College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #540 to #537

reflex politics

540. Re-Flex, The Politics of Dancing (1983)

Formed in Birmingham, England in the early nineteen-eighties, Re-Flex was a band that wanted to have its chart success and simultaneously scoff as pop ate itself. With regular Roxy Music studio collaborator John Hunter behind the boards for their debut studio album, The Politics of Dancing, the group spat out robotic, danceable tracks that had the feel of ready made hits, or at least hit-adjacent, too-cool-for-the-masses cult favorites. The jabbing “Hitline” is emblematic of their art, sarcastically assessing the state of the pop music industry while cozying up to its conventions. Those are wildly difficult acrobatics to pull off.

Proving that they were properly paying attention to other practitioners of stealth pop deconstruction, “Praying to the Beat” seems directly inspired by Devo, but lacking in the fearless weirdness that set those esteemed predecessors apart. Across most of the album, Re-Flex tends to lock into a distinctive element or two, building a fairly rote dance track around it. “Jungle” buries a lilting reggae beat inside disco fervency, and “Keep in Touch” makes it mark by defaulting to a shouty approach, like a bully attempting to win the argument by loudly outlasting everyone else who wants to interject. In truth, the latter approach is a solid strategy for a slice of music hoping to become a persistent dance floor soundtrack.

It’s the title cut, though, that’s clearly the most enduring nugget of The Politics of Dancing. Since the album is realistically the only proper full-length release from the band (revival records happened, as they now do, around thirty years later), that means “The Politics of Dancing” is their real legacy. There are certainly worse one-hits associated with fleeting wonders. Ostensibly a pointed piece of commentary, the track instead combines an inspired hook with gleefully dopey lyrics (“The politics of dancing/ The politics of — ooooh! — feelin’ good”) to become a proper plug of juicy, double-grape bubble gum, irresistible even as it inspires a bit of sickened dizziness. That makes it a quintessential piece of early-eighties pop music.

 

rickie

539. Rickie Lee Jones, Rickie Lee Jones (1979)

Everyone who circled around the L.A. music scene was talking about Rickie Lee Jones’s demo tape. A singer-songwriter who started performing in area clubs around the middle of the nineteen-seventies and was known as a pal (and sometimes paramour) of both Chuck E. Weiss and Tom Waits, Jones recorded a batch of songs and spurred a bidding war among the labels. She signed to Warner Bros., in part because she thought the way they’d nurtured and honored the iconoclastic Randy Newman boded well for her. In an era of disco grooves and booming prog rock, Jones was set to offer up a notably different sound.

Jones’s self-titled debut is smooth and sleek, jazz-inflected without being particularly jazzy. In her erudition, ingenuity, and clarity of purpose, she was indeed akin to Waits at that point in his career, but entirely lacking in the dank-saloon destitution that could turn a song into a sullen slog. Jones was instead the refined soul at the end of the bar, never quite losing her poise no matter how many scotches were downed, always fully in command and capable of rallying others to the cause of her choosing with little more than a smirk and a gentle upward jut of an eyebrow. Listening to Rickie Lee Jones is to become convinced that only she could perform a song such as “Coolsville” and make it come across as an expression of truth rather than a needy transposing of self into a lithe, danger-stricken milieu.

“Chuck E’s in Love,” inspired by her time with Weiss, was the album’s hit, making its way into the Billboard Top 5. It’s flinty and smart, with a hook that sneaks up before mercilessly taking hold. “Night Train” is like less glossy, more resigned version of the ballads that sold millions of Linda Ronstadt records, and both “Easy Money” and “Danny’s All-Star Joint” employ vocal riffs that suggest Ella Fitzgerald as a nineteen-seventies Laurel Canyon troubadour, making it seem like Jones is committed to reinventing modern pop on the sly. Reflecting the country rock and singer-songwriter tracks that ran through the decade, “The Last Chance Texaco” sets the template for some of Maria McKee’s balladeer moments to come.

Following her debut, Jones kept putting out albums, but she never quite duplicated the success — artistic or commercial — of that first outing. Fresh air is never quite as pleasing as the first time its drawn in.

 

zevon stand

538. Warren Zevon, Stand in the Fire (1980)

Look, live albums happen. It’s an unfortunate fact of rock ‘n’ roll life, and the truism especially held in the bygone days when putting out new records was a primary component of the business model rather than a grudgingly accepted nuisance. Warren Zevon was three studio albums deep into his career (four, if the ancient history 1969 release of his album simply under the name Zevon was counted, but nobody counted that one at the time), so it was obviously time for a live release. That his most recent studio effort, Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School, was widely considered a bomb surely helped bolster the notion that it would be good to have some new product in the record shops that reminded music fans why they’d liked him so much just a couple years earlier.

Stand in the Fire was patched together from recordings taken during a five-night stand at The Roxy Theatre, in Los Angeles. He was backed by Boulder, a Colorado band that, like Zevon, was signed to Elektra Records. With the bar band veterans behind him, Zevon gets a little rougher than he does on album, but that rarely strengthens the songs. “Mohammed’s Radio” gets brasher without necessarily getting better, and “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” just sounds sloppy. Zevon also covers Bo Diddley, which only demonstrates what happens to the rock pioneer’s songs when the have all the liveliness knocked out of them. And Zevon already sounds a little irritated about the obligation to run through “Werewolves of London,” though I guess it’s nice that posterity has an official recording of Zevon’s alteration to name “Brian De Palma again” as the culprit behind the little old lady’s late-night mutilation. Two new Zevon compositions make their debut on Stand in the Fire, including the thudding song that gives the live album its title. “The Sin,” the other new song, is better due to its dose of punk energy, as if Zevon had just discovered the Buzzcocks.

Stand in the Fire didn’t have the desired effect of returning Zevon to the forefront. Released right after Christmas, the album spent only ten weeks on the Billboard chart, climbing no higher than #80. The nineteen-eighties, it was becoming clear, we’re going to be tough on the excitable boy.

 

bananarama deep

537. Bananarama, Deep Sea Skiving (1983)

Sara Dallin and Keren Woodward grew up together in Bristol before moving to London. There, they met Siobhan Fahey, and the trio started performing together, largely picking up fairly impromptu gigs backing other acts on stage. Shortly after they moved into recording their own songs under the name Bananarama, a kinship with Fun Boy Three raised their profile, especially when the the two acts were co-billed on the single “‘Tain’t What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It).” A cover of an old jazz number, the single made it into the Top 5 on the U.K. charts, and Banarama were on their way.

Deep Sea Skiving, officially the debut album from Banarama, is a like a lot of similar records of the era from U.K. acts. It’s less a cohesive album than an assemblage of singles that clicked off the assembly line in the prior year or so, and the whole thing got jumbled like the pieces in a well-shook jigsaw puzzle box before it was issued in the U.S. It also evinces a charming, carefree approach to making pop music, with absolutely any notion worth exploring, putting down on tapes, and dancing joyous away from, on the way to a new adventure. “Shy Boy (Don’t It Make You Feel Good)”  takes nineteen-sixties girl group sweetness and updates it into a gleaming new model, and a cover of the Velvelettes’ song “He Was Really Sayin’ Somethin’,” retitled to “Really Saying Something” and with Fun Boy Three pitching in, makes the refurbishing approach that much more overt.

