College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #668 to #665

rave book

668. The Rave-Ups, The Book of Your Regrets (1988)

The Rave-Ups had the misfortune of discovering how a little taste of success could lead to nasty legal entanglements in the cutthroat music industry. Earthier rock ‘n’ roll players on the sun-dappled, soft paisley Souther California independent music scene of the early-nineteen-eighties, the Rave-Ups saw a significant boost to their national prominence when fan Molly Ringwald advocated for their inclusion in various projects she worked on with filmmaker John Hughes. (At the time, Ringwald’s sister was dating Jimmer Podrasky, the Rave-Ups’ frontman.) The actress’s persistent championing of the group even landed them on film, performing in a club scene in Pretty in Pink. The major labels came courting the band, and they were eager to sign. But Fun Stuff, the smaller shingle that released the band’s first EP and then full-length, wasn’t keen to let them go. According to Podrasky, there were two years of legal wrangling required to excise the band from their obligation to Fun Stuff. By then, most of the major label interest in the band had withered away, roasted into nothingness by the heat of combative lawyering.

The last major label still standing before the band with a handful of flowers was Epic Records, so the band signed on and soon released The Book of Your Regrets. The album is definitely a product of the era, spotted with straightforward rock songs that are slicked up with studio polish. “Sue and Sonny” is the kind of stomping country-rock that the Blasters churned out with aplomb, and “Freedom Bound” unspools with a similar Sturm und Twang. And “These Wishes” represents the direction album rock radio could have gone in had the mushy metal of Bon Jovi and their ilk not diverted the train from the tracks ably laid by Tom Petty.

The Book of Your Regrets was a solid, well-regarded album, but the Rave-Ups’ bad luck persisted. Epic Records was enduring significant corporate restructuring and corresponding directionless confusion, so the album received little attention and indifferent promotion. The band took the blame and they were nearly dropped by the label. Only the intervention of a few true believers on the Epic payroll allowed the Rave-Ups to get another chance to record, resulting in the 1990 album Chance. It would be the band’s final recording.

 

gun juno

667. The Gun Club, Mother Juno (1987)

The Gun Club was no more. Band leader Jeffrey Lee Pierce had already scrambled the lineup a few times before decided to retire the name altogether, the 1984 album The Last Vegas Story supposedly the closing statement. Instead, following some tepidly received solo work, including a stab at subsisting as a spoken word artist, Pierce assembled a new version of the group and got to work on a new album, titled Mother Juno.

For the comeback effort the Gun Club recruited Cocteau Twins member Robin Guthrie to serve as producer, and the album occasionally exhibits a familiar shimmer. If “The Breaking Hands” were slipped onto the Cocteau Twins’ Blue Bell Knoll or Heaven or Las Vegas, no alarm bells would ring. More often, the album is notable for its tight sonic control as the Gun Club ranges widely within the territory of battle-toughened rock. “Bill Bailey” reworks the American standard “Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey” with a trampolining bravado, and “Yellow Eyes” is filled with lean, modernized blues guitar riffing that would stir envy in Jon Spencer. No matter how slick the record, the Gun Club also repeatedly show they can rattle their amps, as with the punk punch of “My Cousin Kim” and “Lupita Screams,” which comes across as a less grandiose version of the Cult.

Pierce held this Gun Club roster together for one more album: Pastoral Hide and Seek, released in 1990. Pierce later contended this group of musicians — guitarist Kid Congo Powers, bassist Romi Mori, and drummer Nick Sanderson —was the strongest iteration of the Gun Club. Though the lineup would change again, the Gun Club persisted for a few years, until Pierce’s self-destructive behaviors caught up with him. Long a heavy drinker, Pierce damaged his liver so severely that it effectively poisoned his entire system. He died of a brain hemorrhage in 1996. He was thirty-seven years old.

 

billy rebel

666. Billy Idol, Rebel Yell (1983)

According to Billy Idol, he discovered the term “rebel yell” through the Rolling Stones. Idol was invited to a party at Ron Wood’s New York brownstone, and he found himself standing with the host, Mick Jagger, and Keith Richards. With characteristic excess, the three Stones were forgoing cocktails or some other demure potable and were instead taking slugs straight from personal bottles of Rebel Yell bourbon. Immediately enamored with the phrase, Idol quickly saw it as a great title for both a song and an album. Working with guitarist Steve Stevens, Idol bypassed any allusions to U.S. history and instead paired a roaring rock riff with boastful lyrics of sexual prowess. Most of the words border on pure nonsense (“She said, ‘Come on baby I got a license for love/ And if it expires pray help from above”), but the repetitive chorus, with “more” hitting like a drumbeat, is close to irresistible. By previously established measures, “Rebel Yell” wasn’t a hit, peaking at #46 on the Billboard chart. The programmers at MTV loved it, though, and a major change in what and who dictated popular music was just getting underway.

Idol found more significant chart success with the swooning ballad “Eyes Without a Face,” which climbed into the Billboard Top 5. It also signaled the surprising range of the album Rebel Yell. Unified by Idol’s sneering swagger, the album contains INXS-style post-disco churn on “Daytime Drama,” weirdo glam on “Flesh for Fantasy,” pumping heavy metal on “Do Not Stand in the Shadows,” and airy synth-pop on “The Dead Next Door.” The songs aren’t always great, exactly, but they stretch and bend in surprising ways, nudging curiously around the corners of pop music heavily shaped by studio innovations. Rebel Yell is a valuable artifact for anyone seeking to understand where the overall music scene was sitting in early-to-mid-nineteen-eighties.

Rebel Yell also turned into a major hit for Idol, landing in the Top 10 of the Billboard album chart and logging double-platinum sales. For a whole generation of emerging new music fans, Idol became — in look, in attitude, in sound, in everything — the very definition of a rock star.

 

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665. Billy Idol, Billy Idol (1982)

Following a tenure in Generation X and an initial tiptoe away from life as a band member with the EP Don’t Stop, a solo career officially launched with the released of the album Billy Idol. Idol has signed on with Kiss’s former manager, Bill Aucoin, and a strong sense of showmanship was obvious in place from the jump, including the simple yet shrewd choice of opening the self-titled record with the rallying cry of “Come On, Come On.” There was a rock ‘n’ roll party about to take place, and Idol was inviting everyone along for the riotous ride. So why not join in? There was a clear promise it was going to get “Hot in the City.”

