College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #880 to #877

idol stop

880. Billy Idol, Don’t Stop (1981)

The bloke born William Michael Albert Broad was exceedingly comfortable returning to promising material until it finally turned into a hit. Taking the stage name Billy Idol because his school teachers routinely derided his lack of ambition and referred to him as “idle” (he claimed his first choice was in fact Billy Idle, but there was concern it would stir confusion because with a famous member of the Monty Python troupe), the spiky coifed singer launched a solo career after a tenure with the glammy punk rock band Generation X. For his solo debut, the EP Don’t Stop, Idol nicked a song from his former band called “Dancing with Myself.” He didn’t record a new version, choosing instead to remix the Generation X version. It became his first solo single.

As had been the case with Generation X, the single didn’t make much headway on the charts. It was rereleased as a single in 1983, after Idol’s self-titled full-length became a hit, yielding two entries in the Billboard Top 40. Once again, “Dancing with Myself” couldn’t push through, peaking at #102. These days, it’s retrospectively considered one of Idol’s major songs of the era.

On Don’t Stop, Idol also planted the seed for his biggest U.S. hit. The EP included a remarkably faithful take on the Tommy James and the Shondells’ song “Mony Mony.” At twice the length of the original, it also failed to breakthrough as a single, but Idol included a live version on the hits collection Idol Songs. The live cut became Idol’s sole single to top the U.S. charts, knocking another Tommy James cover from the peak position in the process.

 

 

rats birth

879. Good Rats, Birth Comes to Us All (1979)

Former by a batch of schoolmates in Queens, New York, in 1964, Good Rats was one of those bands that prospered in the scruffy environs of nineteen-seventies FM radio without ever tapping the elusive magic required for a broader breakthrough. They toughed it out on the road, often playing hundred of shows every year, and released a batch of bruising hard rock albums through the decade. Suffused with ambition, Birth Comes to Us All likely stirred hopeful expectations for the band. Surely this would be the record that changed everything.

Using songs that had reportedly been written throughout Good Rats’ fairly lengthy career, Birth Comes to Us All was a loose concept album. According to press materials the tracks on the album are “all dealing with different phases of the human life cycle.” Instead of prog rock abstraction, the material on the album seems to be highly personal. Album opening ballad “You’re Still Doing It” is based it on lead singer Peppi Marchellos’s own marriage, which at the time was seventeen years strong and resulted in four children. One of those offspring, ten-year-old Gene, lends vocals to “Gino,” which otherwise sounds a little like Rod Stewart fronting Thin Lizzy, with some touches of prog rock’s sense of theatricality thrown in.

The greasy guitar opening to “School Days” leads to a litany of reflections on the progression through high school, all tinged with cynicism (“Sophomore year, you make your drug connections/ Junior year, you worry ’bout your ugly pimples showing”). “City Liners” has a funky, flinty vibe, and “Bed and a Bottle” is agreeably catchy. “Man on a Fish” bears a sonic resemblance to the roughly concurrent work of Billy Joel, as does “Spirit of the Times.” That should have been a boon to Good Rats (Joel notched six Top 40 hits across 1979 and 1980), but it might have actually done little more than dissuade the long-term fans who were expecting the rock to be a little harder.

Birth Comes to Us All was met with a familiar middling response, leading the band to splinter somewhat. Half the roster was replaced before the next studio album, 1981’s Great American Music. That record proved to be the last under the Good Rats name, until a revival was launched fifteen years later.

 

 

beat appen

878. The English Beat, Wha’ppen? (1981)

Wha’ppen? was the second full-length studio effort by the band known in their home country as merely the Beat. Affixed with a geographic modifier for stateside releases, the bustling band co-fronted by Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger had an enormous U.K. hit with the previous year’s debut, I Just Can’t Stop It. Boasting three U.K. Top 10 singles, the album helped establish reggae and ska styles as a major force in British pop. When it came time to record Wha’ppen?, the band wanted to do more.

The English Beat deliberately broadened their sound on the album, drawing significantly on West African rhythms, which gave Wha’ppen? a far more easygoing feel that its predecessor. The jolting surprises were largely set aside, in favor of the easy groove of “Drowning” and the gentle flow of “Doors of Your Heart.” This was a band known for delivering wondrously exhausting catalysts for joyous dance floor energy, and now they were essentially urging fans to slow down and settle into the music, potentially discovering some of the politicized agitation in the lyrics. There are still bursts of zippy invention — the flamenco shadings of “Monkey Murders,” or the funky jolt to “I Am Your Flag” — but Wha’ppen? largely expects the listener to lean in rather than be grabbed forcefully by the hand.

Perhaps inevitably, the response cooled down, too. The album charted just as high as its predecessor, but the singles stalled outside of the Top 20. The English Beat would deliver just one more studio album, the much-loved Special Beat Service — before calling it quits.

 

 

wall planet

877. Wall of Voodoo, Happy Planet (1987)

Happy Planet, the fourth album from the Los Angeles band Wall of Voodoo, was likely intended to merge the two distinct eras of the band. It reunited the group with producer Richard Mazda, who’d presided over Call of the West, the album that included “Mexican Radio,” the band’s biggest hit. That record was released during the span that Stan Ridgway was the group’s lead singer. Ridgway departed the lineup after that album, and Andy Prieboy, singer with the San Francisco art pop group Eye Protection, was recruited for frontman duties. It was surely hoped that Mazda could recapture the charms of the earlier record with the new personnel.

In accordance with the general Wall of Voodoo approach, the bulk of Happy Planet is decidedly, defiantly odd. That’s clear from the opening track, a weirdo cover of the Beach Boys’ “Do It Again.” The requisite music video included Brian Wilson, acting an unsettling madhouse vision that unfortunately (and maybe purposefully) called to mind his well-documented struggled with mental health. If Wall of Voodoo were hoping to generate chart goodwill with the familiarity of the song, they simultaneously did everything they could to repel the more casual listener.

Happy Planet is at its strongest when the band’s strange instincts are applied to styles that are sturdy enough to stand tall amidst the clowning. The quasi rockabilly of “Back in the Laundromat” and the boozy country-western goof “Ain’t My Day” overcome the sense that the band is signaling their disinterest. And the jittery “Elvis Bought Dora a Cadillac” is a surprisingly effective story-song.

Whatever aspirations Happy Planet carried, they weren’t fulfilled. Following the largely indifferent response to the album, the band broke up in 1988.

 

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 — #884 to #881

del stand

884. Del Fuegos, Stand Up (1987)

Time was running out for the Del Fuegos. Signed by the Warner Bros. subsidiary Slash Records, the Boston band were fully expected to inspire the same fervor from a national audience as they generated in their hometown, where they were the standouts of a local scene which would soon evolve into one of the proving grounds for nineteen-nineties alternative rock. Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp were routinely placing singles in the Billboard Top 10 at the time (they had two apiece in 1987). There was plenty of room for straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll bands on commercial radio. Despite a hearty label push and the mixed blessing of a starring role in a Miller beer commercial, the Del Fuegos hadn’t really broken through with their first two albums. So there was a lot riding on the third effort, Stand Up.

