College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #788 to #785

stevie wild

788. Stevie Nicks, The Wild Heart (1983)

At the time Stevie Nicks recorded The Wild Heart, her second solo album, there was little doubt that she was emerging as the dominant member of Fleetwood Mac, the band that could still be considered her primary gig. The band alienated a chunk of the fan base with their 1979 album, Tusk, but had rebounded with the soft rock accessibility of Mirage, released in 1982. In the span between those two albums, solo outings from Lindsey Buckingham and Mick Fleetwood underperformed. In contrast, Nicks had a sizable hit with her first outing on her own. Bella Donna, released in 1981, topped the Billboard album chart and yielded four Top 40 singles.

Shortly after the Fleetwood Mac tour in support of Mirage loaded out for the final time, Nicks raced back into the studio. Imbued with a new urgency by the death of a close friend and the quick dissolution of her marriage to that friend’s widower, undertaken largely out of a sense of obligated to care for the deceased’s newborn son (“Completely crazy,” Nicks said later. “We were all in such insane grief, just completely deranged.”), Nicks attacked the creative process with a sort of fervor. The resulting tracks have a vigorous polish and sharp sense of craft, fortified by the distinctive, emotive vocals of Nicks.

“Stand Back” is a near-perfect distillation of Nicks’s creative voice: forceful, churning, defiant in heartbreak, bolstered by a relentless nineteen-eighties synthesizer part (contributed by Prince, uncredited), and suited to spinning in lace and witchy shawls. Released as the album’s first single, it made it up to #5 on the Billboard singles chart. Much of the rest of the album adheres devotedly to that basic template, with only album closer “Beauty and the Beast” falling prey to the syrupy balladry that was increasingly creeping into the songbooks of all the Fleetwood Mac members. “If Anyone Falls” has a finely calibrated keening bombast, and “Nothing Ever Changes” pushes the trademark Nicks sound right to the limit of its cheesiness without ever quite crossing the line.

The Wild Heart was another hit for Nicks, roughly keeping pace with the commercial achievements of Mirage. Along with its direct predecessor, The Wild Heart served as the foundation for a solo career notable enough that Nicks recently locked induction to the Rock & Roll Hall of the Fame, the first woman to achieve the honor as both a member of a band and a solo artist.

 

 

dire communique

787. Dire Straits, Communiqué (1979)

The record labels weren’t dawdling with their new band Dire Straits. Mere weeks after the release of the group’s self-titled debut, which included the hit single “Sultans of Swing,” singer-guitarist Mark Knopfler and his cohorts were hustled off to Compass Point Studios, in the Bahamas, to start working on the follow-up. Dire Straits were a strange outlier in the musical moment, exhibiting the jazzy slickness of Steely Dan without the jazz or the breezy pop of Boz Scaggs without the sense of overt ease. In retrospect, it almost seems as if the music executives were less concerned about capitalizing on a band with a fresh hit and more committed to conveyor belting out more and more material before the jig was up.

The resulting sophomore album, Communiqué, is a somewhat mushy affair. It showcases Knopfler’s intricate guitar playing and lyrics tangled up between erudite and dully plainspoken. The tracks proceed with the forward momentum of a wispy cloud on a windless day. The title cut meanders, Knopfler’s deep murmur voice layered atop music that approaches bluesy riffs only to back away as if flushed with embarrassment at its momentary insolence. Most of the album settled into the same numbed zone, with single “Lady Writer” standing as one of the few cuts that actually has a hook. Supposedly written about author Marina Warner, inspired by little more than Knopfler watching her get interviewed on television, the songs lyrics reflect the mundane inspiration (“Lady writer on the TV/ Talk about the Virgin Mary/ Reminded me of you/ Expectations left to come up to yeah”).

If Communiqué sounds bland, it basically did the job it was supposed to do. It didn’t sell quite as well as Dire Straits, but it kept the band in the public consciousness. They also kept churning out new albums at a fairly steady clip. Only later in the nineteen-eighties did they really take their time in crafting an album. Of course, in that instance, the results were uniquely impressive.

 

 

blue fire

786. Blue Öyster Cult, Fire of Unknown Origin (1981)

Fire of Unknown Origin was the eight studio album recorded by Blue Öyster Cult, landing almost a full decade after their self-titled debut. Heading into the nineteen-eighties, longevity wasn’t exactly a quality associated with rock ‘n’ roll bands, which may help explain the ripples of reinvention present on the record. Best known for the catchy classic rock morbidity of “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” Blue Öyster Cult seemingly surveyed the music that was making headway on the charts and determined that they could play the shifting game as well as anyone. To a degree, they were correct. The new wave nicking cut “Burnin’ for You” became the band’s second single to reach the Billboard Top 40.

Fire of Unknown Origin is remarkably all over the place. The free-ranging style choices don’t always work, but at least the album is rarely boring. “Sole Survivor” is a fine example of the Alice Cooper model of adorning a hard rock frame with theatrical rock opera tinsel and baubles, “Heavy Metal: The Black and Silver” is dutifully representative of the musical genre cited in its title, and the title cut entertainingly hedges its bet by carrying a disco tinge. With just the slightest reworking, “After Dark” could turn into a smashing Meat Puppets song, and “Joan Crawford,” inspired by Mommie Dearest, lands in some strange netherworld between Bruce Springsteen and Rufus Wainwright.

Blue Öyster Cult earned a gold record with Fire of Unknown Origin, and undoubtedly bought themselves a few more years of major label largess. They released three more studio albums through the remainder of the eighties, to diminishing chart returns. They kept right at it, still touring to this day.

 

 

nina in

785. Nina Hagen, Nina Hagen in Ekstasy (1985)

Anyone looking for an example of just how wild and wooly the business of show could be in the nineteen-eighties could satisfactorily complete that quest by watching the shockingly lengthy amount of time Nina Hagen spent spinning bodacious lunacy on a 1985 episode of The Merv Griffith Show, seated on a couch next to none other than Don Rickles. She was there promoting Nina Hagen in Ekstasy, her third solo album (and fifth overall, including the pair released under the name the Nina Hagen Band), which found her playing up the garish theatricality and punk rock abrasion that had always been part of her aesthetic. Seeing the German-born performer present that persona without the slightest bit of tempering on a middlebrow talk show broadcast to U.S. homes in the middle of the room approaches the surreal.

