping from Led Zeppelin’s shuttered Swan Song label to Columbia Records. (The Welsh-born Edmunds was under the Arista umbrella in the U.K.) It was also the first time he let someone else spin the dials in the studio, enlisting E.L.O. frontman Jeff Lynne, then in the earliest stages of his career as a producer. The coupling is predictably complicated: Edmunds’s predilection for rockabilly-fueled, old school rock ‘n’ roll as seen through the kaleidoscope of Lynne’s Beatle-sheened futuristic pop.

“Slipping Away,” written by Lynne, is the album opener and template. The approaches of Edmunds and Lynne don’t collide some much as move through one another, circling around like a revolving door built out of fun house mirrors. It’s full of familiar elements, but is difficult to pin down. And that’s what makes it a little thrilling. It also became Edmunds’s second (and last) Top 40 hit in the U.S.

Across the rest of the album, the genial guitar slinging or Edmunds is peppered with the studio trills and zings of Lynne. There’s a feel of ease to Edmunds’s playing, as if relinquishing control allowed him to relax and just enjoy the process of finding the tune. The softened butter blues stroll of “Wait,” the nifty amble of “What Have I Got to Do to Win?,” and the lightly modernized rockabilly number “Don’t Call Me Tonight” all have their charms. Aside from the hit single, the strongest track might be the title cut, which finds Edmunds pining for a woman who’s got him tied in knots (“What can I do to change her mind?/ Maybe she thinks that I’m just not her kind/ I think she wants me but she’s trying to play hard to get/ When she treats me this way, I wish we’d never met’). As is always the case when he’s at his best, Edmunds makes the emotional and musically tricky bits of the song appear blessedly simple.

 

 

big craps

854. Big Dipper, Craps (1988)

Big Dipper hailed from Boston, merging in a scene of heady intermingling of bands and sonic ideas. It was the remnants of two stalwarts of the city’s club circuit — Volcano Suns and the Embarrassment — that reassembled to set Big Dipper’s lineup. Craps, released on Homestead Records, was the second full-length studio effort from the band.

The material on Craps is consistently first-rate. Like a lot of other albums that made into the post office bins of college radio programmers as the nineteen-eighties ground toward its weary end, Craps sometimes seemed as if it was collecting every sonic trait that captured the hearts of student DJs during the preceding years and shoving the whole messy lot of it into a battered suitcase of song. The difference with Big Dipper is that the band was sharp, polished, and forceful. There was an oddball sense of humor to be found, as on “Ron Klaus Wrecked His House,” but it was always in service to the song rather than a squirrelly tactic to evade the responsibility of thorough songcraft.

“Meet the Witch” is buoyant and punchy, and “Hey! Mr. Lincoln” piles competing hooks into its chorus, shrewdly fixing the fight so that every one of them is a winner. Since an R.E.M. comparison is almost inevitable for this sort of band recording at the time, I’ll note that “Stardom Because” sounds like the missing link between Fables of the Reconstruction and Lifes Rich Pageant. The firm sense of purpose might come through best on “A Song to Be Beautiful,”  which was a thick forest of guitars and a call-and-response chorus that’s actually a touch inspiring: “For a song to be beautiful/ The artist must be brave.”

Following Craps, Big Dipper snagged a major label contract. Their third album, Slam, was released by Epic Records in 1990. The band had talent, but they were already out of the step with the tumultuous preferences of college radio kids, who were reveling in the Madchester sound in advance of a brutally codependent embrace of grunge rock. There was no place for a band that just delivered solidly crafted guitar pop. Big Dipper folded shortly thereafter, though their relatively obscurity didn’t prevent the all-but-inevitable reunion record.

 

 

bow candy

853. Bow Wow Wow, I Want Candy (1982)

It can’t be overstated: MTV completely scrambled the music business in the nineteen-eighties. Shortly after its launch, in 1981, the cable network programmed almost entirely with video clips of songs — the available material determined less by cunning strategies of record labels and far more by the near-random whims of performers who decided to goof around in front of cameras in a studio — was able to completely change the pathway for a song to become a hit. Billboard‘s single chart was no longer the clearest arbiter of what pop songs were demanding attention. “I Want Candy,” Bow Wow Wow’s cover of a forgotten nineteen-sixties hit by the Strangeloves, never made the Top 40 in the U.S. peaking at a meager #62. But it’s also one of the most recognizable hits of the era, and it certainly seemed ubiquitous at the time, all because MTV played the video with a frequency that suggested they were trying to fulfill some sort of regulatory requirement.