Reflecting the sounds of the scene around them, “Hey Young London” has the propulsive, chant-inspired singing and wild rhythms used to great effect by Bow Wow Wow. But there are also indications that Bananarama are pushing to the limits of their creativity across the album. Their cover of “Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)” is surprisingly lifeless, and “Wish You Were Here” is so repetitive that it becomes a sort of endurance test, even at only a shade over three and a half minutes. These are less dire shortcomings than hints that there is room to grow. Even the least generous assessment would have to conclude that these women had some more major hits in them, waiting for the confluence of inspirations required to allow them to emerge.

 

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 — #544 to #541

lords new church

544. The Lords of the New Church, The Lords of the New Church (1982)

“I think that first record was really built on pure adrenaline,” drummer Nick Turner said of The Lords of the New Church several years after its release. “Maybe some chemical help as well, but it was pure adrenaline.”

The Lords of the New Church formed out of the remnants of major punk acts that flared and burned out in recent years. Turner was in the Barracudas, vocalist Stiv Bators was in the Dead Boys, guitarist Brian James was in the Damned, and bassist Dave Tregunna was in Sham 69. In coming together to form their new outfit, the pummeling fervor of their previous acts was generous applied, melded with an almost operatic goth rock. The big rock churn found on their cover of the great garage psychedelic song “Question of Temperature” essentially sets the template. They were going to remain true to what came before, but they were going to go bigger and bolder, taking their sound right up to edge of the vividly ludicrous.

The Lords of the New Church also know where to look to get some borrowed bombast. “Russian Roulette” is largely inspired by Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now with a title-generating dab of Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (which feel like it might be an instance of drug-spun memories conflating the two movies), and “Apocalypso” does the New York Dolls and other similar predecessors proud. The band also has sound instincts about driving full-on when needed, as on the hypercafeeinated “Portobello.” I’m less convinced that the tingly synths on “Open Your Eyes” are the right choices, but sometimes nineteen-eighties music is just going to be nineteen-eighties music and that’s that.

The Lords of the New Church was a solid start for the band, a proper reintroduction for its members and an evolution to a refined musical sensibility. They convincingly mapped out a new route and revved their engine to go roaring along it.

 

motels careful

543. Motels, Careful (1980)

Before the recording of their sophomore album, Careful, the Motels made a relatively significant lineup change. Guitarist Jeff Jourard left the band and Tim McGovern took his place, his job interview undoubtedly boosted by his status as the boyfriend to lead singer Martha Davis. Other than that, the strategy for the California band centered on repeating what they’d done before, including once giving the producer job to John Carter, the Capitol Records exec who signed them to the label in the first place. Motels, the band’s debut, was only a modest success, but everyone was convinced they had the sound and the style to make waves commercially. Consistent effort was all that was needed.

Tracks such as the escalating pop mayhem of “Envy” and the bouncy “Cry Baby” certainly make the argument that the Motels had the stuff of greatness in them, just waiting for the tumbler to properly align, while the lolling ballad “Slow Town” probably best signals the approach that eventually would start generating major hits for them. Elsewhere on Careful, the Motels are clearly trying on different guises, presumably in the hopes that one of them might give them a way to sneak their way onto the charts. There a touch of Joe Jackson’s retro cool to “Bonjour Baby” and some leftover disco posturing on “Party Professionals.” Even when they’re not wholly convincing, the Motels remain solid performers.

Like its predecessor, Careful didn’t manage to break through and all of its singles remained outside the Billboard Hot 100. The situation didn’t necessarily call for wholesale reinvention just yet, but there was clearly a welling uncertainty in how to proceed. Better days were ahead, but the process of recorded their next album proved to be exceedingly difficult.

 

get close

542. The Pretenders, Get Close (1986)

It’s probably best to start with the understanding that the Pretenders are whatever Chrissie Hynde goddamn well wants it to be at the moment she wants it to be that way. Officially, the band was only on their fourth full-length studio effort with Get Close, but they’d already gone through more lineup changes than a professional sports franchise with unlimited funds and a fickle lunatic presiding over the roster. Hynde was the only mainstay from the beginnings of the band. Guitarist Robbie McIntosh, who had joined the band on 1983’s Learning to Crawl, was the only player to appears on every track of the album. Beyond those two, it was a rotating crowd in the studio, including seasoned session bassist T.M. Stevens, former Haircut One Hundred drummer Blair Cunningham (both of whom are credited as official band members), the great keyboardist Bernie Worrell, and who slew of musicians who’d been part of the Talking Heads’ sprawling endeavors. Get Close, by counting stats, was a big record.

Logistics management may have been a challenge, but Hynde remained as firm of an anchor as any act could hope for. The inspired, flirty “Don’t Get Me Wrong” and chugging, confident “My Baby” are worthy additions to the list of truly great singles generated by the band over the years. As if proving her lyrical range, the surprisingly sweet “I Remember You” immediately countered by the Eurythmics-like put-down “How Much Did You Get for Your Soul?” Even when the songs aren’t really all that strong, they blaze with attitude and assurance, a clear conviction that there’s a value to banging out some plainspoken rock ‘n’ roll.

It’s those moments when Get Close tries to push into some era-specific innovation that the album is at its weakest. Bob Clearmountain and Jimmy Iovine are the credited producers on the album, and both leave fingerprints of fuss. “Dance!,” running nearly seven minutes long, seems as if it’s trying to update an old nineteen-sixties dance craze number with a dash of prog rock excess and punk attitude. And the ballad “Hymn to Her” given the fully nineteen-eighties syrup treatment, putting it uncomfortably in line with Clearmountain’s money-minting collaborations with Bryan Adams.

Compared to its predecessors, Get Close was only a middling performer. While it yielded one respectable hit on the Billboard Hot 100 — “Don’t Get Me Wrong” — it was the first Pretenders album that didn’t crack the album chart’s Top 10. When The Singles arrived the following year, it felt like a valedictory gesture. There would be plenty more albums from the Pretenders (and even another top 40 single), but Get Close can be reasonably viewed as the last blazing sparkler of a great act’s

 

well well well

541. The Woodentops, Well Well Well… (1986)

As was often the case with U.K. bands, the Woodentops reached a point where they needed to find a way to draw together their various singles into a format that better suited the U.S. market. After a string of well-regarded single and EP releases on Rough Trade Records, it was time to compile a long-playing companion to their debut full-length, Giant, for North American record shops. One of the band’s singles, Well Well Well, was taken and essentially expanded, providing a sprightly, if somewhat clunky, survey of what the Woodentops had hashed out to that point.