If Billy Idol is casually positioned as a party record, it also stumbles off in other directions at time. It basically feels like a first album from an artist with a creative worldview that’s only partially formed. “Nobody’s Business” takes nineteen-sixties sunshine pop and lays a punk filter atop it, and “Shooting Stars” merges a zippy guitar line with Idol’s languid crooning for an intriguing schism. The ballad “It’s So Cruel” is mostly notable for the many variants Idol brings to his singing style across the track, as if he experimented wildly in the recording studio and producer Keith Forsey decided to keep it all.

Unsurprisingly, the song on which Idol is the most sure-footed was also the most significant hit, if not the highest charting single (a distinction that belongs to “Hot in the City”). “White Wedding” takes goth rock and dresses it up for public consumption, the gloom given a counterbalance by chiming guitars. Idol shot a music video at a discounted rate after his girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister, called in a favor. Delivered to MTV at about the time the cable channel was celebrating its first anniversary, “White Wedding” became a mainstay, giving Idol and his team a foundation to build on as he hurried to record his sophomore album, with maybe the occasional diversion thrown in — like, say, a birthday party for a Rolling Stone — to celebrate his ascendent status.

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 — #672 to #669

omd pacific

672. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, The Pacific Age (1986)

“There are a lot of people out there who may now consider OMD to just be ‘If You Leave,'” bassist Andy McCluskey told Billboard upon the release of The Pacific Age, the seventh studio album by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. “Obviously, it helped us get exposure in America, but we want people to know we are capable of a lot more than just that particular type of song.”

After years of significant success at home in the U.K. and only the slightest headway on the U.S. charts (they’d landed in the Top 40 with the 1985 single “Crush”), OMD were gifted prime placement on the 1986 teen romantic comedy Pretty in Pink, written and produced by John Hughes. Anyone expecting the title song, the Psychedelic Furs’ freshly recorded, spruced up take on their own 1981 single, to become the soundtrack’s breakout hit hadn’t been paying close enough attention. As Simple Minds proved, it was the yearning, preemptively nostalgic ballads that ruled the day. All those proms need theme songs, you know. According to lore, OMD wrote “If You Leave” in less than twenty-four hours, responding to an emergency call from the filmmakers, declaring poor test screenings mandate the shooting of a new ending for Pretty in Pink, and the band’s original submission for a closing song no longer made sense. Despite the haste in which “If You Leave” was written (or perhaps, in part, because of it), the song become a smash.

Seven months after the Pretty in Pink soundtrack hit record stores, OMD released The Pacific Age. The timing was right to exploit the band’s newfound prominence. The music on the record, however, pushed back against that opportunity. McCluskey’s insistence that the band had versatility beyond the swooning power ballad that made their fame was evidenced by an album that strayed from not only that sound, but the sound of most prior OMD records.

McCluskey and his chief partner in the band, keyboardist Paul Humphreys, deliberately brought a different approach to the development of their songs for The Pacific Age, supposedly in an attempt to capture the energy of their live shows. The contradictory result of the expansive creative process is an album full of songs deadened by a lack of focus. “Stay (The Black Rose and the Universal Reel)” is like a tepid version of Tonight-era David Bowie (which isn’t that great to begin with), and “The Dead Girls” is OMD’s usual sound thickened with molasses. At times, the material is widely misguided. “Southern” is a weird meshing of cheerily empty disco with the passionate Civil Rights rhetoric of Martin Luther King, Jr. “Goddess of Love,” the original Pretty in Pink soundtrack contribution, is reclaimed for The Pacific Age, proving the last-minute change was deeply fortuitous. It’s difficult to image this clomping, inane cut (“She can’t afford dreams/ And her clothes are old/ She can’t afford hope/ Wouldn’t be so bold/ But she’s holding his heart/ And she won’t let go again”) becoming a similar commercial breakthrough.

There are a few glints of inspiration among the tangle. The easygoing romantic pop of lead single “(Forever) Live and Die,” which became OMD’s third Top 40 hit in the U.S., forecasts the glistening perfection of Ian Broudie’s the Lightning Seeds. And it’s a testament to the quality of “We Love You” that a straight line can be drawn from it to the retro dance floor gems released by Cut Copy and similar acts a couple decades later. These are exceptions, though. Most of The Pacific Age is muddled and sluggish. And the band seemed to feel it, too. Shortly after the tour to support the album, OMD basically fell apart. Only McCluskey remained, essentially borrowing the established band name as a commercially helpful costume for his solo work over the course of the next several years.

 

john scarecrow

671. John Cougar Mellencamp, Scarecrow (1985)

One album after first asserting his own identity enough to put his real last name on the cover, John Mellencamp made it completely plain who he was and what he believed in with Scarecrow. His eighth studio album overall, it was the first Mellencamp recorded in the studio he built in Belmont, Indiana. More important, Scarecrow found Mellencamp pushing himself beyond the simple, tied-tested rock ‘n’ roll songwriting topics of love, heartbreak, and the relentless pursuit of good times. The album leads off with “Rain on the Scarecrow,” a pained, angry lament for family farms set to a fierce beat provided by the one true ringer in Mellencamp’s backing band, drummer Kenny Aronoff. The performer who was once crammed into the cheap rock persona Johnny Cougar now had something important to say.

The politically enlivened songs are spread all across Scarecrow. To different degrees, the percolating “The Face of the Nation,” boisterous “Justice and Independence ’85,” and name-dropping “You’ve Got to Stand for Somethin'” (“I’ve seen the Rolling Stones/ Forgot about Johnny Rotten/ Saw the Who back in ’69”) all weigh in on the fraying of the social fabric, offering commentary on the need to fight back against corrupting forces holding back less-powerful citizens from achieving even a modest version of the American Dream. Even Mellencamp’s more familiar songs are tinged with a melancholy outlook that suggests a populace adrift. On the surface, “Lonely Ol’ Night” is standard lovelorn rock ‘n’ roll, but, in the context of the political outlook of the album, the lyrics “And it’s a sad sad sad sad feeling/ When you’re living on those in betweens” cut a little differently.

“Rain on the Scarecrow” might lend the album its title, but “Small Town” is the true thesis statement. Romantic and appreciative of the charms of living within a sparsely populated community, Mellencamp is also honest enough to acknowledge the shortcomings (“My job is so small town/ Provides little opportunity”). He comes down firmly in favor of sticking with the small town, but an awareness of the potential for improvement provides impetus to call out for more support, more respect, more understanding. Keeping his eyes wide open gives Mellencamp reason to sing.