Working with their regular producer, Mitchell Froom (who presided over one of 1987’s most inescapable songs, the Los Lobos cover of “La Bamba”), Del Fuegos cranked out a batch of barroom rockers burnished with a studio sheen. Stand Up is solidly crafted and achingly safe. It’s as if they were hedging their bets, figuring that if they got another soft response from record buyers, at least they had material that could serve as an audition for another beer ad.

On Stand Up, the Del Fuegos are at their best when they keep it relatively simple, as on the bluesy album opener “Wear It Like a Cape.” There’s a comfort there that’s missing on much of the rest of the album. “Long Slide (For an Out)” is so packed with layers and elements that it is reminiscent of the Eurythmics’ “Would I Lie to You,” with Chess Records instead of Stax as the inspiration, and — more problematically —  without the mix of discipline and sly reinvention perfected by Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox. “A Town Called Love” has a similar put-everything-out-there vibe, with similarly drab results. When the album falters most gravely, the result is the bad Tom Waits impression “He Had a Lot to Drink Today,” or the laughable flashes of hard rock posturing on “News from Nowhere”

Except for the most faithful (including, clearly, a decent number of college radio programmers), no one was particularly happy about Stand Up. Following its lackluster rollout, Slash Records dropped the Del Fuegos, and guitarist Warren Zanes and drummer Woody Giessman both exited the band. A reconfigured version of the group released one more album — Smoking in the Fields, on RCA Records — before calling it quits, at least until the eventual siren song of college rock reunion cash-ins unexpectedly arrived a couple decades later.

 

 

easterhouse

883. Easterhouse, Contenders (1986)

There were plenty of bands staking out strong political positions in the nineteen-eighties, enraged to action by the leadership of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the ongoing moral crime of apartheid in South Africa, and all the dismaying information shared by Amnesty International as that organization’s prominence rose like mercury on a sweltering summer day. Few groups, though, were as unabashed about laying out their shared manifesto quite like the English post-punk punchers Easterhouse. Within the opening paragraphs of a 1986 Spin magazine profile, the fact that every member of the band was a full-fledged member of the Revolutionary Communist Party was casually offered up as an interesting tidbit. This was miles away from a Teen Beat clip-and-save page revealing that Simon Le Bon’s favorite color is blue.

Contenders, the full-length debut from Easterhouse, puts their politics right at the forefront of their adrenalized sonic assault. The songs sometimes get a little didactic — realistically, how could they not? — but sterling musicianship prevails a laudable amount of the time. The material is catchy and sharp enough that the hooks have already sunk in before the geopolitical lessons elbow their way in. “Nineteen Sixty-Nine” may consider the Northern Ireland riots of the title year with a term paper efficiency, but the enveloping slink of the bands sound — a little Echo and the Bunnymen and a lot of Joy Division — softens the lesson.

The jabbing guitar line of “Whistling in the Dark” evokes political punk forefathers the Clash, and the low rumble thunder of “Cargo of Souls” feels like Easterhouse is just starting to find a way to carry their influences forward into something sharply new. With clamorous authority, “Get Back to Russia” emphasizes the importance of pushing forward with potentially unpopular positions, even in the face of derision (“They tell you in England/ We’re all entitled to a say/ But nothing too extreme/ That’s not the English way”). The title refers to the commonplace dismissive counter to the band’s shared politics, and the song emphasizes the importance in maintaining vigilance in the face of that phrase. When a country is in trouble, the song points out, that’s when you fight the hardest for it.

 

lucy undone

882. The Lucy Show, …Undone (1985)

Presumably, the writers at Billboard didn’t quite know what to make of a band like the Lucy Show at the time …Undone was released. Though hardly a publication that went long in their record reviews, Billboard‘s assessment of the Lucy Show’s first full-length was strikingly brief: “British quartet debuts with a well crafted but rather dour set of trim rock originals, given urgency by its sober lyrics and taut arrangements.” The same issue offered significantly more words and enthusiasm for the concurrently released Ray Parker Jr. album, which was said to be “Tough enough for the dance floor, but slick enough for CHR.”

The assessment by Billboard was accurate, yet woefully incomplete. The debut by the Lucy Show was perfectly suited to the still-emerging college radio sound. Opening track and lead single “Ephemeral (This is No Heaven)” is emblematic, bringing a dreamy quality to a catchy, chiming track. It’s exploratory, emotionally piquant, and conveys an intellectual assurance. It’s no wonder the record immediately connected with student programmers. As if emphasizing the perfect fit of …Undone“Resistance” has a tingly touch of R.E.M., and both “The White Space” and “Better on the Hard Side” echo the romantic anguish of the Cure.

“The Twister” delivers a dizzying morass of synthesized sounds, coupling the music to fairly oblique social commentary lyrics (“You can laugh/ Don’t you laugh too hard/ We’ll fill you up with confidence/ And pack you off to war”). It can seem as though the Lucy Show is actively trying to figure out who they are, trying on different guises. Rather than resulting in a muddle, the approach gives the album a different sort of vigor. It’s not unpredictable, exactly, since there’s definitely a moody, lush through line to the sound, but there is a sense of rippling nuance from track to track.

The album did well on college radio, but neither it nor its singles (including the peppy “Undone”) made much of an impression on the commercial charts. The Lucy Show likely believed they’d made a good start. The label disagreed. A&M Records dropped the band at the end of the year, leaving the Lucy Show to scramble to find a home for their follow-up album, eventually landing on the Australian independent label Big Time Records.

 

 

10cc_bloody

881. 10cc, Bloody Tourists (1978)

Bloody Tourists is officially the sixth studio album credited to 10cc. It’s more accurate to think of it as the sophomore effort of the group that reconvened after founding figures Kevin Godley and Lol Creme departed, in part because they’re grown frustrated with their bandmates’ comparatively conventional tastes. Godley and Creme wanted to craft operatic pop opuses. On the basis on the 10cc found on Bloody Tourists, the remaining band members were more invested in weirdo pastiches that sloppily poured the wine of diverse music styles into the foggy chalice of upstanding British rock. The album title evidently refers to the band as they traipse blithely, somewhat ironically around the musical globe.

The album’s biggest hit is also its most egregious act of cynical appropriation. “Dreadlock Holiday” adopts a generic reggae sound in recounting the travails of outsiders vacationing among the ruffians on a Caribbean isle (“I heard a dark voice beside of me/ And I looked round in a state of fright/ I saw four faces, one mad/ A brother from the gutter”). The eventual scoring of some high quality weed (“She said I’ve got it you want it/ My harvest is the best”) redeems the vacation in a different eye-rolling deployment of cliche. Although it fell shy of the Top 10 in the U.S., “Dreadlock Holiday” was a chart-topping hit in the U.K. and several other countries.