The energetic, infectious “Move Me” suggests the Woodentops as a sort of British answer to the Feelies, taking the glum deadpan moodiness of the Velvet Underground and added a snappier version of postpunk fervor. The juming hootenanny “Do It Anyway” and the firm “It Will Come” demonstrate the band’s considerable chops and even more impressive focus. There’s a sense that they could bang out this buzzsaw fierce numbers with the blinding efficiency of an assembly line stamping machine. Since the compilation also traffics in the sort of loose experiments usually (and properly) relegated to B-sides, there’s some weirdness to wander through, too. “Steady Steady” suggests Bauhaus as a band with heavy Americana influences and a little too much appreciation for the scalding excesses of Jim Morrison at the height of his acid burnout self-aggrandizement. It’s probably incorrect to call that particular creative turn good, but, to be fair, it’s also not dull.

 

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 — #548 to #545

hunters fate

548. Hunters & Collectors, Fate (1988)

I.R.S. Records had the Australian band Hunters & Collectors under contract for U.S., but the label executives didn’t particularly like how, well, Australian the band sounded. The band released their fifth studio album, What’s a Few Men?, in their homeland, naturally expecting it would carry over to the other territories where they had distribution agreements. In short order, though, I.R.S. expressed reservations, beginning with the album’s title, which was drawn from a memoir by Australian writer Albert Facey. A set of instructions were given to Hunters & Collectors: a new album title, a new track listing, and even some new songs. The common instinct is to take the side of the artist over the label, but the fact that the edict prompted the inclusion of the practically perfect “Back on the Breadline” on the revamped album, the folks at I.R.S. are deserving of a medal.

The rest of the album, retitled Fate for U.S. release, is filled with the slick, swelling, earthy, earnest rock music that record labels were starting to bank on as U2’s booster engines kicked in. The lean, seething “You Can Have It All” and the thumping rock song “Do You See What I See?” could have been fine additions to any album rock radio station’s playlist. And the grand, anthemic “Something to Believe In” echoes the precise potency of material on U2’s The Unforgettable Fire. Similarly, “Faraway Man” has a slicked up eighties rock sound, in line with the Alarm. Comparisons to some of the countrymen of Hunters & Collectors can be made, too. “Under the Sun (Where I Come From)” is similar to the handiwork of Midnight Oil, albeit more what they crafted a few years later, blessed with ample money and studio time when they recorded Blue Sky Mining.

It’s open to debate whether the reworking of What’s a Few Men? into Fate made it a stronger album, or even an album better suited to the U.S. market. What’s certain is it still didn’t live up to the hopes of I.R.S. Records. The band and label parted ways. By the time of their next album, Ghost Nation, Hunters & Collectors had a new U.S. home with Atlantic Records.

 

human 14

547. Human Sexual Response, Fig. 14 (1980)

The wiseacre attitude that infuses Fig. 14, the debut full-length from Boston-based Human Sexual Response, was forecast by earlier musical ventures mounted by the various band members, including an a cappella county outfit and a group entirely reliant on kazoos for instrumentation. They’d gotten a touch more serious by the time their goofball streams converges in the burbling brook of Human Sexual Reponse, but really only so far as polishing up their playing. In demeanor, the group is like a Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band for a new generation.

Since the emerged as the nineteen-seventies were tumbling gracelessly into the nineteen-eighties, Human Sexual Response’s music naturally bears the scruff of the era. The warped guitars and robotic weirdness of “Dick and Jane” position the group as a wild-eyed hybrid of Devo and Gang of Four, and the dramatic sweep found in dramatic “Marone Moan,” and “Anne Frank Museum” make them sound like leftovers from a wisely abandoned rock opera. The band can push hard, as the fevered “Guardian Angel” demonstrates, but they’re more likely to be signaling they believe this new wave music they’re playing is kind of a dippy lark. A surprisingly faithful and adept cover of “Cool Jerk” reveals the group to be a skilled bar band that happens to have a fleeting ambition for crackpot invention and just enough ability to shuffle together the two stacked decks of their musical personalities. Only the weirdly unsettling “Dolls” (“Bloody footprints in the bathtub/ Who’s sleeping here?”) gives much of an indication of possible growth beyond the agreeable but fairly basic trappings of their art.

Human Sexual Response mustered only one more full-length release before breaking up and scattering apart to a startling wide range of careers. Many of them still dabbled in music, with drummer Malcolm Travis arguably landing the most impressive gig by taking the same role in Bob Mould’s band Sugar.

 

mighty out

546. The Mighty Lemon Drops, Out of Hand (1987)

Following Happy Head, the Mighty Lemon Drops’ modestly successful debut album, the pop-rock master craftsmen from Wolverhampton were prodded to get some new music out pronto. In the go-go independent music and college radio scenes of the nineteen-eighties, there was no time for dawdling. Every semester a band was absent was a change to fade fully from the mind of fickle young student programmers. And just one song and a B-side wasn’t quite good enough in the U.S., so the lolling single “Out of Hand” was teamed with a bunch of live tracks and few bit of recorded flotsam. Out of Hand isn’t really a primer, nor is it much of a memento. It’s a placeholder, but a reasonably diverting one.

If the new material on Out of Hand seems largely inessential, it’s also all pleasing enough. On “Count Me Out,” the band comes across as a sort of update of the Easybeats, and “Rollercoaster” has some nice jittery guitar work and a headlong forcefulness that predicts that evolutions the band would go through on their next couple albums. The Mighty Lemon Drops were just getting starting, but their process of finding their collective way resulted in some songs that could put other band’s entire catalogs to shame.  Out of Hand provides at least an inking of that rocket-charged talent.

 

hunters living

545. Hunters & Collectors, Living Daylight (1987)

Dashed off quickly after Hunters & Collectors lengthy tour in support of their album Human Frailty, the EP Living Daylight was meant to buy the Australian collective a chance a little buffer before they could get down to the work of creating another full-length studio. Only three songs long in their native country, Living Daylight was fleshed out with a couple more stray tracks when I.R.S. Records issued it in the U.S. Either way, the EP is a quick, joyous jolt of basic, polished rock goodness.

The title cut is perhaps the most telling evidence of the EP’s fairly quick turnaround time from conception to release. “Living Daylight” is filled with lyrics that are somehow both rock-generic and bafflingly nonsensical (“Here comes the living daylight/ Here comes the great outside/ Like a morning bird on a barbed wire fence/ It will not be denied”). It also compellingly argues that any stitched together scraps of song can still work if the resulting crazy quilt is played and sung with unembarrassed conviction. On other parts of the EP, Hunters & Collectors seemingly take the more modest expectations associated with such a project to get loopier and looser. “Inside a Fireball” has a raw-throated abandon that reminds me of the Felice Brothers and other fellow descendants who are  practitioners of especially slapdash indie rock, and “The Slab” is like Nick Cave trying his hand at psychobilly, which is exactly as amazing as that description makes it seem.