Nina Hagen in Ekstasy is a fearless stunt dropped onto record. It’s vibrantly alive and flatly ludicrous. As if demonstrating just how far she’ll go to dare the pop culture authorities to loop a long hook around her midsection and yank her offstage, Hagen peppers the album with thoroughly familiar material she delivers with wild-eyed gusto. Her version of “My Way” that makes the famed Sid Vicious evisceration of the song sound comparatively demure. And “Spirit in the Sky” is similarly unorthodox, though more loopy seduction than abrasive endurance test. As a capper, “The Lord’s Prayer” transforms the pious proclamation into warped pop delivered at a breakneck pace. Hagen’s vocals are joyously all over the place on single “Universal Radio” (originally recorded by the Ron Dumas Group), a zingy recklessness she tops with “1985 Ekstasy Drive,” on which she occasionally pushes her screech to the very limits of the frequency of human hearing.

The glorious unhinged quality of Hagen’s music gives it a lasting thrill. It also was, perhaps understandably, too much for her label, CBS Records. Unsure of how to turn music this deliberate strange into pop hits, CBS dropped the artist shortly after the release of Nina Hagen in Ekstasy. She continued making music for a variety of labels for many years after. Best as I call tell, she didn’t cross paths with Don Rickles again.

 

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 — #792 to #789

eric backless

792. Eric Clapton, Backless (1978)

Eric Clapton’s career was on steady ground when he made the 1978 album Backless. He’d spent several years with essentially the same backing band, he was working on the second straight album with producer Glyn Johns, and he was coming the very successful 1977 LP Slowhand, which included the Top 40 single “Lay Down Sally.” He was in that rock ‘n’ roll sweet spot: a legend without being a relic.

Accordingly, Backless is the artist in a confidently, relaxed mode, a rock god at ease. The album inevitable suffers from a touch of the blandness that typifies much of Clapton’s solo work, but it’s also more agreeable than a lot of his output. Hit single “Promises” is emblematic, swirling a toe in the gentle pop of adult contemporary radio (an abomination just emerging on U.S. airwaves) and improbably charming in the process. For all his devotion to the grit of classic blues music, Clapton is instinctively a softie, and the cut show he can indulge that part of himself without giving into treacle.

“Early in the Morning” is Clapton as dutiful student, and the swampy “I’ll Make Love to You Anytime,” originally written and performed by J.J. Cale, is similarly reverential to his spiritual forebears. This is — and always has been — where the performer is at his strongest. Interestingly, some of the weaker chunks of the album center on contributions from Bob Dylan. The future Nobel winner had engaged in very loose songwriting sessions with singer Helena Springs, discarding a lot of the resulting material. Clapton pulled a couple from the rubbish bin, recording both “Walk Out in the Rain” and “If I Don’t Be There By Morning.” They’re joyless trudges, utterly generic. The tracks were surely viewed as a convergence of rock icons. Instead, they forecast the dire tedium to come in Clapton’s recording career.

 

 

rundgren healing

791. Todd Rundgren, Healing (1981)

When Healing arrived, it stood as the first new solo studio album from Todd Rundgren in three years. He’d spent a good chunk of the interim recording with his band Utopia, a situation that was trying the patience of Albert Grossman, the head of Rundgren’s label. The tension was exacerbated by the unkind reception given to Utopia’s 1980 album, Deface the Music. Grossman wanted Rundgren to concentrate on solo work, which generally fared better on the charts. Healing is an album that arguably proves the wisdom of the adage “Be careful what you wish for.”

Grossman probably wanted the next “Hello, It’s Me.” Instead, Rundgren delivered an album-length experiment, an attempt to see if a record could have therapeutic qualities, if, in its delicacy and intricacy, it could heal the soul as it spun. Indeed, the whole second side is given over to a three part “Healing” suite, characterized by arch space pop and  milquetoast jazz embellishments. The same general vibe is found on the first half of the record, in the fussy, fluttery “Healer” and “Flesh,” which manages to be both staid and sonically ornate. The frantic calliope pop number “Golden Goose” is at least distinctly different. Taken as a whole, it all sounds more like artier Al Stewart than the work of a pop visionary.

Healing was such an abstraction that Grossman, maintaining no single that could be easily extracted from it, convinced Rundgren to record an additional song and package a stand-alone 7-inch with the release. “Time Heals” was bundled with Healing, and the accompanying video, directed by Rundgren, was part of the inaugural rotation when MTV launched, in the summer of 1981.

 

 

beat stop

790. The English Beat, I Just Can’t Stop It (1980)

A force of multicultural exuberance, the English Beat (or simply the Beat in their homeland) crafted a sterling debut with I Just Can’t Stop It. Formed in 1978, the band helped forge and embodied the ska-influenced pop music that made a major impression on the U.K. charts in the years around the turn of the decade. Album opener “Mirror in the Bathroom” was a deserving smash at home (and a reasonably strong presence on the U.S. dance chart), peaking at #4, in part because its references to surreptitiously enjoyed cocaine were just oblique enough to sidestep the scrutiny of more prudish programmers. Musically, it’s a buoyant blast, properly setting the stage for the smart, zesty songs to follow.

“Twist & Crawl” is deliciously slinky, but with a jabbing authority, and the easy chug of “Hands Off…She’s Mine” carries a fairly withering appraisal of male possessiveness. There’s a lean, cunning takedown in “Big Shot,” and the gets even more specific in their danceable dismissiveness on “Stand Down Margaret,” which takes at the iron-willed prime minister who was bad for the nation but was remarkably good for inspiring angry punk retorts. Like many of their compatriots, the English Beat had pointed ideas to share and a lively musicality in expressing them.

The album grows more reliant on covers as it moves to the end — a lilting take on “Can’t Get Used to Losing You,” a warm, pleasant version of “Jackpot,” originally performed by the Pioneers — which could easily dull the personalized assurance of the band’s voice. Instead, it effectively binds them to the past they drew upon while simultaneously demonstrating their ability to move beyond it, forging material that was at once familiar and boldly new.