The musical wanderlust also burbles up in the music box preciousness of “Tokyo” (“Kimonos and geisha girls/ From grade one, down to three/ Oh Tokyo, oh Tokyo/ Oh Tokyo, I love you”) and the quasi-calypso oddity “From Rochdale to Ocho Rios.” Even when there’s a less obvious geographic tie, the tracks meander strange paths. “The Anonymous Alcoholic” opens with just a a touch of woozy country twang before evolving into a disco riff and then back again. Although “Reds in My Bed” doesn’t pilfer any tones from Moscow (if anything, it sounds a little like Squeeze), it takes its own unique side trip into topics of global concern  (“And while the Cold War exists/ I’ll stay warm with the commissar’s daughter”).

And sometimes the explorations are yet plainer. “For You and I” is a clear descendent of 10cc’s major hit “The Things We Do for Love,” which means it’s just a softer version of Steely Dan’s icy, elegant pop. Since the band bops around, they occasionally alight on material that’s slightly more interesting. “Take These Chains” isn’t fantastic, but it could pass for a lesser Dave Edmunds offering. For a band wearing out their passport, that’s a better destination than most.

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 — #888 to #885

baby soundtrack

888. She’s Having a Baby soundtrack (1988)

The nineteen-eighties was the era of soundtracks, and John Hughes was one of the great impresarios of the form. Despite the accuracy of that statement, Hughes didn’t actually preside over all that many films that boasted notables soundtracks, but especially with Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful (both of which he wrote, but neither of which he directed), he was credited with setting one of the templates for the form, transferring the modestly successful acts from college radio into the upper reaches of the Billboard album and pop charts.

In 1988, it was time for John Hughes to grow up. After spending most of the decade establishing himself as the auteur of the high school experience (with a diversion into travel-related farce that echoed his most significant introductory step into the movie biz), Hughes wrote and directed She’s Having a Baby. The film addressed the challenges faced by young adults as they shifted from more carefree days into the weightier responsibilities of adulthood, represented most clearly by the family-building noted in the title. Perhaps accordingly, Hughes tried bring a little more thoughtfulness and maturity to the soundtrack, too.

As usual with such efforts, the soundtrack is a decidedly mixed bag, but the lineup is choice, leaning heavily on U.K. acts. Dave Wakeling’s title song has an intro that sounds like it should provide the the background for chatty morning news show’s opening sequence, but it’s hard to deny that the overall track is ridiculously catchy. The requisite covers are provided by Bryan Ferry and Kirsty MacColl. Most impressively, Hughes and the music supervisors coaxed new tracks from the likes of XTC and Everything But the Girl. The soundtrack’s most significant coup is the introduction of Kate Bush’s haunting, elegant “This Woman’s Work,” which was the centerpiece of the film’s most memorable sequence.

 

 

nick kicking

887. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Kicking Against the Pricks (1986)

It’s perversely fitting the Nick Cave album title that is surely most immediately provoking came straight from the Bible. In the King James Bible, acts 9, verse 5 reads, “I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.” Cave’s bible study group has to be a real gas.

The third album from the iconoclastic Australian troubadour and his band the Bad Seeds, Kicking Against the Pricks is comprised entirely of cover songs, which Cave said were essentially selected in a wild melee, with the band honing down to a final track listing based largely on whether or not they were able to sufficiently master the works. The multiple motivations behind the choices — sentiment, a mild disdain for the original versions, an indefinable allure that amounts to an itch Cave and his cohorts felt compelled to scratch — naturally leads to a fairly discombobulated finished product. That probably suits Cave just fine, but it can make for tough sledding as a listener.

Without fail, Cave dominates the songs stylistically rather than lets them guide him. It can lead to bizarre but intriguing scrambles of sensibilities, as when “Hey Joe,” the nineteen-sixties song made famous by Jimi Hendrix, is turned into a dramatic dirge, or the same era’s country ballad “Sleeping Annaleah” winds up sounding like it should only be performed on a haunted carousel. The Velvet Underground’s piercingly beautiful “All Tomorrow’s Parties” becomes a modern pirate shanty peppered with odd sonic squalls. Sometimes Cave’s sense of pronounced irony becomes overwhelming, as on “Jesus Met the Woman at the Well.”

Amid the sporadically engaging tomfoolery, Cave offers reminders that he’s a master rock showman at his core. The folk song “Muddy Water” becomes a weary march of grand drama, and Cave’s anxious vocals on “I’m Gonna Kill That Woman” (originally by John Lee Hooker) are a thrilling feat. But the effective tracks largely argue that Cave is simply too distinctive and ferocious to devote his energy to anyone’s songs other than his own, tailored to his significant strengths.

 

 

selecter pressure

886. The Selecter, Too Much Pressure (1980)

The Selecter formed in the English city Coventry in the late nineteen-seventies, taking their name from the Jamaican term for a DJ. Playing jaunty ska music, the group’s timing couldn’t have been better. Just as the band’s lineup solidified — with the crucial addition of lead singer Pauline Black — and they were ready to start recording music, Jerry Dammers founded 2 Tone Records, with a planned specialty in the very sound the Selecter was playing. The label’s first single was “Gangsters,” from Dammers’s band the Special AKA. The Selecter’s eponymous track was on the flip.

One year later, the Selecter’s debut full-length arrived. Too Much Pressure is a perfect expression of the ska genre, certain to enliven the faithful and set the skeptics complaining about a numbing redundancy to the sound. Personally, I have more of a kinship with the latter camp, but I have to admit that the Black goes a long way towards alleviating the album’s problems. The singer brings a welcome brashness to songs, with even a touch of punk punch on “Three Minute Hero.”  On “Time Hard,” when she sings, “Every day/ Things are getting worse,” she sounds pragmatic, certain, and just a little resigned, carrying the song past the pat simplicity (if current high pertinence) of the sentiment.

Although ska is often distinguished by carousing horn blast of energy, a large chunk of Too Much Pressure adheres to an easygoing vibe, which is charming on “My Collie (Not a Dog)” and a dull rut on the title track. “Out on the Streets” tries to pick up the pace with its spirited wanderlust (“Let’s go somewhere, I don’t know where/ Lets go somewhere exciting/ White lies and amber lighting/ Try to seduce me”), but it simply locks in and stays in a slightly more rumbly idle. The looseness occasionally results in unexpected bursts of amusement, as when the album closing cover of the main “James Bond” theme is flavored with added calls of “Thee killahhhhhh…James Bond!”

The Selecter didn’t last long. After a sophomore release, Black split for a solo career. The remaining members quickly realized there was no point going on without her, and the group folded. But, of course, reunions happen.

 

 

devo shout

885. Devo, Shout (1984)

By at least one account, the album that basically ended Devo as the prime ongoing concern for its members was done in by a single instrument. The band had just gotten their hands on the relatively new Fairlight CMI synthesizer, which aggressively married a keyboard to a computer. They became so immersed in the strange possibilities of their new toy that no other sparks of inspiration could enter the creative process. Gerald Casale, who joined with Mark Mothersbaugh as the creative core of Devo, later conceded Shout represented the greatest regret of his tenure with the band, saying the instrument took over.