Living Daylight was a successful stall, and Hunters & Collectors were soon back in the studio, and their next full-length studio album arrived in Australian Record shops before the end of the year. Titled What’s a Few Men?, the album earned the customary plaudits and associated handsome sales at home. Across the ocean, some reworking was required, But then, we covered all that already (see #548).

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 — #552 to #549

lone eyesore

552. Various Artists, Lonely is an Eyesore (1987)

The 4AD record label launched in 1980, and quickly developed a reputation for haunting, esoteric pop music, the ethereal quality of the various acts’ creative enhanced by the striking cover art provided by house designer Vaughan Oliver. Like other small, scrappy labels in the U.K. — such as Stiff Records and 2 Tone Records — 4AD’s distinct identity served it well in the homeland shops without fully transferring to other markets. Availability of the product was certainly as issue in the U.S., but its questionable as to whether or not the 4AD name carried weight. After the signing of their first U.S. act, Throwing Muses, the folks at 4AD decided the time was right for a proper introduction to the unconverted, so they issued the artist sampler Lonely is an Eyesore. It’s likely more than happenstance that the compilation takes it name from a lyric on “Fish,” the tingly and charging contribution by their freshly contracted Americans.

The album’s lead track is Colourbox’s “Hot Doggie,” which appropriately opens with the cry “Let’s hear some music!” before giving way to thumping beats and hacksaw guitar parts. At this point, U.S. audiences likely most closely associated 4AD with the dreamy soundscapes of Cocteau Twin, and the jagged dance music of Colourbox quickly, efficiently upends expectations. The album also includes the fab goth drama of the Wolfgang Press’s “Cut the Tree” and Dif Juz’s “No Motion”, which is lush and swirling with an underlying solidity, basically anticipating the turn taken by the Cure a couple years later on Disintegration. Dead Can Dance is the sole act to be represented by multiple cuts, with both a demo version of “Frontier” and the luxuirant epic “The Protagonist” in place.

The album makes a strong case for 4AD as a label with a unifying creative outlook and yet a reasonably impressive range among the acts. At a time when college radio was completely coming into its own, Lonely is an Eyesore was a fine and proper audition to be the semi-official label of the kids holding down the left end of the dial.

 

talk life

551. Talk Talk, It’s My Life (1984)

It’s My Life, the sophomore album from Talk Talk, was received tepidly in their U.K. homeland, but it helped the band break elsewhere in the world. The tender disco cut “Such a Shame,” punctuated with a oddly thrilling succession of false endings, earned them Top 10 status on several country-centered charts across Europe, and the exquisite title cut was their lone Top 40 hit in the U.S., where it also become once those enduring songs called upon to reductively represent the whole of nineteen-eighties pop.

The remainder of It’s My Life does make a compelling case for Talk Talk as one of the quintessential bands of the moment, when synth-pop was sprinting as fast as it could from the trappings of the needlessly disgraced disco movement while surreptitiously invoking its secret spells from time to time. The lithe synth yearning of  “Renée,” the layered, coiled intensity of “It’s You,” and the slow, deliberate groove “Tomorrow Started” show off the band’s icy cool ingenuity and ability to be playful within the boundaries they’d set themselves. “Does Caroline Know?,” which moves like sonic mercury, is maybe the most striking showcase of their talents. like mercuryA couple decades later, Beck would make the same sort of records, but with an unseemly look-at-me eagerness of fading vaudevillian. The Talk Talk version is better.

Whatever success Talk Talk achieved with It’s My Life, their inability to crack the code of U.K. commercial success stung. And, by all accounts, that disgruntlement helped fuel their next album, which basically preserved their established sound while also swooping off in new directions.

 

talking name

550. Talking Heads, The Name of This Band is Talking Heads (1982)

The first live album from Talking Heads opens with lead singer David Byrne making an introduction. “The name of this song is ‘New Feeling,’” he says. “That’s what it’s about.” The charming, feigned awkwardness and literalness extends to the name of the album: The Name of This Band is Talking Heads. The title is a direct allusion to Byrne’s stilted stage patter, but it also makes a suitable thesis statement for the double album, with the wrinkle that the album is actually capturing distinctly different versions of the band.

The first side is drawn from a live in-studio performance given by the band for Boston-area radio station WCOZ. A quick two months after the release of Talking Heads: 77, the band’s debut album, the quartet delivers crisp, pinpoint perfect versions of songs such as “Don’t Worry About the Government.” There’s an endearing reticence to these tracks, as if the band is being careful in the hopes of passing an audition. The second side finds them onstage at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, New Jersey, in 1979. Now three albums deep into their career and clearly feeding off the welling energy of the crowd, the songs are rawer and the performances looser. Byrne employs about a jillion vocal tricks on “Artists Only,” and bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz prove their work as the rhythm section is the greatest strength of the band on “Stay Hungry.”

The second of two albums is where things expand all the way to the Talking Heads touring outfit that director Jonathan Demme would soon capture on film. Drawn from multiple concerts in 1980 and 1981, sides three and four feature Byrne, Weymouth, Frantz, and guitarist Jerry Harrison now augmented by a crew of ringers, ludicrously skilled musicians such as Nona Hendryx, Adrian Belew, and Bernie Worrell joining in on the Talking Heads’ lean art rock songs and inflating them into blissfully funked out epics. “I Zimbra” is a proper beginning for the second album, as the band sounds so much bigger, in every conceivable way. And “Houses in Motion,” showcasing Belew’s twisty guitar lines, is itself an argument for expanding the roster.

Expansion can also mean bloat, though. By the last side, the album grows numbing. “The Great Curve” and “Crosseyed and Painless” are undoubtedly impressive workouts, but they also have a touch of that you-had-to-be-there quality endemic to live recordings. The Name of This Band is Talking Heads is a thoughtful document of a great band’s evolution as performers. But as an album, it’s primarily effective as an advertisement for the next tour.

 

bears st

549. The Bears, The Bears (1987)

“We just thought it’d be nice to hear songs like these on the radio, just like when ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ was being broadcast and thousands of housewives were listening to this bizarre piece of music,” Adrian Belew explained around the time the self-titled debut album from the Bears was released. “I’d like to see that happen again. And that’s what The Bears are all about. We’re committed to something a little more adventurous than the mainstream.”

Freed from his role as glorified sideman to Robert Fripp when King Crimson went on hiatus, Belew started casting around for his next musical opportunity, quickly connecting with guitarist Rob Fetters, drummer Chris Arduser, and bassist Bob Nyswonger, all of whom played together in the Raisins, a Cincinnati band that had several near misses in their quest to go national. After adopting the name the Bears, the band headed to Belew’s home recording studio, in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and worked up a batch of lovely, loopy pop rock songs, none of them jokey but everyone infused with a unmistakable lightness of sprit.