 

hall oates private

670. Daryl Hall and John Oates, Private Eyes (1981)

Daryl Hall and John Oates were determined they weren’t going to let opportunity pass them by again. The duo enjoyed a flare of major success in the middle of the nineteen-seventies, when the hit “Sara Smile” set off a run of five straight Top 40 hits, including the chart-topper “Rich Girl.” Then the broader mainstream enthusiasm for their music dissipated. Hall and Oates remained prolific, releasing an album per year through the late seventies, but the singles from Beauty on a Back Street, Along the Red Ledge, and X-Static made few to no ripples.  The 1980 album Voices seemed to following that course when a cover of the Righteous Brothers’ classic “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” made significant headway on the charts. The next single, “Kiss on My List,” spent three weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100, and, just like that, Hall and Oates were back to being a force in pop music.

The duo were in the studio working when “Kiss on My List” broke, and they quickly made adjustments designed to help them build on their revived profile. They tightened up their songwriting methodology and took greater care in the recording process, logging over one hundred separate sessions at Electric Lady Studios, in New York City. The resulting album, Private Eyes, cemented Hall and Oates as dependable hitmakers. The record’s first two singles — the title cut and “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” — both went all the way to #1. For the rest of the decade, Hall and Oates were mainstays in the Billboard Top 40.

While it’s genuinely difficult to deny the appeal of the duo’s hits, digging deeper into a Hall and Oates album unearths no long-lost treasures. On Private Eyes“Looking for a Good Sign” is like a discard from an especially toothless version of J. Geils Band, and “Your Imagination” is a big, cumbersome glob of pop-rock. The slight power pop vibe on “Tell Me What You Want” invites speculation on how the act could have pursued slightly more daring music, but it’s an aberration. The chintzy synths and numbing redundancy of “Did It in a Minute” is the more accurate barometer reading on their artistic outlook. Private Eyes is a reminder of why greatest hits collections exist.

 

romantics heat

669. The Romantics, In Heat (1983)

The Romantics were nearly done with their fourth album, but they needed one more song. As they were brainstorming, producer Peter Solley suggested bassist Mike Skill revive a riff he’d been noodling with earlier. His bandmates joined in, jamming and exploring until they’d built a solid musical foundation. The song kept developing, and the Romantics completed the album In Heat by laying down a new composition entitled “Talking in Your Sleep.” Released as a single, the cut became a major hit, making it all the way up to #3 on the Billboard chart.

If nothing else on In Heat is as strong as the hit, the material is all reasonably solid. The Romantics consistently deliver retro rock dressed up with a far more modern production sensibility, the songs built on slick hooks and forgettable lyrics, mostly finishing off with an amusing repetitiveness that makes it seem as if they considered every track a candidate for the runout groove. The only flirtations with complexity come in the odd, likely inadvertent passages where the band sometimes seems to be engaged in a dialogue of standard-issue rock sentiments, as when “Do Me Anyway You Wanna” is answered within a couple turntable rotations by “Got Me Where You Want Me.”

The norm on In Heat is the straightforward and agreeably dopey “Rock You Up” (“You want to do a little dancing/ Well music never let you down/ But if you’re ready for romancing/ Honey, better hang around”). Even the occasional flutters of stylistic variance — the sweet power pop of “One in a Million,” the pogoing energy on “I’m Hip” — don’t stray all that far from the model. Emphasizing the backward glance inherent to their approach, the Romantics close the album with a limp cover of “Shake a Tail Feather.”

Having a hit single to their name afforded the Romantics many things, the most fruitful of which was a cause for skepticism when the bankbooks of the band members didn’t seem to reflect their success. According to Skill, he and his cohorts analyzed their finances and determined the band’s management was skimming from them. The business relationship was broken off, and the Romantics took their former managers to court, eventually winning back ownership of their songs, one of the most lucrative commodities a music act can hold.

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 — #676 to #673

wire kidney.jpg

676. Wire, Kidney Bingos (1988)

With the release of the EP Kidney Bingos, Wire reaffirmed they were back in the business of being a band. Eight long years passed without a significant new recorded release from the band before their 1987 album, The Ideal Copy. The arrival of Kidney Bingos — which is really the lead single to Wire’s album A Bell is a Cup…Until It is Struck filled out with some extra material — signaled another extended layoff wasn’t part of the immediate plan. Wire aimed to remain part of the musical landscape.

And the chiming “Kidney Bingos” also made it clear that Wire’s shift to more electronic-based, pop-orientated fare was equally enduring. As the title of the song implies, the sleekness of the music doesn’t mean overt accessibility was a particularly strong component of the band’s approach. The swaggering lunacy of “Pieta,” clocking in at well over seven minutes, suggests the kind of track Bryan Ferry might come up with if he were an unchecked weirdo. On the EP, those studio cuts are joined by two live tracks, “Over Theirs” and “Drill,” both demonstrating the band’s dazzling melding of post-punk and dance music into something that doesn’t exactly sound like either of its contributing ingredients.

The revived prolificness of Wire suggested by the arrival of Kidney Bingos less than one year after The Ideal Copy was no fleeting trend. In the five year span from 1987 to 1991, Wire released six full-length albums. When it came time to work, Wire didn’t kid around.

 

ranking radical

675. Ranking Roger, Radical Departure (1988)

By 1988, Ranking Roger had been a prominent fixture of two major bands, the Beat (known in the U.S. as the English Beat) and General Public, contributing to five full-length studio albums and countless other performances and material. But according to his posthumously released memoir, I Just Can’t Stop It: My Life in the Beat, Ranking Roger didn’t feel completely confident in his creative abilities until his debut solo album, Radical Departure.

“It was a case of practice makes perfect,” he writes. “The first Beat record, we went in blind. No one really knew what they were doing. If you were to take The Beat and strip it down to explain it, you would say, ‘It was one big happy jam,’ and everyone what the best thing to play was.”

Further bolstered by the novel experience of not having to work toward compromise with opinionated bandmates, Ranking Roger made an album that duly drew on all his preceding musical endeavors. The material on Radical Departure boasts the incessant energy of the Beat and the slick pop sensibility of General Public. The combination can lead to some real oddities, such as “One Minute Closer (To Death),” maybe the jauntiest song about heroin addiction ever put to tape. More often, Ranking Roger simply delivers infectious tracks: briskly restless “Time to Mek a Dime,” probing “Smashing Down Another Door,” reggae-inflected “I Told You,” and nicely clamorous “Your Problems” are all fine little gems.

The sunny and intricate single “So Excited” epitomizes the unique musical magic Ranking Roger could conjure. It’s bouncy, smooth, and effortlessly catchy. That it is also firmly dated to its time, undoubtedly a product of the late-nineteen-eighties is part of its charm. Ranking Roger wasn’t transforming pop music so much as living comfortably within it and sharing his own vibe in a way that made the air seem a little lighter.