“I mean, I loved the songwriting and the ideas, but the Fairlight kind of really determined the sound,” he later explained.

Devo was built on pop abstraction, but Shout often sounds like it was written and recorded by a nineteen-eighties mall arcade that became sentient after a magical lightning strike. Despite the album’s dire reputation, I don’t think that’s always so bad. “The Satisfied Mind” is an agreeable bit of bounding robotic pop, and “The 4th Dimension” has glimmers of an approachable tune behind the the cacophony of sonic trills, though that might be chalked up to the melody line pilfered from “Day Tripper.” More typical is “C’mon,” which is a fetid stew of video game pings, blips, and trills.

It’s not only uncharitable retrospection that tags Shout as a failure. The album was savaged at the time and was enough of a miserable experience that it was credited with driving drummer Alan Myers to quit the band. Warner Bros. dropped Devo from their roster, and it would be several years before the band had the stomach to again step into a studio together.

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 — #892 to #889

spandau glory

892. Spandau Ballet, Journeys to Glory (1981)

Determining the quality of Spandau Ballet’s music is a matter of taste, but the band’s adeptness with stealth publicity is worthy of reverential study. Growing out of a group formed by Islington high school chums, Spandau Ballet went through multiple iterations before settling on the Euro-synth sound that prevailed on their recorded work. They were masters of anti-publicity, playing shows announced with a bare minimum of advertising and releasing singles with no forewarning. The band’s debut release, Journeys to Glory, followed the playbook, arriving in shops with a stealthiness that only made it more coveted.

Music journalist Robert Elms was one of the key coconspirators in the band’s myth-making. It was Elms who suggested the name Spandau Ballet in the first place, supposedly after spying it in bathroom wall graffiti in a Berlin nightclub. Elms advocated for the band in print and penned the liner notes for the debut release, indulging in amazingly florid language to describe the band’s sound:

Picture angular glimpses of sharp youth cutting strident shapes through the curling gray of 3-AM. Hear the soaring joy of immaculate rhythms, the sublime glow of music for heroes driving straight to the heart of dance. Follow the stirring vision and the rousing sound on towards journeys to glory.

Music fans were uniquely primed for this sort of hyperbole coming out of the pretentious excesses of the nineteen-seventies, but anyone who read that and immediately opted against even dropping the needle down on the record would have surely been forgiven, or even commended for their good taste. The irony there is that the music of Spandau Ballet was the epitome of tastefulness, tagged the jagged fury of krautrock, the abandon of disco, and the fevered anguish of soul and melding it into a lovely sorbet.

“To Cut a Long Story Short” puts a bounding rhythm and slaloming keyboard lines to the service of a blithely disposable pop song, and “Mandolin” is thumping post-disco could hardly be further away from the sounds drawn from the title instrument. The precise construction of individual tracks can leave them overly mechanical, but it’s also a clear sign of the skill levels of all involved. When it really works, as on the smooth, tight pop song “Confused,” it’s as if Spandau Ballet is inventing eighties music all on their own, right down to the throwaway lyrics (“Face it, boy; you’ve had your time to choose/ Come on now, you got no time to lose”). When they really let their creativity roam, it produces material that even better. “Age of Blows” is an instrumental which sounds like “Paint It Black” imagined by the alternate reality version of Billy Idol who was somehow a founding member of Kraftwerk

Like most debuts, Journeys to Glory sounds a little like a band just on the verge of figuring things out. More than most, the album quivers with a sense of eager opportunism, in the best sense. This was a band with some major hits in them.

 

 

swans love

891. Swans, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” 12″ (1988)

Whatever motivation art rock provocateurs Swans might have had for recording their own versions of the seminal Joy Division song “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” their timing was impeccable. Fresh off the album Children of God, the band punched into a couple different New York area studios in the first month of 1988 and recorded material that was seemingly meant to continue the process of smoothing the edges of their previous work. They recorded more sedate, acoustic-based version of songs from Children of God and also took a turn with the gloomy classic. Two different takes on “Love Will Tear Us Apart” were released: the single with a red cover featured vocals by Swans mainstay Michael Gira, and the single with a black cover put band newcomer Jarboe at the lead microphone. Eventually, a 12-inch single put the two tracks together, along with other material from the January sessions.

Swans’ versions of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” arrived roughly concurrently with Substance, the first career-spanning collection of Joy Division songs. As opposed to constant recycling of back catalogs that happens today, Substance was the first album to bear Joy Division’s name in seven years (except for a pair of Peel Sessions releases that were as strategically elusive as everything released under that banner). Interest in the band spiked, and Swans were right there with a dutiful, loving cover song of the post-punk pioneers’ signature track. Swans parlayed their unexpected tribute band success into a major label contract.

As for the two Swans takes on the song, the black version is arguably a little stronger, if only because Jarboe’s vocals confer an ethereal quality while simultaneously heightening the already beautifully overwrought emotions of the song.  It still makes for an odd match — at once serenely reverential and ironically distant — but that was no deterrent for college radio programmers, happy to have any Joy Division they could get.

 

 

Billy No

890. Billy Squier, Don’t Say No (1981)

Don’t Say No was the second solo album released by Billy Squier. Formerly a central member of the band Piper — which released two albums in the nineteen-seventies — Squier was signed by Capitol Records, who were sure he make a major impact on the rock charts at a time which certain music fans, entirely worn down by the disco revolution, craved the comparative simplicity of a keening vocals leading to fiery guitar solos. As someone who was there, I assure you that the label got exactly what they wished for. For better or worse, Don’t Say No is absolutely the sound of nineteen-eighties rock radio.

The album was co-produced by Reinhold Mack, who was in the midst of a long run with the band Queen (including their most ridiculous contribution to the broader culture). The result is a big batch of rock songs that are so polished and buffed that they cast a blinding reflection. Album opener “In the Dark” is the benchmark, combining grinding but undeniably tuneful guitar-driven music with lyrics that are flatfooted in their simplicity and yet weirdly inscrutable (“You never listen to the voices inside/ They fill your ears as you run to a place to hide/ You’re never sure if the illusion is real/ You pinch yourself but the memories are all you feel”). It’s a track designed to accompany a shirtless guy washing his sports car in the driveway.

To its credit, Don’t Say No often sounds like a career-spanning hits collection. Squier deviates just enough from track to track that it seems as if its the result of years of mildly engaged explorations. “My Kinda Lover” has just the right amount of glam rock genial sleaze, and “Whadda You Want From Me” is strident with express lane momentum. As much as Squier’s own sensibility, a clear influence of Led Zeppelin unifies the album. It’s beneficial when it inspires Squier to loosen up, as on the title cut‘s echoes of the rambunctious freedom of Physical Graffiti. Elsewhere, the sonic resemblance is a little problematic. On “You Know What I Like,” Squier’s vocals veer into the zone of pure impersonation.