Since he was the most famous member, Belew was perceived as the creative leader of the band. And when a song such as “None of the Above” shimmers with his trademark careening guitar work, it’s easy to slot the the band as an extension of Belew’s sensibility. But Belew was always quick to assert that the Bears was a true collaboration, right up to the shared lead vocal duties, with Belew and Fetters smoothly trading off the spot in front of the mic or harmonizing. Their command of tight, smart pop is all over the record, from the gallop of “Fear is Never Boring” to the pulsing, eddying “Figure It Out.” The classic palatable weirdness of the Beatles that Belew cited as an aspiration is heard most clearly on the lightly psychedelic “Man Behind the Curtain,” which is also an example the Bears’ tendency to take a couple hook-driven musical ideas and pummel them into submission.

The dream of mainstream acceptance was pretty far-fetched, if only because the Bears sounded so at home amidst the other brilliant oddballs that had some trouble leveraging their success with the college crowd. “Trust” is like Public Image Ltd. if Peter Gabriel had successfully orchestrated a hostile takeover or the band, and “Superboy” is the less lush companion piece to XTC’s own paean to Kyptonian do-gooders. These are great songs, but entirely ill-suited to challenge Whitney Houston and Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam for a spot atop the Billboard chart.

But if the Bears never had a major hit, they could boast an album cover with the band’s members rendered by master Mad caricaturist Mort Drucker. In some quarters, that’s a shinier prize than a record pressed out of absolutely any precious metal.

 

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 — #556 to #553

walking

556. Guadalcanal Diary, Walking in the Shadow of the Big Man (1984)

The members of Guadalcanal Diary claimed that the title of their debut album derived from some misheard lyrics from a gospel groups performance at a street festival. The assumption across college radio, however, was that Walking in the Shadow of the Big Man was a direct reference to R.E.M., the Athens band that was a mere two albums deep into their career at the time, but already held sway over the left end of the radio dial like no one else. Especially for a band from R.E.M.’s broad neck of the woods — Guadalcanal Diary’s home base of Marietta sits about eighty miles due west of R.E.M.’s Athens, gee-aye launching pad — and with a touch of jangle to their sound, there was no avoiding the comparison. Guadalcanal Diary also had Don Dixon, co-producer of the first two R.E.M. albums, on board, so they probably never passed more than five minutes with a music journalist without that certain set of peers being invoked.

In truth, the geography and behind-the-boards personnel set a misleading narrative about Guadalcanal Diary. On Walking in the Shadow of the Big Man, they’re definitely doing their own thing. And they haven’t quite mastered it yet. The band played with jubilant energy, tongues firmly in cheek. They brought in diverse and divergent sounds into a strange pop-rock stew that, heard with current sensibilities, has a touch of privileged blitheness to it. “Watusi Rodeo” is still quite joyful in its jokester amalgamation, but lyrics such as “Monkeys in the trees just thumbing their nose/ At the bull-riders riding on rhinos/ Warriors standing with spears in the hands/ Wondering what’s next from a crazy white man” are a little too close to a misbegotten attempt to have a slab of appropriation cake and ravenously eat it, too. In a less problematic but maybe more telling example, the band closes the album with a maybe-mocking, maybe-serious cover of “Kumbayah,” the campfire classic no less annoying because it’s deliveed with a college rock, tattered Chuck Taylors aesthetic.

Across the rest of the record, Guadalcanal Diary is obviously feeling their way toward something better. “Sleepers Awake” is murky and drowsy, “Ghosts on the Road” has an adrenalized verve, and “Gilbert Takes the Wheel” is a punchy, probing instrumental. Maybe the best indicator of the level of craft lurking within the band is “Pillow Talk,” which comes close to a Smithereens-like command of pop trappings. Even if the tracks don’t all land gracefully, there are at least signs of a band strengthening their abilities. Sometimes it simply takes a few more steps to emerge from the shadow.

 

ultravox rage

555. Ultravox, Rage in Eden (1981)

Ultravox made a determined shift into electronic-based dance music on their 1980 album, Vienna, which yielded a worldwide hit with the title cut. So Rage in Eden was a test as to whether they could sustain and build upon the approach that helped them break through the mass of post-punk artists. The band reconvened with their regular producer, Conny Plank, at his home studio, located in West Germany. The synths were put in place, lead singer Midge Ure tuned up his voice, and Ultravox laid down a new batch of slick, soaring pop songs, all meant to make glum youths helplessly shift their shoulders to the rhythm.

Ultravox were quick masters of this somewhat-new-to-them craft, but the state of the craft itself had some limitations. Opening track “The Voice” suggests the grandeur Ultravox was aiming for was fated to always sound a little tinny. That doesn’t mean fashioning nifty dance tracks was beyond the grasp of the band. The airy, spooky title cut is impactful, as is “The Thin Wall,” which is pitched in the middle ground between icy German electronica and British soul. “Accent on Youth” deserves to be as emblematic of early-eighties new wave as the hits of A Flock of Seagulls or Soft Cell, and “Your Name Has Slipped My Mind Again” is similar both locked into the moment and fairly prescient, sounding like the products of a Depeche Mode after a handful of sedatives.

Rage in Eden was a success, but it was also an album that took a toll on Ultravox. In part because the new songs weren’t road-tested, a departure for the band, the recording sessions were arduous and went on far longer than expected. For their next outing, Ultravox parted ways with Plank, who’d been on board with them from nearly the beginning. Among other motivations, there were grander ambitions afoot, and, by then, a legendary producer ready to help them out.

 

mojo frenzy

554. Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper, Frenzy (1986)

The weird, warped carousel that was nineteen-eighties pop culture is exemplified by “Stuffin’ Martha’s Muffin,” a track on Frenzy, the sophomore effort from raucous and ribald duo Mojo Nixon and Skip Roper. A loping screed against cable network MTV, then a mere five years old, the track features Nixon lasciviously lusting after on-air personality Martha Quinn and grousing that the platform for music videos will never play his offerings. Nixon ultimately concludes that the channel “Should be covered in jism.” It’s crude, decisively antagonistic, and a weirdly compelling statement of proud outsider principle. Within a few years, in part because a cult hero notoriety of which this track was a cornerstone, Nixon was all over MTV, appearing in promotional bumpers given heavy prominence during the broadcast day. Even when rebellion wasn’t a pose, it could be craftily coopted by a revamped media machine ravenous for content.

A North Carolinian by birth, Nixon launched his music career in earnest in San Diego. He teamed with Roper, a multi-instrumentalist who most visibly scratched away at a washboard as accompaniment to Nixon’s tuneful, comic diatribes. Nixon and Roper hadn’t been at it all that long by the time of Frenzy, but they already had the act down. The antiestablishment bona fides are laid out on “I Hate Banks,” set to a nifty Bo Diddley riff, and “Ain’t Got No Boss,” which is Nixon’s more fiery approach to the workingman’s  battle cry found on Johnny Paycheck’s famed “Take This Job and Shove It.” Railing against the scoundrels who withhold earned wages from earnest toilers is also at the core of the touring musician lament “Where the Hell’s My Money?,” Nixon’s version of a saga song (an entertaining track sullied by Nixon’s rendering of a club owner as lisping and effete).