 

surfers steven

674. Butthole Surfers, Hairway to Steven (1988)

Butthole Surfers didn’t make life easy for college radio DJs. The band’s name already skirted FCC-mandated propriety, and then Hairway to Steven, the fourth full-length studio effort credited to Butthole Surfers, arrived with no track listing and no song titles. Instead, the record label included track numbers coupled to crude drawings that had at best a tangential relation to the relevant song. Most of the material on the album had an established place in the band’s live repertoire, so some devoted fans behind the microphone might have been able to properly identify a song or two. Anyone else was left to maybe introduce, say, the opening track by describing the connected drawing of a naked people simultaneously playing baseball and performing basic bathroom functions.

As later reissues made clear, the opening to track to Hairway to Steven is actually called “Jimi/Cartoon Song.” It starts musically thick, like mud saturated with crude oil, and it’s made more lunatic by heavily doctored vocals. Then the second half has the sound of a meditative Pink Floyd cut and a sound effects record played simultaneously. For good or ill, this is the sonic territory of Butthole Surfers.

The album was actually somewhat controversial among the band’s disciples — and some of its members — for the ways in which it dialed back on the experimental nonsense. For the first time, the band recorded in a state-of-the-art studio, and they laid down songs they knew well rather than dinked around until they had a swirl of abrasive sounds they found amusing enough to declare ready for pressed permanence. That hardly means Hairway to Steven was safe for mainstream sensibilities, even if they almost, kinda-sorta comes across as an earnest rock band at times, albeit one struggling with a creeping perversity. “Ricky” is like “Sympathy for the Devil” on an absinthe bender, and “Julio Iglesias” comes across like Van Halen on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Still, there’s plenty of room for the dopey spoofery of “John E. Smoke.” And “Fast” sounds exactly like a Butthole Surfers song entitled “Fast.” I truly don’t know how else to describe it.

In many respects, Hairway to Steven was the opening salvo for a new era of Butthole Surfers. Within the next few years, they’d pursue opportunities with different labels aiming to get them greater exposure, a pathway that led to the broader commercial success that once seemed a virtual impossibility.

 

times square

673. Times Square soundtrack (1980)

Directed by Allan Moyle, Times Square is a largely forgotten 1980 movie about two teenage girls who escape from a New York mental hospital and go on adventures through the city streets, soundtracked by a cool radio DJ Johnny LaGuardia, played by Tim Curry, broadcasting from a studio located in a high rise. Judging by the soundtrack, the broadcast outlet employing Johnny is first rate. Not that many stations at the turn of the decade included XTC, the Ruts, and the Cure on the playlist.

Overseen by Bill Oakes, then heading up RSO Records and building a career as a contributor producer to many truly terrible movies, the Times Square soundtrack is a reasonably appealing hodgepodge, mixing artists already approaching iconic status (Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated,” the Patti Smith Group’s “Pissing in a River”) with talented upstarts (the Pretenders’ “Talk of the Town,” receiving it’s first official U.S. release, and Joe Jackson’s “Pretty Girls”). Since the two-record set was issued by RSO, a few grooves were also reserved for a Bee Gee.

I question how enjoyable the Times Square soundtrack listening experience might be now, especially due to the understandable inclusion of songs performed by the film’s stars Robin Johnson and Trini Alvarado. But a relatively engaged primer of up-and-coming music such as this one would have been a very nice addition to a college radio station’s stacks.

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 — #680 to #677

plant moments

680. Robert Plant, The Principle of Moments (1983)

The Principle of Moments, the second solo album by Robert Plant, finds the frontman of the revered, departed Led Zeppelin asserting a new creative identity with greater assurance. His first outing on his own, Pictures at Eleven, was a fairly muddled affair, clearly the work of someone intending to strike out away from a burdensome legacy, but also not quite certain how to accomplish the goal. For his sophomore outing under his own name, Plant deliberate reinvention shows signs of working.

“I was just trying to do stuff that was as far removed from Zeppelin as possible,” Plant said a few years later. “It wasn’t commercial, but I wanted to be commercial — on my terms. I was on some kind of mission to make mildly obscure music but at the same time be a success on the pop platform.”

As before, the shadow of his former band is so long, Plant can’t completely outrun it. Album opener “Other Arms” really does sound like Led Zeppelin with all the power sapped away, an inevitability when the singer remains the same, but ferocious guitarist Jimmy Page and powerhouse drummer John Bonham have been replaced by Robbie Blunt and Phil Collins, respectively. Fine musicians, the new collaborators simply, understandably don’t measure up when the music invites comparisons.

When Plant pushes further away from his familiar ground, the results are better. “In the Mood” is lyrically simple, but effective in its cool insinuation. And “Big Log” justly became Plant’s first solo hit, unfolding with probing guitar lines and a slinky ease. Even the familiar hard rock strut of “Wreckless Love” is bettered by variety, the dab of Middle Eastern melodic bending giving the dynamic just enough alteration. Sometimes Plant and his cohorts still seems to be trying too hard — the overwrought vocalizing on “Horizontal Departure” comes to mind — but The Principle of Moments is mostly a sturdy, satisfying rock record, proving Plant didn’t need to rely on his storied history. He could have a future, too.

 

black headache

679. Big Black, Headache (1987)

When Big Black released the EP Headache, they insisted on having a unique disclaimer affixed to it. A sticker slapped on the front of the record read: “Warning! Not as good as Atomizer, so don’t get your hopes up, cheese!” Declaring the new record was inferior to the full-length release from the prior year wasn’t a gag or a bit of arch punk rock posturing. According to guitarist Santiago Durango, the band genuinely felt the material on Headache represented a step down in quality, and they wanted to be upfront with their fans.

Overall, Headache strikes me as perfectly fine, if somewhat forgettable. The plodding, snarling “My Disco” sounds like the opening salvo for a dance party in purgatory, and the industrial churn of “Grinder” is a decent representation of the abrasive music that was starting to take hold in certain pockets of Big Black’s Chicagoland home base. The jittery “Pete, King of All Detectives” is slightly more intriguing, if only because its unmoored energy makes it seem as if it can zip off in any direction at any moment.

Headache was presumably meant to be a new start for Big Black, since it was their first release for Touch and Go Records, the label they’d signed with after a serious falling out with Homestead Records. Instead, all of the band members felt the end was night. To a degree, their disenchantment with the finished product stemmed from a mounting certainty that they were running out of ideas. Besides, other paths beckoned. Before the year was up, Big Black released their final album, Songs About Fucking.

