College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #632 to #629

santana marathon

632. Santana, Marathon (1979)

In many respects, the shifting trends of rock music in the late nineteen-seventies probably felt very accommodating to guitarist Carlos Santana. A master craftsman with his guitar, Santana had major hits with hard rock music as the seventies gave way to the seventies, but his style of playing often seemed misplaced surrounded by post-psychedelic thunder. He brought an intricacy to the guitar that was arguably more in line with the fusion of jazz and rock tipping more to the rock side that represented a natural progression from the floridness of prog rock. Marathon find Santana and the band that bears his name shifting into that mode, with clumsy results.

Part of the issue with Marathon is that it’s slip-slides around the prevailing sounds of the era without ever finding a proper groove. Aqua Marine” and “Runnin” wouldn’t sound out of place on a Jean-Luc Ponty album, at least until Santana pushes his playing into a bluesier style and the whole track takes on a level of confusion that makes it seem like individual instrument tracks were edited together by mistake. At the most regrettable, such as “Summer Lady,” it just sounds like a Boz Scaggs record with slightly tougher guitar work.

Oddly, the evolutionary step from sixties hard rock to seventies fusion put Santana in a place where they wind up anticipating the nadir of mid-eighties pop-rock, when all the new wave was seeped out of it to leave generic shells that could fill in the track lists of Brat Pack soundtracks. “You Know That I Love You” and “All I Ever Wanted” are practically the same song, just played at different tempos. And “Stay (Beside Me)” is so concentrated in its blandness that it sounds like it was recorded to serve as the theme music for an attempted Love Boat spinoff about the mundane lives of the seawater-spritzed, besotted couples after they went ashore. The veneer of inoffensive suitability is fortified by the lead vocals of Alex Ligertwood, on his first of many albums with Santana. Ligertwood comes across as the tepid tea version of Paul Carrack, who is barely lukewarm coffee himself.


split colours

631. Split Enz, True Colours (1980)

When Split Enz turned in their fifth studio album, True Colours, their record label was disappointed. The already strong songwriting of the band’s brothers, Neil and Tim Finn, clearly took another step forward, but whatever verdict might have been delivered about the artistic merits of the album, one thing was certain to the executives: There was no hit on the record. The band suggested the earthy, groovy “Missing Person” was the album’s strongest cut and might make for a good first single. Instead, the label opted for “I Got You.” The song spent two months atop the chart in Australia, Split Enz’s home base at the time, and became the country’s biggest-selling single of the year.

When True Colours received its U.S. release, on A&M Records, the order of the tracks was rejiggered slightly to put “I Got You” right up top, leading off side one. What followed took listeners on a slightly wilder and wider aural journey than they probably expected. The album is locked into a distinctive pop sound, but also opts for a loose experimentalism. The wild art rock of “Double Happy” coexists with the orchestral refinement of “I Hope I Never,” and Split Enz seem equally comfortable no matter the extreme. They arguably lock in most firmly when deploying songs with a raggedy post-punk feel — the fervent “Shark Attack” or the yearning tingles of “Poor Boy” — maybe because the requisite brusqueness is an ideal match for strong pop songwriting.

In addition to the sterling material pressed into the grooves, there was a little something special skating across the upper plane of the physical record. In part to dissuade piracy, the record label used laser etching to put vivid designs across the surface of the vinyl. It was supposedly the first released album to feature the technique.


meat out

630. Meat Puppets, Out My Way (1986)

“When we work, we really work,” Curt Kirkwood, lead singer and guitarist of the Meat Puppets, told Spin magazine around the time the band’s EP Out My Way was released. “We tour for thirty days straight, and then when we go home we can afford to sit around for three months.”

By their own estimate, the Meat Puppets had mounted six tours over the course of four years when Out My Way came out, and the record naturally gave them cause to go out again. Standard bearers of Greg Ginn’s SST Records, the trio was known for raucous live sets and albums of freewheeling rock music. Like most college rock EPs of the era, Out My Way can reasonably be seen as a placeholder, provider a reminder to highly distractible student programmers about the continuing existence of a band they’d previously shown favor. Unlike some other short-form releases, Out My Way doesn’t come across as scraps and filler. Meat Puppets still raise a fine racket.

Opening with the burbling rock song “She’s Hot,” the EP clicks through a set of new offerings, all generally fine and sturdy. The spacey intricacies on “Other Kinds of Love” suggest the ranginess of the band, but the main impression of tracks stacked up like artisanal bricks, each special and appealing but most notable for dependability on display. When the steady gallop “Not Swimming Ground” turns into a lean, fierce jam at the end, finishing up well before it lapses into indulgence, it comes across as a mild variant, a wink of sonic expansiveness that the band can pull out of their collective back pocket any time they want. Only the closing track, an antic cover of “Good Golly Miss Molly,” is negligible.

The plan called for another quick return to the studio after touring in support of Out My Way. The schedule was derailed when Kirkwood broke his finger in an unfortunate encounter with the touring van’s closing door. The forced slowdown arguably contributed to Meat Puppets taking some of their most adventurous explorations to that point when the time to record again finally came around.


bruce dancing

629. Bruce Cockburn, Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws (1979)

Singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn released albums at a steady clip through the nineteen-seventies, building a strong fanbase in his native Canada and remaining fairly obscure in the nation to the direct south. In the U.S., Cockburn’s records sold modestly and the accompanying singles barely registered. The breakthrough finally arrived in 1979, with the release of Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws.

In crafting the album’s songs, Cockburn was inspired by the writings of British novelist and theologian Charles Williams. According to Cockburn, Williams “was a terrible writer but had an astounding vision of how Divine/Human interaction works.” Cockburn consumed every bit of Williams’s writing he could find, and all those concepts were rattling around in his head as he pondered the crumbling state of the world and the existential threats, such as nuclear weaponry, that were under the control of highly questionable world leaders. These concerns converged into “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” a lovely folk-pop number that, played with grace and emotive elegance, became a U.S. Top 40 hit for Cockburn, his sole song to tally that achievement.

The remainder of the Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws is in the same basic mode as its unlikely hit, sometimes remarkably so. “Hills of Morning” could almost be a demo version of “Wondering Where the Lions Are” with alternate lyrics. “Incandescent Blue” exhibits the offhand complexity akin to Joni Mitchell, and “Badlands Flashback” incorporates flamenco-light guitar plucking. If nothing else is as immediately arresting as the album’s established standout track, it all goes down impressively smooth and easy. Cockburn never had another sizable success on the singles chart in the U.S. One gem might be enough.