 

 

berlin love

789. Berlin, Love Life (1984)

Formed in California, well away from the European capital from which they took their name, the band Berlin effectively surfed the waves of early-nineteen-eighties new wave. For their third full-length, Love Life, the band primarily worked with producer Mike Howlett, who had something of a golden touch for the day, presiding over seminal hits by the likes of A Flock of Seagulls and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. Accordingly, Love Life is vivaciously of its era, awash in synthesizers and icy Europeans beats, the chill only countered somewhat by the coyly flirtatious vocals of Terri Nunn.

Galloping “No More Words” was the band’s first single to crack the Billboard Top 40, and it’s matched in polished exactitude by “Touch” and “Pictures of You.” Although slowing down would later bring the band a true monster hit, that approach results in the least compelling stretches of Love Life. “Fall” plays like a subpar version of what ‘Til Tuesday would arrive with one year later, and “In My Dreams” is, befitting the title, a little sleepy despite the emotional strain in Nunn’s singing. There’s a hint of the cheerful ludicrousness that could have been in “Dancing in Berlin,” a track co-produced by Giorgio Moroder and Richie Zito. A band called Berlin performing a dance song called “Dancing in Berlin” is downright delectable in its carefree flouting of serious artistic intention. Love Life could use more of that.

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 — #796 to #793

motels_little_robbers

796. The Motels, Little Robbers (1983)

The Motels had their earliest rumbling in 1971. That’s the year a charismatic, distinctive singer and guitarist named Martha Davis connect with several other California musicians to form a band called the Warfield Foxes. They later became Angels of Mercy before settling on the Motels, the moniker under which they recorded a demo that was shopped to the labels. Warner Bros. turned them down, but Capitol Records offered a contract. The group opted against it, though, and everything fell apart.

In the late nineteen-seventies, Davis decided to try again. After reestablishing themselves on the scene, Capitol’s interest was revived and this time the band bit. From there, it was a tenacious grind toward success. The Motels’ first two albums did middling business and yielded no singles that could gain traction on the Billboard charts. For their third full-length, the band hired Val Garay to produce, just as he was riding high from serving the same role on “Bette Davis Eyes,” the massive hit from Kim Carnes. Despite that pedigree, Capitol wasn’t enamored with the album as initially presented to them, deeming it weird and sending everyone back to the studio to try again. The second time was the charm, and the resulting album, All Four One, was a breakthrough, led by the Top 10 hit “Only the Lonely.”

Little Robbers was the band’s follow-up, and it largely adhered to the template. Garay was back behind the board, and he followed his previous practice of freely incorporating the work of studio session musicians alongside that of the regular (albeit somewhat volatile) lineup of the Motels. In one of the simplest measures, the approach succeeded. Lead single “Suddenly Last Summer,” which was a twin to “Only the Lonely,” took the band back to the Billboard Top 10. Like the earlier hit, the single peaked at #9 and had a constant MTV presence that gave it the aura of something yet bigger.

There are other spots where Little Robbers is clearly emulating previous musical triumphs, notably on the ruminative “Tables Turned” and even the comparatively upbeat “Where Do We Go From Here (Nothing Sacred),” which is all churning high drama. But the album is also impressively wide-ranging, exhibiting an exploratory rambunctiousness that puts it in line with other new wave wonders of the era. The jabbing energy of “Trust Me” and the fun, skipping title cut provide added zing to the record.

Among its other notable results, Little Robbers taught the Motels the risks that come with success, especially when a little hubris is in the mix. When the band went on tour to support the album, they insisted on headliner status and toting around an elaborate stage show set, leading to significant financial distress.

“We went out and lost sixty grand a week,” David later told Billboard. “It was so demoralizing.”

 

 

lou blue

795. Lou Reed, The Blue Mask (1982)

Rock ‘n’ roll stars weren’t supposed to push into middle age. That was part of the implicit contract, though the tenet was mostly predicated on a lack of precedent, which in turn provided little notion about how the common topics of swooning romance and raucous misbehavior might cede the floor to more mature concerns. Rocking around the clock can get problematic when there are mortgage payments to worry about. Approaching his fortieth birthday as he recorded The Blue Mask, Lou Reed was obligated to grapple with precisely that evolution.

“Life is made up of a lot of things,” Reed observed later. “You could write about moon and spoon forever, and leave any other realistic feeling you have out of the songbook. I don’t understand why you would, and yet if you include the rest of your life in it, you’re called negative, dark.”

After a few years signed to Arista Records, Reed was back on RCA, the label where he’d launched his solo career. He was also in the first years of his marriage to Sylvia Morales. Robert Quine, formerly a member of Richard Hell’s backing band the Voidoids, was brought in to play guitars on The Blue Mask. All of these changes enlivened Reed’s creativity, even as he pushed his lyrics into areas that alternated between mundane concerns and deep probes into his own frailties and anxieties. Occasionally, the disparate qualities coexist in the same song, as with  “My House,” on which Reed casually explains becoming uniquely acquainted with a new domicile included the moment “Sylvia and I got out our ouija board,” discovering the ghost of poet Delmore Schwartz, Reed’s onetime mentor, had taken up residence, too. “I really got a lucky life,” sings Reed. “My writing, my motorcycle, and my wife/ And to top it all off a spirit of pure poetry/ Is living in this stone and wood house with me.”

The feeling of personal contentment doesn’t last. “Underneath the Bottle” and “Waves of Fear” pair pummeling music with Reed’s consideration of the wreckage of substance addiction and the agony of going clean, topics much on his mind as he was about a year into the Alcoholics Anonymous program. And the corroding steel wall of noise of the title cut carries lyrics of fairly graphic brutality (“The pain was lean and it made him scream/ He knew he was alive/ He put a pin through the nipples on his chest/ He thought he was a saint”). It wasn’t solely a contrast with the sunnier side of pop that made Reed seem dark.