 

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678. The Art of Noise, In Visible Silence (1986)

The Art of Noise undertook the recording of their second full-length studio album, In Visible Silence, as a markedly different group. Acrimony had risen between two factions in the band, leading to a split. Trevor Horn, who also had a renowned career as a producer, and Paul Morley, better known for his work as a music journalist, were excised for the band, leaving the remaining members — Anne Dudley, J. J. Jeczalik, and Gary Langan — to push on as a trio. One immediate complication was the Art of Noise’s status as a recording artist on ZTT Records, which was run in part by Horn and Morley. That certainly wasn’t going to work out, and so the Art of Noise moved over to China Records.

Part of the tension in the group stemmed from the idea that Horn and Morley favored a headier approach than the others. The approach on In Visible Silence started to show a playfulness that could approach novelty, heard most clearly on the burbling cover of cover of “Peter Gunn” that included Duane Eddy on guitar and resulted in a comedic music video starring Rik Mayall, of The Young Ones. And the electronic noodling of “Paranoimia” became the band’s first U.S. Top 40 hit when the stammering commentary of digitized character Max Headroom, acted by Matt Frewer, was mixed into the version of the song released as a single.

Morley was especially dismissive of the creative direction the Art of Noise took after he and Horn were booted, but at least there’s something distinctive about the goofball interludes. Much of the material on In Visible Silence is technically proficient and fundamentally soulless, all blending together into one extended post-disco nap dream. The space age lounge of “Eye of a Needle,” the floridly epic “Instruments of Darkness,” and hypnotically dull “Camilla: The Old, Old Story” carry no real weight. Sometimes a single element sticks out, such as the oil pump beat on “Slip of the Tongue.” More typically, tracks are simply tepid. A prime example is “The Chameleon’s Dish,” which is like fusion jazz on amphetamines.

Following In Visible Silence, more splintering of the band would come, as would more weird commercial cash-ins. Clearly inspired by their faithful revamping of the Peter Gunn theme song, the Art of Noise were recruited to do the same for the famed opening music for cop show Dragnet, to accompany the 1987 film comedy of the same name that cast Dan Aykroyd as Joe Friday’s retrograde nephew and Tom Hanks as his hip new partner, Pep Streebeck. There were worse infractions against good taste. At least the Art of Noise weren’t responsible for Aykroyd and Hanks rapping.

 

babys first

677. The Babys, Head First (1979)

Things got a little messy for the Babys when they were making Head First, their third studio album. The band registered their first top 40 hit, “Isn’t It Time,” from their previous album and were expected to build on that success. But the label took issue with some of the personnel in and around the band, firing the Babys’ manager, Adrian Millar. Not long after, founding band member Michael Corby, who had the strongest relationship with Millar, was also shown the door. Corby would eventually be replaced, but the Head First was finished by the band as a trio.

As a whole, Head First is generic late-nineteen-seventies rock, notable only for lead singer John Waite’s raspy, often over-emotive vocals. They strike through all the expected wickets: a power ballad with “Every Time I Think of You,” a rote, Foreigner-like guitar assault with “Love Don’t Prove I’m Right,” and mid-tempo drippiness on “California.” The title cut is basic, effective pop rock, like the Cars if they had been trying to work out some sort of inferiority complex by toughening up their guitar sound. The lyrics are correspondingly mundane on most of the album, though “White Lightning” seems to be about coming to the realization that LSD isn’t as satisfying as loving God, contradicting a childhood experience with mind-altering substances while in the dentist’s chair (“Lucy in the sky with diamonds/ Oh, it didn’t shine like you Lord”). Whatever is going on in that track, it’s certainly different.

 

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 — #684 to #681

gaucho dan

684. Steely Dan, Gaucho (1980)

For a band renowned for the meticulousness of their recordings, Steely Dan endured a remarkable amount of messiness on the way to Gaucho, their eighth studio album and their final effort until a reunion launched more than a decade later. Coming off the 1977 album Aja, easily the biggest commercial success of the band’s career, Steely Dan stalwarts Walter Becker and Donald Fagen decided to seek out a new corporate benefactors since their longtime label ABC Records was clearly on its last legs. The duo signed with Warner Bros., but they then became enmeshed in a nasty legal scrap when MCA Records purchased the remnants of ABC and insisted they held the rights to release any new Steely Dan material. MCA eventually prevailed.

Becker also experienced a slew of personal problems that complicated his professional duties. He was using drugs at a daunting level, sustained significant injuries when he was struck by a car in a New York City street, and his girlfriend at the time, Karen Roberta Stanley, died of an overdose at his home. Whatever attempts Becker might have made to seek refuge in the comforting familiarity of the studio were thwarted by the contentious atmosphere he and Fagen generated with the New York City studio musicians they relied upon to realize their exacting vision of the songs they wrote. Wherever Becker and Fagen turned, things were not going well.

For other bands, such excessive tumult might manifest as a raggedy record, but Gaucho is as firmly lacquered as any other Steely Dan outing. The dull fusion jazz flow of the title cut is entirely characteristic. It’s unquestionable that the craft of the song is impeccable, but it’s remarkably soulless. Similarly,  “Babylon Sisters” is so laid back it becomes borderline inert, and “Third World Man” unleashes floodwaters of tepid rock. Steely Dan eventually came under some scrutiny for the misogynistic attitude embedded in their lyrics, a tendency that worsened later, but is present in the creepy “Hey Nineteen.” The lyrics have a nasty dismissiveness as the pouts about the lack of cultural acumen in a girlfriend more than ten years younger than the singer: “That’s ‘Retha Franklin/ She don’t remember Queen of Soul/ It’s hard times befallen soul survivors/ She thinks I’m crazy but I’m just growing old.”

Gaucho was another hit for Steely Dan, notching enough sales to go platinum and yielding two Top 40 singles. In other respects, their fortunes did not improve from the grim times of the recording process. Becker was sued by Stanley’s family, who contending her overdose death was a direct result of his influence. That case was decided in Becker’s favor, but a different legal action caused more trouble. Keith Jarrett sued the band for plagiarism, claiming “Gaucho” stole from his 1974 track “Long As You Know You’re Living Yours.” When asked about the similarity between the two songs by Musician magazine, Fagen basically fessed up: “Hell, we steal. We’re the robber barons of rock ‘n’ roll.” Officially, Jarrett now holds a co-writing credit on Gaucho‘s title track.