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 — #636 to #633

dead eat

636. Dead Milkmen, Eat Your Paisley! (1986)

Any act that nabs a sizable amount of attention with a novelty hit faces a distinct challenge. The fundamental nature of a single that earns airplay because of its comedic uniqueness is a certain level of disposability, like a fad for pet rocks that seems ridiculous one year later and certainly doesn’t inspire anyone to pine for the follow-up of pet boulders. With “Bitchin’ Camaro,” a track off their debut album, the Dead Milkmen were given prime placement on college radio playlists, but that was no promise that, by the time of their second album, the joke might be growing stale.

Delivered in a boisterous rush to capitalize on the success of that debut release, Big Lizard in My Backyard, the second album from the Dead Milkmen is a continuation of their established punk-inflected comic insolence. Eat Your Paisley! also manages to avoid sounding like a mere repeat, mostly because of the fervent commitment the Philadelphia quartet brings to the individual songs. “The Thing That Only Eats Hippies” is one of the few cuts that smacks of pure novelty. Unsurprisingly, it was selected to be the album’s sole single.

More often on the album, the Dead Milkmen bash out songs that can bear up under the scrutiny of the most jaded rock fans in the dingiest clubs. The band brings an easygoing musicality to “Happy Is” and almost match the inventive anti-folk of the Violent Femmes on “Take Me Apart.” They also deserve favorable comparison to Mojo Nixon, the era’s patron saint of bawdy rock ‘n roll comedy, for “Air Crash Museum,” which imagines a backwoods tourist attraction fashioned from airplane wreckage and stuffed rendering of rock stars who perished due to ill-fated excursions into the unfriendly skies. Some of the material is merely passable (“Beach Party Vietnam,” which name-checks Frankie and Annette, is basic sick joke stuff), but there are also a few instances of real ambition, such as the bratty epic “Two Feet Off the Ground” and “The Fez,” which offers more than five minutes of tangled art rock (in the lyrics, the Dead Milkmen acknowledge they’re “ripping off the Butthole Surfers”).

Eat Your Paisley! still doesn’t signal the likelihood of great longevity for the band, but it also proved the Dead Milkmen weren’t going to simply flare out. Just because there were laughs to be had didn’t mean there wasn’t also worthwhile craft in place.


tua long

635. In Tua Nua, The Long Acre (1988)

Any Irish band that emerged into the public consciousness in the mid- to late-nineteen-eighties inevitably faced comparisons to U2, who’d escalated to the stratosphere with their 1987 album, The Joshua Tree. It’s wasn’t merely geography that led to In Tua Nua being lumped in with their pop predecessors, though. The band, which hailed from County Dublin, had the distinction of the being the first act to release music on Mother Records, the vanity label set up by U2. And two of In Tua Nua’s members, Vinnie Kilduff and Steve Wickham, appeared as guest musicians on earlier U2 tracks. As might be expected, In Tua Nua was signed by Island Records, the label that was home to U2, shortly after their debut single.

Following these bright beginnings, In Tua Nua actually struggled somewhat. First Wickham left the band, signing on with Mike Scott’s rotating lineup of Waterboys, and Island Records dropped the group, leaving unreleased all the music they’d recorded under the contract. Then Kilduff left, too, and the band needed to rebuild without two of their more seasoned members. Before long, In Tua Nua brought in new musicians and signed to Virgin records, releasing their debut album, Vaudeville, in 1987. Their sophomore effort, The Long Acre, arrived the following year and become their first to get a push in the U.S.

The album’s splendid single “All I Wanted” finds In Tua Nua sounding like a European, earthier Fleetwood Mac, which suggests they could have been major players in emerging radio format adult alternative. The tender folk-rock song “Meeting of the Waters” and ballad “Emotional Barrier” (which is marred by drab lyrics: “I’m insecure/ This I will admit/ But you’re no angel/ Of this I am convinced”) are corroborating evidence to this theory. Some Irish sounds finally kicks in on “The Innocent and the Honest Ones,” which closes the first side. “Seven Into the Sea,” which also appeared on Vaudeville, borrows a few sonic tricks from U2, most notably a guitar part that definitely had some Edge to it.

In Tua Nua traveled to Los Angeles to record their next record, but the band didn’t survive the process. They broke up at the conclusion of the recording process, and In Tua Nua saw yet another album get shelved by a label. Unlike the music they recorded for Island, the third album did eventually make its way to fans, via a digital release almost twenty years later.


wall seven

634. Wall of Voodoo, Seven Days in Sammystown (1985)

For their third album, Seven Days in Sammystown, Wall of Voodoo became a very different band. The style and sound of their music was still roughly in line with the two albums prior, but the lineup had changed in drastic ways. Most notably, the band was without the highly distinctive lead singer who was on the roster when they marched up to the edge of fame with the single “Mexican Radio.” Reportedly, it was that burgeoning success that caused Stan Ridgway to flee, after playing bigger gigs gave him a firsthand look at — and experience with — the self-destructive cycle of a big time rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. The remaining members (percussionist Joe Nanini left the band at about the same time, entering a drug rehab program) toyed with the idea of employing a rotating group of vocalists, but the label nixed the plan. Instead, the L.A.-based band added Chicago singer-songwriter Andy Prieboy to the fold.

Seven Days in Sammytown teeters between relatively straightforward pop-rock and tracks that are striving, perhaps with a little too much neediness, to be off-kilter. The jalopy waltz “Faded Love,”  the rumbling, jittery “Room with a View,” and “Big City,” which musically comes across as it were made for a haunted carnival ride, all froth up relatively thin creative concepts with a clatter of extra elements. The approach reaches its breaking point on the band’s cover of “Dark as a Dungeon,” an old Merle Travis song about the miserable work lives of coal miners. The core of the song gets completely devoured by the deliberate strangeness.

Wall of Voodoo fares better when they give a track room to breathe. Single “Far Side of Crazy” is a solid song, lacking fuss except for maybe the moody cowboy guitar line. It lands somewhere between the Rainmakers and Guadalcanal Diary, which isn’t bad territory. “(Don’t Spill My) Courage,” written from the perspective of a wheelchair-bound, is also leaner than most of the cuts on the album, allowing the potency of the storytelling to come through.

Part of the issue with Seven Days in Sammytown is that it’s not clear if Wall of Voodoo is aiming for reinvention or brand preservation. They wind up in some awkward netherworld in between the two. Even they must have known it wasn’t quite working. There was only one more studio album before the band called it quits for good.


marianne dangerous

633. Marianne Faithfull, Dangerous Acquaintances (1981)

Marianne Faithfull was enjoy a personally rare stretch of success when she set off to make the album Dangerous Acquaintances. After losing much of the nineteen-seventies to drug abuse and infrequent, largely indifferent music-making, Faithfull scored a major critical success — and reasonably impressive commercial hit — with the 1979 album Broken English. After scraping by with the bargain accommodations the music industry had previously been grudgingly willing to give her, Faithfull was now receiving the royal treatment, settling into posh recording studios with her band and enjoying the decadent largess of the biz.