 

 

plimsouls

794. The Plimsouls, The Plimsouls (1981)

“The record wasn’t produced with the kind of sound we wanted,” Peter Case said of the self-titled debut by his band the Plimsouls. “The material was popular live, but the production didn’t capture that.”

Formed in the late nineteen-seventies after Case’s previous band, the Nerves, broke up after a single EP, the Plimsouls steadily built a reputation in the very fertile Los Angeles scene, which at the time notably also include the Go-Go’s. If that band rode a modernized version of girl group sassy romanticism to the top of charts, the Plimsouls represented the boys playing the sock hop in the rougher part of town, influenced by the Kinks instead of the Ronettes.

Case might have found — and might still find — The Plimsouls lacking, but it sounds to me like a ceaselessly charming collection of power pop confectioneries. Led by the marvelous “Lost Time,” the album clicks efficiently through songs built around irresistible hooks and chiming, soaring instrumentation. There’s the Elvis Costello-style assault of “This Town,” the greaser prowl “Women,” and the Beatles-in-the-Cavern-Club controlled recklessness of “Hush Hush.” The band even finds a little funkiness within them, in the midpoint breakdown of “I Want What You Got” and their cover of Wilson Pickett’s “Mini Skirt Minnie,” which sounds like Archie Bell and the Drells after a handful of downers.

The band’s discontentment with the album was significant enough to prompt the wrangling necessary to leave their label, Planet Records. They signed on with Geffen Records instead, but fared no better commercially, despite a boost in prominence thanks to their inclusion on the Valley Girl soundtrack. By the middle of the nineteen-eighties, the Plimsouls were no more, and Case moved on to a widely respected solo career.

 

 

nick showman

793. Nick Lowe, The Abominable Showman (1983)

Nearly ten years after the end of his band Brinsley Schwarz and three years removed from his rollicking sidebar with Dave Edmunds and Rockpile, Nick Lowe was figuring out who he wanted to be on record. By most assessments, Lowe’s fourth solo album, The Abominable Showman, is one of the weaker efforts of his solo career. Lowe himself gives it a subpar grade, later saying he’d “sort of lost the plot” by this point. That there is still so much to like on the record is a testament to Lowe’s perpetually underrated skills as a songwriter.

Lowe was in the early years of his marriage to country music performer Carlene Carter (which ended in divorce in 1990) and a certain amount of down home Americana seeps into The Abominable Showman. Carter co-wrote both the smooth “We Want Action” and the mid-tempo, Squeeze-like “Time Wounds All Heels,” the latter of which finds her pitching in on vocals. There’s an easy playfulness to these cuts and others, such as “Tanque-Rae,” on which Lowe gives it his best Elvis swagger. And the bright, vintage rock “Raging Eyes” is Lowe as his most sly and endearing.  “Wish You Were Here” is sunk by some hokey lyrics (“You’re OK/ You’re alright/ Don’t have to be blind to know that you’re out of sight”) and “Saint Beneath the Paint” does come across as muddled, as if Lowe is trying to mix together the ingredients of a half-remembered recipe for hits.

The Abominable Showman winds up as oddly lovely log pile of almosts. In that way, it’s as accurate a reflection of Lowe’s career as anything else he ever signed his name to.

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 — #800 to #797

bullens desire 800. Cindy Bullens, Desire Wire (1978)

There was a lot of slow build music business background preceding Desire Wire, the debut album by Cidny Bullens, then performing as “Cindy” while living apart from his true gender identity. Bullens was a well-traveled backup singer, with professional stints behind nineteen-seventies powerhouses Elton John and Rod Stewart. Several tracks recorded for the movie Grease also boast Bullens’s pipes, and the material on his debut album, Desire Wire, suggests the blockbuster soundtrack was on everyone’s minds as Bullens moved to the forefront.

“High School History” is the clearest example of Bullens delivering material that sounds like a great lost Grease showstopper. Preliminary positioned as a classic girl group teenage tragedy song, the cut pivots to something more sweet and benign (Well, the gym was getting mighty hot/ We both were giving everything we got/ You know we danced till a quarter to three/ The rest is high school history”). It’s retro rock ‘n’ roll with an extra cherry soda fizz to it. The classic 45s for a modern age vibe is also present on “Anxious Heart,” which lands somewhere between Dave Edmunds and Juice Newton.

Placing the album more squarely in its era, “Survivor” is like Laura Nyro with more of a rock undercurrent. A lot of the album falls into that mode, especially on the slightly weaker second side. It’s solidly engaging but less distinctive than the revival rock. The only time it skews into the problematic is when the music slows down, as on the ballad “Knee Deep in Love.”

Bullens released one more album in the nineteen-seventies before largely retreating to concentrate on family life. There were little stabs at returns to the field in the eighties and nineties, with a more full-scale reengagement around the turn of the millennium. He announced he was a transgender man in 2012, eventually building an acclaimed performance piece around his experience.

 

pearl harbor

799. Pearl Harbor and the Explosions, Pearl Harbor and the Explosions (1980)

It started with a talent contest run by noted San Francisco bizarros the Tubes. They were recruiting local, amateur talent to join their riotous stage show in the mid-nineteen-seventies and a recent transplant to the Bay Area calling herself Pearl A. Gates was one of the lucky winners. Jane Dornacker was also part of the rollicking road show and moonlighting by starting up a band called Leila and the Snakes. Gates joined in, meeting other musicians in the process, including brothers Hillary and John Hanes, who, in keeping with the punk rock times, adopted the new last name Stench. With that duo and Peter Bilt, Gates formed her own band: Pearl Harbor and the Explosions. In short order, they were signed to Warner Bros. and working on their self-titled debut album

Single “Drivin'” was the true attention-getter, if only for the way it exemplified the emerging new wave sound. The entirety of Pearl Harbor and the Explosions is vibrantly well-realized, though, whether the twanging, agitated “Don’t Come Back,” prowling kiss-off “So Much for Love,” or the funky “Get a Grip on Yourself.” Maybe the clearest example of the potential held by the band is in the track “Shut Up and Dance,” which sounds like the missing link between the New York Dolls and the Divinyls.