As Bow Wow Wow’s song took hold, their label, RCA Records, was desperate to get a full-length album into stores. Taking no chances, the label dubbed the hastily assembled compilation I Want Candy. The first side of the album was essentially the EP The Last of the Mohicans with the U.K. single “Baby, Oh No” (a little featuring especially strong vocals by lead singer Annabella Lwin) wedged in. The second side culled tracks from the 1981 album See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang Yeah, City All Over! Go Ape Crazy! The cut that most obviously comes from that disc is “Jungle Boy,” which provides indication of the flaws in the Bow Wow Wow approach when they weren’t reworking already established songs. “Jungle Boy” plays like a first draft, a vague idea that hasn’t been properly developed, leading to redundancy and vague jamming. A similar issue crops up on “(I’m a) TV Savage.”  The spry, careening “Go Wild in the Country” is really the only track on side two that feels like it is ready for release.

 

 

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 — #860 to #857

faith yourself

860. Faith No More, Introduce Yourself (1987)

Faith No More formed in San Francisco in the mid-nineteen-eighties, essentially as an offshoot of another group called Faith No Man. Three of the band members jumped ship and gave their new outfit a name that essentially conveyed that the “Man” (in the form of the bandmate they abandoned) was “No More.” The trio was in need of vocalist, so they cycled through several possibilities before settling on Chuck Mosley, who’d had some experience playing with bassist Billy Gould earlier. They also added a guitarist Jim Martin and recorded their debut album, We Care a Lot, released on the newly formed independent label Mordam Records in 1985. Comprised of thundering hard rock, the album caught the attention of major labels, and Faith No More was signed to Warner Bros. offshoot Slash Records.

Faith No More’s sophomore release, Introduce Yourself, is also their major label debut. The music is potent and driving. Mosley’s vocals invite the descriptor “acquired taste.” Album opener “Faster Disco” is a characteristic offering: airtight metal riffs with note-adjacent warbling drizzled on top. The closest comparison is found in the teetering trills of John S. Hall in King Missile, but while those loopy croons were — at least somewhat — for  effect, Mosley’s conviction gives every indication he believes he’s a prime belter, bringing added character to the songs. There are the occasional forays into blasé humorous monologues (“Anne’s Song”) or art rock frippery (“The Crab Song,” a weird tale of wrenching heartbreak, starts as almost an abstract radio play, moves to balladic earnestness, then kicks in to pumping rock at the halfway point). Mostly, though, Faith No More operates like the Cult with a lead singer still recovering from a funhouse fever dream.

The galloping “Chinese Arithmetic” and reworked debut album holdover “We Care a Lot” highlight the bands considerable strengths while downplaying the weakness of Mosley’s singing, or at least structuring the song so he’s essentially cast properly. Faith No More might have had cause to make a chance at the center microphone because of that, but it was Mosley’s complicated, combative personality that did him in. Following the tour to promote the album, Mosley was effectively fired from the band, and powerhouse Mike Patton was recruited to take his place. With all the sonic elements better aligned, Faith No More was poised to transcend cult status and enjoy some real commercial success.

 

 

lene stateless

859. Lene Lovich, Stateless (1978)

Lene Lovich was born in Detroit, spent her teenage years in England, and emerged as a pop artist in the late-nineteen-seventies with the creative discombobulation of a refugee from a distant, melting galaxy. No frail ingenue (Lovich was pushing thirty when her debut album was released), she had gone through years of art schools, cabaret performances, experimental theatre, and other cultural oddities before releasing her debut solo single, a trio of warped Christmas songs, in 1976. Around two years later, Stateless arrived.