But that fates always seemed to conspire to make sure things didn’t go altogether smoothly for Faithfull. Broken English‘s producer, Mark Miller Mundy, was again hired to oversee the album, but this time he quickly created a highly uncomfortable work environment, providing contradictory instructions to the band members, dressing up individual songs with effects and instrumentation against Faithfull’s wishes, and generally creating an environment fueled by regularly stoked animosities. Unhappiness reigned, and the resulting record sometimes shows the strain.

Dangerous Acquaintances also continues the implicit thesis from Broken English that Faithfull is a rock ‘n’ roll survivor, toughened up like few others. Faithfull might be the one who could take a song such as “Truth, Bitter Truth,” the album’s closing track, and make it thrillingly profound, her whole life of hard living poured into every note and every word (“Where did it go to, my youth?/Where did it slip away to?”). Her battered lends a tang of weary wisdom to every cut, whether the jazzy disco number “Sweetheart,” the wan funk of “Eye Communication,” or the rock song “Strange One,” which has the polished sleaze being employed around that time by Faithfull’s old pack-mates the Rolling Stones. If she can’t quite salvage a misfire such as the overly repetitve “For Beauty’s Sake,” co-written by Faithfull and Steve Winwood, there’s compensatory reward when a song is close to her equal, as with the gorgeous “Intrigue.”

Faithfull’s modest comeback was largely sustained by Dangerous Acquaintances, which slipped just a bit from its predecessor’s solid performance, even if the reviews were less enthusiastic. And then there were Faithfull’s self-destructive tendencies, which didn’t abate in the slightest. Within the next few years, she’d go through a divorce, endure psychotic episodes (including an especially harrowing incident when she was narrowly prevented from slicing up her face to extricate imagined creatures wriggling beneath her skin), and consume mountains of drugs before finally heading to rehab.


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 — #640 to #637

yes drama

640. Yes, Drama (1980)

Drama, the tenth studio album from Yes, was aptly named. Already icons of prog rock and mainstays of FM radio, the English band was coming off a commercial and critical disappointment with 1978’s Tormato. The fallout was significant enough that lead singer Jon Anderson and keyboardist Rick Wakeman departed the band, leaving the remaining members — guitarist Steve Howe, bassist Chris Squire, and drummer Alan White — to question whether there was any point to persisting as Yes. They got their answer after engaging in a studio jam session with Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes, then enjoying success as the Buggles. Horn and Downes replaced Anderson and Wakeman, respectively, as the group got underway with recording new music.

The absence of a couple key contributors doesn’t lead to a major difference in the sound of Yes. Opening with the rolling prog rock storm front “Machine Messiah,” which stretches more than ten minutes, Drama features the band plying all their favorite — and, in some quarters, beloved — techniques. The music booms and simpers and swirls and collapses in on itself, and then does it all over again until it seems it’s going to last forever. Reactions to the prospect of eternal Yes noodling are bound to vary.

The funky bass at the beginning of “Does It Really Happen?” briefly suggests the band might stretch in some different directions, but the usual prog rock swamps its way in. The same outcome happens again and again on the album, though there are occasional swoops of versatility to be found within the anxious and burbly “Tempus Fugit” or the futuristic gypsy carnival traipsing of “Into the Lens.” Whatever its strengths or flaws, Drama is clear proof that Yes might erode here and there, but the band was also a sonic contraption that would outlast the mountains and rivers.


chameleons script

639. Chameleons U.K., Script of the Bridge (1983)

The Chameleons formed in the city of Middleton, part of the greater metropolitan area of Manchester, England, in 1981. Earning early support from influential English radio icon John Peel, the band was signed to the CBS Records subsidiary Epic Records and put out a ferocious debut single, “In Shreds.” The relationship between the band and the label was contentious from the jump, and CBS quickly decided the Chameleons weren’t worth the headaches they were giving to label executives. The band was dropped almost as quickly as they were signed, and the Chameleons were forced to shop themselves again, landing with small label Statik Records. The band’s debut album, Script of the Bridge, came out as part of the new partnership.

Continuing the label-based woes, Script of the Bridge was truncated before its U.S. release (on MCA Records), which also required the Chameleons affix “U.K.” to the end of their name because another group had already released music under that moniker. Against the band’s wishes, four cuts were shaved from the album. What remains is still very strong, a fine example of thrilling expansiveness showing up in post-punk music at the time. Single “Up the Down Escalator” is a prime example, jolting pulses with its fidgety energy. “Don’t Fall” is reminiscent of Julian Cope’s work with the Teardrop Explodes, and “Second Skin” feels like a song that might have been crafted by a signficantly less indifferent version of the Psychedelic Furs. Situating themselves solidly within the predominant music movements of the day, “Monkeyland” is layered with quintessentially gloomy goth lyrics (“Does someone somewhere care and understand?/ It’s just a trick of the light”).

However Script of the Bridge might have compromised stateside, the album generated enough interest to justify a North American tour. The Chameleons built on that support and developed a strong college radio following. By the time they went home to record their follow-up, the Chameleons seemed poised to following a similar path of slow-build success then being taken by other U.K. bands. Unfortunately, the Chameleons carried as much misfortune as promise, and the next few years wound up as tumultuous as their beginnings.


fleetwood mirage

638. Fleetwood Mac, Mirage (1982)

Following the commercial disappointment of the vibrantly experimental double album Tusk, Fleetwood Mac got back to being a pop-rock band that anyone could love. Never a collection of people who knew how to peacefully coexist with one another, the members of Fleetwood Mac reached the end of the tour to support Tusk barely on speaking terms. Rather than head back into the studio to make a new album, the individual band members scattered, with Mick Fleetwood, Lindsey Buckingham, and Stevie Nicks all releasing solo albums in 1981. Only the beshawled one could claim any amount of notable success with the solo work, though. Nicks’s Bella Donna topped the Billboard album chart and spawned four Top 40 singles.

Perhaps understandably, Nicks was reluctant to return to the Fleetwood Mac fold, but everyone else was game (or at least recognized where their continued professional prosperity sat). The group convened in the Château d’Hérouville, outside of Paris, to work on a new album, hoping for a catalyst from a return to the fraught communal living that had previously fueled their most productive collaborations. In particular, Buckingham was committed to any new Fleetwood Mac material being created as a group effort, possibly in reaction to the dimmed commercial reception that followed after he wrenched Tusk toward his personal vision. The new album, called Mirage, needed to feature a recognizable version of Fleetwood Mac.