As enjoyable as it would have been to watch the group develop further, it wasn’t meant to be. Pearl Harbor & the Explosions was the sole studio album before the band fell apart. Gates moved to London where she recorded a solo album under the name Pearl Harbour and married Paul Simonon, bassist for the Clash. Both were busts. The solo album went nowhere and the marriage ended in divorce before the decade was up.

 

grateful street

798. Grateful Dead, Shakedown Street (1978)

Derisively tagged “Disco Dead” by many stalwart fans, Shakedown Street found the San Franciscan inspirers of countless slow, wavy dances in flowing hippie garb trying out new little wrinkles to their cemented sound. Residents of the road, the Grateful Dead had taken a couple year hiatus in the middle of the decade, and the album arguably caught them as they were trying to find their collective artistic voice again. Produced by Lowell George, of Little Feat, Shakedown Street is an odd mix, spurring off in several different directions, sometimes within the same song. To a degree, they were — as charged — seeking a radio hit, one accomplishment that had almost entirely eluded them to that point in their already storied career. The shimmying title cut was the prime offender.

“We were trying to sell out: ‘Oh, let’s make a single and get on the radio,'” drummer Mickey Hart later conceded. “We failed miserably once again. I mean, we could never sell out even if we tried – and we tried.”

The commercial aspirations provide some focus, at least. So much of the album is like a distraction put down on tape. Shakedown Street opens with a cover of “Good Lovin'” that maintains the easygoing party of the famed Young Rascals recording and adds a tempered version of vintage Dead musical meandering, And it features Bob Weir pushing his thin vocals into powerful blues man territory where they don’t belong (a flaw that recurs on “I Need a Miracle” and “All New Minglewood Blues”). And the odd little instrumental “Serengetti” flits by like daydream, which is probably what should be expected when the two drummers write a song together.

There are still signs of the Grateful Dead simply locking in and doing what they do best, establishing an easygoing groove that insinuates itself like a calming inoculation. “Fire on the Mountain” practically feel it taking warm-up stretches in advance of yoga-sprawling out to at least twice its length in live performance form. And “If I Had the World to Give” is an overt attempt by guitarist Jerry Garcia and his regular writing partner, Robert Hunter, to prove they could knock out a fairly straightforward love song just like all their contemporaries. It ultimately succeeds by staying on the right side of sappy, making it a palatable version of all the many Eric Clapton blues ballads of treacly sentimentality.

The album didn’t deliver the commercial breakthrough the band sought. That was still several years away. The identity crisis told hold fully, though, persisting to at least the band’s next album, the misbegotten Go to Heaven.

 

raunch dang

797. The Raunch Hands, Learn to Whap-a-Dang (1986)

Smashing their way out of New York City in the mid-nineteen-eighties, The Raunch Hands were part of the mini-movement that wanted to bring a little more sleaze into the retro rock boom that took the Stray Cats to the upper reaches of the charts and gave several more guitar-slingers more modest but sustainable careers. If the Cramps were the royalty of greasy revived rock ‘n’ roll, the Raunch Hands were convivial hooligans cavorting in the back of the great hall.

From blazing album opener “What Yer Doin'” on, Learn to Whap-a-Dang drops a brick on the accelerator pedal, lights up a smoke, and leans back to enjoy the ride. Listeners are advised to do the same. The album mixes covers — such as a bouncy version of “Chicken Scratch” — with originals, the level of slyness only of the only things qualities showing the seams between the two. Sneaky seediness is set aside in favor of far more urgent innuendo on tracks like “Chicken of the Sea.” That’s all right, though. The band is eager to let everyone in on the joke.

 

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #804 to #801

propaganda secret

804. Propaganda, A Secret Wish (1985)

In the early nineteen-eighties, the West German electronic pop outfit Propaganda was signed to a fledgling label based out of the U.K. And there they quickly got a strange lesson in the twisty economics of the music business.

ZTT Records was the brainchild of Trevor Horn, one half of the Buggles and the producer who was bringing prog rock icons Yes to dizzying new heights. Also headed by Horn’s wife, Jill Sinclair, and music journalist Paul Morley, the label assembled a roster of fierce upstarts, mostly favoring a type of dance music fortified with a steely spine of rock ‘n’ roll bombast. One of the earliest singles from the label was “Relax,” the debut of Frankie Goes to Hollywood. The track became a global sensation, necessitating that all of the label’s limited resources went to capitalizing of the sudden fervor for more new music from the band. Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s labelmates, including Propaganda, were largely put in a holding pattern. Propaganda’s first single, the very German dance grind “Dr. Mabuse,” was a Top 40 hit on the U.K. chart, but over a year passed before the follow-up single, an eon in the timetable of early eighties pop.

By the time Propaganda’s debut album, A Secret Wish, was release, it likely sounded like it was trailing behind and emulating other acts that had already added angrier edges to new wave pop. Some of the band’s invention was robbed from it by the unexpectedly slow grind of a compromised professional schedule beyond their control. The album also sounds like it took a lot of time in the studio. “Jewel” is based upon intricate layering of sounds and effects, and “Dream Within a Dream,” borrowing its word from over Edgar Allan Poe’s poem of a similar title, stretches to over nine minutes of lulling horn parts and steadily pulsing electronic music.

When Propaganda attempts to condense their expansiveness into tidy pop containers, it doesn’t entirely work. The dribbling “Duel” demonstrates that. They’re at their best when smacking against the ramparts, as on the vibrant “p:Machinery” and lush seduction “The Chase.” The album fared reasonably well in the U.K., but the road remained very rocky, marked by lineup changes and a lawsuit against ZZT Records. Five years passed before the arrival of their second studio album, 1234, released in 1990.

 

 

heaven gap

803. Heaven 17, The Luxury Gap (1983)

The Luxury Gap was the second studio album from Heaven 17, the band formed by Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware after they abandoned the Human League to Philip Oakey. In a way, Heaven 17 was the corrected reboot of what they’d started with their prior group, since lead singer Glenn Gregory was reported who they’d wanted at the center microphone all along. They may have been creatively satisfied with the new arrangement, but they’d also had to watch Oakey achieve tremendous commercial success while the first Heaven 17 album, Penthouse and Pavement, was met with comparative indifference.