The odder experiments on Frenzy are also nicely effective, whether it’s Steve Wynn, of the Dream Syndicate, guesting to gently spoof Dylan on “Feeling Existential” or Nixon ceding lead vocals to Roper for a lean cover of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” which keeps  the infamous rock epic to a crisp minute and a half, making the song sound cooler than ever in the process. Nixon’s brand of comedic tomfoolery isn’t exactly built to endure, but a surprising amount of Frenzy still sounds good almost twenty-five years later. Unlike many other practitioners of confrontational, snidely satiric rock from the era, Nixon clearly and accurately considered his material a loopy romp, reclaiming the fun of the musical form that was stripped away by the ponderous prog and concept-album pretensions of the preceding decade. He approached Frenzy accordingly, and the playfulness is still present in album’s grooves.

 

red freaky

553. Red Hot Chili Peppers, Freaky Styley (1985)

For their sophomore release, the Red Hot Chili Peppers decided to embrace the most common comparison they received while touring and promoting their self-titled debut. The band’s combination of funk and crunching hard rock naturally led to evocation of George Clinton’s various stage-straining musical collectives, so Red Hot Chili Peppers suggested to their label, EMI, that the Prime Minister of Funk himself be recruited to preside over new recording sessions. Clinton agreed, and sessions for Freaky Styley soon got underway.

Clinton knew how to bring a big funk sound to the album. His own collaborators the Horny Horns were brought as guests, and true ringer Maceo Parker also played a bit. The expertise and disciple is clearest on the album’s cover tracks. The Red Hot Chili Peppers deliver a spirited take on the Meters’ “Africa,” coolly reworked into “Hollywood (Africa).” And a pass at Sly and the Family Stone’s “If You Want Me to Stay” is lithe and simmering, marred only by overly mannered vocals by lead singer Anthony Kiedis. But Clinton clearly had little interest in bringing similar disciple to the band’s originals, at least in improving the embarrassingly juvenile lyrics. Tracks such as “Jungle Man” (“I am a jungle man I am a jungle man I am a jungle man/ I get all the bush I can”) and snarled funk title cut (built around the repeated lyric “Fuck ’em just to see that look on their face”) are pure tedium in their middle-school-boy approach to dirty talk. And that’s before the album completely peters out on the second side, with a bunch of half-ass joke songs and the absolutely repellent “Catholic School Girls Rule” and “Sex Rap.”

Like the Replacements with heavier bass lines, the Red Hot Chili Peppers at this stage in their career were basically running from their own talent, afraid that really trying to make a good record would expose them to painful rejection. The easygoing funk of “The Brothers Cup” hints at what the band could pull off when they weren’t preemptively setting up the excuse that they weren’t really trying and whoever didn’t like them just didn’t get the joke.

 

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 — #560 to #557

queen the game

560. Queen, The Game (1980)

Producer Reinhold Mack told Queen it was time to use a musical tool they’d resisted to that point. Across seven prior studio albums, the flashy, British rock band made bigger and bigger sounds, always noting they did so without disposing themselves of the some of the emerging technology that made creating overlapping tones easier. Queen was arguably ready to employ the instrument anyway (surely it must have been strange for them to watch from the sidelines the explosion of disco music, which shared a lot of DNA with their hook-laden, theatrical rock), but Mack was the collaborator who helped smack away the last of the resistance. The resulting LP, The Game, became the band’s biggest-selling studio album in the U.S. and yielded two chart-topping singles: “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “Another One Bites the Dust.”

The chewy hit singles aside, The Game is a messy endeavor, finding Queen bopping back and forth between middling ideas that seem barely coaxed to completion. The lushly overdone album opener “Play the Game” is so squarely in Queen’s bailiwick that it’s hard to criticize it. On the other hand, the maudlin, florid divorce song “Save Me” reasonably invites scorn, and “Need Your Loving Tonight” shows the reasonable belief that singer Freddie Mercury could make just about any words work doesn’t mean it’s forgivable to infest the world with lyrics such as “Come on baby let’s get together/ I’ll love you, baby, I’ll love you forever.” The absolute nadir, though — and I’d argue of the very worst rock songs of all time — is the well-meaning but disastrous “Don’t Try Suicide,” on which Queen sounds like a delusional jazz combo giving this nutty rock ‘n’ roll thing a try while Mercury croons out brutal inanities (“Don’t try suicide/ You’re just gonna hate it/ Don’t try suicide/ Nobody gives a damn”).

Although The Game represented a major success for Queen, the band was largely unable to capitalize on it moving forward, at least in the U.S. Around six months after the album’s release, new Queen music arrived in the form of the soundtrack to the garish bomb Flash Gordon. A few more modest hits followed, but Queen’s slide from vital rock band to warmly tolerated legacy act was underway following The Game.

 

no nukes

559. Various Artists, No Nukes: The MUSE Concerts for a Non-Nuclear Future (1979)

Musicians United for Safe Energy, known as MUSE, formed in the late nineteen-seventies when a group of lefty musicians — namely Jackson Browne, Graham Nash, Bonnie Raitt, and John Hall — joined with activist Harvey Wasserman following the partial meltdown at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. Not long after the group formed their pact, they announced a series of benefit concerts, with proceeds largely going to organizations that funded efforts around the growth of the solar power industry. The shows were captured for a concert film and a three-record set.

As if often the case with such altruistic ventures, the motivating sentiment is more laudable than the finished product. In the case of the No Nukes album set, the Doobie Brothers infestation that spread across the multiple sides is certainly a main culprit when it comes to the album’s almost intolerable soft rock inner being. It’s bad enough that the album’s grand finale closer is a big hollow jam on “Takin’ It to the Streets,” but the group crops up elsewhere, decisively demonstrating their ability to laden any song with burdensome uncoolness. I don’t know that I would have previously gone out of my way to tout Nicolette Larson’s hit with the Neil Young-penned “Lotta Love,” but the Doobies slathering their tepidness all her live version here sure makes the case the original. Nor everything can be be laid at their feet, though. It’s not their overly mellow backing of John Hall’s Hall “Power” that creates the painfully didactic lyrics (“Won’t you do this for me?/ Take all your atomic, poison power away”).

There are reasonably appealing tracks to be found on No Nukes, including the stark cool and pointed fury of Gil Scott-Heron’s “We Almost Lost Detroit” and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers slowing, surely grinding through a cover of Solomon Burke’s “Cry to Me.” There’s little doubt that the main appeal of the album was the presence of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, the first officially release live recording by the outfit that already had a reputation as unparalleled stage performers. The album includes the “Detroit Medley” that had been a staple of the Boss’s live shows for a few years by that point, as well as the whole group pitching in on Jackson Browne’s rendering of “Stay,” and song he’d taken into the Top 40 a couple years earlier.