The album’s lead single, “Hold Me,” achieved the goal of reassurance. Penned by Christine McVie, in collaboration with Tusk opening act Robbie Patton, the track feels like every band member merging together: Christine McVie’s smooth pop, Buckingham’s flares of self-conscious edginess, the jazzy clockwork of John McVie and Fleetwood as a rhythm section, and even a tingle of Nicks’s witchy wonderment (though she’s such a faint presence on the song that the music video has to resort to nothing more than a few shots of her reclining on a chaise lounge). Forget the bristling adventure of Tusk, the single reassures, this could have appeared on Rumours.

It’s surely no coincidence that another Christine McVie composition, the simple and sweet “Love in Store,” opens Mirage, ushering listeners in the new-old era of Fleetwood Mac. Shrewdly, Nicks is also featured prominently, with her distinctive songs spread evenly across the track listing. And her contributions are especially strong. “Straight Back” is partially about the mixed feelings Nicks had stepping back to the band when her solo career was taking off, and “That’s Alright,” which Nicks had in her back pocket for about ten years, has a pleasing country music tinge. “Gypsy,” the album’s second single, plays like an unapologetic extension of the Nicks’s solo music.

If Buckingham was one of the strongest advocates for a full band approach to Mirage, it might be because he wasn’t interested in bringing his best efforts to share. That a reasonable inference to make given the lackluster quality of his songs. “Eyes of the World” is a slovenly mass of elements, and “Empire State” might be the dumbest of many dumb rock tributes to New York City over the years (“Big Apple, takin’ a bite of me/ Whole world movin’ below my feet/ Not like, not like we do in L.A.”). Between his songs here and the mediocrities found on his 1981 solo outing, Law and Order, it was growing very clear that there was a faulty premise behind Buckingham’s occasionally posturing that he was the sole innovator within Fleetwood Mac. He needed the band to even approach his best work.

Positioned as a commercial correction after Tusk, Mirage successfully reestablished Fleetwood Mac as hitmakers, even if it didn’t really outpace its unfairly maligned immediate predecessor. Mirage went double-platinum, just like Tusk, and its three Top 40 singles also represent a match. Perception matters, though. Within the music industry, Mirage was a statement that Fleetwood Mac was not going to challenge anyone too much any more. They were prepared to put their all into making nice, safe hits.


t bone talking

637. T Bone Burnett, The Talking Animals (1988)

A music industry survivor who earned plenty of respect and suffered from a lack of broad success, T Bone Burnett finally had a stretch of attention-getting work in the mid nineteen-eighties and he seemed ready to capitalize. He was a fairly prolific solo artist through the decade, but it was his work as a producer that started to set the scales askew in his favor. He’d presided over well-regarded albums by Los Lobos, BoDeans, and Elvis Costello, and then cemented his reputation by overseeing the Roy Orbison comeback effort A Black and White Night. Orbison enjoyed a revival almost unheard of in pop music, and Burnett was seen as a minor miracle worker in some quarters. Largely on the basis of A Black and White Night, Burnett was signed to Columbia Records.

The Talking Animals was Burnett’s first album for his new major label, and it features some of the lean rock ‘n’ roll classicism that was the hallmark of his work. It’s also a surprisingly ramshackle affair, full of songs that go wandering and don’t quite find their way back from the wilds. It’s all well and good when Burnett is leaning into the loose and flinty “The Wild Truth” or “Dance, Dance, Dance,” which sounds like an updated Carl Perkins song. It’s far shakier when he experiments on the odd, theatrical “Image” and the limp story song “The Strange Case of Frank Cash and the Morning Paper.” Burnett’s obvious sense of play is better served by “The Killer Moon,” which is reminiscent of John Lennon without sounds like a knockoff. Burnett seemingly takes a stab at jaunty college rock on the tuneful travelogue “Euromad,” which sounds like Hoodoo Gurus with the energy drained away. He’s more firmly playing to the kids with “Purple Heart,” simply because it’s co -written with U2’s Bono, who of course pitches in with some background yelping,

The Talking Animals didn’t turn into a hit for Burnett, and its tepid performance perhaps pointed him to career options that largely involved more work behind the scenes. He released another solo album in 1992, and then nearly fifteen years would pass before his next effort under his own name.


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 — #644 to #641

descendents all

644. The Descendents, All (1987)

For what was expected to the final album from California punk legends the Descendents, drummer Bill Stevenson introduced a concept he’d co-created which was dubbed “All.” Cooked up on a fishing trip, in 1980, All was a fairly simple philosophy of never settling for less than is desired and putting in whatever effort is needed to achieve it. But there’s also a call for plain directness, of honing in on the true achievement and presenting it without adornment. Two tracks on the record, “All” and “No, All!” are over in an eye-blink, because they required no more than a second or two to successfully complete their goals.

Calling the album All was a way of staking out the ethos of the band, and, perhaps more crucially, the version of the band that would move on from there. Lead singer Milo Aukerman, who’d previously caused the Descendents to go on hiatus so he could pursue his studies in the field of biochemistry, decided to leave the music business altogether. Working as a scientist didn’t allow a lot of spare time for touring punk clubs, so the Descendents planned to cease, with the remaining band members going on to form a new group. After this release, they’d be known as All.

There are cuts on the album — such as “Clean Sheets” and “Coolidge” — that fully anticipate the more pop-punk direction All would take. Most of the album is the usual agreeable hodgepodge from the Descendents, gladly romping through established punk styles while also flashing a willingness to follow their creativity into decidedly weird territory. The chittering, chiming “Cameage” is nicely unsettling, and “Iceman,” inspired by the Eugene O’Neill play The Iceman Cometh, layers in weird tempo shifts and thick, steaming guitars to make a song that’s continually unexpected.

The Descendents went out on a couple extensive tours in support of All, yielding a pair of live albums as the proper valedictory. It was expected that the band would perform no more, but Auckerman’s retreat from performing didn’t last a decade. The Descendents reunited to make music again in the mid-nineteen-nineties and kept circling back around to one another in the years after.


raitt green

643. Bonnie Raitt, Green Light (1982)

Green Light, the eighth studio album from Bonnie Raitt, was partially the result of her retreat from the music business. After a particularly busy stretch, including as one of the more regular presences on the relatively new phenomenon of all-star benefit shows, Raitt retreated to Tulsa, Oklahoma. Removed from the hustle and bustle of the L.A. scene, Raitt felt she was able to reconnect with music through watching and playing with performers who were, almost by definition, only in it for the love of pulling a song together. Raitt wanted to reflect that on her next album.