Lovich’s debut album is a fantastic whirligig of pop wonders, drawing on the prevailing styles of the time while twisting them in giddily inventive ways. “Lucky Number,” which became a Top 5 hit in the U.K., is a bubbly, quirky study of moving from solitude to a relationship. Lovich’s vocals call to mind a more eccentric Kate Bush, while the music is in line with the genius, jittery concoctions of XTC at the time. “Say When” has a similar uncoiled agitation, but plied to a spirited chunk of cowpunk. The frothy energy arguably reaches its pinnacle on “One in 1,000,000,” which is a turbine of tunefulness.

Not everything operates at the same breakneck pace. There’s lovely variety to be found, too.  “Tonight” is a winningly retro little gem, and  the foundations of PJ Harvey’s future pop mansion are laid on the urgent “Home.” In the clearest manifestation of Lovich’s creative restlessness, Stateless went through at least three different variants within its first year of existence, undergoing remixes and even full-scale rerecordings of the various songs. The track listing shifted with each new iteration, and the U.S. edition boasted a completely different album cover, complete with a pronunciation guide for Lovich’s name.

 

 

 

Foreigner games

858. Foreigner, Head Games (1979)

Released in the fall of 1979, Head Games gave Foreigner the distinction of releasing their first three albums in three subsequent years, though there were also constantly touring to support music that was immensely popular from the beginning. The first two albums were multiplatinum in the U.S. and delivered six Top 40 hits between them. For their third album, Foreigner was finally able to land regular Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker, who they’d gone after for the prior LPs.

By their own accounting, Foreigner was going for a rawer sound on Head Games, but there’s little that stark or ragged about it. The tracks are so slicked up they practically cast back a reflection. The powerfully inane “Love on the Telephone” and the power ballad “Blinded By Science” are clear kindred spirits of the likes of Journey, Kansas, and other acts storming album rock radio at the time. Then there’s the gross rock star salivating over females, heard in the dopey cataloguing of “Women” (“Women who boil to love, women who need a shove/ Women who can’t be beat, get that woman in the back seat, yeah yeah”) and “Seventeen,” which seems initially seems like a generic lament over a cheating partner before taking the sadly predictable turn of revealing the title numeral refers to the girl’s age. The slimy quality of the latter track is emphasized by the album cover, which shows a sexily dressed girl (teenage model Lisanne Falk, who played one of the Heathers about a decade later) anxiously scrubbing her name and number off a boys’ bathroom wall.

Portions of the album are suitably impressive when held up against similar relics of the era. The title cut has endured reasonably well, and “Do What You Like” anticipates the turn toward chipper, airy guitar pop of the Alan Parsons Project in the eighties, which makes it a little prescient, I suppose. Mostly, though, Head Games is the same old grind that a multitude of bands were dishing out as the Me Decade drew to a unceremonious close.

 

 

winwood night

857. Steve Winwood, Talking Back to the Night (1982)

There’s no question Steve Winwood is talented. At a time well before true bedroom pop make the practice a little more commonplace, Winwood created albums on which he played every note of instrument. But he also had some truly dreadful instincts for what made interesting pop music, funneling his creativity into tepid sonic concoctions. Both the gifts and the curse are in full evidence on Talking Back to the Night, his third solo album.

Mainly, Winwood seems cruelly influenced by the most lackluster fusion jazz of the day. “Still in the Game” has the generic filler pinging of a painfully chipper local interest TV magazine program, and “Help Me Angel” plays like the most tepid funk song ever. The track that has the most garish presentation of all that’s going wrong may be “While There’s a Candle Burning,” which is a thorny thicket of fussy synths. The title cut is one of the few on which the elements come together nicely, emitting an arch, constrained cool. And “Valerie” at least hints at the possibility of easy soulfulness Winwood had in him, even if the lyrics offer a disheartening reminder of where the performer’s musical sensibilities are settled (“So cool/ She was like jazz on a summer day”).