The requisite ballads are less successful, even if “Nobody Knows” gets some odd, morbid poignancy points for being about John Lennon, written before his death, but released just a few months after he was shot outside his home. And the fact that “The Stroke” is unquestionably the album’s biggest hit — and Squier’s first foray in the Billboard Top 40 — doesn’t prevent it from sounding horribly dopey now. It actually didn’t sound all that great then. To Squier’s credit, the low points on Don’t Say No are atypical. It’s a far more solid rock album than many of his direct peers were crafting at the time.

 

 

cope nation

889. Julian Cope, My Nation Underground (1988)

Julian Cope’s reputation as a cantankerous iconoclast is solid enough that it’s a little jarring to hear him kick off an album with a cover of a chipper nineteen-sixties hit. The Vogues’ “5 O’Clock World” wasn’t as well known circa 1988 as it would be a few years later — after it received prime placement on the hit sitcom The Drew Carey Show —  but it was still the former leader of the Teardrop Explodes belting out cute lyrics about the allure of the quitting whistle with unabashed commitment. For good measure, he expertly threaded in a some modified lyrics from Petula Clark’s “I Know a Place.” Cope, it seemed, was interested in playing nice for a while.

There was incentive to putting his shoulder into creating music with wider appeal. Some uncommon commercial and critical love accompanied the release of his previous album — Saint Julian, from 1987 — and Cope surely thought he could ride that crest a little higher up the charts. Ron Fair, the Island Records A&R man who signed Cope, was recruited to produce the new album. There were limited previous production efforts on Fair’s resume, but his shared responsibility in future atrocities by the Black Eyed Peas provides adequate insight into the sensibility he brought to the project. My Nation Underground was meant to be Cope’s breakthrough, but it’s more akin to the prior year’s Psychedelic Furs misfire, Midnight to Midnight, in its repurposing of a complicated artist into an audience-friendly form that’s the most ill of fits.

In keeping with the Midnight to Midnight model, on which the stellar “Heartbreak Beat” transcended the clumsiness, Cope’s album had a tremendous lead single. “Charlotte Anne” sounds at first like any number of pop songs that put a female name in the title, but the lyrics gradually reveal themselves to center on more sinister wonderings, specifically false messiahs, which becomes even more clear when the original title, “Charlatan,” is revealed. Cope’s largely disowned My Nation Underground (while taking full responsibility for its faults), but he’s still willing to concede “Charlotte Anne” is the album’s “one good song.” Supposedly, a BBC Radio 1 programmer immediately gave the track a repeat spin the first time he played it on air.

The instant encore wasn’t likely to happen with anything else on My Nation Underground. The strain is evident across the album, notably on the sprawling title cut, the fervently insistent “Easter Everywhere,” and “I’m Not Losing Sleep,” which sounds like something Cope found while rummaging through the dumpster outside of Peter Gabriel’s So recording sessions. It’s all clearly straight from the mind from the Cope, but also confused and watered-down.

If the record was ultimately unsatisfying for both the artist and his fans, it at least got any delusions of unlikely crossover out of Cope’s head. After My Nation Underground, he was free to wander his own weird pathways.

 

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 — #896 to #893

bananarama

896. Bananarama, Bananarama (1984)

The compromises of “Robert De Niro’s Waiting” exemplify the dilemma Bananarama faced during the creative process. In initial conception, the track from the trio’s second album — when was self-titled at the insistence of their label — was about a young woman who mentally escapes into fantasies of a famous boyfriend because of the trauma she endures when sexually assaulted by an acquaintance. As it was developed, though, the darker elements were largely shorn away, leaving it as an innocuous little pop song with only the barest hints of anything more troubling than an unlikely celebrity crush.

In interviews conducted during their nineteen-eighties heyday, there are plenty of signs that the members of Bananarama —Sara Dallin, Siobhan Fahey, and Keren Woodward — were firm and unapologetic in their viewpoints, especially as related to the most demeaning double standards of the music business. On record, though, it was mostly genteel and pedestrian, presumably because that was the best strategy for finding a lucrative place on the charts. There are sawdust shavings of the music that band wanted to make all over Bananarama, but the tracks are often buffed to safety. “Rough Justice” is clearly a protest song, but it’s unbearably slushy, a quality accentuated by the ghastly mellow saxophone that laced throughout.

Among the album’s high points are the seductive, sprightly amble “Dream Baby,” the bouncy “State I’m In,” and “Hot Line to Heaven,” which hints at trouble under its icy demeanor (“It seems to me that you’ve got it made/ But you never show that you’re afraid/ Now the voices in your head they make you scream/ And drive you mad”). There’s little doubt, though, that the strongest track is the moody bauble “Cruel Summer,” which became a Top 10 hit in the U.S., spurred by saturation airplay on MTV.

In addition to impressive record sales, Bananarama got the group a heightened level of fame. The recognition even extended to subjects of their songs. When “Robert De Niro’s Waiting” had a healthy run on the U.K. charts (in their homeland, it even outpaced “Cruel Summer”), the man in question was filming Terry Gilliam’s Brazil in London. Naturally, he asked to meet the band that was pining for him all over the radio.

 

 

bow last

895. Bow Wow Wow, Last of the Mohicans (1982)

When Bow Wow Wow captured the attention of music fans in the early nineteen-eighties, a sizable amount of the attention was focused on lead singer Anabella Lwin. That was absolutely by design, proof that the strategizing of inveterate impresario Malcolm McLaren was working. The former Sex Pistols manager assembled Bow Wow Wow by stealing Adam Ant’s band away from them and pairing the musicians with Lwin, who’d been discovered, at the age of thirteen, singing along to the radio at a laundromat. Make no mistake, though, it was drummer David Barbarossa who was the true star of the band.

The lead track of Bow Wow Wow’s EP Last of the Mohicans, their third release overall, makes it abundantly clear that Barbarossa’s propulsive, thundering work on the drums was a critical distinguishing factor. A cover of “I Want Candy,” originally recorded by the Strangeloves in 1965, took the first version’s tribal drum sound and made it fierce, crisp, and lean without sacrificing a bit of impact. The track is pretty irresistible, and presumably the accompanying music video’s images of Lwin cavorting in the surf in a soaked tank top carried a certain appeal for some. She was only fifteen at the time, which didn’t discourage McLaren and others from putting her at the forefront of promotional art, usually in a provocative state of undress. The cover of Last of the Mohicans even reused the photo from the band’s debut album, which depicted Lwin naked (if strategically posed) in a copy of Édouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (which translates to The Luncheon on the Grass). Lwin’s mother had already complained about that particular shot, to no avail.

Barbarossa’s drums are again explosive on “Louis Quatorze,” but Lwin does prove her value with commanding vocals on “Cowboy.” Demonstrating that Bow Wow Wow might not have all that much to offer in the long run, the fourth of the EP’s four tracks, “Mile High Club,” strikes me a little more than a wan Blondie impression. The release essentially ends by inadvertently posing a question about Bow Wow Wow’s creative range.