Working with producer Rob Fraboni in a more modest studio space than she’d experienced in a while, Raitt emerged with an album that operated with a tuneful simplicity. The first shimmers of the fine, middle-of-the-road performer she’d become by the end of the decade were pressed into the grooves of Green Light.

“Keep This Heart in Mind” is pleasing, easygoing rock, and Raitt deploys the cool, grinding blues rock of “Let’s Keep It Between Us” with unbothered professionalism. Her cover of NRBQ’s “Me and the Boys” is a bouncy diversion, and the churning, charging title cut has just enough weight. “River of Tears,” penned by the Blues Magoos’ Eric Kaz, is similar to the breakthrough authenticity of later Lucinda Williams, albeit with far less grit. Green Light doesn’t exactly dazzle, but there’s still something rewarding about a rock album that precisely executes the basics.


wow jungle

642. Bow Wow Wow, See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang! Yeah! City All Above, Go Ape Crazy! (1981)

Malcolm McLaren was up to his usual iconoclastic impresario shenanigans when he recruited several members of Adam and the Ants to form a new group. After a lengthy hunt, young teenager Annabella Lwin was given the lead singer job, and the Bow Wow Wow started cranking out music. A few EP and single releases on EMI failed the produced the heavy chart action McLaren promised, and the group was dropped. They quickly found a new home on RCA Records and released their debut full-length, given the unwieldy title See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang! Yeah! City All Above, Go Ape Crazy! The promised breakthrough finally arrived when lead single “Go Wild in the Country” made into the Top 10 in the U.K.

The album is careening tour through mildly confused take on the trendy pop of the era, mostly distinguished by the propulsive drumming of Dave Barbarossa. “Chihuahua” combines the band’s trademark racing rhythms with dreamy pop that almost tilts in the direction of psychedelia, and “I’m Not a Know It All” has a post-punk tinge. “Orang-outang” is the sort of grimy surf rock faux western theme that sets Quentin Tarantino to salivating. Suggesting more of a muddled creative approach rather than a distinct vision, the album is padded with a few offhand oddities, such as “King Kong,” which comes across as something Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley might have come up with if they were recruited straight off their exemplary work on Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory to write an audition song for all poorly conceived musical about the oversized gorilla (“I’m like King Kong, I’m right and you’re wrong/ King Kong king, the king is strong”).

The best tracks on See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang! Yeah! City All Above, Go Ape Crazy! serves as proper showcases for the band members, especially Lwin. She sloshes personality into “Mickey, Put It Down” and stretches her voice like Silly Putty on “Elimination Dancing,” which forecasts the Sugarcubes, especially in the back and forth between Lwin’s singing and some shouted interjections. As notable for their imperfections as their intrigues, these cuts represent the sort of band Bow Wow Wow could have become. Aiming for stardom, they should have instead indulged in becoming musical weirdos.


madness moving

641. Madness, Keep Moving (1984)

According to Madness singer Suggs, the album Keep Moving represented the group at a low point creatively. After a series of hits, including the U.S. breakthrough “Our House,” Madness

“We had run out of ideas at that point,” Suggs told Uncut many years later.

Maybe the clearest idea that is evident on the album is a further shift away from the British ska sound that defined the band’s earliest work. The expected blurting horns eventually show up on the title cut, but they’re in a smooth jazz groove rather than punchy ska rhythms. There are still remnants of the old sound — “Prospects” settles into an easy reggae rhythm like its a sumptuous bubble bath — but Madness mostly sounds like any other pop act of the day.

There are interesting explorations to be found on Keep Moving, as Madness keeps trying on new guises. “The Sun and the Rain” is a direct descendent of the Small Faces at their most English, and “Brand New Beat” is reminiscent of David Bowie, though without the undercurrent of menace that enlivened his work. They give eighties British soul w whirl on “One Better Day,” and it drifts along blandly. The album’s most memorable track is “Michael Caine,” which interlaces a few snippets of the actor’s fine voice and sketches out a restrained dance music blueprint that Mick Jones would soon improve upon with Big Audio Dynamite.

Madness started to splinter after the release of Keep Moving. Keyboardist Mike Barson left the group once the recording process was complete. Within a couple years the band would crumble further and officially break up, leading to unpopular spinoffs and, before long, inevitable reunions.

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 — #648 to #645

byrne catherine

648. David Byrne, The Catherine Wheel (1981)

In September, 1981, next to an ad for the retrograde comedy Carbon Copy (in which George Segal plays a man who is shocked to discover he has a black, adult son, played by Denzel Washington in his film debut), The New York Times reviewed a new dance production choreographed by Twyla Tharp. Titled The Catherine Wheel, the eighty-minute piece was set to music composed and recorded by David Byrne, in between the fourth and fifth studio albums by his day job, Talking Heads.

“In this commissioned score of some 23 separate pieces of music, Mr. Byrne offers overlay upon overlay — percussion and drums, melody and the hallucinatory, dreamlike electronic sound that soothes the ear when the throb threatens to go on just too long,” critic Anna Kisselgoff wrote, part of an assessment that generally panned the overall work.

Byrne slightly pared down the nearly two dozen tracks, releasing The Catherine Wheel as a full-length album several weeks later. Arriving the same year as My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, an album co-billed with Brian Eno, and with no new Talking Heads album in the offing, it seemed as though Byrne was prepared to strike out on his own. Already positioned somewhat as the prime driver of his acclaimed band, the perception of Byrne as an iconoclastic, singular genius, with others in his orbit as mere supporting players, was starting to take hold. Within five years, Byrne nabbed a Time magazine cover, touting him as “Rock’s Renaissance Man.”

Understandably, a good amount of the material on The Catherine Wheel plays like appealing scraps without quite enough quality to merit prime placement on a Talking Heads album. “What a Day That Was” and “Big Blue Plymouth (Eyes Wide Open)” are probably the prime examples, and both made their way into the band’s live repertoire, with the former receiving prominent placement in the exceptional concert film Stop Making Sense. “My Big Hands” similarly taps into a vein of new wave anxiety that makes it easy to place on Byrne’s creative continuum.

Elsewhere on the album, Byrne is drawing on what he’s done before while edging in the direction of other avenues. The tingly feel to “His Wife Refused” and the abstract funk of “Poison” suggest Byrne is crafting songs for the dance floor of the future. And the weird swirls of sound found on “The Red House” further suggest a restless desire to escape all his strictures, whether handed down by the broader music industry or self-imposed. Like a lot of Byrne’s solo (or semi-solo) outings, The Catherine Wheel is messy in its wide-net explorations, as likely to repel as to engage. Whatever the reaction, the oddball ambition is difficult to deny.


geils sanctuary

647. The J. Geils Band, Sanctuary (1978)

Across seven years and as many albums, the J. Geils Band were on Atlantic Records. Although one of the storied labels of the day, Atlantic never quite managed to push the Boston-area band to greater prominence in the rock ‘n’ roll marketplace. J. Geils Band amassed a smattering of Top 40 hits, all making only modest headway in that range of the chart, and one gold album. Mostly, though, they toiled away, knocking out capable rock records that were maybe the third or fourth choice of fans, only when they were feeling a little saturated with Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd.