They cracked it the second time out, though, scoring a major U.K. hit with the the third single from The Luxury Gap, the ever-escalating “Temptation.” The track was simultaneously fully in keeping with Heaven 17’s stylistic approach and touch removed from the joyful political insurgency of some of their strongest material. Elsewhere on the album, for example, “Crushed by the Wheels of Industry” offers satiric capitalistic commentary set to a groovy dance beat. It’s matched in wry spirit by the vibrant credit lament “Key to the World” (“Buying items on your wish list/ It’s easier than you think/ But trying to fill the luxury gap/ Has pushed me to the brink”).

Heaven 17 roves far and wide on The Luxury Gap, not always to their benefit. “Come Live with Me,” gets extremely creep with the the opening announcement “I was thirty-seven/ You were seventeen” before recounting the predatory residency offer of the title accompanied including the declaration “Kiss the boys goodbye.” And packed tightly with nonsense lyrics (“Lady Ice and Mr Hex/ She’ll leave you could he’ll make you flex”), “Lady Ice and Mr Hex” sounds like a modernized theme for a wildly mod sixties spy thriller, which is more incongruous than appealingly retro.

If The Luxury Gap is something of a hit or miss affair, the places it connected were strong enough to help Heaven 17 make significant headway in the music industry. That included the chance to collaborate with Tina Turner on a cover of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” Released as a single, it became Turner’s first solo Top 40 hit in the U.S., setting the template for her enormous commercial breakthrough to come.

 

 

winwood high

802. Steve Winwood, Back in the High Life (1986)

By his own account, Steve Winwood was thinking about giving up on professional music-making shortly before he went to work on the album Back in the High Life. He previous album, Talking Back to the Night, was perceived as an artistic and commercial flop, his marriage was on the rocks, and he felt isolated, the latter a direct result of his developed practice of building songs all by himself in his home studio located in the English countryside. Winwood was feeling a distance from more tactile sensations of making music.

”I found that with the advance of technology in music, I was spending my whole time sitting in front of computer terminals rather than writing, singing, and playing,” Winwood told The New York Times around the point of the album’s release. “I thought I should work with people who specialize in programming and computer engineering.”

Winwood shared production duties to Russ Titelman and got out of the house, venturing to various studios and New York City and enlisting a small battalion of ace session players to back him up. Creatively and commercially, the strategy had the desired effect. Back in the High Life was a triumph led by the chart-topping single “Higher Love.” The cut’s spare echoing drum part at the opening gives way to a welling rush of interweaving melodic instrumentation and Winwood’s emotive singing, abetted by Chaka Khan’s powerhouse backing vocals.

It’s not exactly a fair fight, but nothing else on the album quite approaches that luminous peak. “Split Decision,” co-written with Joe Walsh, has a probing skill, and almost-title cut “Back in the High Life Again” moves with a grace that feels uniquely earned. “Freedom Overspill” has some vestiges of the drab fusion that typified Winwood’s earlier solo work, but also demonstrates how it can be salvaged by Stax-style organs, horns, and beats. At the most indulgent, Winwood can still be unbearably drippy in his sentiments. “The Finer Things,” the album’s second-highest charting single, has lyrics that could try the patience of even the most generous fans (“While there is time/ Let’s go out and feel everything/ If you hold me/ I will let you into my dreams”).

Any ideas Winwood had about putting his music career in the rearview were cooled for at least the time being. He had the biggest hit of his career and, before long, a couple Grammy Awards to further validate the wisdom of persisting.

 

 

hall h

801. Daryl Hall and John Oates, H2O (1982)

Daryl Hall and John Oates were remarkably consistent hit-makers through the first half of the nineteen-eighties, with five chart-toppers and practically every single logging significant time in the upper reaches of the Billboard Hot 100. By some measures, H2O was their most successful studio album. It notched the highest peak of any of their records on the album chart, and its opener and lead single, “Maneater,” itself spent four weeks at #1. In offering a melodic cautionary tale of weak men falling prey to temptress women, it was echoed by side two kickoff “Family Man,” which made it into the Top 10.

The eleventh studio album overall from the duo, H2O is unmistakably competent. Whatever shortcomings Hall and Oates had, they knew how to make their music. “One on One,” another hit single, demonstrated their offhand mastery of Philly soul watered down to purely inoffensive pop. The drabness is unmistakable, too, and few deeper cuts make an impressive. Muddled rock ballad “Go Solo” is emblematic. The album becomes dire only when accomplished belter Hall cedes the microphone to his partner, who records some of the thinnest lead vocals in the history of the form. In the spirit of egalitarianism, the presence of occasional Oates vocals would be forgivable, if not for the fact that they’re associated with dreadful songs, such as the monumentally embarrassing “Italian Girls” (“I drink I drink I drink too much vino rosso/ No more amarone/ I eat I eat I eat so much pasta basta/ I’m so full and yet so lonely”). There’s a reason the equation in the album’s title implicitly calls for twice as much Hall.

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 — #808 to #805

shoes

808. Shoes, Present Tense (1979)

Shoes were always interested in making records, first and foremost. Hailing from Zion, Illinois, the band largely skipped the common step of playing lots of rock club dates to hone their craft.

“There’s no way playing clubs on the outskirts of Chicago is going to get you any closer to a recording contract,” guitarist Jeff Murphy told Billboard. “There are a few bands that beat their brains out for years playing clubs, but it didn’t make sense to us.”

Instead, Shoes started their own record label, Black Vinyl Records, and self-released material, including the 1977 album Black Vinyl Shoes, which originally pressed one thousand copies. Flush with their modest but clear success, Shoes shopped themselves to major labels, eventually signing with Elektra Records. Present Tense was their major label debut.