 

prince around

683. Prince, Around the World in a Day (1985)

The week that Prince released Around the World in a Day, his seventh studio album, its predecessor, Purple Rain, was still in the Top 40 of the Billboard album chart. Partner to the film of the same name, Purple Rain pushed the diminutive Minnesotan into the stratosphere of music stardom. The album landed five singles in the Billboard Top 10, two of them topping the chart, spent more than two years on the album chart, and won Prince two of his first three Grammys (in the same ceremony, he picked up a trophy for writing Chaka Khan’s “I Feel for You”). The month before Around the World in a Day was released, Prince picked up an Academy Award for Best Original Song Score, Purple Rain managing to best The Muppets take Manhattan and Songwriter.

Despite the massive success of Purple Rain, Prince wasn’t really feeling any pressure to top himself, mostly because he purposefully threw himself into the creative process for Around the World in a Day so quickly. Any temptation to eagerly replicate the sound that had proven irresistible to listeners was elided by getting to work before the enthusiastic response registered.

“You know how easy it would have been to open Around the World in a Day with the guitar solo that’s on the end of “Let’s Go Crazy”?” Prince said to Rolling Stone. “You know how easy it would have been to just put it in a different key? That would have shut everybody up who said the album wasn’t half as powerful. I don’t want to make an album like the earlier ones. Wouldn’t it be cool to be able to put your albums back to back and not get bored, you dig? I don’t know how many people can play all their albums back to back with each one going to different cities.”

The city Prince travels to on Around the World in a Day is awash in luxurious psychedelia. The title cut opens the album with a blissed out swirl of sounds, providing a hint of the implied travelogue with tingles of Middle Eastern musical influence. Hit single “Raspberry Beret” engages in a similar seductive swirl, as does the sideways funk of “Tamborine.” Prince courts overt oddity with the restless sonic shifts built into “The Ladder,” and the thumping “America,” which warps “America the Beautiful” to his bidding. The album closes with the tiger prowl of “Temptation,” stretching more than eight minutes and incorporating an art rock diversion that could have come from one of Laurie Anderson’s steamer trunks. Not everything seeks to bend time and space, though. “Condition of the Heart” is comparatively simple, a cooing ballad built on delicate piano and plush surrounding production.

Obviously, Prince didn’t need to openly chase mass approval to win it at this point in the career. Around the World in a Day topped the album chart and sold more than two million copies. Two of its singles peaked in the Billboard Top 10 (“Raspberry Beret” was boxed out of the top spot by Duran Duran’s “A View to a Kill”). Only measured against Purple Rain could the album be viewed as a disappointment.

 

who kids

682. The Who, The Kids are Alright (1979)

Jeff Stein had zero experience making movies when he approached the Who about making a documentary. A fervent fan of the band since he was a teenager, Stein envisioned editing together live performance footage captured over the years to convey the power of the band onstage. Though initially reluctant, lead guitarist and bandleader Pete Townshend acquiesced when Stein suggested such a film could essentially serve the same promotional purpose as a concert tour, buying the Who a little relief for the rigors of life on the road. The resulting film, The Kids are Alright, debuted at the Cannes film festival in 1979 and went into general release a couple weeks later.

The double album soundtrack naturally adhered to the film’s scrapbook approach, pressing onto record many of the showcased live performances. It includes a version of”My Generation” culled from The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967 (which opens the film), and an especially fierce “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” from a 1965 appearance on Ready Steady Go! A trio of live songs from Woodstock are in the mix, as is a brisk, boisterous “Happy Jack” from the famed 1970 concert at Leeds University. To help fill out the film, Stein convinced the band to perform for his cameras at Shepperton Studios, a show represented by, among others, an absolutely thunderous live version of “Baba O’Riley.”

At a time when the Who was shifting into venerable rock icon status, The Kids are Alright provided a handy greatest-hits-style retrospective that also made the argument that band was one of the great live acts in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s not a bad result for a project by a neophyte filmmaker inspired entirely on his own fannish enthusiasm.

 

seger nine

681. Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band, Nine Tonight (1981)

For rock acts across the nineteen-seventies and into the nineteen-eighties, one of the key markers of success was the label support to issue a live album as a two record set. Detroit’s Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band first checked that box with Live Bullet, released in 1976. Actually the first record that included Seger’s backing band in the official billing, Live Bullet became the group’s highest charting album to that point, clearing the path for their next three studio albums — Night Moves, Stranger in Town, and Against the Wind — to each reach new pinnacles of commercial success. Seger had never before placed a single in the Billboard Top 40. He saw nine cross that threshold from the trio of studio albums, and two more just missed. Armed with a cluster of new fan favorites, the time was right to again indulge in the double live strategy.

Drawn from 1980 concerts in Detroit and Boston, Nine Tonight is largely a dutiful tracking through the recent hits. Fourteen of the album’s seventeen originated on one of the three preceding studio efforts. A strong cover of “Tryin’ to Live My Life Without You,” a minor hit for Otis Clay, is one of the outliers. It served as a single, climbing all the way to #5 on the Billboard chart, something of a rarity for a live track. There are some other strong cuts on Nine Tonight —  the version of “Old Time Rock & Roll” here is leaner and tougher than the original, and “Betty Lou’s Gettin’ Out Tonight” is raucous enough to resemble the psychobilly genre then still emerging — but, like a lot of live albums, it mostly comes across as a mere memento, most effective as a reminder for ticket buyers of the nice time they had sweating alongside their fellow disciples in an echoing arena.

 

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 — #688 to #685

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688. The Clash, Black Market Clash (1980)

For U.S. audiences, new material from the Clash arrived at a dizzying rate across the final months of 1979 and through 1980. The band’s 1977 self-titled debut, originally deemed too rough for the U.S, market by the executives at CBS Records, finally hit stores in the summer of 1979, its track listing scrambled with different material added. Then the double album masterpiece London Calling arrived in the final weeks of that year. Before 1980 was up, the Clash issued a yet more ambitious effort: the triple album Sandinista! In between those two studio albums, the band’s label kept the engine stoked in the U.S. by stitching together a collection largely comprised on tracks that had been excised in transport as the earlier albums journeyed across the Atlantic. Issued as a 10-inch record, Black Market Clash was best described as a mini-album.

Black Market Clash leads with the ragged fist fight of “Capital Radio One,” a track that was one of the band’s most coveted rarities at the time, otherwise only available on Capital Radio EP that was offered, in 1977, as a premium giveaway to NME readers. “Pressure Drop” first appeared as a U.K. B-side, but the sweetly ambling version included here is a slightly different take, and the melded “Bankrobber/Robber Dub,” which is the clearest example of the band’s reggae influence, includes material that hadn’t seen previous release.