Craving a rejuvenation, J. Geils Band moved to EMI Records and decided to freshen up their sound, largely by making keyboard parts slightly more prominent in the mix. The initial result was the album Sanctuary, which brought them their second gold album and helped them revisit the Top 40 for the first time in four years. It was “One Last Kiss,” the album’s lead single, that made it into Billboard‘s hallowed ground. Mid-tempo and moderately retro, the track sounds like a fine bar band number, delivered with better-than-average aplomb. The piano ballad “Teresa” has a different vibe, but it’s similarly constructed as if meant to perfectly fill a barroom space, prompting a wistful, woozy sing-along at closing time.

“Take It Back” is an easy-going anthem of the lovelorn (“You play with my heart/ There’s no doubt about/ Crazy ’bout you girl/ I’ll stand up and shout it”), and the album’s title cut has an era-specific feel of rock ‘n’ roll in transition, tinted by the influences of the emerging new wave, that anticipates the shaky explorations taken by the Rolling Stones on Emotional Rescue, released two years later. The spirited rock jam “I Can’t Believe You” and the Springsteen-esque “I Don’t Hang Around Much Anymore” also showcase a band in creative transition, reflecting the sounds around them while also, ever so slightly, moving them forward.


joel 52nd

646. Billy Joel, 52nd Street (1978)

“We were kinda channeling all this jazz stuff, even though we weren’t jazz musicians by any means,” Billy Joel said of the album 52nd Street, his sixth solo effort. “We were rock ‘n’ roll guys. But I always felt like an adult when I tackled jazz, like the breakdown in the middle of ‘Zanzibar’ or the Latin jazz feel of ‘Rosalinda’s Eyes.’

At the time Joel and his band recorded the album, his label, Columbia Records, was headquartered on 52nd Street, and the studio when the tracks were laid down, A&R Recording, was located on the same metropolitan thoroughfare. It was that jazz influence on Joel’s mind when he named the album, since the small stretch between Fifth Avenue and Seventh Avenue was absolutely packed with clubs when the music form shot to prominence in the decades around World War II. Blessed with sudden success after years of toiling away, Joel took the time to pay tribute to his influences, drawing on forms that were foundational to the American sound and also fading away as rock and pop took prominence.

Following the massive smash of The Stranger, his commercial breakthrough, Joel was trying to show his range while also maintaining a place on the charts. By most fair measures, he was successful in both tasks. 52nd Street was hailed by critics and nabbed the Grammy for Album of the Year, and three of its singles — “My Life,” “Big Shot,” and “Honesty” — made it into the Billboard Top 40. That the singles were arguably the three songs least representative of the album’s jazzy soul (“Big Shot,” in particular, signal the arena rock posturing that was define Joel’s next studio album, Glass Houses) was an incidental concern. The album fared well on the charts, too, becoming Joel’s first to climb to the top spot.


reo hi

645. REO Speedwagon, Hi Infidelity (1980)

Hailing from Champaign, Illinois, REO Speedwagon spent the nineteen-seventies as the quintessential hard-working, under-noticed rock band, playing straight-ahead music to a small, devoted audience. Beginning with their self-titled debut, released in 1971, REO Speedwagon delivered eight studio albums across the decade, getting only the barest whiffs of commercial success. Their highest-charting single in that span was “Time for Me to Fly,” which peaked at #56, two spots higher than its immediate predecessor, “Roll with the Changes.” The album Hi Infidelity, released late in 1980, changed everything.

There’s no marked transition on Hi Infidelity. REO Speedwagon takes the exact same approach as always on the album, dishing out a series of gleaming pop-rock songs built around ludicrously catchy hooks and played with sharp professionalism. But something about the album’s material clicked in a whole new way, beginning with the lead single “Keep on Loving You,” a perpetually swelling ballad that made it all the way to the top of the Billboard chart. Subsequent singles “Take It on the Run,” “Don’t Let Him Go,” and the retro charmer “In Your Letter” all spent time in the Top 40, helping inspire radio programmers to revisit some of the earlier music from REO Speedwagon. A big batch of their songs became staples of rock radio through the nineteen-eighties.

To date, Hi Infidelity has sold over ten million copies.

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 — #652 to #649

call woods

652. The Call, Into the Woods (1987)

After enduring some professional tumult, the Call were presumably feeling at least somewhat settled when they got down to recording Into the Woods, their fifth studio album. Its immediate predecessor, the prior year’s Reconciled, was their first with label Elektra Records, where they’d signed after a protracted legal battle left them without a corporate home and entirely uncertain as to whether or not their music would see further release. Reconciled yielded the respectable rock radio hit “I Still Believe (Grand Design)” and the mounting success of U2, flashing like a beacon with the early 1987 release of The Joshua Tree, suggested mainstream commercial taste was turning in a direction nicely conducive to the Call’s anthemic songs.

Into the Woods held one of the big, soaring singles that were the Call’s calling card. Album opener “I Don’t Wanna” is a love song of emotion, employing a litany of rejected romantic gestures on its way to declaring an all-consuming need. That same vast sonic scope is found across the album, whether when the band borrows some of the slow-build bombast of gospel music on “In the River” or mixes in some honky-tonk flavors in the punchy rocker “Walk Walk.” Studio puffery was very much the style of the day, but it could get perilous. “Day or Night” demonstrates how close the Call could come to the hollow pop rock boom of someone like John Parr, and ballad “Memory” slips into off-putting treacle.

Some tracks hint at a version of the band that crafts leaner, sharper songs. The skittering and forceful “It Could Have Been Me” has a fervent energy, and “Too Many Tears” is like an old movie western theme refracted through a new wave lens. The cuts aren’t necessarily better than the arena-ready fullness that was the Call’s clear specialty, but the little sprinklings of variety are welcome tempering of a style that could become numbing in its implied profundity. Not every song need stretch excitedly toward the heavens.


blue walk

651. The Blue Nile, A Walk Across the Rooftops (1984)

The high polish of the Blue Nile’s pop music prompted a persistent myth about the band. Supposedly, the group secured the contract to record their debut full-length release because a manufacturer of expensive stereo equipment wanted a records that would properly showcase its technology. The band members have repeatedly denied and debunked that version of their origin story, but listening to A Walk Across the Rooftops, the Blue Nile’s debut album, it’s easy to discern why the story took hold. Elegant and jaw-dropping, the album seems genetically engineered to make someone value precision equipment that could properly reveal its intricacies.