That question was answered in short order. One year later, Bow Wow Wow released their final album, When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going. By the fall of 1983, tensions in the band led to Lwin’s ouster, and the remaining members formed a new group called Chiefs of Relief, exciting no one.

 

 

toni word

894. Toni Basil, Word of Mouth (1982)

Toni Basil’s debut album was a long time coming. The performer released her first solo single in 1966, the same year she choreographed the dances for Head, the oddball cinematic showcase for the Monkees directed by Bob Rafelson and co-written by Jack Nicholson. In the film, she joined Davy Jones to dance in the number “Daddy’s Song.” That movie led directly to acting gigs in Easy Rider (which earned Nicholson his first Oscar nomination) and Five Easy Pieces (directed by Rafelson and featuring Nicholson’s second performance to earn Academy attention). Through the nineteen-seventies, Basil continued choreographing, acting, and performing, including several instances in the early years of Saturday Night Live.

Basil’s career started on its turn to brief pop stardom when she discovered a song called “Kitty,” performed by the band Racey. After a reworking that necessitating a title change to “Mickey,” Basil recorded the song and conceived of a music video — before the time that such promotional accompaniments were common — in which she performed it while wearing the cheerleader uniform she’d kept from her days as a student at Las Vegas High School. The opening track and lead single on Basil’s debut album, Word of Mouth, “Mickey” went on to top the Billboard chart and become one of the songs that defined the rise of the MTV era of pop music.

The rest of Word of Mouth is a true musical hodgepodge, relying on covers such as Basil’s exceeding weird take on David Essex’s “Rock On,” which finds it spruced up, it seems, for the emerging breakdance culture. “Little Red Book” is more successful, if only because Basil trilling about heartbreak is more convincing. She also leans on her pals in Devo, covering several of their songs (including “Pity You,” which is remodeled as “You Gotta Problem”).

There’s greater satisfaction in the more original material. “Shoppin’ from A to Z” is one of Basil’s proper co-writing credits on the album, and it gets a surprisingly amount of mileage out of chanting a alphabetical grocery list.  On “Nobody,” Basil offers propulsive testimony about ambivalence between the party life and solitude (“Where’s that energy coming from?/ Can I afford to rest from my fun?/ Part of me is leaping, leaping about/ Part of me is dying, dying to get out’). It might also be about cocaine.

Basil’s time as a denizen of the pop charts was short-lived. A self-titled album followed in 1983, but that was the end of her recording career, except one more collaboration with Devo. She provides lead vocals on the track “The Only One,” which the band recorded for the now-forgotten (and then-barely-noticed) late-eighties horror film Slaughterhouse Rock.

 

 

godafthers hit

893. The Godfathers, Hit By Hit (1986)

I suspect most music fans who know of the U.K. band the Godfathers think of the 1988 release Birth, School, Work, Death as their debut album. I certainly did for ages, certain that the slate-hard rock that banged out of its grooves was always their insolent introduction. That’s not entirely inaccurate, at least to the degree that an album is a start-to-finish statement, recorded with the intention of hanging together. Technically, though, the Godfathers’ first full-length, Hit by Hit, arrived two years earlier. Cobbled together largely from singles the band had released on their own label, it’s bruising, brash, insistent. The Godfathers were one of the few bands who could open an album with a song called “I Want Everything” and still make it seem like they were introducing themselves with the most demure version of their collective being.

“This Damn Nation” is typical of the band. It takes a clear, unequivocal, and fairly nihilistic stand, then delivers its argument with brutally simplistic lyrics (“This Damn Nation/ This frustration/ This Damn Nation/ This frustration”), obscuring the more basic qualities with the sheer force of the music. It’s made for slamdancing and punching the air, with only the barest whiffs of thought requested or required. That can be wearying, especially on those tracks, such as  “I’m Unsatisfied,” that simply push along with bludgeoning indifference to nuance.

Some of the redundancy can be forgiven. This is a first release, after all. But the real promise of the band is found in the places where they deviate at least a little bit. “I Want You” has a nifty nineteen-sixties psychedelic tinge without sounding retro or derivative, and the instrumental “John Barry” sounds like an audition to fulfill the named film composer’s role in a cooler take on James Bond (a long-running film franchise that was then mired in its brief Timothy Dalton nadir). Early as it was in the band’s career, the need to be more playful was already evident. The application of their blunt force treatment to the handiwork of a far more prickly artist — on a cover of John Lennon’s “Cold Turkey” — is the evidence that cements the case.

 

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 — #900 to #897

waterboys pagan

900. The Waterboys, A Pagan Place (1984)

When Mike Scott got underway on A Pagan Place, the sophomore album by his band the Waterboys, the preceding material hadn’t yet seen release. Instead of responding to any feedback from the public, Scott was still very much guided by his own perception about how the Scottish band’s sound should evolve, at least initially. Of course, it’s an open question as to whether or not Scott has even been all that concerned with outside notions about what he’s up to with his music.

It’s no wonder “The Big Music” was selected as a single. Both in title and execution, it offers a succinct description of the what the Waterboys deliver. Although officially the second album, A Pagan Place is arguably Scott finally getting to build up the Gaelic wall of sound he likely always had in mind. The tracks fill up with thick layers of sound, different elements being introduced with happy abandon. This was the first album to feature short-term Waterboy — and future World Party frontman — Karl Wallinger, and there’s a clear sense that Scott is leveraging the presence of the skilled collaborator into complex, fulsome avalanches of earthy sounds.

Scott could sometimes grow overly insular in his approach, following the eddy of his songwriting instincts until anyone paying attention could grow a little dizzy. Even as the title cut provides ample evidence that Scott’s propensity for endless vamping can be thrilling, the album mostly succeeds because of the recurring sense that he’s looking outside of himself for inspiration. “Church Not Made with Hands” imagines a woman who achieves a spiritual satisfaction through her own sense of assurance, and “Red Army Blues” is rendered from the perspective of a Soviet soldier. Apart from the lyrics, Scott’s music sense is sometimes more approachable, evidenced by the way “The Thrill is Gone” recalls Van Morrison and “All the Things She Gave Me” almost sounds like a song that could have become a broader hit (maybe because it bears at least a passing resemblance to Simple Minds’ “All the Things She Said,” a song that, it should be noted, arrived on record one year later).

This is, after all, Scott somewhat early in his career, before principles hardened into combativeness. On A Pagan Place, there’s a feel of camaraderie, of wanting to make music for all to hear.

 

 

jane sky

899. Jane Siberry, The Speckless Sky (1985)

The Speckless Sky is the third album from Canadian performer Jane Siberry. In her home country, it was a significant hit, winning her awards and pushing her high on the charts. It rattled up some interest in the U.S., too, but Siberry’s sound was just strange enough, especially at the time, that it’s hard to imagine any real breakthrough was imminent. Siberry was such an odd match that her first three albums were released in the States on Windham Hill Records, a label far better known for somnambulant new age music than the pop deconstructions Siberry crafted. It’s like the music universe just gave up and dropped her somewhere at random.