Cataloging the more unique offerings on Black Market Clash is fine, but the mini-album isn’t special because of the way it might have appealed to collectors at the time. Instead, it’s a valuable popping flashbulb illuminating some of the work of one of the best bands of all time when they were in their undefeated prime. The blistering “Cheat” and the snaky, irresistible “Armagideon Time” are astonishments, then and now, no matter what record holds them. Like practically everything bearing the band’s name at the time, Black Market Clash is a gift.

 

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687. Various Artists, Concerts for the People of Kampuchea (1981)

The live event billed as Concerts for the People of Kampuchea began as an attempt to orchestrate that impossible dream of the nineteen-seventies: a reunion of the Beatles. Seeking a splashy way to raise money to help starving refugees fleeing the brutal state formed when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia, Kurt Waldheim, then the secretary-general of the United Nations, approached Paul McCartney and pitched a benefit concert putting him onstage again with George Harrison, John Lennon, and Ringo Starr. Three-quarters of the band expressed willingness to participate, but Lennon balked. A clear all-or-nothing proposition, Harrison and Starr followed Lennon’s lead and dropped out. McCartney still wanted to help, so he offered Wings and, as a more commensurate compensation, a lineup of the Rockestra collaborators of British rock icons he’d assembled in 1978.

Staged at London’s Hammersmith Odeon over four nights in December 1979, the concerts featured different band lineups for each show, encompassing both well-established rock headliners and new wave upstarts. The veterans are given the most real estate on the accompanying double album, released around two years later. The Who take up the whole first side, and McCartney and his various collaborators cover the entire of side four. The choice is wholly understandable, but it makes for a fairly lopsided listening experience. The Who, performing just over three weeks after eleven concertgoers died in the crush of people rushing the stage at their show in Cincinnati, sound detached as they run through their most familiar hits. Only the more novel selection “Sister Disco,” taken from the more recent album Who Are You, is consistently engaging, its peppering of keyboard freak-outs providing jolts of energy. McCartney, carrying no burden of recent concert tragedy, sounds similarly sedate.

The only other act given more than than a single track (not counting the two afforded to Rockpile, since one, “Little Sister,” is more of a showcase for Robert Plant with the band receding to studio player anonymity) is the Pretenders, on stage one day after the U.K. release of their debut LP. Their trio of songs — “The Wait,” “Precious,” and “Tattooed Love Boys” — demonstrate exactly how much Chrissie Hynde could accomplish with pure, unadulterated attitude, especially when backed by the exceptional musicianship of the original roster. The tracks also make the implicit argument that the album would have benefited from a more robust showing by the other artists still in the early and eager part of their respective careers. The Clash, Elvis Costello, and the Specials represented by one track apiece is a heartbreaking missed opportunity.

Oddly, the existence of the album took at least one performer by surprise. McCartney reportedly heard a track from it from it on the radio and promptly called the station to chastise them for playing a Wings bootleg. It was only then that he discovered his earlier charitable act had extended to permanent preservation on record.

 

call modern

686. The Call, Modern Romans (1983)

Formed in Santa Cruz, California, the Call were first signed to Mercury Records, which felt they had secured a major act destined to immediately hit it big. The label insisted the group work with a name producer on their debut album, which led to the hiring of Hugh Padgham, coming off of Phil Collins’s Face Value, Genesis’s Abacab, and the Police’s Ghost in the Machine. The Call’s self-titled debut was released in 1982 and barely registered.

“They spent a fortune on the first one and got almost no sales,” Scott Musick, drummer for the Call, told Musician.

When it came time for the follow-up, the Call were basically on their own, which was probably their preference anyway. The resulting album, Modern Romans, is booming, earnest, politicized rock music. “Back from the Front,” all booming melody and simplistic activist sentiment (“Now the truth about war/ It’s a total waste/ It’s the ultimate drug/ It’s the ultimate taste”) demonstrates how close the band could get to the anthemic sanctimony U2 was just starting to perfect. The overly ponderous “Violent Times” provides reinforcing evidence.

The Call could also be commanding and sharply inventive. Those qualities are found across Modern Romans. Single “The Walls Came Down” is splendid, methodical and genuinely soaring in its rock fervor. “Turn a Blind Eye” sounds like New Model Army with an overt Joy Division influence, and the pogo stride of the title cut is difficult to resist. Modern Romans is a mixed bag, imperfect in a way that seems utterly fair for a band still finding its way. They weren’t copying U2 — who were only on their third album at the time Modern Romans was released — they were developing a similar sound concurrently. Looking back, it’s hard not to wonder what might have happened if the Call had another fortunate turn or two.

 

pat nervous

685. Pat Benatar, Get Nervous (1982)

Pat Benatar approached the recording of her fourth album, Get Nervous, from a place of contentment and success. The rare — at the time — revered rock performer without a Y chromosome, Benatar was coming off a pair of multiplatinum albums, including the more recent Precious Time, her first to top the Billboard chart. During the layoff from recording and touring the hit album had earned her, Benatar got married to Neil Giraldo, her longtime love, guitarist, and creative collaborator. According to Benatar, she and her cohorts had the luxury of going back to the studio when they were ready to instead of when the label was pressing for more product.

“We wanted to be together, to work together again,” said Benatar. “We had new ideas, a new player, and, with Neil and I married, the atmosphere during recording was a joy. Everyone was relaxed and happy to be with each other.”

The new player was keyboardist Charlie Giordano, and, with his help, the album bears some of the new wave influence that was a regular feature on rock albums of the day. “Anxiety (Get Nervous)” has a sprightly agitation reflective of the musical trend and also nicely in line with the title, and hit single “Shadows of the Night” traverses the narrow border between nineteen-seventies rock and nineteen-eighties glossy pop with aplomb. The by-the-numbers rock of “Little Too Late” and power ballad “Fight It Out” are suitable examples of their respective styles, neither inspired nor trite. Album closer “Silent Partner” sounds like the opening salvo to a grand rock saga that Benatar would never get around to — or maybe be pretentious enough to stoop to — recording.

Get Nervous was another success for Benatar. It was her third straight to make the Top 10 of the Billboard album chart and yielded three Top 40 singles. Her popularity started to soften shortly after this, every subsequent album hitting its chart peak a little lower. Get Nervous wasn’t Benatar’s last success, but it arguably closed out her time as one of the dominant figures in rock music.

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 — #692 to #689

tallulah-the-go-betweens692. Go-Betweens, Tallulah (1987)

Tallulah might not have delivered the Go-Betweens their first experience with professional disappointment, nor even their most pronounced. And yet the recording experience and subsequent related duties were peppered with enough frustrations that the album stands as a key delineating point for the band. It’s perhaps unsurprising that the Go-Betweens would fold two years later.