The album is prime power pop, songs built on effervescent melodies and precise beats. “Tomorrow Night” has a keening wonderment about it, and “I Don’t Miss You” fortifies its elegant finery with thick, thudding guitars. “Your Very Eyes” has the lighter than air quality the Housemartins would later master. The tender “Too Late” became a minor hit on FM radio, crossing into the Billboard Hot 100, but Shoes were a little out of step with the pop music moment, defined more by the fading flare of disco, the dogged persistence of prog rock, and the incendiary rebellion of punk. Shoes made two more albums for Elektra and popped up frequently in the earliest MTV playlists, before receding to a comfortable cult hero status by the middle of the nineteen-eighties.

 

 

clapton

807. Eric Clapton, Another Ticket (1981)

There were plentiful problems on the path to Another Ticket. Polydor Records outright rejected Eric Clapton’s first version of the album, which was recorded with producer Glyn Johns. Although Johns had also presided over Clapton’s previous two studio efforts — Backless and Slowhand — both reasonable commercial successes, the label didn’t like what they heard, forcing Clapton to take a fresh pass at the material, this time with Tom Dowd behind the board. It was a sour turn in a professional relationship that was already experiencing trouble. Clapton left the label after Another Ticket, ending a fifteen year association.

The final version of Another Ticket definitely skews to Clapton’s well-established watery blues sound. “Something Special” is so tepid it sounds like a Schoolhouse Rock approximation of the blues, suited for pairing with lyrics about grammar or arithmetic. “Floating Bridge,” originally a Sleep John Estes song, and “Catch Me If You Can” are similarly drab. There was a market for this stuff, though. “I Can’t Stand It,” generic as can be, made it into the Billboard Top 10. It’s still better than the pure shlock title cut.

Another Ticket does have its moments, including the agreeable “Black Rose,” on which Clapton and his band sound uncommonly engaged. Album closer “Rita Mae” is even better, charging forward with a hard rock drive that gives it a robustness often missing in the many tracks across Clapton’s discography. It was reportedly one of the cuts most impacted by Dowd’s reworking. I’m disinclined to side with execs against artists, but it’s possible Polydor was right all along.

 

 

wire women

806. Wire Train, Ten Women (1987)

It’s surely no coincident that the title of Wire Train’s third album includes a number that corresponds precisely to the number of tracks it holds. Presumably, the tallied women inform the set of songs. Three of the tracks include the word “She” in the title. Ten Women picks a lane and sticks with it.Th

Released by Columbia Records, Ten Women is also making a pretty clear stab at commercial crossover. The songs are polished to a dull gleam, yearning to serve as a useful transition between U2 and John Mellencamp on album rock radio. Single “She Comes On” is plain and direct, and “She’s a Very Pretty Thing” tries on some tuneful pining. “Breakwater Days” is a hollowed out stab at arena rock that alternates between anguished narration and whining guitars that carry it perilously close to Mötley Crüe in their “Home Sweet Home” mode.

The slack “Diving” and flatly grinding “Too Long Alone” typify a redundancy that runs through the album. Wire Train settles on a lick, a turn of phrase, a cracking vocal tone and then hammers away at it, as if persistence is a more important quality than variety. All involved undoubtedly expected the creative strategies on the album were going to deliver a Wire Train breakthrough. It didn’t happen, and the band went on a brief hiatus, parting ways with Columbia during the downtime.

 

 

jazz fish

805. The Jazz Butcher, Fishcotheque (1988)

The Jazz Butcher was a tough band to pin down. The lineup changed with regularity, as did the band’s name, embellished to the Jazz Butcher Conspiracy or the notably complicated the Jazz Butcher and His Sikkorskis from Hell. Their albums were also known from being grandly ramshackle affairs comprised of songs that were simultaneously odd and pristinely formulated. When the band signed to Creation Records, it seemed like they might finally be ready to play nice.

Officially, the Jazz Butcher was down to a duo for their Creation debut, Fishcotheque: main creative force (and occasional wielder of the Jazz Butcher moniker all on his own) Pat Fish and guitarist Kizzy O’Callaghan. There’s a notably pared down sound, with the songs rendered crisply and with a pleasing lack of fuss. Even the regular inclusion of a saxophone, that instrument choice that sunk many a nineteen-eighties record, is nicely inspired, giving the album a little added groove.

Fishcotheque continually impresses, providing a primer on the many charms to be found in British pop in the era. Fish is an especially charming presence, coming across as a flintier Lloyd Cole. On album opener “Next Move Sideways” he even sounds like a more chipper Lou Reed, albeit a version of the venerable figure that somehow got diverted into fronting a cooler Modern English. “Susie” has some Cocteau Twins shimmer to it, and “Living in a Village” is like one of Poi Dog Pondering’s rollicking romps or maybe the Pogues on the wagon.

These comparisons shouldn’t imply that the Jazz Butcher isn’t distinctive and unique. They simply range widely across the sonic landscape, taking on different styles with an offhand mastery. There are times on Fishcotheque when it’s conceivable that the Jazz Butcher could plainly make whatever kind of song they wanted if they just pressed their shoulders to it. The fierce expertise is heard clearly on the Pynchon-pinching “Looking for Lot 49,” which races like a properly tuned sports car. There are also sparks of the band’s penchant for the bizarre. “The Best Way,” for example, answers the burning question “What might the backend of Blondie’s ‘Rapture’ sound like if it were about poultry?”

The Jazz Butcher could be deliberately inscrutable and distancing at times. Hardcore fans might be inclined to pick favorites among the band’s more complexly caustic offerings, but agreement seems to be in place about the high quality of the more inviting Fishcotheque. Even Fish regards it as one of the band’s peaks.

“This sold rather well, which was pleasing, and seems widely liked,” Fish notes. “I can’t fuck with that, but I had hoped that it would be more a ‘change of direction’ than it was. But I like Fishcotheque; I wish there more records as good as it.”

 

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 — #812 to #809

china fire

812. China Crisis, Working with Fire and Steel (1983)

It is probably a fair measure of the rather arch sensibility of the band China Crisis that the subtitle of their sophomore album is Possible Pop Songs Volume Two. In any reasonable evaluation of Working with Fire and Steel, the album in question, there’s not much mystery about whether or not these are pop songs. They shine and swoon and eagerly cavort, reveling in the emerging studio artistry options of the day. The album is produced by Mike Howlett, but his time as a member of prog rock oddballs Gong doesn’t divert the individual cuts much from the sonic path already broken by chief creators Gary Daly and Eddie Lundon. These are pop offerings straight from a heaven decorated in a futuristic minimalism aesthetic.