I’d wager some college programmers never even found this album because it arrived in a Windham Hill package. Those who did clearly found something to like. There’s an enduring generosity toward the idiosyncratic on the left end of the dial. The songs on The Speckless Sky are in a perpetual state of reinvention. The proof of Siberry’s vision is in a track like “Vladimir • Vladimir” which anticipates the revered pop abstractions of M83, well over a decade away. “One More Colour” sounds like Cocteau Twins if Rickie Lee Jones had performed some sort of baptism that chased the ethereal mysticism from their souls, and “Mein Bitte” is a new wave song emanating from a melting jukebox in a fever dream.

“Map of the World (Part II)” is maybe the ideal version of a Siberry song, in that it sounds like Laurie Anderson, but with a guiding spirit drawn more from classic pop records than the jagged confrontation of the nineteen-seventies New York art scene. It has a swarm of complicated melodic and lyrical information loaded into it (“I led my horse along the latitudes/ Across the folds and into white/ And somehow along the way/ My horse slid off sideways and was gone forever”), but it still feels grounded in a way that makes it no more absurd or inscrutable than the countless pop songs that fill in the corners with cheerily trilled nonsense syllables. In a wonderful alchemy, Siberry makes the strange seem sensible.

 

 

journey departure

898. Journey, Departure (1980)

I’m loathe to compliment journey, but I have to admit that “Any Way You Want It” makes for a mighty impressive kickoff to an album. Departures was the sixth album for Journey, but only the third since they’d undergone a serious reinvention which included the hiring of Steve Perry as lead singer. After scuffling on their first few records, that band — at the urging of their label — was actively trying to make hits, and “Any Way You Want It” absolutely announces itself as one, exploding with the forceful chorus from the very first note.

And so my praise for Departure comes to an end. The rest of the album ranges from pedestrian to dreadful, bearing all the worst hallmarks of the slicked up album rock posturing of the day. “Walks Like a Lady” is modern blues music drained of all authenticity and danger, but at least its gutty simplicity gives it a reasonable forward momentum. The band fares worse when they try harder, as on “People and Places,” which is like something their fished out of Pete Townshend’s trash the morning after a dark night of the soul found him taking an ill-advised pass at writing some desperate post-disco Tommy II.

The album also includes the dreadful power ballad “Someday Soon,” pushy guitar histrionics on “Line of Fire,” and the thunderously dumb rock grind “Homemade Love.” Disconcerting common for the era, “Where Were You” is gross rock star pining for a young girl (“Where were you/ When I wanted you to love and hold me tight?/ Where were you, little darlin’/ When you said to pick you up after school?”) that has an added dollop of skeeziness when the elusiveness of the presumed-minor is dismissed with the lyric “I don’t mind, little baby/ Cause your sister’s lookin’ real good to me.”

I can heap all the derision I want on Departures, but it proved Journey were on the right path. It was the band’s first album to make it into the Top 10 of the Billboard album chart, and it basically staked out the creative course they’d follow for their next release, Escape, which became a smash that to date has sold over nine million copies.

 

 

nitzer that

897. Nitzer Ebb, That Total Age (1987)

David Gooday, Vaughan “Bon” Harris, and Douglas McCarthy met while attending school in Essex, England. Dismayed by the light, silly pop that was able to make it all the way to the top of the British charts in the early nineteen-eighties, the trio decided to form their own band that would be vicious and confrontational in wielding synthesizers and other electronic instruments.

“We wanted to remove ourselves from that English music scene generally, and a lot of the music we identified with was coming from Europe, so we wanted a name that sounded kind of European,” Harris told The Chicago Tribune years later. Nitzer Ebb was pure nonsense, but it evoked the likes of Kraftwerk and other krautrock ruffians. It stuck, and the group started crafting fierce, agitated pop with shouted lyrics. Once they connected with producer Phil Harder, the industrial groove really locked in, and the band’s debut album, That Total Age, arrived in 1987.

The album plays like anger fed through a vocoder overcome with decay. It’s music for punks who want to dance, but don’t want to put up with the wounded luxury of Depeche Mode to do it. “Murderous” is emblematic, pairing shouted slogans with a surging electro rhythm and buzzing noises that elbow their way in from time to time.  Like other dance-friendly music, the material on That Total Age is resolutely repetitive. “Smear Body” sometimes feels like it’s settled into an unbreakable orbit and it will continue playing when the planet is broiled to inhabitability. “Let Your Body Learn” has a similar treadmill relentlessness.

It’s no wonder some enterprising internet user correctly determined that playing all ten tracks simultaneously was roughly as artistically satisfying as any other configuration of presenting the album. That’s not a criticism. It’s simply a honest report about how this music is built.

 

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 — #904 to #901

cure whispers

904. The Cure, Japanese Whispers (1983)

Somewhat unexpectedly, 1983 ushered in an era in which the Cure could accurately be described as hitmakers, at least on their side of the Atlantic. The transformation began with the 1982 single “Let’s Go to Bed,” a sweetly ribald seduction that Cure leader Robert Smith viewed simultaneously as a satire on the insipid pop songs that regularly made headway on the U.K. charts and an opportunity for the band to shed their doom merchants image.

Despite its enduring status as a Cure touchstone, “Let’s Go To Bed” was initially only a minor success, but it arguably set the stage for the kinder, gentler version of the band to push two singles into the U.K. Top 15 during the following calendar year. The cheerier personality was so complete — and so embraced — that the British music press occasionally took an alarmist tack, warning fans that the turn to brightness was sure to be fleeting. On the occasion of the release of Japanese Whispers, a collection of the peppier hit singles and associated material, Sounds magazine issued a warning: “Beware! All the signs are that Smith intends to return to the plodding ground of past work for the next album, so get happy while you can.”

As the title of the compilation suggests, Smith originally assembled the album solely for the Japanese market. The record label overruled him, though, obviously seeing some enticing sales potential in packaging together the Cure’s strongest performers to that point. Certainly having those two hits —  the beautifully bedazzled “The Walk” and the resolutely playful “The Love Cats” — one the same album was useful. Otherwise, Japanese Whispers is as scattershot as any release of similar origin. The tracks were from the same timespan, but that doesn’t automatically mean they belong together on something purporting to be a cohesive whole. There’s plenty to enjoy on the album, including the rubbery, robotic synth lines of “The Dream” and the loopy modern lounge of “Speak My Language.” And “The Upstairs Room,” awash is dreamy gloom disco (“I’m sure I asked you to stay/ But now you’re gone/ And so I feel the grey/ Pulse in my head”), argues that Smith hadn’t entirely jettisoned his glam goth musical vernacular.

It’s undeniable, though, that the Cure were in a state of flux at the end of 1983. The lineup was so unsettled that the next full-length studio effort — The Top, released in 1984 — was essentially a Smith solo album in disguise. They weren’t full-fledged college radio darlings just yet, but the possibility is clearly bubbling up. In its best moments, Japanese Whispers suggests such status is all but inevitable.