Broader commercial success was the stated goal as the Go-Betweens embarked on Tallulah. The Australian band stood in the golden light of critical acclaim, but that hadn’t yet translated into record sales or hit singles. Their previous album, Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express, made only the most modest headway on the charts of their homeland and register nary a ripple anywhere else. The band went into the studio with producer Craig Leon expecting to play together, attempting to capture some of the energy of their live performances. Instead, Leon meticulously recorded individual tracks and assembled them, working so slowly that a sizable chunk of the budget and the scheduled recording time was expended on only two cuts. Leon was replaced by Richard Preston, and the Go-Betweens dashed off the rest of their new songs as quickly as possible.

Despite the compromised recording process, Tallulah is a fine album, mostly because the material crafted by perfectly paired songwriters Grant McLennan and Robert Forster was bound to push through whatever hardship threatened to disguise them. Opening track and lead single “Right Here” is a fine example: pristinely perfect pop, sunshiny enough to disguise some scalding lyrics (“I know you’re thirty-two/ But you look fifty-five/ You walk around/ With your eyes wide open/ But you’re barely alive”). “I Just Get Caught Out” has a similar shimmery energy, as does the lilting “Bye Bye Pride.”

The Go-Betweens were from Australia, but London was essentially their professional home base. Accordingly, there’s a strong Britpop feel to the album, whether in the Bowie-esque rule-bending around the fringes on “Cut It Out” or the mild Echo and the Bunnymen vibe to “The House That Jack Kerouac Built.” The leaner cuts especially benefit from the sheen. “Hope Then Strife” is what might be expected if the mid-nineteen-eighties Violent Femmes adopted lush British production.

Other problems were cropping up in the Go-Betweens camp. Developing interpersonal friction was compounded by the revelation that Forster was secretly mulling a solo record. Then Tallulah was released, and the fervently sought mainstream embrace didn’t happen. For the next album, the group decided to make significant changes in their process and even their geography. Creatively, it would pay off beautifully.

 

bolshoi giants

691. The Bolshoi, Giants (1985)

Arguably the biggest band to hail from Trowbridge, a modest town in South West England, the Bolshoi emerged in the mid-eighties with Giants, their debut EP. Poised between lithe British pop and swooning goth churn, the music on the release transcends the moments when it threatens to lapse into derivativeness with a sense of odd adventure. Led by Trevor Flynn (who would later become know under his real name, Trevor Tanner), the Bolshoi showed an immediate facility for a certain doomed romanticism that sold plenty of jet black hair dye during the decade.

Released by I.R.S. Records, the U.S. version of the Giants leads with the dark, lush, and stealthily menacing “Happy Boy.” The track establishes the template nicely, as does the Cure-like “Fly.” From there, the Bolshoi sticks with the sound while simultaneously traipsing into strange unsettled territory. The thick morass of gloomy goth sounds on the title cut are perhaps not that far off from any number of kindred bands of the time. But the tingly “By the River” has an inner pulse of experimentation that hints at greater depths.

Encouraged by the warm reaction to Giants, the Bolshoi relocated to London and got to work on building a proper repertoire. By the following year, they’d be out with their first full-length, and a brief — but interesting — career was underway

 

wire between

690. Wire Train, Between Two Words (1985)

Wire Train built up just enough of a following in their hometown of San Francisco that they found themselves in odd company following the release of their sophomore album, Between Two Words. In the ninth annual iteration of the Bay Area Music Awards, Wire Train were nominated in the outstanding album category, vying against John Fogerty’s Centerfield, Night Ranger’s Seven Wishes, Santana’s Beyond Appearances, and — prepare to wince — Starship’s Knee Deep in the Hoopla. There’s a wavering quality level across that list of titles, but those are still major acts for a fledging band to be placed among. Wire Train had promise.

Between Two Worlds is a quintessential example of the sort of college rock from U.S. bands that a certain breed of student programmer found irresistible. The tracks are earnest and earthy, but also crisply produced. It sounded as professional as the stuff on commercial radio — or at least MTV — but it had a certain hangdog charm that tagged it as distant from the offerings of the true pop and rock titans. “Last Perfect Thing” might sound a little bit like early INXS, had they been raised on rock songs from the American heartland, but there was no doubt that Wire Train was miles away from ever making an album like Kick.

Songwriters Kurt Herr and Kevin Hunter had a knack for hitting the pocket on fine college rock cuts. There’s a swooning intensity to “Skills of Summer” and a brisk energy on “Two Persons” that make them perfect playlist fodder. But Between Two Words also suggests there was only so many cookies in the jar they raided. The ballad “No Pretties” quickly grows dull, and the pining “I Will” (“Cry for the time/ I wish I could see your eyes”) is similarly generic. The limitations might be better assigned to the playing of the whole band, given that wares of no less formidable a songwriter than Bob Dylan can get finessed into blandness, proven by the flat cover of “God on Our Side.”

 

Wire Train’s Between Two Words lost the Bay Area Music Award for the year’s top album. Centerfield took the prize. Much as I’m inclined to champion the college rock band, the choice was correct. Fogerty’s record is better.

 

married soundtrack

689. Married to the Mob soundtrack (1988)

“Music was my first love, movies came second,” director Jonathan Demme once explained. And that original affection figured significantly in the procession of wonderful film which bore his signature. He presided over several concert films during his career, with the most notable, Stop Making Sense, still standing as the probable peak of the form. But exceptional music also flowed through his narrative features, Demme’s exemplary and beautifully esoteric taste buoying the projects. Demme knew it, too.

“It can be like something that saves you in a scene that isn’t working that great — the right music can make a weak scene acceptable,” Demme told Rolling Stone. “It can also add a whole other dimension to a scene. It can send it right into the ozone.”

Catching the wave of the soundtrack boom of the nineteen-eighties, Demme’s terrific comedy Married to the Mob resulted in the strongest album spun from one his films, excepting the concert documents. Leading with “Jump in the River,” a track from thrilling newcomer Sinéad O’Connor that she would carry over to her sophomore full-length a couple years later, the album is like a generous chunk of a college radio show programmed by an especially strong DJ. Longtime Demme faves New Order, Tom Tom Club, and the Feelies are duly represented, and the filmmaker orchestrates some inspired covers, recruiting Debbie Harry to take a turn on the Castaways’ “Liar Liar” and Brian Eno to drift across a version of William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water.”

There are more significant reasons to celebrate Married to the Mob than the soundtrack. Even so, the accompanying album seems like the truest distillation of Demme’s music taste. That is its own grand gift.

 

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