Talking Back to the Night was a decent hit for Winwood, but it’s possible that even he sensed a certain hollowness to it, a need to change his approach. It would be three years before his next album, for which he jettisoned the one-man band approach in favor of an  enormous assemblage of collaborators. Unsurprisingly, that album, Back in the High Life, was lauded as a revelatory triumph and wound up as the biggest commercial success of Winwood’s 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 — #864 to #861

visage

864. Visage, Visage (1980)

The new wave band Visage had their origins in the simple, noble act of trying to bring David Bowie music to the people. Steve Strange and Rusty Egan (the lead singer and drummer, respectively) successively set up shop at the club Billy’s, in the Soho district of London, and then Blitz, located in Covent Garden. They hosted theme nights, including one devoted to Bowie that was popular enough that the genius chameleon himself enlisted several regulars — and the record-spinners — to appear in the music video for “Ashes to Ashes.”  No fools, Strange and Egan also regularly added their own tracks to the playlist, eventually catching the ear of Buzzcocks producer Martin Rushent, who was signing acts for his fledgling label, Genetic Records. Rushert’s shingle didn’t last long enough to issue a Visage record, but the band’s stylishly booted feet were in the door. By the end of 1980, their self-titled debut was released on Polydor.

Visage is a beautiful, charmed artifact of its time, resplendent in seductive synths and pulsing with post-punk focus. A cousin to other British pop of the era, the album is also markedly its own swirling symphony of electronic music techniques. Some of the airy drive of disco is present, but it’s well into the transformation process into the dance music of the eighties. “Blocks on Blocks” prowls along with flinty assurance, segueing smartly into the cascading instrumental “The Dancer.” Befitting the band’s club origins, the record shifts and shuffles like its trying to keep a night going, developing a consistency while also shifting dynamics just enough to add a little sonic spice.

Adding distinction, the lyrics traipse away from more standard pop fare, such as romantic pining or snarling disaffection. “Tar”  is a grooving riff on cigarettes (“Nicotine stain on your finger/ Try to wash off but it still linger/ Cigarette holder just a joke/ Don’t really take bad away from smoke”), and “Visa-Age”  uses the painful punning of its title as a starting point to extol the pleasures of going on holiday (“Leave the trash, of your life behind/ It’s time to move, shake those ties that bind”). Even when sticking with the pleasures and woes of love, Visage opts for a more novel approach. “Mind of a Toy” equates the discarding of a youthful plaything to relationship rejection (“When a child throws down a toy/ When I was new you wanted me/ Now I’m old you no longer see me”).

Visage made some ripples on the U.K. charts (the high drama “Fade to Grey” was a Top 10 hit), but the band may be more notable for the repercussions it spawned. Billy Currie was part of the band during an uncertain period with his main gig in Ultravox, follow the departure of lead singer John Foxx. In Visage, he met Midge Ure, who he then recruited to step in to take frontman duties in Ultravox, leading to a string of influential U.K. hits in the eighties. Guitarist John McGeoch, who previously logged time in Magazine, went on to join Siouxsie and the Banshees, and bassist Barry Adamson — also a Magazine alumnus — found his way to Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds.

 

 

skinny mind

863. Skinny Puppy, Mind: The Perpetual Intercourse (1986)

Mind: The Perpetual Intercourse was the second full-length studio release from Skinny Puppy and the band’s first after their label’s freshly inked distribution deal meant the music would get a more robust push. That also meant they were more likely to come under the churlish scrutiny of the self-appointed defenders of youthful music fans’ precarious innocence. The Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) put the album on their list of the ten most grievous offenders in late 1987, alongside for more prominent recordings, such as The Beastie Boys’ License to Ill and Mötley Crüe’s Girls, Girls, Girls. Evidently the main problem was a cover image including a blurry snapshot of a pornographic movie playing on a television. If the perpetually aghast moral arbiters had slipped the album out of its sleeve and onto a turntable, they surely started to shudder over the abrasive sounds that resulted.

A decent amount of the material on Mind sounds relatively tame now, and not just because a track like “One Time One Place” sounds as if it’s hammering out the template for the Nine Inch Nails offerings that would crossover just a few years later. There’s a lot of fuss to Skinny Puppy’s cacophony of caustic tones. “Stairs and Flowers” is a ratty bird’s nest of sounds, pushing against the safety of pop music, sure, but also becoming an uninspired mash. Then there’s the odd side effect of so much material being shoved into each song that weird echoes come into play, as when “Three Blind Mice” opens with a synth riff that almost sounds as if its waiting for the Thompson Twins to start trilling. The aural mirage drops quickly when Nivek Ogre’s vocals show up instead, of course.