Springsteen’s reticence for issuing live music faded a few years earlier, beginning with a chart-topping box set in the mid–nineteen-eighties and extending across a slew of official releases. One of the most recent was in fact a complete set of songs from the No Nukes shows.

 

lone justice

558. Lone Justice, Lone Justice (1985)

Lone Justice arrived with a big batch of burgeoning rock legend stories. A surging presence on the Los Angeles scene, the group so commanded the room when they opened for Love singer Arthur Lee, in the midst of mounting an attempted comeback, that Lee reportedly walked off the stage after a couple songs. Dolly Parton extolled Lone Justice’s lead singer, Maria McKee, and Linda Ronstadt personally intervened to help get the band signed to Geffen Records. With Jimmy Iovine onboard to produce the band’s debut, anticipation was high. While it didn’t exactly turn into an unstoppable hit, Lone Justice more than delivers in quality. There’s little doubt as to why those many admirers were effusive in their praise.

The album — and, in a way, the band — explodes into being with “East of Eden,” a firm, forceful rocker with a hand-jive rhythm. Lone Justice’s heavy country music influence shows up all over the record, in the heartbreak twang of “Don’t Toss Us Away,” the hoedown charge of “Working Late,” and the steady thump of “Soap, Soup and Salvation,” a showstopper worth of the Opry. Unlike some other rock acts that look to songs of the South, Lone Justice never seems to be dabbling, swiping authenticity from a genre known for beer watered down by tears. Through a lovely alchemy, the Angelenos make the hybrid genre playfulness deeply authentic.

Inevitably, the album is most memorable as a showcase for McKee. The band is strong; McKee is a powerhouse. Her tuneful shout fully enlivens “Ways to Be Wicked,” a track co-written by Tom Petty and Mike Campbell, taking the the intoxicating rebellion and confident seduction that was long the most compelling undercurrents of rock ‘n’ roll and channel and channeling it all into her vocals, making a for a practically perfect three and a half minutes. “Sweet, Sweet Baby (I’m Falling)” is similarly dizzying in its effectiveness, the kind of song that makes a hundred bar bands give up because they’ll never touch its ease in capturing and conveying the lifeblood of tried-and-true rock music.

By some assessments, the enormous amount of hype surrounding Lone Justice (which also included a spot as opening act on U2’s tour in support of The Unforgettable Fire tour) created an almost impossible situation. When they didn’t charge to the top of the charts, it was considered a devastating disappoint. Before working on a second album, there were major personnel shifts and some rethinking of their sound. Their next album would bear similarities, but it was really made by a different band with different goals.

 

green gas

557. Green on Red, Gas Food Lodging (1985)

Green on Red made their major label debut with the EP No Free Lunch, and a few months later it was time to take a bigger, bolder step forward. Gas Food Lodging takes the tilt toward country rock of the prior release and turns it into a whirligig of happy invention. Album opener “That’s What Dreams” is rock with a fine twang and grandly forlorn lyrics (“It seems no one has any faith any more” is the opening line, and it doesn’t get all that much cheerier from there). While clinging to their well-established bona fides earned amongst the retro-rockers of Los Angeles’s Paisley Underground scene, Green on Red advances a sound that owes a lot of the earnestness of the heartland.

They also play with the rigor of an act that’s put in their time in beer-soaked venues. The fine “Black River” even offers the lonely lament of a gigging musician (“Every morning, I drive the same old car/ And every night I play a different bar / Jackson, Mississippi, now it’s San Antone / Memories fade through hazy days”). Over and over again, Green on Red proves they have the flinty fury to rouse any crowd, whether with the crunchy guitar riffs of “Fading Away” or the bold and bluesy “16 Ways.” Both mirroring the tough-minded rock of the Meat Puppets and anticipating the languid guitar workouts of Built to Spill, “Sea of Cortez” is fantastically sludgy, the kind of track that invites the listener to get lost in it. Gas Food Lodging is plainly formidable.

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 — #564 to #561

omd

564. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, O.M.D. (1981)

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark were very busy in 1980. Starting as a duo comprised of bassist Andy McCluskey and keyboard player Paul Humphreys, the band released their first two full-length studio albums at home in the U.K., quickly pushing singles in the country’s Top 10. They were picked up by Epic Records for U.S. distribution, but the label decided neither of the first two albums — a self-titled effort and Organisation — was quite right for their North American bow, and so tracks from those releases were shuffled together like playing cards, resulting in a compilation that used its titled to cement acronym for the band’s name that was going to be especially useful for a populace destined to misspell Manoeuvres.

O.M.D. is gifted with the dual benefits of a young band bursting with creative and just enough chart-tested hindsight to help optimize the playlist. A band can’t ask for a better first impression than the energetic, soaring “Enola Gay,” which greeted U.S. listeners who dropped the needle at the start of the collection’s first side. O.M.D. emerged as part of the post-punk scene (opening for Joy Division was an early gig), and the merged the sounds of that subgenre with element of all the other edgy experimentalism happening at the time. “Bunker Soldiers” has a distinct German art rock influence, and “The Misunderstanding” is in the melancholy goth mode of the Cure, without quite that band’s level of running-mascara conviction.

Getting out of the gate a pace or two ahead of Depeche Mode, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark established some of the two groups’ common techniques of combining icy electronic music with lyrics that are simultaneously glum, simple, and cryptic, allowing forlorn teens around the globe to project their heartache onto them. The slithery synth romanticism of “Almost” (“Always making statements/ And moving step by step/ Always acting theories/ I will regret”) and the blipping and luxuriant “Messages” (“I’d write and tell you that I’ve burnt them all/ But you never send me your address/ And I’ve, I’ve kept them anyway”) are fine examples. There are signs that Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark could have pushed into more intriguing complexity — “Statues” is like a horror movie score reshaped into a song of troubled romance — but it’s clear from the collection that they were especially comfy in their chosen zone.

 

feelies

563. The Feelies, The Good Earth (1986)

To the degree anyone was thinking about the Feelies in the mid–nineteen-eighties, the default assumption was surely that the band was no longer. After a famed, beloved debut, Crazy Rhythms — that quickly went out of print and became of the Holy Grails of the college rock era — six long years passed with barely a peep from the band. The occasional live show played within comfortable driving distance of their Haledon, New Jersey home base was about it. Then the Feelies’ sophomore album, The Good Earth, finally arrived. Record label woes and the general intransigence of the music industry might have contributed to the uncommonly long time between records, but guitarist Bill Million provided a simpler official explanation.

”A lot of bands that put out second albums shouldn’t — it’s too soon,” Million told The New York Times when The Good Earth was released. “We wanted to make sure the timing was right.”