The Glasgow trio opens A Walk Across the Rooftops with a title cut that places a lush, elegant pop sound up against an anxious countermelody of plunking synthesizers. It plays with the mechanics of electronic dance music without any evident hopes of raising a pulse or setting a foot to tapping. The pace is typified by piercing ballad “Easter Parade” and the deeply relaxed “Heatwave,” the latter sounding as though lead singer Paul Buchanan is delivering his vocals from the deepest reaches of a silken hammock. The erudite air can occasionally veer close to stultifying beauty, which is compounded by lyrics that often repeat like fading echoes. “Tinseltown in the Rain” is lovely, but it’s also a metaphor looking for a proper emotion to moor itself to.

A Walk Across the Rooftops is most exciting when the Blue Nile seem to be reinventing the textures of their art on the fly. “From Rags to Riches” is pop music pared back to near-abstractions, the eventual province of Portishead. The persistent classic pop feel to the album means the band isn’t exactly laying the groundwork for trip hop or some other future innovation, but there’s a daring at play that recognizably similar to the startling norm-warping to come.


young men

650. The Young Fresh Fellows, The Men Who Loved Music (1987)

‘There’s a fine line between taking yourself too seriously and being a total cutup band that no one will take seriously,” Chuck Carroll, guitarist and singer with the Young Fresh Fellows, told the Chicago Tribune shortly after the release of the band’s third album, The Men Who Loved Music. ”And I think it insults some people to see a band that has some funny elements in its music. Some people only want serious music, something they can sink their teeth into. But you can’t please everybody, and we’re certainly pleasing ourselves at this point.”

If there was a tinge of novelty to the band’s songwriting — as with the flurry of classic television references in “TV Dream” (“For some reason you kill Pugsley and Dick Grayson, too/ Perry Mason out and out refuses to help you”) — it was becoming increasingly clear that the musicianship of the Seattle-based band was no joke. The fleet of songs on The Men Who Loved Music, the band’s first to receive a concerted national push to college radio, careen across styles, each played with enviable craft. Mostly, they stuck with a buffed up rock ‘n’ roll sound, occasionally pushed to a higher volume. The punky burst of “Why I Oughta” and squawking hard rock number “I Got My Mojo Working (And I Thought You’d Like to Know)” are fine demonstrations of the Young Fresh Fellows’ muscularity. And “Ant Farm” is musically similar to those instances when Bruce Springsteen borrows lovingly from classic girl group ditties.

For most college programmers, though, it was probably the jokier material that connected. The album’s clearest college radio hit was “Amy Grant,” a catchy cut that posited a mildly salacious secret life enjoyed by the Christian music singer who’d recently made surprising ripples on the mainstream pop charts. Better yet is “When the Girls Get Here,” which gently mocks the hopeful posturing of dudes expecting a contingent of lovely young ladies at their social gathering (“We’ll put out our guitars/ And tell ’em how we’re gonna be stars”). The track is amusing, but it has clear merits beyond the punchlines, including a tang of empathy that carries it beyond the mere brattiness of other college rock bands that largely leaned on laughs. The Young Fresh Fellows were funny. The Young Fresh Fellows were also a dandy rock band.


lords method

649. The Lords of the New Church, The Method to Our Madness (1984)

I.R.S. Records felt like the Lords of the New Church were floundering. Boasting a membership that drew from some of the most credibly cool bands of the punk era, the Lords of the New Church had flashed into being with a couple raw, righteous albums, but the third studio effort was proving to be more of a challenge. The label hired Chris Tsangarides to produce the album, hoping his touch with hard rock acts, such as Thin Lizzy, would bring some useful discipline and a professional sheen to the finished product. That’s exactly what resulted, but it sometimes seems the personality of the band gets lost in the effort. The Method to Our Madness often sounds like it could have come from just about anyone.

The album opens with the grinding “Method to My Madness,” all seething and feigned fury. The strutting “Pretty Baby Scream” and the lonely heartbreak ballad “When the Blood Runs Cold” (“My coquette cutie with a chameleon heart/ You tried to change me, to disarrange me”) show further how easily the band could be molded into slick, slightly generic shape. In this form, the practiced darkness can start to seem like mere posturing. The wolf howls on the opening of “Fresh Flesh” are simply the first signal that the cut pushes its menacing horrors so hard it slides into ridiculousness.

The more the band’s long-held, ash black sensibility comes through, the better. The performers got their respective starts in an era of garish, semi-ironic showmanship, and that fine history is infused into “Murder Style,” which is maybe the closest lead singer Stiv Bators comes to the preening glam perfection of the New York Dolls’ David Johansen. And then they finally reach for full goth operatics on album closer “My Kingdom Come.” It still approaches the ludicrous, but in a way that feels like taunting rather than half-hearted indulgence. Only at the very end of The Method to Our Madness does it feel like a creatively engaged version of the Lords of the New Church arrives.


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 — #656 to #653


656. The Headboys, The Headboys (1979)

“At the time, it was important to construct an image,” guitarist Lou Lewis noted in explaining the origins of his band the Headboys. “I got a pretty severe haircut and went to the schoolwear shop on Commercial Street. I bought a school shirt, tie, and blazer, and wore them with white Kickers and skintight jeans. I was due to meet the guys at a pub in Edinburgh and I turned up like that. The next thing I knew, they were off to do the same.”

After starting operations as a band called Badger, the Scottish quartet adopted the name the Headboys and became the subject of a small bidding war between record companies. They eventually settled on Robert Stigwood’s RSO Records, deciding it was going to be more fun recording for it, and the band set out to make their first album, all before they’d played a live gig together. The Headboys was released, heralded by the modest hit single “The Shape of Things to Come,” which sounds like choice power pop with a prog rock hangover. Musically, it’s one of those songs that encapsulates the end of the nineteen-seventies, as one form was giving way to others.

The Headboys is full of strange little gems that reflect and refract the era. “Stepping Stones” has the crispness and ease of Pete Townshend’s solo work, and “Experiments” could fit nicely onto one of Peter Gabriel’s self-titled efforts. There’s a nifty jitterbug bounce to “The Breakout,” and “The Ripper” comes across as the product of a veddy British version of Kiss. Some other finger-swirls in the zeitgeist haven’t aged as well. “Schoolgirls” is pretty gross, and another sign that lecherous pining after teenaged girls was evidently as obligatory for late-seventies male performers as invective against Margaret Thatcher was for U.K. punks bands was a few years later.