Equally inevitably, some elements are arresting and cool. I’m fond of the way the anxious Twilight Zone samples fit up against the faulty ignition rhythms of “200 Years.” And the grinding guitar of “Dig It” puts hard rock muscularity into a excitingly different context. The industrial grind of Skinny Puppy could get tedious quickly, but there was always just enough murky inspiration in there to make something stand out.

 

 

slick dreams

862. Grace Slick, Dreams (1980)

It’s admittedly exhausting to track the membership shifts of Jefferson Airplane and its many offshoots. The Wikipedia page for Jefferson Starship currently lists twenty-seven different members over the years and lists twenty-six distinct lineups. By all appearances, Grace Slick was in between two separate tours of duty with the band when she recorded and released Dreams, her second solo album. It’s probable that she expected this to be beginning on an ongoing, uninterrupted path forward as her own performer. Instead, she was back with her compatriots within a year, which was mere precursor to yet more dire collaborations to come.

As heard on Dreams, Slick is a competent, but relatively indistinct performer. The album is somewhat of its time, seemingly trying to vaguely replicate the sound of Fleetwood Mac’s bazillion selling records without have the tumultuous energy to really pull it off. Roughly the first half of the records was crafted entirely by outside songwriters, which probably contributes to the sense of the drift. The album opening title cut sounds like an audition to provide songs for The Greatest Showman, just forty years too early.Written by Sean Delaney — who was a go-to creator for the members of Kiss as they cranked out albums at a headlong page in the nineteen-seventies — the song is theatrical, eager, and a little numbing.

Slick’s own compositions begin with “Seasons,” the last track on side one. (It’s sometimes credited online as the handiwork of Elton John and Bernie Taupin, but their own “Seasons” is a very different song.) It sounds a little like Slick is trying to merge the fulsome folk rock of her heyday with the tangy Eastern European flavors of a Bolshevik novel (“Then the sun comes high and the spring rains come and go/ The summer air so hot it melts the Russian snow/ The fields are brown there’s no rain to make them grow/ And the old ones sigh, the heat has made them tired and slow”). It’s odd, but at least it feels unique. The rest of Slick’s writing is piled up on the second side. The mild blues rock number “Do It the Hard Way” is agreeably reminiscent of Linda Ronstadt’s seventies work, but a lot of material blurs together. And then “Garden of Man” arrives and tips the album over into full-scale meandering hippie mode (“Harmony is in your hand/ If we will believe/ Sweet Promises of fantasy/ That comes from every land”).

Slick delivered two more solo albums in the next few years, but it appeared her heart wasn’t really in it. From the outside, it seemed she was more comfortable as a co-pilot.

 

 

washington squares

861. The Washington Squares, The Washington Squares (1987)

In the New York City of the nineteen-eighties, still hungover from the bludgeoning jabs of punk and the stimulated extravagance of disco, the retro stylings of a genial folk trio must have felt like a cool compress on a throbbing headache. Playing around the city, the Washington Squares donned matching striped shirts and rakish berets while strumming out their spirited ditties. The band’s official bio emphasizes a lightly ironic, post-modern tone to their music, but it’s difficult to discern in the actual material on their self-titled debut. Whether refreshing or stale, they sound like they were scooped up from the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early nineteen-sixties and dropped without provisions into the pop war zone of hair metal and post-post-punk that existed twenty-five years later.

“Can’t Stop the Rain” offers solid folk pop with a touch of eighties studio polish, and the easygoing “You Can’t Kill Me” bears a resemblance to Bob Dylan’s material when he’s at his flinty loosest. In general, the Washington Squares keep the music upbeat, quick strumming all the better for foot-tapping singalongs, I suppose. “Samson & Delilah” revs like a humming motorcar, and “Lay Down Your Arms” has some of the jaunty charm that defined the best of the Housemartins. The Washington Squares was produced by Mitch Easter, the master of crisp college rock records, and the record has a eager, warm quality that couldn’t be faked.

The Washington Squares released their sophomore album, Fair and Square, in 1989. That proved to be their last release, in part because of looming tragedy. Band member Bruce Jay Paskow was a recovering heroin addict, and he discovered he’d contracted AIDS, presumably from shared needles years before. He died in 1994. The remaining members recruited some fellow musicians and played one last show in tribute to their fallen friend that year.

 

 

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