 

 

bowie never

903. David Bowie, Never Let Me Down (1987)

Never Let Me Down arrived two months after David Bowie’s fortieth birthday. In 1987, rock ‘n’ roll artists weren’t supposed to hang around that long, creating new music and insisting on continued cultural relevance. By the same age, Elvis Presley was a parody of his former self, rumbling out mildewed hits on a Las vegas stage, and most other artists whose birthdays cakes had candle counts similarly approach fire hazard levels had passed onto the semi-retirement of the oldies circuit. Bowie was doing his best to defy the expected descent, putting out a new record and mounting an ambitious world tour. Unfortunately, the product didn’t make a good case for the sustainability of Bowie’s creative vision. Even the retrospective magnificence bestowed upon the bulk of Bowie’s output hasn’t rescued Never Let Me Down, which is still widely considered one of the low points — maybe the low point — of his career.

Bowie was working with many of the same partners he’d enlisted when producing Iggy Pop’s 1986 album, Blah Blah Blah. The album was intended to be vast in its creative scope.” The album was reflective in a way, because it covers every style that I’ve ever written in, and also all the influences I’ve had in rock,” Bowie said at the time. That mining of history might have been the catalyst for the songs on the record, but it has only the barest discernible presence on the finished product. Layered with the worst of nineteen-eighties studio indulgences, the sound of Never Let Me Down is rock candy that’s further atrophied to the hardness of the strongest steel. And the songs are stuffed with so much sonic ephemera that they become exhausting within seconds. Lead single “Day-In Day-Out” is a prime offender, projecting rock bombast with a cyborg stiffness.

The most charitable assessment of Never Let Me Down is that the production tics of the era took over, demolishing numbers that might have been enjoyable in a different configuration. That theory occasionally holds up, but it’s highly dependent on where the needle drops on the spinning disc. The title cut is a nice song swamped by overproduction that puts it somewhere between the Blow Monkeys and Starship. Just as often, though, the foundations are equally rotten, as on the gloppy “Beat of Your Drum” which is distinguished by some of the worst lyrics of Bowie’s career (“I like the smell of your flesh/ I like the dirt that you dish/ I like the clothes that you wear/ I’d like to beat on your drum”). “87 and Cry” is empty puffery, and “Glass Spider” carries echoes from Bowie’s Labyrinth turn in the fairy tale portent of the spoken word introduction, given way to a galloping rock abstractions.

The album concludes with “Bang Bang,” a song which first appeared on Pop’s 1981 album, Party. Seemingly tacked on as an afterthought — presumably as part of Bowie’s charitable policy of stocking his releases with tracks that would earn some songwriting residuals for his buddy Pop — it encompasses the misguided confidence of this album perfectly. Bowie was of course a strong enough artist that there were genuine triumphs to come, but with Never Let Me Down he was making choices for little reason beyond the simple fact that he was allowed to do whatever he wanted — adding, adding, adding until he had a big, gnarly cluster of slop.

 

 

live

902. Various Artists, Live! For Life (1986)

According to the back cover of the compilation album Live! For Life, all the proceeds from the I.R.S. Records release were donated to the AMC Cancer Research Center. “Through research programs in the laboratory, clinic and community, AMC scientists seek to develop more effective methods of cancer prevention, detection, diagnosis and treatment,” the description notes, before specifically name-checking I.R.S. Records chief Miles Copeland as the magnanimous soul who rummaged through the label’s stockpile of unreleased material to find ten tracks that might prompt music fans to provide a little charity with a purchase.

As the album’s title implies, most of the tracks are from live concert recordings. To the credit of Copeland and the other overseers of the record, they aren’t especially coy in their selections. General Public and the Go-Go’s are represented by significant hits (“Tenderness” and “We Got the Beat,” respectively), and Squeeze rounds out the album with an appealingly relaxed version of “Tempted.” Since R.E.M. was likely the biggest act on the label at the time, they’re present with the notable enticement of a previously unreleased song, “Ages of You,” making its first appearance on record, a full year before it was the centerpiece of the discards collection Dead Letter Office.

Nothing here is so revelatory or essential that it will have much appeal to any but the established fans of the featured acts. A 1975 Bob Marley and the Wailers performance of “Lively Up Yourself” strikes me as numbing in its redundancy, but I’m sure it causes the reggae legend’s true believers to sway along with beatific grins. The more egregious additions come from the Copeland family tree, official and extended. The album opens with a the drab studio effort “Love Lessons,” by Miles’s brother Stewart Copeland, teamed with Derek Colt. And Stewart’s bandmate in the Police, Sting contributes some of his insufferable jazz-rock riffing on “I Been Down So Long,” recorded on the tour in support of The Dream of the Blue Turtles tour. At least it’s all for a good cause.

 

 

billy help

901. Billy Bragg, Help Save the Youth of America (1988)

Billy Bragg includes a note to record-buyers on the back of the EP Help Save the Youth of America. “Beloved listener, well may ask, ‘Why is this limey whining about our country, when, it’s got nothing to do with him?'” writes Bragg. “I have no vote in your Presidential election yet its outcome will directly effect my future and the future of millions of other people around the world. Forgive me for putting this immense responsibility on your shoulders, but I implore you to take part in the democratic process this year however imperfect it may be. Remember, when you elect a President, you are electing a President for all of us. Please be more careful this time.” The voting population, as it turned out, weren’t careful enough.

Released in North America to coincide with a U.S. tour, Help Save the Youth of America provided a sampling of Bragg’s political tune-slinging, supplemented with supporting documentation urging voter registration. At around the same time, he was unexpectedly on top of the U.K. charts with a cover of the Beatles’ “She Leaving Home,” culled from the compilation album Sgt. Pepper Knew My Father. Bragg’s cut on the flip of a double A-side with Wet Wet Wet’s take on “With a Little Help From My Friends.” On the basis of radio airplay (and the string of Top 10 hits they’d enjoyed the previous year), it was the Scottish quartet rather than the Essex-born protest singer driving sales. Still, Bragg was probably took some added satisfaction in having some more pointed new product out in the world while he was achieving unlikely commercial success with material that was far more benign.

Subtitled “Live and Dubious,” Help Save the Youth of America includes a live version of the title song, recorded in Moscow and including Bragg’s verbal introduction translated into Russian. Irish folk performers the Pattersons join Bragg for a bluegrass-tinted take on “There is Power in a Union,” and there’s a cover of “Think Again” (originally by Scottish folk singer Dick Gaughan), a plea for peace that invokes the hardscrabble history of the Soviet Union (“Do you think that the Russians want war?/ These are the sons and the daughters of parents who died in the last one/ Do you think that they want to go through that again?/ The destruction, the bloodshed, the suffering and pain”). Bragg doesn’t leave a lot of mystery to his political leanings, but protest songs are blunt objects by design. There’s no place for subtlety when there are youth that need saving.

 

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