Co-produced by R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck (presumably at around the same time he was working with his bandmates on Lifes Rich Pageant), The Good Earth opens with “On the Roof,” which appropriately sounds like the band slowly coming awake, finding their trademark crazy rhythm. That’s one of the niftiest tricks in the arsenal of Million and his co-songwriter and co-arranger, Glenn Mercer. The slow build is found elsewhere on the album, notably the utterly charming “Slipping (Into Something).” Just as often, the Feelies bring a disarming jittery genius to a song right from the opening bars, as on the racing “The Last Roundup.”

There’s also an expanded scope on The Good Earth, a clear and successful attempt to expand their sonic palette. Perhaps influenced by Buck, “Two Rooms” has a easygoing melody and drifty background vocal that gives it a feel of jauntier R.E.M., and “Tomorrow Today” puts militaristic march in conflict with a bendy, buzzy guitar line with sterling results. And the title cut‘s evocative mood of aching beauty distinguishes it as the song Yo La Tengo has arguably spent their entire career striving to make.

The Feelies’ songs have an artfully constructed precision, and yet they reverberate with a feeling of exuberant spontaneity. It’s probably an open question as to whether The Good Earth really required more than a half-decade to come to proper fruition, but the value in waiting identified by Million dose seem partially proven by the album. With The Good Earth, the band’s timing was impeccable.

 

roxy avalon

562. Roxy Music, Avalon (1982)

The figure clad in chainmail on the cover of Avalon, the eighth album from Roxy Music, is not some random evoker of myth and legend, in the visual style of many U.K.–based acts of the late–nineteen-seventies and early–nineteen-eighties. Bryan Ferry claims he was specific thinking of King Arthur when he penned the songs for the band he fronted, envisioning Avalon to be a more cohesive work, a pensive novel in ten tracks. It might be difficult to discern Camelot in the swooning title cut‘s lyrics (“When you bossanova/ There’s no holding/ Would you have me dancing/ Out of nowhere”), but Roxy Music had clearly reached a point where mood was the chief characteristic of their output.

Officially, the band was down to a trio: Ferry at the front and on keyboards, Phil Manzanera playing guitar, and Andy Mackay on saxophone. The other parts were handled by a fleet of shifting studio musicians. The music is lush, refined, and sedate, as if the band, over a decade past their debut and perhaps feeling their age at a time when rock ‘n’ roll was still considered a game for the young, was attempting to invent their own version of adult contemporary music, with the edge of a stiff martini rather than the cloying, syrupy sentimentality that eventually prevailed. Whatever issues Avalon might have, the world would be a better place if “More Than This” had been the song from a veteran artist that the surging radio format glommed onto while still in the process of self-definition instead of the likes of “Ebony and Ivory” and “Hard to Say I’m Sorry.”

Considering how stealthily dangerous Roxy Music often sounded on their best albums from the nineteen-seventies, Avalon is a notably tepid affair. “The Main Thing” has a tingle of steely pop that anticipates Robert Palmer’s commercial breakthrough to come, and “To Turn You On” is light, lithe funk as only Ferry could do. But those cuts barely burble up for notice, as most of the album gels into smooth, soothing background music, entirely disinterested in attracting attention as it sleepily smokes a cigarette in the back of the room. Listening now, it makes sense that Avalon is the last Roxy Music album, despite the face that it was also their most successful, the only release credited to the band that crossed into million-seller territory. In truth, it sounds like they gave up about halfway through making it.

 

van halen 1984

561. Van Halen, 1984 (1984)

To be completely accurate, the cover of Van Halen’s sixth studio album gives the title as MCMLXXXIV. Released just over a week into the year in question, 1984 was an era-defining album in a stretch that had so shortage of such musical efforts. When the Van Halen album hit record store shelves, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, already over a year old, was in the midst of a seventeen-week run atop the Billboard chart, and before the calendar was complete, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. and and Prince’s Purple Rain made their debuts. There was such an abundance of smash hit albums that 1984 never managed to muscle its way to the top position on the Billboard album chart, even as it sold over five million copies in its first year of release.

Going into 1984, Van Halen were coming off their least satisfying recording experience as a band. Their previous album, Diver Down, was put together in haste, the direct result of record company pressure after a cover of Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman,” intended as a one-off single, became a surprise hit, leading Warner Bros. executives to insist an accompanying album was needed. Heavily reliant on other cover songs and boasting a meager half hour running time, Diver Down wasn’t representative of the level of craft guitarist Eddie Van Halen hoped for from the outfit that carried his name. The compromised product steeled his conviction to get the next album right, an instinct that also manifested in a desire to expand the breadth of his musical acumen. And so one of the most revered hot rock guitarists of his generation decided he was going to insist on a greater presence of synthesizers.

As if signaling to fans that they were in for a slightly different Van Halen album, 1984 opens with a brief title cut of quasi–prog rock synth lines and weird electrified burbles, before shifting quickly into “Jump,” which also served as the record’s first single. Van Halen’s love of a killer opening riff was transposed from the strings and fingerboard of a guitar to the plastic keys of an Oberheim OB-X. Van Halen pitched that particular synth riff to his bandmates for a few years, but it was rejected out of hand until producer Ted Templeman. Put together with the sort of inane lyrics that only singer David Lee Roth could sell (“But, can’t you see me standing here?/ I’ve got my back against the record machine/ I ain’t the worst that you’ve seen/ Ah, don’t you know what I mean?”), “Jump” became a massive hit, topping the Billboard singles chart for five weeks.

Both the grinding “Panama” and “I’ll Wait” also made the Billboard top 40, the latter song written with Michael McDonald of the Doobie Brothers, and saddled with the plodding geniality he favored. “Hot for Teacher,” sophomoric but admittedly amusing (“I brought my pencil/ Gimme something to write on, man”), actually missed the Top 40, but felt like one of the album’s biggest hits because of its near constant presence on MTV. Much as 1984 was a significant step forward for Van Halen, there are remnants of the old creative spirit, for good and ill. “House of Pain” is enjoyable enough in its gooey metal menace, but “Drop Dead Legs” sullies some lean, tough Van Halen guitar heroics with the complete embarrassment of Roth’s leering lyrics (“Dig that steam, giant butt/ Makes me scream, I get nuh-nuh-nothing but the shakes over you”). It was as if not everyone agreed it was time for the band to grow up.

In the aftermath of 1984, there was no shortage of disagreement. Almost exactly one year after the album’s release date, David Lee Roth delivered his solo debut, a thin EP consistently entirely of covers, two of which — “California Girls” and “Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody” — made the Billboard Top 40. He also had dreams of movie stardom and was actively developing a starring vehicle that he prioritized over the band. Whether Roth quit or was fired, he was out of the band by the middle of 1985. After an unsuccessful attempt to convince Patty Smyth to take the lead singer role, Van Halen announced Roth’s replacement as Sammy Hagar, leading to a long era of the band that, despite some fan misgivings, had its fair share of commercial success.

 

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