The band’s methodology was basically working. “Wishful Thinking,” the album’s biggest hit, was the first and only China Crisis single to cross into the U.K. Top 10. The track is gentle and charming in its lovelorn elegance, a template they comfortably revisit without becoming overly beholden to it. The title cut is skittering disco, and “Animals in Jungles” contorts itself with a swinging verve. The band sounds like a less amped-up Howard Jones on “When the Piper Calls” (“I found a silent dream/ And held it for a day/ But just like water/ I let it slip away”), which makes it both on point for the era and atypically relaxed and confident.

The band’s future was also contained in these tracks, if only because “Papua,” one of the more politically minded tracks on the album, caught the ear of Steely Dan’s Walter Becker. Before long, he sought out China Crisis and offered to produce their next album, highly buffed Flaunt the Imperfection.

 

 

living dead soundtrack

811. Return of the Living Dead soundtrack (1985)

Released in 1985, Return of the Living Dead was part of the long legacy of George Romero’s 1968 horror classic Night of the Living Dead. As with most lucrative tributaries from Romero’s original creation, the filmmaker saw no personal financial reward from it. Instead, it was John Russo, co-screenwriter of the earlier film, who orchestrated this bleakly comic romp with zombies. After Romero and Russo acrimoniously parted ways, it was the latter who retained the movie rights to the “Living Dead” branding. Russo tapped out a novel and script adaptation called Return of the Living Dead, eventually giving it to Alien screenwriter Dan O’Bannon to revise. When original director Tobe Hooper dropped out of the project, O’Bannon stepped in to make his feature directorial debut.

Enigma Records picked up the rights to the film’s soundtrack, and the task of getting a lineup of appropriate artists and songs was given to producers Steve Pross and Bill Hein. Pross, in particular, was deeply knowledgable about punk rock and was an equally devoted fan of horror movies. Given the ripe tomfoolery animating the film — and the presence of dyed hair, generously pierced punk rockers among the cast of characters — assembling a group of especially playful practitioners of one of the more bludgeoning forms of rock ‘n’ roll made perfect sense. Any album that included Lux Interior intoning, “Ah, my favorite brain soup/ Cream of nowhere” (on the Cramps’ selection “Surfin’ Dead”) is doing the greater populace a service simply by existing.

Other highlights on the album included 45 Grave’s snarling “Party Time,” Roky Erickson’s wonderfully weird and dramatic “Burn the Flames,” and the Damned blitzing the ballroom with “Dead Beat Dance.” Then the album makes a genre change so pronounced, it goes past changing lanes to careening over the median to race off in the opposite direction. The soundtrack closes with two synth-driven songs by SSQ, including the post-apocalyptic disco track “Tonight (We’ll Love Until We Die)” (“Rising from your earth bed/ It lingers in the air/ A smell gone sweetly rancid/ I know that you are near”). It likely created annoyance for devoted punk record buyers who otherwise hurled their stud-adorned first skyward through the duration of the disc. For college radio, though, it was just another reason to return to this unlikely soundtrack while it edged through the new music rotation.

 

 

truth playground

810. The Truth, Playground (1985)

The Truth formed in the U.K. in the early nineteen-nineties, after guitarist and vocalist Dennis Greaves finished his initial tenure with the band Nine Below Zero. Greaves teamed with Mick Lister, who also wielded the guitar and sang, and the two moved collaborators in an out of the lineup and they released a small batch of singles on the way to their full-length debut, Playground.

The album is a splendid piece of smartly crafted pop, moving enticing between slightly varied styles, merging old and new elements to come up with songs that are wholly unique with a tinge of the familiar. Sometimes, those echoes are of the music that was happening more or less concurrently. “Spread a Little Sunshine” has a through line that sounds like Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” played on the wrong speed, and “Exception of Love” is not all that far removed from a Wham song. There’s a Joe Jackson vibe on “I’m in Tune,” and the big blast of sound of the title cut suggests Julian Cope fronting the E Street Band.

The album is broad enough in its construction that the specific comparisons can only fill in so much. The retro-tinged seduction on “It’s a Miracle” or the galvanizing, punching drum sound on “You Play with My Emotions” tell their own tales of the Truth’s creativity. The material holds so much promise, but the band was relatively short-lived. They released two more albums to precipitously diminishing interest. The band closed up shop before the eighties ended. A reunion, of course, followed.

 

 

adam charming

809. Adam and the Ants, Prince Charming (1981)

Officially the third album billed to Adam and the Ants, there was little doubt that Prince Charming largely belonged to the similarly monikered fellow at the front of the group. Success on the U.S. charts was still proving elusive, but Ant was routinely taking his group to the upper reaches of the U.K. equivalent. He enjoyed three straight Top 10 hits across the end of 1980, and the music press focused its fascination squarely on him. Prince Charming took it up yet another level.

The album’s first two singles — “Stand and Deliver” and the title cut — both topped the U.K. chart, in the process cementing Ant’s musical persona: theatrical, confident, mischievous, and just a touch bawdy. His was a kingly seduction, relentless and utterly disinterested in nuance. Prince Charming was released within the first three months of MTV’s existence. Ant’s timing couldn’t have been better.

Unlike some of the other albums released at the time with a similar sound, Prince Charming lacks the infectious sense of crafty inspiration that lends a certain timelessness, or at least endurance. “Ant Rap” has a clumsy goofiness, “Five Guns West” is a dull pastiche, and “S.E.X.” is like a discard from a nineteen-seventies movie satire taking aim at rock ‘n’ roll excess. Despite declarations of his own perfectionist streaks, Ant often seemed to be putting on an act, sometimes bordering on a reflexive subversion of form the likes of Andy Kaufman at his most indulgent.

Whether or not Ant’s impulses were sound, he was devoted to them and fully prepared to claim them as solely his own. Prince Charming was the last record that billed Adam as backed by Ants. After this, he was on his own.

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