Some European touring followed, including at least one gig at which some Irish upstarts going by the name U2 opened up for them, but the Headboys were mostly interested in getting back into the studio to record their next album, at least initially. As they were finishing up their sophomore album, the group collectively decided they were worn out by the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. They called it quits, and the new material they recorded went unreleased for over thirty years, finally showing up in 2013, on a CD dubbed The Lost Album.


princ 99

655. Prince, 1999 (1982)

1999 was Prince’s fourth full-length studio effort, but, in practically every respect, the double album was where his artistic revolution began. To dispense with the pun quickly, 1999 was the first album to feature his most famed backing band, though the Revolution doesn’t receive the same prominent official billing they’d enjoy on subsequent releases. The album also provided a major commercial breakthrough for Prince. Three years after his sole Top 40 single to that point, 1999 delivered three different songs into the glory land of the Billboard chart, and the album itself was Prince’s first to reach the Top 10 and log multi-platinum sales. Those formidable achievements aside, 1999 is significant because it was arguable the first instance of the Prince asserted the full force of his unique musical genius.

The astonishing side one is enough to settle any debate about the album’s greatness. “1999,” “Delirious,” and “Little Red Corvette” arrive in succession, an opening so potent that even the most aggressively stacked greatest hits collections can’t touch it. No other stretch of the album truly approaches that early, dizzying peak, but there are mind-spinning concoctions of sound all over. The jittery “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)” and the sweet soul groove of “International Lover” attest to the Prince’s easy mastery of whatever style he adopts, and other tracks offer equally convincing evidence of his ease in drawing boundaries only to stroll past them. Sometimes only fanciful metaphor will do, as with “D.S.M.R.,” with its floaty, buzzing quality that suggests the funk song an especially cool bumblebee might cook up.

As the album wears on, Prince sometimes lets songs meander, drawing dangerously close to mere noodling. “Lady Cab Driver” extends the blithe straying to the lyrics (“Help me girl I’m drownin’, mass confusion in my head/ Will you accept my tears to pay the fare?”), but any problems are minor, counterbalanced completely by the churning nebulae of pure invention. It’s almost undeniable that a major artist in emerging in the album’s grooves. “Automatic” might be the clearest forecast of the relentless innovation and unchecked mastery that Prince would deploy on his next album, the mega-selling Purple Rain.


game real

654. Game Theory, Real Nighttime (1985)

On the sophomore release from the California-based band Game Theory, the primacy of frontman and chief songwriter Scott Miller was affirmed. Following a tour meant to showcase the new music they’d created, Game Theory essentially fell apart, with every member except Miller leaving the band for various reasons. The album’s original group shot front cover was hastily replaced with a photo of only Miller, and the band personnel were officially billed as simply contributing musicians, with no higher status that the studio players recruited to help fill out certain tracks. Real Nighttime was still a Game Theory album, but it represented the establishment of Game Theory as Miller and whoever he brought along with him.

Working with producer Mitch Easter, who was sought out by Miller because he was impressed by R.E.M.’s Chronic Town, Game Theory delivers an album of limber, expressive pop-rock, bearing the Americana-touched sound and eager earnestness of mid-nineteen-eighties college rock. Cascading “24,” anxious, forceful “Friend of the Family,” and echoing mid-tempo number “She’ll Be a Verb” sound as though they were produced in a lab to appeal to serenely sincere student broadcasters hovering around the age of twenty. Growing into young adulthood was a theme Miller explored on the album, and the music has the quality of shifting between enthusiasm and hesitancy familiar to anyone whose struggled to find their way in their post-collegiate years.

Game Theory comes across like a gentler Joe Jackson on “I Mean It This Time,” and unleashes a nice college rock nugget spiced with squalling synth work in “Curse of the Frontierland.” Completing the portrait of a band settling comfortably into their time and place, there’s an appropriately aching, spectral cover of Big Star’s “You Can’t Have Me,” which is a calling card of impeccable taste for obscure, inspired ancestral artists. Real Nighttime is steady and lovely, ideally crafted to enrapture music fans glued to the left end of the radio dial. It’s also so specifically attuned to those fans that it’s almost impossible to imagine it gaining much traction anywhere else. Some bands of the era shimmered with the possibility of crossover. Game Theory sounded like they were destined to stay put.



653. Robbie Robertson, Robbie Robertson (1987)

In late November of 1976, in the early morning hours, Robbie Robertson stood on stage with the band and played the final notes of “Don’t Do It.” He stepped to the microphone and waved at the crowd as he said, “Thank you. Good night. Goodbye.” The Last Waltz concert was complete and the members of the Band were off to pursue other endeavors. As the chief songwriter of the group, it was widely assumed that Robertson would soon embark on a solo career. Instead, Robertson meandered in his entertainment career, starring alongside Jodie Foster and Gary Busey in the gloomy 1980 drama Carny and serving as music supervisor for several pictures directed by Martin Scorsese, who’d also turned the Last Waltz into a concert film. Even when the time came for Robertson to finally craft a solo album, his pace was slow. He first announced the intention to record in 1983, made preliminary agreements in 1984, hired producer Daniel Lanois in 1985, and started recording in 1986.

Led by the breathless cheerleading of Rolling Stone, by then solidly committing to worshipping any new album dropped by a rocker who qualified as an old hand, Robbie Robertson was met with an enthusiastic reception. Robertson was the beneficiary of MTV airplay and got booked as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live. His long history was invoked to highlight the album’s pedigree and the presence of comparative newcomers — including members of U2, BoDeans, and Lone Justice — as guest performers on the record provided the endorsement of cool new kids. Robbie Robertson felt like an event.

If all that attention were puffing up a weak album, it would seem desperate and misguided. Instead, Robbie Robertson is a sterling effort, rich in evocative feeling and graced with remarkably sharp songwriting. Robertson is an iffy frontman, stating songs as much as singing, but the withdrawn emotions suit the material in the same way Tom Waits’s froggy gargle brings the correct personality to his tales of barroom woe. Robertson is more than capable of conveying the quiet pain in ballad “Broken Arrow” and the crushing desire in “Sweet Fire of Love.” His plainspokenness accentuates the humid storytelling of “Somewhere Down the Crazy River” and the resigned recounting of hardscrabble lives on “Sonny Got Caught in the Moonlight.” As a tribute to doomed celebrities James Dean, Elvis Presley, and Marilyn Monroe, “American Roulette” probably skews too literal in its lyrics (“Lord, please save his soul/ He was the King of Rock and Roll”), but I’ve never been able to resist its hard rock conviction.

Robbie Robertson didn’t usher in an era of prolific music-making for the performer. Though the follow-up, Storyville, arrived a reasonable four years later, the span between each new album from Robertson grew ever longer. In the thirty years following his debut, Robertson released only three true solo albums.


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